Monday, July 20, 2009

Fatal Fiveway

The five best teams in the NBA when healthy are Boston, L.A., Cleveland, Orlando, and San Antonio. Those teams have produced the last three NBA Champions while all five have made the NBA Finals at least once in the last three years. I think it would be difficult to argue that there is another team that should be in that group. The dividing line between this group and the next is fairly substantial. I understand the Spurs were bounced from the playoffs in round one against Dallas but clearly the absence of Manu Ginobili crippled Pop’s crew. Denver got hot for a minute and Portland certainly seems to have a bright future but that’s all there is in the name of competition in the entire league. That was before the great off-season arms legs race of ’09. All five teams made major acquisitions over the summer. The gap between the good and everyone else just got much bigger making the 2010 regular season a guaranteed snoozefest while simultaneously making the 2010 postseason one of the most anticipated in recent memory. Here is an early look at the favorites to take home the '10 Larry O'Brien Trophy in order from most to least likely:

1). Boston

I won’t go as far as to say the Lakers just won a tainted championship. Although, I have no problem grouping this L.A. team with the Houston Rockets of Jordan-less back-to-back championship fame. Both teams won championships as a result of extremely fortuitous circumstances. Both teams very likely would’ve lost if not for such circumstances. It’s not hard to imagine Boston handling L.A. in a seven game series just 12 months after doing it the first time (technically it was the 8th time but you know what I mean). KG’s injury changed everything. It put a ring on the Zen Master’s last naked digit while simultaneously making millions of young basketball fans mistakenly believe that Kobe Bryant is the G.O.A.T. The former is annoying while the latter is a travesty. If you’re under 20 and like basketball, please Google “Michael Jordan” before forming an opinion. Sorry for the digression. KG should be ready to go next season but the big story in Boston is the monumental addition of Rasheed Wallace. KG and Sheed are poised to become the best defensive frontcourt duo since a couple of fellas by the name of David Robinson and Tim Duncan suffocated dwellers of the paint ten years ago. The Boston Three Party and Danny Ainge deserve a lot of credit here. They realized just how impactful Rasheed could be and they also realized that they could probably sign him for the mid-level exception given his age and diminished production. Boston should have no problem destroying the NBA next season barring major injuries. I won’t go as far as to guaransheed a Boston-Championship. Some of you may remember my one and only guaransheed from three years ago. I’m not interested in messing with a perfect percentage. However, if the Celtics can stay healthy, I think they have a chance to be one of the best teams in NBA history.

2). Cleveland

Regular readers of the blog know what I think of Shaquille O’Neal. Even at 36, he is still one of the best centers in the NBA and still shoots an incredibly high percentage from the field. Cleveland might not get a lot of credit for bringing in Shaq but I think it was one of the best moves Cavs management could’ve made. The mystery here is whether or not Shaq and LeBron can fit on the court at the same time. Shaq is the biggest player to ever play the game. LeBron is the biggest shooting guard to ever play the game. Shaq lives in the paint. LeBron lives in the paint. How is that going to work? At least Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao can knock down a 10-footer off a Lebron drive-and-dish. I’m not sure that Shaq even realizes it’s legal to take a shot from 10’. While on the subject: isn’t it amazing that after 17 years in the NBA, Shaq has still not even remotely sniffed an NBA-quality 10-foot jumper? What does he do in practice? Nonetheless, Shaq represents the first bona fide superstar that LeBron has played with. Mo Williams is a solid player but I think it’s safe to say that LeBron made him an All-Star. Like LeBron, Shaq demands a double team. Defenses will have to decide who to double leaving the other to feast on overmatched defenders. Shaq’s presence also means you’re unlikely to see Orlando beat Cleveland in a series again anytime soon. Dwight Howard is about to find out just how big he isn’t—at least compared to the Diesel.

3). San Antonio

This might come as a shocker but trust me on this one. The Spurs made two savvy acquisitions that should immediately reposition them as front-runners in the Western Conference. First, they acquired Richard Jefferson who should fit in nicely with San Antonio’s defense-first mentality while also bringing its offense out of the Stone Age. The Spurs have been bounced from the playoffs the last two years because their defense has slipped and they’ve struggled to score with Manu Ginobili in street clothes. When you’re relying heavily on Matt Bonner, Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, and Fabricio Oberto to score points, you’re not going to beat elite teams. The Spurs needed a wing scorer who won’t compromise the team defensively and Jefferson is the perfect prescription. The Spurs also picked up Antonio McDyess who took my advice and got the hell out of the Palace (Although, Rasheed beat him to Boston). Dice should have plenty of room and permission to shoot his 12’ daggers. Duncan will benefit greatly by having someone of Dice’s caliber in the paint. The Spurs will look like an entirely different team next season which is not good for the…

4). Los Angeles Lakers

The first three teams on this list made impactful additions without losing major pieces. The same cannot be said for the Lakers. Who would you rather have: Ron Artest or Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza? I don’t necessarily think there is a clear-cut right answer which suggests that the Lakers likely have not improved. In fact, if I absolutely had to choose, I would stick with Odom and Ariza. The Lakers aren’t in danger of a substantial regression or anything like that. Andrew Bynum should return to form after returning too early from his knee injury for the playoffs. Pau Gasol is still the perfect compliment to Kobe Bryant. On a side note: Gasol absolutely needs to be called, “The Big Ostrich”. Nobody looks more like an ostrich than Pau Gasol. The Lakers will certainly be good next season but they lose quite a bit of length and athleticism to go along with defense and toughness with the departures of Odom (assuming he doesn't re-sign) and Ariza. Luckily for them, the Western Conference only features one legit threat. There have been a lot of Lakers vs. Spurs showdowns over the last ten years but if everyone stays healthy, their inevitable 2010 battle could be the best.

5). Orlando Magic

Who would you rather have: Vince Carter or Hedu Turkoglu? I’d probably lean slightly towards VC simply because of his athleticism but I don’t think the difference is substantial which likely means the Magic aren't destined for much of an improvement. The Magic deserve credit for coming out of the Eastern Conference after clearly being the third best team in the conference for the majority of the regular season. Orlando also did everyone a favor by postponing the looming coronation of King James another year but they, too, benefited greatly from the absence of KG. The Magic don’t sniff the Finals with Boston fully healthy. The Magic should easily be the fifth best team in the NBA next season especially with the return of a healthy Jameer Nelson. However, Cleveland diagnosed the reason it lost to Orlando and quickly came up with the proper antidote in the form of Shaq. Dwight Howard will not be permitted to go for 26 and 13 the next time these teams meet in the playoffs. Interestingly, I think Orlando would’ve relished the opportunity to play the Lakers without Odom and Ariza. There wasn’t a lot separating the Lakers and Magic in '09. Even less will separate them in '10.

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