I won't bore you with too much commentary about the sorry state of the Eastern Conference, especially in an "up" year where the East can brag about having one of the top three players in the NBA and its best team. However, I will take this opportunity to note that the Celtics have maybe two seasons at best to take advantage of their unique threesome (har, har), and apart from their success, the future looks no less grim for the East than it did last year, and there is still an eight-seed in the playoffs with 37 wins.
Though the East is certainly not a conference with a wealth of talent or many exciting matchups, it's not like it's Death Valley, either. With that in mind, here is the preview of what the East will have to offer.
Celtics v. Atlanta Hawks. I like the Hawks, I really do. Joe Johnson is the Michael Finley of our era. Josh Smith is one of the best defensive players in the NBA. Marvin Williams had a very solid sophomore season despite being stigmatized by his draft position (ahead of Chris Paul, which is brought up so much, "Drafted before Chris Paul" is becoming his middle name). Mike Bibby reminded people that he is, in fact, only 29 years old. Josh Childress is probably one of the best sixth men in the league. Al Horford is among this year's best rookies. Tyronn Lue is not good.
Unfortunately, that group is notable for the complete and utter absence of a big man. Atlanta, often criticized for drafting Marvin Williams above Chris Paul, made another boneheaded mistake when they drafted Shelden Williams fifth in 2007, ahead of Brandon Roy, Randy Foye, and Rudy Gay. The pick makes sense from the "draft what you need" perspective, but the fact that it was a necessity exposes the larger folly of the Hawks front office.
Atlanta has been "building" for years and the Shelden Williams pick was arguably their only attempt to shore up their frontcourt. The move was made far too late, and because of the Hawks' lack of planning, they were forced to make do with an undersized, underskilled waste of a lottery pick.
To wit: Atlanta's other moves have were the signing of Lorenzen Wright in 2006, the acquisition of Tom Gugliotta and Obinna Ekezie in 2005, the signing of Donnell Harvey and Lonny Baxter in 2004, and a mix of euro and african journeymen in between.
It's 2008, the Hawks have never been starved for cap room, and those transactions don't cut it. And that's why they're going to get absolutely blown away by a Boston team with presence and depth in the post. Even Kedrick Perkins will be significantly better than any player in the Atlanta frontcourt.
Any schmo can sing the laurels of Boston and I'll wait until a more interesting matchup to do it. I am astonished at how poorly Atlanta matches up with Boston and I believe that the biggest problem for the Hawks after their lack of size will be Mike Bibby's inability to play well against Rajon Rondo's defense. I am making that statement knowing full well Rondo stopped Bibby in game one, so it's not great crystal ball work, but still, it's a big deal. In the past, Bibby has performed extremely well in the playoffs and he's one of two players on the Hawks with playoff experience. The rest of the group are very young and without Bibby to lead them, calm down the offense, and take some of the scoring load off of guys who are not go-to (like Childress and Williams), the Hawks will be all screwed up.
A friend of a friend related a story to me about seeing a few of the Hawks (I think it was Marvin Williams, Salim Stoudamire, and another young player) in a restaurant in New York a few years ago. He was able to overhear their conversation and was surprised how much, in his words, "they sounded just like we did when we were in high school". They were talking about how Al Harrington had to get his shots for the contract, how they weren't going to get the playing time they want for this reason and that, and pretty standard young-stupid-player stuff.
The point is, they're from a bad rebuilding environment that has led to a much improved team that may lack character and certainly lacks toughness. This should be the only sweep of the first round.
Celtics in 4.
Did you know? The entire Celtics team averages 4.62 blocks per game. Josh Smith averages 2.8.
Cleveland Cavaliers v. Washington Wizards. This year's matchup of teams that get too much publicity for having a really good/really crazy player looks like it will be barely watchable, at best.
With the Cavs, you know what you're getting: A great performance from LeBron, who is truly amazing; A solid performance from Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is overdue for one of those catchy euro name shortenings ("Zudo" or something); and mediocre performances from everyone else.
The Cavs are one of the worst-constructed teams in the league, built for the short-term despite having a player who will be the best in the NBA for at least the next 6-10 years. If the Knicks had somehow drafted LeBron (which they may have had an opportunity to do if they had attempted to rebuild when they started to go bad), this is basically what you'd have. You could even make the case that the Cavs are the worst-managed team in the league.
The Wizards, on the other hand, are one of the best-managed teams in the league, despite their lack of success. Ernie Grunfeld is an extremely smart and shrewd GM and took a team that was the victim of horrible mismanagement for years and filled it players via long-term free agency acquisitions (Gilbert Arenas, whatever you think of him, was signed away from the Warriors for a fairly reasonable 6 year, $63.7 M contract; DeShawn Stevensen was signed for the league minimum, Brenden Haywood is on a five year, $25M contract), smart trades (Kwame Brown and Laron Profit for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins; Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner, and the rights to Devin Harris for Antawn Jamison) and sensible draft picks (Harris would have been a good one, Nick Young).
In many ways, this matchup is a showcase for how good management can be overcome by good luck. Both teams are virtually the same - their record differs by a win and a loss, they both average slightly less points than they allow, they are both significantly better at home than on the road, and they can both be boring as hell to watch. Despite the similarities, it is clear that the Cavs have a decisive advantage.
The difference is LeBron. If he could beat Detroit last year all by himself, I'm sure he can do the same to the Wizards. No one on the Wizards has the kind of skills to compete with him over the course of a seven game series, though their defense and the stellar game of Caron Butler and Antawn should be enough for them to steal a couple of games.
Cavs in 6.
Did you know: Antonio Daniels was once one of the best-dunking point guards in the NBA.
Raptors v. Magic. The Toronto Raptors are a young team that is, counterintuitively, in regression. They won 50 games last year and went 41-41 this year. Conversely, the Orlando Magic are a team on the rise. They won about 40 games last year, and this year went 52-30.
The build of these teams is actually pretty similar. Each has a stud in the frontcourt surrounded by offensively minded, comfortable-on-the-perimeter players. Each has an offense run by a dual committee of point guards. The Magic and Raptors have, respectively, the third and fourth largest positive point differentials in the Eastern Conference.
Looking at the player matchups, it seems like the Magic have the advantage because they have the more dominant big man (Howard) and more supplemental scoring ability. Both Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu average over 18 points per game, and the second and third scorers on the Raptors average 12.5 and 12.1 points per game, respectively.
The Magic even beat the Raptors handily in the first game, where Bosh was convincingly outworked in the post and Ford/Calderon were obliterated by Jameer Nelson and Keyon Dooling.
For all of their outward disadvantages, the Raptors have on thing the Magic don't: balance. The Magic are largely reliant on Howard's post dominance and the skill of their shooters. If Howard isn't doing much in the post, neither of the shooters will be able to take over.
It would be great if the Raptors had more frontcourt depth and could afford to use fouls and bang Dwight Howard around, but the backup centers are Kris Humphries and Primoz Brezec, so that strategy is out. However, Dwight Howard is not good with the ball or smooth in the post. He's not a great passer either.
I believe this will make Howard vulnerable to the double-team. The Raptors have many guards and forwards who are adequate defenders and if they can stay on their heels and ensure that the Magic shooters don't get too wide open, Howard can be neutralized.
On the other end of the court, I don't think the Magic can stop the Raptors offense. Chris Bosh has the ability to draw Dwight Howard out or work him in the post, Anthony Parker cannot be covered by anyone, and T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon should be able to take better advantage of the point guard matchup than they did in Game 1. (They have nowhere to go but up after that.)
I'll admit, I don't think Toronto will win the series easily, and a part of me thinks that if they go down 2-0, they will get swept. Nevertheless, I like the Raptors and respect them and think they're the kind of team that might win in a seven game series. (Can I be honest? This pick sounded a lot better to me yesterday before the Raptors lost game one and I started thinking about it to write my preview. But I am committed, god damnit.)
Raptors in 7.
Did you know: Stan Van Gundy got his start at Castleton State College (VT), where yours truly went to basketball camp.
Pistons v. Sixers.
I am not really excited about this series and I'm no longer excited at the Pistons. They are past their prime but remain one of the best teams in the East, and the Sixers will simply not be able to handle them. This reminds me of the 2001 Finals, where the Sixers won the first game (and Allen Iverson stepped on Tyronn Lue....ah) and then proceeded to get hammered for the next four.
As Matt pointed out in the comments yesterday, the Sixers have beaten some notable teams in the last month. However, most of those wins came against teams whose playoff spots were (relatively) locked up, while the Sixers were fighting to get in, so I don't give them as much credit as I would in the middle of the season. But it's not like it's not worth mentioning when you beat quality teams to get into the playoffs, either.
The problem for the Sixers is simple - it's going to be very hard for them to score against the Detroit defense. They won't get a lot of offensive rebounds, they won't be able to run their offense smoothly, and they're going to need bodies they don't have who are able to handle Detroit's style.
Detroit is the last of the traditional Eastern Conference playoff teams (which is funny considering what an afterthought Detroit was during the gritty-East prime). The foundation built there by Rick Carlisle and perfected by Larry Brown is a blueprint for a good defensive team, and one could make the argument that the Pistons are on the cusp of being an all-time defensive team worthy of comparison to the original bad boys, the 90's Knicks and Heat, and other historically defensive teams.
When a team runs into a defensive team of Detroit's caliber, all of the enthusiasm and motivation in the world won't make up for the lack of a big man (don't even start with the suggestion that Samuel Dalembert is worthy of this distinction) or Philly's inability to put players on the floor who can consistently hit a long jumper.
Although Detroit will probably win the series, the "next season" looks to Philadelphia like an opportunity to make a leap forward, while Detroit will continue their regression if they don't make some player moves. This series may be a great building block for a young team, and it reminds me of 2001, when Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady's Raptors lost to the Knicks in a very tough first round matchup (Sprewell dominated Carter and McGrady carried the Raptors). Despite losing to the more experienced, tougher, and quite frankly dirtier Knicks team, the Raptors were able to come back next year, destroy the Knicks in the first round, and come within a few shorthairs of a finals bid. (You may remember Vince Carter's herculean effort against the Sixers that year and a couple of gunfights between Carter and Iverson. That was a good time in basketball, and it's sad to think that those two guys would never reach the same heights.)
Detroit in 5.
Did you know: The total number of games in which Reggie Evans had more rebounds than he did in game one was...one.
As always, write me at email@example.com.
PS: Isn't it nice to have the playoffs without the Nets? I like the Nets, but I was just so tired of watching those Nets, I don't know if I can express it. Some teams are just no fun. It's kind of fitting that the no fun team came from Jersey.
PPS: That picture of Thaddeus Young made me think a little bit about how crazy Georgia Tech would have been if somehow Young could have played with Isma'il Muhammad. Oh well...