15. Charlotte Bobcats (13-53)
Michael Jordan has won seven championships (six as a player and a seventh when he gifted Tyson Chandler to the Mavs two summers ago), but Charlotte is currently the furthest in the league from a title. This is why Chad Ford and I ranked this team 30th every time we ran our Future Power Rankings -- the Bobcats' post-Larry Brown experience has left them with little cap space or young talent. This season, they'll bottom out before recovery starts.
The schedule will help them steal a few wins against tired opponents, but their talent deficit is daunting. Raw first-round pick Bismack Biyombo was stuck in Spain and missed most of training camp; nonetheless, he might be their starting center. Tyrus Thomas is probably the closest thing they have to a go-to guy, and wings Corey Maggette and Reggie Williams will put up numbers while allowing more. That's only if they can get in the lineup -- Williams is out for several weeks, and Maggette is permanently day-to-day. Keep an eye on shooting guard Gerald Henderson, however, who could evolve into a top-notch wing stopper.
At least the Cats know where they stand. They have two first-rounders in Biyombo and Kemba Walker to start the rebuilding process, and they will be more than $20 million under next year's cap once they give amnesty to DeSagana Diop or Maggette (who was acquired before the lockout, remember). More importantly, the recent hiring of general manager Rich Cho should spare them the laughable cap mistakes they made when Jordan was trying to run things himself -- dumping Chandler's salary without actually saving any money being the most comical of the bunch.
Alas, the damage has already been done. This season will be ugly, and the timing is unfortunate. When the Bobcats made the playoffs two years ago, it seemed the team was just beginning to gain traction with the fan base in Charlotte. Now it is back to square one, hemorrhaging cash and hoping for some lottery magic this spring.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (18-48)
Well, it's better than a year ago. Slowly but surely, the Cavs are rebuilding their future and cleaning up their cap, and in two years, they might have a very good team.
This year's draft pick is the linchpin. He might not be LeBron What's-His-Name, but Kyrie Irving will be a very nice building block and the early favorite for the rookie of the year award. Fourth overall pick Tristan Thompson will combine with a returned-from-injury Anderson Varejao to contribute some energetic defense, rebounding and finishing in the frontcourt.
As expected, the Cavs gave amnesty to Baron Davis, cleaning up a messy guard situation and making their trade-deadline deal with the Clippers one of the best in NBA history. With no cap consequences to the deal, Cleveland essentially got the first pick in the draft for the cash difference between the salaries of Mo Williams and Jamario Moon and that of Davis.
Ramon Sessions, a vastly underrated offensive player but one whose defense has become indefensible, now backs up Irving and, one suspects, will often play alongside him in two-guard sets. There isn't really a true 2 on the roster, as Daniel Gibson and Manny Harris both are undersized, and that's likely to be a sore spot all season defensively.
At forward, the Cavs triggered a sweet deal before the lockout by trading J.J. Hickson to Sacramento for Omri Casspi and a first-round pick (albeit a heavily protected one), filling a gaping hole at the 3 and earning another asset for the future. At the other forward spot, Antawn Jamison will score 18 points a game and give up 27 until he's traded or bought out, which should be soon, given his advanced age, huge expiring contract and near-total indifference to stopping the opposition.
Overall, the Cavs have enough players now to give themselves a chance on most nights, but they're still going to lose a ton of games. Long term, the three keepers here are Irving, Thompson and Casspi, so those are the ones to watch.
13. Toronto Raptors (19-47)
Toronto has finally come to grips with reality. No longer are the Raps delusional about loading up on mediocre veterans with long-term deals, nor about winning games without bothering to play defense. With Toronto again last in defensive efficiency in 2010-11, the overmatched Jay Triano was finally shown the door. Replacing him is former Dallas zone defense maestro Dwane Casey, who now must upgrade one of the most pathetic defensive outfits in league annals.
Central to Casey's cause is center Andrea Bargnani, who is offensively gifted but remains one of the most clueless off-ball defenders in the game. He's mobile for his size, though, and the Raps might experiment with playing him at power forward periodically now that they have some genuine size. Don't be surprised if 7-footers Solomon Alabi and Aaron Gray get a fair amount of run.
Alas, they also have to clear minutes for Ed Davis, a revelation as a high-percentage finisher last season, but one who needs to add strength to battle NBA big men. Ditto for Amir Johnson, who quietly had a strong season in 2010-11 but, like his frontcourt mates, suffers from a lack of lower-body strength at the defensive end.
In fact, Toronto's frontcourt looks pretty darn good going forward. First-round pick Jonas Valanciunas won't be coming over this season, but at only 19 years of age, he ranks among the best players in Europe and looks like a star in the making. He and Davis could be a fearsome combo in five years; Bargnani, whatever you think of him, would make for a pretty potent sixth man in that arrangement.
On the wing, DeMar DeRozan flashed some star potential as a scorer, but the rest of his game lies dormant; he needs to pass the ball once in a while and play some defense. Small forward looms as a huge weakness, although the talented but ridiculously mistake-prone James Johnson remains intriguing. And at the point, Jose Calderon is a flawless offensive operator and a traffic cone for opposing point guards.
Big picture, there are a lot of problems here beyond Casey's control -- team president Bryan Colangelo invested almost entirely in offensive players, so the result is again likely to be a decent offense paired with a hopeless defense. But if Casey can persuade his charges -- particularly Bargnani -- to compete and at least use their length as a deterrent, the Raptors' D should be less of an embarrassment.
12 (tie). Detroit Pistons (22-44)
The Pistons basically quit on John Kuester last season, especially at the defensive end; there was no reason a team with this roster should have finished 28th in defensive efficiency. Enter Lawrence Frank, who presumably will have his troops better prepared and better motivated. Not having Richard Hamilton around might actually help, clearing up a playing-time logjam on the wing and a volatile presence in the locker room.
There's more good news for the Pistons. They didn't make a single transaction last season while awaiting the team's sale; now that Tom Gores has taken over, they're diving back in and reshaping the roster for the future. The franchise has taken an interest in analytics for the first time, hiring StatsCube guru Ken Catanella from the league office and Charles Klask from Orlando, and its salary-cap mess finally shows signs of clearing. If the Pistons give amnesty to Ben Gordon in 2013, they'll fall about $20 million under the cap just as their kids are ready to blossom.
In the short term, however, Detroit faces all-too-familiar problems, the biggest being a glaring lack of star power. Their best player is either Rodney Stuckey or Greg Monroe, and there's a decent chance neither of the two will ever play in an All-Star Game.
Beyond that, the roster is lopsided. There's an overload of combo-forward types with Tayshaun Prince, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye and Charlie Villanueva, although it's possible Prince will get some run at the 2 with Hamilton gone. Meanwhile, the only true interior players are the grizzled Ben Wallace and the rapidly declining (not to mention rapidly expanding) Jason Maxiell.
It's the same story in the backcourt. The Pistons are overloaded with tweener combo guards such as Stuckey, Will Bynum, rookie Brandon Knight and Gordon, but there is not a true point guard in the bunch and not a fearsome deep shooter, either.*
As a result, I have trouble seeing the Pistons winning much more than a third of their games. Perhaps they can surprise if Stuckey or Monroe breaks out, and certainly their depth will help them in the compressed schedule format. But even the "surprise" scenario leaves them well short of a playoff spot.
(* This is how far Gordon has fallen. Dude was awful last season.)
12 (tie). Washington Wizards (22-44)
The Wizards have a lot of young, talented players. Young, talented players who are professional and know how to play? Let me get back to you on that one.
This makes the Wizards a fascinating team to watch, because you'll see things you otherwise wouldn't in the NBA. For example, we're treated to amazing feats by the likes of JaVale McGee and John Wall, plays nobody else in basketball can make. Mixed in, however, will be all kinds of unexpected knucklehead moves that you'd rarely see from another pro team. Not surprisingly, these blunders usually sabotage the game for Washington.
In spite of themselves, the Wizards are slowly getting better. Wall in particular seems ready for a breakout after his rookie campaign was held back by injuries, and I've factored a borderline All-Star season into my projection. If so, that might also help Andray Blatche, who was miscast as a go-to guy but might thrive as a second option and pick-and-pop weapon. Meanwhile, years of high draft picks have given Washington a 10-deep base of young legs who will serve it well in this season's punishing schedule.
Nonetheless, it's hard to get too excited about this team until guys such as Blatche, McGee, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford figure out that a 20-point, 0-assist performance in which they give up 115 points doesn't constitute a "good" night. That's where veterans such as Rashard Lewis and Mo Evans might pay their freight -- somebody needs to set the right example for these guys.
Long term, however, this is a team on the upswing. At some point, these kids will figure out how to play (probably), and when they do, they'll be dangerous. Meanwhile, the Wizards will have a trove of cap room if they give amnesty to Lewis next summer and a fairly desirable market as a lure. They're a have-not at the moment, but with the bad contracts off their books and several talented young players, they shouldn't be doormats for long.
10. New Jersey Nets (28-38)
The Nets are the hardest team to project because of all the potential wild cards. While Kris Humphries finally signed, they still have a ton of cap room and might sign Andrei Kirilenko, too. Longer term, of course, the possibility of a trade for Dwight Howard teases.
For now, the Nets are a mishmash. Star guard Deron Williams has been playing in real games since October and should be in tip-top shape, and Brook Lopez looms as a secondary offensive weapon in the middle. That's a solid offensive foundation and certainly one that should improve on last season's 27th-place standing in offensive efficiency. If they indeed add Kirilenko to Anthony Morrow's shooting, Humphries' energy and a bench with some offensive options (Shawne Williams, Jordan Farmar, first-round pick Marshon Brooks), this should be a decent offensive team.
Defensively, the Nets are still short-handed. Lopez blocks shots but is ponderously slow and a comically poor rebounder for his size. The other bigs don't offer much on defense, either, and Morrow is a sieve on the wing. Williams' effort on D has also slackened the past two seasons. Of course, if they land Howard, all of that changes.
If they don't, the scenario is much worse. Williams is probably leaving after the season, and the Nets will effectively have given the Jazz Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and a 2012 lottery pick for a year and a half of Deron Williams. So basically, they're heading into Brooklyn next year either riding atop a huge wave or smashed on the rocks beneath it.
In the meantime, they should be respectable in their final season in New Jersey. I priced in a re-signed Humphries and an added Kirilenko to this projection, but no Howard. That still leaves them short of the playoffs, but the folks in Jersey should be left with some decent memories.
9. Atlanta Hawks (33-33)
The Hawks won 44 games and made the second round of the playoffs in 2010-11, but that's misleading. They gave up more points than they scored in the regular season, went 10-17 after the All-Star break, lost one of the top sixth men in free agency and didn't do much to replace him, and will be without Kirk Hinrich for nearly half the season.
Pressed face-first against the luxury tax thanks to the bad contracts they lavished on Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, the Hawks were left to fill in around the edges with veteran retreads such as Tracy McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic. These weren't bad pickups for the price, but they don't offset losing Crawford and Hinrich.
On the plus side, Jeff Teague takes over at the point after breaking out as a slashing, scoring guard in last season's playoffs, and Al Horford (25) and Josh Smith (26) provide a solid foundation as a frontcourt. Smith, however, is frustrated and spent the offseason angling for a trade.
Atlanta's bench looms as a major weakness; past editions of this team weren't deep, either, but Crawford and Zaza Pachulia often gave them an advantage against opposing second units. I can't see that happening with the current group, especially with McGrady likely to be the backup point guard until Hinrich returns. (Pape Sy, who has been talked up for this spot, has no chance of keeping it beyond the second quarter of the first game.)
As a result, this is going to be a harder slog for the Hawks than they might think, especially with a schedule that does a short-benched team few favors. Unless they're blessed with outstanding health, they're in danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely. After three straight trips to the second round, that's going to be a jolt.
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[NBA] John Hollinger: Eastern Conference Projections (http://slumz.boxden.com/f16/john-hollinger-eastern-conference-projections-1672971/)