The off-season wheeling-and-dealing is largely in the rear view, with teams now just sorting through the scrap pile to round out their rosters. So what should we expect next year? Here's one man's view of the league's totem pole, from the weakest to the Heatest.
I'm Ready For Anything
We, as fans, usually give a lot of leeway to athletes coming off an ACL tear in their first season back. Not to sound cold, but I think Derrick Rose has already used up all of that good will since he took all of last season off. Maybe he gets a 15-20 game grace period to get his legs and his game back, but pretty much from New Year's on, he has to once again be Derrick Rose: Superduperstar. Anything short of that and the Bulls aren't real contenders.
If Rose does return to his old form though, or theoretically an even better one since he's supposedly been working on his jumper during his layaway, then the Bulls' potential is quite scary indeed. In fact, in a way his injury could be a blessing in disguise in that it allowed the team to develop Jimmy Butler, to establish Joaquim Noah's all-around game, and for coach Tom Thibodeau to play trial-and-error with all kinds of lineup combinations. Consequently the Bulls are no longer completely dependent on Rose to carry them home every night, which is good for both him and them.
Losing Nate Robinson will hurt though, as the current roster seems a man short to me and is lacking a sparkplug scorer off the bench. They're going to need rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy to contribute almost immediately because without them the Bulls only go eight-and-a-half deep (Rose, Noah, Butler, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng plus Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kirk Hinrich and maybe Nazr Mohammad). They're probably gonna need something from Marquis Teague too because it's pretty unrealistic to think they can get through 100-plus games with just Rose and Hinrich handling the ball.
If the Bulls have everything clicking, they're as good a bet as anyone to knock off the Heat, but it's going to take a lot of luck to get everything clicking, given the physical toll it takes to play the way Thibodeau demands night in and night out.
What a roster! These guys are stacked. No question, it's the deepest team in the league. I mean, Shaun Livingston is probably their 11th-best player. Their bench top-five of Andray Blatche-Reggie Evans-Andrei Kirilenko-Jason Terry-Livingston would probably beat the Sixers starting lineup heads up, and that's not even counting rookie big man Mason Plumlee, who's the best of all the legendary Plumlees. (Ahem)
Still, with the exception of AK-47 and possibly Terry, most of the attention will be paid --rightly so-- to the starting lineup of Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. I'm not gonna look this up, but I'm almost positive all of them have made an All-Star Team in one of the last two seasons. How the Boston arrivals will mesh with the incumbents, all of whom are rather strong at half-court offense but not so much on the other end, will be the big question. It won't take much convincing at all for KG to embrace the fifth-option role on offense, but I'm less convinced that Pierce will take a back step to Johnson and Williams on the perimeter. Johnson's personality will lead to him deferring, which goes directly against his strengths, and Williams will probably want to be too unselfish, which will run counter to his strengths as well. Everyone's going to want to be Mr. Good Teammate, and that leads to a lot of turnovers and crummy jumpers at the end of the shot clock.
But once they figure out the roles and the right shot/pass balance to their games, this offense has the potential to be very good, even with novice coach Jason Kidd in charge. One of the main reasons Lopez/Johnson/Williams stagnated so much last season is because teams laid off Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans to such dramatic degrees, similar to what the Spurs did to Memphis with Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen. Now though, those guys will have room to operate because people won't leave Pierce and Garnett.
Kidd's bigger problem will be to figure out how to appropriately dole out the minutes and to keep everyone fresh and content with their roles, their shots, etc. He'll also have to figure out how to play acceptable defense with a lot of older, rickety, slow-footed parts. No one on the roster is equipped to handle a small quick point guard who can dribble into the paint and the wings don't have the lateral movement they used to. Even Kirilenko is better off these days guarding the bigger 6-9 guys than the shorter ones who can handle. The Nets also don't look like a club who'll force many turnovers or score a bunch of easy ones on the fast break. Everything is going to be a half-court grind, even though it may be one of the league's most efficient offenses by the second half of the season.
Just the fact that they have so many name guys who can score 20 on any given night will make the Nets tremendously compelling, but their coaching disadvantage, the injury-risks of their graybeards and their defensive/athletic limitations makes it hard for me to see them getting past Miami. I'd like them a lot more if they had Rajon Rondo as opposed to Williams and at least one wing under 26 who could make a hustle play.
Contenders With a Fatal Flaw
The Clippers have gotten plaudits from a lot of corners of the interwebs for their supposed off-season upgrades, but count me among those who isn't overwhelmed. Gone are Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Ronny Turiaf, Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups. In their place are Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Darren Collison, Byron Mullens and rookie shooting guard Reggie Bullock. To me, that's pretty much a wash. Of those ten guys, Bledsoe's probably the best player going forward and Turiaf is the best post defender. Collison is wildly overrated, and unlike Bledsoe you can't play him alongside Chris Paul, so he's limited to just a 12-minute/injury replacement role. Dudley, as I've covered before, is a bit redundant I think with Matt Barnes already on board. I don't see how the two of them can share the court. Mullens gives you a stretch four, but again he won't help at all with interior defense or rebounding. Redick is the only guy that will address a real weakness in consistent outside shooting.
Probably the biggest upgrade the Clips made, was snagging Doc Rivers; even if he did prove to be a weasel for how he left the Celtics. Rivers will get the best out of Paul because he'll have his star's respect, and if anyone can quell the CP3-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan feud, it's Rivers. Still, he's not a miracle worker. I'm not sure how he can get consistent play from Jordan on either end of the court, particularly late in games where he's basically unplayable. I have severe doubts that Rivers will ever get Griffin to give the same effort in his own end of the floor. Like Popovich says, guys are who they are.
I think LA can come out of the West, but only if they avoid the Spurs. A perimeter oriented team like the Thunder, without much size to them could be beatable. I'd still have the Clips as underdogs in such a match-up, but at least they'd have a puncher's chance. I'm just mystified why they couldn't address their biggest weakness in interior defense and instead worried so much about rearranging deck chairs on the perimeter. Obviously Garnett was Rivers' Plan A, but wasn't there a Plan B at all?
Next ... the Final Four.