Saturday, October 18, 2014

2014-15 Southeast Division Preview

I continue my preview of the 2014-15 NBA season by taking a look at the Southeast Division, home to the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Hornets. I will address each team in order of where I think they will finish with a projected win total in parentheses.

                                                          Washington Wizards (50) 
     The Wizards' backcourt of Bradley Beal  (17.1 ppg) and John Wall (19.3 ppg) is one of the best backcourts in the NBA, averaging a combined 36.4 points per game last season. They can only be expected to improve this season and with the addition of Paul Pierce, they could be on the cusp of a trip to the NBA Finals.
    The most important thing for this Wizards team is going to be how well they can stay healthy. Their roster itself is really solid. In addition to a great backcourt, they have a great frontcourt rotation with Marcin Gortat, Nene, and Kris Humphries. With Paul Pierce playing the small forward position, they look very dangerous and capable of winning the Eastern Conference provided they stay healthy. If any of those guys is out for an extended period of time, then there will be trouble.
     This won't be an easy task as Nene, Bradley Beal, and John Wall all have dealt with injuries in the past. It will be really important for their head coach Randy Wittman to manage the minutes of all his players carefully. Especially Wall and Beal since they are the real driving force behind this team.
    What also will be important to keep an eye on is their bench. Glen Rice, Jr., Andre Miller, Otto Porter, Jr., Martell Webster, and Garrett Temple will have to step up and provide quality relief for Pierce, Wall, and Beal.
     I'm confident that Andre Miller will play well and that Martell Webster will continue his solid off the bench production. It's the other guys that are hard to call. Especially Rice and Porter. Neither player  was a factor at all last season, and yet both have the potential to be quality off the bench scorers. If both of them can have significantly improved seasons, that will do wonders for the Wizards since their bench honestly is suspect.
     Overall, this Wizards team looks very solid. The starting five is great and they have nice balance between a good backcourt and a good frontcourt. They can beat you inside and out. Ultimately, injuries or the lack thereof will make the difference for this team's season. If they stay healthy, they'll make a strong push to win the East. If they get injured, they'll make the playoffs, but fail to make much of a push.

                                                               Miami Heat (47) 

This team may have lost LeBron James, but they still are going to be dangerous. Luol Deng was a very underrated addition to this team since everybody was only thinking about how he isn't LeBron James instead of thinking about how he averaged 16 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1 steal per game last season. While it is true that he is no LeBron James, he is still a very quality small forward who should fit nicely with what the Heat have been doing during their four straight trips to the NBA Finals.
     In addition to Deng, the Heat also still have Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who is the heart and soul of the franchise. Both of those guys are still capable at producing at a high level. Ironically, like last season, this team's success hinges on the health of Dwyane Wade's knees. If Wade stays healthy, the Heat will still be very dangerous since outside of the Cleveland Cavaliers, they arguably have the scariest trio in the Eastern Conference.
     What will also be crucial to this team's success is how well Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts fit with the team and how productive they are. Especially Granger since he has had injury issues these past couple of seasons. If Granger is able to be anything close to his old self, the Heat could really be cooking with gas in terms of offensive firepower.
     The biggest concern for this team outside of Wade's knees is their lack of size in the middle. Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem aren't bad in the paint, but they still have a weak front line that was largely masked by the amazing play of LeBron James. They are going to have to find ways to win despite getting beat on the glass. I think Deng will fit the style they've been playing, but since he isn't as multi-dimensional as LeBron James, I expect their lack of size to be an even bigger concern this season.
      The Heat are one of the few teams that might give the Cavaliers serious trouble in the playoffs. Health will be huge, but if they can weather that storm, they could find themselves in a position to knock out the Cavaliers and surprise everybody.

                                                    Charlotte Hornets (44)

     The renaissance of Buzz City is a great thing for the city of Charlotte. They finally have a team that they can really embrace and get behind. "Charlotte Bobcats" always felt strange and so it's nice to see the nickname "Hornets" back where it belongs.
     As for the team itself, they look promising. They added Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams in free agency and also P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh in the draft. Those guys should all prove to be very good additions to go along Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, and Gerald Henderson. In addition, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller should be improved with another year under their belts.
     Of all those additions, Lance Stephenson is undoubtedly the most important. He emerged into an all-star caliber player last season and he could prove to be a terrific fit with Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson who largely had to carry the load last season. It was clear that the Hornets didn't have the firepower to win a series with just Jefferson and Walker as their best players. It's no disrespect to them. They just needed help and Stephenson's ability to attack the basket from the perimeter as well as his defensive and rebounding abilities could be just what the doctor ordered.
     Noah Vonleh should provide quality production inside and P.J. Hairston should be a nice scoring threat off the bench. But with those two guys being rookies, the Hornets can't bank on them being consistently good every night. Lance Stephenson on the other hand played a big role on the Pacers last season and he should be expected to be a major contributor right away.
   Ultimately, I see the Hornets making the playoffs, but not threatening to win the East. The East is wide open, but there is still a pecking order that goes Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, and then Miami. Charlotte isn't good enough to break into that tier, but they still will be exciting and certainly dangerous.

                                                            Atlanta Hawks (41)

     The Hawks are coming off a season in which they almost knocked off the top seeded Indiana Pacers  in the playoffs as an 8 seed, taking them to seven games. This team accomplished a lot last season considering that they were without Al Horford for the bulk of the season including the playoffs. We are still yet to see how this team can do with both Paul Millsap and Al Horford healthy, which gives reason for optimism if you are a Hawks fan.
     Before going down last season, Horford was averaging 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, the best numbers of his career. As for Paul Millsap, he too had a career year, averaging 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. If the Hawks get that kind of production from both players throughout the whole season, they will be very scary. Especially since they also have a solid point guard in Jeff Teague, who averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game last season.
     As for the rest of the team, they have some solid pieces. Kyle Korver is able to knock down threes with regularity and stretch the floor, DeMarre Carroll hustles and does all the dirty work, and Pero Antic is a big man who stretches the floor by hitting threes. Plus, they added Kent Bazemore in free agency, a swingman who averaged a career high 13.1 points per game during his stint with the Lakers last season. Those players all know their roles and fit nicely with the Teague, Horford, and Millsap trio.
    This team's success comes down to how healthy Teague, Horford, and Millsap stay. If those three can all play 70+ games each while staying healthy for the playoffs, they'll be scary. However, they won't be good enough to win a series in my opinion if everything in the Eastern Conference holds to form. But if they are healthy like I mentioned and a couple teams fall due to injury, the Hawks could be prime for a first round upset. I just won't predict it at this point in time.

                                                   Orlando Magic (34) 
     The Orlando Magic drafted Aaron Gordon out of Arizona with the #4 overall pick in the draft. I am really high on him due to his athleticism, energy, and defensive abilities. I think he'll have a really good rookie season even if he has a hard time scoring because of all the other things he brings to the table.
     In addition to drafting Gordon, the Magic also added Channing Frye and Ben Gordon in free agency. Both guys can score the ball, especially from downtown, and that is something that this team lacked last season. This team already had a slasher from the backcourt with Victor Oladipo and a quality paint presence with Nikola Vucevic inside. The three-ball they lacked and by now having it, they should be much improved.
    One of the more interesting things to look for in this young Magic team is how point guard Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo play together in the backcourt. Payton came into the draft as one of the best point guard prospects. If he can hold his own at point, the Magic may have themselves a really good backcourt for the future.
    This team can compete for a playoff spot, but right now, I see them missing the playoffs. However, not by much. 34 wins is probably 4-5 wins shy of a playoff spot, which means that if they get some luck they could snag the 8 seed in the East. Most previews of this team's season aren't going to be as optimistic as mine is. I actually like the additions they made in free agency and the draft. It's just going to be tough for it to all come together in one season.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bear Territory Thursday: A look ahead at Cal's schedule


     This week I thought it would be fun to look ahead at Cal's schedule and identify some key games to look for in the season. So what I'll do is list five games that should be of interest on the schedule. Enjoy!

1. 2K Classic vs. Syracuse in New York, NY (Nov. 20):  This will be a fun game to watch since Syracuse has such a quality basketball program and Cal has a recent history with them. Cal faced Syracuse last year  in Hawaii and the year before that, they got bounced by Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Cal is becoming more familiar with Syracuse and their unique 2-3 zone defensive scheme, which means that perhaps the third time is the charm. Plus, in the most recent USA Today coaches poll, Syracuse came in ranked at #24. Cal will get to face one of the best teams in the country early on, which could serve them well later in the season.

2. Cal vs. Wisconsin in Berkeley, CA (December 22): Further up the rankings in the USA Today coaches poll is Wisconsin, who right now are ranked #4 in the country. This is a game that Cal players have circled on their calendars. Wisconsin was a Final Four team last season, and they once again are expected to be really good. I was present at the Cal-Arizona game last season and I must say it was pandemonium at Haas Pavilion. I expect a similarly electric atmosphere in Berkeley when the Badgers come to town. This one will be fun.

3. Cal vs. Stanford (January 14) and Cal @Stanford (February 21): 

I'm pairing these two games together since both games against Stanford are always crazy. Each team won on the other team's floor last season and I'm sure both teams will be eager to get the sweep and certainly hold home court. These rivalry games always have a special buzz to them and it'll be interesting to see how this relatively young Cal team does after already having faced Wisconsin. Plus, Stanford is a team on the edge of being ranked at the moment. Odds are good they are a top 25 team by the time Cal faces them.

4. Cal @ Utah (February 15):  Like Stanford, Utah is a team that is on the cusp of being in the top 25 and likely will be in the top 25 at some point in the season. Utah beat Cal in Berkeley last season and now Cal will have a chance to return the favor. It will be tough for Cal since Utah plays at high elevation and is expected to be really good. If Cal can win in Utah on the road, this would be a huge boost to their tournament resume.

5. Cal vs. Arizona (January 24):  After losing at Haas Pavilion, it will be interesting to see how Arizona responds in their return to the place where Justin Cobbs hit perhaps the greatest shot in the history of Cal Basketball. Arizona is ranked #2 at the moment and once again is expected to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Will Deja vu happen again at Haas or will the Wildcats get revenge?

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday Windmill: By turning down $48M, Ricky Rubio is asking the Timberwolves to let him go

     Ricky Rubio is entering the final year of his contract before he hits restricted free agency next summer, which means that he's looking to get an upgrade from his rookie scale contract. He is scheduled to make a shade over $4.6M this season and $6.7M next season, the year teams can sign him to an offer sheet. If you have been following the talks between Rubio's camp and the Timberwolves, you know that Rubio turned down a 4 year, $48M offer from the Timberwolves, asking for more money. I personally think that by doing this, Rubio is asking the Timberwolves to let him go since he definitely isn't worth any more than that.
     I understand why Ricky Rubio is asking for more money. The NBA is a point guard driven league and he recently saw Eric Bledsoe get more money by turning down the Suns' initial offer. With that being said, Rubio isn't nearly as good of a point guard as Eric Bledsoe, and while he does show signs of promise, he hasn't yet shown that he will become the kind of point guard that deserves to be paid like a franchise player.
     Let's take a look at his stats: Over his three years in the NBA, his rebounding average has consistently stayed right around his career average of 4.1 rebounds per game; his points per game average has actually dropped, going from 10.6 points per game to 9.5 points per game; his steals per game average has stayed relatively the same, which is 2.3 steals per game; his assists per game average has slightly gone up from 8.2 to 8.6; his field goal percentage has risen from 35.7% to 38.1%; his three point percentage has gone down from 34% to 33.1%; and his free throw percentage has stayed relatively the same across all three years at 80%.
     Judging by his numbers, I would say he has improved, but only slightly. More importantly, he hasn't taken a leap in his scoring average. If you are going to demand more than $12M per season, even as a point guard, you need to at least be averaging around 17 points per game and 10 assists. I personally think the best Rubio can ever become is a 15 and 10 guy, which means I don't think he'll ever be worth what he's asking.
     This doesn't mean that I think Rubio doesn't have any value or that he isn't a quality point guard. I just don't think he's worth anything close to the money that he is asking. He's a B grade John Stockton from a passing and defending perspective and nothing close to Stockton from a shooting perspective. John Stockton was a point guard worth more than $12M a year, Rubio on the other hand is a point guard worth around $7-8M per year.
     If Rubio wants to ask for a shorter and cheaper contract and prove to the Timberwolves he's worth what he says he's worth, I'm all for it. Rubio could prove us all wrong in 5 years and morph into a bigger John Stockton. But so long as he demands this money without proving he's worth it, the Timberwolves are left with no choice but to trade him or let him go in free agency if they can't find a good deal for him.


     One of the things that Rubio isn't considering in all of this is that to a certain extent he was viewed as a good piece to put with Kevin Love. The Timberwolves envisioned Love and Rubio being the future of their team as an item. But with Love now gone, the franchise has gone in a different direction, instead building around Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and Nikola Pekovic. The Rubio-to-Love duo is no more without Love, which means that Rubio is more expendable.
     The reality for the Minnesota Timberwolves is that they really shouldn't pay Ricky Rubio any more money than what they have offered him. He simply hasn't proven to be worth this kind of money. A final thought on this is that drafting Ricky Rubio was David Khan's idea and Khan is no longer the general manager of the team.  It was David Khan who was sold on Ricky Rubio and celebrated his arrival like he was Jesus coming to redeem his people, not Flip Saunders. By letting Rubio go, the Timberwolves would officially be starting a new chapter in the Flip Saunders era and purge themselves of the David Khan era which for Wolves fans is an era that they want to forget.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bear Territory Thursday: Will Cal go with small ball?

     One of the more interesting things to speculate about the Cal Men's Basketball team is what type of lineups their head coach Cuonzo Martin will go with, especially on the front line. The most experienced front court players on this Cal team are David Kravish (6'10), Christian Behrens (6'8), and Roger Moute a Bidias (6'6), none of which are true centers. The only true centers on this Cal team are freshman Kingsley Okoroh (7'1) and sophomore center Kameron Rooks (7'0), who is redshirting the season due to a torn ACL.
     With Rooks not playing this season and Okoroh only a freshman, odds look very high that Cal will roll with a lot of small lineups this season. With Kravish being the only guy outside of Okoroh who is capable of playing center, what type of lineups should Cal fans expect to see?
     First of all, lets get the backcourt situation figured out. Tyrone Wallace, who played a lot of shooting guard last season is expected to start at point guard. As for the shooting guard position, I assume that Jordan Mathews will be the starter with Jabari Bird sliding over to the small forward position. Cuonzo Martin might go with some other looks, but I expect those three guys to be starting at those positions.
     With positions 1-3 established, we can now look at the front court. What makes the most sense from a practical standpoint is to start Kingsley Okoroh at center and David Kravish at power forward. If this is how things go, Christian Behrens can come off the bench to play power forward and center, and Roger Moute a Bidias can come off the bench to play a mix of small forward and power forward.
     However, as I implied above, with Okoroh being a freshman, Cuonzo Martin may not want to throw him to the wolves and start him. He may prefer him to come off the bench. In that case, that means David Kravish has no choice but to start at center and either Christian Behrens or Roger Moute a Bidias starts at power forward. Either way, if Kingsley comes off the bench, Cal will be playing small ball by default.  May I add that in this lineup, Jabari Bird would be playing out of his position as he is more of a natural shooting guard. The only position where Cal would have a size advantage is point guard since Tyrone Wallace stands at 6'5.
     There are some other possible lineups which might have to be used as well. One such possibility would be Sam Singer at point guard, Jordan Mathews at shooting guard, Tyrone Wallace at small forward, Jabari Bird at power forward, and David Kravish at center. This kind of lineup is not likely to be used much, but it could be used in spurts. Cal is a team with not a lot of size and a lot of athleticism at the wing, which is the formula for small ball: Athletic wings + small frontcourt = small ball.

     This is not to say that David Kravish cannot play big inside. He can. He blocks a lot of shots and is very active in the paint. His offensive polish inside and defensive abilities allow him to play center just fine. It's the other guys who make this lineup small.

     With that being the case, it's all the more important that David Kravish plays big inside. With Kingsley Okoroh still looking relatively raw, odds are good that Kravish will be the only legitimate threat in the post. He'll have his work cut out for him this season and he'll have to play even bigger than last season. Especially with Richard Solomon gone.

     In conclusion, Cal will struggle to dominate people in the paint. Only David Kravish can reasonably be expected to be a force in the paint. But with him likely playing a lot of center against 7-footers, it's going to be all the more important that the players playing positions 1-3 really step it up and help space the floor.

     If Tyrone Wallace is able to penetrate and attack the rim like he does, if Jordan Mathews is knocking down threes, and if Jabari Bird is capable of scoring both inside and out, then Cal's small ball lineups could thrive. If they don't do their jobs effectively, then David Kravish will likely have to put up with a lot of double teams and guys who are bigger than him at the center position.

     ---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wednesday Windmill: Could Paul Pierce make the difference in DC?

     The Washington Wizards are one of the more interesting teams in the NBA. Bradley Beal and John Wall, who combined for 36.4 points per game last season, have emerged into one of the best backcourts in the NBA to go alongside a solid front court rotation of Nene, Marcin Gortat, and Kris Humphries. However, as good as those five players are, the Wizards likely wouldn't be considered a serious contender if they didn't also have Paul Pierce, who is coming off a one year stint with the Brooklyn Nets.
     Now you might be saying that Paul Pierce is old and that what makes the Wizards really dangerous is the combination of players I mentioned before him. That's not at all inaccurate. Those five players I mentioned are going to have to carry the bulk of the load, especially Wall and Beal.
     However, I think Paul Pierce's presence is what the Wizards need to get over the hump and into the NBA Finals this season. Beal and Wall can get the Wizards close, but they need somebody else who is capable of doing damage late in games and also providing them with confidence. Especially in the playoffs.
     What better man to fill that need than Paul Pierce? He has championship and leadership experience, and ice in his veins. Pierce lives for the big moments, and when the Wizards are in such moments, Pierce will know what it takes to get the job done.
      In addition to being a weapon late in games, Pierce himself can still produce for four quarters. Last season in Brooklyn, Pierce played 28 minutes per game for 75 games and averaged 13.5 points per game. That's very solid production to add to your lineup. Especially when you already have other guys to do the heavy lifting.
     The bottom line is that Paul Pierce is a great addition to this Wizards team both because of the intangibles he brings and the actual on court production that he can provide night in and night out. If the Wizards figure out how to utilize him properly and put his abilities to full use, they could find themselves in the NBA Finals this season.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wednesday Windmill: Here's what training camp and the preseason is all about

With NBA training camps getting underway, I figured I would give a brief rundown about what training camp is all about and what purpose it serves along with the preseason. Many of you may have a loose idea about what it is, but I figured I would tighten things up and make things more clear to you. For the sake of simplicity, I will list 10 things that you should know.

1. Training camp is for everybody. This might seem obvious, but after hearing about guys getting training camp invites, it needs to be understood that training camp is for everybody on the team. The stars all the way down to players fighting to make the team attend training camp.

2.  Players on training camp rosters can play in preseason games. The main purpose of preseason games is to find out which players who are on the roster bubble will make the team. These are players who signed non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts. When a player signs a non-guaranteed training camp contract with a team, this means that the player also will get to participate in preseason games and prove why he belongs on the team.

3. What are non-guaranteed contracts? Non-guaranteed contracts are just that. They are contracts signed by players who don't have a guaranteed spot on the team's roster but hope to make the final cut.

4. Is there a limit to how many players can be on a training camp roster? Yes, there is a limit and the limit is 20. Teams don't have to have 20 players signed for training camp, but they can't go beyond 20.

5. What role does the NBADL (D-League) play in training camp and preseason? Not a whole lot directly, but what should be noted is that players who don't make the final cut for an NBA team will likely find a home in the D-League. It's really competitive to make an NBA training camp roster, so if you are good enough to find a home in an NBA training camp, you are certain to find a home in the D-League.

6. What do coaches focus on in training camp and preseason? Coaches focus on a lot of things. They focus on what players are good enough to make the final cut, what lineups might work in the regular season, how best to get players to understand their coaching philosophies, and other things. It's a time for coaches to get a feel of the team that they have and also get back in the groove of coaching. Coaching is a skill and preseason is a great place to hone that skill and practice it.

7. How important is preseason and training camp for rookies? It's very important. Rookies get to use this time to adjust to the speed and style of the NBA while actually playing against real NBA players. They get their feet wet a little bit in Summer League, but for the most part, guys on Summer League rosters are guys who are unlikely to make an NBA team. Only the first and second year players who have to be there are legit NBA players. Preseason is really the first time these rookies get exposed to NBA-level basketball which is an important time in their process of transitioning from the college game to the NBA game.

In addition, while first round picks are guaranteed a roster spot, second round picks are not guaranteed a roster spot. This means second round picks have to use training camp and the preseason as a proving ground for why they belong on the final roster.

8. If preseason and training camp is important, why do stars often rest during this time? This is a tough question to answer in the sense that I want to argue that preseason is important for all players involved, so I'll just say that for some players, preseason and training camp is a great time to rest up and get healthy.

Players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant don't need to worry about making a team or getting a feel for NBA level basketball, so for them it might make more sense to rest up and get healthy for the regular season. However, for LeBron James, this preseason will give him a chance to get a feel for his new team in Cleveland and get a jump on how to play with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

9. Preseason is a chance to grow the game globally. The NBA frequently has teams play preseason games in foreign countries to grow the game internationally. In addition, teams will play preseason games in smaller American cities that will otherwise not host an NBA game.

10. How similar is this to NFL training camp and MLB spring training? If you are more of an expert in the NFL, MLB, or NHL, I would say that whatever training camp is like in those sports, it's basically the same in the NBA. I know in the NFL that preseason rosters start at 90 players, get cut down to 75, and then get cut down to 53 for the regular season. The NBA works in a similar vein. They start at 20 players and have to cut the roster down to at least 15 players, though typically the number is 12 or 13 players.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord 

Monday, September 29, 2014

2014-15 Atlantic Division Preview

The NBA season is just around the corner, which means that it's time for me to start doing my previews for each division. I am starting with the Atlantic Division, home to the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, and Philadelphia 76ers. I will preview each team in order of where I think they will finish in the division with their projected win total in brackets.

                                              Toronto Raptors (53)

Under the guidance of their brilliant general manager Masai Ujiri, the Raptors had one of the best seasons in franchise history last year with a 48-34 record. Losing in 7 games to the Nets in the first round of the playoffs was a tough way to go out, but the Raptors established themselves as a team that is going to be competitive for many seasons to come.

Their major offseason move was re-signing their start point guard Kyle Lowry to a 4 year, $48M deal. This move is key because it greatly ups the odds of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas staying with the Raptors for the long-term. DeRozan made his first all-star team last season, averaging 22.7 points and 4.0 assists per game, establishing himself as one of the best young swingmen in the NBA.

As for Jonas Valanciunas, he is entering his third NBA season after averaging 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last season. He still has a lot of work to do, but he too is emerging into one of the best young players at his position. If the Raptors can keep Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas together, they could be contending for championships in the near future.

Their most surprising move of the offseason was drafting Bruno Caboclo in the first round of this year's draft. This move shocked everybody and created quite a stir on draft night. Caboclo is a small forward out of Brazil who has tremendous upside but is considered to be very raw in his development. He might be the most important piece the Raptors have in that he could be what puts them over the top in a few seasons. If he develops into an elite small forward in the NBA, the Raptors will really be cooking with gas. Watching how Caboclo develops in his first NBA season will definitely be an interesting thing to monitor throughout the season since he still remains largely a mystery and an enigma.

Overall, the Raptors have a really talented squad that should once again win the Atlantic Division. The trio of Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas will continue to get better and perhaps Caboclo surprises people and ends up being a solid contributor in his rookie season. They still don't have enough to contend for a championship, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth keeping an eye on. With the Eastern Conference so wide open, the Raptors could possibly find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.

                                                Brooklyn Nets (47)

The Brooklyn Nets are one of the most bizarre teams in the NBA. They have some fantastically talented players, but they can't seem to figure out how to make it all fit. Deron Williams is showing signs of age with all the injuries he's had, but he still remains one of the better point guards in the NBA; Joe Johnson is one of the most offensively potent shooting guards in the NBA; and Brook Lopez might be the best center in the NBA when healthy. Yet despite having those talented players on their team, the Nets still find ways to fall short.

Losing Brook Lopez for the season definitely hurt them last year, but even with him I doubt they would have gotten past the Miami Heat. The Nets almost seem to have an identity crisis in that they really aren't super good at anything. They just range from being "ok" to "good" at everything. That's a problem that Lionel Hollins, their new head coach will have to fix. He'll have to find a way to get his team an identity. In order for a team to be successful they need to have an identity or something to pride themselves on. E.g. Defense, rebounding, or scoring.

More specifically, the Nets need to figure out whose team it is. Is it Deron Williams' team? Is it Joe Johnson's team? Is it Brook Lopez's team? I personally think it should be Brook Lopez's team with him as the focal point of the offense. He's their best overall player and the player who is most valuable to them because so few teams have quality big men.

Before going down for the season, Lopez was having a career year, averaging 20.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. The team had to reformulate their identity with him out of the picture for the vast bulk of the season and I think that really hurt the development of the team since Lopez has to be their guy. If the Nets want to be successful this season, they have to make sure that Brook Lopez is the featured player. Otherwise, they'll continue to stay where they are at, which is a mid-pack Eastern Conference team that goes nowhere.


                                                      New York Knicks (41) 

Let me cut to the chase: This team sucks. I think Carmelo Anthony is fantastic, but the rest of the team is garbage. Amar'e Stoudemire is washed up and merely a shell of his former self, Andrea Bargnani is a decent offensive player who can't play any defense, J.R. Smith just screws around and takes wild threes, and Iman Shumpert has regressed each season he's played in the NBA.

As for Phil Jackson and his puppet head coach Derek Fisher, nothing can smell more like manufactured hype than this duo. These guys won rings in Los Angeles, but that was over five years ago in a city that is more than 2,000 miles away. This time around there is no Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal to save them, which is why they aren't going to ever win another championship together. They seem to only be interested in reuniting with each other and having a jolly good time in the Big Apple at the expense of the Knicks and their fans.

Tim Hardaway, Jr. is the only other guy on this team that I like. He's a talented 6'6 shooting guard who could be a star for them in the future, but as for this season he'll still be going through growing pains. He's really the only guy worth paying attention to in that he might be a piece the Knicks can use in the future to help them win games. As for the rest of team outside of Carmelo Anthony, they can all go play in the Chinese Basketball Association for all I care.


                                                       Boston Celtics (32) 

The Celtics are in full-blown rebuilding mode right now. Rajon Rondo, who is their star point guard appears to be on his way out, which leaves small forward Jeff Green as the only other viable weapon on the team. Green averaged 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, which was his best season to date. He'll continue to get better and might even become an all-star one day. But beyond that, the team has nobody to help them win games this season.

Their rookie point guard Marcus Smart, third year power forward Jared Sullinger, and second year center Kelly Olynyk might form a nice trio to go around Jeff Green in a few years, but for right now they have a lot of growing pains to go through.The one good thing that I will say about the Celtics is that they have a quality head coach in Brad Stevens and management that can be trusted. Unlike the Knicks, who are run by a bunch of baboons, the Celtics have quality guys in their front office, which is why I like them to be better than the Knicks down the road.

However, at the present moment, the Celtics have a team that will struggle to win games. Even if Rajon Rondo hangs around the whole year, they still will only have Rondo and Green as viable go-to options. Everybody else is either past their prime like Gerald Wallace or still in the very early stages of their NBA development.

                                                    Philadelphia 76ers (25)

The Philadelphia 76ers are garbage, but they are garbage with a game plan. The plan is to be bad right now so that they can be good in the future. The 76ers so far have tanked really well, drafting talented players who can't help them win games right away. Probably the most important thing to look for when watching the 76ers this season is how their point guard Michael Carter-Williams does in his second season and also how their rookie center Nerlens Noel does after sitting out all of last season with a torn ACL.

If Carter-Williams and Noel can prove to be an effective duo, then the 76ers should feel good about their tanking strategy. I personally expect both of those guys to play really well, but that doesn't mean the 76ers will win a lot of games. It'll be another long year in Philly, but hopefully one in which they feel like progress is being made towards building a team that can be a force in the East.

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord