2006 NBA Preview

The NBA season is just around the corner, with training camps starting soon and the preseason starting up in October. With the veteran Miami Heat the defending champions, the Eastern Conference has proven itself again as a formidable opposing force to the more talented Western Conference. The standings below are based on my assessments of not only the talent level on each of these teams but the intangibles that lead many teams to the playoffs and championship contention.

Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division
1. New Jersey Nets- The Nets have one of the most talented starting lineups in the league and Jason Kidd is gradually sliding out of his prime into a leadership (rather than a scoring) role.

2. Boston Celtics- The Celtics have had an erratic personnel plan under Danny Ainge’s tutelage, but they still have Paul Pierce and the supporting talent has improved over the last couple of years. Expect the Boston Celtics to stick around the second spot in the Atlantic Division for much of the season, as the Raptors are too young to push them and the Nets too good to have a let down.

3. Toronto Raptors- The Raptors will be one of the most improved teams in the NBA in 2006, with Chris Bosh taking the leadership role of the franchise and young foreign players like Andrea Bargnani will start to bring a new, solid shooting feel to the only NBA club in Canada. Look for the addition of point guard T.J. Ford to be the tipping point between another basement dwelling season and a chance at getting back into the playoffs.

4. Philadelphia 76ers- With no help in the free agent market or the draft for Allen Iverson, the Sixers will sink further in the Eastern Conference that is rapidly improving. Iverson may be shipped out by mid-season, meaning that the New York Knicks could push them to stay out of the Atlantic division cellar.

5. New York Knicks- Isaiah Thomas is like many other basketball greats (i.e. Michael Jordan) who have tried to enter NBA coaching and team management with dismal results. Thomas has certainly overturned the Knicks clubs of only three years ago and brought in talents like Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis to bring back credibility to the club. However, most of the talent, outside of Channing Frye and Jared Jeffries, is temperamental or underachieving and Thomas may be on his way out by the end of the 2006 NBA season.

Central Division
1. Chicago Bulls- The Bulls are young, athletic, and gave the Miami Heat their toughest challenge in the 2005 NBA playoffs. Look for Scott Skiles’ team to step it up in 2006, with Ben Gordon and Kirk Heinrich pushing for consideration as one of the best back courts in the league.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers- LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas form one of the better front courts in the league, but the search for a decent back court in Cleveland continues. If the Cavaliers can get some good performances out of Larry Hughes and Eric Snow, they may push the Chicago Bulls for the Central Division lead.

3. Detroit Pistons- The Pistons should not underestimate the loss of Ben Wallace to the Chicago Bulls and Detroit has become complacent following their success under former coach Larry Brown. Detroit Pistons fans need to be considered about the level of big game ability Flip Saunders has, whether the Pistons can replace Wallace in the middle, and whether they can overcome questions about their basketball talent with their vast playoff experience.

4. Milwaukee Bucks- The Bucks made some interesting moves in the off season, bringing in Charlie Villanueva and Reuben Patterson via trade along with draft pick David Noel. These three players, along with Michael Redd, give the Bucks more athleticism and the ability to move up and down the court on slower teams. However, without a ball handler like Ford and with several players without a real position, the Bucks are going to remain near the middle of the Eastern Conference until they find their identity.

5. Indiana Pacers- The Pacers have a good deal of talent, but Rick Carlisle and Larry Bird have conflicting coaching philosophies and the Pacers seem to be slowly sliding down the Eastern Conference hierarchy. While Jermaine O’Neal and Danny Granger offer some solid performances on the Pacers interior, the Pacers are looking to retool their back court and possibly deal away oft-injured point guard Jamaal Tinsley.

Southeastern Division
1. Miami Heat- While the Heat are aging quickly, Shaq is good enough to carry the team in close games and Dwayne Wade is quickly taking the leadership role in Miami to heart. Wade will be an MVP candidate and will top both the stat sheets and All Star voting in 2006, as he begins to use the credibility gained as an NBA champion to keep the Heat on top of the NBA.

2. Orlando Magic- Dwight Howard will be the league’s MVP and his inside scoring game will continue to develop as he polishes his defensive skills. If the Magic can get anything out of Grant Hill this season and if point guard Jameer Nelson continues his development into a NBA All Star, they will be able to establish themselves as a championship threat in the Eastern Conference.

3. Washington Wizards- Coach Eddie Jordan will be able to get his over achieving Wizards back into the playoffs, continuing to motivate Gilbert Arenas to make plays and getting his front court to play well enough to stop lower and middle-level interior players. To replace Jared Jeffries, guard DeShawn Stevenson could be one of the better players on the Washington squad in 2006. Stevenson is a decent defender and is a slashing scorer, giving Jordan a good back court addition.

4. Atlanta Hawks- The addition of Shelden Williams was great for the Hawks, but they still lack the point guard that could direct traffic for the talented Atlanta roster. Joe Johnson, Josh Childress, and Marvin Williams are athletic scorers, but without someone better than Speedy Claxton at the point, the Hawks will continue to languish at the bottom of the conference.

5. Charlotte Bobcats- The Bobcats are three to four years away from prime, though if they can keep their core talent together that long they will reap the benefits in terms of playoff appearances and championship contention. Adam Morrison will give Charlotte instant offense and if Sean May and Emeka Okafor can stay on the court for a majority of the season, the Bobcats will improve greatly. Michael Jordan’s role as the final arbiter of talent in Charlotte means that the Bobcats need him to develop a better eye for talent or the repercussions will be felt for decades.

Western Conference
Southwestern Division
1. San Antonio Spurs- The Spurs are similar to the Pistons in that they are a solid, steady team that plays consistently well. However, they suffer a bit from their inability to run up and down the court as well as their lack of a truly electric player. Tim Duncan is a great center and a good leader, but is about as exciting as an empty room. Duncan needs his supporting cast to do more to get up and down the floor or they will lose the division to the more athletic Mavericks.

2. Dallas Mavericks- Avery Johnson has to be excited about his team’s potential in 2006. Without fully embracing his defensive scheme in 2005, Dallas got to the NBA Finals and pushed the Miami Heat to the brink before losing it to the more experienced Pat Riley and Company. The Mavericks will win the championship in 2006, with Dirk Nowitski leading the way again and the entire squad going all out on defense to fulfill Johnson’s vision.

3. New Orleans Hornets- The Hornets have a potential Hall of Famer in point guard Chris Paul, a solid shooting guard in Desmond Mason, and a high priced free agent addition in Peja Stojakovic. Stojakovic gives Paul another talented player to pass to and another gunner from beyond the arc. The real question is whether New Orleans can get anything out of Tyson Chandler at center. Despite criticisms of the former Bull, I think Chandler will benefit from young forwards Hilton Armstrong and Cedric Simmons, as well as Paul’s ability to pass it to the interior.

4. Houston Rockets- For the combination of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, it is put up or shut up time in Houston. McGrady and Ming need to stay on the court and show toughness in order for the Rockets to have a chance at the playoffs in the 2006 NBA season. However, don’t expect both of them to spend the entire season on the court and odds are both will continue to miss time due to injury. Without this combination, Houston is one of the worst teams in the league.

5. Memphis Grizzlies- While Pau Gasol is a talented player, the Grizzlies just don’t have the talent to compete in an extremely tough division. If the Grizzlies can somehow figure out how to win the big game and to get more scoring from players not named Pau Gasol, they may be able to leapfrog the Rockets for fourth in the Southwestern Division.

Northwestern Division
1. Seattle Supersonics- Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis give the Sonics enough firepower to pass up the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets. Coach Bob Hill gets a full season to work with young players like Saer Sene, Johan Petro, and Robert Swift in the front court, giving Seattle some solid defensive performances while Allen and Lewis run the offense. Hill has the full confidence of his team and Allen is a quiet leader for this Sonics squad that will return to the playoff form it had in 2004.

2. Utah Jazz- The Jazz have quietly become a talented team once again, with a young and outstanding front court trio of Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur. Jerry Sloan is an NBA coaching institution and his years with Stockton and Malone gives him the credibility and authority in the Jazz locker room to win games.

3. Denver Nuggets- Carmelo Anthony and Nene received big contracts in the off season but George Karl needed more talent to turn the Nuggets into the promising team of 2004. Denver needs guard Andre Miller to perform well on a regular basis or Anthony will be left to make all the big plays on his own. Even though he is a great player in the making, Anthony is not experienced enough to make those kinds of consistent plays. Look for Karl to move on after this season and Anthony to pressure the Nuggets into getting more back court help or he will begin pressing for a trade.

4. Portland Trailblazers- The Blazers made the most noise in the 2006 NBA Draft and the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy gives them a potential inside-outside combination for the next decade. Aldridge will be starting at center by mid-season and Roy will be moving in right away to give the Blazers immediately relief at the guard position. Look for Nate McMillan to use the influx of new talent to implement an energetic offensive game and really push for better defense from his young players.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves- Kevin Garnett is good, but not good enough to lift the Timberwolves out of the Western Conference cellar. If Kevin McHale doesn’t find a complementary piece by mid-season, Garnett may be gone and McHale may be fired. Wolves fans have to be holding their breath at the beginning of the 2006 NBA season, with the hope that the roster they have can win games and keep the popular Garnett in Minnesota.

Pacific Division
1. Phoenix Suns- The Suns will once again dominate the Pacific Division and be near the top of the Western conference playoff seeds, changing little from a team that scored prolifically and started to play defense. Steve Nash will be in the running for another MVP title in 2006, with a young team around him that is improving by the day.

2. Los Angeles Clippers- The Clippers will continue to improve and will beat out the Lakers for dominance in Los Angeles. Considering where the team has been and the tough competition for playoff spots in the West, the Clippers’ continued success may be somewhat surprising. However, the Pacific features a few teams that are tough to read and the Clippers have the talent and a bit of playoff experience to guide them in 2006.

3. Los Angeles Lakers- Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom are a good one-two punch for the Lakers and Phil Jackson has seen enough out of Kwame Brown to consider him a solid center to go up against the likes of Yao Ming and Tim Duncan. The Lakers will push the Clippers for second in the division and will be competitive to the final week in the playoff hunt.

4. Sacramento Kings- The change of the guard came this summer when long time coach Rick Adelman was replaced with young coach Eric Musselman. Despite the support of players like Ron Artest, the time had come for Adelman to leave the Kings’ sidelines. Musselman has some talent coming off the bench and in the starting lineup, but the Suns and the Clippers are entrenched at number one and two in the division and the Lakers will be a strong third place team in the division this season. The Kings need to over achieve in 2006 to be considered a factor.

5. Golden State Warriors- The Warriors’ fall from an early strong start in 2005 continues, with new coach Don Nelson scrambling to figure out how to win without a presence on the interior. Point guard Baron Davis needs to prove he can win the big game and be a consistent performer, otherwise the Warriors are in trouble in 2006 and beyond.

Eastern Conference Finals- Miami Heat versus Chicago Bulls- The Chicago Bulls will be able to weasel their way into the Eastern Conference Finals, perhaps two to three years ahead of schedule, based on their athletic ability and the performances of a few key free agents. However, the Miami Heat are just too good and too experienced not to advance to the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat win against the Chicago Bulls in six games.

Western Conference Finals- Dallas Mavericks versus New Orleans Hornets- The Hornets are similar to the Chicago Bulls this season in that they will get to the Finals ahead of schedule, though their run will be much more improbable. The Hornets have an athletic team that will be able to settle down in Oklahoma City this season while New Orleans continues to recover. However, they run up against a Dallas Mavericks team that is too talented not to win the Western Conference. The Mavericks will run up and down the floor with the Hornets and will also be able to shut the running game down when they want to run off some clock. The Mavericks will defeat the Hornets in five games.

NBA Finals- Miami versus Dallas- The Miami Heat won last year on the back of Dwayne Wade and the fact that the Mavericks could not put together big game performances against a more experienced team. However, coach Avery Johnson gets another swing at the NBA Finals with a more experienced team with the same athletic ability as last season. While it would be the safe pick to go with the Heat once again, the Mavericks will be able to run up and down on a team that is going from prime to aging in a hurry. The Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in six games.

Most Improved Team- Seattle- Coach Bob Hill has an extremely talented team, headlined by Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, and a wealth of coaching experience to import on some of his less polished players. After a disappointing 2005 campaign, look for the SuperSonics to get back into the playoffs and make it interesting for the new ownership team that is considering moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

NBA Coach of the Year- Nate McMillan, Portland- Portland can’t get much worse and it looks like Nate McMillan has some stand up rookies to infuse some discipline (or, at least, innocence) into a squad that has a history of misbehaving. McMillan will finally be able to put his kind of players on the floor while trying to navigate around high priced troublemakers like Zach Randolph. While the Trailblazers will be on the outside looking for the playoffs, they should push for 33-37 wins this season, a testament to McMillan’s resilience.

NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP)-Dwight Howard, Orlando- While perennial MVP candidates like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant may be more obvious choices, Howard is still very young and has already made his mark on the league as one of the Eastern Conference’s dominating players. Look for Howard to get a significant number of double-doubles and lead the team again in points. His performance in 2006 will be able to elevate the Magic into the playoffs, showing how special a talent Dwight Howard is.

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