LeBron James is joined by veteran center Shaquille O'Neal this season in Cleveland as the Cavaliers look to finally net the King his first NBA ring?
Cleveland Cavaliers (2/11)
The Cavs are hoping the pairing of Lebron James with Shaquille O’Neal will lead to the kind of results that Shaq enjoyed with Kobe Bryant years ago in Los Angeles, namely an NBA title.
In fairness O’Neal is past his prime. But even a Shaq on the downside is better than most of the league’s big men in their prime. His presence makes Cleveland the prohibitive favorite to capture its second straight Central division title.
When you talk Cleveland Cavaliers basketball, the conservation begins and ends with Lebron James. L.J. is already one of the greatest NBA players in history and he’s only 24-years old. Last season the King put up career-best numbers en route to winning his first NBA MVP award. James averaged 28 points, seven assists and seven rebounds per game and collected seven “triple-doubles,” breaking his personal and team records.
In addition he became the fourth player in NBA history to lead his team in all five major statistical categories (total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) in one season. And for good measure he became just the second player in league history to be named the NBA’s Player of the Month on four different occasions. The only real bummer for Lebron was not making it to the NBA finals. His Cavs team was dominated by the Orlando Magic who played the Lakers. Lebron was frustrated by the lack of talent around him and Cleveland management put the pedal to the metal in an effort to improve their title hopes and keep their superstar happy.
The Cavs mantra this season is “No More Excuses.” General Manger Danny Ferry was ultra-active in the offseason in his effort to not only build a stronger supporting cast but to show King James that the team is indeed committed to bringing an NBA title to Cleveland.
The first big move was the addition of Shaq who averaged 18 points and eight rebounds last season in Phoenix. He was acquired in exchange for Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic as well as a draft pick. In addition, Ferry signed Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Parker could turn out to be as big a pickup as O’Neal. He started last season with the Raptors averaging 11 and 4. He figures to be a nice fit with the defensive-minded Cavs while adding some offensive fire power as well.
Harvey’s Take: Despite issues with Delonte West and questions as to how exactly Shaq will fit in, the Cavs are too talented not to win the Central in a cakewalk this season. As long as Lebron stays healthy, this division is Cleveland’s to lose.
Chicago Bulls (9-1)
The Bulls have one of the top young players of the league in reigning Rookie of the Year Derek Rose. They’ve added a few other pieces as the look to build around the former Memphis Tiger. The Bulls are also hoping that last season’s classic seven-game playoff series against the Celtics did something to speed up the learning curve for some of the younger players.
Rose is the key. He averaged 16 points and six assists giving the Bulls one of the best point guards in the league. As good as he is, he can’t do it alone. That’s where some of the late season trade acquisitions and young players come in.
Ben Gordon is gone, via free agency but the Bulls are hoping a healthy Luol Deng will fill the void. Deng, who has suffered a fractured wrist and leg in that order over the past two seasons, is being counted on for a comeback this season. When healthy he’s an “Elton Brand” type player (must be that Duke connection) who has 20 and 10 potential. The Bulls are also counting on Joakim Noah and John Salmons, who played so well in the Celtics series as well as late season additions Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas to continue their progress. Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas to play with the same intensity they did against Boston.
Can Chicago carry over the postseason momentum from last year and become a factor in the Central Division? That’s the big question in Chicago where they’ve got Rose and a ton of question mark.
Harvey’s Take: The Bulls have the best chance to overtake the Cavs but as long as Lebron James is around, Chicago’s best still won’t be good enough.
Detroit Pistons (9-1)
The Pistons are coming off a season in which Joe Dumars made more mistakes than any GM in the league. He fired Flip Saunders and replaced him with the untested Michael Curry and then compounded that move with the disastrous Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson trade.
Detroit slipped to the eighth seed in the East last season and failed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in seven years.
The Pistons are guard heavy and thin in the front court, and that combination could spell trouble for the “used to be a contender” boys from the Motor City. Ben Gordon exited Chicago for a nice contract with the Pistons but exactly how he’ll be used in another question. He figures to split time with Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince at the two-three spots, but the growing consensus is he’ll come off the bench ala Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson.
Rodney Stuckey will be at the point while Will Bynum will backup. The problem in Detroit is the Pistons wafer thin front court. If I’m using Kwame Brown in a sentence, it can’t be good. Brown will be the starting center and, well you can see that’s not much to hang your hat on. Charlie Villanueva, the former Toronto Raptor will be the starting power forward. He like Gordon is more of a scorer than he is a lock down defender. Prince will be at the small forward spot for most of the season.
Harvey’s Take: Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace are long gone and Joe Dumars showed you last season with a bad move or three will do to a team. The Pistons are now in rebuilding mode and we as betters need to recognize they’re no long among the elite teams in the NBA.
Milwaukee Bucks (100-1)
The Bucks as a darkhorse team in the division this season? How about not a chance. This team has drafted bad and played worst and they’re the Eastern Conference version of the Clippers. You hear the same thing every year. The Bucks are loaded with “young talent and incredible athleticism.” They also have more projects than a high school science lab. They’ve got one proven scorer in Michael Redd and that’s it. The rest of their starting lineup consists of top draft picks who never did pan out.
They may in time but heading into this season there are more question marks and caution flags than anything else. Expected to start alongside Redd will be any combination of the following: Brandon Jennings, Michael Redd, Luc Richard abuh a Moute, Hakim Warrick and Andrew Bogut. Jennings is the rookie who bypassed college to play in Europe but questions still linger about whether he’s ready for being an NBA point guard.
With Redd, it's all about health. He was sorely missed down the stretch last season and he’ll be needed if this team is even going to make a run towards respectability. The Bucks were so high on Mbah a Moute, the former UCLA star, that they allowed Charlie Villanueva walk rather than pay him a high salary. Warrick can play and is a solid inside scorer and rebounder. As for Bogut, he's the Bucks franchise player, and he's shown flashes of being a solid all-around center, but he’s been hurt and inconsistent.
Harvey’s Take: If Bogut and Redd can stay on the court and avoid injuries, this team could surprise a few people. But I’m talking very few. If Milwaukee can finish ahead of Indiana with this mish/mash of a lineup, then Scott Skiles has done his job.
Indiana Pacers (40/1)
Danny Granger is the best player in the league that no one knows about. A lot of NBA teams are still kicking themselves for passing on Granger in the 2005 draft. The former New Mexico star went 17th in the first round behind such notable players as Martell Webster, Fran Vasquez and Yaroslav Korolev.
Last season Granger averaged 26 ppg en route to earning a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Granger is arguably one of the top ten players in the league and will only get better. In terms of small forwards in the league some experts believe he’s the second best player at that position in the EC behind King James.
After Granger though, it’s slim pickings for the Pacers. They’ve got some name guys like Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy Jr. but the injury problems have limited both players. Dunleavy is a three-point specialist while Murphy is a banger and good for a few double-double’s each the year. Other faces of note for the Pacers: T. J. Ford, Brandon Rush, Jeff Foster, Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansborugh, the former North Carolina star. Hansborough had a strong summer league but will it translate to success at the NBA level?
Head coach Jim O'Brien has his work cut out for him. Most of his players are one dimensional. If he had five Danny Grangers we’d be talking some serious playoff basketball for Indy, but Granger +4 equals no more than a fourth-place finish in the division.
Harvey’s Take: Granger is worth the price of admission and from a betting standpoint the Pacers are one of my favorite teams when it comes to playing the over. They shoot the ball well, but play very little defense. Keep that in mind the regular season rolls around.