There’s a “Wanted” poster being distributed within the Eastern Conference with their face on it, which is strange, considering the Heat supposedly graduated from their outlaw status by winning a championship.
Well, that’s probably true, from an image standpoint. But the Celtics and Pacers in particular are gunning for one team because, really, is there anyone else as menacing as Miami? Not only do the Heat have the NBA’s best player in LeBron James, but they beefed up by signing Ray Allen from Boston, which will only re-heat the bad blood developing between the two clubs.
Figure to see the Celtics, Pacers and a New York team in the mix, the wild card being the Bulls if Derrick Rose mends faster and better than anticipated from knee surgery. There’s no question, though, that the conference is Miami’s to lose, and maybe the Heat, therefore, are their own worse enemy.
Here’s a look at the season ahead for each team in the East, in order of predicted finish.
1. Miami Heat
Nobody’s laughing and booing anymore. Instead, there’s plenty of respect, along with a bit of fear, in the NBA for the defending champs and the havoc they’re capable of creating now and in the near future.
The word “dynasty” can only be earned, not given, and so the Heat must navigate the 82-game minefield, then hope they don’t suffer any bumps in the postseason, like last spring, when Chris Bosh went down briefly with an abdominal injury. However, there is plenty working in Miami’s favor this season, with the lack of a serious challenger in the East and, of course, the presence of LeBron James.
Rather than sit tight, the Heat made major changes to the supporting cast that surrounds the Big Three. The idea was to bring in role players who could find a niche and give James and Dwyane Wade a breather, at least in the regular season. In this sense, the best team just got stronger.
Slam Dunk: James won’t see any player on his level this season. All of his peers are retired: Jordan, Magic, Oscar. Assuming good health, there’s no reason he shouldn’t collect at least two more MVPs. As for championships, so many other factors will determine that. But he’ll give his team a chance.
Swish: Miami is loaded with three-point shooters who should see plenty of open looks. Teams can’t sleep on Shane Battier (brilliant in the Finals), Mario Chalmers, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller and especially Ray Allen, who’s no longer automatic but still the league’s three-point king. Their motto: Make the three-throw.
Timeout: Can Wade stay healthy? He’s coming off knee surgery and has played at least 79 games only once in the last seven seasons (not counting the lockout-shortened year). If he reaches for a body part instead of a rebound or a pass, that’s trouble.
Turnover: There’s no functional big man here, nobody who cuts an imposing presence in the paint, offensively or defensively. Two years ago Miami fans affectionately chanted “MVP” when Joel Anthony shot free throws. You don’t hear that anymore.
2. Boston Celtics
Rebuilding can wait. The Celtics decided to squeeze another run or two from an aging but proud core that took a hit when Allen jumped to the enemy as a free agent. Celtics president Danny Ainge plugged the leaks and polished the rough spots by adding veteran guard Jason Terry, a 2011 champion who can score, along with rookie forward Jared Sullinger, who took a tumble in the draft but could rise in the rotation right away. A big plus is Avery Bradley returning from shoulder surgery; you wonder if the Celtics would’ve upset Miami last spring had he been healthy.
The real reason to like the Celtics’ chances of possibly returning to the Eastern Conference finals is defense. As long as Doc Rivers is coaching and Kevin Garnett is snarling, figure the Celtics won’t suffer from an inability to stop the ball.
Anyway, the revised Big Three of KG, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce are still sturdy despite all the mileage and treadwear, and it would be surprising if the Celtics aren’t among the top three in the East come spring.
Slam Dunk: Nothing except a jumper is holding back Rondo, the league leader in assists per game. Otherwise, he’s everything you’d want in a point guard and leader. Finally, and without question, this is his team.
Swish: Rivers gets high marks across the board as a coach, especially for his ability to connect with difficult personalities, such as Rondo and KG. He’s one of the few coaches who’s probably worth two or three additional wins per season. Only Gregg Popovich of the Spurs compares.
Timeout: The Celtics invested patience and money (four years, $36 million!) in Jeff Green, who wasn’t consistently good before his serious health issues (he missed all of last season after undergoing heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm). After a solid preseason, they expect him to play a major role. Unless he’s the player who had flashes with OKC, he’s a true definition of a reach.
Turnover: Pierce and KG are 35 and 36 years old, respectively, and while they’ve been remarkably healthy for their age, you wonder how creak-free they’ll be if they go deep into another postseason.
3. Indiana Pacers
There’s no reason to think the Pacers won’t remain on the rise. Their core isn’t too young or old, and the important players remain healthy and unchanged from a year ago, when Indiana took a 2-1 lead on Miami in their playoff series. But how much higher can they go?
Of the potential title contenders in the league, only the Nuggets and Pacers are without a legitimate star. There’s more than enough here to win 50 games and a division title. But a conference crown? NBA crown? Isn’t that what stars are for?
We’ll see. Meanwhile, we should witness the continued development of a team that has regained its good-standing in Indiana after several lost years due to bad contracts and an ugly, franchise-wrecking fight in Detroit. The good times have returned. Maybe the fans will, too.
Slam Dunk: The starting five remain untouched, meaning the Pacers don’t need to spend half a season getting to know each other. The club morale, and the results, soared after George Hill replaced Darren Collison late last season at point guard. Collison was shipped to Dallas and Hill was given a contract extension.
Swish: Roy Hibbert is $56 million richer thanks to being big and in demand last summer as a free agent. The Pacers didn’t have a fallback plan and, therefore, had no choice but to roll the financial dice, which is tough for a small-market team to swallow. At least they can sleep peacefully knowing their center position, while not rock-solid, is secure.
Timeout: Is this finally the season Paul George has a breakout year, or does he need more time? He gave flashes last season when he finished ninth in steals and averaged 12 points before going into the tank in the playoffs. Pacers might need to trade Danny Granger if George feels stifled.
Turnover: The bench doesn’t appear to be anything special. Plus, Indiana perhaps reached in the draft for Miles Plumlee and then gave $16 million to Ian Mahinmi. Both big men seem stiff.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Hello, Brooklyn. Goodbye, jokes. The Nets are embarking on a new direction, team and location, and shedding a past that was a mixture of success and slapstick. The team seems grittier, and not only because they’ll wear black and hoop in the big city. There’s a swagger that will impress the people of Brooklyn; whether those people continue to buy tickets is a different matter.
Overall, the plan seems sound: place a playoff team in the middle of Knicks country and ignore a ballooning payroll because the owner is worth billions. There was no choice; the Nets had to put a competitive team on the floor, or else risk being tuned out by a borough of four million people.
If nothing else, they’ll incite a basketball rivalry with the Knicks and by season’s end, who knows? Maybe the Nets are the last New York team standing.
Slam Dunk: Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are a sight for each other’s sore eyes. This should be a smooth and instantly productive pairing and the backcourt, with a combined nine All-Star trips, will carry the club most nights.
Swish: Brook Lopez is a career 7.5-rebounds-per-game center; it’s not his strength. But that’s what Kris Humphries is for. And there aren’t many 7-footers with a soft touch like Lopez, who averaged 20.4 points in 2010-11, his last full season. Would it be a major shock if he led the Nets in scoring?
Timeout: The Nets gave up a lottery pick for Gerald Wallace at midseason because Williams began to pout. This was a risky move; that pick could’ve helped the Nets get Dwight Howard in an offseason trade. And Wallace, now in his 14th season, is past his prime; he remains a strong rebounder but shot 41 percent last year, low for a small forward.
Turnover: The lack of defenders, besides Johnson, will ultimately doom the Nets. Depth will be an issue on the front line unless Andray Blatche swallowed a bottle of maturity pills.
5. New York Knicks
Linsanity is gone, and now the Knicks must energize their fan base the old fashion way: by winning. That shouldn’t be a stretch for a team with one of the better starting front lines in basketball -- when healthy. Also, coach Mike Woodson has control of the locker room (translated: Carmelo Anthony approves of him) and so the Knicks should be drama-free for the most part.
However, there’s the sense this team will never achieve what Gotham demands and win a championship for the first time since 1973. The makeup just isn’t there; most of all, the Knicks are missing the necessary intangibles for that to happen. Imagine, winning 50 games might not be good enough to pacify fans who suffered through the Isiah Thomas years.
At the very least, the Knicks must demonstrate that they’re better off without Jeremy Lin, who was allowed to sign with the Rockets after becoming an amazing revelation for two months last spring. And they must be better than Brooklyn, because die-hard Knicks fans can’t stomach sinking to No. 2 in the big city.
Slam Dunk: As the league’s No. 6 scorer last year, Anthony can beat his man so many different ways and angles. He’s very clever and doesn’t suffer from fright if he misses a few shots, and in big moments he demands the ball. Not many are wired like this. And even fewer can score like this. Let’s not discuss defense, though.
Swish: Tyson Chandler was a big free-agent signing last offseason and paid immediate dividends, winning the Defensive Player of the Year award and imploring his teammates to at least try to play D. If his slender body holds up, he should remain a force as a shot-blocker and rebounder.
Timeout: Amar’e Stoudemire will always be a health risk because of his knees, a pair of time bombs that must survive a long season and then the playoffs. He’s already expected to two to four weeks because of a ruptured cyst in his left knee, but if he can stay upright for any length of time when he returns, he’s a tough matchup for big men everywhere.
Turnover: The Knicks didn’t think Lin was worth the luxury-tax hit in the future, which might make sense on a financial level. Still, they now turn the team over to Raymond Felton, who just endured a rocky season in Portland and who may not get respect from Melo.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
For the first time in a decade the Sixers have assembled a consistently competent team that on some nights can be entertaining as well. While never drafting or acquiring a true star, they reached the playoffs four times in five years. Their ceiling is probably the East semis but overall they’re a respectable outfit.
The problem is the Sixers haven’t found a capable replacement for Allen Iverson, which is easier said than done, admittedly. And therefore, the city, while not stooping to throwing small appliances from the stands, aren’t throwing rose petals, easier. The Sixers will remain a tough sell in Philly until they put a recognizable face on the marquee.
They struck out with Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, both of whom wore out their welcome, and now turn to Andrew Bynum, who comes with a pair of championship trophies and suspect knees. He just turned 25 and is perhaps the second-best center in basketball, but a star? Depends if he can stay healthy long enough. He’s already expected to miss the season opener because of his knees.
Slam Dunk: Bynum is a legit low-post beast and a reliable rebounder and shot blocker, especially when motivated to do those things. Because he’s still young, the safe bet is he’ll at least duplicate the 18.7 and 11.8 he gave the Lakers last season, and might still have upside.
Swish: Jrue Holiday and Thaddeas Young might not be stars, but they’re pretty darn good. And they could get better by playing next to Bynum. They just need to be more forceful and smarter. This is the year those two can establish themselves and lift the Sixers in the standings.
Timeout: At what point do we declare Evan Turner a bust? He’s a former No. 2 pick without a true role; he’s not savvy enough to run the point, not a good enough shooter for the big-guard spot and gives up too much size at small forward. Doug Collins might chew him up and spit him out this year.
Turnover: The Sixers lost their best perimeter defender, by far, in Iguodala, a guy who could make LeBron and Wade work for their points. There’s no one who replaces that D, which is why the Sixers won’t go very far without a sound plan to stop the stars.
7. Chicago Bulls
The problem when a team depends so much on one player is that the foundation collapses if he does. Welcome to the Bulls’ world, where the planet revolves around Derrick Rose and whether his horrendous knee injury last spring was merely a slight detour or a dead end.
The Bulls aren’t bad, collectively, without Rose; they went 18-9 when he dealt with various injuries earlier in the season. They just aren’t contenders because they’re built to his specifications, at least offensively. That’s why so much depends on Rose returning healthy and with speed and confidence intact. His teammates just aren’t as good, as a unit, when they can’t play off his amazing, MVP-certified skills.
The big plus for Chicago is the East. Nobody has risen to take the Bulls’ place in the playoff rotation. It might be difficult to wrestle the division title from the Pacers, but big deal, all that does is surrender home court, which is overrated in the postseason anyway.
If Rose is back and even at 85 percent, there’s no reason to believe the Bulls can win a round or two. That’s a best-case scenario, anyway. We’d rather not discuss worst-case scenarios, out of respect for Bulls fans, who’ve been through enough.
Slam Dunk: The Bulls were known for Rose and defense, which means they can always count on the latter. Taking their cue from coach Tom Thibodeau, they take tremendous pride in coming up with the stop and the rebound. They’re rarely outworked or caught by surprise.
Swish: Luol Deng is one of the few Bulls who can create shots without much help from Rose. In his last fully healthy year (2010-11) he averaged 17.6 points and shot 46.6 percent. He’s a smart player at both ends and is fairly reliable in the clutch. He’s not an All-Star; he’s just paid like one.
Timeout: The Bulls elected not to match Houston’s offer to emerging center Omer Asik, who might blossom the same way Marcin Gortat did after he left Orlando for Phoenix. That will only place a burden on Joakim Noah to steer clear of foul trouble.
Turnover: Carlos Boozer has quickly become the whipping boy when things go wrong. That’s not entirely fair; Boozer flirts with double-doubles most nights. He’s just not a primary option, or worth the millions the Bulls paid on the open market to get him.
8. Atlanta Hawks
There aren’t many examples where teams trade their best player and are better off for it. The Hawks are in that category after shipping Joe Johnson and his remaining $88 million to the Nets. Suddenly, the Hawks have salary-cap flexibility for next summer and should still be in playoff contention this season.
Danny Ferry pulled that off in less than a month on the job. After a series of summer trades and draft decisions, the new GM brought in enough pieces to plug some holes, but not at the expense of the cap. So while the Hawks may suffer somewhat from the loss of Johnson on the court, they can take two steps forward in the future, provided that Ferry has a strong follow-up plan.
Lots will depend on Josh Smith and Al Horford, a pair of holdovers who are very effective big men in different ways. Elsewhere, the Hawks are loaded with up-and-comers and cheap veterans who can fill spot roles. In the weak East, this should be enough to play into late April at least.
Slam Dunk: The Hawks will have enough to pay a top-tier free agent this summer, even after giving Smith an extension. Of course, the question is whether anyone would want to play for the Hawks, despite the charms of living in the city (weather, inexpensive, nightlife). This will be quite a sales job for Ferry. Does Chris Paul leave L.A., for instance?
Swish: Smith is playing for money and therefore should have every motivation to finally crack the All-Star team. He’s come close the last few years. But poor shot selection and a questionable basketball IQ have held him back. Maybe he’s wiser and also happier with Johnson gone.
Timeout: Lou Williams came relatively cheap at $5 million per and was the leading scorer for the Sixers last season. He doesn’t have a true guard position, though, and could be a challenge for coach Larry Drew, in terms of finding the right fit and system for him.
Turnover: The Hawks have the biggest home-court disadvantage in the NBA. When the big-boy teams come to town, the crowd openly roots for them. True story: All of Kobe Bryant’s jerseys sold out in five minutes in the arena prior to a game against the Lakers.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
The trials and tribulations of a small-market team can be found most vividly in Milwaukee, where the Bucks can only dream of what it must be like in New York and L.A. The budget-conscious Bucks won’t come within a mile of the luxury tax, can’t get any A-list free agents and are rumored to be for sale. That about covers it.
From a basketball standpoint, they’re constantly reinventing themselves, which happens when contracts are an issue. A few years ago the Bucks belonged to Andrew Bogut, and when injuries began to get the best of him, the focus shifted to smaller players -- Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, in particular.
Strange thing is, both may be gone next summer through free agency, and then the Bucks will do this dance again with a different nucleus. Actually, there could be sweeping changes on the horizon, with coach Scott Skiles and GM John Hammond both without long-term guarantees.
Until then, the Bucks will be fueled by their compact-but-energetic backcourt while hoping a potential star emerges from a collection of front-line players, none of whom have the presence of Bogut. Because the East is weak in the middle of the pack, the Bucks could slip into the playoffs if all goes well. If not, they’ll be back in the draft lottery, where they could use a franchise player in the worst way.
Slam Dunk: Ersan Ilyasova had somewhat of a breakout season, which earned him a $40 million extension. That appears to be a safe investment for the Bucks, who can’t afford to make a big-money mistake. Ilyasova is 6-10 with a gentle touch who also knows his way around the paint (8.8 rebounds).
Swish: Drew Gooden was a pleasant surprise for the Bucks, playing out of position at center but somehow averaging 14 points and seven rebounds and playing above-average defense against bigger players.
Timeout: Ellis and Jennings are slippery quick, and love to attack the rim and swipe passes. They’ll be fun to watch, but since both are playing for money and need the ball to be effective, will they work as well together as they did the second half of last season?
Turnover: The Bucks still don’t know what they have in big men Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders, a pair of first-round picks who’ve given mild results. Is rookie John Henson more of the same?
10. Detroit Pistons
A bad decision can set a franchise back a year. Two bad decisions can double the trouble. Welcome to the world of the Pistons, who are only now escaping the nightmare of handing the franchise over to Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.
Signing the duo to pricey contracts three years ago, along with drafting Darko Milicic, easily rank as the worst moves of Joe Dumars’ career. He sent Gordon to Charlotte this summer (and had to toss in a first-rounder), then found enough big men to take Charlie V.’s minutes. Suddenly, the Pistons appear on the upswing, but still far removed from a decade ago when they challenged for conference titles every season.
Greg Monroe continues to grow; now entering his third season, he’s the foundation of a new era. If Dumars struck gold again in the draft with 7-footer Andre Drummond, the Pistons will have a pair of capable big men in a league short on quality size. Maybe the fans will even forget Dumars drafted Darko. Well, OK, maybe not.
They still need shooters and a reliable point guard. It won’t happen overnight, however, and if nothing else the Pistons do have time. Next summer will bring another high draft pick and, wouldn’t you know, money to spend on free agents. Figure Detroit won’t make the same mistake twice.
Slam Dunk: Monroe is a sturdy 6-11 with decent movement around the basket and speed to run the floor. He averaged almost a double-double last season and his development was a sight to behold for the few thousand Pistons fans who bothered to show up at the Palace.
Swish: Rodney Stuckey is why the Pistons won’t miss Gordon. He’s a rhythm scorer who feels comfortable in a go-to role, even though he may never average 20 a game. Last season he shot 42.8 percent, averaged 14.8 points.
Timeout: Is Brandon Knight the point guard of the future, or just a career backup keeping the spot warm for his successor? Knight was drafted ahead of guards Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson, who both had superior rookie years. Who’d you rather have?
Turnover: The Pistons are alarmingly thin on the bench and for a team that once featured Vinnie Johnson, there’s no “microwave” ready to check in and heat up in a hurry.
11. Toronto Raptors
You knew the Raptors would suffer somewhat when Chris Bosh left, and they have, which is reasonable. Now the issue is whether they’ve been spinning their wheels during this time, or stockpiling some very attractive assets to help a turnaround in the near future. And the more you look at this team, the more you just aren’t sold.
They’ve given lots of minutes to a handful of young players who either delivered mild returns, or little at all. As a result, the Raptors have gone 45-103 since Bosh left, which doesn’t translate into progress.
So they’re hoping to see more from Ed Davis, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson while expecting big things from Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth pick last season who was stashed overseas. And of course, if Andrea Bargnani becomes more than just a consistent spot-up shooter, great, but after six years he’s probably already reached his ceiling.
Slam Dunk: Former Rockets guard Kyle Lowry should help immediately, more for his defense and toughness than his playmaking, although he isn’t bad at that. Lowry will ease the Raptors’ transition from Jose Calderon.
Swish: DeRozan might make the NBA’s All-Tease Team. There are nights when he’s simply electric, a good player with high entertainment value. And then there are other nights when he disappears. His scoring, shooting percentage and rebounding all fell last season, but he’s playing for money so expect his best.
Timeout: Landry Fields received the most surprising contract in the league last summer, getting almost $20 million when few, if any, other teams would surrender that much. He’s a good role player, not a star.
Turnover: The Raptors were third from the bottom in scoring, partly because Bargnani was hurt, but also blame a depth chart that still lacks a lights-out, change-of-pace player.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers
Some teams, when they lose a star, embark on what seems like an eternal search for the next one. That’s not the case in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers are already trying to build around a centerpiece, and this time, aim to do it better than they did with LeBron James.
Kyrie Irving is that good, already. He’s knocking on the All-Star door. His game is a mix of old-school fundamentals and new-jack flash, and he gives Cleveland hope. What more could any team want after being decimated by “The Decision”?
The trick is finding the right pieces in the right amount of time. The Cavs find themselves both cap-friendly and also destined to spend at least one more year in the lottery. That should allow them to stockpile a few more assets and begin to see the light. The days of 10- and 15-game losing streaks appear to be over.
The goal this season is to give generous minutes to the half-dozen young players on the roster, let them make their mistakes now, and keep Irving as comfortable and happy as possible. And of course, nail that next lottery pick.
Slam Dunk: Irving is already a commanding presence on the floor, someone who forces defenses to make adjustments, and also someone who will at least give an effort defensively. Or else Byron Scott will yank him, as he did last season.
Swish: Anderson Varejao is a bundle of energy who’s tough to contain around the glass; it’s just that everyone forgot because he’s dealt with injuries almost nonstop. If he stays healthy, the Cavs can expect better balance on both ends.
Timeout: Tristan Thompson (eight points, six rebounds), unlike Irving, had an uneven rookie year, which is quite common for young big men who have no clue what the league is like. The Cavs just need to keep shoveling minutes his way, and he needs to keep earning them.
Turnover: Defense remains a chore for the Cavs and could cost them a handful of wins. For any team with young players, getting them to D-up nightly is always difficult. The NBA travels at a faster speed than they anticipated.
13. Washington Wizards
They were the most entertaining team in the NBA some nights, and that’s not a compliment. The Wizards led the league in silliness, in large part due to a collection of misfits that refused to conduct themselves professionally. You knew a housecleaning was coming, and the Wizards didn’t waste any time, starting at the trade deadline and continuing into summer.
A bigger issue now is their best player. John Wall, the former No. 1 overall pick, hasn’t shown a complete game yet. His shooting is the weakest part; teams are now giving him 20-footers. He actually shot 7.1 percent from three-point range! And his playmaking, while decent, isn’t where the Wizards want it to be. If Wall takes off, the Wizards might follow.
They really could use some growth among their many young players, especially Jan Vesely, their former first-rounder who seemed caught in a fog last season. Remember, the Wizards are still in reconstruction mode, so it really doesn’t matter what Nene gives them, at least in the long run. Until their group of young players begins to make strides, the Wizards will remain pressed against the playoff window, wondering when they’ll get in.
Slam Dunk: The Wizards surrendered an athletic 7-footer for Nene, and for right now anyway, he can do more for them than JaVale McGee. Nene’s a reliable center and veteran who’s also low maintenance, at least compared to McGee.
Swish: The Wizards are high on rookie Bradley Beal, who had a strong summer and could be the perfect backcourt compliment to Wall -- which means, Beal can shoot with range. If his transition is seamless, Beal could contend for Rookie of the Year.
Timeout: Jordan Crawford shoots. A lot. Sometimes that’s good, like late in games, when the defense must respect him. Other times, that’s bad. Like, when he’s not making them. Wall shot better (42 percent) than Crawford (40 percent).
Turnover: The Wizards gave up precious cap space for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. While those two will immediately contribute, they’re past their prime and could prevent Washington for bidding for a free agent in the next two summers.
14. Orlando Magic
It’s never pretty when a franchise player is traded, because very rarely does the team get anywhere near equal value in return. Essentially, the team is forced to begin a painful rebuilding process, and that about describes the Magic here in the post-Dwight Howard period.
There’s new management, a new coach and a new philosophy. Gone is the pretense of trying to win big now; welcome to the stark and cold reality of looking down the road for salvation. Put it this way: The next star for Orlando isn’t on the roster.
The Magic’s best bet is to stockpile assets for trades or their own use while doing a thorough job of scouting the college ranks for next summer’s draft. In the meantime, they’d better hope fans in Orlando are forgiving and patient, because this might take a while.
Slam Dunk: Arron Afflalo comes from Denver with a fairly high degree of respect, and also a steep contract for someone who’d be a third option on a contender. He averaged 15 points with the Nuggets and could increase that on a team with few big scorers.
Swish: “Big Baby” Davis outplayed Roy Hibbert in the Magic’s playoff loss last spring, and it wouldn’t be a stretch if he put up comparable numbers this season. Like, maybe 15 points and eight rebounds. He’ll get the playing time and the touches.
Timeout: Orlando played good defense under Stan Van Gundy, but you wonder if the Magic have the ingredients to do the same for Jacque Vaughn. That’s always the toughest part of being a rookie coach, instilling a defensive mindset.
Turnover: Hedo Turkoglu knows his future in Orlando will last as long as his contract. If the Magic can get anything for him at the trade deadline, it would rank as the season’s biggest highlight.
15. Charlotte Bobcats
The good news for Charlotte is it can’t get any worse. In fact, that should be the team’s 2012-13 slogan. It’s the only way to put a positive spin on a franchise that sunk to disbelieving depths last season. Really, seven wins in 66 games. They probably would’ve lost to Kentucky.
Before they become an even bigger embarrassment to owner Michael Jordan, the Bobcats need to find a way to keep the fans entertained and to give the impression that hope is around the corner. Of course, for the Bobcats, that corner lies in a dark and dangerous alley.
This is a three-year project, at least. They don’t have any crippling contracts, besides Ben Gordon’s, and they’ll be in the lottery again, so that’s all helpful. But they need Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to become a star and then add another in next summer’s draft to convince any free agent to at least look in their direction.
The first step is to win eight games. Preferably by January. Then throw a party.
Slam Dunk: Kemba Walker had the kind of violent performance swings you’ve come to expect from players in their rookie years who must deal with constant losing. But his leadership and grit is for real, even if his outside shooting isn’t.
Swish: Leading scorer Gerald Henderson is a nice complimentary player and don’t be surprised if he’s still on the Bobcats when they get good. He shows up every night and gives a solid effort, even when the shots don’t fall.
Timeout: Bismack Biyombo is blessed with athletic gifts but the gods forgot to teach him basketball skills. He had spurts where he blocked some shots last year as a raw rookie. His offense remains under construction.
Turnover: The Bobcats were the worst offensive team in basketball last season and that status probably won’t change, even with Gordon and Kidd-Gilchrist.
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