Picking the divisional winners in the Eastern Conference has never been easier. Barring a plague of injuries, locker-room mutinies or spectacular pratfalls that will prompt heads to roll, Boston, Cleveland and Orlando will finish on top. All three are worthy choices to be in the NBA Finals.
Checking my picks, I'm partial to defensive-oriented big men, bucking the pundits' consensus about the Magic (who generally aren't seen as a good bet to return to the Finals) and Bobcats (who aren't viewed by most as a playoff team). And teams keeping their powder dry for 2010, like the Knicks and the Heat, should be much worse.
First Take: If they stay healthy, they'll be tough to beat. But know that "healthy" still won't be the Big Three of two years ago; more like Kevin Garnett coming off knee surgery after 39,000 minutes of court burn with enough quickness to remain the tone-setter on defense. Age will likewise dock Paul Pierce and Ray Allen a quarter notch apiece, but when the secondary cast includes the ever-improving Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins and another grizzled stud in Rasheed Wallace, there's quality control on the roster. Who among Boston, Orlando and Cleveland rates a third seed? None of them.
Concerns: Age and recuperations, of course. ... No depth at point guard -- opponents should press full court whenever Rondo takes a breather. ... Rondo's clanging jumper.
Overrated:Marquis Daniels as a Swiss Army knife.
Underrated:Eddie House in the clutch. ... Pierce's ability to draw fouls.
X-Factors: The twin amps of KG and 'Sheed -- too much emotion? ... The Rondo aftermath: He's two whiskers away from averaging a triple-double in the playoffs at 23 and has to put up with criticism and trade talk in the offseason? Either the front office mismanaged the situation or there's more to the story than what's been told.
First Take: They've got the makings of a slick, potent, multifaceted offense, but the defense, especially in the frontcourt, looks to be horrible. Good thing the Canadian dollar is suddenly strong: $20 million over four years for mediocre backup point guard Jarrett Jack, and $50 million over five years for the graceful shooting and wretched defense of 7-footer Andrea Bargnani? Hedo Turkoglu and Jose Calderon will get the ball where it needs to go, which is most often to Chris Bosh, an established star in a contract year at 25.
Concerns: Toughness in the paint. ... Is there enough room for both Turkoglu and Calderon to initiate the offense? ... How much success will it take to keep Bosh?
Overrated: Thus far, general manager Bryan Colangelo's United Nations approach to team-building.
Underrated:DeMar DeRozan, a great fit for Toronto's personnel and a legit contender for Rookie of the Year (especially with Blake Griffin's early-season absence).
X-Factors: Just how big can that bouquet grow in Turkoglu's late-blooming career? ... Backup forward Amir Johnson could go boom or bust.
First Take: If you're going to play without a decent point guard, coach Eddie Jordan was the right guy to hire. Jordan's Princeton offense is a movement scheme that favors wings, and the Sixers have a prolific pair in Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young. Power forward Elton Brand is coming off back-to-back injury-plagued seasons.The other half of the frontcourt tandem is center Samuel Dalembert, a solid defender overpaid at $25 million over the next two years, who complains about a lack of touches at the other end. Jordan would do well to cohere these pieces into a .500 record.
Concerns: How much vintage Brand is left after playing just 37 games in two years? ... Iguodala is turnover-prone but will handle the ball a lot because starting point guard Lou Williams is more of a combo and rookie Jrue Holliday isn't ready.
Overrated: Williams as an even serviceable answer at the point.
Underrated: Second-year player Marreese Speights is a 6-foot-10 beast who probably deserves to start. ... Jason Kapono as a sharpshooter off the bench.
X-Factors: The continued improvement of Young and Speights. ... How quickly can the players adapt to Jordan's system?
First Take: With Brook Lopez at center and Devin Harris at the point, they've got plus talent at the most important positions. Lopez will begin his string of 20-point, 10-rebound seasons this year. Harris got to the free-throw line more than any other point guard while finishing behind only Chris Paul and Tony Parker in scoring last season. But it's all downhill from there, with soon-to-be discouraged glue-guy Courtney Lee and rookie swingman Terrence Williams the only other potential bright spots.
Concerns: That Yi Jianlian, a 7-footer who shot 38.2 percent from the field, last season is a bust. ... That they won't finish ahead of the Knicks in the crab scrabble to crawl out of the Atlantic Division basement.
Overrated: Probably Lee, if only because nobody rates most of the players on this team very highly in the first place. He was a nice complement to a talented Orlando lineup who may struggle with a larger role.
Underrated: Center Josh Boone knows his limitations and maximizes his modest talent. Yes, damned with faint praise.
X-Factors: Forward Sean Williams is a big tease who has regressed on the promise of his rookie year but could still surprise. ... More broadly, the Nets have nothing to lose, and should act like it. Crazy lineups, a big trade -- roll the dice.
First Take: God bless long-suffering Knicks fans, whose sojourn in the hoops wilderness has compelled them to think the likes of forward David Lee and swingman Wilson Chandler are pillars instead of glue. Lee's league-high 65 double-doubles in 2008-09 were a tribute to his work ethic, but that dedication is also why he's already close to his ceiling and still a long ways from stardom. Chandler is a solid defender, but 43.2 percent from the field for a guy who can slash to the hoop is problematic. Forward Al Harrington will always look better on paper, Chris Duhon is the point guard by default and the rest of the guys are underachievers and/or the funny/sad answers to future trivia questions.
Concerns: There's only one fixation: Top free agents won't come to New York in 2010 after all.
Overrated:Nate Robinson, less of a combo guard than a 'tweener (or a "neither") who gets boosted because he's so much fun to watch.
Underrated: Coach Mike D'Antoni. Thirty-two wins for last year's Knicks was more impressive than many of his 50-plus-win teams in Phoenix.
X-Factors: An injury-free Danilo Gallinari.
First Take: The ring-or-bust pressure on this roster is enormous, and perhaps debilitating. LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal are among the top 25 players of all time, but Shaq is 37, with a lot of minutes and pounds under his belt and outsized pride that can both help and hurt this team. At crunch time, neither superstar is reliable at the free-throw line. But getting large wings like Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon will really help the defense. Expect now-backup center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 34, to flourish with more limited minutes. Who among Cleveland, Boston and Orlando rates a mere second seed? None of them.
Concerns: Pick-and-roll defense. ... The past-due warranty on Shaq's amazing career finally expires. ... Shaq clogs the paint where LeBron likes to roam. ... Mo Williams' disappearance in the conference finals affects his psyche. ... And, the big one: LeBron leaves town at the end of year.
Overrated: The Cavs' reputation for stifling defense. It's true that coach Mike Brown, a Gregg Popovich disciple, emphasizes that end of the court, but as Orlando proved in last year's playoffs, large wings and rapid ball movement give this team fits.
Underrated: The acquisition of Parker.
X-Factor:Delonte West. Last year's gritty playoff performer is dealing with off-the-court issues. But don't count him out.
First Take: Love the depth, developed with the highway robbery that brought John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento. Salmons alone nearly compensates for the free-agent loss of Ben Gordon to Detroit. Reigning Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose is the real deal at the point, and the emergence of Joakim Noah and the addition of Miller provide a simpatico pair of pivots to answer most every contingency at the position. Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich join Salmons to give the Bulls a trio of very good catch-and-shoot scorers who get fed by Rose after being sprung by picks from Noah or Miller. With their confidence and postseason experience bolstered by last year's stirring series against Boston, they could avoid meeting one of the East's Big Three in this year's first round if the defense stiffens and forward Ty Thomas grows up.
Concerns: Not enough offense in the low post. ... Not enough defensive intensity.
Overrated: Backup point guard Jannero Pargo: His career numbers are 39.5 percent from the field and 2.1 assists per game.
Underrated: Salmons is a big-time scorer with a small ego. ... Rookie forward Taj Gibson could work himself into the deep rotation. ... Miller is a savvy mucker and Noah isn't pretty but has improved his game at both ends.
X-Factors: Dengcan stick the jumper, but regaining his previous mobility off the dribble and on defense would be a huge plus. ... How big is Rose's next step forward?
First Take: Welcome to the Score Boys, featuring firepower galore and about 15-20 fewer wins than the vintage Bad Boys of yore. Artillery from the perimeter is in abundance, via guards Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey, and forwards Charlie Villanueva and Tayshaun Prince. But only Prince is a shutdown defender, while free-agent signees Gordon and Villanueva are below average. Detroit is playing long odds that Kwame Brown has figured it out at center, and have the matador D of Chris Wilcox and the long-past-his-prime Ben Wallace to fill in if Brown duplicates his previous eight years in the league. This could get ugly.
Concerns: Veteran winners Hamilton and Prince rebel against a second subpar season in a row. ... Mismatched parts compel new coach John Kuester to go with less talent -- Ben Wallace, point guard Will Bynum -- out of need for a better blend.
Overrated: The faith that this small-ball approach can succeed against quality opponents.
Underrated: A couple of rookies -- athletic 6-11 swingman Austin Daye and rugged 6-10 defender Jonas Jerebko -- could see more time if the Pistons' season goes south early.
X-Factors: The ingenuity of the holdover veterans together with Kuester (who broadened Cleveland's offensive sets beyond LeBron last season) does indeed create a scoring juggernaut. Or, the combination of too many shooters and not enough touches capsizes morale.
First Take: Another run-and-gun outfit with questionable synergy. Their outside shooters are plentiful and accurate, be it power forward Troy Murphy (45 percent from behind the arc last season), All-Star small forward Danny Granger (40.4 percent) or shooting guards Brandon Rush (37.3 percent) and Mike Dunleavy (injured for most of last year but 39.4 percent for his career). The Pacers also have two staunch defenders in center Jeff Foster and swingman Dahntay Jones, a point guard in T.J. Ford who runs better than he dishes or defends, and a high-paced but jump-shooting system that doesn't help their most beguiling youngster, second-year center Roy Hibbert. Add it all up, and it's still difficult to figure out how it goes together.
Concerns: That the lanky Dunleavy, arguably the team's best passer, won't be back from his knee injury anytime soon. ... The helter-skelter pace will retard the 7-2 Hibbert's development even as Foster's niche skills continue to decline with age. ... The short leash coach Jim O'Brien has on Ford's minutes will erode the point guard's confidence.
Overrated: The unorthodox Murphy can rebound at both ends and nail the three-pointer, but his gaudy stats -- he's a fantasy-ball monster -- have never gotten him to the playoffs in eight years.
Underrated: Every year, Foster's relentless grinding in the paint garners him more minutes than anticipated.
X-Factors: Will Hibbert develop into a force in the middle? ... First-round pick Tyler Hansborough shoots from the hip and scores, bangs around the pros as successfully as he did in college.
First Take: The Bucks cleaned house after high-priced stars Michael Redd and AndrewBogut were injured last season, trading Richard Jefferson to San Antonio and letting Ramon Sessions and Charlie Villanueva walk as free agents. But then they stocked the cupboard with role players -- Hakeem Warrick, Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova -- to go with Redd, Bogut and last year's second-round steal, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. And Brandon Jennings, a 20-year-old point guard, was their top draft pick. In other words, they're not rebuilding and not contending. It's the dreaded fruitless meander.
Concerns: That last year's top pick, forward Joe Alexander, will never pan out. ... Bogut's back ailments become chronic.
Overrated: Redd is a fine shooter but doesn't merit being one of the league's highest-salaried players ($17 million this season). ... Point guard Luke Ridnour (6.5 million) and center Dan Gadzuric ($6.7 million) are likewise overvalued.
Underrated: Soon to be overrated because so many are saying he's underrated, Mbah a Moute works hard, plays smart and pays attention.
X-Factors: The learning curve of Jennings, small and young but talented enough to already be walking some of his big talking during the offseason. ... Coach Scott Skiles, a feisty motivator of disciplined defense who's capable of overachieving with lackluster personnel.
First Take: The lack of support for their repeat trip to the NBA Finals is baffling. A low-block superstar in his prime is the most precious commodity in the NBA, and Dwight Howard inevitably will take another step in that direction this year. Revered, departed playmaker Hedo Turkoglu averaged 0.2 assists more than newcomer Vince Carter last year (and Turkoglu was passing to Magic, Carter to Nets), while Carter enjoyed equally razor-thin advantages in steals, blocks, rebounds, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage, and outscored Turkoglu 20.8 to 16.8. A healthy Jameer Nelson compensates for Turkoglu's advantage over Carter in crunch-time ball-handling, and Howard's prowess at the rim negates Turkoglu's minuscule edge in on-ball defense. At worst, it's a wash for Orlando. Forwards Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes are solid rotation upgrades, and free-agent signee Jason Williams won a ring as a starting point guard in Miami. Orlando doesn't have a player 33 or older among its top nine; Cleveland (Shaq, Ilgauskas, Parker) and Boston (Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Allen) have three apiece. All things being equal -- and they pretty much are -- the younger, deeper team gets a slight edge.
Concerns: Nelson can't duplicate last season's career-best first half. ... Brilliant but brutally honest maverick coach Stan Van Gundy punches the wrong buttons. ... Howard's free throws. ... Feast-or-famine three-point offense turns mostly famine.
Overrated: Backup center Marcin Gortat isn't quite as good as his charmed last six months would indicate.
Underrated: The breadth of Carter's game. ... The effect of another year of maturity for Howard.
X-Factors: How minutes at forward are divided among Rashard Lewis, Bass, Barnes, athletic defender Mickeal Pietrus and three-point shooter Ryan Anderson. ... Howard's ability to avoid foul trouble.
First Take: There is a gaping chasm between the East's top three teams and the rest of the pack, but the Hawks' continuity and athleticism have gradually created a systematic rapport that's increasingly valuable in this era of frenzied roster churn. Defensively, center Al Horford and forwards Josh Smith and Marvin Williams compose an interchangeable front line, quick enough for both crisp interior rotations and to get out in transition. Once in the half court, their sets are traditional: Guards Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby launch from outside, and the front line penetrates or pulls up from mid-range (although Williams developed three-point capability last season). Nothing fancy, but good for fourth in the East.
Concerns: Johnson's potential free-agent departure next summer. ... No big, quality center (Horford is more of a power forward) and lack of a significant personnel upgrade elsewhere foreclose continued improvement.
Overrated: The effectiveness of Smith, an immature decision-maker, although zero three-point field-goal attempts in the preseason is cause for hope (he's 27 percent on a whopping 471 long-range attempts his first five seasons). ... Bibby, whose indifferent defense has only deteriorated with age.
Underrated: The slight but steady honing Williams has done to upgrade his game. ... Horford's diligence and lack of complaint toiling as an undersized center. ... Coach Mike Woodson gets no respect but has stayed an upward course for this once-belittled franchise.
X-Factors: Volume-shooting combo guard Jamal Crawford could enhance the offense or disrupt its balance and continuity. ... Johnson's looming free agency and Smith's antics will quickly become less tolerable if the Hawks stumble early or their typical improvement of recent years starts to plateau.
First Take:Flip Saunders is the ideal coach to orchestrate a roster with a surfeit of scorers and mostly uncooperative defenders. His fat playbook can spread the touches after Gilbert Arenas has staked his initial primacy. Caron Butler is a splendid second option, Mike Miller's weird disinclination to shoot is a positive in this context, and a healthy Brendan Haywood should bolster the low-post defense in a contract year.
Concerns: With the Wizards, it's always injuries -- power forward Antawn Jamison is already lost for the first month with a dislocated shoulder. ... Will ever-promising big men Andray Blatche and/or JaVale McGee make significant progress? ... Can Randy Foye effectively spell Arenas at the point? ... Was going over the luxury tax to bolster last year's 19-win team a prudent decision?
Overrated: You can't blame a player for being injured, but Arenas has played 15 games in two years, he'll be 28 in January and he's owed $95 million over the next five years. Time to step up.
Underrated: Butler is strong as an ox and enhances rather than merely fills multiple roles as a swingman. ... Even with injuries, the 33-year-old Jamison shows no signs (thus far) of falling off his 20-point, eight-rebound level.
X-Factors: Youngsters McGee and shooting guard Nick Young could thrive in Saunders' half-court sets. ... Is the logjam at shooting guard -- Miller, DeShawn Stevenson, Young, Foye and even Mike James -- destined to cause friction? ... Do they have enough character to embrace team defense?
First Take: By trading for Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and Tyson Chandler in the past year, coach Larry Brown is trying to concoct his classic template of a quick, aggressive defensive team that brandishes discipline and feasts on turnovers. Charlotte was last in the NBA in scoring even before Brown opted for Chandler over the more offensively prolific Emeka Okafor. Without a winning season for two franchises since leaving the Pistons four years ago, the 69-year-old Brown may see the Charlotte gig as his chance at a last hurrah, and would like nothing better than to cap his career by bringing the NBA playoffs back to the Tar Heel State. Despite injuries, he has a legitimate shot this year in a flawed, not terribly deep conference.
Concerns: Bell, perhaps Brown's most kindred spirit on the roster, is mulling over whether to have surgery on his wrist or play through a torn ligament. Then there is Chandler's ankle and toe woes, which were severe enough to scare away a Thunder franchise that was otherwise a perfect match for his skill set (Oklahoma City rescinded a trade for him last season). Throw in the fact that Bobcats MVP Gerald Wallace plays a superaggressive style, and the specter of injuries looms large in Charlotte.
Overrated:D.J Augustin is a scoring point guard on a team that desperately needs points, but his ability to defend and distribute is less apparent, and will test the demanding Brown.
Underrated: The synergy of the front-line starters. Chandler enables the jackrabbit Wallace and the crafty Diaw to gamble, and Diaw's dishing and Wallace's kamikaze drives will generate easy buckets for the big man.
X-Factors: Health, especially Chandler's. He's the key to the season. ... Rookie Gerald Henderson, who will likely crack the rotation while Bell mends. ... Can Brown be steady and patient?
First Take: The NBA's most blatant one-man team needs almost heroic improvement from callow forward Michael Beasley, worn-down center Jermaine O'Neal or second-year point guard Mario Chalmers to forestall further erosion on the body and spirit of Dwyane Wade before the Heat go superstar shopping for free agents next year. Like the Knicks, Miami's front office would prefer to play possum this season and then let the bidding begin in earnest. If that attitude trickles down to the players, a slow start could close up shop, resulting in a season of seasoning for Beasley, Chalmers, guard Daequan Cook, center Joel Anthony and other youngsters. The alternative is grinding down Wade's sinew and psyche for five months on behalf of another first-round exit.
Concerns: That Beasley lacks the temperament to fully tap his talent. ... An injury to Wade, or a siren call in his direction from another franchise as he approaches free agency.
Overrated:Quentin Richardson is a career bricklayer (39.8 percent from the field, 71.2 percent from the foul line) who has allowed his weight to balloon in the past and is average at best on defense. ... Jermaine O'Neal's lift and defensive coverage have lessened -- all for the low, low price of $23 million this season.
Underrated: Has anyone in the past decade put up a better non-MVP year than Wade's 2008-09 season?
X-Factors: Wade's mind-set. ... Chalmers' minutes after the recent signing of Carlos Arroyo....The tread left on grinder Udonis Haslem.