I share the conventional wisdom that the Hawks overpaid (in years even more than dollars) to re-sign Joe Johnson, limiting future flexibility on a team that seems to have peaked without fully engaging an indifferent fan base. That supposed ceiling should be insulting to an athletic front line -- Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams -- whose average age is less than 25. With new coach Larry Drew moving away from isolations for Johnson on offense, they'll have ample opportunity to rebut the skepticism.
I expect the Bulls to move up this list as Carlos Boozer returns from a broken hand in another month or so. There is a lot to like: Boozer and center Joakim Noah have complementary skill sets; point guard Derrick Rose may be on the cusp of stardom; Luol Deng is a third offensive option who can put the dagger in at crunch time; and Tom Thibodeau, with his extensive experience as an assistant and reputation as a defensive guru, is no ordinary rookie coach. But they have plenty to prove -- and improve -- to join the Eastern elite.
Given the mandate for Yao Ming to play no more than 24 minutes per game, perpetually underrated coach Rick Adelman has the unenviable task of developing one style that complements Yao's singular presence and another one that compensates for his absence. Houston has the depth to make a go of it, but the enforced discontinuity makes it difficult to sustain advantageous matchups and maximize the sort of killer momentum that spells the difference in at least a handful of games each year. Is Yao worth this discombobulation? Will his fragile feet ultimately make his playing time a moot point?
New coach Monty Williams has been thinking outside the box in the preseason, giving a good look to 7-footer Jason Smith as an improvement over Aaron Gray in beefing up the smallish frontcourt of Emeka Okafor and David West, and favoring Marco Belinelli as the off-guard starter ahead of a struggling Marcus Thornton. All this is secondary to the question of whether the tenuous relationship between Chris Paul and the Hornets can be re-solidified, but the ability of Paul's teammates to embrace roles is part of the equation. One bad sign: Trevor Ariza, an ineffective gunner with Houston last year, has attempted more shots than Paul in the preseason.
Robin Lopez, who has played just 1,600 regular-season minutes in his two seasons, is the Suns' only player of any merit who is most comfortable in the paint at both ends of the court. Phoenix will shoot a ton of three-pointers -- it added Hedo Turkoglu to six returning players who shot better than 39 percent from distance last season -- and get murdered on the boards. That's a boom-or-bust recipe further skewed by the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire. Coach Alvin Gentry did an outstanding job creating a gritty second unit and guiding Phoenix to the conference finals in 2009-10. Just a trip to the playoffs this season would be nearly as noteworthy.
Apportioning minutes based on performance more than reputation or salary is common sense but not necessarily common practice among coaches. Scott Skiles is an exception, which is why we might see new end-of-the-bench guys like Jon Brockman or pint-size point guard Earl Boykins step in and shine at some point this season. If the coach can motivate scorer Corey Maggette (out all preseason recovering from ankle surgery) and vagabond power forward Drew Gooden this way, and if center Andrew Bogut can come back from his gruesome fall last April, the Bucks could challenge Chicago for the top spot in the Central Division.
Can new coach Vinny Del Negro get point guard Baron Davis to play in a manner that maximizes the young but considerable talent around him? The answer will determine whether the Clippers are in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. A starting five of Davis, All-Star center Chris Kaman, FIBA World Championship sharpshooter Eric Gordon, 2009 No. 1 pick Blake Griffin and glue guy Ryan Gomes isn't too shabby, but easily dissoluble if Davis doesn't sacrifice his ego.
Center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph exceeded expectations and young swingmen Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo made progress, but the Grizzlies still couldn't crack .500 last season. The culprits were a woeful lack of depth and inadequate play from point guard Mike Conley, who is running out of time to justify being the fourth pick in the 2007 draft. Signing former Celtic Tony Allen helps address concerns about depth and perimeter defense, but unless Gay improves enough to justify his five-year, $80 million deal and players from the past two drafts -- especially center Hasheem Thabeet and swingmen Sam Young and Xavier Henry -- strengthen the bench, Memphis will have trouble making the playoffs.
Enough Elton Brand bashing for a minute. Yes, he's grossly overpaid and will never again reach his Clippers-era prime, but he's Bill Russell compared to his main backup, Marreese Speights, who never passes and is an atrocious defender. Last year's biggest problem, the bad-fit hire of coach Eddie Jordan, is gone, and Doug Collins has some intriguing pieces in point guard Jrue Holiday (who improved his field-goal percentage every month last season) and dynamic wings Andre Iguodala and rookie Evan Turner. Collins won't repeat Jordan's inattention to defense, but with the loss of rim protector Sam Dalembert, that end of the court will remain problematic.
The skill overlap between the two marquee small forwards, top player Danny Granger and top pick Paul George, shouldn't be a big concern; after all, the starting shooting guard next to Granger has been Mike Dunleavy, who is bigger and taller than the rookie from Fresno State. George eventually could start alongside Granger with the potential to score and defend better than Dunleavy. Meanwhile, one worrisome note: New starting point guard Darren Collison has nearly as many turnovers as assists in the preseason.
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