The Knights of the FanHouse Roundtable have assembled to consider the NBA in '08-09. In this final dispatch, we discuss the best of the Eastern Conference. Be sure to also check out the hub of our NBA Preview activity . And check in at 8 PM EST for a live blog of the season opener, Cleveland at Boston.
In partnership with NBC Sports Philadelphia
Brett Edwards: Barring a major Boston injury, the only team that I think could dethrone them is Detroit. That being said, every year in the playoffs LeBron James is becoming more and more unstoppable. It's at the point now where I could see him singlehandedly dragging Cleveland to the Finals. Even over a stacked team like the Celtics.
Ziller: I tend to agree with the assessment of Cleveland: LeBron is near the point of being able to do it himself. Mo Williams isn't the best shooter in the world, but I trust him and Daniel Gibson and Delonte West more than the Larry Hughes, Eric Snow and Damon Jones of 2006-07.
Matt Moore: I think we need to see this Sixers incarnation before we rule them out. While I would still put Detroit at the top of the Dethroners list, I think with the talent they have, we need to at least get a look at them. This was a dangerous team to begin with and they just added Elton Brand.
I'm not feeling Cleveland this year. I know Mo Williams is an upgrade, but how much of one? Is he really the wing weapon LBJ's been looking for? How many minutes is Ben Wallace going to suck into oblivion? How much further is Zydrunas Ilgauskas going to regress? I just feel like Danny Ferry keeps shuffling the same pieces in and out and never really makes anything new.
Ziller: ermaine O'Neal
What about the Magic? I mean, I even forgot them in my opening salvo. Among the contenders, only Boston and Orlando got worse when it comes to personnel (the C's losing James Posey, the Magic replacing Keyon Dooling and Mo Evans with, ahem, Anthony Johnson). Is improvement from Dwight Howard and perhaps the enlightenment of Marcin Gortat enough for Orlando to stay afloat and compete for a top-4 seed?
Nate Jones: I really think Orlando can do some damage. People forget that Dwight Howard is still a developing player. The more he improves, the more difficult it is going to be to stop him. Plus Hedo is in a contract year, so I look for him to have as good of a year as he had last season. And I know Stan Van Gundy knows how to get the most out of teams.
And I also agree with LeBron being unstoppable in the playoffs. I honestly was more impressed by what he did to the Celtics in game 7 last season than what he did to the Pistons in game of the 2007 Conference Finals. He certainly has the ability to drag the Cavs to the Finals all by his lonesome.
(Magic replaced Mo Evans with Mickael Pietrus.)
Ziller: I have shed too many tears on Mickael Pietrus. No more!
How much does Howard really stand to improve? He's already the best rebounder in the league, and a great shotblocker. He's not ever going to be Shaq-dominant on offense ... is he?
(This is where someone mentions J.J. Redick so we can capitalize on search traffic.)
Moore: Well, I can tell you he's no Andrew Bynum! Howard goes the lame route of actually putting in meaningful consistent minutes for entire seasons. The nerve.
I am terrified of Howard. What's his ceiling? Where hasn't he improved over the course of his career, outside of free throws? If we're going to say that CP3, Andrew Bynum, and LBJ can still improve, we have to say the same about Howard. The article yesterday in the Orlando Sentinel that talked about Marcin Gortat making it into the rotation was big to me. Moving Gortat to the four, letting Turkoglu run as an ovesized two, and letting Rashard score as a three makes this team much more dangerous, especially against teams like Boston and Cleveland, who Orlando proved they could beat last year.
That said, I can't go two steps in the East without getting back to "But the Celtics are still tops."
Oh, and J.J. Redick also.
Watson: I think Boston got a little worse and Detroit (believe it or not) got a little better. Considering the ECF went to six games last year, who knows, maybe that's enough for Detroit to get back to the Finals. That said, the road to the ECF got a little tougher, too, and it's not like the Pistons simply cruised by the Sixers and the Magic last year.
I'm really, really high on Philly this year -- not only did they get Brand but Thaddeus Young will have another year under his belt and is back to his natural position. Plus, Louis Williams is (kind of, sort of) a poor man's Monta Ellis off the bench.
How much can Howard improve? Historically speaking, his scoring average has increased 2-3 points every year he's been in the league. If he adds a touch more polish to his non-dunking post moves and increases his free throw shooting even marginally, he can maintain that rate this season. All in all, he's one of those guys who doesn't really have a ceiling -- he'll keep getting better as long as he wants to.
Moore: Think about all the young, terrific players we have to watch this season and all the storylines. Is this one possibly going to be even better than last year?
Ziller: I think this year can be better ... there is certainly growing parity as great players enter the league and a few older veterans hang on. Might be the best season of the decade.
One of the team's not mentioned a whole lot in the Eastern Cellar discussions was Indiana. Is this a playoff team?
Moore: So many players we don't know about for Indy. TJ Ford, can he stay healthy? Can he be the leader? Can he restrain his wrist from involuntarily shooting? Can Roy Hibbert make an impact? Is Danny Granger going to repeat last season's success and is he ready to step into the spotlight? The only way they make the playoffs is if Granger establishes himself in the second or third tier of elite scorers in the league. I think he can do it, but the rest of that team I just don't know enough about. I can't even speculate on their identity.
Ziller: I have high hopes for Ford, but I think Mike Dunleavy might have been a touch of fluke last season. Speaking of Ford ... what about Toronto? Is this an elite team? Do they need someone unexpected (Andrea Bargnani, Jason Kapono) to rise up?
Brinson: J.J. Redick stinks. Actually, I like the Magic this year but a jump to elite when there are so many potential step backs -- D-Ho aside -- seems a little dangerous. I'm perfectly willing to get on the Philly is AWESOMEZ bandwagon, if only because they're the new Boston and with that obnoxiousness comes success. Plus, I picked the Mariners to make it to the World Series, so an equally miserable pick here is probably appropriate.
Watson: I think Toronto is one of those teams that will take everyone by surprise. I've rarely heard them mentioned when discussing the elite teams of the East, but a frontcourt of Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal is just silly. Granted, there might only be 40 games all season that they're both on the court at the same time, but if they're healthy come playoff time, watch out.
Moore: I think Toronto is a perfect example of how much closer the playoff teams are. It used to be that there were two teams in each conference that were really good and the rest of the teams, even on their best days, couldn't bet them. I still feel there are two teams in each conference that are ahead of everyone else, but if the other teams can get a string of things to come together (ex. in Toronto, O'Neal and Bosh are healthy, Moon plays as well as last year, Kapono gets hot in the playoffs again, Calderon is consistent), they can challenge those teams.