Three for 3: The NBA Eastern Conference Gets Serious

By: The Same Page Team

Welcome back to the Same Page Team’s Three for 3 feature! We got the gang back together to answer three compelling questions for each conference in anticipation of the 2013-2014 NBA season. Join Daniel Reynolds, Dan Grant and Dave Game6ix Osubronie as they attempt to go Three for 3. First up: a look at the Eastern Conference.

Who is going to be the biggest first time Eastern Conference All-Star this season?
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Grant: Josh Smith probably should have been an All-Star already at some point in his career. But when you’re a forward in a conference that has featured LeBron James, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh and lately, Carmelo Anthony, at the forward spots, those All-Star nods can be tough to come by. That said, if you look at Smith’s career stats, you’ll notice one thing: consistency. While he might add a wrinkle here or there – he randomly shot almost no three pointers in 2009-10, a feat Detroit fans are praying repeats – he is a virtual lock each season for at least 16 points, 8 rebounds, four assists, close to 2 blocks and close to 2 steals. There isn’t another player (at least, whose name doesn’t rhyme with Spa-cron) in the NBA that stuffs the stat sheet like that, year after year.
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There is a knock on Smith that he’s something of a knucklehead, and that might have some merit. That 09-10 season aside, he gets crucified for shot selection, particularly when he jacks up bad three pointers. But even taking that into account, his career FG% sits right at 49%, which is excellent for someone who takes as many shots per game (just under 13) as he does. That year when he stopped shooting threes? Yes, he averaged a career high in FG% but he was just one percent higher than that career average. It might look pretty on the stat sheet but it didn’t really make much of a difference. The assists are another big part of things. Smith is a fantastic passer and is constantly creating for his team mates. That doesn’t sound like knucklehead behaviour to me. His teams in Atlanta were always solid, if unspectacular. With Joe Johnson and Al Horford, he led a triumvirate of talented players who weren’t quite good enough to beat the Big Three in Boston or the followup super-team in Miami. After trading Johnson, Smith became the ‘man’ and Atlanta decided it didn’t want to pay him like one, so he jumped to the Pistons this off-season, surprisingly signing for less than a max contract.
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Detroit will be an interesting team this year, as they have also acquired the polarizing Brandon Jennings and have holdover big man Greg Monroe, as well as emerging behemoth Andre Drummond. They also have 17 million dollars in expiring contracts named Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva. I think Smith will thrive starting alongside Monroe and provide a devastating defensive combination when paired with Drummond. With Pierce and Garnett on limited minutes in Brooklyn to conserve for a playoff run and Chris Bosh’s stats falling off a cliff in Miami, I think this is the year Smith breaks through and finally makes his first all-star appearance.
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Osubronie: Everyone seems to forget that Derrick Rose wasn’t the only point guard in the east to miss a lot of games last year due to injury.  John Wall spent half the season watching his Wizards from the sidelines last year and his return is being swept under a rug. Yes, he didn’t miss the entire season or play on a contender, but the notion of a healthy John Wall should not be ignored. Finally, with a decent supporting cast, Wall is primed to become the biggest first time All-Star in the Eastern Conference this year.
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Since All Star players are voted in, Derrick Rose’s spot is locked. Rondo’s place on the team however, is up in the air, since we do not know when he will return from injury. This should be Wall’s spot for the taking. If Rondo does return before the break and gets voted in, John Wall should will be a unanimous choice for a spot on the bench. After having a successful second half of last season, he returns to the Wizards hoping to maintain the 20.7 points per game he scored after the break. With a new cast of supporting players who can space the floor, Wall will be able to do what he does best. Since this team will be rising in the power rankings as the season progresses, Washington will make more headlines that will only increase Wall’s chances of getting voted in. If he is selected, I’m confident that Wall will cement his status as a superstar guard for years to come.
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Reynolds: Please tell me you remember when Dikembe Mutombo used to make the All-Star team. No? OK, but you remember the finger wag, right? At least you have to remember that we still don’t know how old he actually is. Dikembe Mutombo played until he was allegedly 42. He may have been older. But he did two things that always guaranteed him a spot in the upper echelon of the NBA: rebound and block shots. With an offensive game that looked like what would happen if a rusty tin man met a pogo-stick, Mutombo managed to make eight All-Star teams purely on being the best at snatching the ball from the air and making sure it didn’t go into his team’s basket.
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You see where I’m going with this? Mutombo has a logical spiritual successor in the Eastern Conference right now. A young man who just signed a cushy 44 million dollar extension. A player who was recently declared to be the best interior defender in the league. A player poised to become the next ‘everywhere on the court’ centre, proudly clutching the ball, ripping it away from offending players, stopping sure drives to the basket. Of course I’m talking about Larry Sanders, he who will be on the All-Star team this year during a season where he may very well lead the league in rebounds and blocks. Mutombo is gone but Larry Sanders is here. Look out.
John Wall making it look easy. (Sorry, Jose)

John Wall making it look easy. (Sorry, Jose)

Which team has the best chance of dethroning the reigning East Conference champs?
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Grant: The Indiana Pacers are doing everything right. Everything seems to be breaking their way. They lose cornerstone Danny Granger to a knee injury early last season and what happens? Paul George takes not just a leap, but a super leap, making the Eastern Conference All-Star team, as well as third team All NBA. Roy Hibbert emerges in the playoffs as the best defensive center in the Eastern Conference (sorry Tyson Chandler) and shows some offensive chops, too. David West solidifies his status as an OG power forward that you do not want to anger and George Hill provides steady point guard play. Add in the transition of Lance Stephenson from LeBron agitator to rotation player and the Pacers are looking pretty good!
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Except for the godawful bench.
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Tyler Hansbrough is a nice player, but if he’s your sixth man, you’re in trouble. DJ Augustin has been a lottery bust, though he is actually a servicebale assist-turnover ratio guard and has a bit of range. Gerald Green gave the team nothing of what it expected and really, that’s where the bench ended for this Pacer team. Ian Mahimni played a few minutes here or there, but this was a team that relied way too heavily on the Hibbert-George combination and at times, was anemic on offense.
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Enter Larry Legend.
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Larry Bird returned to his role as president this off-season and suddenly, the Pacers have a better bench. They brought in athletic wing Chris Copeland from the Knicks as well as the floppy-haired post savant Luis Scola to spell West and Hibbert. They added CJ Watson to back up Hill and have Granger returning. That’s nine real guys! Head coach Frank Vogel barely knows what to do with himself. Granger is also an expiring contract around 15 million, so if things don’t work out with his return, he could be flipped for more offensive help. There are plenty of teams in the league tanking for the 2014 draft who would gladly trade serviceable veterans to clear cap space.

With their combination of athleticism on the perimeter and interior presence, I really don’t think there’s a team in the East that can stand up to the Pacers defensively. Chicago has a shot, but only when it has Taj Gibson on the floor instead of Carlos Boozer, and that severely limits them at the offensive end. Miami also has a shot, because they’re Miami, but that said, I really like this Pacers team. They’re well-constructed, well-coached and are easily the biggest threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference.

Osubronie: As painful as it is for a Miami fan to be writing this, there is a team in the East of which I’m genuinely afraid. This fear hit an all time high the moment Derrick Rose took his first few steps back on to the court. I thought seeing the online videos of his recovery was mildly threatening, however, watching his preseason highlights I was convinced that Chicago has the best chance at dethroning the reining champs from South Beach.
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Rose seems to be completely healthy and determined to play at a higher level than he did during his MVP campaign. Leading the Bulls to a perfect 8-0 record in the preseason, it’s evident that Rose has not missed a step. In the last four preseason games he scored 24, 26, 32, 22. Those numbers do not look like someone who has missed a year of playing time. They are simply a reminder that the Derrick Rose we knew two years ago is back. Even with all 260lbs of Lebron James guarding him, Rose has always been a problem for Miami. With all the effort Lebron must use to defend him, he will not have the energy to be as efficient on the offensive end of the floor. If Rose can continue to push himself to another level, Miami stranglehold over the East will cease to exist.
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Rose and the rest of the Bulls will not have to wait long to see how they match up to Miami as they are set to play each other on opening night. To add fuel to the fire, Chicago will have to sit and watch as Miami is awarded their championship rings. If you can think of a better motivator I’d like to hear it. It may only be the first game of the season but with Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, and the increasingly promising play of Jimmy Butler, Chicago has the size, speed and defensive strategy needed to upend the Heat.
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Reynolds: Can we count out the old guys? Look, the Bulls are definitely a sexy pick to unseat the Heat. They have an indomitable will, and a returning savior. The narrative is hanging there, ripe for the taking. The Pacers are just as easy to look to, with their improved bench (Copeland and Scola instead of Hansbrough? That’s all kinds of upgrade) and growing swagger.
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But those old guys, though. The veterans. Where do we put them? The Brooklyn Nets probably don’t care much about the regular season. I’d argue Joe Johnson doesn’t care about anything, but whatever. The Nets were heartless last year, going through some coaching changes, and battling with a meagre sense of identity. This didn’t change in the playoffs when they lost in seven games to the Contagion Bulls (including one game where Nate freaking Robinson beat them by himself). Oh, but this is next season and the Nets have added the best veteran mercenaries money can buy. Are Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko on their last legs? Are the Nets the basketball equivalent of the Expendables, a team of all your favs from a woebegone past? To extend this action movie analogy as far as it will go: with the vets, a rejuvenated Deron Williams and the underrated Brook Lopez, the Nets will be tougher and meaner that before. They are ready to go to war.
Anti-Hipster.

Anti-Hipster.

Which team are you rooting for to do well this year? And why?
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Grant: I enjoy basketball history. So even though it might seem unsporting to root for the favourite in the Miami Heat, I want to see them manage a three-peat. In NBA history, only Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, Michael’s Bulls and Russell’s Celtics have pulled off winning three straight NBA titles. Magic and Bird never managed it. Hakeem couldn’t get the third one. Duncan’s Spurs have actually never even repeated. There’s just that list of three and I want to see it expand.
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When you watch LeBron James play basketball, there’s a weird feeling like you’re watching something important, all the time. I saw him play twice while on Cleveland, here in Toronto. Both times the Raptors actually won but in one game, he had a near triple double and in the other, he scored 56 points. Even though Toronto was the winning team, he was what I came away remembering. I had a friend (not a basketball fan) recently tell me that he found basketball to be sloppy. I told him that he needed to stop watching the Raptors (sorry guys!) and watch any game with LeBron James in it. What he does on the court is so cerebral that it can be understated one moment and absolutely physically dominating the next. He’s got four MVP awards and is poised for a fifth. He’s the best player in the universe and it isn’t close. I want to be able to look back on these seasons twenty years from now and see empirical evidence that LeBron James was the best player I ever saw. It’s kind of like what guys in their late 30’s and 40’s do with Michael and Magic and Bird, because Lebron is that good. So while I could see the Bulls or the Pacers knock off this Heat team and next summer is going to be a shit storm of free agency regardless, I do want to see the Heat win this year. I want to see history.
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Osubronie: As I mentioned in the first question, I am eagerly anticipating seeing a full season of a healthy John Wall. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I’m not only excited to see him, but the entire 13-14′ Washington Wizards roster in action. During the season, I am either glued to my TV watching an NBA game or sitting on my laptop staring at my “stat tracker” as my players get fantasy points (usually both at the same time). This year’s Wizards will be involved in both. Between the three NBA Fantasy Drafts I have completed so far, I have drafted the Wizards starting five. I have also added them to my NBA League Pass as one of my 5 teams.  So to be clear, I am rooting for the Wizards this year for one reason: MONEY!
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Like any other fantasy sports junkie, I’ve accepted that I am more excited to see a Yahoo fantasy update on one of my players than I am to receive a call/text from some of my closest friends. Since I knew Yahoo and the NBA would be taking up countless hours of my time, I decided to draft players from teams I have on my League Pass top five. Washington being team #4 this year (behind Golden State, Minnesota and Cleveland). Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene, Trevor Ariza and the newly acquired Marcin Gortat will all be under the microscope this year. However this time, I will be able to watch each game instead of scrolling through box scores. I am now financially invested and I’m hoping they can lead me to the Yahoo Fantasy Promiseland.
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Reynolds: The Orlando Magic are not a good basketball team. They just aren’t. I think they’re going to start Jameer Nelson. In 2013. Glen Davis may still be involved. And Kendrick Lamar endorsement or not, I’m confident we’ve seen just about as good as Aaron Afflalo can get (he is the team’s highest paid useful player; Hedo Turkoglu no longer qualifies). Nevertheless, I’m rooting for the Orlando Magic. They were supposed to be a hopeless case, a team lost in the desert of the terrible in a post-Dwight Howard world. But a funny thing happened.
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They won the Dwight Howard trade. Both the Sixers and Lakers are in much worse situations post-trade (the Sixers by choice; the Lakers by arrogance). They snookered the Bucks into a J.J. Redick rental that snagged them more young prospects. They drafted really well. Now, despite hanging onto some disastrous contracts (the aforementioned Hedo and Nelson, plus, somehow, they are still playing Gilbert Arenas 22 million in amenestied dollars), the Orlando Magic have found the path to the oasis of success. With a core built around monster centre Nikola Vucevic, inside-out big man Tobias Harris, favoured rookie Victor Oladipo, and intriguing swingman Moe Harkless, there is a lot to like. I’ll be honest: the Raptors are my team and I want them to do well (they will also not do well) but I always cheer for a team that has been written off after a superstar trade. The Orlando Magic aren’t going to make the playoffs, and they probably won’t be that good, but I want them to rise up, throw sand in the eye of the league, and remind people that they are not gone.
Does Lebron look worried? Be honest.

Does Lebron look worried? Be honest.

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