NBA Preview: the new Beasts of the East

The NBA’s Eastern Conference has always been somewhat ambiguous. In the past decade or so, the trend in the east is that it has been overwhelmingly top-heavy. There are always around four teams that are given a realistic chance to even make the finals and in recent years, that number has dwindled to around two or three teams.

The 2013-2014 season could prove to be different. With the big offseason moves in the east and looking at the teams who failed to make any moves whatsoever, it is beginning to look like a much more balanced top eight in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Of course, there are still the teams that are deemed the ‘powerhouses’ of the conference.  In the past few years, the Heat have solely held that title, but with some revamped squads it looks like a few more teams will be joining them and it is no longer realistic to deem just one team the beast in the east.

To start off, the Indiana Pacers are immediate contenders. After a hard-fought seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals just a few months ago, it’s hard not to believe that this young Pacers squad will do anything but dramatically improve. Paul George emerged as one of the leagues newest superstars and proved that he has the ability to be the leader of his team at just 23 years of age. Indiana also possesses another young talent that the Heat continuously failed to match up with: Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, 26, completely dominated Miami’s front court in the conference finals while completely nullifying the work of Chris Bosh and Chris Anderson for the entirety of the series. On top of those two young talents, the Pacers will also see the return of Danny Granger, who once was one of the league’s best young talents and has the ability to help bring this team to an elite level.

Rose's return -- and offensive presence -- will draw attention away from his proven teammates.

Rose’s return — and offensive presence — will draw attention away from his proven teammates.

A team looking to get back to that elite level is the Chicago Bulls, and with the return of former MVP Derrick Rose, their chance at a title rockets. Without Rose, Tom Thibodeau and his ruthless squad were able to secure the fifth seed in the east and pull off a first-round upset over the Nets. The Rose-less Bulls were still one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and were never an easy win on anyone’s schedule.  With the elite defense already locked in, Derrick Rose will be able to restore a lacking offensive attack: he’s the only player in Chicago who demands additional defenders. If he does not get double teamed, then it’s only a matter of time before he makes defenders look silly with his ability get by just about any guard in the league.  With that, players like Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah are going to thrive on the offensive end because they won’t have to create plays for themselves; they’ll be feeding off of the pressure Rose puts on the opposition.

The team in the east that made the biggest offseason moves has to be the Brooklyn Nets.  A starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez is one of — if not — the most complete lineups in the league and will be hard for just about any team to match.  Just this April, the Nets were able to secure the fourth seed in the East through their balanced offensive attack between Williams and Lopez.  The one thing the team lacked was the toughness to hang with other elite teams on the defensive end – a determining factor in their first-round loss to Chicago. Garnett and Pierce fill in any holes the Nets had in their lineups because they are tough and championship-tested players, which exactly what the Nets needed to get on the same contention as the Heat.  Lopez, while a great threat on offense, was easily pushed around on the defense end, but now with the addition of Garnett the Nets gained that aggressive mentality in the front court that they have been missing.  Pierce no longer needs to be the primary scorer he was in Boston for so many years; in fact, he’s now more of a third-or-fourth option as a scorer and will be able to get his shots easier with the Nets’ balanced attack.  On top of the starting lineup, they also managed to put together a quality bench led by former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry, as well as Andrei Kirilenko, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche. With the moves the Nets made in the offseason, look for them to be a serious title contender as the season gets underway.

Anthony may win another scoring title, but his surrounding cast remains incomplete.

Anthony may win another scoring title, but his surrounding cast remains incomplete.

The one team who did not make many moves this offseason is the New York Knicks, who were able to put together an impressive 2012-13 regular season, entering the playoffs as the two-seed and losing to the Pacers in the conference semifinals. A best-case scenario for the Knicks this season is a fifth-seed finish. They failed to make the appropriate moves in order to get to that championship level that the Pacers, Bulls and Nets did to match up with the reigning Miami champions. They’re going to pick up where they left off with Carmelo Anthony averaging about 25 shots a game. When he is on, they have the ability to compete with anyone — but when he is off, they can just as easily lose to a cellar-dwelling team. The Knicks just did not adapt enough in order to contend in this ‘new look’ conference.

The back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture has also changed and I believe three teams that have not seen the playoffs in a few years will be back into the mix.  The Pistons, Cavaliers and Wizards all seem to be ready to make the push back into the playoffs and actually give other top teams in the east some matchup problems, which is different from past years where the bottom three seeds could make the playoffs with losing records and pose no threat to the top three seeds in the playoffs.

It may be fair to say that the Pistons are good enough to pass the Knicks in the playoff standings with their revamped roster.  They made huge moves this offseason to acquire Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith, as well as the return of their 20004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups.  If the Pistons can play team basketball, they will be a tough team to beat. But for that to happen, players like Smith and Jennings are going to have to be willing to make some sacrifices to their own games in order to benefit the team. They are both prominently renowned scorers, but both often times have shot their former teams out of games rather than keeping them in it. It will be interesting to see how well the Pistons can harness their talent in order to produce a very solid team.

With the acquisition of Andrew Bynum, the Cavs also greatly improved — but only for as long as Bynum can stay healthy.  One thing that is overlooked in the NBA is how far a dominant point guard-center combination can take a team, and that is exactly what Cleveland has.  Kyrie Irving and Bynum can both be dominant players at their respective positions and it will be fun to watch them play together and give opposing teams problems on the offensive end.

Can Wall and Beal's Isiah Thomas-Joe Dumars impression push them towards a low seed?

Can Wall and Beal’s Isiah Thomas-Joe Dumars impression push them towards a low seed?

Lastly, the Wizards will be hoping to pick up where they left off at the end of last regular season when they finished on 25-25 regular season close. With a healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, along with Nene and Emeka Okafor down low, the Wizards will be able to make a genuine push for the playoffs. While they will not be a championship contender, they will certainly give a top team in the east a better first-round matchup than the Bucks could do last season, and that’s all any fan can really ask for.

With the offseason moves that teams in the Eastern Conference have made, look for a much more balanced playoff race and more respectable conference as a whole. It’s been a long time since the East has had an opportunity to match up with all eight seeds in the west. This year could prove to be a new beginning for the once-weak Eastern Conference.

NFL Preseason Preview: Seattle Seahawks

JIMMY’S PICKS

NFC EAST: New York Giants 10-6, Washington Redskins 9-7, Dallas Cowboys 8-8, Philadelphia Eagles 6-10

NFC SOUTH: Atlanta Falcons 13-3, New Orleans Saints 11-5, Carolina Panthers 7-9, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Kicking off the NFC West will be the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks took the league by complete surprise in 2012 by drafting and then starting rookie Russell Wilson. Many doubted the Wisconsin alumni’s true NFL potential, as he was labeled too short and wasn’t favored to run a pro-style offense. However, Wilson took the supposed reigns from then-newly signed Matt Flynn. Seattle, led by the fiery offense of Pete Carroll and the shutdown defensive stratagem of Gus Bradely, was able to clinch a playoff berth. Many now look for the Seahawks to be the main challenger of the powerhouse that is Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers. But with a new defensive coordinator — and some new faces — will Seattle be able to trounce Kaepernick and the reigning NFC champions?

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Lynch’s presence keeps the box stacked and forces the secondary to eye him, which will give Wilson a lot more fun with his new receiving options.

Sidney Rice and Golden Tate will always be home run threats when it comes to a play-action deep pass. Don’t expect that to change much with the return of Marshawn Lynch at running back. When Lynch is able to keep the defense, especially the safeties, focused between the tackles, it allows for Wilson to go deep to either Tate or Rice. And if the addition of Percy Harvin works out well for Seattle, they will be scary in the air. Another dynamic that is added to this offense is Russell Wilson’s knack to wriggle free from pocket pressure. Broken plays are a great opportunity to gain huge yardage if executed correctly. Wilson is the kind of player that can turn broken plays into a touchdown.

The Seahawks made great strides this offseason when they acquired Antoine Winfield to reinforce the secondary. This defense was fun to watch last season and should continue that trend, and maybe claim throne as the top defense in 2013. They have all the pieces: a strong line, a sturdy line backing core, and a secondary overflowing with talent. There are not too many problems with the starting eleven, and the depth is present to have consistency.

Prediction:

This may seem odd to some, but I see the Seahawks winning the West with a record of 12-4. They should split games with San Fransicso, but sweep Arizona and St. Louis. I think that the league will figure out that Kaepernick isn’t as proficient as the average quarterback in the pocket — when withheld in that area. Seattle’s defense should be able to hold him at bay as far as scrambling goes and the offense should be able to do just enough to overpower the ‘Niners. Seattle should make waves in the NFL in 2013, and expect to see them lingering in January.

The Pirates are in first, but that’s not their ceiling

Barring a September of absurd upsets, these past weeks and their biggest storylines have begun to define the MLB playoff picture: the Detroit Tigers have won 12 straight, and the Atlanta Braves have won 13. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been rejuvenated in the second half with an 18-3 run, which is only a little better than the Kansas City Royals’ 16-4 stretch. All of these teams except for the Royals are in a comfortable first place for their division – in fact, their recent streaks have brought them to an average division lead of greater than nine. Seemingly, the only genuine division race remaining is within the Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers’ recurring fight for the AL West, where the A’s lead by half a game.

It’s been argued that the NL Central remains an open door as to who will win out; last year’s division champs Cincinnati Reds are within three games of the consistent St. Louis Cardinals, who are – almost astonishingly – trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates by four games with less than 50 games remaining. In fact, the Pirates currently have the best record in baseball after winning their fifth straight. This ground has been unprecedented for them since 1992, and skeptics are quick to say that no lead is safe for the former divisional laughingstock when dealing with the Cardinals.

However, that may not even matter: if they lose the lead, their 221-217 record under Clint Hurdle indicates that they can, at the very least, maintain a .500 record pace that can still ensure a wild card spot. And once they’re in the playoffs for the first time in over two decades, they may be the scariest squad coming out of the gate – for a number of reasons. Here are some factors that would play into a Pittsburgh Pirate World Series run.

THE ROTATION: Pittsburgh’s pitching has been the best in the league, by far: the team 3.07 ERA is .18 points better than the runner-up, and .67 points better than the NL average. If the playoffs were to start today and the Dodgers, Braves, Reds and Cardinals joined the Pirates in the playoffs, then those four teams would be facing Pittsburgh pitching that they’re hitting a combined .235 against.

Not many would have guessed two years ago that A.J Burnett would be aiding a Pittsburgh Pirate playoff run.

Not many would have guessed two years ago that A.J Burnett would be aiding a Pittsburgh Pirate playoff run.

The rotation is bolstered by a combination of peaking veterans and young talent that hitters are yet to get accustomed to. A.J Burnett, in his second stellar season as a Pirate, should be their Game 1 starter in any series, as he has finally found a steady control of his repertoire at the age of 34 – his current WHIP of 1.197 is the lowest it has been in six years. Additionally, he is the only starter with any postseason experience.

Burnett could be backed by either two or three additional starters in the playoffs, as the Bucs have the incredible depth to take any one of their remaining starters over the other. First-year Pirate Francisco Liriano has been reborn this season, and his 2.02 ERA only trails Clayton Kershaw for league-best. Fellow left-hander Jeff Locke is being somewhat upstaged by his veterans in his first All-Star season, but his also-remarkable run makes it near impossible for any other team’s second and third starters to match up with him and Liriano. Veteran Wandy Rodriguez is coming off a two-month stint on the DL and would likely compete with rookie headliner Gerrit Cole for either a fourth spot in the playoff rotation or an insurance spot in the bullpen. Again: Pittsburgh has these options.

THE ‘PEN: It should at least be noted that the current Bucs bullpen has notched a 17-6 record this season, and have had a big role to play in the Pirates’ many late-inning dramatics this season.

Jason Grilli is more than a feel-good story of the traveling veteran who’s finally found a home: before straining his flexor muscle, his 14 strikeouts per nine innings pitched was fourth in the league amongst starters. He’s vowed that he’ll be back from injury, but even if he isn’t, Pittsburgh doesn’t have much to sweat: lefty Mark Melancon has surrendered just five runs in 54 innings this season, and has already made the seamless transition to Grilli’s closing job.

THE BENCH: The Pirates lineup is, for the most part, healthy. Travis Snider is yet to return from a toe injury, but his .219 average is not as missed when his replacements – Alex Presely and Jose Tabata – combined are hitting 56 points better. Infielder Jordy Mercer has filled in for both Neil Walker and Clint Barmes at points of this season, and his reliable glove – as well as .335 OBP – makes him a great fill in late innings or as a pinch hitter. An even better option to pinch hit is Gaby Sanchez, the former All-Star first baseman who is slugging a career .499 against lefties. The top of the order – Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez – produces like clockwork, but the reserves do little to harm that process.

THE COACH: Hurdle may have had only one winning record during his nine years with the Colorado Rockies, but it happened to be a part of one of the greatest late-to-postseason runs in history.  Hurdle’s Rockies ran a 20-8 September in 2009 to consecutively sweep both the NL Division Series and Championship Series. While they were overmatched and effectively swept in their first World Series against the Boston Red Sox, the Rockies came onto the map with Hurdle, Troy Tulowitzki, timely pitching and little else otherwise. Hurdle now has the reins of a squad that is head and shoulders above the league in pitching, healthy and complete from the first to sixth hitter and in possession of the obvious pick for this year’s NL Most Valuable Player. If Hurdle plans to repeat – and complete – his historic run, expect him to ride on the shoulders of one of the league’s most well-rounded players…

ANDREW McCUTCHEN: A lot of people called for McCutchen’s earning of last year’s MVP trophy; the simple truth is that Buster Posey was the only person who deserved it more than he did. Statistics aside, Posey became more than a player for the San Francisco Giants in their championship season. League-leading hitter Melky Cabrera was suspended in the midst of a pennant race, and Posey picked up the offensive load, all while commandeering the most physically-demanding position and catering to the then-best pitching staff in the league. Even if the Giants had lost in the Divisional Series, Posey was worth more than value during that time; he ensured the team’s success.mccutchen

An MVP isn’t measured by their success, but by the success of their teammates. This is not McCutchen’s best individual season – his 7.6 offensive WAR last season was incredible – but it has been the best individual seasons for both Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte. Marte has 41 extra-base hits at leadoff this season while only walking 22 times, mostly because pitchers can’t pitch around him in fear of McCutchen or Alvarez driving in multiple runs. Marte is still on pace to score over 100 runs. Alvarez flexes anywhere between cleanup and the sixth spot in the lineup, and barring situations where he has led off the inning, has batted with runners on base in 62 percent of all of his plate appearances this season. His OBP increases in these situations, and 76 percent of his runs batted in have during these plate appearances. So, Alvarez doesn’t produce unless someone is on base, and Marte doesn’t get on base unless he’s pitched to, and Marte isn’t pitched to and Alvarez isn’t given opportunity unless McCutchen does what McCutchen does.

mccutchen presely

In simpler terms:  a healthy McCutchen is on pace for 175 hits, 25 homeruns, 90 runs batted in, 100 runs and 35 stolen bases – but there’s a good chance he won’t lead his team in any of these categories. Last year, McCutchen was the star of a one-man show. This year, he’s costarring in a block-bluster. If he learns from Posey and continues to give as much as he gets, McCutchen and his team may be holding up two different trophies in November. Scary, isn’t it?