Monday, January 28, 2008

Half-Full, Half-Empty: Prospects For Eastern ConferenceTeams At Mid-Season

The Mid-Season reviews have started trickling in, and are becoming more of a rush, and soon it'll look like a zombie-horde rushing down upon you to eat your brains and devour you with optimistic over-estimation of potential.

We're fans of optimism, though. It's the best part about sports. So we wanted to project the best case for teams, within reason, based on their performance thus far. Of course, being us, we also wanted to project the worst case scenario for them, since we enjoy other people's misery. And we thought, "Hell, if we're doing best and worst, let's go ahead and lay out what we think is the most likely scenario for them."

And so, without further ado...

Hardwood Paroxysm's Mid-Season
Eastern Conference Projections:
Best-Case, Worst-Case, Most Likely Destinies

Glass Brimming Over Teams:

Boston Celtics (34-8):
Best Case: Champagne wishes and championship dreams. Lucky number 17. Glen Davis doesn't eat Rondo. Kevin Garnett cements his status as one of the greatest players of all time. Doc Rivers doesn't try to coach. Or speak.

Worst Case: We believe the word is "choke." Ray Allen's ankle disintegrates like it drank from the wrong cup in Last Crusade. Kevin Garnett throws his shoulder out popping his designer shirt after picking up his mail. Doc Rivers tries to "coach." The Pistons' wisdom takes advantage of the Celtics' young role players. Garnett's history of playoff failure continues. God's love affair with Boston sports ends.

Most Likely: Eastern Conference Finals. A championship isn't out of the question by any stretch. Rondo's return from injury will spur them back to a long win streak. We started out the season by enjoying the fact that while the Red Sox and Patriots made us want to vomit, the Celtics' intensity and passion was refreshing, and they were actually fun to root for. The debacle against Minnesota started to change that though, and it'll be interesting to see the casual fan's reaction as they get closer to the Boston Trifecta. We're not sure they can make it all the way this season, with as many good teams in the West, not to mention LeBron and the Pistons both in the way. But regardless, the gamble this team made in acquiring the big three has paid off and they are undoubtedly the premier team in the league this season.

Detroit Pistons (31-13):
Best-Case: Just keep on rollin', baby. The young players provide the extra energy off the bench the starters need and the Pistons are able to overcome rushes from behind by the younger teams they face, and their defense is strong enough to shut down whatever Western team they face in the Finals after one of the best Eastern Conference Finals in years. Johnson and Stuckey don't suffer any massive setbacks in their progression. Sheed doesn't get selected for the All-Star game and decides to shut it down in protest. the "on" switch is easy to find come Spring. A second championship to put the gold touch on their legacy.

Worst-Case: The "on" switch doesn't seem to go on, and the team struggles to turn it back on in April. injuries plague the team and they struggle with motivation. the bench regresses and is unable to properly assist in the playoffs, putting more wear and tear on the starting five. Flip Saunders' questionable playoff coaching causes Wallace to spontaneously punch him fifteen times in the face and neck. the Celtics are able to simply overpower them when they can't find their shot. LeBron has another Kryptonian-like performance, and again, the Pistons have no answer for him.

Most Likely: Eastern Conference Finals. There are only two teams that can take down this team in the playoffs, or rather, one team and one player. The Celtics and LeBron. If the Pistons have to beat LeBron in the second round, they've got a better shot at it, I believe, because LeBron won't be in full-on Superman mode, and the Pistons won't be as tired. The Finals are going to be rough for them, though. Their bench has been great this season, but being great against the Bucks on a Tuesday in January of February is much different than coming up big against El Tigre Monstruoso and the Green Gang in the Eastern Conference Finals. And we're starting to wonder if Sheed hasn't reached his limit. He just seems kind of bored with it all. That bodes poorly for the playoffs. If this team pulls it together, though, it won't shock us a bit for them to be back in the Finals.

Orlando Magic (28-18):
Best-Case: The "good" magic show up in the playoffs and they dispatch their first-round opponent. If they can come in fresh, they can hold up against either the Celtics or the Pistons. It's unlikely that they'll make it past the Semifinals, but make no mistake, if Dwight Howard makes the jump, they can contend with anyone. Hedo Turkoglu and Carlos Arroyo are legit support players. If they get anything off the bench, this team is seriously dangerous.

Worst-Case: The inconsistencies continue. Arroyo comes back to Earth, and Nelson can't adjust when they get back. Howard suffers from a lack of experience in the playoffs and gets in foul trouble. They simply don't have the big time players to overcome the top two in the East. Worse, they unravel against a low seed and are upset in a series they should win.

Most Likely: Eliminated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. We're huge Howard fans, no question. And we don't think the fast start they got off to was a fluke. It's clear they have talent, but it's clear they have inconsistencies. They're right on the cusp, though. Rashard Lewis has been terrific for them this season, making the money not seem as ridiculous. Most likely they're going to push their semifinals opponent, but won't be able to overcome the veteran squads at the top.

Glass Half-Full Teams:

Washington (23-19):
Best-Case: Zero comes back and fits in seamlessly, pushing them higher rather than slowing them down. Etan Thomas helps out defensively and doesn't try and stab Haywood with his surgery staples. They're able to maintain focus. the kids don't run out of gas as March and April come around.

Worst-Case: Zero returns and screws up the team chemistry and momentum. The team runs out of gas as the youngsters can't keep up the pace. The larger teams are able to pound them down low in the playoffs and their defensive intensity suffers. Haywood's spectacular play falls to the Bullets Forever Curse, and Arenas' trigger finger hurts the team concept they've succeeded with without him. Gilbert makes more commercials than three pointers.

Most-Likely: Eliminated in 6 games in the first round. We like the Wizards. We think Caron Butler has been absolutely fantastic. We honestly think he deserves his own award. Some sort of weird "most improved" and "most valuable to his team" hybrid. And we'd love to see them make a run. But they've got a lot of youth, their star player may shut it down, and if he doesn't, he's coming back so late, there's going to be adjustment pains. Throw in on top of that the fact that they're probably going to get caught in the dreaded 4-5 opening round game, and it's bad news bears for the Wiz. We no longer think this team is fundamentally flawed, though. We'd love for them to prove us wrong.

Cleveland Cavaliers (24-19):
Best-Case: LeBron averages 40 in the playoffs and they make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Larry Hughes uses his new birthday present to shoot over 40%. Big Z keeps playing like he's 28. Boobie lets the game come to him. Varajao keeps his moppy head on his shoulders. they magically don't have to play the Celtics in the ECF and get to lose in the Finals instead, again.

Worst-Case: This team looks in a mirror one day and realizes how bad they are. any injury whatsoever to his Highness. they have to play the Celtics at any point in the playoffs. Larry Hughes keeps his usual form and plays terribly. Z remembers he's 32 and the young big men beat him up in the playoffs. LeBron decides to save his strength for the commercials he'll be shooting in the summer.

Most Likely: Eliminated in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals. We think they'll keep tearing it up, possibly enough to overtake Orlando for the 3rd Seed. We don't think they have enough this season to overcome Detroit or Boston, though. Detroit will want revenge for the embarassment of last year, and the Celtics are just a much better overall team. LeBron, as always, is the wild card. If he goes Nova, he can burn them into the Finals. But if he runs into a team that knows how to effectively pester him and keep him under 30, they're sunk.

Toronto Raptors (24-19):
Best Case: TJ Ford recovers in time to help push them into the three seed. TJ's reintegration to the lineup is smooth and he and Calderon serve as complements to the different lineups. Jamario Moon recovers from the inevitable (and rapidly approaching) crash into the rookie wall and contributes down the stretch and into the playoffs. Jason Kapono works his way into the lineup more often and contributes a little more. Bosh stays healthy and doesn't push too hard. Delfino keeps up his surprising level of play. They take care of business in the first round and are able to out-hustle Boston/Detroit/Orlando for one of the biggest second round upsets in recent history.

Worst Case: TJ Ford can't come back and Calderon gets run into the ground through sheer exhaustion. Ford does manage to come back but the disruption in an already tenuous lineup causes a breakdown in rhythm. Sam Mitchell's head explodes like in Scanners. The bench shrinks even more in the playoffs and Bosh can't carry them out of the first round. The glaring lack of a secondary scorer is made all the more evident when their first round opponent chooses to quadruple-team Chris Bosh. Another first round loss the friggin' Nets.

Most Likely: Eliminated in game 7 of the super-tough 4-5 Matchup in the first round. This is a nice team. That's the best word for it. They'll have nights where they sneak up on good teams, and nights where those same teams will annihilate them. They'll beat most of the teams they're supposed to, and have some inopportune letdowns. The worst they'll land in a top heavy East is the six seed, but they need to make it to the 4 seed to advance. If they get matched up against Boston, Detroit or in a slightly less fearsome case, Orlando, they're probably going home early. But if they can get things to click and find some bench scoring, this team could push into the semifinals and give their opponent a run. Anything more than that, though, is unlikely at best and a fluke at worst.

Atlanta Hawks (18-22):
Best-Case: One long win streak gets them into the playoffs as the seventh seed and they make a decent showing against Celtics/Pistons. Horford catches his breath and can contribute. Smith doesn't get itchy and maintains a team-first approach. Johnson keeps his health and his shot intact. They keep up an appropriate level of intensity and beat the teams they're supposed to.

Worst-Case: Um, they play like the Hawks again.

Most Likely: We believe! The Hawks finally make the playoffs! And are then annihilated in four.

Indiana Pacers (19-26):
Best-Case: Larry Bird mercy-trades O'Neal and the team gets something of value out of it. they manage not to play themselves out of a top 10 lottery pick. Danny Granger commits to staying with the team long-term. Larry Bird finally faces facts and resolves to rebuild for next season. If we're ignoring long term success, then making the playoffs as the 7 or 8 seed and getting beaten into oblivion by either the Pistons or Celtics. they should just invest in brooms now.

Worst-Case : The phrase is "maintaining the status quo."

Most Likely: The phrase is "continued mediocrity until the GM gets his head out of his ass."

Charlotte Bobcats: (17-27):
Best-Case: Yet another in a long list of teams in the "Will someone please volunteer to go to the playoffs?" from the Middle Eastern Conference. All this team has to do is get two four game win streaks and they can make it. They've played much better since the start of the year, and some of their talent is starting to get it together. Remember, this team is still without Sean May. They'll hang tight with some great teams (Pistons, Cavs), even topping the Celtics, but then they'll go and lose to teams like the Sixers. If they get it together for one solid run, they have a great shot at the playoffs. But that, by any stretch of the imagination, is the extent of their best-case scenario.

Worst-Case: Their upcoming five game road-trip buries them in a hole they can't get out of, the injuries continue to hamper them, and the occasional inexcusable loss keeps them out of the playoffs.

Most Likely: We like them the most of all the 8th seed contenders, even though they're ridiculously streaky. If they can weather a tough schedule and play up to potential, they're in. Of course, that's not really the Bobcats' strength, now, is it?

Chicago Bulls (17-26):
Best-Case Scenario: You remember the 2006 season, don't you, Chicago? The one with you not sucking completely? Yeah, something like that would do in this situation. Boylan recognizes that Ben Wallace is the Lord of UnBasketball. Kirk Hinrich continues to play like a real live boy. the young players in the rest of the East get tired and the Bulls rush to the 7 spot. Tyrus Thomas quits pouting like a b*tch and starts dunking. Paxson actually gets the guts to pull the trigger on a significant trade.

Worst-Case Scenario: The first half of the season in duplicate. Noah hits the rookie wall and Joe Smith continues his nefarious plan. Ben Wallace uses his vaunted veteran leadership to convince Boylan to give him more minutes. the injuries continue to pile up and Deng/Gordon can't get back for significant minutes. the lineup keeps fluctuating Tara Reid's weight.

Most-Likely: 8th Seed in the East, eliminated in 5 in the first round. Looking at the East contenders for the 7 and 8 spot, it wouldn't surprise us at all to see them sneak into the playoffs. But this season has been like every single criticism that's been mounted against them has substantiated night by night. Between the lineup issues, the locker room issues, the $40 Million black hole that is Ben Wallace, and Kirk Hinrich's downright depressing season, this team doesn't have what it takes to topple anyone in the first round, especially because there's little chance of them making it past the seven seed. Stranger things have happened, though, and the Bulls have the tools. They just need to start, you know, using them. If they don't get it together, though, it may be time to push the detonator.

The Glass Is Shattered And Lying In Sad Broken Pieces On The Dining Room Floor, Soaking Merlot Into the Carpet:

New Jersey Nets (18-26):
Best Case: Anyone starts acting like they care outside of Richard Jefferson. The young talent develops inside. A significant trade is made to improve both the down-low presence and defensive acumen. Nenad Kristic comes back and provides the interior play that's been missing.The ineptitude of the young teams in the middle of the East allow them to sneak in with a short win streak and .500 ball. Jason Kidd's triple-doubles actually start to matter. Jay-Z gives them a peptalk.

Worst Case: The meltdown continues. management refuses to make any moves during the season. Vince Carter remains a douchebag with no leadership skills. Richard Jefferson continues to suffer through the ignominy of this team. their defense actually manages to score points for the other team. Nenad Kristic does not, in fact, turn into Rasheed Wallace upon his return. The team manages to lose enough to not make the playoffs but win enough to keep out of a good draft pick.

Most Likely: 10th in the East, miss the playoffs. They'll probably have a run at some point in February or March where they'll look like they're going to surge again. But the rest of the East is improving, and this team is rapidly getting worse. They don't have the big men, they don't have the leadership, and Kidd is sleepwalking. This team is going nowhere, at a reasonable, triple-double pace.

Philadelphia 76ers (17-28):
Best-Case: Iguodala and Dalembert are enough of a 1-2 punch to lift them into the 8 spot. the rest of the East contenders for the 7 and 8 spots falter and they step it up. the rookies (Thaddeus Young, Jason Smith) step up and contribute. finding a taker for Miller that nets them a shooter and rebounder. a better option for them would be to tank effectively enough to land in the top 3, Michael Beasley would be a significant boost to their team, as would Derrick Rose provided they find a taker for Andre Miller.

Worst-Case: Iguodala's turnover issues continue. Dalembert reverts to form. the rest of the East mid level teams play even somewhat decent. they win just enough to land outside the top 10 in the draft. Larry Brown holds a press conference and says he won't stab Mo Cheeks in the back while stabbing him in the back with a big, giant, rusty machete.

Most Likely: The team starts to gel towards the end of the season, just like last year, and miss the playoffs, just like last year. This team, much like the Pacers, need to make it a complete rebuild if they want to be successful. They need to commit to playing the younger players and work for next season.

Milwaukee Bucks (17-27):
Best-Case: Yi recovers from hitting the rookie wall. Michael Redd quits forcing the issue. Bogut regains some composure. Krystowiak lets VNov back in the starting lineup. Charlie Bell retires and pays back all his salary from this season. a few 5 game win streaks coupled with the East's ineptitude lets them sneak in. conversely, a tank/collapse to let them grab a quality big man or point.

Worst-Case: They keep up with the horrible defense. Redd keeps jackin' it. Yi gets too exhausted to party. they actually pull the trigger on the horrible, horrible Zack Randolph trade. they play themselves out of a good lottery pick, because they could use a serious upgrade down low.

Most Likely Case: It's pretty obvious this team can't contend this season. Even if they make it into the playoffs, there's little to no chance of them pulling off a first round upset. Of the teams that benefit from tanking (not that we support the practice), the Bucks are definitely one of them. We don't feel like the Bucks have much to gain from making the playoffs, it wouldn't be an extension of forward success. The thought was that this team would improve after the injuries leveled them last season. That hasn't happened. Which leads us to believe that perhaps this team is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps a second half-rebound can convince us otherwise, but they're going to need to improve in almost every facet of the game.

New York Knicks (14-29):
Best-Case: Isiah is fired.

Worst-Case: Isiah is not fired.

Most Likely Case: MSG burns to the ground. We're not sold on this recent up-swing of theirs. This is a bad team with a bad coach and a bad GM and a bad owner and a bad star point guard and a bad cap situation. This team will end up in the lottery, again. Barring a massive overhaul of the front office and a drastic "scorched Earth" approach to the roster, this team will be trapped in the Kingdom of Suck for the foreseeable future. Get your tickets now!

Miami Heat (9-33):
Best-Case: Armageddon comes and wipes out all civilization so no one is left to watch this team. Dwayne Wade survives to form a team from the rubble of actual basketball players. Wade clones himself and the Heat offer a starting five of Dwayne Wade, Dwayne Wade, Dwayne Wade, Udonis Haslem, and Dwyane Wade, with a bench of Dwayne Wade, Dwayne Wade, Dwayne Wade, DeQuan Cook, and Dwayne Wade.

Worst-Case: As Dwight Schrute would say, "False." There is no way it could get worse. There is only better, and same.

Most Likely: Getting to watch Pat Riley select OJ Mayo and flush away another 5 years! Woo-hoo!

Western Conference later in the week.

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