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92-9 The Game’s Jamie Dukes’ Hoops Preview

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October is synonymous with Ghouls and Goblins.  And given the success of the King and his court jesters, the question King Lebron’s minions want to know is

Will the Miami Heat “Trick or 3-Peat?” Will the leagues injured superstars fully return to elite form?  In one way or the other, those were the queries that resonated, recycled or repeated continuously in the minds of basketball junkies following last June’s Finals.

We clearly live in an instant gratification society but there’s no way to accurately answer those questions until the season starts. For now, here’s what to expect.

EAST

William Shakespeare famously wrote “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” centuries ago in his classic play, “King Henry IV.”  The stakes may not be as perilous for King James as they were for Henry but several teams in the Eastern Conference are challenging Lebron’s throne and the #1 Miami Heat.

The greatest threats to the kingdom are the 2)Chicago Bulls and 3)Indiana Pacers. Indiana pushed Miami to a grueling 7 game series that could have ended in their favor if only Frank Vogel would’ve left Greg Hibbert on the court for the waning moments of Game 1.

Hindsight is 20/20 and the Pacers look forward to returning their core unit that contended for last season’s Eastern Conference Championship.  With the editions of lunch pail veterans Luis Scola, CJ Watson and Rasual Butler the Pacers are primed to make another deep run into the playoffs… and did I not mention the return of former All Star Danny Granger? Even if he turns out to be a shell of himself, he’ll be good enough to complement the talents of emerging superstar Paul George.

The Bulls combination of talent and chemistry are factors that cannot be ignored when discussing ways to dethrone the Heat. Their trademark, suffocating defense can sometimes make opposing teams feel as if the Bulls are playing with a 6th defender on the floor (3rd in Points allowed-92.9/8th in rebounding at 43.2 during the 2012 season).

Derrick Rose looked good in the preseason but I think at this juncture it would be premature to confidently proclaim “Pooh is back.”  With that said consider Chicago as the only team besides Indiana in the East to beat Miami.

4)Brooklyn and 5)New York are the second-tier threats to Miami’s championship aspirations.  The Nets claim a roster full of future Hall of Famers and All-Stars but in NBA Years they’re closer to ingesting daily dosages of Geritol opposed to One-A-day.  The jury is still out if they can play cohesively and successfully for sustained stretches of the season.  Besides putting big names together doesn’t always work out well as that point was proved recently with last years Lakers.  I’m also not sold on Jason Kidd as a coach.

Carmelo and the Knicks have vastly improved in the East since Anthony’s arrival two years ago but how much can we realistically expect from the Knicks?  Including last year, Carmelo Anthony has only gotten out of the first round of the playoffs twice in his playoff career.  Amar’e Stoudemire looks out of place or close to being washed up with his last All Star Appearance (2011) feeling like it was 10 years ago.

Predicting the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff teams is easy but now comes the fun part.  For seeds 6-8, I foresee a semi-shakeup from the norm.  With SF Josh Smith, PF Greg Monroe and C Andre Drummond, the 6)Detroit Pistons arguably have the best front count in the East, at least on paper. Josh Smith finally has the green light to lead a team of his own and if Brandon Jennings can maintain his career averages of 17/7, the Pistons should easily win 43 games this year.

Battling for the 7-8 seeds will be the Cleveland Cavs and Washington Wizards. Winning in the NBA is dictated by the production of the leagues superstars and in today’s evolving perimeter-oriented game, quality point guards are essential. Kyrie Irving is perhaps the best pg pound for pound in the league and if Andrew Bynum can play at least 50 games, the Cavs will be in good shape.

John Wall and Bradley Beal are going to give opposing backcourts headaches and Otto Porter will have a solid year but in the end they may end up getting swept in the first round to the Heat.

The Heat will again prove too much to handle. Besides the obvious Big 3, they added former #1 pick Greg Oden and welcome the return of proven (yet erratic) scorer Michael Beasley back to South Beach. Oden, like Bynum will only need to play 50 games and be a presence in the middle (8ppg/8rpg would be great).  When the smoke clears, expect to see Miami in their 4th straight Finals.

WEST

For the first time in over a decade, the West as a whole is less formidable than the East this year. There’s no clear cut separation between the top 5 seeds.

1)OKC/2)Lac/3)Hou/4)GSW/5)SAS and the bottom half playoff teams are simply dry and/or boring (6)Memphis/ 7)Lakers/8)Port/Minn).

I’m sure Im at risk of appearing to be partial to the Eastern Conference but the truth is that the storylines in the West are less compelling.  An injured Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook have completely altered the complexion of the once wild wild West.  The Clippers and Warriors are “feel good story” teams that are exciting but the Warriors don’t have a championship level defense capable of summoning up stops on-demand when they need them during crunch time.

Chris Paul and Doc Rivers will lead the Clippers to a sensational regular season only to be inevitably exposed again in the post-season.  Paul is a tenacious competitor but physically you can’t rely on your 6-foot even point guard to take over games single handedly and get buckets at will.  I’ve only seen Isiah Thomas or Allen Iverson do that.

So who’s shoulders does the scoring onus fall on when they need a bucket late in the 4th to tie or take the lead?  Los Angeles is in trouble if Blake Griffin or Deandre Jordan is the answer to that dilemma.  Yes the scouting report rumors have Blake expanding his range on the jump shot (56% of his shots he attempted in the 4th quarter with less than 5 minutes to go were jumpers) and Jordan working on his post moves yet the book on them remains to be if you can put a body on those two and eliminate the alley-oop game, they become non-factors.

Stick a fork in the Spurs this year because they’re done. No that doesn’t mean they won’t win a ton of games during the regular season, it means they’re not going to be in the Finals next June. Their best players are too old to run with the younger teams and the Spurs only win titles during the odd years (1999/2003/2005/2007).

Houston is everyone’s popular choice as legitimately beating Miami as their starting lineup is comprised of the alleged best shooting guard in the league (according to a GM survey) and the most coveted Free Agent this past summer.  Their resumes in the Finals aren’t flattering at all as James Harden averaged 12.4 ppg for OKC against the Heat in 2012 and Dwight Howard only managed 15 per in 2009 as the Magic lost to the LA Lakers.

If and when Russell Westbrook returns to top tier form, the OKC Thunder should emerge from the West (yes over Dwight Howard’s Rockets, Duncan’s Spurs and Blake Griffin’s “Lob City is dead” Clippers) only to succumb, again, to the Miami Heat in the 2014 Finals as they did in 2012.

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