East's best offseason start: Nets, Pacers
Published July 24, 2005
This never set up as a Heat offseason for gaining ground, not when limited to a $5.1 million mid-level exception while keeping an eye on the luxury tax.
The goal merely has been maintaining enough of the momentum that left it within two minutes of the NBA Finals.
With Udonis Haslem back, with Shaquille O'Neal a signature away and with free-agent guard Damon Jones the only significant challenge among the primary players, it likely will be the course of others that will restructure the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Detroit: Don't understate the banishment of Larry Brown.
Yes, the Pistons are at their best amid a crusade, but no one is as masterful as creating an us (me?)-against-the-world mentality as Brown.
Until Rasheed Wallace exhibits the same devotion to Flip Saunders as he did toward Brown, nothing is guaranteed.
And with Saunders practically mandated to develop Darko Milicic and Carlos Delfino, maintaining previous results with an altered rotation could prove especially challenging.
New Jersey: In landing Shareef Abdur-Rahim on the cheap, Rod Thorn rounded out an already potent perimeter attack with a desperately needed low-post element. This could stand as the league's most significant addition this offseason.
With a full season Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, plus the potential of first-round pick Antoine Wright and the emergence of Nenad Krstic, New Jersey presents as intriguing an offense as any this side of Phoenix.
Essentially, the Nets swapped out Jason Collins from their starting lineup for Abdur-Rahim. In the East, that's enough turn a No. 8 seed into someone holding homecourt advantage in the first round.
Indiana: Ron Artest not only went out of his way to participate in summer league but displayed enough on and off the court to leave the Pacers confident that little has been lost from perhaps the best two-way player in the Eastern Conference.
Yes, Reggie Miller is gone, but Stephen Jackson has a full season with the team, Jeramine O'Neal should be over the shoulder problems, Danny Granger was added in the first round, and there is the possibility of Lithuanian shooting ace Sarunas Jasikevicius in free agency.
The Pacers still have Rick Carlisle; the Pistons lost Brown. That makes Indiana the new frontrunner in the Central.
Cleveland: Yes, Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall were added in free agency, and yes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was retained.
But none of the three ever won a second-round playoff series. So how exactly are they getting to ease the path to greater glory for LeBron James?
Had Larry, and not Mike Brown been added as coach, the view might change. But, lacking anything more at point guard than Eric Snow, this team shapes up as little more than one content to hand James his first ticket to the postseason.
Milwaukee: In retaining Michael Redd, signing Bobby Simmons, drafting Andrew Bogut, trading for Jiri Welsch and regaining T.J. Ford, the Bucks have the look of a team headed in the right direction, even amid the confounding dismissal of coach Terry Porter.
Now Milwaukee has to learn to play as a team, one at least three years from serious contention. Dealing Desmond Mason for a power player would certainly advance the process.
Washington: Antonio Daniels, Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins are in; Hughes and Kwame Brown are out. The upshot? Still not enough defensively or inside to be more than a second-round nuisance.
The rest: Philadelphia, at best, will remain intact ... Boston likely will lose Antoine Walker and Gary Payton, has gained Brian Scalabrine, and will grow painfully younger ... The Knicks will remain an ill-conceived roster wrapped in a soap opera, one likely weighed down by the free-agent addition of Jerome James ... Chicago will continue to grow into a team that could emerge about the same time as Milwaukee, in the post-Shaq era ... Charlotte also will age well.
THE FLIP FLOP
Saunders offered an interesting spin on his 17-30 NBA playoff coaching record, noting of his tenure with the Timberwolves, "The way I look at it, we were never a favorite in the series that we lost." That, however, misses the point. Detroit wasn't the favorite when it beat the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals, nor were the Pistons favorites when they defeated the Heat in this spring's Eastern Conference finals. The strength of the Pistons under Brown was they thrived as underdogs, something that will require Saunders to make the next step in his career.
Teams lacking at power forward might give another look to journeyman Lonny Baxter, who averaged 21 points for Houston's undefeated entry to lead all scorers in the Minnesota summer league. ... For as much as the Rockets will trumpet the addition of wildly erratic free agent Stromile Swift, one has to wonder if coach Jeff Van Gundy won't prove more comfortable with veteran Juwan Howard back at power forward alongside Yao Ming....
Former Heat forward Malik Allen has drawn free-agent interest from the Nets, although it wouldn't be surprising to see Allen linked to the Heat before all is said and done.
Indiana the new front runner in the central? Of course I agree!