2008 NBA Preview: #16 Washington Wizards

Offseason Movement: The Wizards big move this offseason was to re-sign Gilbert Arenas to a huge contract (six years, $111 million). By doing so, they were able to keep their core of Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison together. It was a risky signing for the team given all the problems he has had with his balky knee.
Keep Your Eye On: Gilbert’s knee
Simply stated, if the Wizards can keep Arenas, Jamison and Butler healthy, they’re probably a playoff team. If they lose any one of those players for an extended period of time, they’ll struggle to make the postseason.
The Big Question: Was the Arenas signing the best thing for the Wizards?
One school of thought would to let Arenas and Jamison go (via free agency or trade) and build around the much more affordable Butler. But he’s 28, and by the time the Wizards were “rebuilt,” he’d be past his prime. The Wizards pretty much had to sign Arenas and Jamison and hope that another player or two (Andray Blatche, Nick Young, JaVale McGee, etc.) can emerge as a quality starter or role player. The Wizards aren’t going to have any salary cap room for a while, so they may be regretting this summer’s moves in two or three years when they’re still a .500 team and in cap hell.
Outlook: If all goes well, the Wizards will be safely in the playoffs. They’ll eventually lose in the first or second round. If a star gets injured for any length of time, they’ll miss the playoffs. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

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2008 NBA Preview: #17 Chicago Bulls

Offseason Movement: The Bulls were relatively quiet this summer, but they did manage to sign Luol Deng to an extension. They were unable to sign Ben Gordon to a long-term deal, so it looks like he’s on his way out of town. He’ll be motivated for his next contract and would be a good candidate for an in-season trade. The team also signed Vinny Del Negro as its head coach.
Keep Your Eye On: Derrick Rose, PG
The #1 overall pick should see lots of action in the backcourt with Kirk Hinrich sliding over to shooting guard. Physically, he’s ready to play in the NBA and has the makings of an impact point guard not unlike Chris Paul or Deron Williams. He needs to work on his jumper, but once he gets that going, watch out.
The Big Question: When is this team going to fulfill its potential?
For the last few seasons, the Bulls have seemingly been on the verge of putting together something special. They shot themselves in the foot when they (way) overspent on Ben Wallace and sent Tyson Chandler to New Orleans where he’s now emerging as a star. With a starting lineup of Rose, Hinrich, Deng, Drew Gooden and Joakim Noah, along with a bench that includes Andres Nocioni, Larry Hughes and Ben Gordon, the team has the talent to compete with anyone in the East. The question is chemistry.
Outlook: The same old same old. Once again, Bulls fans look at their team’s roster and see a group of very good players. Deng is the closest that the team has to a star, so in a way, the Bulls lack an identity. Until someone emerges, whether it’s Deng or Rose (or someone else), the Bulls will be a mediocre team with the potential to be a contender. It’s not clear what Del Negro will bring to the table in his first season, so come April, it seems likely that the Bulls will be fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch in the weaker Eastern Conference.

2008 NBA Preview: #18 Milwaukee Bucks

Offseason Movement: New GM John Hammond was busy this summer wheeling and dealing. Two starters from last season are gone. The Bucks traded Mo Williams to Cleveland in a three-way deal that brought Luke Ridnour from Seattle/OKC. Williams was more of a scorer, while Ridnour is definitely a pass-first point guard. The team also traded Yi Jianlian (and Bobby Simmons) to the Nets for Richard Jefferson. This move implies that the team is in “win now” mode, which makes sense given the roster.
Keep Your Eye On: Charlie Villanueva
Everyone thought that Charlie V would be one of the first Bucks to go once Hammond took over, but the team dealt Yi instead and they’re expecting V to take over at power forward. In the 31 games he started last season, he averaged 15/8, so if he can play enough defense to make new coach Scott Skiles happy, he could be in for a big year. The Bucks sure need him to break out, and there’s a good bet that he will, especially if he takes the ball to the hole more.
The Big Question: Can Scott Skiles whip this team into shape?
For the last several years, the Bucks have lacked a defensive mindset and toughness. There’s definitely enough talent to compete; a starting five of Ridnour, Michael Redd, Jefferson, Villanueva and Bogut makes for a good young core of skilled offensive players. If Skiles can get them to increase their effort on defense, the team should make a jump in the standings. It’s no sure thing that all the players will buy in; it’s just as likely that the Bucks will be looking at a losing record two months in and Skiles will have a revolt on his hands.
Outlook: Encouraging. The addition of Jefferson is a huge upgrade at small forward, which has been a weak spot for the last two seasons. The loss of Yi is a loss of potential only, as Villanueva should be able to produce better numbers from that position. Assuming good play from Redd and continued growth from Bogut, the Bucks are one of the darkhorses in the East. If Ridnour helps the team meld into a single cohesive unit offensively and Skiles can get them into the middle of the pack defensively, then the Bucks will be in business.

2008 NBA Preview: #19 Denver Nuggets

Offseason Movement: In what can only be considered as a straight salary cap dump, the Nuggets traded stalwart center Marcus Camby to the Clippers for the right to swap second round picks in 2010. Given Camby’s more-than-reasonable contract (two years, $15.7 million) and defensive prowess, it left a lot of people scratching their heads, especially when the team turned around and signed J.R. Smith to a deal worth $16.5 million over three years.
Keep Your Eye On: J.R. Smith/Linas Kleiza
The team says that whoever plays better defense will get the bulk of the minutes. Both players are offensive-minded and are capable of putting up points in bunches. Smith has the better PER (18.15 compared to Kleiza’s 14.43) and is a year younger (22). The Nuggets are already defensively challenged, and neither guy is going to make anyone forget about Camby’s excellence in that area of the game.
The Big Question: What is the Nuggets plan?
They didn’t trade Allen Iverson, but they did trade Marcus Camby. Are the Nuggets trying to win now or are they building for the future? The Camby trade implies the latter, but the fact that they held on to both Carmelo Anthony (smart) and AI (not smart) indicates that the team is still trying to win with (mostly) the same group as the last few years. Iverson is in the last year of his contract ($21.9 million) so if the Nuggets don’t get off to a good start, expect them to move him before the trade deadline, assuming they can find a trade partner with something of value to offer (like a few expiring contracts and a first round draft pick or two).
Outlook: Confused. The loss of Camby means that the Nuggets are likely to take a step back, which means they are at the bottom of the playoff picture in the West. If they miss the playoffs, Iverson won’t be on the roster next season, so this will be a very interesting year in Denver.

2008 NBA Preview: #20 Atlanta Hawks

Offseason Movement: The Hawks screwed the pooch when they failed to sign Josh Childress to a long-term deal. They didn’t think he had any leverage since he was a restricted free agent, but he had the cojones to sign a deal with a Greek team instead of signing a one-year tender with the Hawks. Childress is the biggest talent to leave the NBA to play overseas in the prime of the career, and the Hawks will forever be known as the team that let him go. They replaced Childress with…wait for it…Maurice Evans.
Keep Your Eye On: Marvin Williams
Thus far, the former #2 overall pick has been decidedly average – he ranks 29th amongst all small forwards in PER. The good news is that he’s just 22 and entering the final year of his rookie contract. His qualifying offer next year ($7.3 milllion) is big enough that the Hawks could conceivably pass if he doesn’t show substantial improvement this season. The team usually went with Childress at small forward in crunch time, but now those minutes should belong to Williams, and he needs to make he most of them.
The Big Question: Which direction is this team headed?
The Hawks were a surprise playoff team last season and they took the NBA champs to seven games in the first round. But Mike Bibby is a year older (and a year slower) and they lost utility-man Josh Childress. I thought it was a mistake to trade for Bibby, and now he’s in the final year of his contract ($15.2 million), which means he might become a distraction as the season wears on. If they elect to let him play out his deal, the team will have a load of cap room next summer, so it looks like the Hawks could take a step back before taking another step forward.
Outlook: The long-term outlook is bright. The Hawks have Josh Smith (5 years) and Al Horford (4 years) locked up for the foreseeable future. Joe Johnson is under contract for two more years, but the Hawks have enough salary cap flexibility to make a splash in the next year or two for a star free agent. Until then, they’ll have to settle for the chance to fight for a playoff spot in the mediocre East.

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