2010 NBA Preview: #11 to #15

New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire adjusts his glasses during an NBA preseason game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Paris on October 6, 2010. The Timberwolves won the contest, part of the annual NBA Europe Live tour, by the score of 106-100.  UPI/David Silpa Photo via Newscom

This year, I’m going to preview the NBA season by starting with the lowest of the low and working my way up to my Finals picks. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff also-ran, I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason.

#15: New York Knicks
The Knicks missed out on LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh this summer, but they did land Amare Stoudemire, and also acquired Raymond Felton to run the point. David Lee is gone, but New York did get a good young player in Anthony Randolph to take his place. In other words, this Knicks team is going to look a lot different than last year’s club, and probably for the better. Newcomers Ronny Turiaf, Kelenna Azubuike, Roger Mason, (promising) Russian center Timofey Mozgov along with Wilson Chandler and Toney Douglas will round out Mike D’Antoni’s rotation. Cap-wise, the Knicks are still in good shape. Eddy Curry’s $11 M expiring deal can be used as trade bait or the franchise can just let it come off the books, creating around $18 million in cap space next summer, which they could use to sign Carmelo Anthony if he hits free agency. The only big contract on the payroll is Stoudemire’s deal, and the Knicks really need him to stay healthy in order to get their money’s worth. This looks like a franchise on the rise, but they need to land one more star to threaten the upper echelon of the East.

#14: Atlanta Hawks
Entering this summer’s free agency period, no one thought that Joe Johnson was going to be the guy to sign the biggest contract, but that’s exactly what happened, and there’s a good chance that the Hawks come to regret the decision to offer him a max deal. This team has improved dramatically over the past few years, but doesn’t seem to be in any danger of making the Finals. The Hawks were pushed to seven games by an Andrew Bogut-less Bucks team. If that series proved anything, it’s that the Hawks are a long way from competing for an NBA title. Still, there’s enough talent here — Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford, Mike Bibby — to keep the Hawks competitive, but at the very best, Atlanta is just treading water in a conference that got a lot tougher this summer. Financially, I wouldn’t say that the team is screwed, but it’s going to be very difficult to add any talent to the roster. They should be able to keep the Johnson-Smith-Horford core together, however, and that should guarantee 40+ wins for the next few years.

March 28, 2010 Milwaukee, WI. Bradley Center..Milwaukee Bucks Andrew Bogut boxes out Grizzlies Darrell Arthur for the rebound..Milwaukee Bucks won over the Memphis Grizzlies 108-103, in overtime. Mike McGinnis/CSM.

#13: Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks’ emergence as an Eastern Conference upstart was one of the better stories of the 2009-10 season. The rise was a confluence of events — namely Andrew Bogut’s development as one of the best two-way centers in the league, the electric play of rookie point guard Brandon Jennings, the savvy trade for underrated swingman John Salmons and Scott Skiles’ ability to get his players to work on the defensive end. This summer, the Bucks added Corey Maggette (a move that will actually save them money this season), Drew Gooden and Jon Brockman, who collectively should bolster the team’s frontcourt. There are two big questions heading into the season: 1) Is Andrew Bogut healthy enough to play at a high level? and 2) Will Scott Skiles’ disciplined play start to wear on his team? The answer to those questions will determine whether or not the young Bucks will finish as a Top 5 seed in the East or be battling for a playoff spot late in the season. From a payroll standpoint, Michael Redd’s bloated salary will finally come off the books next summer, which will give the Bucks about $10 million in cap space In the long run, John Hammond may come to regret giving long-term contracts to Salmons and Gooden, but in the short term, those players will help to make this club competitive. Fear the deer.

#12: Portland Trail Blazers
It seems like every season, the Blazers look like they’re on the verge of joining the West’s elite and every season, injuries take their toll. There’s no doubt that Portland’s roster is talented, but can Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden (or Marcus Camby) stay healthy throughout the year? Because you need to be on the court in order to play. Seriously. Another issue may be Rudy Fernandez, who thinks he should be getting starter’s minutes even though he plays the same position as the team’s best player. Newcomer Wes Matthews will bolster the Blazers’ rotation at the wing, especially if Fernandez gets his wish and is traded. Cap-wise, the Blazers won’t have any significant flexibility until the summer of 2012, when Camby’s deal comes off the books. Still, with Roy and Aldridge in tow, Portland should be an attractive landing spot for a top tier free agent. Unfortunately, the Blazers just don’t seem like they’re ever going to put it together, and by firing the architect that put this team together (Kevin Pritchard), it has put the franchise in flux.

#11: Houston Rockets
Looking for a darkhorse in the West? Look no further. If Yao Ming can stay healthy (and that’s a real big IF), the Rockets are primed for a great season. They have potent backcourt with Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin, and a pair of do-the-dirty work forwards in Shane Battier and Luis Scola, who is coming off a terrific run at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. The bench is good too. The big question is whether or not Yao can enter the playoffs in good health. If he can, the Rockets will be a good bet to make a deep run. And Yao needs a good season since he’s entering the final year of his deal. He has spent the better part of the last few seasons injured, and we’re at the point where we’re wondering if a franchise can truly build around a player that is this injury-prone. With Yao, Battier and Jared Jeffries coming off the books next summer, the Rockets figure to have around $19 million in cap space, which puts the franchise in good position to move on if Yao’s feet continue to give him problems.

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