The Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have nine new players and a new coaching staff. Sure, management whiffed on their attempts to sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh. But all is not lost. They have a former All-Star (Carlos Boozer), a couple of possible future All-Stars (Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson), and a budding Superstar (Derrick Rose). They imported shooters (Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans), an athlete (Ronnie Brewer) and a crafty veteran (Kurt Thomas). Oh, and they have Luol Deng. For 60-65 games anwway. If they're lucky.
Of course, Boozer set a personal record by getting injured before he'd even played a single preseason game. By falling over a bag. At home. Seriously. The dude probably won't be back until December. Meanwhile, Ronnie Brewer (sore hamstring), C.J. Watson (strained left quadriceps), Taj Gibson (sore right heel) and now Kyle Korver (cyst in his left ankle) have all had ticky-tac injuries. If a window mysteriously slams shut on Noah's hands or a piano falls out of the sky and lands on Rose, I'm going to start thinking the Curse of the Billy Goat has been transferred from the Cubs to the Bulls (with a brief layover at Soldier Field to hit Jay Cutler with another 23 sacks).
With Boozer out, the Bulls might be a casualty of their schedule: In November -- a stretch of 13 games -- Chicago faces eight playoff teams and a Houston squad that should return to the playoffs if Yao Ming can stay healthy for a change. After a tough opening stretch in which they face the Trail Blazers (home), Celtics (road) and Nuggets (home), the Bulls close out the month with a brutal seven-game road trip that features two sets of back-to-backs and consecutive games against the Rockets, Spurs, Mavericks, Lakers, Suns and Nuggets.
And did I mention this team has a league-high 23 sets of back-to-back games?
There's really no figuring out how good the Bulls will be until Boozer is back and manages to shake off the rust from his layoff. But injuries -- seriously, can we just schedule Deng's 15-game absence in advance? -- and a rugged calendar of events will cap this team's potential at 40-45 games. Unless Rose and Noah can make a big leap up. Without falling back down and landing on their heads.
The Cleveland Cavaliers
At this point, it's hard to tell which would have been more devestating to Cleveland: LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach or just dropping a couple nukes on the city. I'm going to go with the LeBron thing. At least the nukes would have been quick and less heartwrenching. Who wouldn't prefer instant incineration or death by radiation poisoning to the hopeless pining for your former hero? Let's face it, King Crab didn't just stab Cleveland in the back, he treated the wound with a lemon juice and acid drip. Every triple-double he has for the Heat will just be another shot to the city's crotch. That's what Clevelanders are in store for: 82 games worth of kicks to the groin.
So what's left? Even with a back-to-back MVP, this squad couldn't make it to the NBA Finals. Heck, last season, the Cavs didn't even reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Now it's Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao against The World. I don't know about you, but my money's on The World. And I'm betting big.
It's hard to determine what kind of ceiling this team has -- will they be runny, oozing poop or the hard, calcified kind? -- but I can tell you this much: When new coach Byron Scott falls asleep on the bench this season, he'll be dreaming wistfully of his past firings and begging for the sweet, sweet release his next axing will bring.
The Detroit Pistons
During the summer of 2009, Joe Dumars lost his damn mind and dropped $90 million on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. (Every time I type that sentence, I have-wonder whether I've lost control of my fingers.) Mind you, those signings happened in the immediate aftermath of trading Chauncey Billups -- only the heart and soul of the freaking team -- for Allen Iverson, who basically quit the team after being relegated to a bench role (a fact that Dumars actually tried to hide by citing a back injury). Anyway, after Dumars obliterated the team's cap space for the foreseeable future, the Pistons suffered all sorts of injuries and essentially fell apart.
And you know what? For Dumars, that was the best thing that could have happened. The injuries provided a smokescreen and built-in excuse for failure. "But, but, but...we were injured, man! Wait 'till next year!"
Yeah, well, next year is here, Joe.
Take a gander at this team's roster. The starting point guard (Rodney Stuckey) isn't a point guard (according to ESPN's John Hollinger, Stuckey ranked 64th out of 71 point guards in assist ratio). Their starting shooting guard (Rip Hamilton) is in the midst of a steady decline and his backup (Gordon) is a defenseless gunner. Tayshaun Prince still does a little bit of everything well, but nothing great. Villanueva is a spotty shooter (who loves to shoot!) and a lousy defender. Ben Wallace is the team's starting center. I know he was better than expected last season, but that was mostly in comparison the dead, rotting body everybody thought he was. Trust me, he won't have a second rivival year.
The bench -- Jason Maxiell and Will Bynum in particular -- used to get a lot of hype, but the shine's off the apple. And Dumars brought in Tracy McGrady for...what exactly? Does the team get some kind of tax relief for taking on crippled players?
Detroit's offense is going to revolve around isolations, clearouts, relentless chucking of outside shots and whatever Big Ben can scrape up on the offensive glass. As for the defense, I hope Dumars spent whatever was left in the petty cash jar on matador capes. This team will be lucky to win 30 games. And trust me, those are going to be 30 of the ugliest games you're going to see this season.
The Indiana Pacers
Larry Bird's master plan for rebuilding the Pacers took a major blow this offseason when Bird willingly sacrificed one of his slow white players (Troy Murphy) in return for two African American players (Darren Collison and James Posey). It was a rare smart move by Bird, which makes me wonder whether he fell asleep at the Trade Machine, accidentally mashed some keys, and didn't wake up in time to cancel the deal. Larry, what happened? Didn't you realize there are still some white players in the league who aren't on your roster? I mean, did you even try to sign Kyle Korver? What's going on here?!
In all seriousness, I like the Collison acquisition for Indy. This team has been searching for a reliable point guard since Mark Jackson left. That's been a long time, by the way. Danny Granger is a strong scorer who doesn't do much else. (Me being me, I don't like the fact that he shot 42 percent from the field last year. Plus his durability is in question -- Granger has missed 15 and 20 games the past two seasons.) After those two guys, the Pacers have...uhm...what exactly? Think about it. Think really, really hard. Don't pop a vein or anything, though.
That's what I'm talking about. In 2003-04, the Pacers finished 61-21, which was the best record in the league. In 2004-05, Ron Artest lost his mind and destroyed the team, maybe forever. Since The Malice at the Palace, the Pacers have won 44, 41, 35, 36, 36 and 32 games. This season, they'll probably be just plucky enough to win another 35 games or so. If Larry keeps this up, they'll be a 35-win team for the rest of the decade.
I've said it before: God hates the Pacers.
The Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are generating some serious darkhorse buzz. And on paper, there's reason for optimism. Their starting lineup -- Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden and Andrew Bogut -- are projected to be worth about 100 PPG this season. Plus, the Bucks have some reserves (Carlos Delfino, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Kenyon Dooling and Chris Douglas-Roberts) who can make some noise off the bench. And hey, what if Michael Redd regains what is known as "human function" in his surgically repaired knee? The sky is the limit, dear readers.
Oh, who am I kidding? Last season, Scott Skiles somehow kept from losing his shit despite the wildly misdirected shooting of Brandon Jennings. This year, he's going to have to deal with perennial underachievers in Maggette and Gooden. I can tell you from experience that Skiles doesn't handle underachievers very well. If his head hasn't exploded -- Scanners-style! -- by the trade deadline, we need to check his basement for Body Snatcher pods.
Should other NBA teams "Fear the Deer"? Maybe. The team's got talent (although I wonder where their three-point shooting is going to come from). And they overachieved last season even in the face of adversity and injuries. My take: This team looks better on paper than it actually is. The Bucks could win 45 games or so -- have you taken a look around the Eastern Conference? Blech! -- but do you think guys on the Celtics, Heat or Magic are quaking in their very expensive sneakers? Yeah. Me neither.