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So Bob Ryan is pitching in with the same opinion as everyone else,
that if you just "do the math," the Celtics won't make the playoffs.
Sportswriters all seem to use this predictive method that I would
call "Same as Last Year." They first assume that every team will
perform the same as they did the year before, and then adjust their
predictions based on offseason moves. It's certainly a reasonable
and safe way to predict standings, and really easy to do also, but
it's also superficial. And the NBA always has quite a few surprise
teams that every single writer gets wrong.
For instance, last year, was anyone predicting that Sacramento
would replace Seattle as a playoff team in the West? You look at
the West from 97-98 and you think, "No playoff team is going to
get dislodged by one of the lottery teams." Most writers were
criticizing Sacramento for trading good guy Mitch Richmond for
chronic underachiever and bad citizen Chris Webber. They blew
up their whole team, which is something that sportswriters hate
(kills chemistry, players don't know whether they're coming or
going, no loyalty, etc.) and got great results.
How about in the East? People were pretty much predicting that
everything would stay the same except that Chicago would go from
first to worst (tough call there) and everyone else would fight
for the last playoff spot. In reality, three other teams fell
from the playoffs while Orlando made a surprising jump from
lottery team to first place.
Anyways, my point is that there will be at least a few playoff
teams that drop out of the playoffs unexpectedly, possibly
because of injuries. Add that to the "expected" dropouts and
you're going to have a lot of spots to be taken in the East.
The Celtics, barring a rash of injuries and assuming the return
of Fortson, have got to be a contender for one of these spots.
Sportswriters only seem to have a memory that goes back to last
season but you just have to look back one more season when the
Celtics were a few games away from being in the playoff hunt,
and the talent this year in comparison to the talent that year.
The truth is that there are very few things that are set in stone
in the East this year. It'll be hard to predict what happens with
injuries which will likely be a big factor. With that in mind,
here are a few thoughts, in order of last year's finish:
1. Miami: One of the sure things in the East, unless Mourning goes
down with a season-ending injury. Even then I'd expect them to
claw their way into the playoffs.
2. Indiana: Losing Davis is going to hurt a team that is already
somewhat weak in rebounding and their main players are only getting
older. Their #1 offensive weapon, the Mark Jackson backdown, should
be taken away by the new rules, but Reggie Miller should make a
comeback now that they can't hold him when he cuts. Still a playoff
team. This is the year that the Celtics finally take a game from
3. Orlando: I think they could end up like Golden State did last
year after trading Sprewell: a lottery team, yet not as bad as you
would think given what they did to their team.
4. Atlanta: Honestly, I don't think they are a sure thing to make
the playoffs with a rookie point guard. They changed their team a
lot over the offseason and it's hard to say how they'll fit
together. A wild card.
5. Detroit: Dele and Dumars retiring will hurt them. If Laettner
returns to All-Star form, they are a playoff team. If he doesn't
perform for them, I'd say they are one of many candidates for the
bottom playoff spots.
6. Philadelphia: Likely to stay in the playoffs. Hughes is probably
going to be a bigger contributor which is what they need. Larry
Brown has done a good job crafting a team where everyone knows
their role, but I wonder whether he really traded away the future
in Van Horn for immediate gratification - a smart thing for his
career but not necessarily for the franchise. I wonder whether this
team will become the Atlanta Hawks of the next decade - always in
the playoffs but never really contenders. I could see Philadelphia
and Boston being a big rivalry when some of the older teams above
go into rebuilding.
7. Milwaukee: They were a .500 team after trading Brandon and Hill
but that was mostly without Cassell. I like their talent level on
paper and George Karl is a good coach, so probably a playoff team.
8. New York: You usually think the conference champion is a sure
thing to make the playoffs if they haven't gutted their team. I'm
not convinced though. I don't think that Camby is going to be
repeating his playoff performance level over the entire regular
season and they have been a mediocre team without Ewing in the
Anyways, there are very few sure things in the Eastern Conference
and I think we are sure to see some underachieving among at least
a few of these teams - injuries, bad chemistry, bad coaching, or
whatever. I really think the Celtics are going to surprise this
year if Fortson comes back healthy.