From the Booth

Mike Fratello and Ian Eagle break down New Jersey’s 97-87 victory over the Bobcats on Sunday night.

Around the League

NBA 2011-2012 Eastern Conference Season Preview

Pro basketball diehards should be sated come the 25th. The lockout-shrunk 66-game NBA regular season kicks off on Christmas Day with five intriguing matchups. It’s been a long, long time since Dirk and Dallas bested Miami’s Big Three 4-2 in the 2011 NBA Finals. A lot has happened in this extended offseason to re-calibrate the pecking order of ‘power teams,’ and undoubtedly a lot more changes will occur in the near future as teams look to solidify their rosters in hopes of making the postseason for a shot at the 2012 NBA Title. Here’s a look at the East and some of the challenges each franchise faces in the upcoming season.

Atlantic Division

Photo by Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Boston Celtics, with their solid if aging core of four returning All-Stars Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, will make one last run to the Finals to try and win a second ring for this Hall-of-Fame trio and now veteran PG Rondo. Coach Doc Rivers signed a new five-year deal with the team last spring after rumors of his probable departure. The Green traded one LSU power forward for another, getting 6’8” Brandon Bass for 6’8” Glen Davis. The downsized C’s will miss TNT’s newest addition Shaquille O’Neal, who hung up his size 23’s after a stellar 19-year career, and 6’9” 5th-year Hoya Jeff Green, who was recently diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm that will sideline him for the entire season.

The New York Knicks, with the acquisition of newly-signed center Tyson Chandler, have what many hoops-heads think is the best starting frontcourt in the entire league. Forwards Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony give the MSG-guys tons of inside-outside scoring. The Knicks waived starting PG Chauncey Billups (now a Clipper) utilizing the new amnesty clause to make room for Chandler’s salary, so they might be a little thin in the backcourt. However, the last time there was a shortened season in 1999 the Knicks made it all the way to the NBA Finals.

The Philadelphia 76ers, who finished 41-41 and lost to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs last Spring, have 8th-year, do-everything Andre Iguodala and 13th-year big Elton Brand returning along with Coach Doug Collins, who in his first year on the City-of-Brotherly-Love bench had the team peaking going into the postseason. The Sixers went 28-18 over their last 44 contests before getting out-talented by the South Beach Sizzles. Having overachieved last season, they face the difficult challenge of having to play at a very high level throughout the shortened season to replicate their 2011 results.

The New Jersey Nets, who will move to Brooklyn next year, are gearing up for their last season in the Garden State. Coach Avery Johnson’s guys were 24-58 last year. But in the second half of the schedule they traded for sixth-year All-Star PG Deron Williams. Williams is one of the truly elite lead guards in the game today and makes the Nets an enticing destination for another All-Star like Dwight Howard. Fourth-year 7-footer Brook Lopez can at times be a force around the rim. He averaged 20.4 ppg last year, starting all 82, but only grabbed six rpg. Unfortunately the Nets will be without their leading scorer for 6-8 weeks due to a stress fracture Brook suffered in a preseason game against the Knicks, which will impact both the Nets’ early season play and the prospect of a trade with Orlando.

The Toronto Raptors, who finished 22-60 in 2011, will attempt to reinvent themselves under first-year head coach Dwane Casey. 2006 first overall pick 7’0” Andrea Bargnani from Rome Italy and 6’10” newly bulked-up Tarheel Ed Davis, now in is sophomore season, lead Toronto. This roster will probably change a few times during the upcoming months as Canada’s NBA reps try to tinker and tailor with on-court combinations to keep pace with their Atlantic Division brethren.

Southeast Division

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Miami Heat took more ‘heat’, warranted and unwarranted, from the basketball universe and beyond than any other team in the league. In 2012 they will be looking to not only make the Finals again, but to come out victorious and silence the critics and haters. The Heatles lost PG Mike Bibby, but gained ‘Mr. Glue’ 11th-year defensive savant Shane Battier. With their Big 3 of LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh having withstood a season in the trenches, both physically and mentally, expect the more experienced Heat to come out on fire with an in-sync attack.

The Orlando Magic face one of the most daunting tasks in the league – trying to win a division title with the Megatron Miami Heat sitting right above them. There is a lot of uncertainty here. Orlando, who finished 52-30 in 2011 and lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, will continue to have several suitors for First Team All-NBA center Dwight Howard until his future is firmly decided. The Magic do have vets Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson on the wings along with newly acquired forward Glen Davis, so this squad could stay as is if Howard chooses to sign an extension.

The Atlanta Hawks, who finished 44-38 and then lost to the Chicago Bulls in the second round of the playoffs last spring, have a strong, athletic, talented trio in 11th-year G Joe Johnson, 8th-year F Josh Smith and 5th-year F/C Al Horford. Super sixth man Jamal Crawford left for Portland, but the Hawks signed former 2x All-NBA First Teamer Tracy McGrady for the veteran minimum. With 14 seasons under his belt at only 32-years of age, maybe T-Mac will have a last gasp of greatness to help push this squad deeper into the postseason.

The Washington Wizards, with sophomore point guard John Wall, who finished second to Blake Griffin in the 2011 ROY voting, and rookie 6’11” combo-forward Jan Vesely, look to be on the upswing after a difficult 23-59 2011 season. It will take some time for the Wiz to put together a solid core through the draft and free agency, but with former #1 overall pick Wall steering the DC Ship and some healthy cap space for next summer, the Wiz should slowly be heading north in the standings.

The Charlotte Bobcats, who finished 34-48 last tilt, have exciting rookies in 7th overall pick Congolese PF 6’9” Bismack Biyombo and 9th overall pick UConn National Champ PG Kemba Walker. The Queen City ‘Cats will have trouble finding wins in the very competitive Southeast division. Charlotte is in the classic and often frustrating ‘rebuilding mode’ and can’t do a whole lot until next year when a lot of their current, underachieving contracts are off the books.

Central Division

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Chicago Bulls, who owned the NBA’s best regular season record in 2011 at 62-20, are the top team by a large measure in the Central Division. The Bulls have locked up reigning MVP Derrick Rose by signing him to a five-year contract extension. Now in only his fourth pro season, Rose is sure to be great again and to continue widening his lightning-quick offensive repertoire. Surrounding the 23-year-old Rose is 10th-year PF Carlos Boozer, 8th-year SF Luol Deng, 5th-year, 6’11”double-double rubberband-man Joakim Noah, perimeter marksmen Kyle Korver and newly signed 3X NBA All-Star G Richard Hamilton. The Bulls, who lost to Miami in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, have depth galore. The question is do they have a consistent and solid 2nd and 3rd man to help Rose when top-tier teams key on him?

The Indiana Pacers qualified for the 2011 post-season with a 37-45 regular season record. They lost to top seed Chicago in the first round after putting a scare into the Bulls. Coach Frank Vogel’s roster has talent: 7th -year, 2-spot/3-spot Danny Granger, 3rd-year point guard Darren Collison, 7’2” center Roy Hibbert, forward Tyler ‘The Motor’ Hansbrough and 2nd-year guard Paul George. Indy acquired David West from the Hornets to help out on offense. This is a squad with decent, but not top-notch talent. So the challenge will be to make the sum greater than the parts with core chemistry and focused roles.

The Milwaukee Bucks, who finished the 2011 season with a 35-47 record, know where they must improve: offense. The Bucks averaged a league-worst 91.9 ppg and also had the lowest shooting percentage from the field. Coach Scott Skiles has former #1 overall pick 7’ center Andrew Bogut and 3rd-year point guard Brandon Jennings along with newly acquired vets Stephen Jackson and Mike Dunleavy to share the load. This team has weapons, but they are often undermined by the huge holes on offense that put pressure on Milwaukee’s defensive game and make it that much harder to rack up W’s.

The Detroit Pistons, with new head coach Lawrence Frank and the 8th pick in the 2011 NBA draft PG Brandon Knight, hope to improve on a tumultuous and strife-filled 30-52 season. Richard Hamilton is gone leaving Ben Gordon, 10th-year forward Tayshaun Prince, leading rebounder Greg Monroe at center, leading scorer/combo guard Rodney Stuckey, Charlie Villanueva and Will Bynum. The Motown Men have talent, but again, not playoff-caliber talent. So the Pistons will probably be on the outside looking in when the playoffs start.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished a disappointing, post-LeBron 19-63 in 2011, landed the first and fourth picks in the 2011 Draft. With #1 they chose Duke Freshman PG Kyrie Irving, and they took U. of Texas Freshman PF/SF Tristan Thompson with #4. The Cavs released veteran PG Baron Davis through the new amnesty clause and will be looking to deal salary away for future draft picks. Coach Byron Scott and the Cavs organization have a lot of work to do through the drafting and development of young players before they’ll be back in the top 8 of the East.

Fratello’s Fantasy Pick: Gerald Henderson

Sophomore shooting guard Gerald Henderson is shaping into a future franchise star for the Charlotte Bobcats. A very athletic player who can run and defend, Henderson does a little bit of everything. And he’s a terrific team member.

Henderson hails from Duke University’s prestigious basketball program. During his junior year he led the Blue Devils in scoring with16.5 points per game on the way to a First-Team All-ACC award and ACC tournament championship. Henderson entered the 2009 NBA draft after his junior year and was selected 12th overall by the Charlotte Bobcats.

When Henderson first entered the league, people questioned his ball handling skills and his ability to make shots from the perimeter. Henderson has worked very hard to make significant improvements in both areas. Inserted into the Bobcats’ starting lineup after Gerald Wallace was traded to Portland, Henderson’s minutes have nearly tripled since last season, and so has his productivity. Henderson is up from 2.6 to 8.2 ppg this year. He’s pulling down 2-3 rebounds per game on average this month and dishing out a couple assists.

Henderson struggled in last week’s loss to the Thunder, hitting just 2 of 7 shots. ‎But he ended the week on a high note, scoring 19 points against the No.1 Spurs on Saturday. With Stephen Jackson sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Jackson took over the reigns and hit 9 of 14 shots from the field. He also recorded four rebounds, one assist, and two steals in 37 minutes. The Bobcats have dropped 9 of their last 11 games. But they still remain in striking distance for the eighth playoff seed in the East, currently held by Indiana. The Bobcats will host the Pacers at home on Wednesday. Top scorer Jackson is listed as doubtful to play against the Pacers, so Henderson will likely have another opportunity to score in the double digits.

Czar’s Season Update: Blazers-Bobcats Trade

[nba-video vid=channels/nba_tv/2011/02/24/]

Fratello Telestrator: Gerald Wallace

[nba-video vid=channels/tnt_overtime/2011/02/12/]