Bloguin Roundtable #1: Road to the Playoffs (pt. 2)

There are some amazing NBA blogs within this network. Don’t believe me? Visit a few of them via the Bloguin Roll button. A few of us decided to draw on that talent, and have a round-table discussion… of course – not everyone participated, a lot of people are too busy, or not buzzed by the topic. But participating in the first round of discussion was the wise Dave Kelsey (T-Wolves Blog), the fantastic David Pustilnik (Da Bullseye), the esteemed Gene Zarnick (Favre Dollar Footlongs), the inestimable Mookie (A Stern Warning), the wonderful Jeff Fox (The Hoops Manifesto) and Don (With Malice).
The discussion was conducted via email, and was VERY informal. Worth noting that it was started about a week ago and took more than several days, thus some of the information in it is a little dated (yes, the NBA does change that quickly!)

The Topic

With a little more than a month remaining of the NBA schedule, who do you see as the main contenders? Who’s a dark horse? What teams do you think will surprise, and who will disappoint?
Or you can view it as:
1. Who do you see as the main contenders?
2. Who’s a dark horse?
3. What teams do you think will surprise;
4. and who will disappoint?
This is part 2, part 1 was yesterday, and part 3 is to follow…

Don (With Malice):
Ok… throwing this question out there (primarily to David – who’s answered – but others too!):
Given thus far we’re looking at LA/Cleveland/Orlando, what does each need to do to get over the hump?
My answer would be:
– LA. Forget about wins. Forget about offense. Forget about defense. Forget Xs & Os. Get back your intensity, the rest will follow.
– Cleveland. Can Shaq/Z a) maintain their health, & b) fit back in upon return? Two big Qs. And a caveat: Cleveland will only beat Orlando if Shaq can control/limit Dwight.
– Orlando. Dwight needs to stop having nightmares about Shaq.
Dave Pustilnik (Da Bullseye):
I think the Lakers are just in their own heads right now. It’s that late-season lull that a great team always has to eventually put behind them before their intensity returns.
I remember the ’98 Bulls went through the exact same thing, which prevented them from winning 70 games in back-to-back seasons. As soon as the playoffs are in sight, all this talk about being “soft” and not wanting it will be long-gone. The keys for LA are to just get out of their own heads and start to play consistent basketball leading into the playoffs (whether they win or lose is of minimal importance), and of course, stay healthy.

Please click “Read More” to continue the second part of the Roundtable Discussion…

For Cleveland, the health of their frontcourt is the biggest question mark.
Shaq says he’ll be ready before season’s end, but will he return to mid-season form come playoff time? I think he will. But if he needs someone to cover some minutes, hopefully Big Z will be able to do that after having over a month off from actual game play.
On top of all that, Jamison is ailing right now with a sore knee, so the key for this team is to get healthy…period. I really don’t think fitting back in when they return will be an issue. LeBron’s play-making ability pretty much guarantees chemistry among teammates.
But still, the most important piece that needs to come back strong is Shaq. He is the only guy, at age 38, who can control Howard. As long as he wins a few battles here and there and does his best to limit Howard’s production, LeBron will take care of the rest.
As for Orlando, it’s like you said, Don. Dwight needs stop letting Shaq get in his head. I really thing this “Superman” garbage has gotten to him. I think when he knows he’s matching up against Shaq, there’s going to be a little more hesitation and a little less aggressiveness…and that’s bad for business. If Dwight Howard can go out there and understand that he can draw a foul on Shaq pretty much every time so long as he attacks, and remembers that he’s 14 years younger, that playoff series will be much more competitive. Otherwise, I think it’ll be all Cleveland. Orlando just doesn’t have anyone who can neutralize or counter LeBron’s productivity.

Jeff Fox (The Hoops Manifesto):
I basically broke down in this recent article – what I feel the criteria for a championship team is (and history backs me up): 1) a current All-NBA big man on the roster and 2) two star players in their prime. Using those guidelines, here’s my answers to these pressing questions:

1. Who do you see as the main contenders?
Despite the Lakers recent struggles and injuries, they have to still be considered the favourites to win the title. They actually have more pieces in place with this year’s team than last year’s. Ron Artest’s stats might not be great, but he is still a terror on defense. Andrew Bynum continues to progress. Lamar Odom is still a glue, do-it-all guy. And they have two stars in place – Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. I think the main thing is everyone seems to and accept their role on the team.

Other than that, Orlando is the only other real contender in my eyes. The main weakness there is the lack of a consistent, secondary star to Dwight Howard. If Vince Carter can come close to playing like he did the rest of his career, they will be a dangerous team.

2. Who’s a dark horse?
In my opinion, there are far more dark horses than legit contenders this year. Atlanta probably is still a year or so away but it wouldn’t be shocking if they went deep this year. Dallas has plenty of talent and have been flying under the radar. But my real dark horse is the Utah Jazz. They have a star inside-outside combo in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer and solid secondary pieces in Mehmet Okur, Paul Milsap and Andrei Kirilenko. Do I think they are going to win the title? No, but they are a team that doesn’t get much publicity that could be dangerous.

3. What teams do you think will surprise…
Same answer as question 2.

4. Who will disappoint?
If you read the link to my story I included at the start of this e-mail, you can guess who I think will disappoint – Cleveland. Other than LeBron, they are a bunch of over the hill stars and average players. If they have Shaq and Jamison circa about 5 years ago, then they’d be a legit contender. As it stands now, I don’t see them winning the title, or even necessarily getting out of the East.

Mookie (A Stern Warning):
1. Who do you see as the main contenders?
All the way through the season, I’ve seen the Lakers as the “owners” of the West and quite frankly, the league. However, of late, they have shown some chinks in the armour. The Mavs and the Nuggets have shown that the LakeShow is not infallible and that given an off night or two, they could be shown up and upset in a playoff series.
Now, I’m not one to fall for flash in the pan stuff, so I still have the Lakers as the team to beat and the best in the West — however, I do think that the Mavs have a serious chance of upsetting them. With the addition of Caron Butler (a player that the Lakers should never have lost) and Brendan Haywood, Dallas is looking very strong.
As at March 12th they’re suddenly on a 13 game roll and only 2.5 games behind the Lakers. You could say that this wakeup call is exactly what Phil Jackson’s troops need — and I think you might be right. With the talent they have in that lineup, led by KB24, it has to be Lakers in the West.
In the East, I sense a shift in power. Much like with the Lakers, I’ve seen the Cavs as “the team to beat” all the way through the season, since the pre-season. Suddenly however, the Magic are making their move and things are appearing to click a lot more.
It makes sense that making such an integral change in swapping Hedo Turkoglu for Vince Carter was going to cause upheaval — you’re talking about a key cog there — so it’s not surprising that it has taken a while.
The Cavs certainly have a great squad, but they need to ensure that they can integrate Antawn Jamison into this lineup, hope that Shaquille O’Neal is back in time for the playoffs and also sort out Zydrunas Ilgauskas, ensuring that he melds well with Jamison in the front-court.
Boston has fallen off the pace a bit. A lot actually. I think it’s safe to say that they’ll make some impact, but will not be a contender in the Eastern Conference Finals — that will be Magic v Cavs. I can see the Magic pulling that one off somehow. A Lakers v Magic Finals series would be very entertaining, as anyone who watched their recent matchup can attest to.
2. Who’s a dark horse?
Dallas is certainly the dark horse for me. With the focus having been on the Lakers for this long, Dallas really has proven that they can win games and have a strong chance to push through to the Finals, where they certainly could have a very strong crack at the Cavs or Magic.
You know that Dirk Nowitzki wants a chance to prove that he is a winner — and he is a helluva player, suddenly with a strong lineup around him.
3. What teams do you think will surprise?
Beware the Portland Trail Blazers.
As a Blazers fan, it’s my duty to step in with this claim, however hear me out on this.
Currently, it looks highly likely that the Blazers will face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs — a team that they have a comparatively strong record against.
All of this hinges upon the Blazers remaining healthy, a maxim which is definitely a shaky one this season! However, if Marcus Camby and Brandon Roy in particular can stay away from the injury bug, they have a real chance to make some noise.
Camby provides the Blazers with the big body to combat Andrew Bynum and clog the middle. LaMarcus Aldridge has proven himself a handful and should at least go some of the way to neutralising Pau Gasol’s impact.
There is still hope from Greg Oden that he will be back in time for the playoffs, which would provide a solid backup big man to Camby. Roy vs Kobe is always going to be a fun matchup and Nicolas Batum has proven himself to be a star on the rise, who just might take this opportunity to step up even more on this big stage.
The big question will be, which is always the case for the Lakers, how will they stop Andre Miller (or any point guard for that matter)?
If the Blazers can pull an upset on the Lakers, they’d likely find themselves facing Utah (or Oklahoma City) in the next round — and that is not a match-up that particularly scares any team come playoff time.
4. Who will disappoint?
The Cleveland Cavaliers. As I mentioned above, I just see potential problems with the Cavs integrating Jamison and dealing with the possibility that Shaq might not be back in time. Should that be the case, there may be a tough pill to swallow for Cavs fans who are expecting a Finals appearance.

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