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What kind of year will it be in NBA East?Posted Thursday, October 29, 2009, at 5:42 PM
INDIANAPOLIS -- After getting a free T-shirt -- which I can't wear because I am a chunky, white boy -- poster, autographs, pocket schedules, hot dog, chips, drink and various worthless trinkets at the annual Indiana Pacers Fan Jam Sunday, I was ready for the 2009-10 NBA season to begin.
Yeah I know its hard to get excited about basketball in October, but that's just me. Daily World sports writer Rick Curl accompanied me on my journey to Indy, but I think he wa more interested in the Pacemates than the Pacers. I don't think I can blame him.
Like those close to the Pacers, and no one else, I am expecting my team to end a three-year drought and make the playoffs. But as a friend always tells me, 'The glass is always half full when it comes to the Pacers.'
I know the Eastern Conference is loaded with Boston, Orlando and Cleveland at the top. If Kevin Garnett and his teammates are healthy, the Celtics could challenge for their second title in three years.
Orlando, who lost in the NBA Finals to the Lakers last season, has one of the deepest teams in the league and a star in Dwight Howard. Can Vince Carter replace Hedo Turkoglu as a facilitator will be one of the biggest questions the Magic have to answer.
Does Shaquille O'Neal really make the Cleveland Cavaliers better? The 37-year old O'Neal was once a major force, but not likely anymore. Lebron James is a great individual talent, but does he have enough consistent help to make a push at the title?
Washington could be the most improved team in the league with the return of Gilbert Arenas, if he plays as well as he looked on opening night. He wasn't even wearing a knee brace after missing almost two seasons with injuries.
Atlanta will be battling for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks have shown steady improvement under coach Mike Woodsen, the former Indiana University standout.
Toronto is another team that has talent and will likely be in the hunt. With Dwyane Wade, Miami can't be counted out. Chicago is another team with talent, but how much will they miss Ben Gordon?
Charlotte looked horrible on opening night, but they were very competitive at the end of last season. Coach Larry Brown's Bobcats will be one of the teams the Pacers have to beat out if they want to earn one of the top eight spots.
Gene Hall's beloved Milwaukee Bucks have a good coach in Scott Skiles and talented players in Andew Bogut and Michael Reed. Rookie point guard Brandon Jennings will challenge the style that Skiles wants to play (walk it up), much like Isiah Thomas with Bob Knight at Indiana University, but he has major-league talent.
Detroit has a new coach John Kuester and new players in Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, but can Richard Hamilton save the Pistons' descent into becoming also-rans. Rodney Stuckey has talent, but it isn't likely that he will make fans in Motown forget about Chauncey Billups any time soon.
Philadelphia has some good young players, but will miss Andre Miller terribly at point guard.
New Jersey has Brooke Lopez, Courtney Lee and Devin Harris, but is still trying to find itself.
New York has Donnie Walsh at the helm, so I have to believe they will eventually turn things around, but for now they have to play with a roster filled with overpriced, individual talent that doesn't mesh.
That leaves the Pacers, whose defending and ball handling were woeful in a 120-109 loss at Atlanta Wednesday to begin the season.
Indiana led 101-100 but only scored eight points in the final nine minutes.
Larry Bird has made subtle moves in the off season. As a fan, I have to think that Dahntay Jones (the Kobe Bryant tripper), Earl Watson and No. 1 draft pick Tyler Hansbrough are an upgrade from last year. Watson and Jones looked good in the opener, but I think Jones is trying to do too much in the freewheeling offense of coach Jim O'Brien. He will help at both ends of the court. He plays with a swagger.
Hansbrough was a great college player at North Carolina and nobody is expecting 20 points and eight rebounds, his career averages, but his intensity and work ethic can only be a plus.
Former Illinois guard Luther Head, signed as a free agent, will bring versatility off the bench.
Solomon Jones, a 6-10 center who played the last couple of years for the Hawks, gives the Pacers an athletic big man who can contribute off the bench, something he never got a chance to do much in Atlanta.
Danny Granger, Troy Murphy, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush and T.J. Ford started on opening night. Hibbert and Rush are in their second year and need to show more consistency and improvement. Granger, the most improved player in the league last year, needs to step up his defense to go with his considerable offensive arsenal.
Murphy just needs to continue his stellar play, setting a Pacers record for double-doubles last year and becoming the first player in the history of the league to finish in the top five in 3-point percentage and rebounding.
Ford needs to find strength in the pass and not the dribble (a subtle Hoosiers reference). O'Brien sent a message to Ford on opening night. With Ford struggling through a 1-for-9 shooting night, Watson played the majority of the minutes in the second half, scoring 20 points on 7 of 8 shooting.
We need Mike Dunleavy to get healthy soon and for the rest of the team to stay healthy, something we haven't had since going to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004. For the 'Blue and Gold,' that may be the biggest factor in determining success or failure.
While watching the game Wednesday, I tried to take a moment and be thankful that I have a team to both love and hate, often on the same night. Just ask Seattle SuperSonics fans, nothing is guaranteed and nothing is forever.
I like this team that Bird and David Morway have assembled, while staying under the salary cap. Only time will tell if I like what they can produce.
No matter what happens, I am sure I will think often of a phrase my mom used to use about our favorite team -- 'Them damn Pacers.'
B.J. Hargis is sports editor of the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached at (812) 847-4487, ext 12 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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