No pretenders here. No sir, these guys are playing into May… and that’s where they’re stopping

Cleveland Cavaliers
It amazes me how far this team has gone the last two post seasons. They were only a 45 win team last season (which means that would have missed the playoffs in the West), yet they almost handled the 66 win Celtics in the Semi Conference Finals, and they probably would have beaten the Pistons and ended up in the Finals again for a second consecutive year. It all basically goes to show how much of a dominant force Lebron is and provides irrefutable evidence that right now he is doing the best one man team-carrying job in the league – probably the best since Iverson lead the Sixers to the ’01 Finals, but even that team had more talent on it than Lebron’s bunch of misfits.

I wasn’t all that impressed with the Maurice Williams trade, and I certainly don’t think it pushes the Cavs into the “Contenders” category. To me it seemed like another desperate band aid fix similar to the Ben Wallace trade and the Larry Hughes trade (neither of which worked). But the more I think about it the more I think Mo Williams can really help this team. I think he helps the Cavs in three key ways: 1) Taking the distribution duties away from Lebron so that he can do a bit more spot-up shooting rather than being the guy who has to find the spot-up shooters, 2) Taking over the scoring load when Lebron hits the pine, and 3) Providing another decent outside shooting option when defenders collapse on Lebron. Williams isn’t as good an outside shooter as Boobie Gibson, or Wally or even Pavlovic, but he is a better scorer than all three. Last season for the Bucks there were thirteen games where Mo went for 25 points or more. To put that in perspective, last season there were only four games when Lebron had a teammate score 25 or more – two of them Larry Hughes (one of them his amazing 40-point game), and two of them from Ilgauskas. For the first time since… well, ever really, Lebron now has a team mate who he can rely on to carry the load when his own shot isn’t falling. And given Lebron’s extreme unselfishness, Mo might find himself raking up even more points this season.
Best that could happen: Another Finals appearance, and another Finals loss
Worst that could happen: A disappointing Semi Conference Finals exit and more motivation for Lebron wanting to leave town in ’09-’10
Jobba says: “The LeBronland Cavaliers seem to be doing well to convince LeBron James to stay by putting around him talent which is great if you only view fantasy rankings.”

Dallas Mavericks
May seem harsh to put them in the “Pretending Contenders” category considering they were Finalists in ’06 and seemingly a lock for the same in ’07. But since that horrific loss to the Warriors in ’07 this franchise has gone backwards. The Kidd trade was a desperate move to match the big acquisitions that the Lakers and Suns made during last season, and much similar to the Suns, it may have backfired. The Mavs barely looked like a better team with Kidd in the lineup, and in the playoffs CP3 smoked his ass. It’s hard to see how they’re any better this season (especially when every starter barring Howard is in their 30s), unlike the Hornets, Lakers, Rockets and Jazz who will all improve.
Best that could happen: Winning a playoff series and a few huge games from Kidd proving the trade wasn’t such a bad idea
Worst that could happen: Missing the playoffs and watching Devin Harris become an All-Star
Jobba says: “From here on in Josh Howard, will be referred to only as “The Mouth”.

Orlando Magic
Let me first say that the Magic might not even be a playoff team if they were in the West, but as it is, thanks to the extremely weak Southeast Division they will be a top four team out East. As they showed last year they are a team that can dominate at times during the regular season, yet lack the experience and veteran savvy to beat teams like Detroit. The fact they couldn’t finish off the Pistons without Chauncey Billups on the floor is pretty disgraceful, and they might not get a better chance at advancing to the Conference Finals ever. I’ll be interested to see if Hedo can continue to be The Man – the amount of big games and game-winning shots he hit last year was ridiculous. Was last year a fluke for Hedo? Time will tell. I will also be interested to see if Dwight Howard can develop into a true leader and a smart defensive player, rather than just the rebound-inhaling Superman-dunking freak we all know he is.
Best that could happen: Making the second round and pushing the Pistons/Celtics/Cavs to 7 games instead of falling in a heap like last season
Worst that could happen: Failing to match last season’s 52 wins and a first round exit
Jobba says: “My bold prediction for the year, Dwight Howard will break a backboard.”

Philadelphia 76′ers
I’m hearing a lot of people say the 76′ers are now a 50-win team thanks to Elton Brand, and frankly, I’m not buying it. Let me explain why. They were a 40-win team last season and had a LOT of things go there way. Iguodala, Miller and Dalembert didn’t miss a single game combined, Reggie Evans missed one, and Louis Williams missed two. That is freakish luck right there and you can’t expect that to continue. Secondly, they surprised a lot of people last year and similar to the Hornets, they were able to get more wins than they probably deserved because A) teams hadn’t learnt how to play them, and B) teams weren’t giving them enough respect. Thirdly, Andre Miller broke out for arguably his best season since he was a Cavalier: he shot a career-high 49% and his 2.5 turnovers per game was the lowest since his rookie year. It wasn’t his numbers though that impressed me, it was the way he was able to lead a very young and raw team, and have them playing well enough to convince people they could beat the Pistons in the playoffs. With the Nuggets Miller had better numbers, but you never felt like it was his team. Last year I got that feeling. The problem is you can’t rely on a 32 year old point guard to come back better after a season like that, you just can’t. I really don’t believe Miller can play another season like he did last year until I see it with my own eyes. Lastly, and I don’t want to jinx anyone, but you can’t tell me you can see Elton Brand remaining healthy all season, can you? It won’t happen, and even if it does, taking into account last year’s “fluke” factor I don’t see it improving Philly’s record by 10 wins.
Best that could happen: 48 wins and a second round playoff appearance
Worst that could happen: Brand gets injured, the “fluke” factor is a lot bigger than I imagined and they miss the playoffs
Jobba says: “Andre Miller was good last season right? Thus, if we apply the Andre Miller theory of two we get… uh oh”.

Phoenix Suns
I often gauge a Suns fan’s reaction to their team by speaking to Chucko the Frustrated Suns Fan, who gives me an at times brutally honest and at times hopelessly delusional response. His thoughts on the Suns this year can probably be summed by the email he sent me last week when we were talking about betting on the NBA champs.

Betting on the Suns to win is a fool’s bet. We are rubbish this year, and will be rubbish until we get rid of Shaq and all the other old farts in the team. The only way we could be good is if Shaq gets a serious, life-threatening injury which puts him out for the whole season. We are a better team without him than with him”.

This is the same guy that last year said “If Shaq goes to Phoenix, I’ll have to switch teams to Atlanta Hawks and kill myself to end my suffering”, so take it with a grain of salt. Of course I don’t normally agree with Chucko, and as hard as it is for him to believe, the Suns chances of success this season will very much depend on the Old Diesel’s performances on the court. Last season the Suns were a team of conflicting identity – it’s like getting a sex change halfway through a night out at a club, you start the night looking out for hot girls, then you have your privates rearranged and you’re supposed to start looking at boys. It would be very confusing for everyone. So the morale of the story is pretty clear: right now the Suns know how they need to play, and they need to start looking at boys. Their biggest improvement has to come from Amare this season, because everyone around him is old and reached their peak years ago. You’d think Amare needs to go 30-10 every night for this team to win, and if there’s one guy in the league who could easily go 30-10, it’s Dwight Howard. If there’s two guys, it’s Dwight and Amare.
Best that could happen: Shaq and Nash lasting the entire season, beating the Spurs in the playoffs, and injuring Bruce Bowen in the process
Worst that could happen: Missing the playoffs and Shaq declining at the same rate he has the past two seasons (which may not even be physically possible)
Jobba says: “I saw the coolest thing the other day, a poster of Shaq dressed up as Santa and the words in bold at the bottom ‘Shaq attack Saq’. It was awesome”.

Portland Trailblazers
Some people are getting their pants wet with excitement over this Portland team, and that’s pretty gross. I think those people have selective memory. Yeah back in January last year after the Trailblazers had won 13 straight and 17 out of 18, all with Oden sidelined, they were looking like a lock for the playoffs and a very scary proposition should Oden come back. But lets not forget the end of that fairy tale shall we? The Blazers didn’t play that well again for the rest of the season, quickly falling out of the playoff race and ending up with 41 wins. Obviously I think Oden is going to help them this season – I don’t think he’ll break out for 20-10 like some, but I do think he’ll give them an Okafor-type presence in the middle without being spectacular. Aldridge and Roy will continue to rise and will benefit the most from the attention Oden will receive, while Frye, Pryzbilla, Outlaw and Bayless give the Blazers respectable depth. They’re set up for many successful seasons, but right now with the West choc full of seasoned campaigners they’re just too inexperienced to get it done. Yes the Blazers will improve, by a good 8-10 games, but that will only be enough for 7th or 8th out West and a hasty exit at the hands of the Lakers/Hornets/Rockets. Definitely not worth getting your pants wet for.
Best that could happen: Oden wins ROY, first round exit
Worst that could happen: Oden turns out to be really crap, Blazers miss playoffs
Jobba says: “Greg Oden is scary. So scary that Nicholas Batum, the most unscariest looking guy on the planet, looks scary”.

Denver Nuggets
I almost slipped these guys into the Pretenders category, that is how little faith I have in this Nuggets team. Losing Camby will kill them and expose them as an even worse a defensive team they already were – they might be the first ever NBA team to give up 200 points in a game this season… and they’d probably win the game. I don’t see how Iverson and Melo could look themselves in the face and be serious about winning a championship together. This team has lost that edge. The Iverson/Melo experiment is over. This team is a novelty now, the NBA version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Best that could happen: Without doubt the worst that could happen to this team is exceeding expectations throughout the regular season, only to face the Spurs in the first round again. I don’t think the Nuggets franchise could cope with that. If that happened I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if AI just started capping people.
Worst that could happen: A season of team conflict and ego clashes and few wins. The Nuggets finishing below .500 would not surprise me.
Jobba says: “Can Carmelo Anthony get his finger out of his Melo and play some defense (yes, Melo is a similar term in this case to bum)”.

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