As we take our leave of pro basketball, we look beyond the impending lockout — hey, every sport has one — to the next season, assuming there is one. With much pending, here’s a snapshot of the NBA East, which is the half of the league that concerns us:
1. Miami Heat (58-24): They lost in the finals as millions cheered, but next season could be a long one for us Heat-bashers. Half the Miami roster figures to be gone, and good riddance. Beyond the Big Three, who’s worth keeping? Udonis Haslem? Mario Chalmers? Mike Miller? Whenever the NBA hammers out a new collective bargaining agreement with its players, South Beach will remain a powerful lure for mid-level free agents: No state tax, no snow and the chance to win a title. And the Heat, as we know, don’t need more superstars. Just better complements. Stock: Still rising, darn it.
1A. Chicago Bulls (62-20): The team that missed on the big-ticket free agents last summer actually finished ahead of the team that hooked the Big Three. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget that the Bulls have Derrick Rose, who became the NBA’s youngest most valuable player. Don’t forget that the Bulls, who had the NBA’s 26th-highest payroll last season, should have $10 million to spend on the needed shooting guard. But don’t forget this: Jerry Reinsdorf isn’t known to splurge. Stock: Rising.
3. Boston Celtics (56-26): When next season commences, Boston’s Big Three will be an aggregate 105 years old. There’s a chance Paul Pierce might become the sixth man. (Over time, the Celtics have been big on sixth men.) The regrettable trade of Kendrick Perkins, the retirement of Shaquille O’Neal and the flight to CSKA Moscow by Nenad Krstic (obtained in the Perkins deal) have left the team without a big man other than Jermaine O’Neal. Even with Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers on hand, this could fall apart in a hurry. Stock: Falling fast.
4. Atlanta Hawks (44-38): Unless Rick Sund swings a big deal for Josh Smith, any improvement will need to come from within — the Hawks are nearly at the luxury-tax level already. On cue, Jeff Teague’s performance as emergency starter against the Bulls brings hope that the Hawks might have finally found their point guard. But Jamal Crawford, the hugely influential sixth man, could be lost to free agency, and Jordan Crawford, the talented draftee, was sent to Washington in the Kirk Hinrich trade. Stock: Rising slightly, assuming Teague’s postseason was no mirage.
5. New York Knicks (42-40): They have money to spend and two stars (Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire) under contract. Speculation has long held that Chris Paul will become the third of yet another Big Three, but the Knicks, as ever, are in flux. The widely esteemed team president Donnie Walsh just stepped down, and coach Mike D’Antoni’s job isn’t secure. And for all the hoopla that surrounded Anthony’s Big Apple arrival, it’s still unclear just how good he is. Stock: Risky.
6. Orlando Magic (52-30): Dwight Howard just told NBA.com he plans to become a free agent next summer. The Magic had offered a two-year extension, but Howard indicated he won’t sign it. He said he’s uncertain how committed his teammates are to winning a title. He should also be concerned about this: With the exception of Jameer Nelson, his teammates stink. And the Magic, who spent $89 million and lost to the Hawks in Round 1, have no cap flexibility. (They do, however, have Gilbert Arenas under contract — through 2014.) Stock: Plummeting.
By Mark Bradley