Now that the Elton Brand deal is official, let's investigate how the 76ers might do in the 2008-2009 season.
In 2007-2008, Philadelphia was the 7th best team in the Eastern Conference, earning them a first round matchup (and exit) against the perennial powerhouse Detroit Pistons. Certainly there's no debate that the acquisition of Brand makes them better, but how much better?
I say a lot. The 76ers now have legitimate stars at three starting positions (Andre Miller at PG, Andre Iguodala at SF, and Brand at PF), and a defensive force down low (Samuel Dalembert). If they can find a decent shooter (Willie Green probably isn't the answer), they'll have all the tools to be a contender.
Among non-playoff teams last year in the East, you could conceivably say that you expect Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, and Milwaukee to be noticeably improved. If Michael Beasley matures quickly for the Heat, they could be back in the mix, but I expect Philly to be better than all four of those teams when the season is over.
The lower-end playoff teams are pretty easy to judge. I do think that they'll be better than Atlanta, despite the fact that I love how they've built that team from the ground up, drafting talent every year and playing their best players, regardless of positions. The addition of Jermaine O'Neal makes the Raptors intriguing, but they still have nobody on the wings who can play.
Now we get to the tough ones. Washington played almost the entire season without it's best player in Gilbert Arenas, and despite my efforts to temper the enthusiasm, there's a buzz about this team in the D.C. area that hasn't been around in a while. And the Wizards have still got those three star players, with Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler to go with Arenas. Orlando's also got three stars, in Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, and Hedo Turkoglu. I'd realistically say this is a push, but since bloggers are supposed to be opinionated, I'll say the 76ers are above the Wizards and below the Magic, but all within 4 or 5 games of each other.
What about Cleveland? They're carried by a single superstar, with odds and ends to fill up the stat sheets, and a rookie who's not likely have more than a minimal impact. LeBron James is tremendous, and will likely carry them into the playoffs again, but as we've learned, you need more than one player to get far in these NBA playoffs. I'm actually going to bump Philadelphia above the Cavaliers as well.
Finally, we come to the upper echelon. There's no chance that Philadelphia is better than the Celtics, so let's just end that discussion right now. But what about Detroit? The Pistons have a new head coach, and their starting lineup is getting old. Richard Hamilton (who'll be 30 when the season starts) can still score, but his points per game average has slipped the past couple of seasons. The same can be said about Chauncey Billups (32) and his assists and Rasheed Wallace (34) and his attitude. The wheels have to come off this team at some point, and I think this year is as good as any. So I'm dropping the Pistons behind the Magic, behind the 76ers, and behind the Wizards and Cavaliers as well.
That makes Philadelphia the 3rd best team in the Eastern Conference in my book, behind Boston and Orlando. The alluring part of it is, if everyone's healthy, we could have four teams with three stars each in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and maybe for one goddamn year we wouldn't have to hear about how much better the West is than the East.
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