The season preview begins

Every September, I start working on the annual season preview. There’s not a lot else to do a month before training camp, and it saves a lot of time when editors are looking for NBA preview copy in October. It’s basically doing capsule previews for each team, trying to get a feel for the players they have back and the players they have brought in.

Last season, I did team capsules based on a theme for the preview, which was players and the prime years of their career. Not surprisingly, Kobe Bryant was the feature story. The conclusion was that players had the single most productive season of their NBA careers at about age 26.5, after five years in the league. I looked at something like 180 All-Star players from the last 25 years and defined career seasons three different ways.

As part of the preview, I tried to identify emerging players who fit the description and could have career seasons.

Some of them I got right, including Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Andres Nocioni, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Jefferson, Chris Bosh, Josh Howard, Jason Richardson, Raja Bell and Caron Butler. Not to mention that Bryant, at age 27, had possibly the best season of any player since Michael Jordan.

Some of them I got wrong, including Dan Gadzuric, Jamal Crawford, Samuel Dalembert, Stromile Swift, Jason Hart, Marko Jaric and – – embarrassingly – – Devean George.

This season, I’m going in a different direction. The theme for the team previews is going to be the Fair Salary Ratings, which I referenced in an earlier blog entry. I find them fascinating, especially in terms of answering one of the most fundamental question for fans of who’s overpaid and who’s underpaid.

I will try to do two a day for 15 days, beginning in full next week when I get back from vacation. Here are the first two for the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics. It’ll be the Eastern Conference teams in alphabetical order, followed by the Western Conference.

Atlanta Hawks
Coach: Mike Woodson
Starting five: PG Speedy Claxton, SG Joe Johnson, SF Josh Smith, PF Marvin Williams, C Zaza Pachulia
Off the bench: PG Tyronn Lue, SF Josh Childress, PF Shelden Williams, C Lorenzen Wright
Most Underpaid: Speedy Claxton was one of the leagues best sixth men last season, backing up Chris Paul with the Hornets. Now Claxton will start at point guard for a Hawks team that was the NBAs youngest last season. Size is always a concern for Claxton, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, as are health issues for a player who has averaged only 58 games a season. But Claxton can push the ball, play pressure defense and be the leader the Hawks need. Most importantly, Claxtons arrival allows Joe Johnson to play shooting guard full-time. Claxton was a $7.46 million player who made $3.6 million; he signed a four-year, $25 million contract as a free agent.
Most Overpaid: One of the key components to the fair salary rating is a teams success. The Hawks didnt have any last season, going 26-56 and missing the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year. Johnson played in all 82 games, ranked third in the league in minutes and averaged 20.2 points and 6.5 assists. But on a bad team, Johnson was a $7.2 million player who made $12 million. It also doesnt help that Boris Diaw was an $11.78 million player making $1.1 million in Phoenix.
Outlook: The Hawks doubled their win total from the 2004-05 season but remain one of the NBAs doormats. They would gladly take a decent start to the season – – Atlanta is 4-24 the last two Novembers – – and a promising year out of 20-year-old Marvin Williams.

Boston Celtics
Coach: Doc Rivers
Starting five: PG Delonte West, SG Paul Pierce, SF Wally Szczerbiak, PF Al Jefferson, C Kendrick Perkins
Off the bench: PG Sebastian Telfair, SG Tony Allen, PF Ryan Gomes, C Theo Ratliff
Most underpaid: In only his second pro season, Delonte West started 71 games and averaged 34.1 minutes for the Celtics, almost exclusively as a point guard. But West figures to play both guard spots this season in Boston, which acquired one point guard in Sebastian Telfair and drafted another in Rajon Rondo. West was a 38.5 percent 3-point shooter last season and is described in terms of being a player, as opposed to a position. But he is undersized for a shooting guard at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds. The Celtics have big decisions upcoming about extending the rookie contracts of West, Telfair, Al Jefferson and Tony Allen. West was a $7.73 million player who made $1 million last season.
Most overpaid: The good news for Celtics fans is that the team traded Raef LaFrentz for Theo Ratliff, saving more than $12 million in a deal for two players with hideous contracts. Ratliff will be 34 by the end of this season and played only 55 games last season in Portland. But Ratliff has averaged 2.7 blocks in his career and could be the veteran inside presence the Celtics need alongside Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins. Ratliff was a $2.71 milion player in Portland who made $11.7 million.
Outlook: A strange summer for the Celtics, who signed Paul Pierce to a $59 million extension but also talked about acquiring Allen Iverson. They traded away their top draft pick, then traded for Rondo, whom Danny Ainge had ranked among the draft’s top 10 players. All the Celtics (33-49) have to do is win seven more games to get into playoff contention.

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