It’s been awhile since I’ve been this excited for an upcoming NBA season (probably not since 2000-2001 when Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill were supposed to lead Orlando to the promised land). However, this year the excitement is not entirely fueled by good intentions. Sure the Magic are in the running for the title, however there is a part of me that simply wants to see the Miami Heat fail after months of media frenzy and hype surrounded by the “3 Kings” signings over the summer. There are plenty of other subplots involved this 2010-2011 season including the Lakers’ quest for another 3-peat and possibly the last hurrah for the Celtic Big Three. Let’s take a dive into some of the contenders with polarizing appeal followed by unbiased predictions for the upcoming season.
I’ve certainly deemed last year’s result a disappointment having coming off a 2009 NBA Finals appearance. Losing 2 heart-breakers at home and then going down 0-3 to Boston was a sour way to end the season. Most experts have noted that not much has changed since last year, although I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. While I’ll never approve of Vince in favor of Hedo, Carter has shown signs of improvement this preseason averaging 17.2 points in 24.2 mpg, while shooting 60.7% (!) from the field. This can be associated with better shot selection, including stronger drives to the rim, leading to higher percentage shots. Rashard Lewis will have to become more of a scoring factor after basically falling off the map last year, most notably in the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Boston. BasketballProspectus offered an insightful breakdown of moving Lewis to SF to allow for a bigger frontcourt (Anderson/Bass/Gortat), which would pay dividends against Boston or LA. As for Dwight, let’s just say off-season workouts with Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon can only be considered a good thing and so I’m expecting a strong MVP caliber season.
Just when everyone was ready to write these guys off last year, they pulled together and came within a quarter of sealing up another NBA championship last year. Rudy Tomjanovich said it right, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of champion!” This group of aging vets appear to be giving it one last shot this year with the core team. Signings of Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal make the Celtics incredibly deep down the middle (along with Perkins) allowing for combat ammunition against Dwight Howard in Orlando and the Gasol/Bynum duo in LA. With the starting five average age at 32+, I would imagine more of the same as last year with the Celtics coasting in the regular season by winning the meager Atlantic Division and saving their best for last in the playoffs.
Unless you’ve lived under a rock this summer, it’s no secret the biggest buzz heading into the season is around this Heat team. Vegas has made Miami the odds on favorite to win the NBA championship and Jeff Van Gundy predicted this team would beat the Bull’s 72 win mark from 1996. Both couldn’t be farther from the truth. While there shouldn’t be much emphasis put on the preseason, it did illustrate that this team is incredibly thin on the bench and are a significant James or Wade injury away from simply being above average. It should also be noted that the Heat lost their last 4 games against NBA opponents in the preseason including a highly contested game against Atlanta where James and Bosh played 38+ minutes. After the 3-pack of all-stars, the team is reaching on the bench with castoffs: Eddie House, Juwon Howard, Jamaal Magloire and recently signed Jerry Stackhouse. The Miller injury was huge considering he would have been the beneficiary of plenty open looks with James and Wade driving to the rim. When healthy, Miami can surely reel off double digit win streaks however playing in a division with Orlando and Atlanta, I’m capping the win total at 60. Having played all of 3 minutes together in preseason, it is going to take time to gel together as team. Furthermore, the Heat aren’t built to beat bigger teams and I don’t see how they have an answer to Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. They are more than likely to draw Orlando or Boston in the 2nd round and I’ll side with either of the latter leading to a “disappointing” 2nd round exit for Miami. Eventually, this team may come around to winning championships, however I don’t see it happening this year.
Los Angeles Lakers
There’s not much wrong I can find in this team and there is plenty of motivation this year with a 3-peat looming and Kobe’s hunger to stay ahead of Shaq in the championship race as well as tying Michael for a 6th ring. The addition of Matt Barnes adds another feisty defender to an already top tiered defense. The Lakers should be able to cruise over the Western Conference once again and then test its hand against a formidable East opponent. With this in mind, I would consider resting Kobe or limit his minutes on back-to-backs to ensure he is fully healthy for a long playoff run.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Many experts are ready to crown this bunch as the biggest threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference. While they may be a strong team, I’m not convinced they will reach that level this year. There is no doubt in my mind Kevin Durant is the MVP favorite however his big jump to primetime was last year (25.3 to 30.1ppg). This mirrors Michael Jordan and Lebron James’ ascent in their 3rd years where each posted their highest career scoring numbers. However, neither the Bulls or Cavs made much noise in the playoffs until they took a few more punches. I can’t imagine Durant’s numbers improving much beyond the 30.1ppg-7.6rpg-47.6fg% posted last year however with him and Westbrook leading the way, along with a playoff series under their belt, the Thunder should be able to make progress. I still see them falling to a bigger team like the Dallas Mavericks. This team needs to add another veteran value player and strengthen up front beyond Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic before making a push to the big time.
Eastern Conference Predictions
1. Orlando Magic*
2. Miami Heat
3. Boston Celtics
4. Chicago Bulls – can’t imagine Boozer to give much beyond 19/10 so the success of this team will revolve around Derrick Rose in a pivotal year 3
5. Atlanta Hawks – same core as last year eventually will lead to the same results. It’s too bad Shaq couldn’t come around
6. Milwaukee Bucks – Salmons was a great pick-up last year and caught a tough break with Bogut’s injury prior to the playoffs. Still this team is capped at a 1st round series win
7. Washington Wizards – what’s not to like about John Wall? should provide a strong dynamic in the backcourt with Arenas with Blatche/Yi to work with up front
8. New Jersey Nets – call me crazy, but I’m convinced this team massively underachieved last year. Harris/Lopez/Favors should be enough to squeeze out a playoff spot over the Knicks
Western Conference Predictions
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Dallas Mavericks – you can’t go wrong with this team in the regular season. Playoffs on the other hand are always a toss-up although they should be able to put up a better fight than last year
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
4. Houston Rockets – hated dealing away Carl Landry however Luis Scola came into his own. Hoping to see Courtney Lee turn the corner however the extent of success depends on Yao’s health
5. Portland Trail Blazers – team managed 50 wins last seasons sans Oden. What’s not to think they could only be better if Oden is healthy
6. Utah Jazz – Al Jefferson is not a bad replacement for Boozer however this team is lacking in depth on the bench and has a roster prone to injuries
7. San Antonio Spurs – I’m as big a Tim Duncan fan as anyone out there however, even with Hill and Splitter providing youthful spark, the window is closing on the core
8. Denver Nuggets – this is provided Carmelo sticks it with the team. I also expect some inspirational ball with Coach Karl back at the helm
* this is not a biased pick. To be fair, I’m still at odds who will come out of the East b/w Orlando and Boston.