Earlier, Jeff and I combined forces to breakdown the incoming rookies, some potential sleeper teams, and gave our overall thoughts on the health of the league. With the season tipping off tomorrow night, we round out our NBA preview with Jeff's thoughts on each team and our picks for the playoffs, MVP and the Finals.
Jeff: A quick (as quick as I’m capable of) team-by-team evaluation to set the stage for my playoff predictions:
In the West:
Dallas Mavericks – the Kidd trade sent them into a downward spiral and I don’t know what they have done to address it, counting on time to jell the team. Still talented enough for a 6th seed.
Denver Nuggets – they simply lost too much. Camby was their only defensive presence and he’s gone. Will probably rebuild next year.
Golden State Warriors – Also lost a lot but Ellis and Maggette should do a decent job of replacing B.Diddy. In the running for the 8th seed.
Houston Rockets – Please, please, please let them get out of the first round. Artest will either launch or sink the team; crossing my fingers for “launch.”
Los Angeles Lakers – Rotation and chemistry will be an issue but on paper the cream of the crop.
Memphis Grizzlies – Ownership has demonstrated a commitment to failure; they don’t want to win and their city deserves better.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Too young, no identity. Maybe in a few years (if any of their young guys re-sign which is a big if).
New Orleans Hornets – They have the best player in the West from last year and added Posey. I’m expecting big things.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Watch them for Durant and Westbrook but not wins. Karma also a significant threat to this franchise.
Phoenix Suns – I just believe Nash and Shaq plus Grant Hill can make one more legitimate run. Maybe it’s nostalgia. These Suns will be heartbreakingly worse to watch though; I miss D’Antoni even if they don’t.
Portland Trailblazers – I came this close to putting them in the playoffs but I think perhaps they are a year too young. I would happily be wrong. I will say I don’t think anyone will enjoy playing them; they’re going to be good.
Sacramento Kings – Too young, too little talent. Kevin Martin is worth watching though.
San Antonio Spurs – Aging rapidly but players and coach are almost perfect compliments to one another. They are still elite but purists need to enjoy them while they can.
Utah Jazz – The more you watch Deron Williams the more you want to. This is a well built and well coached team. They could potentially make a run at a title if chemistry is there.
In the East:
Atlanta Hawks – They lost a lot, have the worst front office in the league (take that Clippers!), the coach is shaky and doesn’t get along with the team’s 2nd best player. Still, Joe Johnson is the most underappreciated player in the league and they might make the playoffs in this conference.
Boston Celtics – I worry about age, Doc Rivers’ “strategy” and rotations, and whether or not the hunger that drove them has been satiated. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though.
Charlotte Bobcats – The pieces are there if a bench can be developed. They will be well coached. I know I’m crazy but I think maybe…
Chicago Bulls – they have talent and some experience but what were they thinking with that coaching hire? A steady hand was needed, not someone who needs on-the-job training.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Lebron is the best player in the NBA. Stick him with the pu-pu platter and he can make a run at the Eastern Conference title. In fact, he’ll do just that this year.
Detroit Pistons – Dumars does a remarkable job adding quality young guys to keep the windows open. Top 3 in the East, perhaps a contender if the young guys grow up fast.
Indiana Pacers – They are trying to rebuild and will be an afterthought when the playoffs arrive.
Miami Heat – I wish I was in a fantasy NBA league this year so I could draft D-Wade; he’s going to have an ENORMOUS year. His team has copious amounts of talent but I don’t know how they’ll fit together on the floor. That’s irrelevant; Wade will get ‘em up in the Eastern rankings.
Milwaukee Bucks – Hmm…a roster of underachievers, minus their best PG, plus a Nazi head coach? Has potential as a sitcom premise I guess. My counsel to Bucks fans is abandon all hope. Enjoy that WI winter though!
New Jersey Nets – “Heeey Lebron. Look at all the nice pieces we have Lebron. Sure would be better than what suits up in Cleveland, huh Lebron?”
New York Knicks – In writing notes about this team’s hopes this season I just wrote “Are still the Knicks.” The state of this franchise is the longest running tragedy in the NBA. Hopefully D’Antoni enjoys counting money because that will be his only fun this year. At least with Donnie Walsh there is hope for the future now.
Orlando Magic – Dwight Howard. Watch him. Enjoy him. They don’t have enough to win it all but they’ll win quite a few games.
Philadelphia 76ers – This should be a fun team to watch. Brand, AI2, and Miller are a great foundation with Thaddeus Young and Louis Williams bringing the energy.
Toronto Raptors – Possibly the most perfect team conceivable for Mike D’Antoni or Don Nelson and of course neither is the coach. If you can, watch the Raptors.
Washington Wizards – Would be an exciting team if they could stay healthy. Should pay whatever Phoenix’s training staff wants to come to the Capital.
Playoff Teams in the East:
1. Boston Celtics
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Detroit Pistons
4. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Orlando Magic
6. Miami Heat
7. Toronto Raptors
8. Atlanta Hawks (Hey, this is the Southeastern Sports Blog).
Darkhorse: Charlotte Bobcats (see note on the Atlanta Hawks @ 8).
Playoff Teams in the West:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. New Orleans Hornets
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Utah Jazz
5. Phoenix Suns
6. Dallas Mavericks
7. Houston Rockets (no way they beat the Hornets in a 7 game series. @#$%!)
8. Golden State Warriors
Darkhorse: I don’t think they technically qualified but the Portland Trailblazers are the most likely to mess up my list of playoff teams.
Will's Playoff Picks
1. Boston - There's no other logical choice in the East. They'll miss James Posey, who hit the biggest shots in the Finals. But all the people who question the desire and intensity necessary to repeat keep forgetting that Kevin Garnett plays for this team. Age is not a factor with the Celtics yet.
2. Cleveland - LeBron plays out the string with a roster of guys that just aren't good enough. How Ben Wallace is still a starter is baffling. Still, LBJ is an absolute beast. Can't wait to see what he does with some real talent around him next year.
3. Orlando - If the East is Boston and then a crowded field of four or five teams who could all finish 2-6, and you can't have LeBron, you want the team with Dwight Howard. Orlando is actually probably fewer pieces away from a title run than Cleveland, even though they still wouldn't take them in a seven game series right now. The conference finals by way of avoiding Boston in the playoffs until then is a good goal for them this year.
4. Detroit - Promised changes never materialized, but this is still a team that has played in the conference finals five years in a row. A starting lineup of Billups, Hamilton, Tayshaun, McDyess and Sheed is still impressive, but none of them are getting younger. Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey and Amir Johnson don't have that problem, but the East is getting better and they may not make it back to the Finals' doorstep this year.
5. Philadelphia - Finally, some good division competition for the C's (please excuse the use of the word "finally" after only one year of success). These guys will be fun to watch, and have put Elton Brand in a position to get the recognition he deserves. Not a team I want to see in the playoffs.
6. Toronto - Finally, some good division competition for the C's, part two. How do teams deal with Bosh and O'Neal on the floor at the same time? If Jose Calderon and Anthony "don't call me Candace" Parker continue to improve, this team could beat out Philly as the second best in the Atlantic.
7. Washington - If the window hasn't closed already, it's definitely on its way. Arenas can't be counted on full-time, though I guess the rest of these guys are used to competing without him at this point. You look at a potential lineup of Arenas, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler and Antwan Jamison, and you still like what you see...but given that it hasn't materialized yet, I'm not sure it ever will.
8. Miami - I agree that they could rise even higher than this, but for now we're keeping expectations hovering around just making the playoffs. D-Wade can be the most valuable player in the league, if he's healthy. The rookies have to grow up fast, and Erik Spoelstra will be an interesting adjustment...but there's too much talent here for me to put them outside the playoffs.
1. LA Lakers - While there's a part of me that could envision this team imploding some - I read the other day that Kobe's played over 1000 career games and his best "Jordanesque" moments are probably behind him now, but I'm also sure that his ego isn't ready to adjust to that reality - the Lakers still have more than anyone else in the West, even if it's by a slim margin.
2. Utah - Might be this group's last chance together, and you never know how that's going to play in...but Utah was a surprising 5th in the NBA in scoring last season to go with the always solid defense they play, and it's hard to deal with Williams and Boozer. The West is probably going to be just as crowded, which means we're really throwing darts here, but Utah could be the best Finals darkhorse in the league.
3. San Antonio - SI's got the Spurs as World Champions, and really there's only that poor performance against the Lakers to keep me from really buying into it. The names and faces are the same, and we're a couple years away from me feeling safe doubting them.
4. New Orleans - I love this team. I can't rationalize picking them over a San Antonio team that beat them and I don't think Posey is the critical difference there...but maybe with more favorable playoff matchups this year, or with that year of experience under their belt...Chris Paul is a revolution, the rest of this team plays incredibly well together, and while I dislike Byron Scott personally, the dude can coach. If the Hornets won it all I wouldn't be surprised.
5. Phoenix - One more time? Grant Hill doesn't get enough credit for still producing after everything that's happened in his career, and it's a shame that Steve Nash may go his whole career without a ring. And I hate to say this...but I'm going to miss watching Shaq and just having him in the league, and you don't know it yet, but so are you. Kobe couldn't do without me.
6. Houston - Good grief...you forget how loaded the West is, because here I'm like "Houston can't be this far down, can they?" I just don't like the entire dynamic here to put them any higher - they're talking about trying to win a title but not getting out of the first round is their thing. And maybe it worked for Sheed in Detroit a few years ago, but adding the likes of Ron Artest to an already unstable mix doesn't inspire me. Good team. But they're playing golf in May again this year.
7. Dallas - Here's where I think the bottom falls out in the West. I liked Avery Johnson, but then again I'm not playing for them. I don't like all these pieces together, and I think it's an early demise again. Jason Kidd isn't going to win any playoff series for them.
8. LA Clippers - Apparently, we both have a need to be different and not put Portland in the playoffs. Now, I did earlier run down LAC when talking about Eric Gordon...but IF the Baron Davis/Marcus Camby shotgun wedding works, then the Clippers are a playoff team.
Alright, let's take this home with the MVP conversation and our Finals picks. I think you've got a small but obvious group of guys who are in the mix for MVP this season - LeBron, DWade, Kobe (just the way the league wants it), plus whoever has the best year between Chris Paul and Deron Williams...and we'll throw Dwight Howard in the mix just because he's unique and qualifies if Orlando is as good as I think they'll be. I think if Kevin Garnett was going to win it, he would've done so last year, and now people fully realize that Boston has the best team, but not the best player.
The NBA moreso than any league brings into question the "What do you mean most valuable" conversation...because taken literally, LeBron should win this award every year he's in Cleveland. Take LBJ off the Cavs, and you've got a lottery team. Now that Beasley and Marion are in Miami, and the whole supporting cast of characters are still playing in Staples, Bron-Bron will easily be the most valuable to his team.
I do think Chris Paul should've won it last year, but the charm may have worn off some in 2008-09, and if so Paul won't be able to hold his own in that LeBron/Kobe/Wade group. Wade has a chance to be the most dynamic of the three (see the Olympics), and he's working with a lower bar coming back from injury on the team predicted to do the worst of the three.
Still, if Cleveland struggles and Miami hovers around the eight seed, and the Lakers sport the best record in the West - all of which I expect to happen - then I have no doubts that it'll be Kobe who once again wins the award. We can't get enough of the Jordan comparisons, and LeBron frankly doesn't need a huge contract year to make him the most valuable free agent in professional sports history, he's already there right now, so there won't be any extra urgency on that front. They should just give it to him with a hug and kiss from the Cleveland faithful right now...but I think Kobe's going to bring it home again in the end.
Jeff: My take on the MVP issue is also literal. If the NBA hit the reset button on the league, kept all their franchises, and put all the current players in a pool to re-draft who would be the first player taken? The answer couldn’t be more obvious. The only player would I think would legitimately be involved in the conversation other than Lebron is Dwight Howard and even so, Lebron would be taken 100 out of 100 times. So Lebron is the Most Valuable Player. If we redefine MVP as Best Individual Player or Most Important Player to His Team the discussion picks up a few more names. In reality the NBA’s MVP award is actually a combination of BIP and MIPTHT.
You are right that Kobe will be in the discussion. Whatever. I think the Lakers are going to have legitimate problems figuring out how to play Bynum and Gasol at the same time (or at least that is what I’m telling myself). Hopefully that difficulty will produce some unexpected losses, cause Kobe to show his true colors more often, and take a bit of shine off his candidacy. If not, it’ll be hard to unseat him as MVP; as in political elections it is hard to unseat an incumbent (see: Steve Nash).
The fundamental rules of the universe dictate that Lebron must always be in this conversation. He is the MVP-in-reality, BIP, and in the running for MIPTHT. Of course, this should make him a lock but the awarding of the NBA’s MVP award is historically off the reservation (see: Shaq’s ONE - !!! - MVP Award).
Chris Paul’s biggest advantage over Deron Williams might just be the attention he gained last year nationally. I wouldn’t say Williams is as good as Paul but I might not argue against that point either. Either way, as good as Deron Williams is I don’t see how he can compete in terms of exposure playing in Utah. So go with Paul over Williams.
You mentioned Howard and I agree he should be in the conversation. However, I think he’s still a year’s worth of exposure away from being a real competitor for the MVP. I suppose he could have a monster year and make a run at it but in my opinion it would have to be a historical-level run. It’s also possible that Amare takes Dwight’s place as the big-man MVP candidate. I say that because Shaq has promised to make Amare great and Shaq has a history of making the next best player on his team look like the best. I’d say Dwight’s the frontrunner for this slot and Amare a dark horse but don’t count him out.
I also want to add in Dwayne Wade. This pick is purely on the basis of his performance in the Olympics. The pick also stands on an incredibly shaky foundation, namely that Wade can hold up for 82 games. But this is a new season and everything is rosy in the glow of high expectations so I’m going to believe. I’ve been calling for a monster year for D-Wade, thus not only is he in my field of potential candidates I’m going to go with him as my pick for MVP this year. I’m expecting big numbers and lots of highlight plays. Don’t let me down Mr. Wade.
In regards to the finals, I don’t know how anyone can pick anyone other than the Lakers and Celtics as the season begins. The bottom line is that they look the best on paper and that’s all that counts before the first tip off takes place. My heart longs for a New Orleans coup in the West but I can’t honestly say that is what I anticipate at this point. I also see a lot I like in the East - particularly in Philly, Detroit, and Toronto but – again - nothing that would trump the Celtics’ combination of talent/passion/camaraderie.
In the interest of full disclosure let me confess that I think the Lakers are the Celtics’ equals (if not superiors) on paper. They have an incredibly talented first four, a roster that all of a sudden became the deepest in the league (let me say one more sardonic thank you to Memphis), and one of the greatest coaches in sports history. However, my worldview compels me to believe that ultimately evil will be defeated by good. There are few things in sports that I am completely assured of but one of those things is that Kobe Bryan is evil to the core. Thus I re-board the Celtics bandwagon for one more trip.
Will: Glad the Celtics can be considered the "good" portion of that equation once again.
I still just think there's nothing that logically says it won't be Boston in the East; you can say that LeBron took them to seven games and now they've added Mo Williams, but based on what I saw in The Finals from a team finally playing on all cylinders, Boston was clearly the best team in the league and that hasn't changed in the offseason. In fact, if I may be so bold, I would be surprised to see another team take them to seven games before they get to the Finals, if they stay healthy.
Out West we're still throwing darts, but I agree that by default you have to go with the Lakers. San Antonio can't be counted out yet and we both like New Orleans, but if there's anybody trustworthy to manage that roster in LA, it's the clean shaven Phil Jackson. If Kobe is over the hill, he's still got enough for one more Finals run in him, at least.
That said, Boston was clearly better than LA in the Finals last year no matter how it looked on paper to most of the experts going in; I think it was Mike Wilbon who called it a six game sweep, because Boston had spurts where they were just on another level and all there together. James Posey will be missed, and the Lakers do have Bynum in the conversation...and as a result, I'll give it seven games instead of six this time. But still, Boston is the team to beat, and there's no reason they can't and shouldn't repeat as World Champions. It feels strange to make such a bold optimistic statement about my own team, only to realize that this one's also factually correct.
As always, if you agree or disagree with our picks, or want to add to the conversation with your playoff picks, MVP thoughts and Finals prediction, feel free to do so in the comments. The season tips off tomorrow (Tuesday) night in blockbuster fashion, with LeBron and the Cavs in Boston for the Banner 17 raising as the quest for Banner 18 begins at 8:00 PM (EST), followed by Greg Oden's regular season debut with Portland taking on Kobe and the Lakers at 10:30, with both games on TNT. Enjoy.