Repeating a championship victory is even harder than winning one. What's in store for 2013?
Last season, despite my strenuous objections, the Miami Heat captured another NBA championship.
LeBron James silenced all doubters by following his regular season MVP with an NBA Finals MVP performance, essentially cementing his status as the greatest basketball player in the world and the best since Michael Jordan.
With the offseason dust settled, it now seems appropriate to make some early predictions for the 2013 NBA playoffs. To borrow a promise from ESPN's NFL columnist Gregg Easterbrook, "All Predictions Wrong or Your Money Back."
Teams that take the seventh or eighth seeds have a virtually impossible playoff run ahead of them, and in the current NBA, both conferences boast six very strong teams at the top.
With all due respect to whoever manages to eke their way into the playoff picture in the last two spots, they are due to exit the postseason in the first round.
Without further ado, I see the Eastern Conference playoff picture breaking down as follows: 1. Miami Heat, 2. New York Knicks, 3. Indiana Pacers, 4. New Jersey Nets, 5. Boston Celtics, 6. Chicago Bulls, 7. Philadelphia 76ers, 8. Milwaukee Bucks.
And here are my bold predictions for Eastern Conference playoffs.
Chicago was soaring last season until Derrick Rose's knee gave out.
The Chicago Bulls finished the regular season with a sterling 50-16 record, tops in the Eastern Conference.
The 2010-11 NBA MVP had surgery on May 12, and with an expected recovery time of eight to 12 months, Rose faces a long road to recovery.
Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf conceded on ESPN 1000's Talking Baseball that Rose's return for 2012-13 is in question, saying, "the earliest possible time he'll be back would be the middle of January. If it's 12 months, then he'll miss the whole season" (via Sporting News).
But Reinsdorf did add this: "In the meantime, I think we're going to have a pretty decent club." Well, that's reassuring.
In the offseason, Chicago allowed Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson to go elsewhere, adding Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich in the process.
Saddled as they are with the bloated contracts of Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls seem to be planning for a real playoff run in the 2013-14 season.
Playing most of the season without Derrick Rose, I see the Bulls getting the sixth seed. Even if Rose returns for the playoffs, he is unlikely to duplicate his form from 2010-11. I see the Bulls losing to the Indiana Pacers in the first round.
Hipsters rejoice! Playoff success is so passe.
As for the New Jersey, ahem, I mean Brooklyn Nets, they finished their time in Newark by going a shameful 22-44. And that was with Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries on the team.
They now move to Brooklyn, and can boast a perhaps healthy Brook Lopez and former Atlanta Hawk Joe Johnson. Despite all the hype around their move and some Jay-Z concerts, playoff success will not follow them quite yet.
Joe Johnson has consistently failed to succeed in the postseason. While the Hawks made the playoffs each of the last five seasons, they never made it past the second round. Johnson's scoring and shooting percentage typically decline from the regular season to the postseason (per ESPN).
- 2011-12 season 18.8 points on 45.4 percent shooting, postseason 17.2 points on 37.3 percent shooting
- 2010-11 season 18.2 points on 44.3 percent shooting, postseason 18.8 points on 43.9 percent shooting
- 2009-10 season 21.3 points on 45.8 percent shooting, postseason 17.9 points on 38.7 percent shooting
- 2008-09 season 21.4 points on 43.7 percent shooting, postseason 16.4 points on 41.7 percent shooting
- 2007-08 season 21.7 points on 43.2 percent shooting, postseason 20.0 points on 40.9 percent shooting
No wonder he's earned the nickname "No-Show Joe." In crunch time, he takes too many shots for the team to succeed. The Hawks were only too happy to jettison the four years and $89 million remaining on Johnson's contract in exchange for four expiring contracts and two draft picks (per The Star-Ledger).
While Brooklyn does have a nice squad that the state of New Jersey can envy, they lack the postseason prowess and team cohesion to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Inking Dwight Howard would have instantly made them strong contenders for an Eastern Conference championship. They missed out on that opportunity, and are now saddled with so many big contracts that they've completely taken themselves out of that sweepstakes, even if Howard opts for free agency in 2013.
I see the Nets taking the fourth seed and getting upset by the Boston Celtics.
The Pacers couldn't come up with a plan to solve the Heat.
As stated, I see the Indiana Pacers taking down the Chicago Bulls in the first round.
I also see the Knicks grabbing the second seed and taking down Philadelphia in the first round. Sorry, but Andrew Bynum's wild inconsistency just doesn't convince me, and they will miss Andre Iguodala.
That puts the Knicks and Pacers on a crash course in the second round. And that's a clash the Pacers will lose.
Roy Hibbert is really, really good. The Pacers made a smart move by matching Portland's offer sheet for the big man. That cements a very talented frontcourt for the Pacers, with Hibbert rejoining PF David West and their top scorer, SF Danny Granger. They also have Tyler Hansbrough coming off the bench.
But Granger desperately needs to make the leap from a pretty good scorer to an elite scorer. He shot only 39.7 percent in the playoffs last year as the Pacers were outclassed by the Heat in the second round.
The Pacers have no lethal weapons on offense, but rather a hodgepodge of players who can chip in with low double digits.
They did add former Bobcats point guard D.J. Augustin to the mix, which will allow George Hill to see more time at shooting guard. But that will come at the expense of Paul George's minutes.
Don't get me wrong, I think the Pacers have a very good team. But they're also a group that Larry Bird called "soft" after a Game 5 loss against Miami. Speaking to Indianapolis Star beat writer Mike Wells, he said:
Larry Bird: "I can't believe my team went soft. S-O-F-T. I'm disappointed. I never thought it would happen."
— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNBA) May 23, 2012
The Pacers took the floor for Game 6 in Indiana and did not seem inspired by Bird's challenge to them. They remained soft on defense, as Dwayne Wade dropped 41 points on them and eliminated the Pacers on their home court.
In June, Bird resigned from his position as Pacers president after nine years on the job, for unspecified health reasons (via Washington Post). He was named the NBA Executive of the Year in 2012. He also coached the team from 1997-2000.
Former Knicks President Donnie Walsh has assumed Bird's job. Between the Pacers' lack of elite offense and their "soft" identity, I see the Knicks taking revenge on their former rivals and their former GM.
Knicks in six.
"I'm wicked psyched to be here."
In the 2012 playoffs, the Celtics made one last run at a championship. With Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce all in the twilight of their careers, 2012 was allegedly the last chance saloon for Boston's Big Three.
They lost a scintillating seven-game series to Miami.
And now, they're coming back for one more last run at a championship.
Avery Bradley's injury in the playoffs against Philadelphia certainly hampered their lineup. He should return at some point with both shoulders healthier. They will also have Jeff Green—the centerpiece of the trade that sent Kendrick Perkins out of Boston—returning from an aortic aneurysm.
The C's made some nice moves in the offseason. They re-signed Brandon Bass. They also brought in Jason Terry and Courtney Lee.
In June, Boston drafted Jared Sullinger out of Ohio State and Fab Melo out of Syracuse.
But the Celtics are still undersized in the frontcourt outside of their questionable rookies (see Sullinger's back issues and Melo's work ethic, per ESPN Boston), and they only have one elite player on offense who was born after Jimmy Carter's first year in office.
Pierce will turn 35 in October and Garnett turned 36 this offseason.
Rajon Rondo is certainly the engine of the offense, and he's capable of great things on the court. But he's also hot tempered, getting himself suspended for Game 2 against Atlanta. And he may have contributed to Ray Allen electing to sign with Miami (per Sun Sentinel).
The Celtics did their best to assemble a team capable of making one last run at a title yet again, and they will snag the fifth seed in the playoffs. But they don't have enough to get past the defending champion Miami Heat and will fall in the second round.
Miami dropped the ball against the Knicks...in Game 4.
The New York Knicks will make the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2000, but they will have to settle for that.
When the Knicks lost Jeremy Lin to Houston, it seemed that the sky was falling at MSG. Was James Dolan really tightening the purse strings?
Then the team brought in an entirely new backcourt and a new toy for their frontcourt.
In a sign-and-trade with Houston, the Knicks acquired a familiar face in Marcus Camby. He is without a doubt one of the best defenders and rebounders in the NBA in the past 20 years. And he joins last year's Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler.
The Knicks also brought in future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd and former Knick Raymond Felton to run the point in Jeremy Lin's place. They added shooting guard Ronnie Brewer from the Bulls for good measure.
This lineup seems catered to new coach Mike Woodson's defensive philosophy. And there are two old basketball adages that bode well for this team: defense never goes cold, and defense wins championships.
Even the Knicks' elite scorer, Carmelo Anthony, exhibited more effort on defense last season. After Melo and Chandler took home gold from the London Olympics this summer, they should be geared up for this season.
The last time Melo won a gold medal—in Beijing in 2008—he brought the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals. He will perform a similar feat for the Knicks in 2013.
But this talented Knicks team does not have enough to get past Miami.
The Heat have a new forward in 6'10" Rashard Lewis (career averages of 16.1 PPG and 5.6 RPG). He could have filled the yawning chasm that opened when Chris Bosh went down in last year's playoffs.
They also acquired the NBA's all-time leader in three-pointers made, Ray Allen. He will combine with Mike Miller to give the Heat two of the deadliest perimeter shooters in the league.
Oh, and they also have LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.
It will be a great run for the Knicks, but 2013 isn't their year. Heat in six.
Who will the Heat meet in the NBA Finals?
Stay tuned for next week's "Five Bold Predictions for the Western Conference."