I enjoyed last season more than I have in a long time. We're watching players become superstars. Superstars become legends, and teams being built to dynasties. There was intensity and plenty of drama. And the talent level is at an all time high. This upcoming season is bound to have load of highlights and suspense.
Lets cut through the chase. Here are my favorites to win it all. First by conference seeding.
Unfortunately, I think there are only two teams in the West that are TRUE contenders. The others will just even themselves out. Upsets are possible, but not very likely. The Western Conference once again will be the dominant one, where it will take 50-54 wins just to be seeded eighth.
1. San Antonio Spurs: After an injury-plagued season, I think the Spurs are the favorite to win it all. For me to say that is monumental, since I've loathed the Spurs ever since they cheated and drafted Tim Duncan. Their offseason acquisitions were second to none, getting players who know their roles and fit into the fabric of the team.
Richard Jefferson gives Duncan much needed athleticism and versatility. Antonio McDyess gives Duncan the best low post player and defender since David Robinson. Also coupled with last years deal for Roger Mason and their overall health, I think they are the team to beat.
San Antonio is always in the mix, but this year looks better than ever, since they have a great mix of veterans and youth.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: Luckily, the only major loss that the Lakers had was Trevor Ariza. They replaced him with Ron Artest, who will bring the Lakers some much needed toughness and pressure on the perimeter. I've watched Artest take people out of their games with his constant in your face defense.
I don't remember the last time the Lakers had such a notoriously rugged defender. However, with Odom recently signed, they have one of the most talented and versatile front lines in the game. I just think that if the Spurs could remain somewhat healthy, the Lakers will have a major problem.
3. Denver Nuggets: In last seasons playoffs, Carmelo finally earned all the praise he got when coming out of Syracuse. He justified his name being mentioned with the leagues elite. Guys only who are known by their first name. Kobe. LeBron. Wade. And now Melo. He also is the best pure scorer and offensive player in the league.
Tasting success for the first time in the playoffs under Chauncey's leadership will make Denver even hungrier. I expect people to follow Billups' lead and start preparing early in the off season. And role players such as Nene, Chris Andersen, Kleiza and K-Mart finally know exactly what their role is, and work hard to perfect them.
I see them as a legitimate title contender. They have the talent and the leadership to beat the Lakers and Spurs. The question is will they do it. Probably not.
4. Portland Trailblazers: The only thing that plagues Portland is that they play in the Western Conference. Also, people expect the world of Greg Oden, when they should allow him to develop. He's raw offensively, but his defense and rebounding are better than most veterans.
That alone makes him worth the wait. The front office has done a great job of surrounding their franchise player with the right kind of players, off and on the court. Brandon Roy is a future MVP who is on the brink of being mentioned along with Kobe, LeBron, and Wade. He is on his way to being a top five player, if not already. There's no where for Portland to go but up.
5. Dallas Mavericks: Despite improving their roster with Drew Gooden and Shawn Marion, the Mavericks still haven't fixed their problem. Acquiring Jason Kidd a season and a half ago was a mistake, since the point guard position wasn't as big a weakness as other things were.
The Mavericks have always needed a rugged rebounder and post player, which they still haven't gotten. Granted Gooden is okay, but Dirk needs more help in the middle, and these guys are not the answer. Expect the Mavericks to do as they do every year. Win a lot of games, be in the middle of the pack, and lose in the playoffs when weaknesses are exposed.
6. New Orleans Hornets: Despite getting a better player in exchange for Tyson Chandler, they're losing out on the pick and lob game with Chris Paul, which was very effective. Expect his assists to go down.
Also, Emeka Okafor is a legitimate double double and will give the Hornets the best low post defender they had since they were in Charlotte. Unfortunately, he wont get them past the Lakers or Spurs.
7. Houston Rockets: This team is in serious danger of falling out of the playoffs. With Yao and T-Mac's health always an issue, I see Houston plummeting. The way Trevor Ariza performs is of monumental importance, since Houston doesn't have a reliable and durable second option. Or first. Their role players could only get them so far. At best, to the sixth or seventh seed. Not good enough.
8. Memphis Grizzlies: With this compilation of players on this roster, things could either go really right or really wrong. Their starting five of Iverson, Mayo, Gay, Randolph, and Thabeet is something to be reckoned with. Four out of those five starters could easily average 20 points a game.
However, some will pout if they don't get their touches or shots. If Zach Randolph behaves, they might move higher than this. But since Randolph is one of the biggest cancers for locker rooms in the league, I don't see it happening. If winning is put first, this team will succeed.
With the return of Kevin Garnett, the East is back to a war zone. The top teams in the playoffs last year have all made significant changes to improve their roster. Once again, the East is up for grabs. Who wants it more?
1. Orlando Magic: They are, despite popular opinion, the team to beat in the East. Dwight Howard carried his team to the Finals, and that was with a raw and unfinished game. As his game improves and develops, Orlando's chances of winning skyrocket.
Also, by acquiring Vince Carter and Brandon Bass, they filled two glaring holes in their lineup. Every piece in Orlando seems to fit. Letting Hedo Turkoglu walk was a blessing in disguise, since it allows Rashard Lewis to play comfortably at his original position. Orlando certainly wont win with him starting at power forward.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: After last season's collapse, drastic changes had to be made just to keep up with "the Jones', so to speak. While Shaq gives LeBron that veteran presence that he's never had his entire career, it still may not be enough. The best post player and inside defender that he's played with, at age 38, at that.
I see Anthony Parker taking Delonte West's role due to his legal problems. Shaq will improve Varejao and the rest of the front line. But I think LeBron's game might be a little too fast for him at this stage of his career. It definitely makes Shaq the second best center in the East, which will mean wins for them in the regular season.
We'll see how Shaq's health holds up. After a 66-win season, I don't see them getting better in the regular season. Then again, the only number of wins that count are the 16 in the playoffs. The real problem is the coach. When your offensive strategy is "hammer the nail", as Mike Brown put it, the coach gotta go. Watching LeBron dribble against four people wont win him a ring. Ask Kobe.
3. Boston Celtics Even without KG, the Celtics still managed to get to the Eastern Conference finals. With a rejuvenated KG, expect the Celtics to make a heavy push. Rondo continues to develop, as he becomes someone of interest when it comes time to vote for All-Stars.
Also, if Big Baby continues to work on his game, it will relieve some of the pressure off the veterans, because the big three have tons of mileage on those legs. The addition of Rasheed Wallace gives them flexibility and size, since he could effectively play three front court positions.
In the long run, I think their lack of a second 2-guard to back up Ray will hurt them dramatically. Their veteran experience and desire pretty much makes them locks to contend for the Eastern Conference title.
4. Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade alone makes this team a playoff team. Jermaine O'Neal finally finds his place, alongside Michael Beasley, who had a solid rookie campaign. I think the team chemistry will improve, as well as Wade's offensive game, if that's possible.
Look for Miami's win number to improve by 8-10 games, as well as Dwyane Wade putting up MVP numbers. More so than what hes done in the past. If they run into the top three on this list though, they really don't stand a chance.
5. Chicago Bulls: Chicago definitely could slip right off this list. They have to make a decision on whether or not they will switch either Kirk Hinrich or Derrick Rose to shooting guard. They have John Salmons and Luol Deng playing the same position.
However, I see Derrick Rose putting up All-Star caliber numbers. I also see Joakim Noah stepping up and becoming a leader in that organization. Sometimes the intangibles are what wins games, and Chicago covers the intangibles very well.
6. Detroit Pistons: After a disastrous season, Detroit ridded themselves of the distractions of A.I. and Rasheed. They acquired Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Here's my problem. Richard Hamilton plays his position. Certainly they don't expect him to run the point.
What are they thinking? I hope they didn't pay him to come off the bench. And Charlie Villanueva certainly doesn't fix any of Detroit's deficiencies. A lousy rebounder, who likes to run the mid range game. A bigger, slower version of Rasheed. However, Detroit's veterans play winning basketball.
Therefore, they will definitely acclimate their new teammates in and make it work.
7. Atlanta Hawks: Unfortunately, Atlanta is on its way out. As evidenced in last year's playoffs, the team's offensive continuity and half court offense are by far the worst in the league. They are the Phoenix Suns of the East. They also need a new coach, because I haven't seen any offensive improvement or intelligence for a few years.
Also, they still lack a post presence who could score in a set offense. Al Horford is not it. Run and gun teams don't win titles. Ask Steve Nash. Unless Atlanta comes up with a plan "B" as on how to score, they will have a first round exit. That if they make it that far.
8. Philadelphia 76ers: This team's success hinges on two things. A- Elton Brand's health. B- Elton's ability to blend in with this team. Brand is more suited for a San Antonio type offense. Pairing him with Iguodala and Thaddeus Young really exposes Brand's slow feet.
Don't get me wrong, he's one of the top post players. It just doesn't fit into Philly's scheme. They looked at the numbers, not the player when they acquired him. If they could gel on the court, they might move up. If they don't, they're still in the playoffs.
Washington Wizards are a close eighth, but With Gilbert Arenas' health, you never know. Even with a healthy Arenas, I don't see them getting past the seventh
However, on that sunny day in June, I see Tim Duncan holding that trophy with Richard Jefferson getting Finals MVP. For the San Antonio Spurs. It could be the Lakers. Or Cavs. You never know. That's the beauty of this great thrilling game of basketball.