2010 NBA Playoffs: Power Rankings and Predictions

Sloan Piva@@SloanPivaCorrespondent IApril 17, 2010

NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 24:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball over Morris Peterson #24 of the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena on March 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Cavaliers defeated the Hornets 105-92.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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The 2010 NBA Playoffs begin today.  Fair-weather fans and die-hard hoopsters alike now come together to watch the best basketball teams in the nation as they "win or go home." In what is sure to be an exciting run to the Finals, surprises are in store just like any other year.  But to avoid too many surprises, utilize the Power Rankings and predictions outlined below.

16. Chicago Bulls – A late-season surge berthed Chicago to the 2010 NBA Playoffs, but the chips are stacked against this Bulls team.  Not only are they struggling with organizational dilemmas—with head coach Vinny Del Negro and executive vice president John Paxson at odds—they are facing a top-seeded powerhouse Cleveland Cavalier team.

At every position, from the starting lineup to the 12th man, the Bulls are overmatched. Look for LeBron James and the Cavs to make short work out of Chi-town, sweeping them in four games and sending Del Negro packing for good.

15. Charlotte Bobcats – Another team with more than just one missing link, Charlotte will be unable to compete out of the gate.  Coming off a 2009 NBA Finals loss, the Orlando Magic are hungry, and Dwight Howard will be banging down low with success. 

Add to that a healthy Jameer Nelson and the powerful presence of swingmen Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter, and Charlotte is likely down in four.  Maybe Michael Jordan can come out of retirement again, and sign himself to his Bobcats.  They’ll need it by next week.

14. Portland Trail Blazers – It seems a spell has been cast on the ailing Blazers. Young Greg Oden has been hampered by injuries since day one of his NBA career.  Now, leading scorer Brandon Roy will be sidelined for Portland’s opening-round matchup against the Phoenix Suns, rehabbing from surgery for a torn meniscus.

Blows like these severely impede a young squad’s ability to get past an experienced team with momentum.  Marcus Camby is a superb defensive player; nonetheless, Steve Nash to Amare Stoudemire on the pick-and-roll will pick apart the Trail Blazers in a five-game series.

13. Milwaukee Bucks – Like the Blazers, the Bucks are a young team with a lot of athleticism on their side.  But like the Blazers, they are missing a key element to their game as they face off against a conference powerhouse. 

Without center Andrew Bogut, out with a devastating arm injury induced after a dunk gone wrong, Milwaukee stands no chance against a strong Atlanta Hawks team.  Look for Joe Johnson’s Hawks to run circles around Scott Skiles’ team, ending a quality Bucks season in five playoff games.

12. Oklahoma City Thunder – Now is the time for Thunder star Kevin Durant to truly take the limelight.  Lakers head coach Phil Jackson has caused waves with comments alleging that NBA referees unfairly treat Durant like a “superstar” by giving him unnecessary amounts of free throw opportunities.  Durant retorted that Jackson disrespected his game.  The stage is set. 

Though Los Angeles has a far better team overall, plan on a showdown between Durant and superstar Laker Kobe Bryant.  A little help from point guard Russell Westbrook will help Oklahoma City, as his speed will be tough for veteran LA point-man Derek Fisher to handle. But Kobe, and the depth behind him, will win the series in six hard-fought games. 

11. Miami Heat – Heat superstar Dwyane Wade is good.  He’s really good.  He has carried Miami for years, and brought them much success.  And there’s no doubting that he has given the Boston Celtics quite a few headaches in the past few years.  But the experience and the coaching of the Celtics will catapult them past Wade’s Heat in six games. 

Make no mistake about it—it won’t be an easy ride for the Celts.  But they’ve beaten the Heat three times this year, and they’ll beat them four more times in the playoffs to advance to the second round.

10. Utah Jazz
– Head coach Jerry Sloan has been in contention with Utah since he took the job in 1988.  He is a great educator and an even better motivator.  What’s more, he enters the 2010 Playoffs with possibly the greatest point guard in the game right now in Deron Williams. 

However, as many other teams in contention understand, injuries can pose serious postseason problems.  Power forward Carlos Boozer enters the first round against the Denver Nuggets with a consistently prevalent knee injury, and Andrei Kirilenko just went down in practice with a calf muscle ailment that will bench him indefinitely. 

Combine poor physical health with an even poorer record on the road, and the Jazz are looking at a six-game series loss at the hands of Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony’s Denver Nuggets team.

9. San Antonio Spurs – A tough Spurs team has really battled in the 2009-10 season, with injuries being the main concern.  Point guard Tony Parker sat out most of the year, leaving elder statesmen Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson to man the ship with the help of emerging guard George Hill.  But head coach George Popovich’s squad is definitely past its prime.

The Spurs lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round of last year’s NBA Playoffs, and they will lose to an even better Mavs team this year.  It will certainly be the best first-round matchup, as these two teams have become arguably the best NBA rivalry, but by game seven, Dirk Nowitzki will be fist-pumping like a Jersey Shore cast member.

8. Boston Celtics – "Anything’s possible," as Celts superstar Kevin Garnett wailed after winning the 2008 NBA Finals.  But that was two years ago, when Garnett and fellow veterans Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were younger, healthier, and more spry.  Now, Boston relies on the offensive prowess of point guard phenom Rajon Rondo, in his first year of real leadership. 

Rondo is great, but he doesn’t have enough in the tank to fuel a team of aging superstars and a head coach in Doc Rivers who has already discussed retiring.  Oh, and need we discuss that if the Celtics get past the Miami Heat, they will face LeBron James and the Cavaliers?  Game-set-match.  The Celtics will be lucky to get five games in against a stronger, faster, and more efficient Cleveland team.

7. Denver Nuggets
– If the Nuggets played in the Eastern Conference, they would definitely be higher in the Power Rankings.  However, they don’t have the luxury of playing against the Hawks or the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs—they get the Lakers. 

Sure, they’ve given the Lakers a run for their money in the past. Sure, they have a great point guard in Billups and one of the league’s best scorers in Anthony. But they also have an injury-hampered big man, Kenyon Martin, and a cancer-ridden head coach, George Karl.  The Lakers will fight past the Nuggets in six games at the most.

6. Atlanta Hawks – It’s tough not to love this running, gunning Hawks team.  Led by closet superstar Joe Johnson, Atlanta has been a powerhouse in the East the entire year.  Where is the national recognition for this team?  Maybe it is the superb level of competition in the western conference, or the dynamic one-two punch of Cleveland and Orlando in the eastern conference, that have dwarfed media appreciation for Atlanta. 

Maybe they just need to advance past the division rival Magic to prove that they deserve it.  This is a tall order, especially down low against Howard.  A great 2009-10 season and a good run in the playoffs will be cut short in six games versus a powerful Orlando team.

5. Phoenix Suns – In what will prove to be one of the greatest series of the 2010 NBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns will lose a tight matchup against the Dallas Mavericks.  Expect Stoudemire to rattle the rim with some explosive dunks, and Suns former MVP point guard Steve Nash to dish assists in full stride against his previous team. 

But the home-court advantage and the depth of the Mavericks will be too much for the Suns in the end.  It might take seven games, but Nowitzki and crew will prevail.

4. Orlando Magic – This Orlando team is arguably better than the 2008-09 Magic that made the NBA Finals.  The problem is the Cleveland Cavaliers team that they beat to get there are also much better. 

LeBron James is better.  Shaquille O’Neal is in the lineup, recovered from his thumb injury and ready to bang in the post with Howard. Antawn Jamison is ready to combat Rashard Lewis.  This all spells trouble for the Magic.  It will be a tight match, but the James gang is definitely the squad destined for the Eastern Conference Championship this season. Cleveland will beat Orlando in seven games to advance to the Finals.

3. Los Angeles Lakers – And the crowd goes wild.  Before the Lakers’ faithful stops reading, consider LA’s late-season struggles and lack of urgency down the stretch. Consider center Andrew Bynum’s injury-plagued body, and forwards Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom’s inconsistent performances in clutch moments.  Consider Kobe Bryant hasn’t scored 40 points in a game since the end of 2008, and will need to get past Durant and Anthony just to get to the Western Conference Finals.

Then, consider the Dallas Mavericks' dominance of late.  Still think it is far-fetched to rank the defending-champion Lakers third?  The Mavericks will take out the emperor that is Phil Jackson, and the empire that is the Los Angeles Lakers, in an instant-classic seven-game series.

2. Dallas Mavericks – That being said, the Mavericks are not the best team in the league.  They are the second-best.  Nowitzki will battle his way to game seven of the Finals, scoring over 30 points every game. Point guard Jason Kidd will lead the offense, dazzling with assists like he has since he entered the league 15 years ago.  Forwards Caron Butler and Shawn Marion will work their inside-outside games. Jason Terry will provide the uncanny momentum shifts that Dallas has come to expect. 

But who will guard LeBron James?  If they have to double him, who will cover the three-point threats perched outside the arc?  Will Brendan Haywood be able to contain Shaquille O’Neal?  Is Kidd able to stay with Mo Williams up and down the floor?  That’s a lot of question marks. 

Any other year, the Mavericks would probably be crowned the champions of the world.  This year, they’ll have to settle for champions of the western conference.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – All hail the King, and his new crown.  LeBron James will finally be the league and Finals MVP, hoisting his first championship trophy after a solid eight years in the NBA.  Cavs fans will rejoice, with adoring eyes focused on giddy Shaq and ‘Bron as they lead a victory dance through Cleveland.  They’ll be on top of the world.

Then, in the offseason, O’Neal will retire a five-time champion and James will sign a record-breaking contract with the New York Knicks.  See you in 2010-11!