After what was probably the most eventful offseason of the past two decades, the circus following the free agency pool and potentially blockbuster trades is finally coming to an end.
2012, the end of the Mayan calender, may mean the end of the NBA too, at least for a season due to the pending lockout. That possibility makes this year all the more important.
2011 will see the Lakers attempt to bring coach Phil Jackson his fourth three-peat championship run.
It will also see the Miami Heat try to capitalize on their recent pairing of two-time defending MVP LeBron James and All-Star Chris Bosh with 2006 NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade.
Also, a host of up and coming teams such as the Bulls and Thunder will attempt to break into the ranks of the NBA's elite.
Who will succeed? Who will fail?
What will be the season's biggest surprises and what are the train wrecks we all see coming?
Find out here.
Given the questionable depth of the Eastern Conference, the Bulls should be able to string together a low 50-win season and maybe even a second round berth, but that’ll be the end of the ride.
The Bulls are without much depth in their backcourt and still lack the universal trait of all true contenders—a dominant interior.
While Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer should make a formidable big man tag-team, Boozer is not known for his defense and Noah, physical and spirited as he may be, is not capable of defending the paint from elite bigs like Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard or Chris Bosh.
In the playoffs, Noah couldn’t even handle the aged Shaq.
Everyone loves a young team because they run, they dive for loose balls and they often play the regular season with the kind of vigor that you only see from veteran teams playing against rivals or in the playoffs, but these Bulls just aren’t quite ready to make the jump from lovable losers to aspiring contenders.
There isn’t enough experience or firepower in Chicago for them to rise to the expectations some have set out for them—at least not yet.
In another two or three seasons the Bulls might be ready for a deep run, but as presently comprised, the Bulls are just capable of scaring an elite team, not beating one.
Everyone loves a winner and now everyone loves Kevin Durant, particularly after expressing his take on NBA free agency and the competitive nature of NBA players.
Forgive me if I feel Durant's opinion on the subject is illegitimate as he’s is only 21—and hasn’t yet suffered through years of losing and disappointment like the veterans he’s critiquing.
As far as the Thunder as a team is concerned, they’re the new kid on the block and they’ve got everyone intrigued.
Everyone seemed to be rooting for them in the playoffs before they fell to the defending Champion Lakers, but as they may soon find out, the buzz around an up and comer is like a new car smell, it's fleeting.
The Denver Nuggets were the feel good team of 2009, and the New Orleans Hornets were the team everyone felt good about the year before.
Where are those teams now?
While the Thunder’s seemingly overnight progress from a forgotten team to one of the Western Conference’s elite was impressive, they doubtlessly benefited from the fact that nobody saw them coming.
Kevin Durant suddenly emerged as a top 10 player and Russell Westbrook provided ample firepower as the team’s second go-to-guy.
Though the Thunder have rightfully been lost in the buzz of the Miami Heat’s historic signing of LeBron James and Chris Bosh and the Lakers’ bid for a second three-peat championship run in nine years, their progress won’t be lost among the other elite teams in their conference, particularly in the Western Conference.
The Thunder should be good for a season culminating in anywhere from 52 to 56 wins, but with the return of Yao Ming to the Houston Rockets, the retooling of the Utah Jazz and the desperation of the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs to claim a title in the closing eras of Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, the Thunder are probably at least another year away from true title contention.
Expect for half of America to be in their corner all the way up until the second round of the 2011 playoffs though.
The likely retirement of Rasheed Wallace and the loss of Tony Allen serve as nails in the coffin. Another year of aging for Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett doesn’t help much either.
Though the Boston Celtics have historically been at their best when the doubts around their team were at their highest, the buck has to stop somewhere.
Everything about the Celtics after end of the 2010 Finals, the looks on their faces, the tone in their voices, the fact that Doc Rivers return was even in question, all suggest that the Celtics knew they had lost their last, best shot at another title.
They also know that this coming season will probably be the last that they can even make another legitimate attempt at one, but there’s just one problem—the Celtics will not catch anyone off guard again.
The Cavaliers came into their matchup with the Celtics overconfident and untested. The Magic went into the Conference Finals unprepared.
Though the Cavaliers are gone, the Miami Heat have taken their place and neither LeBron James nor Dwyane Wade will likely forget the frustration they experienced at the Celtics’ hands.
Even Chris Bosh will have a score to settle.
Though Bosh never met the Celtics in the playoffs, his Raptors were subject to the Celtics’ outright ownership of the Atlantic Division year in and year out.
The Celtics have far too much talent and pride to bow out in the first round of the playoffs, but the odds of them overcoming the more talented, more youthful Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic are slim to none.
Sorry Dwight Howard, not this year. At least I don’t think so.
I think the Magic’s window has almost closed and I don’t think they will ever be higher than a No. 2 seed in the East. For Howard to win, the Magic would not only have to exceed the 60 win plateau, they would probably need to kick the Miami Heat’s butt while doing it and I just don’t see that happening.
But hey, he can probably look forward to being the only player in the history of the league to capture the Defensive Player of the Year award in three consecutive seasons.
And let’s face it, LeBron James is out of contention for the MVP award too, maybe forever.
He’s too hated, too reviled and may even need years to shed the image of “sidekick” or “traitor” after pairing with Wade. Who does that leave us with?
I guess Christmas came a little early for you, KD. Maybe you shouldn’t be complaining about the “lack of competition” after all.
Kobe Bryant should finish in the top three in MVP voting, but look for the Lakers to dial back his regular season minutes as much as possible given that Bryant’s arthritic finger may already be beyond repair and that his multitudinous injuries severely hampered him in the playoffs’ first round.
There’s always Carmelo Anthony, but he would need his Nuggets to utterly rampage through the regular season and that’s somewhat unlikely given the utter strength of the Northwest Division, which is arguably the stiffest in the NBA.
I don’t think that Kevin Durant is a top five player in the NBA when Chris Paul is healthy and I’m not entirely convinced that Durant has supplanted Anthony as the second best small forward in the game.
He’s still Diet LeBron, but that should be enough to win the award this year given that no other star in the NBA has Durant’s workload and opportunity to win.
Not that the Thunder are actual contenders.
Durant crashes the boards and scores at a very high percentage for his age, but until he can take that up another notch and increase his pedestrian 2.8 assists per game, the Thunder won’t be celebrating in June.
But that doesn’t mean Durant can’t celebrate in May.
After two straight playoffs of second round sweeps can we just admit that the Hawks’ aren’t good enough?
They need a big man, not to win, just to compete.
As the top of the Eastern Conference gets even heavier, it wouldn’t hurt the Hawks to add The Big Commodity, but at this point it wouldn’t help much either.
Shaq knows he won’t come close to touching the Larry O’Brien in Atlanta and by now the Hawks know they’re not good enough to take out a top team.
But hey, what does either side have to lose?
It's unfortunate that Shaq has to resort to that sort of rationale these days, but he’s only brought it upon himself. Ironically, the two teams most likely to win the title, the Lakers and Heat, have already had their fill of The Big Jackass.
It's not that the Lakers couldn’t use Shaq, I’ll be the first to say they could, given the state of their weakened bench, but once you’ve really spurned the Lakers, that’s typically the end of the story.
Besides, which NBA title contender really wants to risk being the next contestant on “Shaq Vs”?
Hedo Turkoglu is finally home. He’s back at a place where the offense is quick, the shots are plentiful and his responsibilities are few.
Not that it will matter.
Had Phoenix been able to hold on to Amar’e Stoudemire and brought Turkoglu aboard, they might’ve actually had a winner on their hands, but that wasn’t in the cards.
In losing Stoudemire, the Suns lost the only big man they had who attacked the rim with regularity—and they lost their second best post-defender, not that that’s saying much.
With Stoudemire gone the Suns will be even more vulnerable against teams who pound the ball inside and will have little equipment to return the favor.
Fifty wins and first round elimination sounds about right.
There is something to be said for Steve Nash’s loyalty, but if winning really is a priority for him, he may need to give serious consideration to changing addresses.
Unless Tony Parker miraculously winds up in New York you can forget about it.
I’m not sure that I buy into the theory that Steve Nash created all of Stoudemire’s offense, but Nash was certainly responsible for some of it.
Look for Stoudemire's rebounding numbers to increase a bit without a true center to share the paint with, but in signing with the Knicks, Stoudemire just became the next Chris Bosh.
Sure, the weather is less humid, the buildings are taller and the market is bigger in New York, but until the team has ample time to build around him, Stoudemire’s going to be battling with the Nets for the bottom of the Atlantic Division.
When Tracy McGrady leaves, whichever team he heads to will likely get more out of him than New York was able to.
Barring another major injury or setback, the Houston Rockets will fill a 7’6”, 310 pound void they were unable to fill for the 2010 season.
Welcome back Yao Ming, Houston missed you.
With Ming back in the fold, the Rockets retention of Luis Scola and pickup of Brad Miller should make their frontcourt one of the very best in the game.
Once you add that to the young, athletic talent they have in their backcourt with Trevor Ariza, 2010 Most Improved Player of the Year winner Aaron Brooks, and Kevin Martin, you’ve got yourself a hell of a team.
The Rockets could finish as high as the second in the West and may even be in for a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Of course, Ming may suffer a setback and this team could miss the playoffs.
I’m betting that he’ll be close enough to 100 percent to lead the Rockets to a successful season and a fairly deep playoff run, but with the Rockets you never know.
Well, If you haven’t seen Cleveland’s newest attempt at taunting LeBron James by now, allow me to fill you in on its contents: “You can head SOUTH, but your mom is riding WEST”.
Disgusting. Utterly classless, shameless, pathetic and disgusting.
I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Had LeBron said “Cleveland” and not “South Beach” during The Decision, the same people wearing these shirts would be gratefully throwing themselves at his feet, instead they’re doing everything in their power to wound him.
It goes without saying that the Cavaliers are no longer an elite team.
They probably won’t set an NBA record for the worst seasonal turnaround, but 60-win seasons, No. 1 overall records, national coverage and probably even mere respectability are things of the past for the Cavalier franchise.
I can understand Cleveland’s disappointment, but there’s a distinct line between acceptable banter and inappropriate heckling and classlessness and as a city, Cleveland crossed it by light years.
Congratulations, Cleveland. If there ever was a chance at LeBron James returning after the end of his contract in Miami, you not only put a nail in that chance’s coffin, you dropped a nuclear bomb on the cemetery.
Not that I think that Cleveland cares. Their pride as a city is wounded, and they’re far beyond the point of reason, perhaps to a dangerous extent.
To say the least, it’s a safe bet that James is not looking forward to whatever date he’ll be visiting the Q with Wade and Bosh—and you thought T.O. going back to Philly was bad?
When Spike Lee suggested that the Q would need the National Guard to run security upon LeBron’s return he probably wasn’t as far off as some people might think.
The Heat never said they wanted to hit that mark. No one’s even talking about 70 wins from a team that has yet to take the court. What’s the point of this prediction?
Well, because the Heat will probably come out of the gates looking like they’re going to hit 70.
They’ll start 10-0 or 19-1 and people will be ready to brush aside the 1996 Bulls and crown the 2011 Heat as the greatest team of all time.
But eventually they’ll slow.
Besides, everyone’s gunning for the Heat.
Cleveland, Toronto and the rest of the league are probably upset that the Heat just purchased themselves title contention for the better part of the next decade and they're going to do everything in their power to derail that.
Okay, Cleveland and Toronto don’t scare anyone, but Miami may have a serious problem in dealing with what I call The Bronze Ring Syndrome.
Beating the Heat in the regular season won’t win any championships, but for many teams it would be the next best thing. Why not make a name for yourself by beating the team everyone loves to hate?
It won’t get you a place in the history books, but who wouldn’t like to be champion for a day?
Its not like there’s much room for doubt in the Pacific Division.
Most teams cherish division titles, the Lakers stock them up and toss them aside like junk mail. The Kings got a little stronger, the Suns got weaker, the Warriors stood pat and the Clippers are the Clippers.
Chalk up at least 13 wins out of that crowd.
Should the Lakers be fortunate enough to avoid major injury, they shouldn’t have a problem locking up the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed for the fourth consecutive season.
Not only do they play in the weakest division in the West, but they have the league’s best frontcourt, the best coach in American history and the game’s most decorated player in Kobe Bryant.
The bottom line is that this club knows how to win basketball games and they’ve got the pieces to do it.
Until someone else takes it from them, the Lakers are far and away the best team that the Western Conference has to offer.
Get ready for my craziest prediction of all: people will be rooting for the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Insane, I know.
Now that that’s over, my following predictions may not seem as crazy by comparison.
The Miami Heat may have permanently dethroned the Lakers as the NBA’s most hated team but they just don’t have the depth to dethrone them as the NBA’s greatest.
I think the Lakers will win the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed to secure homecourt advantage and the Lakers will win their second consecutive NBA Finals Game Seven at the Staples Center.
Andrew Bynum is going to be healthy—that’s right, healthy—in June and he will dominate the Miami Heat’s weak interior, possibly earning Finals MVP on his way to permanently etching himself into the history of the Lakers’ greatest players.
Also, at some point or another Kobe Bryant will make a game winning shot. I don’t know which game, I don’t know if it’ll stop the Lakers from falling into an insurmountable deficit, even the series, or bring another Larry O’Brien to L.A., but it will happen.
Erik Spoelstra will be thoroughly outcoached by Phil Jackson as Jackson captures his 12th ring and walks off into the sunset as the undisputed greatest coach of all time.