Mr. Bryant, your ring, Sir. Hey, don't look down on me.
Boston Celtics (53-29) Re-signed Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Added an aging Shaquille O'Neal and Jermiane O'Neal. Didn't really lose anyone of significance. Just another year older (and wiser?). I'm not as high on them as I've been in years past, but they should have a mild playoff run in them until Orlando or Miami take them out.
Philadelphia 76ers (42-40) A team that already included Elton Brand, an improving Jrue Holiday, and Andre Iguodala, adds basically an Iguodala clone in Evan Turner. If I'm the Sixers, I flip the centers. Marreese Speights should start over the waste of space that is Spencer "Bust" Hawes. Look for Thaddeus Young to have an Andray Blatche-with-Wizards type of impact. The Sixers' depth is still lacking, but they are getting there.
New York Knicks (39-42) Look, I'm no Knicks fan, but I appreciate a relevant Knicks team. This season is really all about setting the perimeters for a Carmelo Anthony homecoming, whenever that is. When he brings Chris Paul out of New Orleans--AKA purgatory--they are gonna click and be fun to watch.
Until then, Amar'e is their only selling piece, but he's a nice one to have. What people have not talked enough about is the steal the Knicks pulled with Golden State. The overrated David Lee was swapped for Kelenna Azubuike (13.9 ppg) and Anthony Randolph (11.6 ppg).
Toronto Raptors (33-49) This is where the division starts to dive. After years of nice international flare, only the San Antonio Spurs could envy Jose Calderon (Spain), Andrea Bargnani (Italia), and Hedo Turkoglu (Turkey). They traded down for Linus Klieza (Russia) and a guy I've always liked, Leandro Barbosa (Brazil).
Still, look what the record was with Bosh and 'Glu, both of whom they've lost. Rookie Ed Davis has a lot of work to do just to match Bosh's lost production, and Klieza is basically a spot-up shooter, necessary as he is.
New Jersey Nets (25-57) After winning a scarcity of games (12) last year, the team was forced to overspend on Anthony Morrow and Travis Outlaw once they missed out on all the key free agents. The only mistake here is starting Outlaw (for now). Derrick Favors, a first-round pick, could be hit or miss if he gets fat. Its not as dire as last year, but Brooklyn, and the new beginning it will bring, can't come fast enough.
Chicago Bulls (50-32) I was all ready to give the crown of this divison to the Bucks. Yes, the Milwaukee Bucks. But then the Bulls salvaged a disappointing free-agent frenzy by snagging Carlos Boozer at the last minute. Kyle Korver adds a nice Tony Kukoc touch, but this isn't a championship-caliber team. They should win a playoff round depending on match-ups, but not much more.
Milwaukee Bucks (48-34) Can Brandon Jennings continue to improve? The team not only re-signed catalyst John Salmons, who saved the season after his mid-year trade from Chicago, but also added Drew Gooden, who, while overpaid, is a better and younger version of Joe Smith. They also added 19.8 ppg in Corey Magette. The X-factor, as always, is Michael Redd, who adds tremendous depth if healthy.
If Chicago gets so much as one injury, this team is gonna take this division. Book it.
Indiana Pacers (34-48) Danny Granger and Darren Collison are about your only marketable players here. Roy Hibbert is emerging as a force, and Tyler Hansborough actually has some game. Don't forget about Mike Dunleavy.
Oh, and the Pacers answer the question "Where is Josh McRoberts playing?"—in case anyone wondered if he was still in the league. Who knew?
Detroit Pistons (33-49) Last year I had them making the playoffs based on the additions of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. Problem is, they are essentially the same player, and thus do the same things. Austin Daye is set to emerge, as he's been tearing it up in pre-season. Still, first-round pick Greg Monroe has been less than impressive so far, and Richard Hamilton just looks old or un-interested.
Cleveland Cavaliers (26-56) They lost some guy, I forget his name, to Miami. Apparantly the team is 1-13 without him? (Thanks, JA Adande!) The team is asking new starter JJ Hickson to do too much, and I think at PF he's out of position anyway, but what choice do they have?
Jamison, Williams, Parker and Verejao aren't just going to forget how to play, so that alone could get them 10+ wins. But yeah, it's gonna be a long, sad season in Ohio.
Miami Heat (67-15) Can we just call them the "Mercenary Heat"? I mean, what's the difference? Mike Miller may need hand surgery? So what. The team worked out Jerry Stackhouse yesterday. Why? He brings nothing to the table. Wade (28 ppg) plus LeBron (26 ppg) plus Bosh (18 ppg), all conservative numbers, adds up to 72 ppg.
Throw in Miller, Chalmers, House, Ilgauskas, and Haslem doing anything between them—a very modest 25ppg to share, at just 5 ppg each, and you've got 97ppg on any given night. That's going to be tough to beat. My only concerns are ball-hogging and spotlight-sharing. I'm not in the Jeff Van Gundy 73-win camp, but if Boston's old men can win 66, why can't the Heat be just as good?
Orlando Magic (55-27) Lost Matt Barnes to the Lakers, but little else. Older, but wiser? Brought in Chris Duhon, who is actually a really nice player, which you will see come May in the playoffs. He's a Rafer Alston-type upgrade. I'd like to see a deeper bench, but they have to go with what they have.
Atlanta Hawks (50-32) Re-signed adopted hometown boy Joe Johnson to a ridiculous but necessary deal. Losing him would have made this team irrelevant. Sixth man of the year Jamal Crawford wants out. No real first-round picks to give impact. What you see is what you get, and what you get is a first-round exit come spring.
Charlotte Bobcats (38-44) Team lost original player Raymond Felton to the Knicks, which I am not sure is a good fit there. Team is in flux, and rumored to maybe be contracted. Tyrus Thomas is the spark here. Gerald Wallace has looked underused in the preseason so far, and Jackson has looked sloppy. One player who could really make strides is DJ Augustin, their PG. I've always liked Boris Diaw. They need to use him more.
Washington Wizards (22-60) The record really isn't indicative of their talent. They've actually got a nice core in John Wall, Andray Blatche, Josh Howard, and JaVale McGee. Not to mention another player I love, Al Thornton. Until they trade Gilbert Arenas (did anyone hear that Vince Carter for Agent Zero rumor?) he's going to continue to distract the team.
This year is all about seeing what Wall can do, but in the NBA's toughest division, 18-20 losses are going to come from within. What are you supposed to do about that?
Oklahoma City Thunder (53-27) Everyone's new media darling, Kevin Durant, and his OKC Thunder are kings of this division and the NBA once Phil Jackson and Kobe retire.
Westbrook, whom I called a bust two years ago, proved me wrong. Key here is the evolution of first-round pick Cole Aldrich and how he fits in. Don't discount Nenad Kristic or Eric Maynor's impact here. They need guys that are young and can run. Meet the new and improved Suns.
Denver Nuggets (50-32) This record is only as good as long as Carmelo is still on the team. Once he's traded, all bets are off. The Timberwolves could be a direct beneficary once the talent moves to the Eastern Conference and makes NY relevant.
Why the Wolves? Because Denver is the first team in the division, and could jump, as they will soon be the closest in talent to them.
Portland Trailblazers (48-34) Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are coming off injury, as well as Joel "I'm still in the league" Pryzbilla. I guess when you are seven feet tall you get 10 years automatically.
What's the over/under on the annual Oden-out-for-season injury? I say Wednesday, December 1, at Boston. Sorry Shaq! I wanted November 24, but they are off that day. I guess he could always pick up luggage wrong or something. We've heard that from other athletes.
Still, the team has enough depth to once again overcome the odds and make the postseason.
Utah Jazz (43-39) Did anyone realize how deep this team is? I don't like the Al Jefferson trade long-term for Utah because of his knees. Boozer for Jefferson was a downgrade, and not just because I am a Wolves fan.
Losing two draft picks to the Wolves means no help will come their way, and this isn't a place free agents go to play either--save for Boozer, who got a weird, controversial deal back in the day.
Minnesota Timberwolves (33-49) Once again, I am playing the "30 win" card, but I think they could do it. Dick Vitale has Wesley Johnson for ROY, although many Wolves fans don't think he'll get enough touches. Michael Beasley is going to make Wolves fans, all 3,541 of us left, forget about Al Jeff. Love is set to emerge, finally, with no Jeff in front of him.
We need to be worrying about attendance this season, so that we won't, as rumored, get contracted.
I was prepared to go even higher with the win total until I heard that possible sixth man Martell Webster is having back issues.
A key reserve here could be beast Nikola Pekovic. Remember that name, Wolves rivals. Darko is going to prove you all wrong too.
Dallas Mavericks (52-30) I really liked the addition of Shawn Marion last year. I want to see what a full season of Caron Butler/Brandon Haywood can do. He's a bit undersized, but Tyson Chandler, who snuck his way onto the roster, could be key. He could be big production-wise if healthy.
Houston Rockets (48-34) Yao's back. As in, he's returned. The team has so many interesting pieces—Battier, Budinger, Kevin Martin—even if they are all undersized. Courtney Lee was a nice find, and Lowry and Brooks are good enough. They could be creative at the trade deadline a la Dallas last year. They've got pieces.
New Orleans Hornets (45-37) Paul, your time here is almost up, although looking at this roster, I am not sure why. Be patient.
Italiano Marco Belinelli has looked bellissimo in preseason. He's a go-to guy once Paul is gone. Marcus Thornton, who played college ball down the street at LSU, is a good player. Trevor Ariza is a nice find. And this is where David West has been hiding.
Memphis Grizzlies (42-40) Added a player I wanted, Xavier Henry, and energy off the bench in "General" Greivis Vasquez. Kept Rudy Gay, added to All-Star Zach "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" Randolph, and OJ Mayo, and that's a fine core. Henry, a possible ROY, will be key on depth.
San Antonio Spurs (38-44) Has it really come to this? Yes. Mr. Duncan, this way to your room. Antonio McDyess, you're still here! Manu wants more Jell-O. Okay, so they aren't that old, but all have lost a step. Senior citizens do like warm weather, I'm told, so its appropriate one of the oldest teams plays here.
Remember last year's 7th-seed? That ain't gonna happen with Memphis's younger, improving roster. If Parker leaves in free agency, look out.
LA Lakers (65-17) Can we just give them the title now? No. How about the Conference title? You say we still have to play the games? Easiest pick in the entire league, but also exhibit-A as to why the league will lockout soon. Damn that's a deep roster. Best in the league. Period. You could take KoME off and they still make the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns (43-39) Lost Barbosa but picked up Turkoglu. Think Orlando Magic impact. Lost Amar'e, and players like Hill are another year older. When does Hill go to San Antonio, where he belongs?
LA Clippers (37-45) I was burned last year when I had them making the playoffs on the back of the Blake Griffin pick. I keep hearing good things about this year's pick, Al Farouq-Aminu. Timberwolves West: Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye are garbage, but Craig Smith could be serviceable. I always liked him.
Sacramento Kings (35-47) Evans, Thompson, Landry, and Cousins form a nice core. With Cousins, many think the Kings could have back-to-back ROYs. The Kings are headed in the right direction.
Golden State Warriors (36-46) Overpaid for David Lee, and gave up a ton of talent (see: NY Knicks). Don Nelson's the wrong fit here. "Come out and watch Steph Curry evolve!" should be a tag line on every ticket sold. Monta Ellis is nice, but unpredictable. Many people where high on Marshall's Hasaan Whiteside. Why? He's the next Patrick O'Bryant.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) NY Knicks: Miami in four. This is step one of the process in Manhattan pre-Carmelo.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers: Boston in four. Talk about a team just happy to be there in Philly.
(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks: Bulls in seven. Easily the best match-up of first round. I'll be pulling for the Bucks.
(4) Orlando Magic vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks: Magic in five.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (4) Orlando Magic: Heat in six.
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Chicago Bulls: Saved by the seeding (Magic screwed in second round), Boston in seven in a series more difficult than it should be. Typical Boston near-collapse.
Eastern Conference Finals
(1) Miami Heat vs. (2) Boston Celtics: Miami in seven. Boston seems to look lost early on in the playoffs, remember when Atlanta took them to the limit in 2008, only to win it all later? They seem to step it up when it's on the line. Translation: this series will be a classic, but the younger Miami will win.
(1) LA Lakers vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies: Lakers in four. Thanks for coming, Memphis!
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) New Orleans Hornets: Thunder in five. This is Durant's coming-out party.
(3) Dallas Mavericks vs (6) Houston Rockets: Rockets in six. Could go seven.
(4) Denver Nuggets vs. (5) Portland in five: Could be a thriller. Lots of OT games.
(1) Lakers vs. (6) Houston Rockets: Lakers in six.
(2) OKC vs. (5) Portland: OKC in seven. There's always one thriller series per round.
Western Conference Finals
(1) Lakers vs. (2) OKC: Lakers in six.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (1) KoMe Bryant, I mean, LA Lakers: Lakers in seven. Stern gets another Classic before all hell breaks loose and we have no 2011-12 season.
Coach of the Year
Lionel Hollins, Memphis
Defensive Player of the Year
Dwight Howard, Magic
Martell Webster, Wolves
Rookie of the Year
Evan Turner, 76ers, only 'cause I picked it regardless of where he went when he was at OSU. Runner up: Wall. Wesley Johnson and Cousins will get some votes.
Coaches to get fired
Jay Triano, Raptors
Alvin Gentry, Suns
Coaches on the move
Larry Brown, Bobcats (retires)
Greg Popovich, Spurs (resigns)
Jerry Sloan, Jazz (retires)
George Karl, Nuggets (resigns, having no 'Melo)