We’ve reached the end of another calendar, and 2010 has given way to 2011. As we reflect on what the last year means to us–the things we expected, the surprises, the highs and lows–there’s yet another chance to start fresh in the places we fell short in 2010.
There. Introspective philosophical aside over. Let’s talk basketball. In celebration of ’11, I’m going to offer 11 NBA predictions for the next 365 days, counting down from smallest to highest impact on the league.
11. Madison Square Garden will host its first playoff game in 7 years.
The 2010-2011 installment of the New York Knicks is just as exciting as previous editions, but differs in one major way: it has the look of a contender.
Mike D’Antoni’s shoot first, ask questions later philosophy is finally paying dividends in the win column. The addition of star forward Amare Stoudemire is a big factor in that. Since being reunited with D’Antoni, Stoudemire is averaging a career high 26.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and career highs 2.3 blocks and 2.4 assists. Many critics of Stoudemire’s defensive effort and maturity have been silenced by his unexpected leadership and renewed commitment to defending. The Knicks will never be mistaken for a good defensive squad, but the notion that Stoudemire can protect the rim without the presence of a dedicated shot blocker is a huge relief to a coaching staff that wants a few more missed shots than they are forced into on offense.
Will the Knicks stay in the Eastern Conference playoff picture?
Other than avoiding a lockout (more on that later), there are few things more important to Commissioner David Stern than having the Knicks in the postseason. New York is the NBA’s flagship city and the Knicks are arguably its most important franchise. A sustained Knicks resurgence means a lot to the NBA at the gate and in the news.
10. The Clippers will challenge for the West’s 8th playoff spot
I’m hoping I don’t get ahead of myself here. After all, the Clips are just 10-23 and 7-12 at STAPLES Center. The reason for the optimism is that they have suddenly figured out how to be more competitive in games, even though the losses are piling up at the same rate. They have a habit of getting ahead in games and then vomiting wins away down the stretch because they haven’t figured out how to win games. Most of the rotation is very young–Eric Gordon, 22; Blake Griffin, 21; Eric Bledsoe, 21; DeAndre Jordan, 22, Al-Farouq Aminu, 20–and all have less than 3 years experience in the league. Its crystal clear that this team is budding with the talent of a playoff team, but something in the status quo keeps them from breaking through. What happens when they start figuring out the crunch time hierarchy and how to win games? They’re only 7 games out of the last spot right, which they have plenty of time to make up.
I think the Clips figure this out in time to make a run after the All-Star break. Be prepared in February and March to see headlines like, “Griffin scores 48 to save Clippers’ 8 game win streak”, “Del Negro took his time, but has settled in”, and “DeAndre Jordan’s antics have team chemistry off the charts.” Even in the midst of a half empty arena and horrific end-game sequences, the future is bright for the Clippers.
9. The Magic will beat the Heat in the 2nd round of the playoffs
Have you seen the new Magic? Since blowing up the roster, Otis Smith’s team has run off 5 straight wins, including wins over San Antonio and Boston on Christmas Day.
Hedo Turkoglu has fit in nicely so far, Gilbert Arenas gives them scoring punch off the bench, Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson have benefited from increased playing time, and Stan Van Gundy hasn’t thrown one of his players under the bus in a postgame news conference in weeks. The subtractions of Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, and Rashard Lewis were savvy improvements by Otis Smith, as those three players were basically dead weight with no potential of contributing.
The rest of the NBA’s elite addressed their weaknesses over the summer while the Magic stood pat. After all, the Magic were one year removed from a trip to the Finals, and the core from that team was intact. Yes, the team had its imperfections, but which team didn’t? As this season progressed and Smith assessed what was there, the organization quickly realized that they were not a contender with the roster they had. Two weeks ago, Smith took a risk and blew it all up in the hope of changing the look of a floundering 16-10 team.
The early returns have been very strong. Since dropping back-to-backs against Atlanta and Dallas, the Magic have won those 5 in a row, and are starting to crystallize the roles and rotations. This team isn’t as strong defensively, but the culture has changed, and the East rivals have to throw out their old scouting reports. I predict the Magic slide into the playoffs as the 3 seed right behind Miami. This sets up a matchup between the Florida teams in the second round, where the Heat, as much as they have figured out recently, will still be unable to answer Dwight Howard in the post.
8. Kevin Love will have the NBA’s first 20 point-15 rebound season since Moses Malone’s in 1982-83
Love’s list of accomplishments this season is already long: 28 double-doubles in 33 games and 19 in a row, five 20-rebound games, a 30-rebound game, 88.1% free throws, and 43% from the three-point line.
He’s cleaning glass at his highest level right now, and has been for most of the season. He is an absolute monster, and there’s no sign of him stopping, especially since Minnesota has the fastest offensive pace in the league and Love has no competition for rebounds on his team.
7. The Charlotte Bobcats will make the East playoffs
Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown “stepped down” last week, and veteran coach Paul Silas replaces him to the delight of fantasy basketball players. It was reported that the first thing Silas did in Bobcats practice was to shorten the shot clock from 24 to 14 seconds to get his team to play faster, a la Golden State and New York. This is a huge shift in philosophy from Brown, who has consistently stifled his best players at times in favor of a half-court, set play offense.
The Bobcats, currently 11-20 and 1.5 games out of the 8th position, are already known for their defense, having led the league in points allowed last season at 93.8. The simple math says increased offensive pace + sound defense = wins. Whether Silas has the right personnel to run and shoot while still being able to defend remains to be seen. As a Stephen Jackson fantasy owner, I can tell you that I (and Jackson) love the new offense.
All this is to say that Charlotte, being on the fringe of playoff contention, are unscouted and about to rise. For the NBA’s newest franchise, it would be timely and much needed.
6. Lamar Odom will make his first All-Star team
Odom, long considered by many NBA people as the most versatile and talented player in the league, is playing in his 12th season and has never been voted to the All-Star team. There are not many guys in the league who average a near double-double over 12 years and never make the All-Star game. Odom has kicked off perhaps his best year yet, going for 15.8 points on a career high 58% shooting with 9.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and nearly a block per game. His filling in for the oft-injured Andrew Bynum has been invaluable to the Lakers, who lack a consistent playmaker who can score in every way. He has taken his game to another level this season, and the key has been consistency. Frustration has surrounded his entire career as he vacillates between dominating and disappearing. There has been no disappearing this year by #7, and the Lakers are better for it.
His laid-back, pass-first game does not belong to the conventional superstar, which is why he gets perennially overlooked for NBA All-Star. Here’s to hoping that this year, Laker (and West coach) Phil Jackson selects the well-deserving Lamar and does his part to bring justice to the terrible All-Star selection system.
5. Carmelo Anthony will be a Knick by the trade deadline
Since Carmelo turned down the Nuggets’ 3-year, $65 million extension over the summer, speculation and rumors have run wild that he will be traded this year. It would hurt (and signal that Denver is in a rebuilding phase), but trading Melo is the right thing to do, because they’re going to lose him anyway in summer ’11 anyway without getting anything in return. Here are a couple scenarios that seem to fit best:
a) Anthony and Al Harrington to New York for expiring contracts of Eddy Curry ($11.2 million) and Kelenna Azubuike ($3.3 million), Anthony Randolph, and Danilo Gallinari
b) Anthony to New Jersey for the expiring contracts of Troy Murphy ($12 million), Sasha Vujacic ($5.5 million), and a a first-round pick
Both the Knicks and Nets have shown a lot of interest in Melo, and chances are he gets dealt to one of them sooner rather than later, further concentrating the NBA’s star power in its biggest cities.
The Nuggets had better hurry up in making their move, because the closer the trade deadline gets, the more desperate they are, and the less leverage they have.
4. The NBA will be roundly criticized for its new ownership of the New Orleans Hornets
The league recently took control of the franchise from George Shinn, who expressed that his priority was to make sure the team remains in New Orleans. However, the other 29 teams, who split the bill so the league could buy the team, might have something to say about that, given the team’s inability to generate significant revenue. There seems to be little hope of the city retaining the team, and the league certainly has no incentive to keep it the status quo continues.
The Hornets rank 27th out of 30 in home attendance, and have an upcoming option to break their lease with the arena. If they fly the coop on the lease, the city will have an uphill battle in competing with larger markets Chicago, Anaheim, Kansas City, and San Jose to win the team.
All relocation conversations are unpopular and a P.R. nightmare for the league (exhibit A: the debacle in leaving Seattle 3 years ago). Along with that inevitable firestorm, Stern has to deal with several conflicts of interest regarding the team’s roster. For instance, how is he (the owner) supposed to negotiate with free agent All-Star forward David West on an extension while dealing with West’s labor union to avoid a lockout? How will he deal with one of the league’s biggest superstars, Chris Paul, when he demands a trade to a better team? How can the Commissioner of the league be seen having influence over the transfer of a star player from one team to another?
The NBA needs to pawn the franchise off on some rich guy fast, because these scenarios will cause major damage to the league’s image and ability to manage itself and its competition. The problem is, they can’t find a local New Orleans buyer, meaning that their best option is to sell to someone who wants to move the team. Lose-lose situations lie in wait for Stern all over the place. I’m fascinated to see how he sidesteps them.
Will the New Orleans Hornets relocate from the Bayou?
3. Derrick Rose will win the Most Valuable Player award
The “best point guard in the league” discussion is one that is always changing and always fascinating. For a while, it’s Chris Paul, then one day it’s Deron Williams, then Steve Nash has a great streak, or Rajon Rondo throws out 24 assists. One guy who never gets called the best is Bulls’ third year point Derrick Rose. Rose has increased his scoring average by about 4 points per game each of the last two seasons, and has raised his assists to a career high 8.5 this year. Numbers can always be manipulated, so take from those stats what you want. What can’t be manipulated is his marked improvement in jump shooting since last year. A mid- and long-range jump shot has always been his biggest weakness, but he clearly took steps to shoot better in the offseason. He is currently taking over four three-pointers per game and making a serviceable 39% of them. He never averaged more than 1 three per game in his first two seasons and shot no better than 26%. His new jumper has paid dividends in his scoring average, which is 8th in the league and best among point guards.
The justification for MVP might be considered a stretch, but if it gets him in the conversation, it is justified enough. Among the Bulls’ 3 stars (Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah the others), Rose has been the mainstay this season. Boozer has been fantastic since returning from injury, but he has missed over half Chicago’s games thus far. Soon after Boozer returned, Noah went down with a thumb injury that will keep him off the court for the next 6-8 weeks.
Amid the injuries, the Bulls haven’t missed a beat, mainly because of Rose’s emergence as one of the league’s elite. Never before did he assert himself as the unquestioned leader and go-to guy in the clutch, but he has left no doubt this season with a flurry of athletically brilliant plays. There is a lot of maturing on the horizon still, but the 22 year-old has made huge strides in commanding the Bulls without a few of their most vital pieces in the huddle.
The rapid ascent of Derrick Rose will be a huge plus for the Bulls come playoff time when Noah is back and Boozer settled in. The current third seed in the East will pose a unexpected huge threat to Boston, Miami, and Orlando on the road to the Finals, and the Bulls could establish themselves as title chasers for several years.The NBA has itself a new best point guard, and a serious contender for the MVP.
Who is the MVP thus far?
2. The Los Angeles Lakers will give Phil Jackson his fourth three-peat
Now this is the part that you’ve all been waiting for: unashamed biased thoughts about our favorite team.
Let’s get this out in the open off the top: the Lakers are unequivocally the best collection of players in the NBA. From 1-10, there is no competition with the Lakers in terms of talent, experience, and versatility. Now, I know that the two-time defending champions are in a rut. I know the Heat made them look old, slow, and flustered on Christmas Day. I know that Dallas and San Antonio are flat out playing better than the Lakers, who are clearly bored and lacking motivation to step on the gas in December. None of this deters me from being confident that they are the best team, and that when the time comes, they will step on that gas pedal and blow the Texas teams and Miami/Boston/Chicago/Orlando out of the water. They will make us feel silly for ever even talking about a slump or decline.
We’ll definitely discuss this more as the postseason nears, but its important to establish a precedent early on. One thing is for sure: when the Lakers, Celtics, or Heat near a berth in the NBA Finals, all David Stern sees is dollar signs. When the league’s best teams play in the league’s biggest cities, it is a huge plus for the league, even with the lack of adequate revenue sharing.
1. The NBA will avoid the impending lockout in the summer
There is a ton to be said about this, but, in general, I don’t see either side wanting to extend this disagreement into the 2011-2012 game schedule. The league’s collective bargaining agreement, which expires after this season, governs player salaries and contracts, the draft, trades, revenue distribution, and more. Without an agreement between the owners of the league’s 30 teams and the player’s union, there would be no NBA schedule. The last time this happened, in 1998, it was a disaster. The labor strike ended midway through the season, and the teams played out a half schedule and full postseason. I think the NBA learned its lesson: giving into the players’ demands is much better for the league than driving a hard bargain.
This time around, the NBA is insisting on a decrease in the total percentage of revenue given to players in light of an alleged $400 million loss last season. However, given the amount of lavish contracts given out last summer, its hard to believe the owners are hurting for money at all. The league wants to curb the impact (and chances) that bad contracts have on franchises, but the players and their agents aren’t at fault for that. The owners who dole out those contracts have no one to blame but themselves. After all, they are the ones offering and signing off on the contracts that have the potential to cripple their teams. So the players and fans are supposed to suffer the consequences of that? It makes absolutely no sense, and the idea that the owners’ only way of curbing their own financial frivolity is by legislating to take money out of player paychecks is indefensible. I’m not sure how or why they expect the players to agree to that. So let me get this straight. You don’t like the hefty contracts we earn that you agreed to, so you want to negotiate with us to take money from us and shorten our contracts? Yeah, that sounds great!
Commissioner Stern and the owners stand to lose the most from a lockout, because they are much more dependent on the players than vice versa. Most of the players have played on full, robust contracts already, and have plenty to live on while they aren’t working. The owners, however, lose revenue at every level of their organization and employ hundreds of people to pull off the day-to-day workings of the franchise. The collateral damage of a lockout to an NBA owner is catastrophic, so desperation will set in, and my guess is that the owners will cave to the hard line of the union, and that the union will realize that it doesn’t need to budge an inch to ensure the safety of next season.
Stay tuned for more developments in the most impactful event for the NBA in the 21st century.