For once, the NBA Championship seems to be wide open and ready for the taking. The defending champion Miami Heat return intact and are primed for another run at the title. Many of the usual suspects will be ready to dethrone the Heat. The defending champs from the West, the Dallas Mavericks, are part of a group of contenders that includes the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns. In a league rife with parity, home court advantage will become even more important. This should be a year full of surprises, and you should expect the unexpected.
When talking about the Eastern Conference, you must start with the defending champs. Even though they did not get any younger or make a marked improvement to last year's roster, the Heat still have Shaq and Finals MVP Dwyane Wade.
The rest of the East does not seem to have much else in the way of title contenders. The Detroit Pistons are bringing back a squad similar to last year's, with one major loss in center Ben Wallace. How the Pistons rebound from the loss of Wallace will determine whether or not they remain among the conference elite.
The Chicago Bulls picked up Wallace from Detroit, traded for P.J. Brown, and drafted Tyrus Thomas out of LSU to add to their young core. These additions, along with the improvement of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng, will give the Bulls a chance to compete.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are banking on LeBron James and a healthy Larry Hughes to propel them into the top half of the conference. If Cleveland is going to compete with the other elite teams in the East, LeBron has to kick his game into yet another gear and impose his will on the league.
As for a sleeper team in the conference, I would look at the Milwaukee Bucks. The addition of second-year man Charlie Villanueva gives the Bucks an explosive front line to complement sweet-shooting guard Michael Redd.
The closest thing to a sure bet in the East is the Heat...and they have plenty of age and injury issues. In the end this conference will be won by the club that can play team basketball and have its stars shine in the big moments.
In the West you must start with the big three of Dallas, Phoenix, and San Antonio. The conference is very deep this year and has its fair share of elite franchises.
The defending conference champion Dallas Mavericks are bringing back most of their nucleus from last season. They did add to their depth by picking up Devan George and drafting Maurice Ager in the first round.
San Antonio stayed the course in similar fashion, trying to keep their winning chemistry rolling. On the other hand, the Phoenix Suns may have made this season's best addition by getting Amare Stoudamire back from injury. With the return of a dominant big man to a lineup that was very successful in his absence, the Suns could be trouble for the rest of the conference.
The second tier on the left coast is just as dangerous as the elite teams. With Memphis, Houston, Sacramento and both Los Angeles teams looking to compete for a title, the West is as deep as it has ever been. Beyond those five squads, there is a much improved New Orleans team that added Peja Stojakovich, Tyson Chandler, and two first round picks to a core built around budding superstar Chris Paul.
Then there is the Northwest Division, which has three teams that seem to be improved and ready to mix it up in a battle for the division crown. The Denver Nuggets, Seattle Sonics, and Minnesota Timberwolves are basically guaranteed at least one spot in the playoffs, because someone has to win the Northwest—and all three have improved greatly since the beginning of last year.
The only team that has no realistic chance to make the postseason in the West is that mess of a franchise in Portland. With so much parity in the conference, defense will be paramount; there's enough firepower around the league that the team that can best slow down its opponents is the most likely to emerge from the pack.
The MVP this season seems to be a no brainer: LeBron James. LeBron should be a dominating force in the league this season, and will prove himself to be the best basketball player in the world.
Brandon Roy will not only be the leader of the moderately revamped Blazers—he will also be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. With his combination of leadership and all-round skill, Roy should be an instant success.
The Defensive Player of the Year will be Ben Wallace, the leader of the Bulls hard-nosed defense. Big Ben’s attitude and presence will help raise the level of his young and hungry Bulls teammates. Look for Wallace to be reinvigorated by the youth in Chicago and have a banner year.
I'm looking at Jerry Stackhouse as the top contender for the Sixth Man award. Stackhouse is an offensive powerhouse coming off of the Dallas bench, with unmatched scoring ability for a reserve player.
Finally, Scott Skiles will be this season's Coach of the Year. With the influx of veteran players to an exciting young core, Skiles should be the maestro of a very successful squad in Chicago this season.