What do we know after two days of the 2008-09 NBA season? We know the Celtics are going to defend the EFFING hell out of their crown as the LeBron's plot their coup. We know the Lakers are the biggest and deepest team in the league. And we know the Suns and Spurs are old. Really old. Like almost as old as Greg Oden. (Was that too soon?)
Oh yeah, and we know that the day David Stern doesn’t get universally booed on site is the day he’s perfected that nifty mind control device he’s been working on. Something tells me it’ll be ready to go by draft night in New York next summer. Stay tuned.
Alas, aside from those truths, much is yet to be decided, and with reason. That’s why they play the games, duh.
Since my team is the defending champs after years of being the defending lottery losers, this preview will concentrate strictly on actual title contenders.
(Bear in mind, I called the Celtics to win 58 games and make the Finals last year when most “prominent writers" with “readerships” had them as a four or five seed in the East. I guess while you’re at it, strike from the record my pick of the Knicks as a playoff team…)
Here we go.
The Favorite: Boston Celtics
They were thrown together last year as part of Danny Ainge’s personal science experiment. The basketball world waited for Paul Pierce to demand more shots, for Kevin Garnett to shrink on the biggest stage of his life, and for Ray Allen’s ankles to detach from his calves. It anticipated their demise after they dropped three games a piece to Zaza Pachulia’s Hawks and Bron’s Cavs, except that fourth loss never came.
Now, for the 17th time in franchise history, the Celts are the returning champs. If you watched Pierce during the banner raising ceremony or have watched Garnett at all throughout his career, do you honestly believe this team is satiated? Their original goal was to restore the pride, which they did. Their new goal is to stamp a collective legacy and do something that not even the original Big Three was able to accomplish: capture back-to-back titles. Go on and tell them it’s not possible. Last I checked, anything’s possible.
Lurking: Cleveland Cavaliers
If I’m the rest of the league, I genuinely fear this team. LeBron is at the point in his career where only he can hinder himself (see: free throw shooting and unnecessary treys). The Cavs are tough, defensive-minded, strong on the glass, and now armed with a legitimate threat at point guard (Mo Williams). The only thing Cavs fans should be worried about is whether or not the gold medal King James earned in Beijing sufficiently validated his status as a “global icon.” For the sake of a fan base holding on by a thread in the City that Rocks, let’s hope not.
Time’s Slippin Away: Detroit Pistons
Joe Dumars is like the schoolyard bully. He’ll push you around and talk a big game, but won’t ever make a serious move. Following each of the last three underwhelming exits by his team a step short of the Finals, the Pistons GM threatened to implode the NBA’s steadiest nucleus.
Yet for the fifth consecutive season, the Fab Four of Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince will be running Motown. Year after year they play hard and dole out respect—on their own terms. That holier-than-thou mentality has consistently irked Dumars, but not enough to actually blow the team up. You can’t have it both ways.
To Be Determined: Orlando Magic
Dwight Howard was positively dominant in the first round against Toronto last year, before slipping markedly against the Pistons and ultimately ceding the role of primary big man to Chris Bosh in the Olympics. Look, that’s not to say his inevitable 25-17-7 season won’t be this year. The auxiliary guys are in place on the Magic. Jameer Nelson is a plus point guard. Rashard Lewis is a rainmaker from beyond the arc and Hedo Turkoglu has developed into a primetime performer. When Superman decides to take that next step, this is a team that will be immediately elevated to contender.
The Favorite: Los Angeles Lakers
Anyone who was wondering if Kobe Bryant’s reign as best player in the world had ended saw their concerns squelched in, oh about eight minutes. Those would be the last eight minutes of the gold medal game against Spain.
Now Kobe has his gold along with a new front line that will feature Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum together for the first time. The West will again be stacked and nasty, but let’s not kid ourselves. Nobody will win more games than the Lakers. That, however, has nothing to do with any possible lingering effects LA may feel from the physical and psychological pounding they took from Boston in the Finals last year. Kobe can get over it, but can the same be said of Lamar Odom and Gasol? Bynum or not, these Lakers aren’t avenging last year without those two.
Lurking: New Orleans Hornets
I love this team. Love them as much as the LJ Knicks and the old Blazers. True, that’s neither here nor there, but I just had to establish how much love I have for this squad. And that was before Mr. Manlove himself (aka Mr. Clutch, aka the Mercenary, aka I’ll-be-ten-times-more-valuable-in-the-playoffs-than-I-was-in-the-regular-season) James Posey signed with them.
I believe Chris Paul has an excellent chance of going down as the greatest point guard to ever play the game. I believe after disposing of the team formerly known as the Mavs and tussling seven grueling games with the team of the decade (San Antonio), the Hornets will enter the ‘09 postseason hardened and determined. And I believe with Posey, you can now add two wins to whatever total N’Awlins was expected to tally in the playoffs. Those are my beliefs.
Time’s Slippin Away: Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs
It’s fairly simple for each of these franchises, which we’ll group together as co-founders of the new NBA Senior Circuit. The Suns have a chance if they can complete a philosophical 180 and become a half court, defensive team with Amare Stoudemire manning the middle. Steve Nash is still the grittiest player in the league. Shaq is still, um, kinda scary, and Grant Hill is still…alive? Wait, am I supposed to be making a case for the Suns? Hmm. Let’s talk about the Spurs.
Manu Ginobili’s injury gives them a shot. Why? Because regardless, he’s not playing 100 games this year, not the way he throws his body around. Better to miss the first 20 than the last 15. And don’t forget, it’s an odd year! That’s right, 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007 all concluded with Spurs championships. That means something. Just ask the skeletons of Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley.
To Be Determined: Houston Rockets
Oh the possibilities. Here we have a team whose exceptionally talented starting five consists of a legendary street-baller, a renowned throw-teammates-under-the-busser, a genetically engineered super-hooper, a fabled fan-brawler, and an instigator Argentine.
For the uninitiated, that would be Rafer Alston (who’s tempered the Skip 2 My Lou persona), Tracy McGrady (who finally knows how to lose a playoff series and not blame everyone else), Yao Ming (who’s now permitted to write a check), Ron Artest (who hasn’t punched anyone in the face…recently), and Luis Scola (who should never guard Artest in practice). Yep, suffice to say, the 2009 Rockets are “to be determined” until further notice.