It’s never too early to predict this season’s winners and losers. Because of the storm of new variables resulting from the shortened 66-game season, I’ve decided to forgo the regular season and head straight into my postseason playoff series projections.
The Western Conference has six no-brainers with the Thunder, Mavericks, Lakers, Clippers, Grizzlies and Spurs. The only thing they’ll be fighting for is positioning.
The Blazers should hold down the seventh seed, but that’s only if they can stay healthy—an issue they’ve had for the past three-plus years.
The eighth seed is completely up for grabs. A few competitors are the Rockets, Suns and Warriors. Whoever does sneak in there should be prepared for a first-round sweep in Oklahoma City.
The Eastern Conference has arguably the two best teams in the league this season with the Heat and Bulls. Barring any unforeseen issues or injuries, they will hold down the No. 1 and 2 spots, respectively.
The Knicks are the third-best team in the East on paper, but they’ll have to put it all together on the hardwood and commit more effort on the defensive end to lock down the No. 3 spot.
No. 1 Thunder over No. 8 Rockets, 4-1
The Thunder are better and deeper at every position with the exception of washes at the shooting guard and power forward positions. The Rockets will have no answer for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and don't have enough firepower between Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to make a significant dent in the Thunder's run at the crown.
I will, however, give the Rockets one game at home.
No. 2 Mavericks over No. 7 Trail Blazers, 4-2
This is the first of many great rematches from last season's playoffs. I had the Blazers upsetting the Mavs last season because of the matchup and the Blazers' depth, but I'm not willing to make that same prediction this time around.
The only reason I'm giving the Blazers two wins is because of the loud and crazy environment in Portland, and the fact that the Blazers still boast a cast of Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Raymond Felton and Wes Mathews.
No. 3 Lakers 4 over No. 6 Spurs, 4-2
Despite the Lakers' recent struggles, and their trading of one of the most dynamic and versatile players in the league in Lamar Odom, I still think they can make a run at the third seed. They have made moves for role players like Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Jason Kapono, and will probably look to make another move before the trade deadline.
Whether this is me being optimistic or bias I don't know, but this is still at the heart of it all the same team that won back-to-back championships.
The Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be aging exponentially each year. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan still hold the torch in San Antonio, but in a shortened season and at their age, they will either need a couple of youngsters to take on part of the workload to have a chance at a higher seed.
No. 4 Grizzlies over No. 5 Clippers, 4-3
This would by far be the best first-round matchup in the NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies were the surprising Cinderella story of last year's playoffs, while the Clippers have completely changed the face of their franchise with the additions of Chris Paul, Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups.
The Grizzlies still have the same gritty, hard-nosed team that took down the Spurs in last year's playoffs, but will now be adding a healthy and revitalized Rudy Gay to the mix. The Clippers have the talent to make a run at the Western Conference title, but their lack of experience and depth in the paint could pose troublesome for the "Lob City" squad.
Memphis' experience, commitment to defense and the addition of Rudy Gay make them the favorite in this matchup, but it should be an entertaining, extensive and challenging seven-game series regardless of who moves on to the second round.
No. 1 Heat over No. 8 Hawks, 4-0
This will be an old-fashioned, first-round KO. The Hawks continue to be on the brink of being competitive, but sadly, I don't think they will ever get there. They have a solid core of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford, but they just haven't been able to put it all together.
While the Hawks will be struggling to take flight, the Heat will be preparing for redemption and a second shot at the title. Atlanta's squad should be no match for the tandem of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
No. 2 Bulls over No. 7 Pacers, 4-2
I loved this first-round matchup last year, and felt that Indiana was a couple, solid fourth quarters away from pulling the unprecedented upset. The Pacers are my favorite team to make a stir in the league this year. Since last season's end, they've made moves for George Hill and David West giving them more depth, youth and experience. They have six players who could score 15 or more on any given night and their starting five, although currently flying well under the radar, might be one of the best in the league.
The Bulls have filled their only major void at the shooting guard slot with the signing of Rip Hamilton, who gives the team an added dimension and offensive weapon. Derrick Rose will continue his MVP-type play, while Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah will hold down the front line.
I still think the Pacers will give the Bulls a challenge, but I don't see an upset happening—at least not yet.
No. 3 Knicks over No. 6 Magic, 4-1
With the addition of Tyson Chandler and Baron Davis, the Knicks now boast experience, one of the league's best frontcourts and at least some defensive presence in the paint. The superstar duo of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire are nightmares for opposing defenses, but they will have to improve on their own defensive end to make a run at the title.
The Magic are in the midst of major turmoil and confusion. Dwight Howard's indecision and conflicting destinations of interest—a list which now includes Atlanta—will most likely be the downfall of this team. Either Dwight will be shipped off for a package of youngsters and draft picks, or his Magic will fall swiftly in the first round of the playoffs.
No. 4 Celtics over No. 5 76ers, 4-2
This has the potential to be a great matchup and even an upset. The Celtics are the epitome of a proven and weathered team, but their age will catch up with them sooner than later. Their core of Rondo, Allen, Pierce and Garnett seemed more enticing two or three years ago than they do today, but if they can all manage to stay healthy, they will have a good shot at the Eastern Conference finals.
The 76ers are young and emerging. Jrue Holiday could prove to be this team's best player and leader by season's end, but for now, Andre Iguodala is the captain of this ship and the 76ers will go where he directs them. Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand and the recently re-signed Thaddeus Young will hold down the frontcourt, while guards Evan Turner, Lou Williams and Jodie Meeks will look to provide much-needed firepower on the perimeter.
Although I see the 76ers putting up a fight in this matchup, I don't see them knocking out the "Big Four" in Boston when taking into consideration their experience and passion.
No. 1 Thunder over No. 4 Grizzlies, 4-2
Another matchup of last year's playoffs pitting two of the Western Conference's up-and-coming clubs in a gritty cage match. The Thunder flat out have more offensive firepower and depth. With the prospective emergence of both James Harden and Serge Ibaka, combined with the possibility of Kendrick Perkins becoming more acclimated to the system, the Thunder have not only a good shot at the Western Conference title, but the whole ball of wax.
I see Rudy Gay's presence making a big impact on the series, but the Thunder are just too athletic, deep and determined to let down their guard this early in the playoffs.
No. 2 Mavericks over No. 3 Lakers, 4-3
Another 2011 playoff rematch ripe for the media's picking. With endless storylines including some variation of "Lamar's Return and Revenge," you can't go wrong with the ratings on this one.
I don't think the on-court action would disappoint either. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum aren't content with embarrassing themselves again on the same stage as last year, and with the Mavs losing Barea, Butler and Chandler, I don't know if they will have the depth or inside presence to slaughter the Lake Show like last year. At the same time, I don't think the Lakers have what it takes to stop Nowitzki and Company, unless injury and chemistry issues arise.
No. 1 Heat over No. 4 Celtics, 4-1
I think this will be the Celtics' last run before they implode the core group and start rebuilding. They are aging too quickly, and continue to pursue weathered free agents rather than infusing the lineup with fresh blood. They Celtics have proven their ability to contain LeBron or Dwyane Wade, but not both at the same time.
I'm inclined to give the Celtics some respect, but nothing more than a victory at home.
No. 2 Bulls over No. 3 Knicks, 4-3
I really like this matchup. Two of the greatest and most storied franchises in NBA history, reliving their '90s rivalry. Derrick Rose will undoubtedly be unstoppable in this series considering the Knicks' void at the PG spot (unless Baron Davis magically returns to his '07 Warriors form), but the game will be won in the trenches. The victor of the Boozer/Noah, Stoudemire/Chandler battle, especially on the glass and around the basket in general, will be the deciding factor in this series.
The fact that the Bulls pride themselves on defense, have the reigning MVP and picked up a perfect fit at the 2-guard spot in Rip Hamilton fares well for them in the long run.
No. 1 Thunder over No. 2 Mavericks, 4-3
I truly believe that this is the year that the Thunder make the leap. The only thing they are lacking is structure and composure in late-game situations, which is where Scott Brooks needs to step in and make some corrections. Durant needs to be the option late in games and their should be no confusion on the matter.
Whether the Mavericks are still the same championship team we saw last year is yet to be seen, but they do still have a deep, experienced team led by the German Assassin. The additions of Lamar Odom and Vince Carter don't negate the losses of Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Caron Butler, but they don't immediately remove them from the title talks either.
I favor the Thunder because of their youth and athleticism and the ongoing development of both Harden and Ibaka. With a lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins, Oklahoma City doesn't appear to have any chinks in their armor.
No. 1 Heat over No. 2 Bulls, 4-1
The last rematch of last year's playoffs pits the Heat and the Bulls against one another. We saw how the Heat's perimeter defense completely disrupted Derrick Rose's agenda last year, and without another substantial attacker in the Bulls offense, it seems that history is destined to repeat itself. The Bulls clearly have the advantage on the interior when Gibson, Boozer and Noah all bring their A-games, but Wade and James' offensive prowess and stifling defense will most likely negate what the Bulls frontcourt brings to the table.
The Heat will most likely drop a game to the Bulls in Chi-Town, but as far as the entire series goes, Miami is too determined and focused to let the Bulls get the better of them.
No. 1 Heat over No. 1 Thunder, 4-2
Arguably the two best tandems in the league will duke it out on the biggest stage in basketball. Westbrook and Durant vs. Wade and James. The up-and-coming vs. the present. This will be the ultimate battle of athleticism and will.
The Thunder have a slight edge in the paint because of Ibaka and Perkins, but Bosh will do his best to deter them from controlling the paint. Miami will undoubtedly control the perimeter on both ends of the court considering they boast the two best perimeter players in the game today.
Oklahoma City's fate rests on the decision-making, leadership and composure of Russell Westbrook. If he maintains control of the offense, finds Harden and Durant in mismatches and ideal scoring opportunities, while keeping the Heat honest through his attacking of the paint, then they will have a good shot at making the upset. Considering he hasn't shown this ability yet, combined with the fact that the Heat have so much to prove and too much to lose, I am inclined to give the Heat the advantage and victory.
If everything goes according to plan, we will be hearing David Stern congratulate Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and the Miami Heat, while simultaneously handing them the Larry O'Brien Trophy.