I know I’m a few days late on this, but I thought I’d follow up last year’s embarrassing predictions with another slate. Actually, it wasn’t all bad. I predicted that the Pistons would be better than the year before and they were. I predicted that the Miami Heat would start slow, leading Pat Riley to force Stan Van Gundy to step down so he could take over as coach, and he did. And I predicted that the Larry Brown situation with the Knicks would be disasterous, and it was. But I whiffed completely on the Heat winning it all. I really thought the off-season moves they made, bringing in selfish players like Jason Williams and Antoine Walker, would kill their chemistry. Obviously not.
So let’s take a look at this year’s season and see what may happen. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference, which saw some major changes in the off-season that will change things considerably. One of the few teams with virtually no change is Miami, and I don’t think that bodes well for them. Shaq is well past his prime and can’t dominate the way he used to. Likewise Gary Payton and Antoine Walker. Wade is a superstar and should be even better this year, but the rest of the team is just a year older with no improvement. They still ought to be good for 55-60 wins and a spot in the conference championship, but I doubt they have a good chance of repeating.
They may get some serious competition in the Southeast division from both the Washington Wizards and the Orlando Magic. I really like the way the Magic are building their team. They’ve got two good young point guards in Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo and the next dominant big man in the NBA in Dwight Howard. Howard is simply turning into a beast in the middle. He will be the best big man in the Eastern Conference this year by a wide margin. If the other young players (Trevor Ariza and JJ Redick in particular) can develop, this is a championship team in the next few years.
The Wizards didn’t do much in the offseason. It’s the same team they’ve been for 2 years now, lots of offensive firepower on the perimeter and a big hole in the middle. Gilbert Arenas should have a huge season. Caron Butler and Antwon Jamison will have their usual 15-17 points a game. And as usual, no one on the team could guard a parking meter in the open court. They’ll be fun to watch and they’ll win 45 games and go out in the first or second round of the playoffs. As usual.
The Central Division should be a bloodbath. All 5 of these teams (Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Indiana, Milwaukee) are playoff-caliber teams, but they’re gonna beat up on one another. Chicago made the biggest move of the offseason, signing Ben Wallace away from the Pistons in a move that improved them dramatically and seriously weakened their rival. This team is absolutely loaded from top to bottom, with quality depth at every position.
Kirk Hinrich is one of the best young point guards in the league, and his backup, Chris Duhon, could start for most teams at that position. Luol Deng is pushing toward all-star status at small forward, as is Nocioni. Ben Gordon can go for 30 on any night off the bench. They now have a perpetual all star in the middle in Wallace, with PJ Brown there as well. And Tyrus Thomas looks like he’ll contribute much quicker than expected at power forward. This team could win 55 games this year.
They have to compete with Cleveland, a team that should take another step toward being a championship caliber team after taking the Pistons to the limit in the playoffs last year. Lebron James is a given and he’ll be even better this year. They didn’t do much in the offseason, but look for Anderson Varejao to get more minutes this year in a more up-tempo offense. Varejao is set for a breakout season. They’ve added a shooter in David Wesley, and Shannon Brown, if his outside shooting is up to par, could be a great player for this team. This is a 50 win team.
The Pistons should take a step back from being a real championship contender to being a solid playoff team that doesn’t really scare anyone. Yes, they still have a very good core with Billups, Hamilton, Prince and Rasheed Wallace. But losing Ben Wallace is big for this team, especially defensively. Their offense will go more up-tempo now without him, but Nazr Mohammed is not a guy who is going to give you much on either end of the court. He’ll average 10-12 points and 7 rebounds a game, but he’s a below average defender. They’ll be fun to watch, they’ll win 50 games, but they’re not a serious contender anymore.
The Bucks are a team on the rise. Andrew Bogut had a terrific rookie season and looks like a 20-10 guy in the middle. They made a big trade in the offseason, sending point guard TJ Ford to Toronto for Charlie Villanueva. I was wrong about Villanueva, who I thought would be a big bust in the NBA. He had a very good rookie season and should be even better this year next to Bogut. Michael Redd is still an all-star. Mo Williams is their starting point guard and they have very capable backups in Charlie Bell, Steve Blake and Lynn Greer (who could be a very good player in a couple years, I really like that kid). They’ll have a hard time improving their win total, however, with a division that got much better.
Indiana is a bit of a mystery. The last couple seasons have been wasted for them, with all the suspensions and injuries. But they have a solid team. Jermaine O’Neal is a 20-10 machine. They got Al Harrington back, who should have a great season. Danny Granger could have a breakout season for them. But they play in such a good division, can they make the playoffs? Time will tell.
The Atlantic Division should continue to be the whipping boy of the Eastern Conference. Boston should be improved with their off-season moves. This is a really interesting team to me, loaded with depth everywhere but in the middle. Theo Ratliff gives them a capable defender in the low post, but no offense. Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson have potential, but so far haven’t busted out as expected. But the rest of the roster has quality all over the place. They are absolutely loaded on the perimeter. Should be fun to watch, but I don’t know how many wins they’ll get.
The Nets return pretty much the same team. Marcus Williams will be a capable sub for an aging Jason Kidd. Nenad Krstic should continue to improve in the middle. Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter will put up 20 a game from the outside. It’s what you always get with this team, 45 wins and no chance in the playoffs. The Knicks will be more uptempo and could get 30-35 wins. The surprise may be the Raptors, who are building a nice young core around Chris Bosh. TJ Ford is a terrific point guard. They could surprise some teams.
The Western Conference should be tough top to bottom again this year, with several teams vying for the top spot and at least 3 teams with a legitimate shot at winning the championship (Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix). Let’s start with the Southwest Division, which contains all quality teams. Dallas and San Antonio will again fight it out for this division, but neither has made major changes to improve themselves.
The Spurs let Nick Van Exel go, which will hurt their second team’s scoring ability, but other than that return virtually all of last year’s team. The one notable addition is rookie James White, who has the potential to be a very good player in the NBA. Even by NBA standards, he’s a spectacular athlete; he’s also a tremendous defensive player who can guard 3 positions on the perimeter. He could end up being a significant contributor once he adjusts to the NBA game. Other than that, the Spurs are the same team. If Duncan stays healthy, they’re a threat to win it all as usual.
Dallas also returns their core of Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Devon Harris, Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse. They add Austin Croshere, rookie Maurice Ager and Devean George. Good enough to compete for the championship again, but probably not quite as deep as last year.
Houston adds Bonzi Wells and Shane Battier to help Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming compete in the West. Both should help considerably. They also add Rafer Alston at the point, and he may be the key to this team. They’re definitely deeper and more talented than last year. The key, as usual, is health. If McGrady and Ming can stay healthy, this team can compete for the championship.
Memphis should also be improved. Pau Gasol has become an all-pro power forward and should only get better. They added Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry in the draft and both should contribute immediately. A good team that plays in a brutal division, which keeps them from being a real contender for the title.
The New Orleans Hornets were the feel good team of last year. Chris Paul was the runaway rookie of the year and could very well be the best point guard in the league in the next year or two. They added size and more size in the offseason, trading for Tyson Chandler and drafting Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons and Brandon Bass. Plus they just resigned David West to a long term contract, so they’re stocked in the middle with good young talent. They add Peja Stojakovic to give them outside shooting. This is a team that really has a core to build around and could improve a great deal this year.
The Northwest Division, on the other hand, is full of also-rans. Denver is the favorite to win the division, but quite frankly this is about the time that George Karl goes back to underachieving with a talented team. They’re loaded with talent, but Karl has a way of screwing up teams like that. Utah, on the other hand, has the steady hand of Jerry Sloan and they’re also loaded with talent, especially on the inside. Their front line of Okur, Kirilenko and Boozer may be the best in the league. All three are capable of a double double night in and night out. Deron Williams is a steady point guard, and his former Illinois teammates Dee Brown and Roger Powell join him on the perimeter. The one thing they’re missing is outside shooting. If Giricek can shoot 40% from 3 point range, this team is gonna be tough to stop.
The Pacific Division has Phoenix as a clear favorite, but with two improving LA teams behind them. Phoenix is a fun team, but if Amare Stoudamire is healthy all season they’re also a serious title contender. Without him, they’re just fun; with him, they’re scary as hell. Meanwhile, both LA teams should improve. The Clippers return pretty much intact after resigning Sam Cassell. The only addition is rookie Paul Davis, who will back up Kamen and Brand. This team should win 50 games.
The Lakers are my pick for surprise team this year. This team is getting better fast and could put to rest the arguments about Phil Jackson not being able to build a team. Kobe is Kobe, of course, but now they’re finally using Luke Walton the way they should – the guy is made for the triangle offense. Add to that the development of Andrew Bynum, who is looking great in his second year and is ready to contribute big time in the post. And Kwame Brown continues to improve and may have some confidence after playing well in last year’s playoffs. Jordan Farmar should push Smush Parker for point guard minutes. And they’ve added Vladimir Radmanovich and Maurice Evans for firepower off the bench. If Phoenix stumbles, LA could win this division.
So that’s it. End of the year predictions? That’s tough. I’m gonna say that Chicago and Miami are in the Eastern Conference finals, while San Antonio and the Lakers are in the Western Conference finals. San Antonio wins the championship. Over someone.