Tuesday, October 28, 2008

2008-09 NBA preview: The rivalry continues


It's amazing how Mother Nature can, just like that, change one night's column.

Just hours ago, I was preparing to write my "Philadelphia finally gets a championship" column. I had all the ghastly stats about the city laid out in front of me. The Phillies were up 2-0 in Game 5. And their ace, Cole Hamels, was mowing down Rays hitters like twigs in his backyard.

But then the rains came, Carlos Pena joined the World Series cast with a pair of clutch hits, and MLB officials suspended the game after the Rays tied it 2-2. So there's no pandemonium in Philly — yet.

Which ruined my column, but also gave me this opportunity to...

Put together, in this tiny window of time on the morning of the NBA's first day, my huge NBA preview column!

So thanks, Mother Nature, for giving me this chance to make predictions without the help of one or two days of NBA action. Thanks a lot (sarcasm). I'm sure that after Greg Oden's first game Tuesday night, I will know — no doubt — whether the Blazers are a playoff team in the West (more sarcasm).

Now I'll be watching and writing about baseball instead.

OK, enough blabbering. Here goes. Note that playoff teams have an asterisk by them and a team's finish in its division precedes the / followed by its finish in the conference. Playoff predictions are at the bottom:

Atlantic Division
*1/1. Boston Celtics (58-24): The obvious question is whether they're "hungry" enough to repeat. The obvious answer is, "Let's wait until April to answer that." They'll miss James Posey's clutch play and defense. But Rajon Rondo will be improved at the point.

*2/5. Philadelphia 76ers (47-35):
Expect Elton Brand to gradually play himself back into one of the league's best big men, although this time he'll be noticed. This team still lacks good outside shooters, especially in its starting lineup.

*3/6. Toronto Raptors (46-36):
Regardless of how healthy Jermaine O'Neal is, I liked the trade for him. Now Jose Calderon can take over the point and not worry about splitting minutes. Everything about this team says "rock solid, but nothing special." Additional pieces are needed for greatness.

4/14. New York Knicks (24-58): It's going to be a rough first year for Mike D'Antoni, and no one should be surprised. This is one heck of a rebuilding job. The main focus will be on ridding of Stephon Marbury and possibly a few other big-contract guys. They'll score a lot of points but give up even more.

5/15. New Jersey Nets (21-61): I don't like picking a Lawrence Frank-coached team to fall this far, because I believe he's one of the most underrated coaches in the game. Of course, it helped to have Jason Kidd. Now he's down to Vince Carter (for the time being, at least), Devin Harris and ... nobody. Talk about a rebuilding job.

Central Division
*1/2. Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29): Yep, I'm drinking the Mo Williams Kool-Aid. The guy can play the point, plus he's a scorer. LeBron James says the team has no excuses not to win a title now. He's right. People need to stop thinking James needs a top-five PG to win a championship. Expect an MVP year from the King.

*2/3. Detroit Pistons (51-31):
This team will play hard for Michael Curry, but the first-time coach is also smart enough to know that he'll be judged almost solely on whether his team makes it past that pest called the Eastern Conference Finals. So starters won't play big minutes, young guns will get experience, and there will be more regular-season L's.

3/9. Chicago Bulls (38-44):
Things won't be nearly as ugly as last year, and at the end of the season there will be optimism looking forward. With a new coach, Vinny Del Negro, and a rookie point guard, Derrick Rose, the Bulls will have some struggles — just enough, in fact, to keep them out of the postseason.

4/11. Milwaukee Bucks (34-48): No one can deny that the offensive artillery is in place for the Bucks. They've got plenty of guys who can score, including acquisitions Richard Jefferson and Luke Ridnour. But can they play defense? That will be a year-long project for dictator Scott Skiles.

5/12. Indiana Pacers (32-50):
I love Danny Granger, and he'll only get better with experience. And Mike Dunleavy Jr. hasn't turned out to be such a bust after all. But the big men are all soft, non-scorers or inexperienced. They'll struggle against the big boys.

Southeast Division
*1/4. Orlando Magic (49-33): The Magic won't match last year's 52-30 mark, but it won't need to as it coasts to another division title. Advancing further in the playoffs will be the goal. That will be determined by its guard play, which tends to be shaky.

*2/7. Atlanta Hawks (42-40):
People are quick to write off the Hawks despite the nervousness they caused in Boston last April. With every key cog back except Europe castoff Josh Childress, they'll be improved. Having Mike Bibby for a full season only helps.

*3/8. Washington Wizards (40-42):
Oh, the Wizards. Who knows what to expect from this injury-plagued bunch? And who knows if they'll have a better winning percentage with or without the mercurial Gilbert Arenas? What I do know is that Caron Butler is developing into a star and there's enough talent around him to barely squeeze into the playoffs.

4/10. Miami Heat (35-47):
The Heat will improve by 20 wins because of two reasons. One, Dwyane Wade will be back to his old self. That right there equals 15 additional wins. Two, Michael Beasley won't play like a rookie, putting up huge numbers and giving Miami three big-time players. If only there was a supporting cast.

5/13. Charlotte Bobcats (29-53):
Not that the preseason matters, but can it be a good thing when a team with a new coach goes 0-8? Yes, I'll admit it: When Larry Brown first got the job, I labeled this team a playoff lock for this year. After all, there's plenty of talent. I can't make the stretch anymore. The players are simply too immature. Not enough defense. No enough team cohesion. I hope I'm wrong.

Southwest Division
*1/1. Los Angeles Lakers (59-23): The Lakers will win on the last night of the regular season to clinch the NBA's best record. Nothing will come easy for them. Andrew Bynum will be fine. The key, as always, will be which Lamar Odom shows up in the big games. He can be great. He can be nonexistent.

*2/6. Phoenix Suns (50-32):
This team will have its struggles adopting to new coach Terry Porter and the idea of not running all the time. But it still has one of the game's best point guards, Steve Nash, and one of the best power forwards, Amare Stoudemire. That's more than enough to garner this spot, if not playoff success.

3/9. Los Angeles Clippers (42-40): Pundits are predicting complete doom for this squad after the surprising departure of Brand. While no playoff berth is in store, there remains some talent. Baron Davis will have a huge year in his favorite city. And I like the frontcourt, when healthy, of Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman.

4/11. Golden State Warriors (39-43):
Another team shook up by the offseason. By the way, there was nothing wrong with suspending Monta Ellis 30 games for lying about his moped accident. He was going to miss those games anyway. But the Warriors will have a hard time in those games. And did I mention they don't play defense?

5/14. Sacramento Kings (26-56):
Kevin Martin needs to be noticed. All the guy does is score, score and score some more. But with Ron Artest gone, he'll have little to no help. This team will have a rough go at it in the mighty West.

Southwest Division
*1/2. New Orleans Hornets (57-25): There's no reason to think the Hornets will be worse than a year ago, when they posted 56 wins. Not only is everyone back and wiser, but Posey gives them the badly needed veteran toughness (not to mention his two championships). Expect big things from this fun-to-watch group, which won't settle for anything in the playoffs.

*2/3. Houston Rockets(53-29): The only word that matters with this group is "health." I'm betting they'll stay healthy for the majority of the season. I know it's a risky gamble, but it's this year or never. After all, players age (and there's my obvious fact of the preview). When all is good with the bones, backs and knees, the Rockets have a very complete — and scary — team.

*3/5. San Antonio Spurs (52-30): The Spurs will finish with the same record as the Jazz, but get the lower playoff seed because Utah wins its division. As usual, people will write them off. That's always a bad idea. If — and this is a big "if" — Manu Ginobili can get completely healthy, we all know what might happen in June. 2003, 2005, 2007 ... 2009?

*4/7. Dallas Mavericks (48-34): It's amazing how quickly expectations have fallen in "Big D." After getting dominated by the Hornets in the first round, no one is scared of this team, especially its aging point guard Jason Kidd. I do think newly focused, and contrite, Josh Howard will have a good year, which will be enough for a playoff spot — and another quick playoff exit.

5/15. Oklahoma Thunder (19-63):
I didn't want to pick this young team to lose a win off of last year, but I can't choose every NBA team to finish out of the teens in the win column, right? There simply is not much talent around Kevin Durant, which is unfortunate. At least the Oklahoma City fans will be supportive, and Durant will put together some huge nights for fantasy owners.

Northwest Division
*1/4. Utah Jazz (52-30): Jerry Sloan must feel the pinch. If he doesn't do something big with this group, much of the nucleus might be gone in the summer. That's the reality of the Jazz's situation. At least there won't be too much tension in cruising to another division title. Then Salt Lake City will brace for the playoffs and whatever ensues.

*2/8. Portland Trail Blazers (45-37):
Maybe no other team is opening the season surrounded by so much excitement and anticipation. Oden is finally ready to go (as a "rookie"), and he's joining a pretty talented bunch of players. As was the case last year, expect plenty of highs and lows from this young bunch. There will be enough highs for a playoff berth and more optimism looking toward the future.

3/10. Denver Nuggets (41-41):
It's hard to imagine this, but the team with two of the NBA's best scorers will miss the playoffs. Why? Well, with Camby gone, there's absolutely no defensive presence. Carmelo Anthony pledged he, and his teammates, will be more focused defensively. Prove me wrong, 'Melo. Also, George Karl seems to have lost his passion for coaching. And did I mention they play in a pretty good conference?

4/12. Minnesota Timberwolves (30-52): Yep, I'm predicting an eight-win improvement for this team of youngsters, something to give the city hope for the franchise's future. Al Jefferson is a budding star, and Kevin Love's presence in the frontcourt will only help him. Mike Miller's addition to the backcourt will help loosen up the paint for the talented big men.

5/13. Memphis Grizzlies (27-55):
I'm also forecasting a five-win improvement for this group of adolescents. And they'll only get better as the season progresses. If the NBA was a four-guard league, they might be a playoff team. Unfortunately, they don't have a single proven big man. The onus is on Marc Gasol to become one.

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 8 Washington (5 games)
No. 2 Cleveland def. No. 7 Atlanta (5 games)
No. 3 Detroit def. No. 6 Toronto (6 games)
No. 5 Philadelphia def. No. 4 Orlando (7 games)

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 8 Portland (5 games)
No. 2 New Orleans def. No. 7 Dallas (4 games)
No. 3 Houston def. No. 6 Phoenix (7 games)
No. 5 San Antonio def. No. 4 Utah (6 games)

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 5 Philadelphia (6 games)
No. 3 Detroit def. No. 2 Cleveland (7 games)

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 5 San Antonio (6 games)
No. 2 New Orleans def. No. 3 Houston (6 games)

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 3 Detroit (7 games): Here's the reality of the situation: This series will come down to who believes in themselves more. The answer to that is obvious. The Pistons, no doubt, will be thinking about all their exits in this round. Meanwhile, after a long season, the Celtics will be able to smell the Finals again. The group of veterans won't neglect another opportunity to reach the grand stage. Once again, they'll make all the clutch plays.

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 2 New Orleans (6 games): I'm tempted to pick the Hornets; I really like their makeup. But the Lakers simply have too much firepower, especially when Odom is playing well. They'll own the matchups in the paint, and don't forget who else they have: a man named Kobe Bryant.

L.A. Lakers def. Boston (6 games): An improved Lakers team will beat a Boston team not quite as good as the defending champions. Odom will show up. The big men will fight to a draw. And this time it will be Bryant, not Paul Pierce, knocking down all the big shots.

Be sure to remind me when all these predictions are way off.

Not that anyone will remember next summer that I even wrote this preview.

Yep, prepare for another long season.


Jonathan said...

Ouch, hopefully Larry Brown will be able to do better than that. I think if Sean May can finally stay healthy for a year and find his game they can have a chance for the playoffs.

Jake Lloyd said...

It's not just staying healthy. Reportedly, May is way out of shape. It might take most of the season just to get him to the point where he can play 30 minutes without getting gassed.

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