Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NBA Playoffs preview


We're just minutes away from one of the most anticipated games that will, ultimately, mean close to nothing come mid-April. Miami-Boston has been dominating the airwaves all day -- I can say that with confidence, even though my ears haven't been tuned to the airwaves.

Whatever happens, however, between the new and old Big Three won't matter until they meet, I believe, again in May.

With that hint, my playoff predictions. Check back in, oh, eight months to see how I did:

First round
(1) L.A. Lakers def. (8) Denver Nuggets: 4 games
(5) San Antonio Spurs def. (4) Utah Jazz: 6 games
(3) Dallas Mavericks def. (6) Phoenix Suns: 7 games
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder def. (7) Portland Trail Blazers: 5 games

Second round
(1) L.A. Lakers def. (5) San Antonio Spurs: 5 games
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder def. (3) Dallas Mavericks: 7 games

Conference finals
(1) L.A. Lakers def. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder: 7 games -- Remember last year? The Thunder dominated Games 3 and 4 to even the series, fell flat like most inexperienced teams would on the road in Game 5, then came a missed box-out away from taking Game 6. With that experience under their belt, they'll be much more scary on the road and better all around. New acquisition Matt Barnes, however, will do a good job of making Kevin Durant work for all his points, and L.A. will escape.

First round
(1) Miami Heat def. (8) Detroit Pistons: 4 games
(4) Milwaukee Bucks def. (5) Chicago Bulls: 7 games
(3) Boston Celtics def. (6) Atlanta Hawks: 7 games
(2) Orlando Magic def. (7) Philadelphia 76ers: 4 games

Second round
(1) Miami Heat def. (4) Milwaukee Bucks: 5 games
(3) Boston Celtics def. (2) Orlando Magic: 6 games

Conference finals
 (1) Miami Heat def. (3) Boston Celtics: 6 games -- It's tempting to pick against the team with the win-it-all-or-else expectations, but, c'mon. In the NBA, the best teams, the teams with the best players, usually win. And you can't make an argument that these Celtics are more talented than the Heat. Plus, there's the huge factor that LeBron will be playing with a chip on his shoulder and will be much, much better than he was in last season's six-game loss to the Celtics when his lone sidekick was Mo Williams. Enough said.

L.A. Lakers def. Miami Heat: 6 games -- Something tells me Kobe won't let his chance to be like M.J. and finish a second repeat slip through the cracks. He knows, we all know, this is probably the final year when his Lakers will be the favorites to take home the hardware, and he won't let the new guys on the block steal that opportunity. If everyone is healthy, the Lakers' size will give the Heat fits; Gasol will be his usual dominant self; and if Barnes plays smart defense -- read: no stupid fouls -- he should bother James and/or Wade just enough to help the Lakers send Phil Jackson in a pure state of Zen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

NBA Western Conference preview


Even a year ago, the argument would have seemed ridiculous, preposterous, insane. Someone in the Western Conference better than Kobe Bryant?

C'mon, man. Get a reality check.

Not anymore, not after Kevin Durant's summer. The kid -- yes, he's still that -- was absolutely phenomenal, clutch and big-time in leading a U.S. team of B-listers to the World Championship. He was, in a word, unstoppable.

And this was after a quite impressive third year in the Association.

So, yes, Bryant has the five NBA title rings and all the experience in the world. But, no, he's not the best player in the Western Conference.

Of course, he doesn't need to be this season. The Lakers return everybody from their back-to-back title teams and are the overwhelming favorite, at least in the majority's eyes, to represent the West in the Finals.

But let's not forget that Durant's Thunder were a missed box-out away from taking L.A. to a Game 7 in round one last April. And the Thunder, undoubtedly, will only be better considering their youth.

The West, quite simply, might be a little more interesting than people are forecasting. In other words, it shouldn't be completely ignored while 123 percent of league pundits are watching the Heat.

(Finishing place in the conference is in parentheses.)

(3) Dallas Mavericks, 55-27: Yes, they're ancient. And, yes, some injuries could make this season catastrophic and convince Mark Cuban it's time to blow up the core. But as they stand now, the Mavericks will be damn good. Caron Butler and Braendan Haywood will be more comfortable within the system after a summer, and Jason Terry remains one of the league's most underrated players.

(5) San Antonio Spurs, 52-30: Speaking of old, how 'bout them Spurs? Again, the question is health. Can Tim Duncan stay fresh? Can Manu Ginobili avoid the injury bug? If they stay injury-free, then the fortunes of this team -- as in, can they make a final push for a title? -- will ride on whether Richard Jefferson really is in shape and how well DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter help out the Big Fundamental down low.

(9) Houston Rockets, 46-36: So Yao is back. But for how long? That's the issue surrounding this team and the difference between a borderline playoff team and a squad that could win a couple playoff series. The health of Yao's foot. I'm banking on him playing enough games to get them into the playoffs, but he won't be completely healthy. It should be noted that there is a lot of Yao-less talent here, such as Aaron Brooks.

(10) New Orleans Hornets, 42-40: If Chris Paul is healthy, it's hard to pick this team to do that poorly. So, yes, they'll be thinking playoffs for most of the season. The addition of Trevor Ariza will help, as he's a solid buddy in transition for CP3 and is a decent defender. But Emeka Okafor and David West aren't exactly dominant or scary big men, and the defense will struggle.

(11) Memphis Grizzlies, 40-42: Can they stop anybody? That's the question the Grizzlies will need to affirmatively answer if they're going to take that next step to the playoffs. For now, I'd say, 'Nope!' When Your main cogs are O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, defense isn't the biggest priority. Scoring a lot of points and earning big contracts -- now, that's a goal to have!

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder, 56-26: It's impossible, really, to overrate Kevin Durant right now. He's the consummate teammate. He's shown that he can take over games when needed. He has a diversified game. He plays solid defense. What else is there? Well, of course a division title ... and then conference title, etc., with an MVP thrown in. This team will only get better. As always, the potential downfall could be injuries.

(4) Utah Jazz, 54-28: So nobody's talking about Utah. What's new? Jerry Sloan somehow, someway, still hasn't won a COY. Don't we say that every year? Bottom line -- with Sloan and Deron Williams running the show, the Jazz will be good. Just how good will depend on how well Al Jefferson replaces Carlos Boozer. I love the move because as solid as Boozer was, Jefferson has more upside. That'll be needed come playoff time.

(T-6) Portland Trail Blazers, 50-32: I'm sorry, but it's hard to get excited about a team that's always hurt. I would never buy tickets before the season for a Blazers game because I could end up watching Jerryd Bayless, Nicholas Batum and Dante Cunningham (no offense). Even if this team is healthy, I don't sense a good enough chemistry to contend for the division or go far in the postseason. Not this year, anyway.

(8) Denver Nuggets, 49-33: This team is almost identical to last year's first-place squad, adds 17.7-ppg Al Harrington and returns head coach George Karl from cancer. But they'll lose more games, mostly because of the distractions surround Carmelo Anthony (and possibly a mid-season trade). And Harrington will be a horrible fit on a team with plenty of guys who love to shoot.

(15) Minnesota Timberwolves, 16-66: There's no reason to think the T-Wolves can't be as bad as they were a year ago (15-67). Their roster remains a discombobulated mess that poor Kurt Rambis has to try to figure out. There are at least three mediocre point guards, malcontent Michael Beasley, and hugely overpaid scrub Darko Milicic. The only decent team guy is Kevin Love until Jonny Flynn learns how to run an offense better.

(1) Los Angeles Lakers, 58-24: They're going to take a page out of the Celtics' playbook, go figure, and decrease Kobe's minutes. Smart move. Of course, they'll try to mostly do this in lopsided games. You won't see him sitting in close games. He'd choke Phil Jackson before letting that happen. Even with a resting Bryant -- and maybe others -- this team remains loaded and will reclaim the top seed come April.

(T-6) Phoenix Suns, 50-32: They're small and they're thin, but no team will be as fun to watch as these Suns. I'm anticipating a bounce-back season from Hedo Turkoglu who, like many before him, will be re-energized by the amazing Steve Nash. I also expect Robin Lopez to help Phoenix fans forget about Amar'e Stoudemire and increase his rebounding numbers twofold. Oh, and Josh Childress is back from Greece.

(12) Los Angeles Clippers, 39-43: Can we please stop the playoff rumblings? Yes, Blake Griffin is going to be good once he takes the court and, presumably, stays healthy. He and Chris Kaman will form a pretty dominant frontcourt. But Baron Davis hasn't been inspired for a couple seasons now, and not even Griffin will get him back to his '07 Warriors form. Eric Gordon could blossom at the 2 spot.

(13) Sacramento Kings, 30-52: It will be interesting to see if this team can develop a cohesiveness that breeds winning, because the talent is there. The frontcourt is loaded with DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Thompson, Samuel Dalembert, etc., but roles need to be established. Who will play what minutes. In the backcourt, there's the question of whether Tyreke Evans should run the point or play off the ball. Answers?

(14) Golden State Warriors, 28-54: I'll say this for the Warriors -- I've never enjoyed watching such a bad team more. I remember catching the fourth quarter of a game last season that I got hooked on instead of the U.S. men's hockey team's Olympic game. That's how fun Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and company can be. With Don Nelson gone, things might be toned down a notch under Keith Smart, meaning defense will be played. That's a good thing for the team, if not for TV viewers like myself.

Playoff predictions still to come...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

NBA Eastern Conference preview


As we head into this most intriguing of NBA seasons, let's get one thing clear: The regular season really doesn't matter. At least in terms of crowning an NBA champion, it doesn't.

The really good teams will make the playoffs. Whether they're a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed won't affect how they perform in the postseason (just ask last season's Celtics). Sure, the middle-of-the-pack teams will duke it out for playoff spots/saving coaches jobs. But, ultimately, the NBA is a very predictable league. The teams you expect to be playing in June usually are.

Just consider the recent past champions:

2010 — Lakers, No. 1 seed
2009 — Lakers, No. 1 seed
2008 — Celtics, No. 1 seed
2007 — Spurs, No. 1 seed
2006 — Heat, No. 1 seed
2005 — Spurs, No. 1 seed

You get the point.

So with that in mind, here is my short list of teams I actually think could win the 2010-11 NBA title:

Orlando (very iffy)
L.A. Lakers
Oklahoma City (yes, Kevin Durant is that good)

With all this being said ... the regular season is going to be very watchable. To start with, every Heat game will grab high ratings simply because of LeBron, D-Wade and crew. It'll be very interesting to see how the team comes together. And it'll be fun to monitor the receptions the team, especially a certain Cleveland outcast, receives in opposing arenas.

So how will things shake out come early April? Let's start with the Eastern Conference.

(Finishing place in the conference is in parentheses.)

(3) Boston Celtics, 52-30: The Celtics found a winning formula last season: Stink it up during the regular season, fooling everyone into thinking you're finished. Then start playing hard in the playoffs with a healthy, fresh squad and come within a horrid second half of winning it all. I expect a similar formula this time around with more depth in the frontcourt.

(7) Philadelphia 76ers, 39-43: Hopefully Doug Collins paces himself with this team, because it's young and will wear on him constantly. The biggest question mark remains, What the heck has happened to Elton Brand? It's like he's still playing on West Coast time. The backcourt should be pretty strong if Evan Turner lives up to his hype; if not, it will be a long season and more gray hairs for Collins.

(T-11) New York Knicks, 34-48: So the Knicks cleared out their payroll and ended up with Amar'e Stoudemire and ... Carmelo Anthony? Reportedly, 'Melo has been chatting it up with Spike Lee, which is the only reason Knicks fans can be hopeful that a decade of drudgery might end anytime soon. Because the current outfit won't play defense or rebound very well. Not a winning formula.

(13) New Jersey Nets, 32-50: There is hope for the Nets. Devin Harris and Brook Lopez form a nice outside-inside combo, and Derrick Favors has as much upside — yeah, that confounding word — as anyone from the '10 draft. Oh, and they'll improve by almost 20 wins. Baby steps, baby steps. Carmelo would help, but it's not looking likely.

(15) Toronto Raptors, 23-59: Quick — name me two players on the Raptors (and spell their names correctly). Yes, it's officially rebuilding time, since Chris Bosh decided to take his talents to South Beach. Let's not forget that this team features a fairly recent No. 1 pick, Andrea Bargnani, who should now be the focal point of the offense. His progression will be about the most fun thing to watch.

(4) Milwaukee Bucks, 51-31: Nobody talked about this team during the offseason, big surprise. But it made some moves that have it on a path toward a division crown. For one, Andrew Bogut is almost fully recovered from the gruesome elbow/wrist/hand, broken-bone catastrophe. Also, John Salmons is back and Corey Maggette/Drew Gooden are in town. Good moves; improving and dangerous team.

(5) Chicago Bulls, 50-32: Speaking of moves, the Bulls made some very solid ones, too. No, they didn't get the grand prize. But, hey, there's only one South Beach. Carlos Boozer fits perfectly into their lineup alongside defensive-rebounding behemoth Joakim Noah; Ronnie Brewer is a serviceable, team-guy shooting guard; and I have a feeling Kyle Korver will be in at the end of games making outside shots.

(8) Detroit Pistons, 38-44: They won't be as bad as last year, namely because no one wants to repeat that last-place disaster. This roster is better than that. Still, speculation will encircle the futures of Detroit fixtures Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. And Joe Dumars will, and should, continue to receive a lot of heat for completely ruining an annual championship contender.

(T-11) Indiana Pacers, 34-48: This would be a pretty damn good college team, featuring Darren Collison, Mike Dunleavy, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush and, oh, Tyler Hansbrough — with Dahntay Jones and Josh McRoberts coming off the bench. On second thought, the Pacers are one Dukie/Tar Heel short of being able to put an all-Tobacco Road lineup on the floor. Not a good NBA team, though, even led by the stellar Danny Granger.

(14) Cleveland Cavaliers, 30-52: Starting at small forward ... Jamario Moon!! Oh, Cleveland. Yes, this team has the potential (rather, lack thereof) to go from the best team in the East to the worst. It'll be up to Mo Williams, who (jokingly?) considered retirement in the offseason, and Antawn Jamison to carry the offensive load. The only player with "upside" is J.J. Hickson.


(1) Miami Heat, 63-19: No, they won't break the Bulls' 72-10 record for regular-season dominance. Injuries are already a problem before the season, as Mike Miller will be out for a few months. That will hurt the team's outside shooting, and, no, Jerry Stackhouse isn't an adequate replacement. I have a feeling the Big Three (do they have a nickname, yet?) also won't be together every night. But, ultimately, this team will be made or broken in the playoffs. Obviously.

(2) Orlando Magic, 55-27: There's no team entering this season — at least teams with potential — with more of a chip on its shoulder. Dwight Howard is mad, and, like James, perhaps will drop a bit of his humorous side in favor of a more serious demeanor. The Magic have been fuming about all the attention their neighbors to the south have received. Howard has worked on a mid-range game. Their fate might depend on how furnished it is.

(6) Atlanta Hawks, 49-33: Guess who received the largest contract during the offseason? Not LeBron, not Chris Bosh. Yep, Joe Johnson. The Hawks didn't really have a choice, either. Actually, the choice was: Stay relevant with Johnson or become irrelevant sans him. Unfortunately, they won't get much better than the team that's looked listless in the second round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons.

(9) Washington Wizards, 36-46: The Positive: John Wall; he's been as advertised during the preseason and is a captain as a rookie. This is his franchise, and, thus, it's headed in the right direction. The Negative: Gilbert Arenas; what a horrible distraction. He's already talked about heading in another direction and parting ways with the Wizards. Well, that isn't happening. And, for now, neither is a playoff season.

(10) Charlotte Bobcats, 35-47:  So Charlotte let Raymond Felton go to New York this offseason and then tried to make a move for a starting point guard — and ultimately failed. And now, Larry Brown is stuck with D.J. Augustin, who spent much of last season in his doghouse. Not good. Brown's best teams have featured a point guard that understood what LB. wanted. Not happening here.

Stay tuned for my Western Conference preview and, finally, playoff predictions.