The NBA season tips off tonight with three games, highlighted by a TNT doubleheader of Boston-Miami (8 PM ET) and Dallas-LA Lakers (10:30 PM ET). TheSportsNotebook ran its NBA previews for the Eastern & Western conferences this past weekend, offering brief thoughts on each team and a projection for how they would fare against the Over/Under win total posted for them in the Las Vegas sportsbooks. Now it’s time for the final preview, with picks for how each conference will stand up and who eventually claims the title in June.
Oklahoma City made the big splash in the last hours of the preseason when they traded James Harden to Houston for a shooting guard. Kevin Martin, a prospect in Jeremy Lamb, plus a first and second-round draft pick. TheSportsNotebook’s Western Conference preview was already posted when the deal went down, but quite frankly, I doesn’t affect my positive view of the Thunder all that much—if anything it enhances it.
The contract negotiations with Harden were not going well and by all accounts he was headed for free agency next summer. So for the long-term, I haven’t heard any pundit deny that the Thunder did what they needed to do. But even in the short term that is the 2012-13 season, I think this deal might help. Martin is a quality scorer and can fill Harden’s production.
Let’s also not forget that Harden tanked in last year’s Finals, the biggest reason his team lost three consecutive close games to Miami when the series was up for grabs. It’s well possible that he might have come out more battle toughened and improved this year—that was the trajectory followed by Laker legend James Worthy in the 1980s. But it’s also possible that the Finals exposed something about Harden’s ability to play at a high level when the pressure is at its highest.
What it boils down to is that I’m opening with a “no change” policy toward evaluating the Thunder. There are likely to be some early bumps, as Martin gets blended into the offense, but over the next 5 ½ months that is the NBA’s marathon regular season there’s plenty of time to get that worked out.
Now let’s move on to the picks. Below are each team’s predicted final record. One thing to note is that the win total may not line up with what I picked regarding each team’s Over/Under in the conference previews. The reason for that is the latter is a pick made purely in a vacuum—I establish a general range I think the team will fall in, and whatever side offers more room for error (something I provide plenty of in my picks) is where I land. For these record projections, it’s ensured that everything averages out to .500, so hard choices need to be made.
7)New York (42-40)
(PLAYOFF DIVIDING LINE)
1)Oklahoma City (60-22)
2)LA Lakers (58-24)
4)San Antonio (49-33)—as a division winner Spurs are guaranteed at least a 4-seed
5)LA Clippers (52-30)
(PLAYOFF DIVIDING LINE)
10)Golden State (36-46)
13)New Orleans (31-51)
At this point there’s not much reason to do anything other than pick the chalk to advance in the NBA Finals, which sets up an Oklahoma City-Miami rematch in the Finals. Obviously if I thought one team was going to beat another in the playoffs, I’d pick them to win more games in the regular season.
The one caveat in that is we can expect the Chicago team that makes the playoffs to be much better than its actual seeding, since Derrick Rose comes back in mid-January—just enough missed time for his team to dig a hole, but plenty of recovery team to be firing on all cylinders for the postseason.
Other storylines will be how hard Miami pushes themselves in the regular season—they’ve never done it before and now they’re likely to have some cushion in the push for the #1 seed (something they haven’t had either of the last two years), along with the need for Dwayne Wade to push his knee too hard. The Lakers are another veteran team that has to make similar decisions about the value of seeding versus the value of veterans’ health. Boston does as well, but even though I’m a Celtics fan, I don’t see them impacting the title chase.
This is a big swing year in defining the legacy of LeBron James. At this point, it seems to be accepted as a given that he’ll rack up multiple additional rings. You can certainly see the Heat winning the next couple of championships. But it’s far from a guarantee. The Lakers have made their big moves in getting Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. And Oklahoma City’s loss in the Finals last year is a necessary learning experience that all rising teams have to go through. Is it that hard to imagine the Thunder winning the next two titles and leaving LeBron at a huge crossroads as he gets set to enter free agency again?
I don’t think it is, and in fact I’m picking Oklahoma City to win it all. As mentioned at the top, I’m not deterred by the Harden deal and if anything I am emboldened by it. The Thunder are younger, better defensively, more potent offensively and now have the one missing ingredient that’s proven necessary in the NBA—the pain of failure. This time around, they’ll celebrate in OkC come June.