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.
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.
The NBA season starts up Tuesday night with the Miami Heat getting their rings and hoisting a championship banner in a game against the Boston Celtics. That means it’s time for TheSportsNotebook to run its NBA previews. Unlike baseball or football, where we give each team a complete a preview all its own, pro hoops will just split into conferences.
The league, like hockey, is more postseason-oriented, and we’ll use between now and Christmas Day—a now-traditional showcase day for the NBA—to dig deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of each contender. For now, we’ll start with a basic overview of each conference race, and an Over/Under pick on each team’s projected regular season win total by the Las Vegas sportsbooks. This post focuses on the Eastern Conference.
THE TOP DOG: MIAMI
I won’t try and break any new ground and argue anything other than that Miami is clearly the team to beat. Everyone of consequence is back from last year’s championship run and they’ve added Ray Allen into the mix. While the former Celtic guard is 37-years-old and his ankles are suspect, he’s a perfect sharpshooter to line up opposite LeBron James at the three-point stripe, and give the league’s reigning MVP an option to either work the post or reverse the ball to Allen for a trey. Between Allen, Mario Challmes and Mike Miller off the bench, the Heat can open up an opposing defense from the outside.
Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade are back, though the condition of Wade’s knee is likely to be an ongoing issue through the season and I’m sure the veteran will have to pace himself. The Heat’s vulnerability is still center. Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony were subpar last year and I see no reason to expect improvement.
Miami’s win number is 61.5, a full eleven games higher than anyone else in the East. The Heat have a tendency to coast even in the best of times and Wade’s need to pace himself will add to that. That’s why I’m going Under, but that’s in no way suggesting they are anything but a clear frontrunner.
THE CHALLENGERS: BOSTON, CHICAGO, INDIANA
I’m including the Bulls in this group, even though most outlets are ignoring them because Derrick Rose won’t be back until mid-January and after he was injured in the first game of the playoffs, Chicago promptly lost four of five to 8-seed Philadelphia. But with Rose—the team that will presumably exist well in advance of the playoffs—Chicago was the best team in the East, including Miami.
You can argue that even with Rose, Chicago doesn’t have the kind of signature star that can match up with the Heat, and I’m okay with that argument. But you can’t deny that the team always plays hard on defense and that a frontline of Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson is still solid and deep. Their number is only 47, and I think Tom Thibodeau keeps them competitive early, they surge late and go Over.
I’m a Celtics fan, so obviously biased on that topic. I think adding Jason Terry to replace Ray Allen in the backcourt is an upgrade and makes the team more versatile. Allen fits well in Miami where he can be a role player as a pure shooter. But Boston needs its guards to do more and Terry, along with newly acquired Courtney Lee and emerging second-year man Avery Bradley, all provide more complete skill sets than does an aging Allen.
Rajon Rondo should have a big year running the show and Brandon Bass is a solid niche player at forward, either starting or getting significant minutes off the bench. The issue is going to be how healthy Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can stay. Las Vegas says healthy enough to have a posted number of 50.5. I’m not making a pick here since it’s my own team, but that number looks razor-sharp.
Indiana has the talent base best suited to dethrone Miami. The Pacers have an elite defensive center in Roy Hibbert, whose growing as a low-post scorer. In a league where quality centers are at a minimum, HIbbert gives Indiana an exploitable edge against most anyone. David West is a solid scorer at power forward and Danny Granger has the ability to be something special at small forward.
The backcourt could use a clear leader, but they make up for it in depth. The real issue I have with this team is that Granger disappeared in the playoffs against Miami and they team resorted to chucking three-pointers rather than pounding the Heat down low. It suggests to me that something intangible is missing, which is why they have to show me they aren’t just the NBA equivalent of the Atlanta Falcons. But that means regular season success and I think Indiana beats it’s 50.5 Over/Under number.
DEPTH IN THE ATLANTIC: PHILADELPHIA, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
I’m just keeping these three teams as a group, because they’re all in the Atlantic Division and all three have a very reasonable chance of knocking off the Celtics and at least claiming homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
The Sixers were rolling atop the Atlantic for much of last year until they tanked at the end. They caught a break with the Rose injury and knocked Chicago out of the playoffs, then stretched Boston to seven games and were in position to win that series until Rondo improbably started burying three-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Who are the real 76ers?
Doug Collins’ team made some significant moves in the offseason, bringing in Andrew Bynum from the Lakers and shipping out Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, who provided a lot of scoring from the wing. Bynum and Spencer Hawes are going to make Philly tough to handle in the post, especially on the defensive end. Jrue Holiday is a high-quality point guard. Can Evan Turner step up and fill the void on the wing positions? Whether he does so, and whether Bynum stays healthy and motivated decide whether the Sixers can beat a win total of 47. It’s Bynum’s year-long motivation that concern me, so I’m going slightly under.
If nothing else, New York should be less of a soap opera this season, with hard-nosed Mike Woodson entrenched as the head coach. The Knicks played pretty good defense a year ago, ranking fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (a stat that adjusts points for tempo). We know the Amare Stoudamire-Carmelo Anthony forward tandem will have nights of looking unstoppable and other nights of looking dysfunctional. We know Tyson Chandler will rebound and play defense at the center position.
We have no idea what to expect from the backcourt, where Jason Kidd is a steady hand on the wheel, but needs Raymond Felton play consistently and provide some depth. The two-guard spot is a mess and overall depth is poor. The Knicks’ number is 45.5 and that looks pretty tight, but I’m still going to lean under.
Brooklyn got the hype in the offseason, with their move from New Jersey and then their prominence in the Dwight Howard drama before he ended up with the Lakers. The Nets also signed potent two-guard Joe Johnson, one of the best scorers in the league at that spot, have a good forward tandem in Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries and a nice center in Brook Lopez. They’ve got Deron Williams, still a top point guard, running the show.
If it all clicks, I give Brooklyn the best chance of beating Boston in the Atlantic. But “if it all clicks” means playing defense and that’s something the Nets did precious little of last year. Why should that change this time around? That’s why I’m going Under 46.
POTENTIAL CHALLENGER: ATLANTA
The Hawks lost Johnson to free agency, but they still went 40-26 in the strike-shortened season a year ago and in a first-round playoff loss to Boston they came within a possession of getting the series to a Game 7 on their home floor. They added Lou Williams from Philly, Devin Harris from Utah and drafted John Jenkins to make up the backcourt void.
I like this team—I like the forward combo of Al Horford and Josh Smith and I like the way they play defense. It’s for that reason I’m going solidly Over on the win number of 43 and think we’ll end up discussing them along with Chicago, Boston and Indiana during the regular season. The Hawks will come up short in the postseason, because it’s what professional sports franchises in Atlanta do, but they’ll have a nice year, even without Johnson.
PLAYOFF DARKHORSES: MILWAUKEE, DETROIT, TORONTO
The eight teams already discussed look like solid playoff teams to me, but there’s always at least one surprise and the Bucks, Pistons and Raptors have the best shot.
Milwaukee will produce points in the backcourt, with Monta Williams and Brandon Jennings, and I like new draft pick Doron Lamb’s ability to shoot the three-ball. The forwards are tolerable with Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden. Whether they make the playoffs or not depends on how quickly lanky post man John Henson develops as a rookie. The postseason is probably a stretch, but give them a slight lean to the Over on 37.5.
Detroit came on at the end of last year and at the very least has a nice point guard-center combo with Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe. Tayshaun Prince leads the group that fills in around them. There’s certainly plenty of flaws, but they’re better than the 32-win team Vegas projects.
Toronto has some talented scorers on the front line with Andrea Barghai and DeMar DeRosen, while Amir Johnson can rebound, and the team plays respectable defense overall, at 12th in the league in efficiency. It’s for those reasons that I put the Raptors over the 33.5 posted number and rank them the challenger with the best chance to make the playoffs if any of the above eight stumble.
THE REST: CLEVELAND, WASHINGTON, ORLANDO, CHARLOTTE
Each team’s Over/Under number is listed in parentheses…
Cleveland (31.5): Kyrie Irving is a terrific talent, but like LeBron James before him he has no viable supporting cast. I won’t blame Kyrie in the least if he wants to blow town someday and trumpet his decision for national television. I’m going Under.
Washington (28.5): A decent frontline, with Nene and Emeka Okafor, and the Wizards have brought in Trevor Ariza, who’s got some championship experience at small forward. John Wall is out for a month, but he’ll return to a respectable backcourt. I don’t think the Wizards will be as bad as the number suggests, and they’re the best of this grouping of teams—the cream of the crap, if you will.
Orlando (24.5): The backcourt has talent, with Jameer Nelson, a veteran of the 2009 team that went to the Finals running the show, sharpshooting J.J. Redick and Arron Afflalo. The forwards aren’t bad with Nikola Vucevic, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu. There’s no center, but that’s not unusual among even contending teams, much less at this level. So what’s the problem? It’s about attitude. How fired up is anyone going to be after Howard was shipped out of town. I think the Magic are better than their number, but not by a lot.
Charlotte (18.5): The Bobcats brought in Ramon Sessions at point and Ben Gordon in the backcourt, both of whom are at least viable NBA players, something that could not be said of last year’s 7-59 atrocity. I love the draft pick of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, my personal favorite on the board. It’s still the worst team in the East, but can they scale the heights and go at least 19-63 and cash an Over. Yeah, I think they can.
The Western Conference preview will be posted later this evening and on Tuesday morning we’ll have a final preview, complete with predictions on playoff seeding and an eventual champion.