Tuesday, October 23, 2007

NBA Season Preview & Predictions

The 2007-2008 NBA season tips off Tuesday, October 30, after a tainted offseason in which David Stern described as “the worst that could happen to a professional sports league” in reference to the Tim Donaghy betting scandal. Referees shaving points aside, the NBA also made news through the drafting of the league’s next generation of superstars in Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the Boston Celtics’ two blockbuster trades, and the infamous Kobe Bryant trade demand saga. There is no doubt that this upcoming year is sure to be filled with even more storylines, although everyone is sure to be eager to get back on the floor for some actual basketball. Here are some cunning predictions, in the order of projected finish:

Western Conference

Pacific Division

Phoenix Suns – The world’s best offense is poised to run away with the Pacific yet again. New general manager Steve Kerr traded away Kurt Thomas and two future first round draft choices in order to free up some cap room and sign Grant Hill. With an aging Steve Nash and a strong likelihood of the team being broken up soon for salary purposes, the window of opportunity is closing fast on the Suns. If Nash can stay healthy, the Suns will be right back in the conference finals again.

Los Angeles Lakers – Six years later, the Lakers organization is still reeling from the loss of Jerry West, and has gone from the premier sports franchise to a complete mess. While owner Jerry Buss’ admission that he is listening to trade offers for Kobe Bryant may very well be the beginning of the end of the Kobe era, coach Phil Jackson has quietly made a brilliant move in making Bryant the facilitator of the Triangle offense. The complex offense that has produced nine championships has drifted away in the last few years, but with the ball in Kobe’s hands more, he will emerge as an effective distributor and more of a versatile threat, a la Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty. The Lakers are always a Lamar Odom injury away from missing the playoffs again, but look for former Bruin Jordan Farmar and a motivated Andrew Bynum to finally break out as the next great Laker tandem.

Golden State Warriors – The Warriors were the league’s Cinderella story last year, developing into the pride and joy of the Bay Area. Head coach Don Nelson receives most of the credit for having his former team’s number in route to a stunning upset of the first seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs last April, but will his coaching style still be effective coming off such a fun run? GM Chris Mullin raised some eyebrows trading away Jason Richardson for 8th overall pick Brandan Wright, out of North Carolina, in a trade that should pay off in the long run. However, in the tough west, the Warriors will narrowly miss the playoffs, sadly reverting the Bay Area back to its former status as a pro sports doormat.

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers had their Cinderella run two years ago, forcing owner Donald Sterling to finally open up his wallet and shell out the dough. Then last year, the Clippers reverted back to their status as, well, the Clippers. By re-signing much of its roster before last year, the Clips’ hands were tied heading into this offseason. Throw in Shaun Livingston’s freak knee injury and the loss of Elton Brand for most of the year, and the Clippers are destined for the lottery…again.

Sacramento Kings – New coach and former King himself Reggie Theus hopes to bring a renewed attitude to a team seemingly in a downward spiral. Good move in extending the contract of stud scorer Kevin Martin, but they do not have much hope when their best offseason addition is signing Mikki Moore, who is going to be lost without Jason Kidd pitching him easy layups.

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets’ Achilles heel has been injuries. If, and this is an enormous if, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, and Nene can all stay healthy, head coach George Karl can develop the team chemistry to lead this team to the league’s elite.

Utah Jazz – The Jazz were a pleasant surprise last season, reaching the conference finals behind Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, reminding Salt Lake City of the Stockton and Malone days. If the Jazz can somehow get the most out of Russian brat Andrei Kirilenko, the supporting cast led by Mehmet Okur should fuel Utah to the playoffs, where head coach Jerry Sloan is at his best.

Portland TrailBlazers – The loss of Greg Oden for the year is a fatal blow, and there is already talk that he may end up closer to a bust like Sam Bowie than a gem like Shaq. That being said, the Blazers still have a bright future, and the departure of Zach Randolph allows Nate McMillan to hand the team over to its promising youth in Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Josh McRoberts, and Martell Webster. Remember these names, folks, because they are going to become a championship contender sooner than later.

Seattle Sonics – The not-so-super Sonics cleaned house this past year, as everywhere from management to coaching staff to the roster has been replaced or revamped. With ownership fighting the city government in a determined effort to move the team to Oklahoma City, the team wisely decided to trade away Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis while building a team designed to win in a few years, rather than now. The new GM is Sam Presti, formerly of the San Antonio Spurs, and is the genius who discovered Tony Parker in Europe. Similar to their Pacific Northwest rival in the Blazers, the Sonics are going to have a losing season again this year, but have a very promising future.

Minnesota Timberwolves – GM Kevin McHale was never able to build a consistent contender around Kevin Garnett, so the Wolves shipped the athletic superstar to Boston for the largest package of players and picks ever traded for a single player in NBA history. The Wolves will now have to build through the draft around Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, and Ryan Gomes. And they will be picking high, because they are easily the worst team in the west.

Southwest Division

Houston Rockets – The Rockets made the best offseason move that no one noticed in signing Steve Francis, and are now in position to win the deepest division in basketball. Remember, Francis was developing excellent chemistry with Yao Ming before being traded for Tracy McGrady. Now that T-Mac and Yao have a legitimate number three, Houston is poised for a deep playoff run under new head coach Rick Adelman’s aggressive offensive style.

San Antonio Spurs – When healthy, the defending champions are poised to win it all again. Problem is, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli have a tendency to break down as the season wears down. If Tony Parker develops a mysterious shoulder injury due to a ‘bedroom accident’ with hubby Eva Longoria, then the Spurs title hopes will be more desperate than housewives on ABC.

Dallas Mavericks – Sure, they may have won a whopping 67 games last year, but another choking performance by Dirk and company is sure to deflate the spirits of the Mavs, who will find it hard to be motivated to make another run at a top record. While Avery Johnson is a great coach during the regular season, he lacks the ability to make the necessary adjustments during the playoffs, as seen in the 2006 Finals and 2007 first round series. Dirk Nowitzki lacks the killer instinct to take over in the fourth quarter of big games, and until the Mavs get someone who can win those close games (Kobe…?), Mark Cuban has a better chance of winning Dancing with the Stars than he does winning a ring.

Memphis Grizzlies – Look for the Memphis Grizzlies as the most improved team this upcoming year. Unfortunately for new head coach Marc Iavaroni, they will not overcome the Texas three-step ahead of them in the division, but should be able to at least make some noise with the return of Pau Gasol and the drafting of Mike Conley Jr. to join a promising supporting cast in Rudy Gay, Stromile Swift, and Darko Milicic.

New Orleans Hornets – The full time return to New Orleans this season may be enough to spark some early success like their football counterparts did last year, especially with Chris Paul and David West emerging as the league’s next great duo. But Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic are injury prone, and as good as Byron Scott is, there is no way he can get them ahead of the stacked teams above.

Eastern Conference

Southeast Division

Orlando Magic – The Magic made the NBA offseason’s marquee free agent signing by acquiring all-star Rashard Lewis and guaranteeing him a $110 million over the next six years. While they certainly overpaid, the Magic now have a legitimate cornerstone to go alongside centerpiece Dwight Howard. New coach Stan Van Gundy has brought in Patrick Ewing to help Howard develop a post game, and if J.J. Redick also develops into a consistent offensive threat, the Magic can run away with their division.

Miami Heat – The defending champions were not able to flip the switch and turn the heat on again last season, and consequently were swept out of the playoffs. Remember the name Dorell Wright, as he will emerge as the Heat’s new star. Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal are still ailing from lingering injuries, so look for Miami to hover around .500 before catching fire and sneaking in the playoffs to make some noise.

Washington Wizards – In the eastern conference, one superstar such as Gilbert Arenas is good enough to make the playoffs. Problem is, this team is nothing without him.

Atlanta Hawks – On TNT’s Inside the NBA, which is filmed in Atlanta, Charles Barkley is fond of declaring that the Hawks will contend in a couple of years. Kenny Smith then routinely asks, “Why, is Shaq a free agent in two years?” referring to the fact that the Hawks need someone huge before they become good. Rookie Acie Law IV will help, but not that much.

Charlotte Bobcats – Michael Jordan’s team has just been set back a year because of the season ending injuries to Sean May and Adam Morrison. For a team that already lacks depth, look for them to remain at the cellar of the division.

Central Division

Chicago Bulls – Ten years after the completion of the Jordan era, the Baby Bulls finally break through and win the best division in the East. No need to trade for Kobe here, because Ben Gordon and Luol Deng continue to develop into all-stars with Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah providing energy and coming on as established role players.

Detroit Pistons – The Pistons are locks to contend in the East as usual, but look for them to be on cruise control through the regular season before making a deep playoff run. Chauncy Billups will need to have an MVP caliber year in order for the Pistons to break through.

Cleveland Cavaliers – The Cavs mysteriously did nothing to improve their clearly flawed team this offseason, and it will be even more difficult for Lebron James to carry the Cavs in a much improved eastern conference that will be gunning for them. Daniel “Booby” Gibson is now the permanent starting point guard, but must develop into a consistent number two option. Head coach Mike Brown has plenty to prove after being exposed as a terrible coach during the playoffs.

Milwaukee Bucks – Andrew Bogut is set for a breakout year, and the addition of Desmond Mason to go alongside sharpshooter Michael Redd provides a solid trio. However, Chinese phenom Yi Jianlian has a long way to go before he even comes close to living up to the hype.

Indiana Pacers – Danny Granger was a pleasant surprise last year, but the rest of this team is not as promising. Expect Larry Bird to finally pull the trigger and move Jermaine O’Neal during the season.

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics – What is with Boston and greatness? The Patriots, Red Sox, and even Boston College are all contending for championships. Danny Ainge’s bold moves were the story of the year, acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to go alongside Paul Pierce. The Celtics’ trades were so momentous, the NBA postponed its release of the schedule in order to give Boston more games on national television. The question is not whether the Celtics are going to dominate, but rather the question is to what extent. In the otherwise weak East, this stud trio could combine for 60-70 points a game, in route to just as many wins if all stay healthy. Critics point to the lack of a supporting cast and a potentially weak link in head coach Doc Rivers, but remember it only took one great player in Lebron James to carry Cleveland out of the East and into The Finals last year. Imagine what Boston will do with three.

New Jersey Nets – With Jason Kidd running the show, the Nets are always going to be in the mix. Vince Carter has never shown the ability to win games come playoff time, however. Look for Jamaal Magloire to break out with Kidd feeding him.

New York Knicks – Like the Lakers, this once prominent and classy franchise has evolved into a dysfunctional mess. If the players do not rally behind Isiah Thomas for a playoff push, expect the axe to finally come down on him. The real problem though, lies with Mason Square Garden Chariman James Dolan, so do not be surprised if he gets fired first.

Toronto Raptors – Andrea Bargnani shows flashes of brilliance towards the end of last year, so look for him to combine with Chris Bosh to form one of the most dangerous frontcourts in the NBA. If the Raptors were not hidden up in Canada, they would get a lot more attention and respect.

Philadelphia 76ers – Similar to Minnesota in the West, Philadelphia is still in rebuilding mode after trading away their superstar.


Most Valuable Player – Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Is there any one man with more motivation in the world of sports right now? After last year’s early first round exit, Bryant had to sit at home throughout last year’s NBA Playoffs and watch Lebron James shine in the spotlight as he singlehandedly lead his team to The Finals. With the possibility of a trade looming, Bryant must reestablish himself as the world’s greatest basketball player. Look for Kobe Bryant to win the MVP not by stringing together a bunch of consecutive 40+ point games, but rather a string of double digit assists games, ridding him of the common perception that he is a talented but selfish player.
Second Place: Tracy McGrady, Houston Rockets

Most Improved Player – Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles Lakers
Perhaps the only player more motivated than Kobe Bryant is the teammate who he thrashed this summer. Entering his critical third year in the league, the 20-year old Bynum will break out this year after working with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Second Place: Daniel “Booby” Gibson, Cleveland Cavaliers

Coach of the Year – Rick Adelman, Houston Rockets
Adelman is best known for his success with the Sacramento Kings several years back, and is credited with overachieving despite never having any big superstars. Now that he has Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in Houston, look for the offensively minded Adelman to open things up and bring in fresh changes to the Rockets, who were bogged down in the past with Jeff Van Gundy’s slower half court sets and defensive philosophy.
Second Place: Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic

Rookie of the Year – Kevin Durant, Seattle Sonics
The 19-year old phenom is 6’9” tall with a 7’4” wingspan and has already been compared to Kevin Garnett. By trading away Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, Seattle has handed the reins to Kevin Durant, who will have all the opportunities to run away with this award.
Second Place: Jeff Green, Seattle Sonics

NBA Finals – Boston Celtics over Houston Rockets in seven.