With the NBA season just around the corner, I somehow managed to get myself semi-excited--at least to that level where I felt like writing about it (used to be a regular thing back in the fptensai days). Personally, the 2010-11 Season is significant for one thing: it's my first year not rooting for LeBron. He filled the "Jordan void" inside me when Mike finally decided to hang it up in 2002. See, back when Mike played, there was only one acceptable ending to the season: Mike = NBA Champion. Anything short of that is a disappointment. Yes, even during his Wizards days. I love Duncan and Peja, but the obsession to see them win never really reached that level. Suffice it to say that the Jordan void is back. Anyway, "the Decision" is done and dusted, and it's time for me and Sir Charles to move on.
I'll be ranking the 5 best teams in each conference, as I figure they'll finish in the regular season. This does not necessarily reflect how they'll perform in the playoffs, of course. Just the 82 games. No stats or special formula. Simply good ol' honest to goodness gut-feel from the self-proclaimed tensai. Here we go:
1. Miami Heat. As disappointed as I was with LeBron, there's no denying that he's still the best baller in the planet. Switching teams doesn't change that. Now, he's with a team that's remarkably better than the Cleveland team he single-handedly carried to 60-plus wins the past 2 seasons. Wade is a top-5 player in the league. Bosh is a top-10 big man. But what really surprised me is how the Heat was able to add quality guys like Mike Miller, Carlos Arroyo, Joel Anthony, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to their lineup. I always thought it was gonna be the Big 3 plus 9 NBDL guys. Their additions made the Heat bona fide title contenders and good enough for the top spot in the East. The question then is: will they challenge the Bulls' 72-win mark? I don't think so. Why? Two reasons. One, they can't play interior defense. The likes of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are gonna eat their frontline alive. Two, injuries. Wade is already out. Miller just went down. And what about LeBron's elbow? What ever happened to that? Would someone from the media please ask him how the elbow is? Anyone?
2. Orlando Magic. Have you seen this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mArHU1ewSog. Could it be, that after 6 years in the league, Dwight has finally decided to polish his offensive game? We'll have to wait and see, but if he's serious, then I guess the Shaq-comparisons would finally be more real than imagined. In any case, interior defense and rebounding will always be a constant with D12. But to me, the big question mark would have to be Vince Carter. You could argue that the one year with the club has helped him fully adjust to the system. A counter-argument, however, is that he'll be turning 34 years old, and the extra year only hurts him and the team.
3. Chicago Bulls. Their big summer move was landing Boozer after missing out on the LeBron sweepstakes. Not bad for a team that's been to the playoffs the past 2 years, thanks in large part to their young All-Star point guard Derrick Rose. He's been awesome the past 2 years and he can only get better. The Noah-Boozer combo easily gives the Bulls a formidable inside presence on both ends of the floor--Boozer on offense and Noah on defense. They've also added Korver, Brewer, and a bunch of other serviceable guys. The key for them, methinks, is Luol Deng. He was on the verge of stardom back in 2007, with his breakout performance in the playoffs. A couple of years and injuries years later, he's a forgotten man, except in trade talks. If he shows up this year, then the Bulls might just crack it to the elite crowd.
4. Boston Celtics. Before I hear any outbursts from Celtics fans, remember that this is only for the regular season. They got pipped for the 3rd spot last year by the Hawks. I think they're trying to follow the Spurs model, just coasting through the regular season and turning it on in the playoffs. They were 1 quarter away from winning the title last year, so you know they're still dangerous. Rondo just keeps getting better, and I think he'll be playing with a chip on his shoulder this year after what went down with Team USA. Obviously though, their biggest problem is age. They've added Shaq and Jermaine, which quite frankly only makes them older. And it was almost pitiful to watch Paul Pierce and KG in the Finals last year. I don't think the window has closed yet. But managing the minutes of their aging stars will be paramount during the regular season.
5. Atlanta Hawks. They've been improving the past 3 seasons, and having maintained their core, they should still be good this year--at least good enough to win 50-plus games. They've got a new coach, so we still have to see how the players respond. The biggest problem for me is that they haven't made any moves to improve in the off-season. They've been swept out of the playoffs the past 2 seasons. For them, it's not about the window closing; it's about the learning curve going flat. I think that with their current roster, 2nd round of the playoffs is the best they can do. Now, you have to factor in Jamal Crawford's public trade request, and see if it affects team's performance on the court. And looking at the franchise long-term, they just killed themselves with that outrageous Joe Johnson contract. It'll hunt them in the years to come.
Milwaukee Bucks. Fear the Deer! Last year's surprise team is a year older--and a year better. Never really got on the Brandon Jennings bandwagon, but I gotta admit that the kid can put points on the board. He just needs to improve the god-awful 38% FG shooting. Equally important is improving those assist numbers--raise it up to a more point guard-like 7-plus something per. Why? Cos this team has got quality offensive players in Salmons, Ilyasova, Redd (if healthy), Bogut, and newly-signed Maggette. If Bogut has fully recovered from his injury, then this could be the year that they overtake the Hawks. But I'm not sure if Scott Skiles is the right man for the job. He's a defensive coach whereas the skill set of the Bucks is better suited for run-and-gun play. I wouldn't be surprised if Don Nelson gets a call mid-season.
1. Los Angeles Lakers. Easy pick here, though I'm not liking it. I'm not really sold on the strength of their lineup, especially the bench. But they've won back-to-back titles with what they have, all because Phil Jackson is at the helm. So there's no other reasonable conclusion than to acknowledge that the number 1 seed in the West is a virtual lock for them. They've got Kobe, a top-10 guard of all-time according to Mike, who I think still has 2 more years left as an elite player. I think Gasol will play a bigger role on offense this year to compensate for an expected cutback of Kobe's minutes.
2. Dallas Mavericks. They're traditionally a very good regular season team and I think the trend continues this season. Tyson Chandler is a big upgrade from Dampier. The only question is his health. He has never been able to play 82 games in his 9 years in the league. We also have to look at how Beaubois develops this year. If he can carry over the fine play he showed in last year's postseason, then the Mavs got themselves a gem. In any case, as long as they've got Dirk, they'll continue to win games just because the Diggler won't let them lose.
3. Portland Trailblazers. One of the deepest and most talented teams in the West. Yet they've never really been seriously thought of as title-contenders. I think this is the year that changes all that. Roy and Aldridge are perennial All-Stars. The frontline of Camby, Przybilla, and Oden would pose a problem to opposing teams because of their sheer size, defensive presence, and rebounding. Hopefully, Oden gets to finally play a complete season. The Rudy Fernandez situation has been sorted out. Nicolas Batum played great for France in the Worlds. Releasing Steve Blake is the best off-season move for them. Andre Miller has had a year to adjust to the system, which should theoretically make them better... There are those seasons when teams turn from being a good team to a very good team. Remember when the high-octane offense of the Kings and Mavs made waves in the 2001 season? Or the Hornets in 2008? This might just be that year for Portland.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder. The best young team in the league with the best young player in the league. Last year was their breakthrough season, making the playoffs and just being a missed Gasol tip-in away from upsetting the defending champs. But the experience alone should prove invaluable for this young bunch. And what about their best player? Well, he simply took over the World Championships and led Team USA to the gold medal. The strides that Durant has made from year-to-year is astonishing. You have to wonder, how good can he possibly be? I still think he's not yet at LeBron's level, but he's got time. He's already improved his defense, as you might have noticed in the Worlds. But the one thing I love about him is he never takes a possession off. That's what distinguishes him (and Kobe, for that matter) from LeBron. Westbrook is also worth a mention, because of his fine play in the Worlds, though I still believe that the Thunder should've offered him to the Hornets for Chris Paul.
5. San Antonio Spurs. This could very well be Tim Duncan's last season as an All-Star. We saw shades of his old self last season, but the decline was evident. He couldn't dominate Amare as he did 2-3 seasons ago. But he did play particularly well against the Mavs in the first round. So it's a glass half-full/half-empty thing. But with his age, you gotta go with half-empty. But still, I think he's a top-5 big man in the league (behind Dwight, Dirk, Pau, but not Bosh). New recruit Tiago Splitter, along with 2nd year forward Blair, would definitely relieve some pressure off Timmy. Manu and Tony are still there, and if they can avoid injury and get back to their All-Star level, then maybe, just maybe, the window is still open. They'll probably take it easy on the regular season, maybe win 55 games tops, and hopefully turn it on in time for the playoffs. But Richard Jefferson has got to step it up this year.
Chris Paul. I'm gonna go against the trend here. The popular picks are obviously Durant, Kobe, and LeBron. But I've got a feeling that CP3 will be at his best this season. It was an off-year for him last year because of the injuries. But with all the talk about his buddy Deron Williams overtaking him as the best point guard in the NBA, I think he'll respond big time. I honestly think he's one of the few guys in the NBA with the competitive DNA of Michael Jordan (Kobe is one, maybe Durant). Two things, though: first, can he stay healthy? Second, can the Hornets win enough games? Can't win the MVP without at least making the playoffs. The magic number for him and the Hornets is 54. In the past decade, that's the least number of games that the team of the MVP winner has won (Steve Nash, 2006 Suns). Or maybe we could lower it to 51, 10 games over 0.500, considering that the West is very competitive and that Durant finished 2nd last year despite winning just 50 games. Still, that would seem like quite a stretch for a team with a borderline All-Star (David West) and a bunch of decent, but not great, players (Ariza, Belinelli, an aging Peja). But you never know. Memphis, Oklahoma, and Milwaukee all surprised us last year, so there's always a chance.
Kevin Durant. Realistically, this is the guy I would put my money on. He already led the league in scoring last year and was 2nd in the MVP balloting. Yet he has somehow managed to take his game to another level in the World Championships. It's scary just thinking about his ceiling. If the Thunder win 60 games this season, then he's a lock for the MVP. It wouldn't hurt to bump up those assist numbers, too.
LeBron James. The 2-time reigning MVP and still the best player in the planet. But playing with a fellow top-5 player is definitely a major voter deterrent. Just ask Shaq--that's why he only won one Maurice Podoloff trophy during all those title runs with Kobe. Voter fatigue would definitely play a factor, too. Same reason why Michael Jordan only has 5, when he should've had at least 7. Plus, LeBron's not quite the media darling he was pre-Decision, so that comes into play as well. For me, there are only two ways LeBron can win the MVP this year. One is by averaging a triple-double for the season. It's only been done once (by Oscar Robertson), so if he could do actually do it, then all the aforementioned factors goes to the trash bin. The other is by leading the league in both scoring and assists. It's almost as rare as a season triple-double, having been only done twice before (by the Big O and Nate Archibald).
Rookie of the Year
As good as John Wall is, I think Blake Griffin is the best rookie this year. Why? He scores, he rebounds, he blocks shots. He's your prototypical power forward in the mold of Tim Duncan, only more athletic. He's already polished offensively, so he can contribute immediately. He's quite a hustle player as well, and goes after the ball ala Dennis Rodman. He was a double-double machine during his college days, once scoring 40 points and grabbing 23 boards in a single game. He's probably around Amare-level right now but with better defense.
Back to John Wall for a bit. I think he'll be better than Derrick Rose. I think he's got better athleticism and better court vision.
Most Improved Player
Michael Beasley. He's been impressive in the pre-season and I think this would carry over to the regular season. Many basketball analysts have already given up on him, saying that he doesn't have the tools to live up to his billing as a number 2 pick, that he doesn't play defense, doesn't have a mid- to long-range game, has poor shot selection, that he's lazy, etc. But I think he never really had the chance to shine in Miami because of how Wade dominates the ball. I think Beasley is that type of player who needs the ball in his hands to make something happen. And he could do just that in Minny. He's their guy. And I think he'll respond. I see him averaging 20-22 points per, along with 8 boards.
Raymond Felton. I think he'll blossom under Mike D'Antoni's system. He was solid last year but had to share minutes with Bobcats-favorite DJ Augustin (only 33 minutes per game). Now, he's the undoubted starter for the Knicks. He has a very shaky--but nonetheless improving--jumpshot, but he's got good court vision, which is always an intangible asset for a point guard under D'Antoni. He got owned by Jameer Nelson in last year's playoffs but I think he'll surpass Jameer this year.
Darko Milicic. 7 years have passed and I'm still hoping. I might be the only one left on the bandwagon. The primary reason is he's still only 25. We saw the potential being realized in 2006-07 with the Orlando Magic, forming a good partnership with Dwight. I think he had several double-doubles in the playoff series against the Bulls. But then the Magic decided that they'd rather go with Rashard than Darko (which is actually a good move for them, but not for Darko). Now, that's what I call arrested development. But he did play well when he arrived in Minnesota last year, rejuvenated by the new lease in his basketball career. With the departure of Al Jefferson, he'll be their starting center this season. More reasons why I still believe in Darko: (1) he's an above average defensive player--such an underrated shotblocker; (2) he's got good footwork on the low block. Don't believe me? Just watch videos of his post moves. I think the area that needs most improvement is his jumpshot. He should be able to stroke it from 15 as well as Vlade and Sabonis did. My (dream) statline for him for the season: 14 ppg, 11 rpg, 3 bpg.
Linas Kleiza. Euro Barkley! Spending a season in Europe definitely helped his game. He's able to make plays now rather than being simply a scorer. You could see it in the way he played for Lithuania. Equally impressive is how he embraced the leadership role in his national team. Now, he'll have plenty of opportunity in Toronto, unlike in Denver when he had to play behind Carmelo. Watching him play alongside Bargnani should be quite interesting.
As I've said earlier, there's a void inside me this year, so I'm not really keen on picking who'll win the championship. Maybe I'd like to see the Spurs have one last run at it. But one thing I'm picking is who won't win: the Lakers.