By Josh Kramer
Welcome to “Lob City.” Though it seemed highly improbable just a little over a month ago, we are going to have an NBA season after all. Granted we will be off to the races with 66 games per team in the next 123 days (nearly a game every other day). I think most of you remember what the 1999 season was like, resulting in a Cinderella run by the 8th seeded New York Knicks all the way to the NBA finals. But hey, as the great Andy Roddick would say, “If sports were predictable, they would be like watching a DVD.” Just a hunch that this shortened year will be anything but predictable.
-What effect will the infamous “Stern-Veto” have on the overall scope of the League, especially out in LA?
-Will a 66-game season lead to a crazier postseason than we had in 1999?
-Will LeBron finally capture a ring in year two of the “MonStars” experiment?
-Can the Dallas Mavericks repeat despite the loss of their bruiser inside, Tyson Chandler?
-How will the Celtics do in what is likely the last season of the “Three Musketeers?”
-What young star is ready to take the next step? Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant?
-Will SportsCenter have to invent a new top ten strictly for the Los Angeles Clippers?
Atlantic: Boston Celtics
This is no longer the weakest conference in the NBA. The Knicks appear to have finally arrived with the huge off-season acquisition of Tyson Chandler. I expect a down-to-the-wire battle for divisional supremacy. In the final year of the “Three Musketeers,” plus Rondo in Beantown, Boston will claim their 5th consecutive divisional crown. A 66-game season may help save the legs of some of the elder statesman in Boston for a deep playoff run.
Central: Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose finally signed the big payday. And I must say that the 23-year-old hometown kid was extremely deserving after becoming the youngest player in League history to take home the MVP award. The addition of Richard (Rip) Hamilton was absolutely huge. Hamilton has been in the League for 12 years, and is a proven scorer. Look for Hamilton’s experience and innate scoring ability to pay huge dividends for Chicago come playoff time. Also, be sure to keep an eye on Indiana in this division. They will make some noise.
Southeast: Miami Heat
This is about as close to a no-brainer that you will see in sports. Year two of the “MonStars” experiment in Miami gets under way on Christmas Day. Do not expect the growing pains that were experienced last year in South Beach this time around. The Heat finally seemed to get it all together by the end of the regular season. Plus, the addition of Shane Battier, a proven winner, was huge. Battier will really help this team with his perimeter shooting, defensive prowess, and all of the intangibles that he will bring to the locker room.
Northwest: Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant had an amazing summer tour this year in which he showcased his skills across the globe at some of the most famous courts in the world. The “Durantula” is finally ready for the next step. And not in the respect of his personal play, but in the respect of his “leadership.” The trifecta of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden will be awful tough to compete with.
Pacific: Los Angeles Lakers
A city divided. Could there be a new sheriff in town? Many are drinking the “Lob City” kool-aid already, proclaiming the Clippers not only as the team to beat in LA, but the team to beat in the West (a little premature in my opinion). The Clippers are without question a contender now, as they demonstrated in their sweep of the Lakers in the exhibition season. In addition, “Showtime” may be the Clippers slogan now. But style points don’t win championships. I have a feeling that Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are still ticked off about getting swept by the Dallas Mavericks last May. Also, do not be surprised to see the Lakers pick up Superman (Dwight Howard) at some point this year. My money is on Kobe and the Lakers, though the Clippers will not be far behind.
Southwest: Memphis Grizzlies
Without question, this is the best division in the NBA. You really have three teams (Mavericks, Grizzlies, and Spurs) who are capable of not only winning the division, but winning the Western Conference. The nod goes to the Grizzlies due to the fact that they are the youngest team of the three, and Zach Randolph finally took the next step in last year’s playoffs after being a head case for the past decade. Fresh legs in this strike-shortened season will be hard to come by with so many games in such a short period of time. But do not sleep on Dallas or San Antonio. The Spurs may be old, but they aren’t dead yet. And Dallas, well you better believe that the defending champions led by the great Dirk Nowitzki will not go down quietly.
Every year there is a team or two that really turns some heads. A team that nobody expected to be around come playoff time. Last years sleeper was the Memphis Grizzlies (who saw that coming?). I am going to pick one team from each conference that will surely surprise some people this year.
In the East, I am going with the Indiana Pacers. That’s right, Larry Bird’s project is finally going to make some positive noise. The Indiana Hoosiers are not the only team that has awoken from the dead in the great basketball state of Indiana. Since the “Malice at the Palace” back in November of 2004, Pacers basketball has never recovered. Well that changes this year, with the arrival of former Fresno State star Paul George, and a very young, talented, and exciting core group.
The Western Conference sleeper is not as obvious. Okay, just kidding. Without question, the sleeper in the West is the Los Angeles Clippers. Remember, the Clippers won just 32 games last year despite Blake Griffin’s nightly “Dunk Show.” In addition, the step child (Clippers) in Los Angeles has only made the playoffs four times since 1979. Well you better believe that number five is going to happen this year. The real question is can this team contend for the title? That remains to be seen.
Eastern Conference Finals:
Heat over Bulls in 6: I admit that I was very reluctant to hop on the Miami Heat bandwagon last year. I just have always been a firm believer that talent does not always translate to championships, though it definitely helps. Well this year, especially with the addition of Shane Battier, I do not see anybody stopping the “King’s” pursuit of his first title. Now if there is a team in the East that can compete with Miami, it is Chicago. Richard Hamilton should really relieve some of the stress off of Derrick Rose, but it won’t be enough to take down the Miami “MonStars.”
Western Conference Finals:
Thunder over Lakers in 7: Now I know many of you are probably scratching your heads on this prediction. How could somebody predict a Lakers team that got swept in the conference semis last season, and appears to have gotten worse, to go farther this year? Well here is how. Number one, a 66-game season will rest Kobe Bryant’s legs a little, despite the games being played in such a short period. Secondly, I expect the Lakers to make some major moves during the course of the season, likely acquiring Dwight Howard. This year though, will be the year of Kevin Durant. The “Durantula” took over Rucker Park one night this summer. Now he will take over the Western Conference.
Heat over Thunder in 7: Sadly, LeBron James will finally get his long-awaited title. I realize that the majority of the country will not be happy with this outcome, but you better believe that this matchup will be a whole lot of fun to watch. Any game that has James, Wade, Durant, and Westbrook all on the floor at once is guaranteed to be worth the price of admission and more. Though the Thunder will have an outstanding year, nobody will stop Miami this time.
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving
Coach of the Year: Scott Brooks
Defensive Player of the Year: Tony Allen
Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden
Most Improved Player: Tyler Hansbrough
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.