There may never have been a better wire-to-wire race to the playoffs than in last year's Western Conference, when six teams finished within three games of the top of the final standings.
|Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom will win major awards for the champion Lakers. (Getty Images)|
It took 54 victories to crack the top six in the West and 50 to make the playoffs in 2007-08, a testament to the division of power in the NBA. Only three teams had more than 45 wins in the Least, er, East, though the best of them -- the Boston Celtics -- walked away with the championship.
We'll see more of the same this season, and there will be only one new playoff team in the Best, er, West -- the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Celtics will be back, albeit a year older, aiming for a second consecutive title.
This year, though, the Lakers will be the ones celebrating in mid-June.
Here's what NBA observers can look for during the 2008-09 season:
|Orlando's Dwight Howard (Getty Images)|
Boston, meanwhile, will survive an injury or two to Ray Allen (33) Kevin Garnett (32) and Paul Pierce (31) to earn a date in the East final against Orlando, where there's Magic in the air as Dwight Howard continues to mature.
The Lakers upend San Antonio, Orlando upsets Boston and it's a vacationer's delight with a California-Florida final. L.A. claims the championship in six games as Phil Jackson fills his fingers with a 10th ring.
Most Valuable Player: There are virtuoso performances throughout the league, such as Howard, Garnett and Chris Paul. But Bryant wins out before leading the Lakers to ultimate glory.
Coach of the Year: The Lakers' Jackson has won this award only once. But voters give him a second one, if for nothing else honoring lifetime achievement, over New Orleans' Byron Scott, Portland's Nate McMillan, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, Dallas' Rick Carlisle and Orlando's Stan Van Gundy.
Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Camby of the Los Angeles Clippers, if he can stay healthy, over Garnett.
|Toronto's Andrea Bargnani (Getty Images)|
Executive of the Year: Portland's Kevin Pritchard, who in recent seasons swung deals to land Fernandez, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge and to unload Zach Randolph, over Cleveland's Danny Ferry and Philadelphia's Ed Stefanski.
Best acquisition: Elton Brand, who will help Philadelphia immensely in its playoff run.
Best acquisition of a non-starter: James Posey, armed with a four-year, $25 million contract in New Orleans after earning rings with Miami and Boston in two of the last three years.
Reluctant reserve award: The Lakers' Odom, who when told about Jackson's idea to bring him off the bench, sniffed, "He must have woke up and bumped his head. ... You've got to be out of your rabbit-ass mind."
Arnold Schwarzenegger award: San Antonio's Tony Parker, even if he isn't as beefed up as his image on EA Sports' NBA Live '09 video game would suggest. "Tony looks all swole up," teammate Ime Udoka observed. "It looked like they put my body on his face."
Mr. T award: None other than Detroit's Rasheed Wallace, the seven-time NBA technicals titlist who will reclaim his throne after an off season in 2007-08. New Pistons coach Michael Curry has a list of 16 keys to winning, including leaving the officials alone. Of Wallace, he noted, "'Sheed is our Manny Ramirez. He's fine."
Who is your MVP pick?
Total Votes: 1,164
Fantasy player award: Al Jefferson, who will pile up prolific scoring/rebounding numbers. There's not a lot of help for the young lad in Minnesota.
The 'What did I get myself into?' coaching award: Either Mike D'Antoni in New York, where Stephon Marbury said, "I'm a starter, period," or Larry Brown in Charlotte, where an 0-8 preseason means there is only one direction in which to go. Brown, incidentally, had been counting on majority owner Bob Johnson and his basketball ops chief to provide some upgraded talent. "I gave Michael Jordan a blank check, and he exceeded it," Johnson said. Nobody knows if he was kidding.
No false modesty award: Washington's Gilbert Arenas, who admits he probably won't lead the league in assists: "I'm a great scorer. I've been a great scorer my whole career. I could average 10 assists, no problem, but no coach has asked me to do that. It's like, you have to let Jordan be Jordan; he can't be anything else."
Most experienced coaching staff: Chicago, with 25 years of head-coaching past among head coach Vinny Del Negro (zero), 71-year-old Del Harris (14) and 64-year-old Bernie Bickerstaff (11). Runner-up: Utah, with Jerry Sloan taking over just after James Naismith nailed up the first peach basket, and lead assistant Phil Johnson joining up about the time the shot clock arrived.
Premature comment of the year, but he's right: "I saw the ring flash before my eyes."
-- Bryant, after suffering a minor preseason knee injury, putting the carat before the horse.
Kerry Eggers covers the NBA for the Portland Tribune.