It was an unmistakable case of the rich getting richer in the NBA this past offseason. League powers Boston, Cleveland, Orlando, San Antonio and of course the defending champion Lakers made bold moves to fortify themselves for a title run.
It's the perfect time, really, for the flaws in the NBA's attempts at achieving parity to come to the forefront. This season will be dominated by a handful of powerful, high-revenue teams while the weaklings can only hope for some concessions in a new collective bargaining agreement. Those negotiations will serve as a backdrop to the ho-hum coronation of a new champion culled from the same old list of suspects.
You don't need me to tell you that the Celtics, Cavaliers and Magic are the overwhelming favorites in the Eastern Conference. In the West, things are a little more open once you get past the Lakers, who will dominate the regular season once again. Things won't get treacherous for L.A. until the conference semifinals; that's where the likes of the Spurs, Nuggets, Trail Blazers and Mavericks will have realistic chances of slowing down the Lakers' bid for a repeat.
With a healthy Kevin Garnett and the addition of Rasheed Wallace, the Celtics are the strongest team in the East. I'm amazed by how easily folks are dismissing the Magic, who are a much better, deeper and more potent team than the group that lost to the Lakers in the Finals. The irony is that Orlando -- with Vince Carter replacing Hedo Turkoglu -- will be easier for Cleveland to defend this time in the likely event they meet again in the postseason. Shaquille O'Neal will take some of the burden off LeBron James, but I think the Celtics and Magic improved more.
So what are my predictions? I have a lot of them, as you'll see below. As for the most important ones -- who plays in the Finals and wins the 2010 NBA title -- it'll be the Celtics over the Spurs. I love the size and scoring punch San Antonio added with Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff -- not to mention the added benefit those players afford coach Gregg Popovich. Pop can now monitor and limit minutes for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to his heart's content, without worrying about a significant drop-off in production. Plus, that added size -- and fresh legs under Duncan -- will be a tipping point in the Western Conference finals against the Lakers.
Whether the Celtics face the Cavs or Magic in the Eastern Conference finals is immaterial; as long as Garnett is healthy, Rajon Rondo is focused and Wallace is under Doc Rivers' spell, Boston is better than both of them. However it plays out, it's going to be a thrilling finish. Unless you happen to own one of the 22 or so other teams that don't have a chance.
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Atlantic: C's more dangerous than '08 team?
Central: Championship or bust for Cavaliers
Southeast: Magic still gravitating above rest
Northwest: Blazers are ready to take command
Pacific: Lakers can look down from on high
Southwest: Spurs re-tool without losing step
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Prediction Podcast: Playoff seeds, award winners, sleepers, who wins it all and more.
MVP: LeBron James, Cavaliers. It will once again be a duel between good pals LeBron and Dwyane Wade, with some Kobe Bryant thrown in and a legitimate push by Dwight Howard. But with regard to 1 and 1(a), the debate will be the same: Does Wade deserve more credit than LeBron because he has less talent around him? In the end, LeBron's otherworldly numbers across the board, combined with a team that will be in the hunt for a 70-win season, will tip the scales in his favor. What about Bryant, who finished second to LeBron in 2008-09? It's time for Kobe to let off the pedal a bit in the regular season to preserve his body for another title push. Winning that championship without Shaq reminded Bryant how much more important a ring is.
Rookie of the Year: Tyreke Evans, Kings. Even my original pick, the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, came with the caveat that Evans would present a formidable challenge. The broken left knee cap that will keep Griffin out for at least the first six weeks (20 games) of the season tilts the race in Evans’ favor. Not even Griffin, the No. 1 overall pick who is expected to lead the Clippers’ resurgence, can overcome losing 25 percent of his rookie season. Evans’ aggressive approach and plethora of opportunities to shine for a last-place team would’ve pushed a healthy Griffin. With this setback, Evans is now the favorite.
Coach of the Year: Rick Carlisle, Mavericks. The Celtics' anticipated dominance of the East and the egos that go along with it will create plenty of buzz for Rivers, who will certainly be a deserving candidate if he can control Wallace and make him happy in a reserve role. As everyone is well aware, Rondo isn't the easiest point guard in the league to coach, and as everyone should be aware by now, Garnett isn't the easiest superstar to coach -- largely because he thinks he's the coach. But I'm betting that the Mavs will make a dramatic improvement with the addition of Shawn Marion and re-emergence of Josh Howard, asserting themselves as a worthy challenger to the Lakers, Spurs and Nuggets in the West. A coach who guides a team to an unexpectedly long playoff run typically collects a lot of votes along the way.
Executive of the Year: Kevin Pritchard, Trail Blazers. Several worthy candidates have made excellent cases for themselves, starting with R.C. Buford in San Antonio, who will deserve all the praise he gets for stealing Jefferson from the Bucks, drafting rebounding machine DeJuan Blair and grabbing big men McDyess and Ratliff, who can let Duncan rest his weary knees during the regular season. Oklahoma City's Sam Presti -- a Buford disciple -- will get some attention, too, and deservedly so. But while the Thunder will show great improvement, the award will go to the executive whose team is ready to join the elite in the West now -- not the exec whose team will join those ranks in another year. Pritchard didn't do much this summer besides sign point guard Andre Miller and get jilted by free agent Turkoglu. His creative offer sheet for Utah's Paul Millsap didn't work, either. But he'll get the honor for his body of work -- thanks to dramatic improvement by 2007 No. 1 pick Greg Oden and the coming-out party for a versatile roster that has been assembled patiently. Yes, it was assembled with billionaire Paul Allen's money, too. But money doesn't always buy happiness, much less a championship-caliber NBA team. Just ask the Knicks.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rajon Rondo, Celtics. This will be wide open for a few reasons that I'll explain. I would give the nod to Garnett, except I'm not convinced his knee is 100 percent yet, meaning that Rivers will dial back his minutes along the way. Dwight Howard won it last year, so voters will exercise human nature and look for reasons to vote for someone else. Shane Battier remains one of the top perimeter defenders in the game, but he'll find out that defense is a team sport and won't get the same credit without Yao Ming defending the basket. LeBron certainly will be deserving, but how many awards can one guy win? So I'm betting that Rondo, on a mission to prove his doubters wrong, will use the enormous chip on his shoulder to lead the league in steals and dominate opposing point guards in marquee matchups with Orlando and Cleveland. Sorry, Danny Ainge; Rondo just became that much more difficult to retain as a restricted free agent, assuming you're not signing him to an extension by Oct. 31.
|Shaquille O'Neal helps, but the Cavaliers aren't as improved as other East powers. (Getty Images)|
Most Improved Player: Greg Oden, Trail Blazers. There is no shortage of outstanding candidates here, starting with Golden State's Anthony Randolph, the Lakers' Andrew Bynum and the Raptors' Andrea Bargnani. I'm going with Oden because he will deserve it after all the criticism he has endured during a rookie season lost to injury and an underwhelming 2008-09. If he can put the health concerns to rest, Oden will establish himself as a consistent threat on both ends and become a big part of Portland's success.
First to be traded: Stephen Jackson, Warriors. It's with some hesitation that I grant this dubious honor to Jackson over Utah's Carlos Boozer. Here's why: The Jazz need to trade Boozer only to get luxury tax relief, and those payments aren't locked in until the trade deadline. So GM Kevin O'Connor can be patient and wait for the best deal. The Warriors clearly need to offload Jackson as quickly as possible to have any chance of restoring some semblance of sanity. Jax wants out, Don Nelson wants him out, so what usually happens in such cases is that the player gets his wish.
First expiring contract to be dumped: Tracy McGrady, Rockets. Houston GM Daryl Morey probably would prefer to let this play out and benefit from McGrady's $23 million deal falling off the cap next June. Frankly, I don't think the Rockets are going to be as hopeless without Yao as most people do, but McGrady hasn't contributed much to their recent success anyway. And there will be several teams jockeying for 2010 cap space who will entertain taking on McGrady as a ploy to sell some tickets in the meantime. Primarily, I'm referring to the Knicks, who could pawn McGrady off on the fan base as an "All-Star" and help the 2010 plan at the same time. The problem is the Knicks need to subtract Eddy Curry and/or Jared Jeffries to have enough space to sign two max free agents. Can't imagine Houston taking either one.
First coach to be fired: Lawrence Frank, Nets. As a lame duck in the last year of his contract, Frank has lost his trump card. He survived the league-wide coaching purge last November and December because the cash-strapped Nets didn't want to hire a new coach in 2009-10 and pay Frank $4.5 million. The one thing working in Frank's favor is that his most logical interim replacement, Brian Hill, bolted for the Pistons when the Nets announced plans to reduce their coaching staff. But with the Nets' Brooklyn plans still up in the air and their roster not going anywhere until they see what the 2010 free-agent class yields, there's no harm in turning things over to longtime assistant Tom Barrise until all those issues are resolved.