The 2011-12 NBA season was far better than it deserved to be, given the great efforts by owners and players alike to wipe the entire thing off the map. What happened after the five-month lockout was a compelling, 66-game season, an even more compelling postseason and the eventual crowning of LeBron James with his first championship.
First of many? Quite possible. The road to the 2013 NBA title once again will go through Miami.
Even as I am bracing for the impact of Hurricane Sandy along with millions of others on the East Coast -- stay safe everybody -- the tipoff of the 2012-13 NBA season waits for no one. Not even Mother Nature. Tuesday night brings us the debut of Dwight Howard in a Lakers uniform as Kobe Bryant begins his quest for a sixth title in Dallas against the Mavericks. And in Miami, the defending-champion Heat collide with old nemesis Boston, with a twist: Ray Allen has crossed enemy lines and will be exercising his silky-smooth 3-point stroke for the Heat instead of the Celtics.
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It's funny: As much as we thought changed in the NBA with new financial rules and supposed hindrances for big markets, so little really did change. As far as I can tell, it's still a coin flip between Boston and Miami in the East. In the West, it's the glamour-market Lakers looking better than ever on paper and the Oklahoma City Thunder representing all the Little Markets That Could.
Since it's time for preseason predictions, I'm afraid I've already tipped my hand with the most important one: Who plays in the conference championships and the Finals?
Despite an 0-8 preseason record and some inherent flaws, I don't see anyone stopping the Lakers out West. Standing in the way will be the Thunder, who ironically were the one elite team forced to subtract while the Lakers, Heat, Knicks, Nets and others got better. James Harden is off to Houston because of the harsh financial realities facing teams like the Thunder, who are finding that competing with the glamour markets is harder than ever despite the supposed leveling of the playing field in the new CBA. Think about that for a minute: The Lakers added Howard and Steve Nash, while the Thunder were forced to trade Harden, perhaps the best sixth man in the league.
In the East? While so much changes, so much remains the same. The Heat and Celtics both catch a break because the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose is likely out until springtime as he rehabs from last season's knee injury. And while the Knicks, Nets and Sixers got better and the Pacers will have a year's more experience, does anybody really see any Eastern Conference finals combatants other than Miami and Boston? I don't. I'm just not buying that New York and Brooklyn are on that level yet, though it'll be exceedingly fun watching both of them try to be. Basketball is back in a relevant, positive way in New York City, and I'm all for that. Unfortunately for both franchises, their windows of opportunity opened before the Celtics' closed -- and just as the Heat's is threatening to be thrown wide open.
So there you have it, my not-so-bold prediction of Heat-Celtics and Lakers-Thunder conference finals. Hey, I don't make the rules, I just report on them. While we're at it, here are the rest of my attempts at prognostication for the 2012-13 NBA season:
NBA Finals: Lakers over Heat. I could go either way here and wouldn't feel 100 percent confident. The Heat are certainly better with Allen and perhaps Rashard Lewis (if healthy and effective) spreading the floor for LeBron and Dwyane Wade. The Lakers' switch to the Princeton offense won't come without significant struggles at times, and Kobe isn't getting any younger. But the Lakers' talent is off the charts and championship-worthy.
MVP: Kevin Durant, Thunder. Durant was my pick even before GM Sam Presti decided to trade Harden to Houston because Presti couldn't meet the dynamic wing's contract demands. And as much as it appears that LeBron has a stranglehold on the MVP trophy, Durant is at a point in his career where significant leaps in productivity and dominance remain very much within reach. Plus, with Harden gone, OKC will rely even more on Durant for scoring, which will only help his MVP resume.
Rookie of the Year: Anthony Davis, Hornets. This is becoming my annual no-guts prediction: Just give it to the No. 1 pick. But as much as I like Damien Lillard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Harrison Barnes and others, the draft simply isn't deep enough these days for anyone to upset the heavy favorite. Barring injury, it should be Davis in a landslide.
Coach of the Year: Tyrone Corbin, Jazz. It's hard not to love how the Jazz have lost Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams and simply moved forward with their identity intact. Corbin is a big part of the reason, and this Jazz team -- younger and more athletic than Jazz playoff teams of old -- should be able to make some noise in the West.
Executive of the Year: Masai Ujiri, Nuggets. When you trade Carmelo Anthony and get better, and then get involved in the Howard trade and get a lot better despite not being the team that got Howard, there is a phrase for that: superb management.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Lakers. Big fella thought he was robbed of the DPOY award last season. The numbers disagree, and so do I. So does the player who won the award, the Knicks' Tyson Chandler. "It's unfortunate he feels that way," Chandler said. "He's got a shot this year." Better than a shot. If Howard does his job --- stopping all the penetrators able to get past the Lakers' aging backcourt -- then he'll win the award going away.
Offensive Player of the Year: Carmelo Anthony, Knicks. Melo seemed to be having a bit of an identity crisis during the preseason. First, he said he was going to sacrifice his offensive game and wasn't going to put such a scoring burden on himself. Then Amar'e Stoudemire went down and Melo went back to being Melo, even saying after a 1-for-9 shooting performance in the first half of New York's preseason finale against the Nets, "That’s what I do best, score the basketball." The thing is, as weird as this Knicks team has the chance to be, that is what Melo does best, and when he's backed into a corner, that's what he's going to do. So while I haven't figured out yet if the Knicks are going to be really good or spectacularly bad, I think I can say with certainty that Melo will do most of the scoring -- as much as any leading man on any team.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry, Celtics. Well, The Jet doesn't have Harden to kick around in the annual sixth-man contest anymore. But I had Terry as my pick here even before Harden was shipped to Houston to be a starter with a max contract. Even at 35, Terry is still a handful whether he has the ball in his hands or is running to the 3-point line in transition. The Celtics -- and Doc Rivers in particular -- will have a great feel for how to get the most out of his contributions off the bench.
Most Improved: Raymond Felton, Knicks. As I said, I can't figure out the Knicks yet. They're going to have a lot of problems, but I'm confident Felton won't be one of them. He's in shape, motivated and played some of his best basketball the last time he was in New York. I don't see any reason to expect anything less.
Surprise team (East): Pistons. I say this without sarcasm, but context is important. By "surprise," I don't mean the Pistons are challenging the Heat and Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy. I mean that with a full training camp and regular practice schedule, coach Lawrence Frank will have this young group competing and defending and on the way back toward contention. Oh, and Andre Drummond is a stud.
Demise team (East): Hawks. Again, context. The Hawks actually aren't going to be that bad as currently constructed. With a healthy Al Horford and Josh Smith as their best all-around player with Joe Johnson gone, Atlanta is not going to be a pushover in the East. Kyle Korver, Devin Harris, Lou Williams and Anthony Morrow give the Hawks a dizzying array of offensive firepower. But everyone knows this Atlanta team is about the future. With new GM Danny Ferry in place, the Hawks were able to move what indisputably was the worst contract in the sport in Johnson's and have only $21.6 million in committed salary for next season. Where's the demise? Smith has said he won't sign an extension with the Hawks, and Ferry isn't about to lose another top talent while getting nothing in return. So if Ferry is as shrewd as I think he is, Smith won't be calling Atlanta home past the February trade deadline, and then this season becomes all about the future.
Surprise team (West): Timberwolves. After everyone watched how competitive and compelling the Wolves were last season before Ricky Rubio went down, it may be a stretch to call them a surprise. Now they're without Rubio and Kevin Love to start the season. But with Dallas taking a step back in the West and Portland and Phoenix needing time to reinvent themselves, Minnesota has a real shot at its first playoff appearance in nine years. I think.
Demise team (West): Trail Blazers. On one hand, you pity the Blazers for all the miserable injury luck they've had. On the other, with their arrogant ownership and penchant for going through GMs like I'll be going through beef jerky in the hurricane this week, there's a what-goes-around-comes-around feel to the Blazers' demise. Whichever side of that argument you're on, there's no doubt the Blazers will be positively awful this season. In a pitiful sort of way.
And with that, we come to the end of the 2012-13 predictions with only one more issue to address. No doubt, it's something you've noticed: I've managed to write, to this point, more than 1,600 words on the upcoming NBA season without a single mention of the San Antonio Spurs.
This can only mean two things:
1) I've fallen asleep on the Spurs again.
And 2) the Spurs have us right where they want us.
Enjoy the season. The whole thing, this time.