21 December 2011

2011-12 NBA Season Preview & Predictions

There has been a large amount of focus on boardrooms like the one pictured above over the summer and fall as the NBA Lockout was forefront on the minds of basketball fans nationwide. But now, the season was saved, there will be professional hoops this year. So how do I foresee the shortened NBA season to shape out?

1. Miami Heat
The Big Three down on South Beach got off to an auspicious start due to chemistry issues but once the team started to click, they took off. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade both had tremendous seasons and once Chris Bosh realized his role, his play went up a couple notches as well. They are still going with a grab-bag at center and at point guard but this team came close to the NBA title last year and now with a year under their belt, this team is really dangerous. They also made a tremendous pickup of Shane Battier, who strengthens their bench with a plus defender of the wing and a solid deep shooter as well.

2. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose really broke out with a magnificent 2010-11 season en route to winning Most Valuable Player. But the problem that cut down Chicago in the playoffs was the fact that Rose was doing it all and got worn down. Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are all pretty good players but none are stars and so this team could end up being like the Knicks of the mid 90's with one clear star surrounded by very good players. This team will win a bunch of games and take the Central easily but unless someone else steps up beside Rose, they won't be a title club. Richard Hamilton was a solid pickup at the two.

3. New York Knicks
We knew what we were getting out of the Knicks last season, great offense and terrible defense. That will change in a big way after the shrewd addition of Tyson Chandler, who will bring a defensive presence not seen at center for the Knicks in many years. Now the Knicks are going to play defense like they did in the 90's considering Carmelo Anthony is still an awful defender and Amar'e Stoudemire is no defensive first teamer either. But now they do have a presence defensively in the post. Interesting to see what the Knicks will get out from the point guard slot with holdover Toney Douglass, acquisitions Baron Davis, who is out for at least two months thanks to a back injury, and Mike Bibby and rookie Iman Shumpert.

4. Boston Celtics
The Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are nearing the twilight of their careers but can still play, just not like they could in their prime. Rajon Rondo, when motivated, is one of the elite facilitators at the point guard spot and it's clear that it is his team now. Boston also upgraded from Glen Davis to Brendan Bass on the bench. But while Doc Rivers will have this team competitive and one of the better clubs in the East but this team is on the clear decline.

5. Atlanta Hawks
What we have learned from this Hawks team that they are the clear team in the middle class in the Eastern Conference, not good enough to be considered an elite team that could contender for the conference title but a clear playoff team nonetheless. The Hawks have a bunch of very good players in their lineup in Joe Johnson,  Josh Smith, who would be a star if he matured, and Al Horford as well as the talented Jeff Teague at point with Kirk Hinrich backing him up and the steady Marvin Williams at the three. But while this is a relatively young team, I still don't see this team entering the elite of the East.

6. Indiana Pacers
I really like this Pacers team, especially after the shrewd move to sign David West, who if healthy provides a solid threat at power forward and allows Tyler Hansbrough to play off the bench, for which he is better suited. Darren Collison is a speed demon at the point, Danny Granger is a talented scorer at the three and Roy Hibbert has the talent to be a very good center. If Paul George continues to build on the promise he showed last season, this team could surprise.

7. Orlando Magic

This is still a quality team but the main storyline of course all season will be when Dwight Howard is traded. General Manager Otis Smith knows that Howard cannot be Shaq 2.0 and allowed to leave via free agency without getting anything in return. But for the meantime, Howard is still the premier center in hoops and there are also solid players around him in point guard Jameer Nelson, shooting guard Jason Richardson and forward Hedo Turkoglu but it won't be the easiest season for Stan Van Gundy.

8. Philadelphia 76ers
Doug Collins showed his coaching chops down the stretch as this team came together down the stretch and entered the playoffs hot. This youthful club fed off the energy of Andre Igoudala and played an exciting style that made them fun to watch. It will be interesting to see if Elton Brand can have another solid season as he gets older but there is a decent core of Iquodala, point guard Jrue Holliday, shooting guard Evan Turner if he takes another step forward and sixth man Thaddeus Young, who played very well last year. If Spencer Hawes can contribute more from the post, this team could finish higher than eighth.

9. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks' offense was just awful last year as point guard Brandon Jennings' shot was very erratic all season long. The offense needs to feed center Andrew Bogut the ball more to get some easier baskets and if Mike Dunleavy can stay healthy, he'll help spread the floor with his shooting and you know Stephen Jackson can score buckets. A concern will be if Scott Skiles wears out his welcome.

10. New Jersey Nets
You know that this team is going to bring in some big name player to team with star pointman Deron Williams, like say Dwight Howard. But right now, this team is not a playoff team as is. Williams is an elite point guard and Brook Lopez is a solid center, although his rebounding numbers really need to improve, but the rest of the starting lineup as is is not good. Anthony Morrow and Shawne Williams can both shoot the lights out but that's about it. Kris Humprhies was a shrewd re-signing for only a year and Andrei Kirilenko could be a solid add as well. But watch for this team to make a big trade for a star.

11. Washington Wizards
And yet another club looking to add big pieces and hope for the future. John Wall is a budding star at point and if he improves his shot, watch out. Nick Young broke out as a solid shooting guard, Audray Blatche played very well at the four and if Javale McGee actually played defense instead of cartoonishly block every shot, he would be a force in the paint. Once Jan Vesely adjusts to the NBA, he could be a really solid wing. But this team is still a year away.

12. Detroit Pistons
I do not get why Joe Dumars has not blown up this team and started from scratch because now this team is stuck in neutral with a gluttony of combo guards in Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Will Bynum and the talented rookie Brandon Knight with the perpetually soft Charlie Villanueva on the wing as well as the disgruntled holdover Tayshaun Prince. Detroit does have some talented big men in Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko to build around.

13. Toronto Raptors
The playoffs are far from any sort of reality as the rebuilding process continues north of the border. I'm a big fan of new coach Dwane Casey and I think he can provide the kind of defensive focus this team sorely needs. Ed Davis has to step up in order to fill the still vacant hole of Chris Bosh at the four. DeMar DeRozan has established into a really good scorer and Jose Calderon is a solid point guard but it appears that Andrea Bargnani will be traded at some point this year.

14. Charlotte Bobcats
Where will the offense come from on this team? They really need the newly acquired Corey Maggette to provide some offensive punch or else they will need MJ to come down and play. They also lack size. They really need Tyrus Thomas to breakthrough at power forward and they need an impact freshman campaign from Kemba Walker, as well as possibly a solid season from D.J. Augustin who may get traded as well.

15. Cleveland Cavaliers
Well...Cleveland is a great city. It isn't going to get better quickly with the Cavaliers but it will in time. Top draft pick Kyrie Irving looks like a future star at point guard but is still a little raw as is fourth overall pick Tristan Thompson, who has the talent to be a very good power forward. The top scorer on the club, Antawn Jamison, is highly likely to be shipped out for some more young talent if not draft picks so this isn't a a playoff contender. Isn't Cleveland great though?

1. Dallas Mavericks
The defense took a big hit thanks to the departure of Tyson Chandler and now the Mavericks have to rely on Brendan Haywood to step up defensively. But the offense should be even better and more varied with the additions of Lamar Odom and Vince Carter to the mix. Dirk Nowitzki has solidified himself as an elite player who can carry a club to the title and while he may not lead them to a second consecutive title, I think he and his very good supporting cast and bench will be the best team out West in the regular season.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder
This really appears to be the year that the Thunder can put it all together. They were close last year, falling to the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant took his game to another level and appears ready to become the elite player in basketball. Russell Westbrook has to realize he is the Pippen of this team and once he does, watch out. They've got the youthful energy of James Harden and Serge Ibaka as well as the defensively minded of Kendrick Perkins to round out the lineup. This team is on the verge of absolute greatness. 

3. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies, with the strong upset of the top seeded Spurs in the playoffs, set themselves up to be poised to join the elite of the Western Conference. And don't forget that they surged late without Rudy Gay and a full season of Gay healthy will spell wonders considering how good he was playing before the injury. Mike Conley stepped up his play big time at the point, Marc Gasol has become a top shelf center and we know now what Zach Randolph can do when he is motivated.  

4. Los Angeles Clippers
We all know about the Chris Paul trade saga which now has turned Los Angeles into Lob City with Chris Paul throwing up alley-oops to Blake Griffin, seemingly at will. The Paul acquisition will do wonders for this team in terms of their turnover numbers as well as their distribution, making Griffin even better. If Griffin can expand his shot range, their pick-and-roll game will be lethal. Caron Butler is still a very good small forward, Chauncey Billups can still shoot very well from the outside and while DeAndre Jordan needs a lot of work on his offensive game, maybe Paul can make him his Tyson Chandler. The one major concern for this club is their depth, or lack thereof. 

5. San Antonio Spurs
The team that was so good in the regular season fell in the opening round to the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, making it clear that this club's core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker was not getting any younger by any stretch. Regardless, they should still have plenty left for this season with an infusion of youth and athleticism on the wings in James Anderson and rookie Kawhi Leonard plus Gregg Popovich is still one of the elite coaches in the league. 

6. Los Angeles Lakers
So it's basically the same aging team that we saw dispatched in the playoffs last season. Unless Dwight Howard is acquired that is, the core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum returns sans Lamar Odom, who was essentially sold to the Mavericks. New coach Mike Brown had a lot of success in Cleveland but this team is on the start of a slow decline as Bryant starts to age. Gasol is still a top power foward but he took a lot of flak for his performance in the playoffs and Bynum has not yet earned a larger role. The depth isn't great and the defense on the perimeter is mediocre again. 

7. Denver Nuggets
If Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin are extracted from the grasps of their no-out contracts they signed in China, this team will be really good. Regardless, this is a club that came together after the Anthony trade and was tremendous on offense and really fun to watch. George Karl is considered to be an elite coach for a reason and it showed last season and will show again. Bringing back Nene and Aaron Afflalo were key and Ty Lawson is just an absolute speed demon.

8. Portland Trail Blazers
Nate McMillan should enjoy himself coaching this grabbag of talents but should still reach a playoff spot. LaMarcus Aldridge really broke out last season, Gerald Wallace's varied talents and versatility makes him a good fit on any team, Raymond Felton is a quality distributor at the point, points will come aplenty from acquisition Jamal Crawford as well. The defense in the paint will come from the veteran bigs Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas and the defense on the wing will come from Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.

9. Phoenix Suns
The Suns, in order to facilitate the rebuilding process, probably should really consider trading Steve Nash while they can get something of value for him. But as long as he's around and healthy, they'll continue to score a boatload of points. Grant Hill is ageless and has still contributed positively down in Arizona and while Channing Frye, Mickeal Pietrus and Robin Lopez all took steps backward last season, they are still good fits in this offense. Shannon Brown will be an excellent fit and Marcin Gortat is an underrated big man. 

10. Houston Rockets
If David Stern has not meddled himself into the original Chris Paul deal, this Rockets team would have been playoffs material with the addition of Pau Gasol as well as being in position for Nene, building the kind of frontcourt new coach Kevin McHale craves. Now, this remains a very good offensive team with weak defense. Kevin Martin can score in bundles and Kyle Lowry is an underrated point guard. But now the Rockets are not that strong in the frontcourt with the exception of Luis Scola and they will really miss Chuck Hayes. 

11. Golden State Warriors
This team is pretty much the exact same as last year except with new management and a new coach in Mark Jackson, who has no coaching experience. This club will be able to score at will with Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis but neither provides any defense. The top frontcourt defender is Ekpe Udoh but he is blocked at the four by David Lee, a weak defender but a double-double threat, and he is a little undersized at center. Speaking of center, the Warriors will pay seven million to Kwame Brown, actually a decent defender, to do the same exact thing as holdover Andris Biedrins, who for some reason was not amnestied. Jackson may preach a defense-first style but the current roster says otherwise. 

12. New Orleans Hornets
Speaking of that Paul guy, the NBA interfering with the Hornets' affairs hurt their chances to contend this year but probably made that stronger down the road. Eric Gordon can score at well and he is poised to become one of the elite shooting guards in short time. Chris Kaman is a solid center with a hefty expiring contract that could be a tool to get something of worth in return. Al-Farouq Aminu could develop into a nice player at forward. But replacing not just Paul but also David West will prove too daunting for a playoff run but they could be good down the line. 

13. Sacramento Kings
The Kings really could have used the leadership, hustle and defense of Chuck Hayes before the team was forced to void his contract after a heart abnormality was discovered in his physical. But this team should take a step forward and could finish a couple spots higher if all the pieces come together. Will DeMarcus Cousins grow up and build on his promising rookie year? Will Tyreke Evans play like he did when he was a rookie? Will the two talented power forwards in Jason Thompson and J.J. Hickson improve their games further? Will Jimmer Fredette shoot like he did in college?

14. Utah Jazz
Well after the Jerry Sloan era ended so suddenly after the Deron Williams era did, this team is in for some major transition. Should this team start a painful rebuilding process or try to make an earnest playoff run with the current roster? The frontcourt is pretty deep but who Ty Corbin plays will be key or if any will be traded. Al Jefferson is a potent low-post threat but is a god-awful defender, Paul Millsap is a little small but works his ass off down low while Mehmet Okur is just perennially soft. The key for this club will be developing the two talented low-post players in Derrick Favors and the rookie Enes Kanter. The backcourt is very thin with a lot of pressure on point guard Devin Harris.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves
Should we start with the positives? Rick Adelman is a hell of a coach and this team will score plenty of points with offensive talents like Kevin Love and rookies Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio. This team will be fun to watch, no doubt. And now to the negatives. This may be the worst defensive team ever. Not many positive defenders on the roster, although Rubio grades out as one. The frontcourt in particular is terrible defensively as Love, Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Darko Milicic are all awful. And will the latter three actually put it together under Adelman? At least there is hope. 

First Round
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
Doug Collins will have this 76ers team giving it their all so this won't be the easiest sweep ever. But the Heat will dispatch them in four games.
Miami in four

(2) Chicago Bulls vs. (7) Orlando Magic
I can't see this Magic team being completely focused in this series. Either Howard is gone or for some reason Howard is still on the roster with the team looking towards his departure.
Chicago in four

(3) New York Knicks vs. (6) Indiana Pacers
The Pacers will be able to bring the defense to make this a tough series for New York. I really think this Pacers team is a sleeper in the East that should not be counted out but the talent edge for the Knicks will have them prevail in six.
New York in six

(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
The youth and athleticism of this Hawks team will faze this veteran laden Celtics club but I think the experience and a calm hand from Doc Rivers will get Boston through.
Boston in seven

Conference Semifinals
(1) Miami Heat vs. (4) Boston Celtics
If this was the Celtics team with their roster a couple of years younger, I'd go with Boston here. But the absurd athleticism of James and Wade will prove too much for the Celtics.
Miami in six

(2) Chicago Bulls vs. (3) New York Knicks
Like I said before with the Bulls, when the Knicks focus their defense on Rose, will they have another go-to scorer to give the rock to? I don't think so. 
New York in seven

(1) Miami Heat vs. (3) New York Knicks
This series, in my opinion, will be decided by the matchup of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. If I had any confidence that Anthony's defense could rise to the occasion in this kind of spot, I'd lean towards New York. But I don't feel that way. Miami to The Finals.
Miami in six

First Round
(1) Dallas Mavericks vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers defense will make this series a rather competitive one. But I simply do not seen the offense from Portland to keep up with what should a really explosive Mavs attack.
Dallas in six

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Denver Nuggets
While I think this is a fun Denver club and an enjoyable one to watch, I don't see their go-to scorer down the stretch since they do have a variety of weapons. In the playoffs you need that go-to guy and who really is it for Denver? Durant will make it rain.
Oklahoma City in four

(3) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (6) Los Angeles Lakers
Let's not kid ourselves, the Grizzlies are probably better than the Lakers and have a more balanced starting lineup. But I don't see Kobe Bryant letting this team just fall out in the opening round. I think they fight hard and pull off the upset.
Los Angeles in seven

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) San Antonio Spurs
This Clippers will be fun to watch but they are also inexperienced when it comes to playoff team, when the Lob City theatrics will not be centerstage. I think the experience as well as the defense of the Spurs will lead them past LAC.
Spurs in five

Conference Semifinals
(1) Dallas Mavericks vs. (5) San Antonio Spurs
Remember when the Spurs upset the Mavericks in the opening round in the 2010 playoffs? I'm feeling a similar result right here, mostly due to the fact that Dallas' defense has really taken a step back, leaving them susceptible here.
Spurs in six

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Los Angeles Lakers
I think the Lakers again will come up short in the conference semifinals. They don't have the players that match up well to Durant to be able to shut him down. I like the Thunder easily.
Thunder in five

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) San Antonio Spurs
If this was the Thunder from a year ago, I'd go with San Antonio because this team would be inexperienced this deep in the playoffs. But coming off their loss to the Mavericks in the conference finals last season, they've been able to taste The Finals in their mouths. Well prepare for a hearty swig.
Thunder in six

I really feel like this is the Heat's time. They came close last season only to fall apart in The Finals (why I'm capitalizing the The is beyond me). James will finally get his title as he outduels a game Durant.
Heat in six

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