1. Can LeBron make 'the Leap'
That sounds like a pretty ridiculous thing to say about a guy who is already the best or second best player in the league and who averaged a 30-8-7 last year. I just get the feeling that LeBron is going to have a historic season this year. I don't think he's going to go Oscar Robertson on us, but then again I wouldn't put it past him. For one, his assists can probably see a bump with the addition of Mo Williams, who FINALLY gives the Cavs a guard who can knock down the open jumpers. He is a perfect addition to the Cavs, and a monster upgrade over Larry Hughes as far as what the Cavs need in a point/2 guard.
Also, I think LeBron really matured playing in the Olympics this summer. He got to play along side the best players in the world, and I think it did his game and his mind a lot of good to be the best player on the floor at times in China. Finally, and it's hard to remember because he it seems like he has been around forever, but the guy is only 23 years old! LeBron is only 23 years old. These next 4 years should be the absolute prime of his career. With the East being a little overrated (more on that later), I could definitely see LeBron carrying the Cavs to the Finals while putting up massive stats. I'm talking 30-9-9.
2. Do the Celtics have the motivation?
The Celtics really didn't lose much in the offseason - James Posey and his man hugs were big in the playoffs, but Tony Allen and Leon Powe should be able fill that void. But you have to believe that the sense of urgency that KG and Ray Allen had all of last year has to be a bit diminished. Let's be honest - Ray Allen is old - and showed serious signs of wearing down. KG was on such a mission last year that I think the Celtics were afraid to take a random Monday night in Atlanta off for fear of upsetting him. I just don't know how they can repeat last year. We'll see. There is definitely no way they are getting to 66 wins again.
I really wasn't a believer in the Lakers last year, but the Zenmaster and the Mamba carried them all the way to the Finals. Now, they have promising big man Andrew Bynum back and a full year of Pau Gasol to make their mark out West. I think Kobe has a monster year. I don't care about the pinkie, I don't care about the mileage he put on last year in Beijing and I don't care if he is now 30 years old. But I will make a prediction that the Lakers do not make it to the Finals. A lot of things have to go right for them. Farmar has to make the leap, Bynum has to actually perform as advertised, and Odom has to buy into the 6th man role (in a contract year). I think the Lakers will be the 1 seed but get upset in the playoffs.
4. Dwyane Wade is back!
He's had his share of injuries the past two years, so you are forgiven for forgetting how dominant D Wade was in 2005 - 2006. He went 27-7-6 during the regular season, then tore through the playoffs including a close out Game 6 line of 36-10-5. I never did find out if the Heat awarded Bennett Salvatore a championship ring for his contribution in the playoffs. At least put his whistle in the Heat Hall of Fame or something. Anyway, Wade looked incredible in the Olympics, he has the Matrix and Beasley to run with him, and he's got Chris Quinn feeding him the rock! I smell the playoffs this year for the Heat. Which leads me to...
5. The Surprise Teams of 2008-09
Last year the Atlanta Hawks came out of nowhere to make the playoffs (with an...ahem...37-45 record). Meanwhile, out West, the Blazers were seemingly a year ahead of schedule sans Oden, and made a run at the playofs while posting a 41-41 record. This year, I've got my eye on two teams who didn't make the playoffs last year. The aforementioned Miami Heat who went 15-67 last year. And, out West, watch out for the Minnesota T-Wolves. I'm not predicting the playoffs by any stretch, but I like what they're doing up there. Al Jefferson is a legitimate stud who would be a household name if not playing in Minnesota. Mike Miller is a great addition, Kevin Love will be a solid pro, and they have so many good college swingmen (Rashad McCants, Rodney Carney, Corey Brewer) that I feel like one of them have to pan out.
My deep sleeper for this season. The New York Knicks. Don't laugh. I think if anyone can get dysfunctional team turned around, it's Mike D'Antoni. News that notable porker Eddy Curry did not make the Knicks rotation can only be taken as a good thing for Knicks fans.
Of course, Greg Oden makes his long awaited NBA debut, but I have a hard time including him in the 'young guns' category since he looks like he's about 45. Plus, everyone is already familiar with Mr. Mango Salsa from his great work in the Geico commercials. But, there are plenty of other rookies to get excited about. Derrick Rose should get plenty of PT with Hughes out for 6 weeks. Early reports are that Rose has been great and will probably be hard to keep off the court. In addition, college hoops fans will definitely be interested in seeing...
-Can OJ Mayo live up to the hype (Yes)
-Does Kevin Love's below the rim game translate (Probably)
-Was Russell Westbrook worth the 4th pick in the draft (No)
Eric Gordon on the Clips, Marreese Speights on the Sixers and Chris Douglas Roberts are 3 of the rookies I'll keep my eye on this year.
7. The last stand for the West vets?
This one applies to three superstars out West who may have one last run in them - or maybe not. Tim Duncan, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are different ages, but their teams are built to win now and the window is closing very quickly. The Spurs are going for it with their familiar core of Duncan, Parker, Manu and Mike Finley - all of whom have a lot of mileage with the exception of Tony. Who have the Spurs been drafting the last 5 years? They never seem to get any younger.
The Suns meanwhile have a 34 year old Nash, and a pair of 36 years olds in Shaq and Grant Hill. I have a feeling that the Suns as we currently know them - the 7 Seconds or Less Suns - are gone forever. D'Antoni is gone, Nash is slowing, Shaq doesn't fit and the Matrix is on South Beach. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Suns slip all the way out of the playoffs in the ultracompetitive West. Only Amare Stoudemire, who quietly is back to one of the 10 best players in the league, will keep them hanging around the playoff fringe.
Finally, we have Dirk Nowitzki. It's hard to believe, but Dirk is already 30 years old. Was it really just a couple of years ago when the Mavs seemed to be on the rise and made it all the way to the Finals. I have a feeling that the Jason Kidd - Devin Harris trade will prove disastrous. Kidd was merely a figurehead in Athens and was downright awful the last month of the season with the Mavs. He simply doesn't have the speed to keep up with the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Tony Parker out west. When you factor in that the main players around these two are 31 year old Jason Terry, 33 year old Erick Dampier, 33 year old Jerry Stackhouse and a legitimately crazy Josh Howard, I think it's fair to wonder if it will soon be rebuilding time in Big D.
I know it's tough to put players in perspective while they're still playing, but it's time to realize that both of these guys are something special. Chris Paul is already the best point guard in the league and Deron Williams isn't far behind. The praise being heaped on both of these guys is legit. Let's take a look at last years numbers just for comparison's sake:
CP3 - 21-4-11.6-2.71
Deron Williams - 19-3-10.5-1.1
Chris Paul is obviously the better player. I don't think I'm overstating it when I say that he has the chance to be one of the best to ever play the point. And it would appear he has the better team and one that is poised to take over when the San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix group falls off.
9. The East?
I think that the East was a little underrated going into the offseason, but now it has been talked about so much that it's become overrated. Does that make sense? Besides the Celts, who I already talked about are due for a dropoff, there is the aging Pistons and the Cavs who can legitimately be considered title contenders. The Raptors and Magic are nice teams who will definitely make the playoffs, but let's be serious - they're not title material. On the other hand, would anyone be surprised if any one of these teams made a run to the Finals: Lakers, Hornets, Spurs or Jazz with the Suns, Mavs and Rockets right behind them and a frisky Blazers team on the rise. There is simply A LOT better teams out West.
10. Philly and Charlotte
I couldn't write an NBA preview without talking about my team and my new adopted team. First the Bobcats. They're a total mess. I get the feeling that if they packed up in the middle of the night and moved to St. Louis, no one here would even care. Since they have come back to Charlotte, they have a terrible history of drafting. It's like the marketing department has been making the picks. Ray Felton and Sean May to try to appeal to the Carolina fans. Newsflash: NBA fans don't really care who is on their team (unless you assemble a JailBlazers type team), they just want a winning product. If you run out a team of local guys but the team sucks, nobody will show up. After the Carolina guys, the Bobcats took Adam Morrison who everyone knew was going to be a bust. But the guy had established a reputation in college, and again, the marketing department pulled the trigger. I'm guessing most Bobcat fans (if there are any) would prefer to see Brandon Roy, Ty Thomas or Rudy Gay in Charlotte over Morrison.
Then there is the curious decision to hire Larry Brown. I'm guessing this was an MJ decision, although I think there is probably a better chance of seeing Jordan at a local Charlotte golf course than at an actual Bobcats game. Larry Brown is not a good coach of young guys. He proved that with Allen Iverson, he proved it in Athens when he inexplicably refused to play Melo and Lebron. Why would you hire him to coach a young team with two young point guards (Felton and DJ Augustin - who was another terrible pick. Name a guard in recent history other than Chris Paul and AI who was that small and went on to be a good player. Not happening), a young and fat power forward in May, and an undersized Emeka Okafor at center. Larry Brown will be so pissed off by December that he'll convince MJ to trade for some 36 year old veteran who "plays the game the right way". Just a bad situation all around in Charlotte.
As for the Sixers...I'm a little nervous. EVERYBODY has identified them as the team ready to make the leap. I'm not so sure. First, Andre Miller had a rejuvenation last year at the age of 32. Is he really going to be able to repeat that performance again this year? Color me hopeful but skeptical. Second, everyone is just assuming that Elton Brand is going to be a star. But he's coming off basically a season of not playing. And, does he fit into how the Sixers play. Last year, the Sixers basically morphed into Phoenix East. They would get out and run every chance they got, especially when Lou Williams was running the show. Dalembert can get out and run and Andre Iguodala is at his best on the run. But Brand is more of a back to his basket - feed him the ball and everyone stand around while he makes his post move - type player. Are they going to have to change their offensive approach to accommodate him? The answer remains to be seen.
Also, the Sixers are a turrible shooting team. When Willie Green is your designated 'shooter', you know you have problems. They signed Donyell Marshall, but having watched Cleveland the past couple of years, I can tell you that isn't the answer. He's washed up. Ironically, how good would Kyle Korver look right now in a Sixers uniform. Of course, his cap space was crucial to getting Brand, but he is the exact type spot up shooter the Sixers need.
I didn't mean to take such a negative approach for the Sixers. I think they're making the playoffs, and if they can incorporate Brand without losing their running identity, I could see really good things happening. My man crush on Lou Williams and Thad Young is through the roof, and I think that Marreese Speights can develop into a quality PF if he lays off the Pat's and Geno's. The key is for Iguodala to take his game to the next level. If you look at his numbers from last year, they look great - 20-5.4-5 with 2 steals. But there were a lot of games where he tried to be too much of a jump shooter instead of attacking the rim. I worry that with Brand and Dalembert down low if will be forced to become more of a perimeter player. Nvertheless, I can honestly say I'm as excited about this Sixers season as I have been in a long time, definitely since the Allen Iverson days. The Sixers are relevant again, and that's really all you can ask for.
Other random thoughts that didn't make the cut:
-Rudy Gay will be a superstar this year
- Kevin Durant will challenge for a spot on the All-Star team
- I will always love Allen Iverson, but it doesn't look like it's going to end well in Denver. Just a weird vibe on that team this year now that they traded Camby. Are they rebuilding?
- The Lopez twins. Busts.
- ND Players in the League - Only three with Rob Kurz being the last cut in Golden State. Chris Quinn, Matt Carroll and Troy Murphy carry the torch for Irish basketball.
MVP - LeBron
Sixth Man - Leon Powe
Most Improved - Ty Thomas
Rookie: OJ Mayo
Defensive - Kobe Bryant
NBA Finals - Hornets over Cavs