1. Miami Heat (58-61 Wins) The Defending Champions return the core of a team that won 27 in a row and 66 overall. On this alone, with tested Championship experience make them a formidable contender for a three-peat. Pat Riley said: “This could be our best team yet.” and I believe it will be, but some luck will be needed. Luck in the form of health and a re-emergence of James Jones as a Sniper. If Greg Oden can eventually grow into a 10 Minute per night player to go along with Chris “Birdman” Andersen, that will be all the Heat would need to erase the size advantages of the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. Once the Miami Heat close the gap in Rebound Rate on the rest of the East, the Conference becomes a cake walk. Yes, you read that right. This is afterall, the last Hurrah, as the supporting cast for the Big Three will have to be rebuilt at season’s end.
2. Chicago Bulls (57-60 Wins) The most consistent and well coached team in the East returns former MVP Derrick Rose after his One Season Hiatus/Sabbatical/Vacation. Rose along with Front Court Men Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, and Wing players Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng make up in my opinion the very best Starting 5 matchup to go against the Miami Heat. As has been custom, I expect the meetings from the top two teams in the East to be contentious and drama filled. My Main Hesitation in giving the Bulls a serious chance at dethroning the Champs is their continued negligence in adding Bench Scoring. Mike Dunleavy is not it. In fact, he might be the worst support wing they have had in Chicago in three years.
3. Indiana Pacers (53-56 Wins) Consistent “Heavy’s” of the Eastern Conference and Media Darlings. At their current “Pace” of spinning their wheels with gradual playoff improvement, they have still not made enough of an upgrade to the supporting cast of a nucleus of West, Hibbert and George. Danny Granger returns and in theory that might be enough, but it isn’t. Pacer Lineups that include Granger lose efficiency and quite frankly, takes the ball out of the hands of their more efficient players. The Pacers remain a legitimate Point Guard away from Serious Championship contention. As is, they have a ceiling, and you all witnessed it.
4. Brooklyn Nets (52-55 Wins) A lot of hype, but some reality follows this team. They will defend. They do have a dynamic point guard in Deron Williams and a solid front court with Garnett and Lopez. On Paper, they are built for a very high playoff seed and Championship success. Their eventual downfall will come in the age of the newly acquired support staff for Williams and Lopez. Pierce, Garnett and Terry are very near the end of their careers, and have shown a tendency to fade in an NBA season as of late. But they have enough. Enough for a gaudy win total. Enough for a deep playoff run. Not enough for a Championship.
5. New York Knicks (49-52 Wins) One of the more dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference due to their volume three point shooting. A newly found dedication to defense last year served them well, and when you have a Superstar like Carmelo Anthony, any close games are in dispute. An unsettled front court, and questionable depth will keep the Knicks from improvement, but not from being a dangerous playoff foe. No team in the Eastern Conference is more capable of a range of results consisting of a 5 game first round exit or 7 game Eastern Conference Final. Very unpredictable team, so I will side with an improving Eastern Conference and a static New York Knicks squad to keep them right where they were.
6. Detroit Pistons (43-46 Wins) Some will point to the sexy acquisitions of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. I prefer to point to an imposing front line of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. The Pistons have two potential All-Stars on that front line, and just enough everywhere else to return to the playoffs after a stint in NBA Purgatory. Rebound Rate and Newly minted Head Coach Maurice Cheeks (love this signing) will drive this team to competency.
7. Toronto Raptors (42-45 Wins) Much of what will land the Raptors in the Playoffs, was already there in the first place, but General Manager Masai Ujiri completed the roster by jettisoning Center Andrea Bargnani and adding some shooting. With Rudy Gay more comfortable, and Demar DeRozan, who is an improving player, they will score on the wings. Jonas Valanciunas is an improving big man and the very underrated Amir Johnson will have good seasons this year, while Kyle Lowry runs the show. This will be an interesting team.
8. Washington Wizards (40-43 Wins) Playoffs or bust? Well, that’s the motto for the Wiz this year. John Wall, and a bevy of three point shooters should be enough to scrape out enough wins to draw them close. Otto Porter is a Rookie of the Year candidate and a front line that includes Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat make up an above average front line.
Best of the Rest: Cleveland Cavaliers
1. Los Angeles Clippers (59-62 Wins) By merely adding Doc Rivers as Head Coach, the Clippers improve drastically over the Vinny Del Negro led bunch. The Additions of Jared Dudley and JJ Redick add much needed shooting, and Rivers will do wonders for DeAndre Jordan. Right there you have a 5 win improvement. Finals contention comes with a maturation of Blake Griffin’s game that has shown signs of evolving. Chris Paul will be a wonder and an assist machine in Doc River’s motion offense. Rarely is there a better fit for a coach than this current roster. I foresee a drastic improvement to the top of the western conference.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (57-60 Wins) Western Conference finalists for the first time in 12/13′ but the embarrassment that followed tends to linger. A Move away from the “Gut” of Lionel Hollins and more metric based lineup construction will serve them well. Gone will be the odd combinations and the acrimony that Hollins had with the front office and the addition of Mike Miller gives the Grizz and added boost from downtown. This team has been emerging for a while, and now they are here. It could very well be their time.
3. San Antonio Spurs (55-58 Wins) How many times are we gonna bury the Spurs? Well, till they stop finding diamonds such as Kawhi Leonard and making savvy additions such as Marco Belinelli, we won’t talk about burying them anymore. What might keep them from the Finals is that fast approaching wall for Tim Duncan and the wall that Manu Ginobili already smacked into. Tony Parker is a MVP candidate and I expect Kawhi Leonard to be an All-star. A return trip to the finals would not surprise me, but I will side with the youth and excitement of the Clips.
4. Houston Rockets (54-57 Wins) The Western Conference’s BK Nets…the Sexy pick, but there are holes. First the good. Harden, Parsons, and Howard will make as good a triumvirate as there is in the league. Now the Bad. Jeremy Lin. Not a fan, and he will have the ball in hands plenty, and initiate almost 50% of their offense. You get to their bench and it might be as poor a bench as there is in the NBA save for Omer Asik. I’m not convinced, and I don’t see how Dwight Howard fits with this team in the last 5 minutes of games when Kevin McHale usually turns the ball over to Harden on Isolations. Does that sound familiar?
5. Oklahoma City Thunder (52-55 Wins) How the mighty have fallen. Well, not really, it’s just that Sam Presti has still not augmented the bench, and Russell Westbrook will begin the season recovering from a severe knee injury. This team is going backwards, and the tell tale sign for that is that Derek Fisher STILL has a major role on this team. Counting on Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb? Pass.
6. Golden State Warriors (50-53 Wins) Well, last year was cute. This year, they will be hunted. I like the addition of Andre Igoudala, but I don’t like the dollar amount that he will count against the cap. I just feel that they could have spent that money more wisely, but nonetheless, a back court of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry with Iggy and Harrison Barnes on the Wings, David Lee at Center, is going to be all kinds of fun. Draymond Green was a favorite of mine coming out of Michigan State, and after a horrific regular season, he began to pay some dividends in the playoffs. The Warriors will need to find a bit more than Green to come off the bench to get past the second round. The Health of Andrew Bogut will be key.
7. Denver Nuggets (48-51 Wins) Speed, athleticism and the NBA’s finest collection of loose cannons will make for some exciting basketball, just not winning basketball. Brian Shaw has his hands full with a team that under achieved last year and is now weakened from then. I don’t see the room for improvement, save for a nice collection of Power Forwards. Ty Lawson must take the next step from the second tier of point guards for Denver to go anywhere.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves (43-46 Wins) Is this the year? It better be. For Kevin Love’s sake. Last year, it was injuries, the years before it was terrible talent. Now they got everything they have claimed they needed. A Scoring Guard in Kevin Martin should help, and the maturation of Ricky Rubio should complete an improved back court. The front line of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic is as good as there is int eh Western Conference. Really, that should be enough for 44 wins and the 8th seed.
Best of the Rest: New Orleans Pelicans
Most Valuable Player: Chris Paul (LAC)
Rookie of the Year: Ben McLemore (SAC)
Defensive Player of the Year: Lebron James (MIA)
6th Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford (LAC)
Most Improved Player: Andre Drummond (DET)
Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers (LAC)
Executive of the Year: Joe Dumars (DET)
NBA Finals: Miami Heat Def. Los Angeles Clippers 4-2