It feels good to be back.
After months of savoring (or loathing) the fact that LeBron James is a world champion, after months of going on Twitter and seeing another Dwight Howard mood change and after months of wondering how the Lakers — of all teams — landed the aforementioned superstar center along with Steve Nash, the NBA season is finally ready to begin Tuesday night.
The Warriors off-season has been well chronicled: a surprisingly successful flurry of moves that has provided the team with a deep bench, solid draft class and a star center the franchise has desired for years. But will that equal on the court success? We know the Warriors win the NBA Public Relations championship, but for once this team might be worth the hype. Of course, if healthy.
But, the Warriors aren’t the only team in the NBA. With the NBA season beginning in just hours, it’s time to discuss which players will shine, who will win each division and who will ultimately will be holding the hardware come next June. Let’s get to it.
Most Valuable Player
Lebron James — Miami Heat
There’s only one logical answer to this question. Whether you love him or hate him, you can’t deny that LeBron elevated his game this past season to astronomical levels. He was already the most gifted player in the league, but this past season he complimented his talent with the hardware. Overcoming media scrutiny unlike any other athlete in the history of sports, the King won the MVP Award, NBA Finals MVP, NBA championship and Olympic gold, all in one year. His flawless performance in the 2012 playoffs trumped the disappointment of his Finals performance against the Mavericks in 2010, and LeBron is now seen as someone you can depend on when it counts.
LeBron is the closest thing we have to the perfect NBA player: strong, fast, versatile, can defend both the inside and outside, can play any position on the court, tremendous court vision, high basketball IQ, passionate leader and now a well-rounded offensive skill set. At only 27 years of age, LeBron is entering the prime of his career. A scary thought for fans and NBA teams alike.
While the King will have some competition from the likes of Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard for this year’s MVP, it’s his award to lose. Barring a catastrophic event, LeBron will win be the most valuable player this season. His legacy is just beginning, and the hardware will keep on coming.
Other candidates: Kevin Durant, Chis Paul, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard
Rookie of the Year
Anthony Davis — New Orleans Hornets
Similar to the MVP discussion, this is a one man show. Anthony Davis hasn’t played a game in the NBA is is drawing comparison to Tim Duncan, Tyson Chandler and Patrick Ewing. Comparing rookies to NBA stars is a common occurrence –especially near draft time — but Davis possesses the rare ability to actually meet these lauded comparisons.
A freakish athlete, Davis has the size (6’10’) and length (7’3’ wingspan) to become a dominant low post force. It doesn’t hurt that he can shoot, run the floor and carry scary athleticism all at the same time. He will immediately challenge Serge Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan for the league leader in blocks, and even on a hindered Hornets team can’t hold back his tremendous talent.
Other candidates: Damion Lilliard, Harrison Barnes, Thomas Robinson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Most Improved Player
Klay Thompson — Golden State Warriors
Many pundits are already handing this award over to Clippers C DeAndre Jordan due to his supposed offensive improvements, but I’m not buying it. Jordan is a nice player — not worth the four years, $43 million — but we know what he is: a shot blocker who can dunk with anyone in the league. I’m not buying the idea of a player who made his first basket outside the paint last season to suddenly come in and make a huge impact down low.
Now that I’ve completely dismantled any hope Clippers fans have of an improved DeAndre Jordan, onto the winner of the award: Klay Thompson. It was clear at the end of last season, summer league and even pre-season that the second year player out of Washington State is for real. As I watched him school rookies and struggling veterans in summer league, it was evident that this guy was better than anybody else on the floor.
Jerry West lauded at Thompson both before and after his selection, and it seems that it was deserving. Now, with his starting point guard “healthy”, a promising rookie by his side, the return of David Lee and most importantly, a true center on board, his game can really flourish. The only knock you can have on Thompson since his impressive run last season was as the only real threat on the Warriors, his numbers would naturally be up. That during the “Tank Express” the Warriors had no one else to score, therein imploding Thompson’s numbers.
While last season’s numbered may be unfairly criticized, it won’t matter. Thompson will thrive and prove himself to be a top 10 SG in the league this season. Him playing alongside Stephen Curry should be fun to watch all year — or as long as it lasts — and with the talent surrounding Thompson, the looks will be there for him. Monta who?
Other candidates: Kawhi Leonard, Ty Lawson, Eric Bledsoe, DeMar Derozan
Coach of the Year
George Karl — Denver Nuggets
I love the Nuggets this year. Who would’ve thought that post-Melo the Nuggets would flourish, making smart deals and putting themselves in prime position to contend for the Western Conference crown so soon? The unloading of Nene for JaVale McGee might seem lopsided on paper, but Karl is the perfect coach for the oft-maligned center. Sure, he likes to run the wrong direction on the court and attempt dunks from the free throw line during games, but he’s young and possesses talent at a vital position.
It’s amazing to me that George Karl has never won this award. It’s seems whenever we talk about the best coaches in the league it revolves around Popovich, Rivers, Thibodeau, Collins and Karl. But, to be fair, the Nuggets haven’t necessarily been world beaters the past few seasons. The C.O.T.Y award often coincides with unheralded success, and while the Nuggets haven’t been bad, they haven’t jumped off the screen either.
Adding the defensive minded Iguodala to an emerging Nuggets roster featuring Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari and the aforementioned McGee give the Nuggets a formidable squad destined to make waves come this postseason. Karl will finally earn the hardware he deserves, and don’t be surprised if they’re on the doorsteps of the Western Conference elite when all is said and done.
Other candidates: Frank Vogel, Erick Spoelstra, Doug Collins, Tom Thibodeau
Sixth Man of the Year
Jason Terry — Boston Celtics
This was a tough one. Kevin Martin, Ray Allen, Jamal Crawford and Brandon Rush all are viable candidates for the award, but Terry has been put in the best position to shine with Boston. Martin will take some time to get used to his newfound Thunder, Crawford has already won the award in 2010, Allen is oft-injured and Rush suffers from the Warriors unsure future and East Coast bias.
Terry will have an eerily similar role to that of his time with the Mavericks: make shots, defend and provide the needed energy to a seasoned roster in need of a jolt. He’s not asked to be a star, nor is he paid like one, but Terry chose Boston and Boston chose Terry over Ray Allen. Team chemistry aside, Terry will flourish in Beantown. Add in the fact that they will be contending for the Eastern Conference title and be on national TV often and you have your sixth man of the year.
Other candidates: Kevin Martin, Ray Allen, Jamal Crawford, Brandon Rush
The awards not mentioned above are obvious: Mitch Kupchack already has the Executive of the Year award wrapped up, Dwight Howard will once again be crowned Defensive Player of the Year and Kevin Durant will win a surprisingly close scoring title race with Carmelo Anthony.
Onto the standings.
- Boston Celtics — (50-32)
- Brooklyn Nets — (47-35)
- Philadelphia 76ers — (46-36)
- New York Knicks — (44-38)
- Toronto Raptors — (33-49)
- Indiana Pacers — (50-32)
- Chicago Bulls — (45-37)
- Cleveland Cavaliers — (35-47)
- Milwaukee Bucks — (32-50)
- Detroit Pistons — (29-53)
- Miami Heat — (62-20)
- Atlanta Hawks — (43-39)
- Washington Wizards — (31-51)
- Charlotte Bobcats — (22-60)
- Orlando Magic — (21-61)
- Oklahoma City Thunder — (60-22)
- Denver Nuggets — (56-26)
- Utah Jazz — (43-39)
- Minnesota Timberwolves — (41-41)
- Portland Trailblazers — (27-55)
- Los Angeles Lakers — (58-24)
- Los Angeles Clippers — (51-31)
- Golden State Warriors — (46-36)
- Phoenix Suns — (33-49)
- Sacramento Kings — (31-51)
- San Antonio Spurs — (52-30)
- Memphis Grizzlies — (48-34)
- Dallas Mavericks — (46-36)
- Houston Rockets — (31-51)
- New Orleans Hornets — (30-52)
Eastern Conference Finals
Heat over Celtics in 6
When Derrick Rose went down the prospects of a Chicago Bulls-Miami Heat yearly rivalry went down with it. Sure, Rose can come back next season and be every bit the explosive player he once was, but as for now, it’s the Heat, Celtics, Pacers and everyone else competing for the Eastern Conference crown — and even that’s a stretch.
Miami is easily the best team in the conference, and the Celtics are almost contenders by default. While I do like the Pacers, they have no clear leader and are still too young to compete with the Big Three or the Celtics. Barring a major injury the Heat will be right back in the Finals with an Eastern Conference crown over the AARP sponsored Boston Celtics.
Celtics-Heat games are always feisty, and the addition of Jason Terry, Avery Bradley and Jeff Green will only make it more competitive. The Celtics took the Heat to seven games last season, but four of those games were without Chris Bosh. Once Bosh was back on the floor, the Heat excelled and LeBron flourished. While the Celtics will put up a similar fight to last year, the James-led Heat won’t allow a series loss to Boston.
Western Conference Finals
Thunder over Lakers in 7
Can we just fast forward to these Western Conference Finals already? My love for the Nuggets has been clear, but it’s hard to imagine a Conference Finals without these two teams meeting. Both these teams have had a busy off-season to say the least. The Lakers acquire the crafty Nash and whiny Howard in two deals that are still shocking. In a shocking move the Thunder quickly traded James Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and picks.
While America breathed a huge sigh of relief when Howard was finally dealt, they quickly ran out of breathe when they learned he was going to the Lakers. In any other scenario the acquisition of a two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star would be a team’s biggest acquisition, but not for the Lakers who acquired Nash in a sign and trade with the Suns. The Thunder traded Harden after he declined their four year, $53 million offer. Give GM Sam Presti credit for moving swiftly on a deal, even if it initially seems like a lopsided deal.
Similar to when the Miami Heat acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh, the Lakers will have regular season success followed by a playoff disappointment. The Lakers have the best starting five in the league, but can they stay healthy? Can all these moving parts mesh together? More importantly, can they take down the youth of the Oklahoma City Thunder?
One thing the Harden trade gave to the Thunder was added depth, a quality to a championship team the Lakers still are lacking. Kevin Martin can score with the likes of Harden, even without possessing Harden’s drive and cut skills. Lamb, still a rookie, has great promise and with his 6’11’ wingspan, can become a defensive asset coming off the bench.
The Thunder are extremely hungry, younger than the Lakers, have the deeper bench and the better coach. Nash vs. Westbrook, Durant vs. Kobe, Perkins vs. Howard, Ibaka vs. Howard; so many storylines to what will be an epic conference finals. The Thunder ultimately pull it out in a great one.
Heat over Thunder in 7
We meet again…
Last year was the year of LeBron, overcoming his past demons on his way towards an historic season. The Thunder an into the freight train that was the King, and no one was going to stop him. This year with a championship under their belt, a healthier Wade, more confident Bosh and the addition of Ray Allen, the Heat are better than their championship team.
The Thunder gained the needed playoff experience to take the next step, i.e. win an NBA championship. The Harden trade was shocking for everyone, but the additions of Martin and Lamb can more than overtake the loss of Harden, especially long term. Westbrook is still an elite PG, Ibaka is still a defensive monster and Durant is still a killer on the court.
So what gives?
The cliché “to be the champ you have to beat the champ” may be tiresome, but it holds true. The Thunder will be better this year than last, but that still won’t be enough to overtake the Heat. With LeBron and Co. ready to defend their title, I don’t see their reign as the NBA elite coming to a close this soon. The Heat still lack size and their bench is questionable to say the least, but the Big Three are still the Big Three, and until the Thunder beat the Heat in a seven game series, the Heat will still be the better team.
LeBron finally added a heralded ring to his already Hall of Fame resumé last season, and the success will only continue this season. Expect more hardware coming through South Beach come June.