Wednesday October 22nd, 2008

Sports Illustrated's annual NBA predictions can be found in this week's magazine, and you can blame me for all of them. Please allow me to explain my reasoning for certain picks:

The Spurs will beat the Celtics in the NBA Finals.

The defending champs are still the best team in the Eastern Conference, and I'm not buying the talk that they'll lack hunger to win a second title. On the contrary, the understanding and chemistry among their three stars should be stronger than last year, as should the confidence of point guard Rajon Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins (his damaged shoulder willing).

The reason I'm not picking the Celtics to repeat is that they are neither so big nor nasty this season. An intimidating component of last year's team was the size and hostility of their defense in the paint. During the playoffs, anyone driving into the lane had to deal with two or more of the following: Kevin Garnett, Perkins, P.J. Brown and James Posey. The latter two are no longer with Boston.

I'm guessing the Celtics will eventually acquire a veteran or two to replace Brown or Posey. But will the newcomer(s) be as effective? As it stands now, this is a smaller and younger team around the stars. The Horry-esque three-point shotmaking of Posey has not been replaced ... yet.

Can the Celtics win another title? Absolutely. But they'll be playing to a different style. Will they glide through the season as easily as they did a year ago? Maybe. How many teams are able to avoid bad luck with injuries or other crises for two years in a row?

The Spurs have big questions of their own, starting with Manu Ginobili's recovery from summer ankle surgery. But we all know the Spurs' patient approach to the regular season, which means they'll be exceedingly safe in working Ginobili back into the lineup. Once he's there, the Spurs become the only team with a championship threesome to equal the Celtics'. (I still think a healthy Ginobili could have led the Spurs into the Finals last year. He is not so much their third option as their third gear, raising their level of play while defining the key stretches of big games.) While everyone (including me) harps on about the Spurs' age, their three are younger than Boston's, and they should also be able to match the urgency of the Celtics' mission. Both teams will be in a hurry to win another title before their biological clocks expire.

It won't carry the historical drama of a Lakers-Celtics rematch, but if both teams are healthy, then this will be a dream Finals for basketball fans featuring three Hall of Fame players per team. I'm envisioning a Game 7 win for San Antonio, which is to say that these teams are too close to call. It's a coin flip to be influenced by injuries and other events over the next seven months that are beyond prediction. But right now, with (perhaps too much) faith in Ginobili's rehab, I view the Spurs as the team to beat this year.

The Lakers will lose in the conference finals.

They were a surprise finalist last season despite their youth and center Andrew Bynum's absence, and only the latter issue has been addressed. Bynum will guard the rim, strengthen their paint defense and enable Pau Gasol to play a less physical style as a shooting power forward.

But the Lakers remain a young team off the bench, even if Lamar Odom becomes a Sixth Man Award candidate. I kept waiting for them to acquire hard-edged men like Posey and Brown this summer because champions (including the Lakers teams of Shaq and Magic) rely on those kinds of players to lead the second unit. Of course, I may be wrong on this. Imagine if the Lakers stick with this roster and prove able to run all opponents off the floor with energy and depth. Then the Lakers will be in position to keep their formula going for a number of years, in which case they'll be glad they didn't trade off their youth for a couple of old men.

The other issue for the Lakers is that they still don't have a No. 2 star to pair with Kobe Bryant. Apart from the 1993-94 Rockets (who were led solely by Hakeem Olajuwon) and the 2003-04 Pistons (who won without a main star), every NBA champion since the Magic/Bird era has had two or three dominant leaders who were each capable of making plays on his own. The Lakers still haven't developed that second player alongside Bryant; the Spurs and Celtics have three each.

The Hornets will lose in the second round again.

Apply the argument of the previous paragraph to New Orleans as well. History says that Chris Paul as its lone dominant star won't be enough in the playoffs.

The Rockets are the wild card.

This is one team that could win it. (I predicted that they would finish with the West's second-best record behind the Lakers.) Their stars are unreliable -- Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady in terms of health, and Ron Artest for other well-known causes -- but if they could pull together for one full year, then this team will have the star power (all at their peak ages), defense, depth and coaching to compete with anyone.

The Jazz aren't quite there.

They lack intimidating size up front around Carlos Boozer, and that will keep them behind the Spurs, Lakers and possibly the Rockets in the playoffs.

A number of teams, starting with the Mavericks, are hard to pin down.

Dallas signed a coach in Rick Carlisle who has a record of squeezing regular-season wins out of his teams. They could bounce back around Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and a resurgent Josh Howard while creating hope for a deep playoff run.

The Suns have a lot of talent, but at their advanced ages can they be weaned off Mike D'Antoni's successful system to play a new style? If so, it would be an inspirational story. But I don't know anyone in the league who believes it will lead to a championship.

The Cavaliers are my No. 2 team in the East because they should start the year without the issues that hurt them early last season, when Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic were holding out. The team that almost knocked off Boston in the second round has progressed by adding Mo Williams, a deep shooter at point guard. Another improvement by trade may be forthcoming too.

The Pistons should be right back in the mix. Coach Michael Curry will provide energy and focus, and they'll be one of the top three in the East with hope of reaching the Finals.

Even with Elton Brand, Philadelphia remains too young and lacking in shooters to overcome the East's top three this season. Neither the 76ers nor the improved Raptors will be able to compete with Boston, Cleveland or Detroit defensively.

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