While interviewing a half-dozen NBA scouts for their breakdowns of all 30 teams, I also asked for their overall predictions for the season. These are men of strong opinions based on the tens of thousands of miles and hours they invest in studying the league each season.
Here is the final word from them on how the Western Conference will assemble itself over the six months ahead (average rating of the six voters in parentheses):
1. Los Angeles Lakers (1.0)2. Utah Jazz (3.2)3. New Orleans Hornets (3.5)4. Houston Rockets (3.7)5. San Antonio Spurs (4.2)6. Dallas Mavericks (6.0)7. Phoenix Suns (7.2)8. Portland Trail Blazers (7.3)9. Denver Nuggets (9.0)10. Golden State Warriors (10.7)11. Los Angeles Clippers (11.2)12. Sacramento Kings (11.8)13. Minnesota Timberwolves (12.5)14. Oklahoma City Thunder (13.8)15. Memphis Grizzlies (15.0)
Note the large separation for the Lakers from the rest of the conference, with the next four teams bunched tightly. The same eight playoff teams appear on every ballot, suggesting a big drop-off to the bottom half of the conference. The scouts vote unanimously that the Lakers will finish No. 1, the Nuggets No. 9 and the Grizzlies dead last.
Here is their poll for the East:
1. Boston Celtics (1.0)2. Detroit Pistons (2.5)3. Cleveland Cavaliers (3.5)4. Orlando Magic (4.0)5. Philadelphia 76ers (4.5)6. Toronto Raptors (5.7)7. Washington Wizards (7.3)8. Atlanta Hawks (8.5)9. Charlotte Bobcats (10.8)T10. Milwaukee Bucks (11.0)T10. Miami Heat (11.0)T12. Chicago Bulls (11.3)T12. Indiana Pacers (11.3)14. New York Knicks (13.7)15. New Jersey Nets (13.8)
They see a clear hierarchy developing along the top of the conference, with the Pistons maintaining their status as No. 2.
A couple of additional teams receive postseason votes: Two scouts forecast the Bobcats to finish No. 8, and one scout picks Milwaukee for the final playoff spot.
Notice, too, how little there is to choose between teams 9-13. Many of those teams are going to be competing for the playoffs late in the season, and I think we're going to find the East to be more competitive top to bottom than the West this year.
Here are all six of their predictions for the Eastern finals:
Celtics beat CavaliersCeltics beat MagicCeltics beat 76ersCeltics beat WizardsPistons beat CelticsCavaliers beat Celtics
The Celtics are the unanimous choice to reach the conference finals, and all but two scouts like them to return to the NBA Finals.
Like the rest of us, the scouts are divided on the main challenger to Boston. Two of them believe the improving Cavaliers will emerge. "LeBron James is going to be hard to hold back,'' said the scout who picks Cleveland to defeat Boston in the conference finals. "And James Posey will turn out to have had an even bigger factor in Boston's playoff games than what we thought.'' He believes the Celtics won't be able to replace the contributions of Posey, who departed as a free agent to New Orleans.
I'm not surprised that someone picks the Pistons to beat Boston; I made the same prediction last year. But other picks point to the unpredictability of the East this year. One scout likes the Wizards to win two playoff rounds because of their trio of All-Stars (though he chose them before center Brendan Haywood's potentially season-ending wrist surgery). "If [Gilbert] Arenas comes back, I like their team," the scout said. "And [coach] Eddie Jordan does a good job.'' Another thinks the Magic can be the No. 2 team: "They have a chance to be really good. They haven't added a whole lot, but they have the big kid [Dwight Howard] and good coaching.''
No surprise that Kobe Bryant's Lakers dominate predictions for the Western finals:
Lakers beat HornetsLakers beat RocketsLakers beat SpursRockets beat LakersSpurs beat LakersMavericks beat Jazz
Five scouts envision the Lakers reaching the conference finals, and two votes each go to the Rockets and Spurs.
"It's one hell of a risk to pick Houston,'' admitted the scout who picks them to reach the NBA Finals. "Because what has [Tracy] McGrady ever won? As dangerous as [Ron] Artest can be [in the locker room], they may just be gritty enough to do it. One guy who seems able to handle Artest is Rick [Adelman, the coach]. He doesn't get caught up in those kinds of issues as much as some other people.''
The other surprise finalist here is the Mavericks, who hired coach Rick Carlisle to bring order to their diversity of talent. "Dallas could easily win the West,'' said the scout who picks them. "They're deep and really talented; if they have an injury, they can plug other people in. Rick has always been successful, and this is much more talent than he's had except for that one year in Indiana when they reached the conference finals.'' And that Pacers team was far younger than the group Carlisle inherits in Dallas.
Three of the six pick the Lakers:
Lakers beat CelticsLakers beat CelticsLakers beat CavaliersCeltics beat RocketsSpurs beat CelticsPistons beat Mavericks
"I say the Lakers beat the Celtics this time,'' one scout said. "But then I thought the Lakers were better last year. Add [Andrew] Bynum, give [Pau] Gasol another year in the system, and another year of maturity for Kobe. When I look at the Celtics, I can't say they've gotten better.''
"The Lakers are too long, too big, too much,'' said the scout who likes them to beat Cleveland in the Finals. "When you have Kobe and LeBron matched up, I think Kobe can equalize if not exceed him. The Lakers are bigger and better in the other spots.''
The bottom line? According to these half-dozen experts, four teams can win the championship: Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Pistons.