Now that the six-month "preseason" is out of the way we can move on to the real games. Let's start with the five teams most likely to win the final game in June.
• Cleveland Cavaliers. Their critics used to dismiss the Cavs as a team of hype, but now they are substantially the favorites to beat in just about every area worth perusing. They have earned the best record at home and on the road, and they have the best player in the world, who at 25 is approaching his peak. They can draw from the unassailable experience of seven postseason series victories over the last four years, including the humbling losses (a 2007 Finals sweep by San Antonio, a conference finals loss last year to the lesser-seeded Magic) that define most champions. They're tied for third in field-goal defense (44.2 percent) while yielding a league-low 36.5 points in the paint, and they've allowed opponents to make half of their shots overall a scant 11 times this season. They are chintzy with second-half points and they dominate the boards. They are the third-best shooting team in the league at 48.5 percent and they rank second overall from the three-point line (38.1 percent), overcoming the advantage held by Orlando (currently 37.5 percent) from that distance 11 months ago.
LeBron James finished No. 2 in scoring with 29.7 points, and his 8.6 assists broke Larry Bird's record among forwards. They can deploy Shaquille O'Neal to cover Dwight Howard in the paint; they can outnumber Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum with Shaq, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas; and they can offset Orlando's perimeter length with Antawn Jamison, AnthonyParker, Jamario Moon and (don't forget) LeBron. They can play big with LeBron in the backcourt or small with LeBron at power forward.
In case of excessive fouls or injuries, they have J.J. Hickson and Leon Powe as their Nos. 5 and 6 big men, and point guard Mo Williams -- an All-Star last year -- is 42 of 78 from the field for 21.7 points over his last half-dozen games.
"The one thing I'm going to be curious to see is how it all fits together," said a rival team's personnel scout, raising his lone question about Cleveland going into the playoffs. "Sometimes your chemistry flow is so much easier when guys are out, because it limits your options. Now that they have Z and Shaq back, along with Jamison to fit in, it gets a little bit harder -- and they'll have to figure it all out in the playoffs."
Figure it out they will, thanks to LeBron. They've spent the year investing themselves in team-play at both ends of the floor, whether it was with Shaq and without him, or without Jamison and now with him. Nothing has knocked them off stride so far, and no team has been more devoted all season long to the goal of winning the championship.
• Los Angeles Lakers. After looking like the team to beat through the winter holidays, the defending champions went a frustrating 29-17 over the final three months. Their difficulties had something to do with an unbalanced schedule that put them on the road for 30 of those games, but a more worrisome influence was the mileage accrued by 31-year-old Kobe Bryant in his 14th NBA season. He had played 235 consecutive games before Feb. 6, when he missed nine of the final 31 while dealing with a sprained ankle, a swollen right knee and the broken right index finger that has bothered him for much of the year.
Pau Gasol missed 17 games but recovered from hamstring injuries to average 18.3 points with a team-leading 11.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, and the Lakers went 45-18 around him. But for the third straight year, they're approaching the playoffs not knowing whether they can rely on Gasol's fellow 7-footer, Andrew Bynum, who hasn't played since he suffered a strained Achilles March 19. Their bench -- apart from Lamar Odom -- has not been a reliable strength, and the wisdom of the Lakers' decision to replace Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest remains open to debate.
All of this goes to explain why the Lakers' rivals believe they are vulnerable. But don't discount all that rates in their favor. They are the NBA's No. 1 team in three-point defense and No. 1 in the West in field-goal defense overall. For three rounds they will be playing the majority of their games at home. And just because they've spent the second half of the season managing Bryant's health doesn't mean he won't enter the tournament as the best player in his conference. They may be stopped short of reaching the Finals, but no one should expect them to fail.
• Orlando Magic. The overhaul of the defending Eastern champions looked like it was backfiring over the first half of the season, culminating with losses in seven of their first 10 games to open the New Year. But look at what the Magic have stubbornly become: the second-winningest team overall, and the league-leader in field-goal defense.
Newcomer Vince Carter has averaged a career-worst 16.6 points and shot 42.8 percent, a six-year low. But while he was viewed as an impediment over the first half of the season, that complaint against Carter no longer appears valid: He clearly found his niche while accepting a diminished yet significant role during the Magic's extended 33-8 run over the second half of the season. Matt Barnes and Jason Williams earned crucial spots in the rotation, and Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis recovered from first-half difficulties to return to form.
Orlando attempted more threes than last year, while Dwight Howard averaged two fewer shots per game; but he is shooting a higher percentage at 61.1 percent and he is likely to win another defensive player of the year award. Put it all together and coach Stan Van Gundy has wrestled an apparently disparate roster back into title contention. They enter the playoffs on a 20-3 tear along with the confidence that they can reprise last year's upset of Cleveland. They surely look like the biggest obstacle the Cavs will face this spring.
• Dallas Mavericks. Does this franchise ever give up? Dallas is forever undergoing cosmetic surgery around Dirk Nowitzki, leaving Jason Kidd -- who arrived in February 2008 -- as the second longest-serving Maverick in the starting lineup.
The offseason reclamation of Shawn Marion has paid off as LeBron James (15-of-36), Kevin Durant (18-of-53) and Carmelo Anthony (5-of-29) have been held to 32.2 percent while Marion has been on the floor. Brendan Haywood gives them the length to match up with Bynum, and Caron Butler provides toughness and scoring. They enter the playoffs with a more physical edge than previous Nowitzki teams.
They are less volatile -- losing only five games this season after taking a 10-point lead -- yet these Mavs have maintained their old sense of fun by winning a league-leading five games when trailing by double-digits in the fourth quarter, and compiling a league-best 9-2 record in games of three points or less. And yet their reward for earning the No. 2 seed is the most difficult opening round faced by any contender. If Dallas isn't playing at a high level from the start against San Antonio, it could all end abruptly.
• San Antonio Spurs. Over the closing two months the Spurs went 19-9, mostly without Tony Parker. Yet their defense tightened, Manu Ginobili (see below) renewed his form and Richard Jefferson grew more comfortable. They have the league's most productive bench to go around Tim Duncan, who still has it in him to dominate any opponent's frontcourt. The Spurs are a No. 7 seed, yet they won 50 games and finished only five games behind Dallas. The Spurs are entirely capable of reaching the NBA Finals.
• Boston Celtics. They may be healthy -- Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce looked lively around the basket in their regular-season finale at Chicago -- but the former champs know that health alone isn't the solution to what ails them. The timing, the shared understanding and the faith in one another has diminished. They've lost their identity as a contender that attacks and defends the paint; instead they've become a perimeter team around Rajon Rondo and the three-point shooting of Pierce and Ray Allen.
The Celtics insist that Cleveland can be upset in the second round because they do, indeed, match up well with the Cavaliers. The gaping difference is that the Cavs have been focused all season on one team goal, while the Celtics have been diffuse. It is alarming to see an older team crumble so often under pressure. One thing they cannot afford is to look down their noses at their first-round opponent, because the Heat must be respected for making much of their talent than the Celtics have made of their own.
• Denver Nuggets. They have home-court advantage against a Utah team they've beaten three of four times this season. But the second round will force the Nuggets -- the worst road team in the Western playoffs -- to win at least one game in Los Angeles, and to do so with defensive leader Kenyon Martin weakened by a knee injury and coach George Karl possibly unavailable as he deals with cancer treatment.
To have any chance they'll need MVP candidate Carmelo Anthony to raise his play to a LeBron-ish level, to balance his scoring with play-making, help on the boards and even inspire his teammates defensively. It's asking a lot, but there is no other way to overcome the misfortune cast upon this team.
• Phoenix Suns. How did the frontcourt-thin Suns earn -- and earn it they did -- the No. 3 seed? The answer is they execute better on the fly than most teams can manage in the halfcourt, thanks to Steve Nash's run-and-shoot quarterbacking, Amar'e Stoudemire's finishing and Grant Hill's versatility. Now they've been handed a first-round pass with Portland leading scorer Brandon Roy sitting out for knee surgery (torn meniscus). How can Portland control tempo without its best player?
So the Suns will move into the second round as enormous underdogs against the Mavericks or Spurs, but neither of those opponents will take victory over Phoenix as granted so long as Nash is pushing the ball and his shooters are making threes.
(The Suns' Eastern counterpart -- the No. 3 Hawks -- face a worse predicament. Next month they'll find themselves in the second round against Orlando, which outscored Atlanta by 65 in four games this season. The Hawks look very much like a one-and-done contender.)
• Utah Jazz. Their hopes rely almost entirely on the health of Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko. If both forwards are productive citizens, then the Jazz are capable of overcoming the wounded Nuggets and throwing a scare at the Lakers in Round 2. But the truth is they've had a hard time all season against both Denver and L.A.
• His $39 million extension. Want proof that Ginobili is on top of his game? The Spurs last week invested three more years in their 32 year old guard. "You don't turn over $39 million, especially if you're the Spurs," said a rival personnel executive. "They're not the kind of team that's going to make a frivolous payout to someone for what they've done in the past. What they were saying is that this guy is back.''
In 29 games since the All-Star break, Ginobili has averaged 21.4 points and 5.6 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. He is playing as well as ever. "Manu has basically taken over the team and been the same Manu we've had when we've won championships,'' said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "Without Tony it's really important for somebody to step up like that, and he's done it."
• His rough start. Over the opening months was shooting 40.3 percent for 13.4 points per game. "For a lot of people I was done two months ago," said Ginobili. "But I think I am still good; I just had a really bad year, and that happens to anybody, basically. So I just always tried to ignore those comments, because I know I have a lot in me.''
If the Spurs looked old and all played out early in the season, it was because they weren't getting the energy and production typical of Ginobili. "It's never just health when you come back," said Popovich of Ginobili's 2008 surgery to repair his left ankle. "And you're fighting a hamstring and a groin and all those sorts of things for as long as he did, it affects your timing, your rhythm, your confidence. He doesn't just blow by people, but he needs his shot also to be a threat. So it took him time to get that rhythm. He had to play with a lot of new players, and it just took a lot of time this year. We just never really got to the point where we were a trusting, executing basketball team until about [late February]."
But look at it this way. While Ginobili was struggling, the Spurs had to look elsewhere for help. Now they go into the playoffs with a new rotation that benefited from the hard times early in the season, including Jefferson, second-year guard George Hill, rookie DeJuan Blair and starting center AntonioMcDyess.
• His confounded unpredictability. Whether he's making a steal or relentlessly attacking on the drive or with the three-pointer, Ginobili is the player who turns the staid Spurs into a creative force of energy. "He's clever," said Popovich. "People that have a natural inclination to understand the game and spatial relationships and timing and anticipation skills -- Manu has that. He does things that win basketball games, and there aren't many guys like that in the league. Every team might have one: Somebody who just understands we need an offensive board, or somebody to make a steal, or I'm going to cherry-pick, and I'm going to shoot the three now, or get in the passing lane. He understands those things and he's done it for a lot of years."
This is not an especially old team. Duncan is 33 (but was limited to 31.3 minutes this season) and McDyess is 35 (21.0), and everyone else is in their prime or younger. Including Ginobili.
"Even if one day I can't get to the rim as much, I know I have other resources," said Ginobili. "I know I can pass, I know I can shoot and I can help in different ways, and so I am optimistic for my future.''
But let's not get too far ahead. Right now he is getting to the rim at will, and when Ginobili is forcing the play the Spurs look like a contender. No underdog has a better chance at running the table than No. 7 San Antonio.
A lot of responses to my awards ...
• It's disappointing that you didn't have Gerald Wallace in any of the best of 2009-10. He is certainly a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and also for Most Improved, leading the Bobcats to their first winning season ever and to their first playoff berth, all while making the Bobcats' first All-Star appearance. He is underappreciated because the 'Cats are typically overlooked, but I thought for sure he would make at least your All-Defensive team.-- Thom, Durham, N.C.
• No mention of Charlotte for any awards whatsoever ... not even a MENTION of Gerald Wallace on the All-Defensive team. ... He takes charges, gets steals, rebounds and even gets a few blocks. If I had to pick one player not named Dwight Howard for my All-Defensive team, it would, without a doubt, be Gerald Wallace. If there were a stat for charges taken, Wallace would be near the top without a doubt.-- Justin L, Hickory, N.C.
• Your All-Defensive team didn't include Gerald Wallace? He is the best defensive player on one of the best defensive teams in the league. I understand he's not as big of a name as some of the other guys, but he needs some recognition for a fantastic season in leading the Bobcats to the playoffs for the first time.-- Justin GM
I think highly of Wallace -- I named him to my unofficial All-Star ballot. I rate LeBron James as the better defender, but these complaints on behalf of Wallace have a lot of merit, and I admit to wondering if I was right on this one.
• Tyreke [Evans] not your Rookie of the Year? Since when did you pick awards solely based on their team records?-- B., Sacramento, Calif.
I've never made these picks based solely on team records. For a point guard and team leader, however, the team's record is a major consideration.
• To downgrade Evans because his team is bad I think is ridiculous. [Brandon] Jennings had a better team so he gets ROY? That makes no sense. Did you notice that after the first 25 games of the season all opposing teams focused only on Evans? Did you notice that the Kings do not have any other consistent scorers besides Evans? Did you notice that he is also their best defensive player? Did you notice that Jennings got worse as the season progressed? If Jennings played for Sacramento and Evans played for Milwaukee would that have made a difference? Would the Kings have made the playoffs with Jennings instead of Evans? You can't honestly tell me that Milwaukee isn't just as good, if not better with Evans as opposed to Jennings.-- Patrick, Sacramento
I've got to say that the loudest and most credible complaint from sports fans about pro basketball is that NBA players care more about individual stats than about winning the games. And yet, when I recognize players who are devoted to winning the games, the complaints come in from those who accuse me of ignoring the stats.
I repeat: It's not necessarily the fault of Evans that his team didn't win, and I don't "downgrade" him for that; but at the same time I'm not going to disregard the good work of Jennings in quarterbacking a roster that was supposed to be in lottery contention for John Wall about now. Jennings' field-goal percentage may not match up, but the winning percentage -- for which he took responsibility as leader of his team -- is tops in his class.
• I think Stephen Curry's chances [for the Rookie of the Year award] have been hurt by association; look at his numbers, the improvement over the year (the opposite of Jennings), and number of 30/10 games (more than Evans). He plays the game the right way, not just bulling down the lane, like Evans, and makes his teammates better, unlike Evans, who famously can't exist so far with anybody other than the deferential scrubs still on the Kings roster. Curry's play has been spectacular in all aspects, so much so that I, and many others, including Doug Collins, think he's the next Steve Nash. I'm just humbly suggesting that Curry has been overlooked all year by the national media, and think you ought to take another look.-- Dave W., San Francisco
Curry is a terrific player, but it's also fair to argue that his numbers are inflated by the Warriors' deference to scoring at the expense of winning. There was no way to rate him ahead of Jennings this year. Maybe 10 years from now we'll look back and say that Curry and Evans turned out to be the superior players. But right now Jennings has had the greatest impact and has been the best rookie, and I have no doubts about this one.
• I think you are mistaken in coach of the year. No one has done a better job than Larry Brown getting the Bobcats to be a playoff caliber team.-- Lee, Houston
• After looking at your top three for Coach of the Year, I was wondering where you would place Larry Brown this year, who is quietly having an excellent year. Also, kudos to Don Nelson, who will always be one of my favorites.-- Brenda R., Saline, Mich.
Brown has done a strong job, I agree. There are a large number of worthy candidates for this award -- I could have voted for any of 10 coaches this year.
• How can you say that LeBron James deserves the MVP over Kevin Durant? Are you sure you are looking at the same stats? K.D. doesn't have the team around him like James. K.D. took this team to the playoffs and the last two years they have been in the tank.-- Rodney, Kirkland, Wash.
Come on, Rodney. No one has a larger impact on his team or on the league overall than James.
One non-awards question:
• Do you believe the Cavs' biggest weakness is their coaching? Mike Brown doesn't even call offensive and defensive sets/plays. Could this hurt them in their run for Cleveland's first championship in nearly 50 years, plus trying to keep LeBron?-- Jim S., Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Mike Brown has developed the defensive identity that enables Cleveland to contend for championships. Since when is relying on assistants a sign of weakness? Larry Bird did it and led the Pacers to the Finals; Doc Rivers turned the defense over to Tom Thibodeau and won a championship. I remember when Gregg Popovich used to be written off as strategically inferior, but now with four championships he rates among the handful of great coaches in the history of the league. Brown is a young coach who has improved each year, and his experiences will emerge as a strength for Cleveland.
• Why no upsets? I went through each round and couldn't vote for one lower-seeded challenger. The No. 6 Blazers are without Roy. Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko are hurting for the No. 5 Jazz against the Nuggets, who have owned their divisional rivalry this season. Are the No. 6 Bucks without AndrewBogut going to knock off No. 3 Atlanta? Are the No. 1 Lakers going to lose to No. 4 Denver with Kenyon Martin limited and coach George Karl's status uncertain?
The series most likely to prove me wrong are (1) the Spurs-Mavericks, based on San Antonio's recent improvement, and (2) the Western finals, because either Dallas or San Antonio (if the Spurs have made it this far, then we'll know they're serious) could overcome the Lakers, especially if Bynum remains weakened.
In the East I just don't see anyone upsetting Cleveland. The Magic have the best chance, and I look forward to their conference final to see if the Cavs will manage the matchups better than last year. I believe they will.