SI.com NBA writers Ian Thomsen, Marty Burns, Jack McCallum, Chris Mannix, Steve Aschburner and Paul Forrester forecast the 2008-09 season.
Thomsen:East -- Celtics over Cavaliers. West -- Spurs over Lakers.
Burns: East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Spurs over Rockets.
McCallum:East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Hornets over Lakers.
Mannix:East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Lakers over Hornets.
Aschburner: East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Lakers over Hornets.
Forrester:East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Lakers over Hornets.
Thomsen: Spurs over Celtics. These are the league's two best teams with potentially six Hall of Famers between them. It's a coin flip who wins Game 7. Pick the Spurs because it's their turn.
Burns: Celtics over Spurs. The Celtics still have the Big Three, but it will be their team defense and the continued development of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins that keep them atop the East. Boston won't win 66 games again, but it will still rack up the NBA's best record against the weaker East competition. With home-court advantage to help them along, the Celtics will hold off the Spurs for the franchise's first back-to-back titles since 1968 and '69.
McCallum: Hornets over Celtics. The Celtics can tell you all about making a quantum leap in one year. But remember that the Hornets' leap would not be so quantum -- they won 56 games last season and took the defending champion Spurs to seven games in the Western semifinals. In the Finals, Chris Paul will play like the MVP candidate he'll be, Tyson Chandler's defense will (almost) neutralize Kevin Garnett, David West will (almost) neutralize Paul Pierce and two-time champion James Posey will supply the winning edge. And remember that coach Byron Scott has been to the Finals as both player and coach.
Mannix: Lakers over Celtics. The Lakers lacked toughness when they lost to Boston last season, but returning center Andrew Bynum has it in spades. The deepest Lakers team in years ends the Celtics' brief reign at the top.
Aschburner: Lakers over Cavs. The Lakers will get back to the Finals thanks to their combination of depth and experience and will only briefly wonder why their old foes, the Celtics, aren't there again (think injury to one of the three key guys). The Cavs, as much on LeBron's sheer force of will as any offseason or trade-deadline maneuvering, will represent the East just fine, thank you, with James -- while facing more wrinkles, defensively, than a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon -- going head-to-head, endorsement deals-to-Nielsen ratings with Kobe. The Lakers' front line, in the end, will account for the difference.
Forrester: Lakers over Cavs. LeBron bests Kobe in their head-to-head matchup, and Cleveland doesn't get swept like it did two years ago by San Antonio, but the Lakers' frontcourt proves to be too much for the Cavs' aging big men.
Thomsen: Kobe. The world's top player holds off a challenge from LeBron. His Lakers will be the No. 1 seed entering the playoffs (though in the postseason his supporting cast will be exposed by the star power of San Antonio's Big Three).
Burns: LeBron. At age 23, in his sixth season, James is entering his prime. He will put up his usual monster numbers across the board while leading the Cavs near the top of the East. With Kobe having won it last year and Chris Paul still just in his fourth season, LeBron will be the media's choice this time around.
McCallum: LeBron. It took a long time for voters to finally fall in love with Kobe, so I can't see a repeat happening. James' inspired and mature play with the U.S. Olympic team showed he is ready to make the step, and the Cavs' addition of playmaking guard Mo Williams will help him.
Mannix: LeBron. Perhaps a couple of years overdue, James earns the award with an Oscar Robertson-esque stat line and by keeping the Cavs fighting for the top spot in the East all season.
Aschburner: LeBron. It's possible that Bryant could repeat or Tim Duncan could reassert himself as the Spurs have a big season. But James has been awfully good at a see-the-goal, get-the-goal approach to life on and off the court, and the MVP is a pretty big one still absent from his portfolio.
Forrester: LeBron. The leadership he showed with Team USA will carry over as he helps keep the Cavs more focused than they were last season. That will convince all those writers who haven't figured it out yet that James is the game's best player.
Thomsen:Michael Beasley, Heat. He should fully exploit Miami's drastic needs for scoring and boards. Greg Oden will make a strong run at him.
Burns:Derrick Rose, Bulls: I'm tempted to go with Beasley since he will put up big scoring and rebounding numbers. But Rose showed late in the preseason why he was the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-3 point guard is incredibly fast, with an ability to explode to the basket and finish at the rim, while also setting up teammates. His leadership of the Bulls will set him apart from Beasley, Oden and others.
McCallum: Rose. Yes, we hear that Vinny Del Negro intends to take it slow with the Memphis product, who just turned 20. But a Rose by any other name is still the class of his class, and he will get the chance to show it. Minnesota's Kevin Love will give him a run for his money.
Mannix: Beasley. Kevin Durant was the most NBA-ready rookie last season. Beasley has that distinction this year. He will face stiff competition from Oden.
Aschburner:O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies. The smart pick is Oden, who is eligible and way capable. Beasley would be my choice except for the touches he'll yield to Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion. Rose is going to have his hands full overseeing the other Bulls. Mayo, meanwhile, is explosive and freed from much in the way of team expectations, so he's my guess as long as voters focus on his stats and not on the Grizzlies' record.
Forrester: Oden. Last year's No. 1 pick won't wow offensively, but he will be a sight on defense, blocking shots, rebounding and making drives into the paint a pain.
Thomsen: Trail Blazers. One of the league's youngest rotations will outplay more experienced teams down the stretch thanks to the discipline of coach Nate McMilllan and sage leadership of Brandon Roy. Also, contrary to speculation, Dallas and Detroit won't be washed up and will stay stubbornly in contention.
Burns:Clippers. Despite the loss of Elton Brand, the Clippers still have a lot of the pieces to succeed in the NBA: an elite point guard (Baron Davis), a true 7-foot center (Chris Kaman), a defensive anchor (Marcus Camby), a rising young star (Al Thornton), a bevy of veteran scorers (Cuttino Mobley, Ricky Davis, Tim Thomas) and a proven coach with authority over personnel decisions (Mike Dunleavy). If Baron Davis stays healthy and Dunleavy can manage the egos, the Clippers will win a lot of games.
McCallum:76ers. They're deep, they're athletic and now they have Brand. OK, maybe it's not a surprise that they'll be pretty good. But after making the playoffs last year as the seventh seed, I see them battling Orlando and Detroit for those first-round home-court-advantage spots behind Boston and Cleveland.
Mannix:Bucks. New general manager John Hammond has done a masterful job reshaping a mediocre roster in just one offseason. With Richard Jefferson on board to ease Michael Redd's scoring load, and pass-first point guard Luke Ridnour stepping in for Mo Williams, the Bucks will contend for a playoff spot.
Aschburner: Clippers. The sportswriting boneyard is full of people who have, at one time or another, predicted breakthroughs for this franchise. Projecting team success on any roster that includes Ricky Davis always is risky. But with Baron Davis pushed to prove his move south was about hoops more than Hollywood, and with Camby and Kaman up front, these guys will have a spot in the playoffs.
Forrester: Clippers. Not just because of Baron Davis' arrival or the fact that they parted with a talented, but generally disgruntled, Corey Maggette. This has a lot to do with the trade for one of the NBA's most versatile big men in Camby, whose presence alone should revitalize what was one of the league's worst defenses last season.
Thomsen:Nuggets. The giveaway of Camby will be disastrous to a team that had already had trouble defending. An overhaul awaits.
Burns: Nuggets. They have plenty of scorers in the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and J.R. Smith. But their defense has been bad, and it is likely to get worse without Camby. Meanwhile, Iverson didn't get the contract extension he sought, and the Camby trade signaled that the organization is in cost-cutting mode. George Karl could have a hard time keeping it all together.
McCallum: Rockets. "Flop" is relative here, of course, since the addition of Ron Artest to a team that won 55 games last season certainly makes the Rockets more Rock than Rockette. But this is a franchise with championship aspirations, and taking into account Yao Ming's questionable sturdiness and the potential for chemical imbalance between Artest and Tracy McGrady, I don't see them getting to the conference finals.
Mannix: Nuggets. The already defenseless Nuggets lost their two best defensive players when they traded Camby and allowed Eduardo Najera to leave as a free agent. With Iverson in the last year of his contract and a roster loaded with high-priced but mismatched talent, the Nuggets could be in for a rebuilding project.
Aschburner: 76ers. Loved the Brand signing, but the enthusiasm and confidence of Sixers fans seems to have swelled beyond this club's capabilities. Brand has to be the elite player we saw two or three years ago, over 100 games or so, for this to work, and that's iffy. The two Andres (Iguodala and Miller) have enough holes in their games that I see Philadelphia scrapping near the bottom of the East bracket, a letdown from preseason hopes.
Forrester: Nuggets. They traded away their best defender, Camby, for little more than a bag of peanuts, leaving the frontcourt in the hands of two players -- Nenê and Kenyon Martin -- who have struggled to stay healthy. Add in Iverson's playing for a new contract and a coach with a habit of tiring of his teams, and the season has all the makings of the first step in starting a rebuilding program.
Thomsen: Grizzlies. Too young to frighten anyone. A demoralized franchise.
Burns: Grizzlies. They have some promising young talent in Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and hotshot rookie Mayo, among others. But young teams seldom win in the NBA, and the frontcourt is woefully thin with Darko Milicic as the most proven big man in the rotation. With an inexperienced coach as well in Marc Iavaroni, Memphis is looking at another long rebuilding season.
Mannix: Grizzlies. New Jersey will give them a run for their money, but the young Grizzlies will take their lumps early and often in the West. Still, another high draft pick wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for Memphis, which has committed to winning with youth.
McCallum:Thunder. Change in venue doesn't mean change in fortunes. Defenses will still be ganging up on Durant, and the Thunder will be running players in and out all season trying to find the right mix. Last season's worst-record "champion," the 15-win Heat, have to be better as long as Wade stays healthy.
Aschburner: Thunder. No one in Oklahoma City will really care, because the NBA circus is now in town!
Forrester:Kings. Kevin Martin is going to face the type of defensive attention reserved for superstars. Also, the Kings were one of the worst defensive teams by any measure last season, and that was with Artest on the floor. How easy do you think it will be to score on the Kings this season with Artest in Houston?
Thomsen: Derrick Rose, Bulls. He may start slowly, and Beasley will outpoint him for Rookie of the Year voting. But by season's end, his speed and presence will make it obvious that the Bulls are in the right hands.
Burns: Al Thornton, Clippers. The wiry forward came on strong late last season, but by then the Clippers were already off the radar. With Brand and Maggette having left via free agency, Thornton now gets a chance to step in and get some of those extra minutes (and shots). Detroit's Rodney Stuckey is primed for a breakout year, too, but he will have to play behind Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups.
Mannix:Devin Harris, Nets. The Lakers' Bynum will be the trendy pick, but he was well on his way to breaking out before a knee injury derailed his 2007-2008 season. The Nets have revamped the offense to take advantage of the speed and penetrating abilities of Harris, who will emerge as an All-Star in part because he won't have too much help on the roster.
McCallum: Rajon Rondo, Celtics. He was supposed to be the weak link, the guy who would quake under the pressure of servicing the Big Three. Well, as he showed in the Finals last season, there is no quake in the Celtics' wisp of a point guard. He may never be a deadly accurate shooter, but he plays great defense, gets into the paint, makes decisions at full speed and is nobody's weak link.
Aschburner: Rudy Gay, Grizzlies. This is a tough category. Is Portland's Roy already a star? He's been an All-Star, even if a lot of casual fans don't notice him. He'd be my first choice (see how we try to fudge these things), but Gay didn't get much acclaim, beyond votes for the Most Improved Player award, for his strong 2007-08 season. His biggest hurdle? Getting anyone to notice what goes on in Memphis.
Forrester: Harris. With few offensive options beyond Vince Carter, who may well be traded anyway this season, the Nets will rely heavily on Harris. The point guard will stick a dagger in the hearts of Mavericks fans every time he takes the floor and generates some gaudy numbers.
Thomsen: Marc Iavaroni, Grizzlies. No coach could win with this team.
Burns: Mike Brown, Cavs. Fair or not, the fourth-year coach has come under fire for his team's lack of offensive creativity. He must find a way to take some pressure off LeBron, either by finding a second reliable scorer or by loosening the reins on the fast break. With LeBron set to become a free agent in 2010, the pressure is on Brown to keep it moving in the right direction
Mannix: George Karl, Nuggets. Three straight first-round playoff exits, a rocky relationship with Carmelo and a front office that is one long losing streak away from pulling the pin on the whole thing makes Karl's seat the hottest of them all. If the Nuggets struggle early, Karl could be gone by Christmas.
McCallum: Mike Dunleavy, Clippers. No, he won't be fired. In fact, he's just gathered more power as he takes over Elgin Baylor's duties as general manager. But that's exactly the point: This is Dunleavy's team. And I don't see the Baron Davis acquisition compensating for the departure of Brand in the tough West.
Aschburner: Karl. There is a real fragility to the Nuggets, from their front office down to the locker room, with Karl as the emotional straw that stirs the drink. Pull one of the threads and the rest of this sweater could unravel. Unless everyone has adjusted to the penny-pinching embrace of not winning, there will be tensions here.
Forrester: Sam Mitchell, Raptors. The marriage between Mitchell and GM Bryan Colangelo has never been dreamy. After raising expectations by acquiring Jermaine O'Neal, Colangelo isn't likely to have a lot of patience if the Raptors struggle early.
Thomsen: Vince Carter, Nets. The rebuilding Nets need to trade him sooner than later. He can go to any number of markets that need help selling tickets.
Burns: Mike Bibby, Hawks. In the final year of his contract, Bibby could be in big demand for teams seeking a veteran QB to boost their playoff chances at the trade deadline. The Hawks already have Acie Law waiting in the wings, and new GM Rick Sund won't want to risk seeing Bibby walk away at the end of the season with nothing in return.
McCallum: Stephon Marbury, Knicks. Though Marbury's rep has suffered (that's putting it mildly) in past years, he is still a big name. And when the Knicks finally find a taker -- Golden State? I have no solid evidence, just a hunch that Don Nelson sees Marbury as someone who could play for him -- it will be big news ... and a big sigh of relief in the Big Apple.
Mannix: Marbury. Somebody will want the mercurial Marbury, if only for his expiring $21.9 million contract. Marbury's skills have eroded over the last two seasons, but he is still an experienced scorer who can help a team in the short term -- and give it financial flexibility down the road.
Aschburner: Rasheed Wallace, Pistons. Iverson would be a good choice, too, but his salary number ($20.9 million), expiring or not, is so darn big. Since president Joe Dumars didn't make good on his promised summer makeover of this squad, any shortcomings by the Pistons once the season is underway could get lumped onto Wallace's eminently scapegoat-able back.