SI.com's Ian Thomsen, Chris Ballard, Chris Mannix, Jack McCallum and Arash Markazi forecast the 2009-10 season.
Thomsen:East -- Celtics over Cavaliers. West -- Lakers over Spurs.
Ballard:East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Lakers over Spurs.
Mannix:East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Spurs over Lakers.
McCallum:East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Spurs over Lakers.
Markazi:East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Lakers over Spurs.
Thomsen: Celtics over Lakers. Their team defense, driven by Kevin Garnett and aided by backup Rasheed Wallace, will be the biggest factor in what will be a classic Finals.
Ballard: Cavs over Lakers. It's the season of LeBron. Shaq will do just enough on the court -- and perhaps just as important, deflect some of the media attention off it -- to put the Cavs over the top, and with Anthony Parker they now have another spot-up shooter to go with Mo Williams. It'll be a fun series: Shaq tweeting insults about L.A., Ron Artest trying to sumo wrestle James on D and Kobe wondering where, oh where Trevor Ariza is.
Mannix: Celtics over Spurs. It won't be easy, as second-seeded Boston will have to go through Orlando in the second round and Cleveland in the conference finals. But a healthy superstar (Garnett), a revamped bench (Wallace, Marquis Daniels) and a renewed hunger will power the Celtics to their second title in three years.
McCallum: Spurs over Cavs. Wait a minute, isn't that San Antonio franchise ancient history? Didn't it fail to get beyond the first round last year, and didn't the Spurs fail to land the one offseason piece (screwy as he might be) they wanted when Rasheed Wallace went to the Celtics? And isn't it just LeBron's time? Well, maybe. But doesn't a rotation of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Roger Mason, along with new acquisitions Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and rookie DeJuan Blair sound pretty solid? It won't be a replay of the 2007 championship series when the not-ready-for-prime-time Cavs were swept by the formidable San Antonio defense. But I see the Spurs in seven.
Markazi: Lakers over Celtics. Kobe told one of the more bizarre Artest stories last year. Bryant said that after the Lakers lost Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals in Boston, he was alone in the shower when Artest, who had apparently talked his way into the Lakers' locker room, walked up to him and said, "I want to come help you. If I can, I'm going to find a way to come to L.A. and give you the help you need to win a title." (You can just imagine Kobe saying, "Um, yeah, let me just dry off and we can talk.") Well, it may have taken longer than both would have liked, but Artest is finally a Laker and Bryant finally has his enforcer. The Lakers were exposed as a soft team by the Celtics in their last Finals meeting, but two years later, the Lakers, with the toughness of Artest and a healthy Andrew Bynum, will return the favor.
Thomsen:LeBron James. Not only will he continue to put up ridiculous numbers, but he'll also take responsibility for successfully integrating Shaq into the offense.
Ballard: James. Sure, it's a boring pick, but barring injury James should rack up a few of these in a row, a la Larry Bird in the 1980s. Kobe and Dwight Howard will also be in the mix. A rejuvenated Allen Iverson won't.
Mannix: James. Kobe will be Kobe and a healthy Chris Paul will emerge as a dark horse late in the year, but from here on out the MVP award is LeBron's to lose. James' scoring might dip with Shaq in the lineup, but his assists will rise and the Cavs will make a run at a 70-win season.
McCallum: James. There is no doubt that Kobe, having surrendered the award last season to the Cavs' star, will be looking to reclaim it in 2010, and a motivated Kobe is a dangerous Kobe. But the younger LeBron (24 to Kobe's 31) is at the top of the game, and having O'Neal in the middle can only help his quest.
Markazi: James. He may be in the midst of becoming the first player to win the award four seasons in a row as he enters the prime of his career.
Thomsen:Stephen Curry. The knee injury to No. 1 pick Blake Griffin opens the door for the Warriors' Curry, who will be a featured and prolific scorer for Don Nelson.
Ballard:Tyreke Evans. Of course, it helps that he's on a Kings team where he'll be the second scoring option, but I love the way this guy plays. He's the rare guard with the speed and strength to do straight-line drives -- think Corey Maggette but more fluid. He'll get competition from Griffin (even with the injury) and Curry, who should put up big numbers.
Mannix: Griffin. Big, explosive and polished beyond his years, the Clippers' Griffin should eventually slide past a relatively weak rookie class. Curry will be a strong candidate, too.
McCallum: Evans. No sooner had the ink dried on my Griffin-in-a-landslide prediction when news came down about the knee injury that will keep him out for at least six weeks ... and that's optimistic. So I'm going with the Kings' Evans, who looked sharp in spots in the preseason and, most importantly, he'll get big minutes on a really bad team.
Markazi: Griffin. Yes, I know he's going to miss several weeks. Yes, I know the Clippers are cursed. But I still think Griffin will win the award. The preseason doesn't count for much, but Griffin showed glimpses of what could be a special season for him once he gets healthy. Evans will score more points and Curry will dish out more assists, but Griffin will be the best all-around rookie and the only one of the top candidates to lead his team to the playoffs.
Thomsen: The Wizards. The 63-loss Wizards of last year will approach 50 wins this season thanks to a big year from Gilbert Arenas and his healthy, hungry teammates.
Ballard: Wizards. Flip Saunders + healthy Arenas + Caron Butler & Antawn Jamison = 50 wins. The Mavs will also be better than people expect, as Jason Kidd is going to make Shawn Marion look five years younger.
Mannix: Hornets. The high expectations from last year are gone, replaced by surprisingly modest ones. But last year's 49-win team will get a boost from new center Emeka Okafor and a retooled second unit featuring rookie Darren Collison and new sixth man Peja Stojakovic. The result: a place behind only the Lakers and Spurs in the West.
McCallum:Jazz. One of these years this team has to escape a serious injury epidemic, doesn't it? (Of course, Utah isn't off to a good start, with C.J. Miles and Kyle Korver already on the shelf.) And except for the Lakers and Spurs, I still think a rotation of Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko, Ronnie Brewer, Paul Millsap, Miles and Korver is as good as any in the West, including the rising Trail Blazers.
Markazi: Clippers. The Staples Center's "other team" will squeak into the playoffs and finally give L.A. fans their long-awaited "Hallway Series" with the Lakers. Not only is Baron Davis slimmer and more focused, but the combination of Eric Gordon's development as a playmaker and the relentless toughness Griffin will add when he returns will finally give Clippers fans a team worth watching after the All-Star break.
Thomsen:Grizzlies. No. 2 pick Hasheem Thabeet is a long-term project who can't be expected to contribute this season, and Allen Iverson -- who could have been a good addition to other teams -- will occupy the ball and limit the development of Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo.
Ballard:Magic. This pick is only relative to expectations, which are probably unreasonably high after the team's Finals run last season. Hedo Turkoglu was a better piece for the team than Vince Carter, and Brandon Bass doesn't really fit into their offense. Sure, they'll still win a ton of regular-season games, but for a team with the goal of a championship, I'd be surprised if they made it to the conference finals.
Mannix:Heat. Which Dwyane Wade will we see this season? Will it be the NBA scoring leader who played in 79 games and a career-high 3,048 minutes last season? Or will it be the broken-down version who winced his way through 102 games in the two years before that? With Michael Beasley dealing with personal issues and Jermaine O'Neal a perpetual question mark, the Heat need Wade to be the former. I don't think they will get it.
McCallum: Magic. Third in the East? That's the way I see it. The Cavs and the Celtics are both better, and, by the end of the season, the fans will be wishing they were watching Hedo instead of Vince.
Markazi:Nuggets. While the top teams improved with significant offseason additions, the Nuggets didn't do anything. In fact, they actually took a couple of steps back, losing Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza, two key players from a team that fell two wins shy of the Finals. George Karl teams also don't do well after playoff disappointments. His last two teams that lost in the conference finals failed to make the playoffs (2002 Bucks) and lost in the first round (1994 Sonics) the following season.
Thomsen: Kings. After years of trying to rebuild while remaining in contention, they've made the difficult but inevitable decision to rebuild around rookie point guard Tyreke Evans and a young frontcourt of Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson -- with another high lottery pick to follow in June.
Ballard: Grizzlies. Though the Kings will give them a run for it. At least Sacramento appears to be building something. The Grizz have two young, talented scorers in Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, but instead of building around them they added Zach Randolph and Iverson. Bewildering.
Mannix: Kings. Evans offers some hope for the future, but that future is several years away. The Paul Westphal watch will be in full swing by February.
McCallum: Bucks. They won 34 games last season, and that was with Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villaneuva and Ramon Sessions. With rookie point guard Brandon Jennings having to make a big jump, I see the Bucks "edging out" the Kings in a close battle that no team wants to win.
Markazi: Kings. The team that finished a league-worst 17-65 last season will be hard-pressed to improve with Westphal, who hasn't coached an NBA team since 2000, handing the keys of the offense to a rookie point guard who is more of a shooting guard and is two years removed from high school.
Thomsen:Derrick Rose. The reigning Rookie of the Year will emerge as an annual All-Star by supplying leadership to the Bulls while helping to offset the loss of Ben Gordon's scoring.
Ballard: Rose. You'll be sick of hearing about him by the end of the year, but he's easily one of the handful of NBA guys it's worth going out of your way to see play.
Mannix:Russell Westbrook. One of the best players at the USA Basketball minicamp this summer, Westbrook added an improved jump shot to his powerful penetrating skills and bulldog defense. He'll help Kevin Durant keep Oklahoma City in the playoff race into March.
McCallum:Rodney Stuckey. This is always a tough category because determining who's already a star is sometimes difficult. Is Portland's Brandon Roy a star, for example? (I'm going to say yes.) What you're looking for is a player who made a Danny Granger-like jump, and that often comes from someone on a mediocre or bad team. So I'm going with Detroit's Stuckey, who goes into this season without a Chauncey Billups or an Iverson in front of him.
Markazi: Durant. Entering his third year, Durant will become an All-Star and a bona-fide superstar. He was sixth in the NBA in scoring last year and should make a push for the scoring title this year with the likes of Kobe and LeBron taking fewer shots and facilitating for their talented teammates.
Thomsen: Mike Brown, Cavs. How unfair is that for a young coach who transformed the Cavs into a defense-first contender while winning seven playoff series in his four years? But nothing less than a championship will be acceptable for Cleveland as LeBron approaches free agency.
Ballard: Byron Scott, Hornets. Have to wonder if he's going to lose the team. In the final year of his contract, too.
Mannix: Mike Woodson, Hawks. The Nets are too cheap to can Lawrence Frank, and Don Nelson no longer cares. That leaves Woodson, who, despite five straight seasons of improvement and a trip to the conference semifinals last May, puzzlingly did not receive a contract extension in the offseason. The Hawks may have to repeat last year's effort for Woodson to get a new deal.
McCallum: Woodson. Let me express my usual uneasiness about this question, since so much of NBA reporting consists of who's-going-to-be-fired-next? speculation. But forced to answer, I'm going to say Woodson, who coaches a talented but not-quite-cohesive team in a conference where he has absolutely no chance of finishing higher than fourth and might fall to fifth or sixth.
Markazi:Mike Dunleavy, Clippers. How unpopular was Dunleavy among Clippers fans last year? Toward the end of the season, "Clipper Darrell," the team's red-and-blue-suited unofficial mascot, began heckling the coach instead of opposing teams, chanting, "Fire Dunleavy!" If Dunleavy can't coach the talented group he assembled to the playoffs, he may be receiving more than the wrath of "Clipper Darrell" and the fans by season's end.
Thomsen: Tracy McGrady. His return from knee surgery will serve as an audition and -- if healthy -- his expiring contract and playmaking game could be moved to a playoff contender in exchange for a package of expiring money, young talent and draft picks as Houston prepares for the 2010-11 return of Yao Ming.
Ballard: Carlos Boozer. That's based on the assumption that his name is bigger than Stephen Jackson's.
Mannix: McGrady. McGrady and his $22 million expiring contract will require some creative negotiating to deal, but with the injury-ravaged Rockets looking ahead to '10-11, don't expect GM Daryl Morey to wait for next summer's free-agent period to shake things up. Chris Bosh -- a Texas native -- could become an option if the Raptors are floundering in February.
McCallum: Amar'e Stoudemire. The messages out of Phoenix are mixed. They want to trade Stoudemire before he can opt out. No, the Suns want to keep Stoudemire because they can quietly make a decent run. That's mixed enough for me. I'll say Stoudemire.
Markazi: Boozer. If you had listened to Boozer talk over the summer about playing in Miami and Chicago, an offseason trade sounded like a done deal. But now that they're stuck with each other, the Jazz will likely look to trade Boozer and his expiring contract before the trade deadline. Paul Millsap has already been tabbed as the team's future starting power forward, and they're not paying him $32 million over four years to come off the bench.