This Countdown to the season begins with a look at Miami. I'm sure you're all shocked by that.
• Can LeBron James overcome the negatives he brought upon himself? James has been on a strange losing streak since the Cavs' upset loss Boston in the playoffs last May. That loss was followed by his not-so-special TV special and then the dancing on stage in Miami with new teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and then his opinion that racism might have influenced the criticism he was receiving ("That has nothing to do with race," responded Charles Barkley to Philadelphia radio station WIP. "It's like watching a movie: Just when you think it couldn't get any stupider, it gets more stupid.") and even the recent report that Kevin Durant politely declined an invitation to party with LeBron on the eve of their exhibition game against each other in Kansas City ("I don't go out to parties the day before a game," said Durant, not meaning to make James look bad by comparison but having that effect).
James has absorbed more criticism over the last five months than he'd heard in his previous seven NBA years. But how bad is all of this news in reality?
Put it this way: What happens if James leads Miami to the championship this year? The answer is that the negatives all flutter away.
All of LeBron's recent problems grew out of two initial complaints following his disastrous decision to air The Decision. I was with practically everyone else who condemned James for divorcing himself of Cleveland in such a classless way. That was the first complaint.
The second accusation was that James was abandoning his responsibilities as The Man by joining with Wade and Bosh in Miami. I've quoted NBA people who have criticized James for this perceived sin against basketball. But I don't agree with them.
Here's how James' life is going to change if he wins a championship in Miami: If he is hugging the trophy in June, it is going to mean he has been playing at a high level -- that much is obvious. Then the commentators and writers will begin to see things from James' point of view: That he had a vision for how he wanted to play and he turned out to be right. That Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and JamesWorthy, LarryBird had KevinMcHale and RobertParish,and MichaelJordan had ScottiePippen and DennisRodman, and all LeBron wanted was to have the same tier of stars around him that he never had in Cleveland. That he was criticized for making this move but he swallowed the criticism because he knew he'd done the right thing.
I can hear all of the maudlin talk already. Because when you win in this country, all is forgiven.
It was forgiven of Kobe Bryant and it will be forgiven of Tiger Woods when he recovers his game. And the hole LeBron has dug for himself isn't nearly as deep as the pits from which Kobe and Tiger have found themselves looking up.
It's going to be easy to forgive LeBron because he has committed nothing worse than crimes of arrogance, and for those he has been roughed up and humbled. The punishment has been served, and if he wins I guarantee you he'll have majority opinion on his side again.
Right now, I'm in the minority when I say that James, Wade and Bosh have a good story to tell about choosing to accept lesser roles in order to win as a group. People haven't wanted to hear the story because LeBron has done such a lousy job of telling it. He messed up the presentation so outrageously that he lost his credibility. Fans haven't cared to listen to what he's been trying to say because of the way he's been saying it.
But if they win a championship, he'll be understood. He's going to have the ball more than anyone else on that Miami team, and he'll be putting up big numbers across the board. Wade may be the leading scorer, but the key player will be LeBron, just as Paul Pierce has led the Celtics in scoring but the central figure in Boston has always been Kevin Garnett. If the Heat win in the biggest way, James will be lauded for his foresight and he'll be called a hybrid of Magic and Michael with the end result that he and his fellow stars in Miami will be credited for making it work.
LeBron has to win, of course. But then that's always been understood, hasn't it?
• Does Miami have to win it this year? If the labor negotiations and anticipated lockout of next summer result in a hard salary cap at a much smaller number than exists today, will Miami have to break up its roster? No one knows. A lot of people in the league believe the Heat, Lakers and other popular teams can't possibly be forced to break themselves up into pieces to be dispersed in free agency (or some other form) to rival clubs. But if a lockout leads to bad feelings and small-market franchises demanding revenues be shared by the big markets and new coalitions being formed, who knows what kind of system will be born from all of that brutal upheaval.
It may turn out that this Heat roster will be grandfathered into the new system and that James, Wade and Bosh will spend the next 10 years together in Miami. But they can't afford to assume that will be the case, because there is no telling what will happen next year. They have to try to win now because there is a slight chance they'll never have this opportunity again.
• Will the Heat break Chicago's record of 72 victories? I say they won't. Two big differences are in play here.
First, those Chicago stars had been together in Phil Jackson's system for so long that they made the game look easy. How could Jordan and Pippen become more effective players even as their physical skills were diminishing? It happened for the same reason that the Celtics were a more fluid postseason team last spring than they were throughout the 2008 playoffs: because they knew what they were doing. As a group, they were wiser and more efficient.
Pat Riley has assembled a team of explosive stars, but they won't go anywhere unless they play intelligently with a cohesive understanding of teamwork. Without those qualities, their athleticism becomes nothing more than hollow promise.
The other difference between the 1995-96 Bulls and this Heat team is durability. While I expect the Heat to win the No. 1 seed, I don't think they'll become the greatest regular-season team ever because they'll be cautious with injuries. If Wade has any further problems with his hamstring, he'll sit until they're absolutely sure he's ready to play, and the same goes for James and Bosh. The goal is to win four games in June, not 72 or 73 through mid-April.
• Will they burst out to a 29-3 start? That's what the Celtics did after assembling their Big Three in 2007. But here again are two big differences between that team and this one in Miami.
Those Celtics spent practically all of September together at their practice facility scrimmaging up to five days per week. The schedules of Miami's stars permitted some informal scrimmaging in September, but nothing like the crash course undergone by Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston.
The Celtics then benefited from a full month of preseason in which to bond, including a trip to Europe that helped bring them even closer together. Boston was relatively free of injury and new connections were able to form among the players without incident. That is another luxury Miami has not enjoyed, not after the absences of Wade and James with hamstring injuries in the preseason. The most recent news of Mike Miller's thumb injury suggests that this team will face struggles that the Celtics were happy to avoid throughout their title year.
• Will the Heat make a midseason pickup? It's hard to believe they won't. Riley did an outstanding job of deepening his roster around the three stars, but they'll probably find the need for another shooter or a swingman to fill in for Miller or a bruiser up front to help Udonis Haslem with the heavy lifting. It should go without saying that a few good players on bad teams will seek buyouts in February in hopes of winning a championship with Miami.
• LAKERS. In the court of public opinion they appear to be yesterday's news, but I view the two-time defending champs as overwhelming favorites. If L.A. and the Heat were healthy in an NBA Finals, the Lakers would be favored in every matchup except for small forward, and even there, LeBron won't find the going easy against Ron Artest. The Lakers will be confident of their superiority at center, power forward, shooting guard (as I said earlier, Kobe has to get the edge over Wade) and point guard, as well as on the bench and upon the coach's elevated throne.
So now it comes down to the health of Kobe, who has been at this for 15 years, and Andrew Bynum, who at 22 remains more of an injury risk than Bryant. The Lakers deepened their bench with older players, which should be a big help during the long season ahead. But Kobe's efforts to achieve health will be a Western subplot throughout the season.
• CELTICS. They extended their bench to give coach Doc Rivers a greater variety of options than he has had in Boston. Somehow the Celtics need to keep their older players healthy while engaging themselves fully in the regular season, as opposed to last year when they glided through a lot of bad losses. As much as they've attempted to improve their poor rebounding numbers by hiring the O'Neal centers (Shaquille and Jermaine), they need KendrickPerkins to recover from knee surgery in time for the playoffs. The other question is whether Garnett -- in year two after his own knee surgery -- will continue to build on the physical gains he made during the last postseason.
• MAGIC. They appear to be third in line behind Miami and Boston, but Orlando will demand the respect of opponents by winning close to 60 games. No one thought much of the Magic two years ago either, and then they went to the Finals. They've kept their team intact, which gives them an advantage in teamwork over the Heat, and they've shown no interest whatsoever in ceding anything to Miami. The two Florida contenders will be on their way to developing the East's best rivalry if they succeed in beating each other when they meet twice in the opening month.
• SPURS. Tiago Splitter's preseason calf injury will make it harder to work him into their system, but they'll find a way to acclimate him because they have no choice. Manu Ginobili has urged his teammates and coach Gregg Popovich to earn a high seed and not sacrifice so many losses by pacing themselves during the season. They'll receive newfound energy from Splitter, as well as Tony Parker, who is going to have a big year as he tries to earn a new contract to remain in San Antonio. The Spurs -- and not Oklahoma City -- will re-emerge as the Lakers' main conference rival in the playoffs.
• MVP. The favorite is likely to be Durant, in part because of his phenomenal growth over the last year, and in part because people believe LeBron's numbers will shrink in Miami. My feeling is that James' stats won't reduce so much as they'll be reordered -- fewer points but more assists and rebounds as he seeks triple-doubles. Miami is going to lead the league in victories and James is going to have a highly focused season culminating in a third straight MVP award. But will he go back to Akron for the ceremony?
• ROOKIE OF THE YEAR. John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins may win it, but I think it will go to Clippers forward Blake Griffin. The year he spent around his team last season leaves him better prepared than any other rookie.
• COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR. This award doesn't exist anymore, but maybe it should be reinstated. Yao Ming, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu are trying to recover their status -- all for different reasons.
• CARMELO ANTHONY. Having made it clear that he won't re-sign with Denver, Anthony has left the Nuggets with no choice but to move him. Many in the league believe the Nuggets' options will dwindle the longer they wait, that they'll be able to strike a better deal sooner than later.
Commissioner David Stern's goal of cutting player salaries by one-third in the next collective bargaining agreement serves to further complicate Anthony's future. He wants to be traded to a team of his choosing -- New York is the most obvious landing spot -- and then sign a max three-year, $65-million extension before the current CBA expires at the end of this season. But will he see all of that money in the next CBA, or will Stern and the owners seek to slash all of the current contracts by one-third to meet their budget goals? (The NHL owners set the precedent by instantly cutting player salaries by 24 percent after their most recent lockout.)
The start of the season will affect this drama. The team's performance as well as Anthony's mood and the fans' reaction will deliver urgency to the trade talks. If things aren't going well around Anthony, the Nuggets will find themselves in a greater hurry to get it over with and move him.
• GILBERT ARENAS. He'll spend the first half of the season auditioning for a trade. As much as the Wizards need to rebuild around Wall, they'll also want to feature Arenas in order to move him and his expensive contract at the deadline. But he's going to have to return to his long-ago All-Star level to create interest.
• I made picks for the coming season in this week's Sports Illustrated, but I wasn't able to explain them.
So, starting with the East:
1. Miami 2. Orlando 3. Boston 4. Atlanta 5. Milwaukee 6. Chicago 7. Detroit 8. Charlotte 9. Philadelphia 10. New Jersey 11. New York 12. Washington 13. Indiana 14. Cleveland 15. Toronto
In the conference finals, Miami's younger legs will get the best of Boston in a seven-game series that will be as tight and competitive as the NBA Finals last June. The home-court advantage will turn out to be crucial for the Heat.
There are six strong teams in the East, and all of the others may wind up with losing records. The Bucks have improved, but the Hawks kept their roster together and should retain home-court advantage. The Bulls will need more perimeter shooting to move past Milwaukee and Atlanta.
Among the bottom nine teams, the Pistons have the most talent and -- health permitting -- I expect Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince (if he isn't traded) to lead them back to the playoffs at No. 7. The Raptors are lacking in star power and will finish last, though they won't be awful; look for them to win at least 20 games on nights when the ball is moving and the threes are dropping.
The teams in between Toronto and Detroit are flawed and hard to separate. The Bobcats have lost talent, leaving them weaker at point guard and center, but they still have Larry Brown, Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. The 76ers must develop Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner while rejuvenating Elton Brand. The Wizards are strong in the backcourt but skimpy up front. The Pacers will be competitive but are mainly waiting for cap space to arrive next summer. And whether the Cavs turn out to be very bad or surprisingly resilient, they'll still be defined by LeBron's absence.
I picked the Nets to nose ahead of the Knicks on a hunch. The Knicks are improved but they're going to miss David Lee's rebounding and playmaking, though Amar'e Stoudemire promises to score a few more points per game than Lee did. The Nets lost 70 games last season but they'll be defined by their newfound structure under coach Avery Johnson, who will have them playing better defense as the season wears on, and that defense will lead to more organized offense.
I figure both New York and New Jersey to have win totals in the mid-30s. My biggest concern with the Knicks involves their leadership. Connect the dots with me here: After two years of buildup, they weren't in the running for the top three free agents last summer, which could not have pleased owner James Dolan as he watched them all sign with Miami; and lately, there have been published reports out of New York that Dolan won't allow team president Donnie Walsh to hire Chris Mullin. Is everyone on the same page within that franchise? Is more turmoil on the way? The Nets had their own devastating issues last year but now they have a front-office team in place around Johnson and GM Billy King.
The bottom of the East is so tightly bunched that it's almost impossible to forecast. The Knicks may finish ahead of the Nets, but not by much. The certainty is that the Knicks won't be able to move up in a big way until they resolve whether to put their faith in Walsh.
As for the West:
1. Lakers2. Oklahoma City3. San Antonio4. Dallas5. Portland6. Phoenix7. Houston8. Utah9. New Orleans10. Clippers11. Denver12. Memphis13. Golden State14. Sacramento15. Minnesota
Pau Gasol is so good that he can win games for the Lakers while Bryant is dealing with his sore knee. The Thunder will move up as their young players continue to improve, but their lack of perimeter shooting around Durant will hurt them in the playoffs. I'm guessing the Spurs will knock them off in the second round before losing to the Lakers in the conference finals.
San Antonio and Dallas will be the main contenders to reach the Finals if injury should wreck the Lakers.
The bottom four playoff teams all have major issues. Portland and Utah could be second-half teams, as the Blazers regain their injured centers and Al Jefferson picks up the Jazz system and discipline. The Suns are weaker without Stoudemire, but they remain in the playoffs because of Steve Nash (though it may be asking too much of him to guide this thin team). I'm also figuring that Yao will recover from reconstructive foot surgery to lead the Rockets back to the playoffs.
The Hornets, Clippers, Nuggets and Grizzlies are capable of edging themselves into the postseason in their crowded conference. But New Orleans lacks depth, the Clippers always have issues, the Nuggets now have more issues than the Clippers, and the Grizzlies can't expect to make another big leap without improving their roster. The bottom three -- the Warriors, Kings and Wolves -- have talent but the West is too strong to enable them to move up.
In the end, I'm picking the Lakers over Miami.