This Countdown to the season begins with a look at Miami. I'm sure you're all shocked by that.
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 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
I can hear all of the maudlin talk already. Because when you win in this country, all is forgiven.
It was forgiven of
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
LeBron has to win, of course. But then that's always been understood, hasn't it?
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.
First, those Chicago stars had been together in
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.
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
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
So now it comes down to the health of Kobe, who has been at this for 15 years, and
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.
• I made picks for the coming season in this week's
So, starting with the East:
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
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
I picked the Nets to nose ahead of the Knicks on a hunch. The Knicks are improved but they're going to miss
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
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:
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
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.