I'm here to explain why I'm picking the Heat to reach the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year, why I'm predicting the Thunder to beat them in June, and why I'm guessing that Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki will make the playoffs at the expense of the Grizzlies and the Nuggets. (For the full list of my predictions and how they've been influenced by the new collective bargaining agreement, please see the NBA preview in this week's Sports Illustrated.)
Can we agree, for starters, that there is good reason to pick against every NBA contender this season? The Heat have relied increasingly on LeBron James as the postseason production of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has gone into recent decline, and they'll be hoping for Greg Oden to revive his career in time to help them stave off the big front lines that will stand between them and a third straight title. Those issues may yet turn into winners for Miami, but the trends are not cause for optimism.
The Bulls are counting on Derrick Rose, who hasn't played a full playoff game since 2011. The Nets are relying on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who haven't won a championship since 2008. The Pacers need Paul George to become a go-to star in his fourth season. The Clippers' two stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, have never played beyond the second round. The Spurs' leaders will be a year older since their loss of the championship they should have won, while the Rockets, Warriors and Knicks have far too much to prove before they can be ranked among the title candidates.
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That leaves Oklahoma City, which at first glance has been weakened by the losses of James Harden and his replacement, Kevin Martin. It's true that the Thunder don't have a reliable sixth man; it's also true that they aren't going to have Russell Westbrook until December, probably.
But I'm assuming that Westbrook will come back strong from his knee injury, because he's only 24 (turning 25 next month) and had never missed an NBA game until he collided with Patrick Beverley in the opening round of the playoffs last spring. There would be no such faith if he was going to turn 32 in January like Wade, or if he was burdened with Wade's history of knee issues. But Westbrook is free of those concerns, and it's no stretch to imagine him harassing opposing point guards and attacking the basket throughout the second half of the regular season.
As much as the Thunder are going to miss Harden and Martin, there isn't a rival in the league that isn't facing a serious issue of its own. I like the Thunder's chances best of all because their deep bench gives them hope of developing a second unit that can attack as a group -- relentlessly and athletically and with unrivaled size from Nick Collison, Hasheem Thabeet and rookie Steven Adams as backups to starters Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
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The most important asset for Oklahoma City is the enormously productive leadership of Kevin Durant and Westbrook. They have emerged as the best 1-2 duo in the NBA, and their talent -- combined with their hunger and experience -- makes them favorites (in my mind anyway) to hold off the improved Clippers, resilient Spurs and all of the other challengers in the deep West.
The pairing of Durant and Westbrook also gives OKC a chance to overcome LeBron, who is likely to win his fifth MVP this season. That chance will improve because of the blend of experience and peaking athleticism of the Thunder's core. They've been together for years, they've been frustrated, they've grown, and their rotation has been augmented by a variety of young athletes who will maintain pressure against the Heat's older role players.
Some are predicting that the Heat won't survive the Eastern playoffs. The prediction here is that they will -- but that the second and third rounds will leave them tired and vulnerable by the time they face Durant's Thunder.
One interesting development entering this season is the separation of five certain playoff teams in each conference. The ultimate difference between the two conferences is that the West, once again, has more depth. I like the Hawks and Wizards to make the playoffs, but after that it's hard to come up with another postseason team in the East that doesn't have major issues.
The problem with predicting the West is to decide which of the many qualified teams to leave out. By my account, there are a dozen playoff contenders in the West, including the top regular-season five of the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors. At No. 6, I went with the controversial pick of the Lakers, because 1) it's only right to show faith in Bryant and 2) this team reminds me of the Knicks under coach Mike D'Antoni early in the 2010-11 season. Back then, New York spread the floor around Amar'e Stoudemire and surprised the league with a slew of role players who had little value going into that season. In this case, the Lakers will be spreading the court around Pau Gasol, with Steve Nash (and backups Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar) playing out of the flow and Kobe arriving out of the trainers' room sometime in the early season.
I went with the Mavericks as the No. 7 seed based on the same reasoning as the Lakers: Nowitzki enters the season with something to prove after two disappointing years, and I'm not going to pick against him as surely as I wouldn't dismiss Bryant. I've also gone with the Timberwolves as a playoff team at No. 8 thanks to my belief in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
The Grizzlies and Nuggets, who ranked in the top five of their conference last year, will be adjusting to new coaches. Memphis has been deconstructing for the last year under new ownership and management, while the Nuggets figure to spend this year adapting their unique roster around Brian Shaw while waiting for the return of leading scorer Danilo Gallinari. There will be no collapse by either team, as both will be in the playoff race all year. But there will be no 50-win season either, not with the improvements of the Blazers, Pelicans and other rivals in that highly competitive conference.