My sense is that several of these picks demand explanation, if not rationalization, so please allow me to explain the logic (or lack thereof) that went into my decisions.
1. The Knicks earn the No. 6 seed in the Eastern conference playoffs.
I'll be hearing a lot of jeering if New York doesn't start strong, because the free-world consensus is that the Knicks will habitually crumble and force owner James Dolan to consider replacing team president and coach Isiah Thomas with Jerry West, Kiki Vandeweghe or another big name.
But I look at the Knicks roster and see a team that's hard to guard, whether in the halfcourt with their low-post scoring and backcourt shooting, or in the open court with their wings fully extended.
When the Knicks acquired power forward Zach Randolph, many skeptics doubted whether he and center Eddy Curry could play together in the post. It's true that Randolph will be forced to move out of the paint to make room for Curry, who is the less versatile scorer. But Thomas can reduce the conflict with his three-big rotation of Randolph, Curry and David Lee, whose passing will bring out the best in either of the other two. If Lee gets 30 or more minutes then Randolph and Curry will rough it together for one quarter of every game, which means their chemistry issues shouldn't define the team.
I'm also guessing the improvement of Nate Robinson will make a big difference, giving the Knicks a true point guard -- a meddlesome ball-hawking defender at one end and a distributor at the other -- that will enable Stephon Marbury to shift off the ball. Robinson, Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Lee and Randolph or Curry is not a bad lineup in the East, especially when augmented by a lot of young legs from the bench.
Of course they have too many non-defenders and non-passers. But I'm imagining they'll play hard for Thomas in an us-versus-world kind of way, leading to a strong start up to the All-Star break. Then I can see them fading while the better teams are gearing up. At the moment it's politically incorrect to forecast good things for the Knicks. And while no one should take my prediction as a show of support for Thomas' hurtful testimony or for the phenomenally (and characteristically) stupid decision by ownership to not settle out of court, this team should win 43 to 45 games with a variety of styles that will make for an interesting playoff matchup.
2. Denver beats out Utah to win the Northwest.
The Nuggets look like a spectacularly flawed team with a lot of weapons, but with little attention to defense or execution in the halfcourt. But Carmelo Anthony is capable of trumping all of their issues; this is going to be the year he is recognized as an elite player after investing five of his last seven summers with USA Basketball. Last summer Anthony was the leading scorer for the U.S. team while ranking second to Dwight Howard (5.3) in rebounds with 5.2 per game. It was a huge statement, because if Anthony's rebounding numbers improve for Denver this year then he'll be turning the corner from a one-dimensional scorer to the kind of leader who can contend for MVP someday. If you see Anthony piling up rebounds this season, you'll know he isn't leaking out on the fast break anymore -- and that will be noticed as a personal sacrifice meant to improve his team.
The Nuggets need to win in order to subvert all of the high-maintenance egos in their locker room. While it's hard to imagine a wild, full-court team such as Denver overrunning the Spurs or other championship contenders in the postseason -- when defense and halfcourt execution grow crucial -- the timing is right for the Nuggets' talent to streak through the regular season. Anthony is maturing, Allen Iverson is running out of time, Kenyon Martin needs to show that he isn't the Wicked Witch of the West and they have that terrific frontcourt of Nenê and defensive player of the year Marcus Camby. For this one year the good should overwhelm the bad.
3. The Nets and Lakers miss the playoffs.
The Nets look like a tired team, which may be why ambitious team president Rod Thorn has investigated trades for Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson over the past year. The formula isn't quite right: Kidd, 34, is at his best in transition, but the Nets can't afford to run him all-out, or 30-year-old Vince Carter either. So they settle into their halfcourt offense -- negating Jefferson's talent in the open floor -- in which Carter settles for too many jumpers on too many nights.
On paper the Nets look like they should contend for the conference title, but can they keep up with the young legs and energy of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or the entire Chicago Bulls rotation? They're not as deep as the Pistons, and they lack the ambition of the old, but rejuvenated, Celtics. I recognize this is a long-shot, but I envision the Knicks mustering up more energy than the Nets this season.
And yet the latter half of the Eastern playoff race is going to be so ridiculously tight, with a few games separating No. 10 from No. 6, that I won't be surprised if the Nets fight their way into the postseason. At the same time, I'll be even less surprised if Thorn is back on the phones trying to negotiate a major shakeup of his team before the trade deadline in February.
As for the Lakers, the only reason to believe in them is Kobe Bryant -- and not even Kobe believes in them. My guess is that the Lakers will continue trying to trade for Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal or another star to placate Bryant. But they'll need more than one big deal to restore hope.
4. The Pistons beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
Detroit looks like the only team in the East that can match up with Boston: Rasheed Wallace can deal with Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince can cover Paul Pierce and Rip Hamilton can stay with Ray Allen. That leaves Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess to put them over the top.
The question about the Pistons is whether they have the energy to do it, and whether they'll play hard for Flip Saunders. Does he have control of the team? The bigger question is whether the Pistons players can generate the enthusiasm? These guys have been around for so long and won so many games together that no coach could tell them what to think or how to act. They're going to be self-starters, and the fact that Wallace lost weight and looks primed to deal with KG tells me that they're excited about the newfound challenge from Boston.
As much as the Celtics will be trying to win it this year, their best opportunity to contend will come in 2008-09. Newly-assembled teams don't win the NBA championship right away. Give the three stars a full year together, give Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins a year to grow up with deep playoff experience, and give Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge a year to figure out how to fill out their bench.
5. The Mavericks beat the Pistons in the NBA Finals.
Dallas is the forgotten team of this preseason. Because they've blown it twice in the playoffs -- wasting a 2-0 lead in the '06 NBA Finals, then spoiling a league-best 67-win season with their opening-round loss to the Warriors last spring -- there is a sense that their opportunity has passed. My argument is that it arrived prematurely: This is a young team with a young coach, and it was naïve to think they could win a championship without having to learn from mistakes. I'm anticipating more maturity from coach Avery Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Devin Harris. I see Howard turning the corner as Scottie Pippen did for the Bulls years ago, giving them the reliable No. 2 star that every champion requires. Harris will emerge as one of the better point guards in the league this year offensively, and one of the very best at the defensive end -- though no one should expect him to guard Baron Davis one-on-one.
I remember when Gregg Popovich's Spurs used to struggle in the postseason and people would say that Phil Jackson was outcoaching him (a claim that obscured the advantages of Shaq and Kobe). Johnson obviously had a lot to learn. Is he smart enough to turn his experiences into wisdom? We all know the stubborn resiliency he showed as a player, so I'm imagining that he'll assess his failures and grow from them.
We're going to see a new toughness and maturity from the Mavericks that will grow over the course of the season. Going into the playoffs they will be the consensus team to beat, and while they'll surely need some big plays to get out of the West, I'm betting they'll navigate their way to the title as firmly as the Spurs did last year.