• The Celtics will beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
It isn't easy to pick between the five title contenders -- the defending champion Lakers, Celtics, Cavaliers, Spurs and Magic (that being the hierarchy as things look today) all made big moves to improve over the summer, and any one of them would be a credible choice to win in June.
I'm picking the Celtics because they should be the best defensive team in the league based on the return of Kevin Garnett, the arrival of Rasheed Wallace, the continuing improvement of Rajon Rondo -- who could emerge as the top defensive point guard this season -- and the Tom Thibodeau schemes that make the most of Kendrick Perkins, Paul Pierce, Marquis Daniels and others.
This Celtics team has the capacity to be deeper and more reliable than the champion of two years ago. Wallace should be an upgrade over James Posey and the same should apply to Daniels over Tony Allen, who was third on the team in minutes off the bench two years ago. They still have sniper Eddie House and a useful second big man in reserve in GlenDavis, who proved in the playoffs last year that he can hit big shots -- a luxury from your ninth man. Unlike last season, the Celtics also have two expiring contracts belonging to Allen and Brian Scalabrine that could be dealt in January or February for a backup point guard or additional length in the frontcourt.
As for the Lakers, I'm not one of those who believes that Ron Artest will ruin them. On the contrary: He's an upgrade over Trevor Ariza, Phil Jackson will strike a constructive relationship with him and he's joining a championship team that can live with his unique personality.
Artest will improve the Lakers defensively at small forward, but the Celtics will be stronger defensively overall, enabling them to control tempo and overcome the Lakers' likely home-court advantage. By picking Boston to win the title, I'm predicting that the Celtics' defense will be the dominant story in the league -- not necessarily in the first month but rather as the year wears on. Age may limit them during the regular season as Doc Rivers sacrifices a win here and there while resting Ray Allen, Wallace and Garnett (all 33 or older), but let's assume they've been well paced and they're healthy going into the playoffs. By then, their age and experience should rally them as they realize this may be their final chance at a title together.
• The Cavaliers will lose in the conference finals.
As with Artest in Los Angeles, there is going to be a lot of talk that Shaquille O'Neal will cause more harm than good to Cleveland. Don't believe it. Shaq gives the Cavs an inside presence they've lacked, and to predict that he'll ruin their tempo or get in LeBron James' way is to underestimate both Shaq and LeBron. It's not as if the Cavaliers have been playing to the fast Mike D'Antoni tempo. Cleveland builds off its defense, and a team like that can always make use of a post-up center like Shaq. He'll improve the Cavaliers' ability to control the game rather than diminish it.
It's even harder to pick a winner in these Eastern finals than in the NBA Finals, because Boston and Cleveland will both dominate the defensive rankings. While LeBron will be the best player on the floor and he'll be emboldened by Shaq in the paint, I'm picking the Celtics as the more talented team across the board with a slight advantage defensively. But the real truth is that there isn't an overwhelming argument to pick either team because so little separates them.
• Orlando won't return to the NBA Finals.
One very strong contender is going to lose in the second round. This year's Eastern version of the old Phoenix Suns is going to be Orlando. That's not to disparage the Magic defensively; they ranked in the top three at that end of the floor in three-point and overall field-goal percentage last season.
Unless they beat out Cleveland for the No. 1 seed, the Magic will find themselves matched up against Boston in the second round. At that stage last year, they barely beat a Celtics team that didn't have Garnett. As much as the Magic have improved their talent with the return of Jameer Nelson and the acquisitions of Vince Carter and Brandon Bass, they still have to prove that they're better than the Garnett-led Celtics, who have also bettered themselves.
• The Spurs will fall short against the Lakers.
San Antonio hasn't been the lockdown defensive team of years past, though Richard Jefferson and a healthy Manu Ginobili may yet renew the old standards. Unless they're a superior unit defensively, they won't get out of the West because the Spurs are going to have a hard time outscoring the Lakers.
• Portland will be schooled by the Spurs.
The Trail Blazers will continue to build on last year's 54 wins as their young players improve, and Andre Miller upgrades them at point guard. But the Blazers are a long way from playing championship defense, and they don't have the offensive firepower to outscore the Spurs, who should win the close games in this second-round matchup.
• The Wizards are the most dangerous outsider.
They're going to be a fully loaded team, and if they stay healthy, they should have an excellent shot of reaching the second round and a series against the top-seeded Cavs. Cleveland will prevail, but it won't be easy.
• Utah and Denver will be tightly bunched in the Northwest.
I'm figuring a game or two will separate them. The advantage last season went to the Nuggets, who, to their credit, made the most of a year in which everything went their way. But is that fortune likely to continue throughout this season? Likewise, is Utah going to suffer as many injuries as last year? If the Jazz get healthy production from Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, they should finish second in the Northwest behind Portland.
• Toronto will return to the playoffs.
Hedo Turkoglu will give the Raptors another playmaker while creating the normal mismatches. They'll be poor defensively, but personnel losses suffered by Philadelphia (Andre Miller) and Detroit (Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess) will create opportunities for Toronto to reclaim a postseason spot.
• The Clippers will rise.
It's asking too much for them to go from losing 63 games last year to winning in the high-40s this season, which is the playoff threshold in the West; that is to say that the Clippers haven't improved quite as much as the Wizards. But No. 1 pick Blake Griffin and a resurgent Baron Davis will nonetheless transform the Staples Center JVs into the best lottery team their side of the Mississippi.
Meanwhile, the 76ers are the one lottery team I wonder about. If they play fast enough to exploit the athleticism of Lou Williams and Sam Dalembert while incorporating a healthy Elton Brand, I might regret picking the Sixers to be 10th in the East. Then again, there's a good chance I'm going to regret a lot of these picks, as always.