2010-11 Preseason Crystal Ball

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THOMSEN: East -- Heat over Celtics. West -- Lakers over Spurs.

JENKINS: East -- Celtics over Heat. West -- Lakers over Trail Blazers.

LOWE: East -- Heat over Magic. West -- Lakers over Spurs.

ROBSON: East -- Heat over Magic. West -- Lakers over Trail Blazers.

MANNIX: East -- Celtics over Heat. West -- Thunder over Lakers.

FORRESTER: East -- Celtics over Heat. West -- Lakers over Spurs.

THOMSEN:Lakers. The Lakers will control most of the matchups against Miami for their 17th championship, tying them with Boston for the most in league history and lifting Kobe Bryant into a tie of his own with Michael Jordan for the most championships by a league MVP in the modern era.

JENKINS:Celtics. It will be another seven-game series between the Celtics and Lakers, only this time, Boston will have home-court advantage and it will be better equipped to control the inside. Shaquille O'Neal will thumb his nose at Kobe afterward, even if he didn't contribute anything but fouls.

LOWE:Lakers. The Lakers' size is just devastating, and it will be enough to get by the Heat (barely) in the Finals.

ROBSON:Heat. With home-court advantage, the Heat's new Big Three take it in six games over the back-to-back champions.

MANNIX:Celtics. Oklahoma City's dream ride comes to an end at the hands of the experienced Celtics, but the NBA will relish a series played in front of two of the league's most vociferous home crowds.

FORRESTER:Lakers. The chance for Phil Jackson to capture his third three-peat, and for Kobe to match Michael Jordan's six titles, proves too much for the Celtics. This time, though, it'll end in six games.

THOMSEN:LeBron James. It's a tough one, and most may pick Kevin Durant here. But I'm going to say LeBron puts up provocative across-the-board numbers while leading Miami to the league's best record.

JENKINS:Kobe Bryant. Some Lakers may not take the regular season seriously, but Bryant will. It is preposterous to think he has only one MVP in his career. He deserves another before passing the mantle to Durant.

LOWE:Dwight Howard. The voters will probably look away from both LeBron and Dwyane Wade, reasoning -- perhaps unfairly -- that the presence of another transcendent star undermines the MVP qualifications of each player. That leaves a handful of other leading candidates headed by Howard and Durant. Things will tip Howard's way if the Magic win 60-plus games and he, once again, plays defense better than anyone.

ROBSON:LeBron James. LeBron snag the award for the third year in a row, because his assists and rebounds might actually rise while the Heat amass a won-lost record in line with what the Cavs accomplished the past two seasons. Durant will make it a close race with another superb season and the likability factor that helped Steve Nash win the award twice. Kobe, playing for a Lakers team biding its time, won't be in the top five.

MANNIX:Durant. James will flirt with a triple-double average, but a monster offensive year from Durant on a 60-win team will power him to his first trophy.

FORRESTER:Durant. James' Tour of Self-Destruction makes it unlikely he defends his crown, especially with his playoff failure last season still fresh in everyone's mind. With Durant already being positioned as the anti-LeBron, it will be hard for him not to win it.

THOMSEN:Blake Griffin. A free year of conditioning rehab and up-close studying of the league will help Griffin outplay Washington's John Wall, Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins and San Antonio's Tiago Splitter.

JENKINS:Griffin. Yes, the NBA still classifies him as a rookie. Griffin used the time he spent recovering from knee surgery to remake his outside shot, one of the few areas in which he needed to improve. He is about as polished as a first-year player gets.

LOWE:Griffin. If you think Griffin can put up a 15-and-10 season right away, it's hard to vote for anyone else. Other rookies will have wonderful first seasons, but no one will be as consistent as Griffin.

ROBSON:Griffin. Wall, Minnesota's Wes Johnson and Cousins will also be in the mix. But watch out for Indiana's Paul George and San Antonio's James Anderson as sleepers.

MANNIX:DeMarcus Cousins. Like Tyreke Evans a year ago, Cousins will put up big numbers on a team with no shot at the playoffs. Griffin and Wall will make this race the tightest in years.

FORRESTER:John Wall. Griffin looks like he could be a beast, but the Clippers' depth of talent (no, that isn't a joke) softens his impact compared to Wall's in Washington. Flip Saunders is a great offensive mind who makes good connections with his point guards, as he was one himself.

THOMSEN:Rockets. They'll return to the playoffs around a renewed Yao Ming, who, by season's end, will be second among NBA centers to Dwight Howard.

JENKINS:Hornets. Chris Paul will get back in the MVP conversation, Trevor Ariza will flourish in an up-tempo offense and the Hornets will be one of the more entertaining groups to watch. Paul may even think about staying.

LOWE:Warriors. This is the hardest question in the survey. We know who the top six in the Eastern Conference will be, and we know the rest of the conference will fight for those last two seeds. Would any combination of teams in the 7-8 spots really surprise you? Likewise, we shouldn't be shocked if the Rockets, Hornets or Grizzlies sneak into the playoffs if Phoenix or a Carmelo Anthony-less Denver team falls out. So I'll go with a Golden State team that has a rejuvenated Monta Ellis, a dynamite pick-and-roll combination in David Lee and Stephen Curry and a few other interesting pieces. The system Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus uses projects Golden State to win 49 games. That seems like a stretch, but if it pushes 40, that would qualify as a surprise.

ROBSON:76ers. They will make the playoffs under new coach Doug Collins. The Pacers will be better than expected but their upside is minor, and don't expect anything like another Oklahoma City or even Memphis team from last year. Only the Kings have that potential, and they're another year or two away.

MANNIX:Wizards. The three-guard lineup of Wall, Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich will pose matchup problems all season long and keep the Wizards in the fight for a playoff berth.

FORRESTER:Cavaliers. I get the feeling Cleveland won't be as horrid as everyone thinks. That doesn't mean the Cavs will be a playoff team, but they will be in the conversation for the No. 8 seed. Byron Scott's Princeton offense will allow Cleveland to outscore a lot of teams, and this roster's motivation to prove it wasn't a bad supporting cast for LeBron will propel the Cavs toward a .500 mark -- assuming the Cavs don't do what they should and deal some veterans at the trade deadline.

THOMSEN:Nuggets. Denver will go from a conference finalist two years ago to a lottery contender as its most impressive talents are either shown the door or leave by choice.

JENKINS:Bucks. Expectations are awfully high, considering Andrew Bogut is still experiencing pain in his surgically repaired right hand and their most impactful offseason additions were Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden.

LOWE:Nuggets. Too much uncertainty surrounding Carmelo, and too many health issues in the frontcourt. If you think the Rockets will jump back in the playoffs (and I do), one of last year's top eight has to go back into the lottery. Denver is a prime candidate.

ROBSON:Bucks. But it's worth pondering: If neither Boston nor Oklahoma City makes it to the conference finals, are they flops? And, despite their obvious talent, don't you expect the Clippers to flop? So among the supposed playoff teams, I have to go with Milwaukee. With Phoenix following close behind.

MANNIX:Suns. Nash will prop up the Suns for as long as he can, but the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire is just too much to offset.

FORRESTER:Nuggets. From Anthony's impending departure to George Karl's health issues to a new front office, the Nuggets could spiral out of control quickly. There are too many agendas and outside concerns for this team to keep pace as a realistic contender in a tightly packed West.

THOMSEN:Timberwolves. Minnesota will have another long year as it relies on Michael Beasley to be its go-to scorer while undersized Kevin Love leads the frontcourt.

JENKINS:Timberwolves. They were only three games better than the Nets last season and that was when they had Al Jefferson.

LOWE:Timberwolves. The Wolves' 6-2 preseason makes me nervous about this pick, as does the fact that this will be a deeper and more talented team than last year's pathetic outfit. But the league's other bottom-feeders have gotten better, and perimeter scoring will remain an issue in Minny.

ROBSON:Raptors. They couldn't crack .500 with Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu, and they've overpaid for Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson.

MANNIX:Cleveland. The Cavs will compete, but they will be outgunned on most nights. Further gutting of the team by midseason could be in the offing.

FORRESTER:Pistons. Detroit has tried to avoid the wrecking ball for years but continues to sink further. With last year's 27-win disappointment fresh in Joe Dumars' mind, there will be nothing left to stop him from dealing Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, even if only for cap space and draft considerations. Those will be smart moves for the future, but not for the months ahead.

THOMSEN:Stephen Curry. The Warriors will show all-around improvement under new coach Keith Smart, helping to showcase the leadership skills of Curry as an All-Star contender at point guard.

JENKINS:Aaron Brooks. The next elite point guard, Brooks already scores nearly 20 points per game, shoots nearly 40 percent from three-point range and cannot be slowed in the open court. He just needs to raise his assist totals, which will be easier with Yao back.

LOWE:Roy Hibbert. As always, there are many players primed to have breakout seasons, and you can add Jerryd Bayless to that list after Saturday's trade sent him to New Orleans, where he'll play a bigger role than he ever could in Portland. But in terms of both quality of play and public recognition, few have a chance to break out in as big a way as Indiana's 7-2 center.

ROBSON:Blake Griffin. But the emergence of Nicolas Batum in Portland and Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City as reliably vital contributors to teams on the rise will be more important.

MANNIX:Roddy Beaubois. Beaubois's dynamic offensive skills will make him hard to keep out of the lineup. And Dallas won't want to with Jason Kidd and Jason Terry getting up there in age.

FORRESTER:Al Jefferson. He's finally healthy after a knee injury last season and, more important, freed of the Timberwolves' misdirection. Jefferson will emerge as a cog in the Western Conference playoff race with Deron Williams feeding him in the post and Jerry Sloan teaching him how to trust his teammates when facing double teams down low.

THOMSEN:Erik Spoelstra. This is why coaching is such a miserable business: The Heat's Spoelstra has earned an opportunity most of his peers will never know, but it comes with expectations that three controversial, young stars bond as champions instantaneously. Good luck to him.

JENKINS:Flip Saunders. After everything went embarrassingly wrong last season, the Wizards caught a break with Wall. Saunders does not have the luxury of bringing him along slowly.

LOWE:Jay Triano. If you're in a Which Coach Will Get Fired First? pool, put some money down on Triano. There aren't any expectations for the first season of post-Bosh life in Toronto, but that doesn't mean there isn't any pressure on Triano. He lost control of this team last year and doesn't appear to have a firm grip on it as we enter the new season. If the Raptors start slowly again and defend as poorly as last season, Triano might not make 2011.

ROBSON:John Kuester. Dumars has been notoriously impatient with his coaches in the past, and he remains in denial about the dismal prospects for success in Detroit. Lionel Hollins also needs a good start in Memphis.

MANNIX:Mike D'Antoni. The pressure is on D'Antoni to turn the Knicks into a playoff team. The additions of Stoudemire and Raymond Felton have ratcheted up expectations.

FORRESTER:Spoelstra. The Heat roster has a lot of holes (size, depth), but with all of the attention the new trio has asked for, anything less than regular-season dominance is going to be a disappointment. And with the rest of the league sick and tired of hearing about the Heat, Miami will be everyone's measuring stick this season. That could make it hard for Spoelstra to ease his stars' minutes for the playoffs and for the Heat to bring it every night over the next five and a half months. Spoelstra will survive, but it may not be pretty.

THOMSEN:Carmelo Anthony. The Nuggets won't want to move Carmelo for pennies on the dollar, but they'll do so when a deal saves them money in the short term along with face-saving young talent or picks on which to build.

JENKINS:Nuggets. Assuming Anthony goes before the deadline, Chauncey Billups could very well follow, and Denver will look like Cleveland West.

LOWE:Anthony. Carmelo is the easy answer to the question and, as of now, the best one. So-so players on expiring contracts won't have the same value as they've had in previous years, since the market is saturated with such players, plus a couple of major trade exceptions. And if Denver believes Anthony will leave as a free agent, it'll deal him.

ROBSON:Anthony. He's the no-brainer choice. However, if things get ugly in New Orleans and Paul is moved, that'll be the bigger storyline.

MANNIX:Anthony. It's too hard to imagine Denver's allowing Anthony to walk away in free agency next summer. Negotiations could drag on until February, but Anthony will eventually find his way out of town.

FORRESTER:Anthony. The $65 million contract extension he hasn't signed is starting to yellow at this point. Since Cleveland and Toronto have become danger zones, the Nuggets won't wait and become the next cautionary tale. Carmelo will be gone before the trade deadline.