SAM AMICK: East -- Heat over Bulls.West -- Thunder over Lakers.
ZACH LOWE:East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Mavericks.
BRITT ROBSON:East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Mavericks.
CHRIS MANNIX:East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Lakers.
PAUL FORRESTER:East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Mavericks.
THOMSEN:Heat. Miami's three stars will play more cohesively, and the distress of last year will toughen LeBron James and Chris Bosh and make them more dangerous than ever. At both ends of the floor, Miami will be the league's best.
JENKINS: Heat. With other contenders in flux, the Heat suddenly look steady. Free of the relentless scrutiny that followed them early last year, they will start quickly, and the experience they gained in last season's Finals will help them edge the Thunder at the end.
AMICK:Heat. We all seem to forget they were only two games away from winning it all last postseason. This time, the season's worth of chemistry, coupled with the addition of Shane Battier, will make the difference.
LOWE: Heat. The Heat are going to be the favorites as long as the James/Dwyane Wade/Bosh trio is healthy. Their case is only stronger now that the Mavericks are without Tyson Chandler, the Lakers are in a state of semi-chaos, the Magic have essentially stood pat and the Celtics and Spurs look aged. The Bulls could push the Heat, as they did last season in a very competitive five-game conference finals, and the Thunder will be beasts. But Miami has the most talent, and even if Battier remains its only meaningful upgrade, that acquisition plus better health for the supporting cast might be enough.
ROBSON: Thunder. LeBron won't escape the pressure cooker until he wins a title, and after his mysterious no-shows at crucial points in the past few postseasons, I lack the faith that he can deliver. Plus, if it comes down to these two teams, OKC matches up very well.
MANNIX: Thunder. A slimmed-down Kendrick Perkins provides Oklahoma City with a rugged low-post defender to match up with past Thunder tormenter Pau Gasol in the West finals. An improved Russell Westbrook will rebound from a heavily scrutinized 2011 postseason and the Westbrook/Kevin Durant/James Harden trio will send Miami home without a title for the second straight season.
FORRESTER: Heat. With all of the roster shuffling going on around the league, the Heat's salary-cap restrictions have kept their roster relatively stable. Though last season didn't produce one of the six-plus titles LeBron predicted from the start, it did give the Big Three (and especially the Big Two of James and Wade) a chance to figure out how to play together. And given the talent on Miami's roster, good chemistry should be worth at least another two more wins in the Finals than the Heat grabbed last June.
THOMSEN: LeBron James. I picked him to win this last year, and it's a more certain choice this time because he has a much better understanding of how to win with this Miami team. And he has all the skills -- including a more aggressive post-up game -- to make it happen.
JENKINS: Kevin Durant. He was the MVP of the lockout, dominating the summer street-ball circuit, and spent enough time in gyms to improve his post-up game. He will be the scoring king for the best team in the West.
AMICK: Kevin Durant. The two-time scoring champion will find a way to best the likes of reigning MVP Derrick Rose, James and Dwight Howard to earn his first trophy. And, no, the Westbrook dynamic that sparked so much controversy in last season's playoffs will not get in Durant's way.
LOWE: Kevin Durant. I don't see a Rose repeat, and my choice from last season, Howard, might switch teams at some point, complicating his candidacy. Chris Paul will make the Clippers into a winning team, but he'll split the Clippers-based MVP talk with Blake Griffin. LeBron is the best player in the league, but playing with Wade and Bosh will always make it hard for him to win this award in the eyes of many voters. So let's go with Durant, one year after everyone thought he'd win it. He, too, has an All-Star teammate in Westbrook, but Durant is the top-dog scorer and the Thunder are better positioned than any team to handle the compressed schedule.
ROBSON: Blake Griffin. Another year's experience and the addition of Paul will allow Griffin to post incredible stats; meanwhile, his team should dramatically improve, and he already has the marketing momentum of his "wow" factor. Runners-up: Durant, Dirk Nowitzki.
MANNIX: LeBron James. Bad PR aside, James quietly put together another impressive season (26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists per game) in 2010-11. It was James' clutch shooting and shutdown defense on Rose that pushed Miami to an improbable (well, in December anyway) Finals appearance. Expect more of the same from a looser, more comfortable James this season.
FORRESTER: Kevin Durant. The compressed schedule likely means veteran teams such as the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks will favor rest over domination in the regular season. That will open the door for the Thunder's young legs to sprint atop the West, and MVP voters love a winner -- especially one with gaudy stats.
THOMSEN: Kyrie Irving. No other rookie will have a better opportunity to put up big numbers than the Cavs' point guard, who, for the time being, is the face of the franchise.
JENKINS: Ricky Rubio. He won't score a lot and he will struggle at times to defend, but he will already be one of the best passers in the league. Get ready for some Rajon Rondo-esque stat lines as Rubio makes a similar impact in Minnesota.
AMICK: Derrick Williams. The former Arizona star has the sort of game that translates immediately, and he'll show all season long why he could have -- perhaps, should have -- been the No. 1 pick instead of going No. 2 to Minnesota. New coach Rick Adelman isn't known for relying on young players, but Williams will convince him to make an exception on the upstart Timberwolves.
LOWE: Kyrie Irving. This award more than any other is about minutes, and with Baron Davis gone, we can be pretty confident that Irving, the top pick of the draft, is going to pile up some nice-looking numbers on a bad team. Other rookies stand to get serious playing time, including Kemba Walker in Charlotte, Williams in Minnesota, Iman Shumpert in New York and as many as a dozen others. But Irving is the safe choice, and the safe choice is usually right in the end.
ROBSON: Kyrie Irving. Irving and Williams both looked NBA-ready in their first preseason games, and Irving will get more minutes. He'll also have a better rookie year than John Wall a season ago. Sleepers: Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Rubio and Nikola Vucevic.
MANNIX: Kyrie Irving. The Cavs' decision to waive Davis cleared the way for Irving to receive big minutes. Coach Byron Scott has an excellent track record with point guards (Jason Kidd, Paul) and will give Irving a long leash to make mistakes. A pair of Timberwolves (Williams, Rubio) will push him, but if Irving stays healthy, it's his award to lose.
FORRESTER: Kyrie Irving. Assists will be hard to come by on a team this limited, but Irving showed in his limited time at Duke that he's a capable scorer driving the lane or stepping behind the three-point arc. Scott has a good track record in understanding what makes a great point guard tick and helping him flourish, and that bodes well for a player who professed his desire to be tutored by now-former Cav Davis and to earn his way into the starting lineup. And if that doesn't make the difference, the Cavs' lack of talent will still get Irving the playing time and stats he'll need to sway voters for the award.
THOMSEN: Lakers. It's been too easy to write them off after last season's playoffs and the departures of Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom. But this remains a highly skilled team, and coach Mike Brown's new energy will renew them.
JENKINS: Timberwolves. They lost a ton of close games to top teams last season. They won't make the playoffs, but they will be respectable under Adelman, who is raising the defensive intensity and highlighting the Rubio-Kevin Love connection.
AMICK: Celtics. When word leaked that general manager Danny Ainge was looking to swap Rondo for Paul, the widely held assumption was that the Celtics' incumbent floor general would go into a funk as a result. The opposite will prove to be true, with Rondo dominating and Boston's Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen making one more push in the East before the band is broken up (Garnett and Allen are free agents next summer).
LOWE: Nuggets. People sort of wrote off the Nuggets when Nene entered free agency and half the team went to China. But with Nene and guard Arron Afflalo both re-signed, the foundation of a team that tore through the league last season is still here. The Nuggets nearly led the league in both points scored and allowed per possession after the Carmelo Anthony trade last February, and if Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari continue their upward trajectory, this should be a playoff team -- and a dangerous one.
ROBSON: Nuggets. Not many people expect Denver to be a top five or six team, but that lineup is deep, well-blended and attuned to coach George Karl's preferred "get after it" style. I also like the 76ers to battle for home-court advantage in the first round. And the Kings have a load of talent and will take a big step forward if a pecking order can be established and DeMarcus Cousins grows up.
MANNIX:Pacers. Indiana addressed its need at power forward in the offseason by signing two-time All-Star David West. A West-Roy Hibbert combination will be formidable, as will third-year point guard Darren Collison, who last season proved he can be a full-time starter. If second-year swingman Paul George can settle into the starting shooting guard role, the Pacers could fight their way into the top five in the conference.
FORRESTER:Pacers. With Paul now in L.A., it would be a surprise if the Clippers didn't challenge for a top-four seed. Quietly, though, the Pacers have built up a team that could make more than a token appearance in the postseason. West is an offensive option on his own, and his mid-range game will create more space for Hibbert to continue his improvement down low. George showed flashes of explosiveness as a rookie and, after growing two inches to 6-foot 10 in the offseason, he figures to be an unsightly matchup for opponents. Throw in the steady production of Danny Granger (four straight seasons averaging at least 19 points and five rebounds per game), and Indiana is likely to be in the mix to host a playoff series in Round 1.
THOMSEN: Kings. This young team is extremely promising, but Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Fredette are lacking in strong-willed, experienced teammates to lead the way.
JENKINS: Suns. Two years ago, they reached the Western Conference finals. Last year, they flirted with .500. This year, they will fall back further, intensifying the pressure to move Steve Nash and start the rebuilding process.
AMICK: Hornets. A Western Conference front-office man once told me that a healthy Paul would be worth 20-plus wins to most teams who were lucky enough to land him. The opposite is likely to be true in New Orleans. After Monty Williams' impressive debut season as coach, he'll have a much harder time without the four-time All-Star point guard and West. The Hornets aren't without talent (specifically, they acquired two starters in the trade with the Clippers in All-Star-caliber shooting guard Eric Gordon and veteran center Chris Kaman), but they will struggle.
LOWE: Warriors. You could argue for the Lakers, Spurs or Celtics -- the league's three aging titans. The wheels are bound to come off for one sooner than expected, but all three look to be outside the league's elite already. You could reason the Grizzlies, Clippers or Knicks won't live up to expectations, but all look solid from here. The Magic will flop if they deal Howard, but they lost in the first round last postseason with him. With no fantastic candidate, I'll go with Golden State, which basically struck out in free agency and does not look like a playoff team -- despite rookie coach Mark Jackson's guarantee.
ROBSON: Magic. We've seen this distraction scenario before. I have a lot of respect for coach Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith, but they rolled the dice on some trades last year and lost the gamble. Now they'll lose their superstar for quarters on the dollar. But Orlando is a no-risk pick. I'll throw out the possibility that either or both of the storied Celtics and Lakers could crumble this season. Things can get ugly when proud veterans put forth maximum effort only to realize it isn't even close to being enough.
MANNIX: Celtics. The Celtics are entering uncharted waters. The Big Three are still playing at a high level and Rondo is a consistent, All-Star-caliber playmaker. But after failing to sign West and losing Jeff Green for the season, the frontcourt is awfully thin and the second unit will rely heavily on Marquis Daniels -- the same Daniels whose career looked to be over when he suffered a neck injury last February. It may take a resurgent year from Jermaine O'Neal and steady contributions from rookies JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore for the Celtics to make any kind of run in the postseason.
FORRESTER: Magic. When your franchise star begins the season saying he'd rather play elsewhere, an early-summer parade likely isn't in your future. And that's a shame for the Magic. The pieces are there for a sleeper run deep into the playoffs, but Howard's trade request has pushed this season into the background. Trade packages will take precedence over wins and losses. And with Howard already stating his preference to play in New Jersey, Dallas or with the Lakers in Los Angeles, his commitment to weathering another season with Van Gundy in his ear is questionable at best. The bottom won't drop out, but a fall into the bottom half of the East playoff bracket is probable.
THOMSEN: Bobcats. They lack scoring and defense as they continue to transition to a new era. On the other hand, the strength of the draft makes this a good year to win the lottery.
AMICK: Jazz.Utah lost 17 of its last 25 games after Deron Williams was traded to New Jersey last February, and there's no reason to think that trend won't continue. The continued development of young forward Derrick Favors should help. But as general manager Kevin O'Connor decides whether to trade some of his biggest contracts (power forward Paul Millsap and forward-center Al Jefferson tops among them, after Thursday's trade of Mehmet Okur to New Jersey), the Jazz will struggle mightily.
LOWE: Bobcats. It'll be a battle between MJ's team, the Cavaliers, Raptors and Hornets, but when Corey Maggette is your go-to scorer, you're in trouble. Coach Paul Silas did well with Charlotte down the stretch last season, and a healthy Tyrus Thomas will help a ton if he plays like he did early last season. Gerald Henderson grew into a legitimate NBA starter last season. But there is very little here, and Reggie Williams' early-season injury is a further blow to their scoring ability.
ROBSON: Bobcats. When you are relying on Thomas for leadership, the iceberg is dead ahead. But if Walker retains his winning gene from college and lifts Charlotte, I think it would come down to the Raptors and -- if they are properly focused on rebuilding instead of winning -- the Jazz.
MANNIX: Raptors. The Raptors had a quiet offseason (sorry, Gary Forbes), preferring not to try to tack expensive, long-term contracts onto a roster stocked with them. That left Toronto with largely the same set of guys who muddled through a 22-win season. The Raptors' first-round pick, Jonas Valanciunas, will spend the season in Lithuania, while coach Casey will try to revamp a defense that gave up a league-worst 112.7 points per 100 possessions. It could get ugly in Toronto -- quickly.
FORRESTER: Cavaliers. This figures to be a four-team race between the Bobcats, Cavaliers, Hornets and Pistons. My money is on the Cavs. Rookies Irving and Tristan Thompson upgrade the talent level, but last June's draft picks were just the start of Cleveland's rebuilding process. The Cavs are in full asset-allocation mode, which means any player not named Irving or Thompson is available in a trade. That also means any player who helped the Cavs at least scratch out a historically awful 19 wins last season (Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao) should keep their bags packed. The next four months may get the Cavs to where they eventually want to go, but it won't be pretty.
THOMSEN: Tyson Chandler. The championship he won last year in Dallas, his defensive presence on the Knicks and the spotlights of New York will turn Chandler into a star in his own right.
JENKINS: James Harden. Once considered a bust, Harden emerged in the 2011 playoffs as a creative playmaker and accurate outside shooter. His presence on the perimeter elevates Oklahoma City into the elite.
AMICK: Arron Afflalo.The Nuggets were wise to hold on to the fifth-year shooting guard, whom they signed to a five-year, $43 million deal recently. He is a rare two-way talent who should have no shortage of opportunities this season with Carmelo in New York and former Nuggets Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin unable to play in the NBA until around March because of deals they signed with teams in the Chinese Basketball Association.
LOWE: Ty Lawson. John Wall is too easy, and already sort of a star. And don't mention LaMarcus Aldridge and Gordon -- they already broke out. So among tons of candidates, including his teammate Danilo Gallinari, I'll go with Lawson, even though Denver keeps acquiring veteran point guards (Andre Miller this time) to steal his minutes. The guy is an ultra-efficient offensive player and is going to put up stats if given time.
ROBSON: Jrue Holiday. He took a big step forward last year in his second season, averaging 14 points, 6.5 assists and four rebounds and playing solid defense for Philadelphia. According to 82games.com, he had a more positive impact on the Sixers than anyone else in the rotation in a season in which they improved by 14 wins. Plus, he's only 21 and has great size for a point guard. Runner-up: Danilo Gallinari.
MANNIX: Eric Gordon. Gordon is playing for a new contract on a New Orleans team with few, if any, viable scoring options. Gordon averaged a career-high 22.3 points last season, but with the Hornets he could push 30.
FORRESTER: Ty Lawson. With Raymond Felton shipped off to Portland, the starting point guard duties should belong to the former Tar Heel (though Miller is there, too). In 31 games as a starter last season, Lawson averaged 14.6 points (on 50.9 percent shooting from the field and 44.2 percent from three-point range), 6.7 assists, 1.4 steals in 32.1 minutes. A full season getting 30-plus minutes per game and running Denver's fast-paced, efficient offense will enable Lawson to break out.
THOMSEN: Erik Spoelstra. Miami has to win the championship this year. And it will.
JENKINS: Vinny Del Negro. A former point guard, he must bond with Paul, and fast. The Clippers control Paul's rights only for two years -- not much time to prove they can win a championship.
AMICK: Paul Westphal.Westphal enters the third and final season of his Kings contract having totaled just 49 wins in his first two seasons. But he should survive if he can start the upward swing with the Kings' young core of Evans, Cousins, Marcus Thornton and rookie gunner Fredette. If not, the Kings could wind up having a new coach for the sixth time since 2006.
LOWE: Mike D'Antoni. He's a great coach, and there are other solid candidates here, but I'll take D'Antoni as he enters the final year of his contract in New York. Mike Woodson is now sitting there as a possible interim replacement, and if this team gets off to a poor start, especially defensively, you can bet there will be rumblings about D'Antoni's future. Phil Jackson's name will come up. Knicks owner James Dolan might have unrealistic expectations for immediate championship contention, and they will work against D'Antoni.
ROBSON: Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro is probably out of his depth in the situation he now faces. Also, don't discount the pressure on D'Antoni, who needs to win big with a dramatically improved defense now that Chandler has joined Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
MANNIX: Mike D'Antoni. In the final year of his deal, D'Antoni has a defensive backstop (Chandler) to erase the mistakes made by Stoudemire and and a dynamic point guard in Baron Davis who, when healthy, is a more-than-capable playmaker. With speculation that Phil Jackson could be lured back to New York -- and who would be surprised if the Zen Master gave credence to that rumor at some point during the season -- it may take a top-four finish and at least one playoff series win for D'Antoni to come back for another season.
FORRESTER: Vinny Del Negro. Expectations are higher than they've ever been for the Clippers, and Paul is guaranteed for only the next two seasons, so patience will be short. It isn't every year Donald Sterling agrees to pony up some $70 million in new contracts in addition to getting Paul. He's going to want a return on that investment -- not only in the season tickets the Clippers have sold, but also in the public relations coup they hold over the Lakers. Del Negro needs to win -- and fast.
THOMSEN: Dwight Howard. Does he go to the Nets, Lakers or a mystery team? One thing we do know: We've seen the same dynamic play out too many times elsewhere to think Howard will change his mind and re-sign with Orlando.
JENKINS: Dwight Howard. GM Otis Smith took Howard off the market, but he can't risk losing him for nothing. Unless the Magic get off to a great start, Howard will be moved by the trade deadline, and the Lakers remain a natural trading partner.
AMICK: Dwight Howard. Orlando won't deal the big fella until the deal is right, but most signs still point to his eventual departure to the Nets or Lakers.
LOWE: Dwight Howard. We all said Anthony would be the biggest trade last season, and we were right, though the Nets may have trumped the Melo deal by snagging Deron Williams out of nowhere. There is no bigger trade than a deal involving Howard, so as long as his trade request stands, you have to put his name here.
ROBSON: Dwight Howard. I'm sure this is the consensus choice, with the only debate being whether he goes to the Nets, Lakers or some bold owner looking to make a splash. For a riskier guess, I'll say Carlos Boozer, with the Bulls going with the cheaper option of Taj Gibson. I also think it is possible that a blue-chip franchise like the Lakers or Celtics, or perhaps even the Spurs or Mavs, might find themselves far enough behind at the trading deadline to consider parting with a marquee name to position themselves for the future. And there is always Steve Nash, the reluctant king of the rumor mill.
MANNIX: Dwight Howard. New Jersey or L.A.? L.A. or New Jersey? Magic brass is talking tough about trying to keep Howard now, but the possibility of getting LeBron'd or Bosh'd (verbs, in the NBA vernacular) will force Orlando to pull the trigger before the trade deadline. The question is: Will the Magic go for the rebuilding package (Brook Lopez, multiple draft picks) offered by the Nets, or will they take the most appealing piece (the Lakers' Andrew Bynum) in an offer that would ship Howard out of the conference?
FORRESTER: Dwight Howard. Howard's departure from Orlando is a matter of when, not if. And make no mistake, for as much drama as the Paul trade created, Howard's will create a bigger impact. Shaquille O'Neal he isn't, but Howard is a dominant enough presence to make an also-ran a contender and a contender a champion. And at 26, his impact has the potential to shift the balance of NBA power for a decade. That's a possibility that is sure to attract offers from more than Russian billionaires.
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