This week's issue of Sports Illustrated features my annual predictions for the coming season. Please allow me to explain myself ...
I'm picking Miami to beat Oklahoma City in what is likely to be an anticlimactic NBA Finals. I like the Thunder to emerge in the West for a number of reasons, starting with the ever-growing leadership of Kevin Durant. They've been together for a long time, and that continuity and shared understanding will enable them to survive the absence of a normal training camp and preseason. Not only should they be able to pick up where they left off last spring, when they reached the conference finals, but they're young and deep enough to push through the compacted regular-season schedule that will leave teams with fewer days of rest in between games.
They're also going to realize their investment in center Kendrick Perkins, who was injured the first three months of last season but will now form an intimidating defensive front alongside shot-blocking power forward Serge Ibaka. The playmaking of 23-year-old point guard Russell Westbrook should continue to improve, as should the shooting of 22-year-old sixth man James Harden, who is viewed by rival contenders as a future star.
The defending champion Mavericks rank near the top of the Western contenders who may prove me wrong about Oklahoma City as a breakthrough Finalist. The Mavs lost Tyson Chandler to New York in order to preserve their cap space and flexibility after this season, but they picked up Lamar Odom to join Jason Terry in leadership of a second team that is better than some starting units in the NBA. I'm also guessing the Lakers will be stronger than anticipated (provided Kobe Bryant can recover from his recent right wrist injury), and that the new approach of Mike Brown (my favorite to win coach of the year) will help them earn the No. 1 seed in the West. Unless they make a major trade before the March deadline, however, they won't be able to keep up with the Thunder in the conference finals.
I have a hard time imagining anyone preventing LeBron James and Miami from winning the title this season. Like the Thunder, the Heat will benefit from the togetherness they developed last year, and they're young enough to deal with the issues of this truncated season. Had they held on to their fourth-quarter lead in Game 2 of the Finals, they could have been champions last season. But that loss will turn into an inspiring series of lessons for them, by forcing James to improve his post-up game and inspiring Chris Bosh to accept more minutes at center. So long as they are healthy, the Heat have a chance to emerge as the best defensive and transition team in the league, to go with an offense that can only show improvement in the half court around the finishing of Dwyane Wade.
The anticipated dominance of Miami should enable James to win MVP for the third time in four years. He will reclaim the trophy from Chicago point guard Derrick Rose, whose Bulls will benefit from the arrival of Richard Hamilton and increased production from Carlos Boozer. But the experience and firepower of the Heat will distance Miami from both Chicago and Oklahoma City in the Final Four of the playoffs.
I'm picking the Celtics to win the Atlantic Division in spite of a challenge from the Knicks, who will spend this season developing their defense around Chandler (my pick to win defensive player of the year). I forecast Orlando to win the No. 5 seed in the East in spite of the credible trade speculation around Dwight Howard. If he is moved, the bottom will fall out on the Magic, but I'm keeping them ranked high so long as he remains on the roster.
I'm also anticipating a tight race for the final two playoff spots in the East among Indiana, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, with the improvements made by the Pacers and Bucks pushing them slightly ahead of the 76ers.
As many as 13 teams in the West can hope to make the playoffs -- everyone but the Hornets and Kings. The return of Grant Hill gives Steve Nash's Suns a chance to reach the postseason, despite their thin front line, while the hiring of new coaches Mark Jackson, Rick Adelman and Kevin McHale creates hope for the Warriors, Timberwolves and Rockets. The most intriguing of these teams is Minnesota, which is asking Adelman to make sense of a talented but underperforming roster.
The Spurs, Grizzlies and Clippers should compete for a high seed, but each team ranks in the second tier of Western contenders. I've penciled in the Trail Blazers and Nuggets as playoff teams based on the track records of their outstanding coaches (Nate McMillan and George Karl), but they could be overtaken by several challengers in this deep conference.