This week's issue of SI features my annual forecast for the NBA season. In the issue, I predict the Miami Heat will defend their championship in a spectacular NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Please allow me to explain.
The Lakers are going to face the tougher bracket to the Finals because they'll have to knock out Oklahoma City, the defending conference champion. The Thunder didn't make any crucial offseason additions because their priority was to deal with a new contract (either this month or next summer) for James Harden, and also because they're counting on their young stars to improve as a group. James' loss in the 2011 Finals inspired him to make major gains last season, and Durant will be seeking the same kind of improvement. Harden will be equally demanding of himself, Russell Westbrook will benefit from another year at the point and the example of their stars -- renowned as a hard-working trio already -- will bring forth similar efforts from their teammates.
But it won't be enough to beat the Lakers. So long as they're healthy, the Lakers are going to win the matchups, and the difference-maker is going to be Pau Gasol.
Westbrook and Steve Nash are going to give each other headaches. Kobe Bryant will win his matchup against Thabo Sefolosha, and Durant will win his against Metta World Peace. Kendrick Perkins will play his normal overbearing defense against Dwight Howard. Harden will provide his typical surge of scoring off the bench, and if those were the only matters of interest in the series, then Oklahoma City would have a fair chance.
The difference will be passing. The Thunder aren't known for their halfcourt offense, and their inability to create plays for one another on that side of the floor hurt them against Miami. Nash is going to be the best passer in this series, and the Thunder might be able to survive his playmaking if that was their only worry. But the secondary option of Gasol as a playmaker in the frontcourt will make the difference. The Lakers will be able to run offense through two players -- Nash or Gasol -- while, until he proves otherwise, Westbrook will be entering the series as a score-first point guard. The Thunder have loaded up with terrific defenders in Westbrook, Sefolosha, Perkins and Serge Ibaka, but when the pace of this series slows, the winning advantage will be the ability of the Lakers to liberate each other with passing.
And yet it's not a sure thing for the Lakers, because the mileage on Nash and Bryant should give hope to the Thunder. They've invested in youth, while the Lakers are gambling that their elderly starting backcourt (a combined 91,375 regular-season and playoff minutes have been accrued by Nash and Bryant) will be healthy after another long regular season. Howard underwent back surgery this year and Gasol is coming off a tiring Olympics, and so the Thunder's goal should be to outwork and outlast the Lakers.
The deep Spurs look like a strong No. 3 in the West as Kawhi Leonard builds on a strong rookie year. But the rest of the conference is in upheaval. The roster of the rising Nuggets (my pick at No. 4 in the West) is blended superbly but lacks star power, while the Clippers (No. 5) are loaded with charismatic talent to go with a lot of injury concerns. The Mavericks (No. 7) are in transition for another year, the Grizzlies (No. 6) are being sold (which figures to result in major changes and distractions) and the unpredictability over Ricky Rubio's return from knee surgery keeps me from picking Minnesota (No. 9) to overtake Utah (No. 8) for the final playoff spot in the West.
Three title contenders stand apart from the rest of the league -- the Thunder, Lakers and Heat. The rival in the East who looks most capable of scaring the champs is Boston, because the Celtics have (in my own opinion) the league's most effective point guard in Rajon Rondo. The Heat have always had problems stopping Rondo within the schemes of coach Doc Rivers, and Rondo and center Kevin Garnett will each be confident of winning an individual matchup against Miami. If Miami was stretched to seven games in the conference finals last season despite injuries that decimated the Celtics' depth, then shouldn't the Celtics' improved depth renew their hope of upsetting Miami this time?
The problem is that Boston opens the season (on Tuesday in Miami, by no coincidence) with three stars at 35 or older (Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry). Rivers will be pacing their minutes while also integrating Terry and the rest of his new bench. The priority will be to manage health and to marry a new blend of complementary talent. At the same time, the Celtics will be competing in their own division against the improved Knicks and Nets, who won't be pacing themselves for the playoffs. The Knicks and Nets will be racing all year to win their New York rivalry. They and the Celtics all have a chance to win 50 or more games this season, but when April arrives, Boston will be more likely to back off and accept a lower seed in order to rest Garnett and Pierce for the postseason.
That's why I'm picking Boston to finish third in the Atlantic -- behind the Knicks and Nets, respectively -- and No. 5 in the East overall. The Celtics will beat Brooklyn (No. 4) in the opening round but lose in the conference semis to No. 1 seeded Miami, which will celebrate its third straight postseason win against Boston.
I'm picking the Pacers to move up to No. 2 in the East as the team grows together. Paul George will mature, George Hill will solidify himself as the starting point guard and David West will continue to distance himself from his 2011 knee surgery. I like the more experienced and defensive-minded Knicks (No. 3) to reach the conference finals at Indiana's expense.
The Bulls are penciled in at No. 7 in the East because of doubts (similar to Minnesota's with Rubio) over the timing of Derrick Rose's return from knee surgery. The 76ers will be No. 8 as they struggle to reinvent themselves around Andrew Bynum. Every franchise in the East except for Charlotte and Orlando looks forward to winter with some hope of making the playoffs in the spring.
The bottom line is that no one is going to be able to beat LeBron James this season. The league MVP is going to be driven by the confidence he earned from last year's championship and he's going to have the best season of his career. At 27, he is peaking. His teammates and coaching staff are in their third year together, and the team has improved with the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. So long as they're able to withstand Rondo's Celtics, the Heat will be headed for a showdown in the NBA Finals against Kobe's Lakers.
That promises to be the most anticipated Finals since the 1980s. The Lakers will be hungry to earn a sixth title for Bryant and a first for Nash and Howard, and they'll be aiming to establish their advantages at point guard and in the frontcourt. But the Heat will prevail because there will be no stopping LeBron. The Heat have four stars of their own, they are a fully-integrated team that excels defensively and in transition, and their best player is better than anyone anywhere. Miami wins inevitably.