SI.com's NBA writers give their predictions for the 2012-13 season.
Conference Champions & Finals Picks
In their third year together, the Heat are deeply bonded with an improved roster and a supremely confident LeBron James. They're deep, hungry and not too old. They defend, score in transition and have numerous half-court weapons around the versatile James.
Oklahoma City likely maximized its value for James Harden, and if Jeremy Lamb and a likely 2013 lottery pick pan out, the Thunder could be even stronger over the next few years. But losing Harden -- particularly his fourth-quarter playmaking -- opens the door for the Lakers to push past OKC. Then, the Lakers' burly frontcourt will overwhelm Miami in the series everyone has been waiting for.
Miami had a few close calls in the 2012 postseason, but with better health, a fully actualized team concept and some substantial offseason improvements, it enters the season as the convincing title favorite. This is the Heat team that those around the league feared when the stars aligned in the summer of 2010. After almost two years of throat clearing, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have settled into a frighteningly flexible rotation. No roster is better suited for in-game adjustment, and whether the Heat are contorting to attack an opponent at a point of weakness or bludgeoning foes with elite talent, they stand as the league's most formidable and complete outfit.
I had the Thunder a week ago, but without James Harden, it will be more difficult for them to secure home-court advantage, which is so crucial to their chances. They are still much deeper than the Lakers, but the margin is not what it was, and their two-and-a-half stars will have to match up with L.A.'s four. The Lakers, as evidenced by their 0-8 preseason, will require time to find a rhythm. But now the Thunder will need an acclimation period as well. The Lakers, who have proved they can win on the road in the playoffs, will work out the kinks by April. They have the experience, the motivation and the surplus of late-game options to thrive in the postseason. They also have the size and point-guard savvy to face down the Heat in an epic Finals.
How do you pick against a defending champion that brings back every important piece, including the best player in the world in his prime, and adds two nice role guys in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis? Miami proved it could withstand adversity and injury during its jaunt through the 2012 playoffs and enters the season without any obvious health questions. Miami is more talented than the Thunder, more cohesive than the Lakers and significantly more athletic than the Spurs; the reloaded Celtics could very well prove to be the Heat's toughest test for the second straight season.
In beating the Thunder for the title, the Heat came to embrace, and play to, their unique composition with a position-less approach. There will be challenges, but no team has as much flexibility and talent as Miami has in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Now with Ray Allen in the mix, the Heat have become a pick-your-poison matchup. With a title in hand, LeBron and Co. can tune out all the critics and play for legacy. Only an injury may prevent them from adding another trophy.
The flood gates are officially open. The Big Three completed the first step of its South Beach mission by winning a title in June. Now it's prepared to defend the throne with reinforcements. Not only did Miami add Ray Allen, but it also returns an unburdened LeBron James and a healthy Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. All of a sudden LeBron's "Not one, not, not three ..." prediction sounds a little more realistic.
Most Valuable Player
LeBron James :: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Thomsen LeBron James. He's in his prime and should feel like he owns this award. No one in the league does more across the board to help his team. Having won three of these awards already at age 27, James may equal or surpass the record six MVPs of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Mannix LeBron James. It's LeBron's world, and we're all just living in it. The best player on the planet will once again put up staggering numbers across the board, making it impossible not to vote for him.
Mahoney LeBron James. James is the best basketball player on the planet, boasts a historically unique skill set and is finally rid of the bile and baggage that followed him from Cleveland. Let's not overthink this; LeBron is the hands-down favorite and the easy choice for MVP barring a drastic change to the league's hierarchy.
Jenkins Kobe Bryant. One problem with the super teams is the possibility that their best scorers split MVP votes: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and ...? The Lakers are loaded, but Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will settle into facilitating roles, and Dwight Howard will be counted on mainly to protect the rim. Playing without the ball for the first time since the '90s, Bryant will post one of his most efficient seasons, and earn credit for grooming Howard to take over the team. This is a long-shot pick, but Bryant is claiming he feels stronger than at any point in the past five years, and he should thrive without the constant double teams he is so accustomed to facing. He's not going to be around much longer -- two or three more seasons -- and he has only one MVP award. By April, he will be the sentimental choice.
Golliver Kevin Durant. He can't score this many points and win this many games for this many years without taking home the MVP at some point. Durant offers the full package -- ungodly stats, team success, A+ personality -- plus he keeps adding elements to his game. LeBron James voter fatigue has to kick in eventually.
Forrester LeBron James. Voter fatigue is the only thing that can keep James from a fourth MVP award. The Heat transitioned last season to become James' team, allowing LeBron the freedom to be LeBron. Now, with the burden of winning a title lifted, James is free to explore the limits of his game, whether that means playing more at power forward or distributing to triple-double levels. Ray Allen promises to open up even more room for James to operate, which has to be a scary thought for 29 other coaches.
Dollinger Kevin Durant. Little is stopping LeBron from winning a fourth MVP outside of voter boredom. But the fire burning under Durant might also do the trick. The three-time scoring champ is as motivated as ever after last season's Finals loss. That pain could lead Oklahoma City to the best regular-season record and a first MVP award for Durant.
Thomsen Anthony Davis. No rookie is better suited to make an immediate impact than Davis, who won the NCAA championship and the Olympic gold medal before entering the NBA. The Hornets promise to make a big improvement in the standings and Davis' role as a defensive leader and a scorer in transition will be crucial.
Mannix Anthony Davis. Davis will be a menace defensively, and early returns from the preseason show that he could be more advanced offensively than expected. In a close race, Davis will edge Portland's Damian Lillard, who will have every opportunity to score.
Mahoney Anthony Davis. Damian Lillard will manage to turn this race into a coin flip by year's end, but Davis' two-way impact -- and massive reputation -- will likely win him the hardware.
Jenkins Damian Lillard. Lillard spent four years in college -- yes, four years -- learning how to run the pick-and-roll, the play that permeates the NBA. He shot better than 41 percent from three-point range during his senior year at Weber State, so teams won't be able to play off him, giving Lillard plenty of opportunities to drive and dish. He will be paired with the ideal pick-and-roll partner, LaMarcus Aldridge, who can pop out for short jumpers and dive to the rim for layups and dunks. Lillard is not as quick as Chris Paul or as explosive as Russell Westbrook, but he is powerful and polished, so he should be able to plow through the so-called rookie wall. The Blazers will be much improved and Lillard will receive a lot of the credit.
Golliver Anthony Davis. This one always comes down to opportunity and statistics; Davis won't lack for minutes with the Hornets and he's never had a problem putting up numbers. It's not unreasonable to suggest that he could make a run at averaging a double-double. That production, his ability to make SportsCenter with alley-oops and impossible blocks and the name recognition he built up while winning a title at Kentucky and a gold medal with USA Basketball should be enough to hold off Damian Lillard, his toughest competition.
Forrester Anthony Davis. The No. 1 pick earns that distinction for a reason, and with the wingspan to protect the paint and the quickness to disrupt passing lanes, Davis is a one-man defensive shot of Red Bull. The one concern was his lack of polish on offense. While preseason results should be taken with a large grain of salt, Davis has quickly become one of the focal points of the Hornets' offense, showing a confident mid-range touch. If he carries those improvements into the regular season, Davis could engineer one of the bigger turnarounds in the league.
Dollinger Damian Lillard. Anthony Davis is the best big-man prospect in years, but Lillard was the steal of the draft at No. 6. The co-MVP of the Summer League will make the five teams that passed on him regret their decision, and every other team will realize he's the real deal.
Thomsen Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs will remain stubbornly in contention as they continue to transition to a younger new era. Their next leader is Leonard, who will make the move from complementary performer to become a versatile go-to star of the NBA's most resilient program.
Mannix Kenneth Faried. The Nuggets opened up more minutes for Faried by dealing Al Harrington, and the Manimal -- who averaged 11.7 points and 8.4 rebounds in 25.2 minutes a game after the All-Star break as a rookie last season -- will deliver. Don't be surprised if Faried is a top-five rebounder this season.
Mahoney Eric Bledsoe. The 22-year-old guard's game is loaded with the kind of nuance that simply makes his team better. Case in point: He led the NBA in adjusted plus-minus in both the regular season and the playoffs last season as a second-year player (per Basketball Value), all while thriving in a variety of roles and positions. With more frequent chances to flourish as an on-ball disruptor and cutting savant, he'll become a highly valued part of the Clippers' regular rotation and experience an Avery Bradley-like rise.
Jenkins Greg Monroe. The list of skilled centers in the NBA doesn't include more than five names, and Greg Monroe should be one of them. Monroe is not enormous by league standards -- 6-foot-11, 250 pounds -- but he is shockingly nimble. In only his second season, Monroe led the Pistons in points, rebounds and even steals, but received little recognition because his team was such an afterthought. The Pistons won't be much better, but they drafted 270-pound power forward Andre Drummond, who should command some attention and free up Monroe to produce even more.
Golliver Klay Thompson. This deadeye shooter with range and size looks poised for a big sophomore season after averaging 12.5 points and shooting 41.4 percent from deep as a rookie. On a team filled with injury questions, the durability he showed playing all 66 games last season is a major asset. And, with Monta Ellis moved to Milwaukee at least season's trade deadline, Thompson should enjoy a green light and as many minutes as he can handle for an entire year. That's a good formula for making the leap.
Forrester Kawhi Leonard. In his first year, Leonard was crucial to the Spurs' NBA-best-tying regular season. He helped make them the top offensive team by hitting 37.6 percent from three-point range. He offered Tim Duncan some much-needed help by chipping in 5.1 rebounds. And though he wasn't quite a defensive stopper, Leonard was active enough to stay on the floor longer than most rookies for coach Gregg Popovich. Leonard struggled in the Western Conference finals, but the trust he earned last season, and the need to keep San Antonio's star trio rested, should lead to more minutes than the 24 he averaged in 2011-12. That should mean more threes, more rebounds, more steals and a bigger impact on each game.
Dollinger Klay Thompson. Thompson finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting last season, but he could turn out to be the second-best player in the 2011 draft class, behind Kyrie Irving. Thompson showed signs of improvement in the preseason after averaging 12.5 points and shooting 41.3 percent from three-point range in his first year. If Stephen Curry's ankle doesn't hold up, Thompson could become the face of the Warriors.
Best Team That Won't Make the Playoffs
Thomsen Kevin Love will miss at least the first few weeks of the season, who knows how long Ricky Rubio will be out, Brandon Roy is trying to come back from what appeared to be career-ending knee issues and Andrei Kirilenko had a long-running bout of injuries in his previous tenure with Utah. I believe the Timberwolves are on to something and that Rubio and Love will form a winning partnership, but it isn't going to happen this season.
Mannix My inclusion of Minnesota as a playoff team in the Western Conference means someone has to go. That's Utah, which still needs a stronger backcourt to complement its big, talented front line to contend in the conference.
Mahoney Several deserving Western Conference teams are likely to be stuck in the lottery this season, and my money's on the Jazz to be the first out. They'll be good, but through injuries and all, I find the Mavs and Timberwolves to be slightly sturdier teams. Both will surely start slowly, but by season's end I see them overtaking Utah for the final two playoff spots.
Jenkins They look like a playoff team, with a franchise point guard in Stephen Curry, talented wings in Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, a refashioned frontcourt with Andrew Bogut and David Lee, and a brimming bench. But they're already saying Bogut will likely miss Opening Night because of his troublesome ankle, and Curry suffers from ankle problems of his own. The Warriors will tantalize their loyal fan base, and show promise for the future, but ultimately fall just short again.
Golliver Also known as "Whoever finishes ninth in the Western Conference," this one will come down to Dallas, Golden State and Minnesota. Assuming Dirk Nowitzki is back quickly as expected, look for the Mavericks to squeeze into the playoffs, leaving the Warriors and Timberwolves on the outside looking in. Both teams have injury problems to key players, but Golden State can find success playing small if center Andrew Bogut can't get right and it did well to hedge against point guard Stephen Curry's ankle drama by picking up Jarrett Jack. The Timberwolves will have to reintegrate Ricky Rubio midseason, play the constant "What will we get from him?" game with Brandon Roy and make do early in the season without their franchise player, Kevin Love.
Forrester The Jazz have built a well-balanced roster with quality low-post threats in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, floor-spacing shooting from Gordon Hayward and Mo Williams and intriguing athleticism from Alec Burks and Derrick Favors. The problem is economics. Jefferson, Millsap and Williams will make a combined $32.1 million this season, and each will be a free agent next summer. With Utah's long-standing reluctance to delve into the luxury tax, and cheaper, younger talents already on the roster, the Jazz might not re-sign any of the three. That means all are priced to move for young players and draft picks. With the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff ladder sure to be tight, moving a veteran will save Utah money, but it could cost the Jazz a postseason berth.
Dollinger The Timberwolves finished with the fifth-worst record in the West last season, but at full strength they're a playoff team. Unfortunately, we won't see them at that level for quite some time with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio hurt. Rick Adelman's bunch is deeper and more talented than last season, but injuries could keep it from living up to its potential.
Thomsen While the big-market teams stockpile the biggest stars, the Nuggets have trended against the curve by acquiring team-minded contributors who fit the sprinters' style of coach George Karl. They're going to be hard to beat, especially on their elevated home floor. This team promises to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Mannix Much of the Pistons' success hinges on the backcourt of Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey, as well as Corey Maggette's not souring the mix. But if things fall right, Detroit could sneak up on some people. The Pistons have a rising star in Greg Monroe, and rookie Andre Drummond's strong preseason suggests that he is ready to pair with Monroe in an intimidating frontcourt.
Mahoney Perimeter defense is going to be a consistent problem, but the Hawks shouldn't lose any speed offensively despite liquidating Joe Johnson via trade. A full season of Al Horford and a contract year for Josh Smith will go a long way, and Atlanta could push for one of the East's middle playoff seeds.
Jenkins Now they will have to be a really big surprise, because Kevin Love is out for the first month, in addition to Ricky Rubio. Last season, the Timberwolves started well before fading, and this season will be the opposite. The injuries should give Derrick Williams an opportunity to emerge, which will help the Wolves down the road, as long as they can keep themselves within striking distance of a playoff spot. The Western Conference will be as competitive as ever and the Wolves will have to edge Utah, Golden State and possibly Portland. When they get back to full strength around Christmas, they can do it.
Golliver The first thing you think about when it comes to the Hawks is the big-name departures: Joe Johnson (traded to the Nets) and Marvin Williams (traded to the Jazz). But there's a second side to this coin. GM Danny Ferry did well to dump long-term salary commitments while also assembling a solid rotation that has four very capable guards (Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Lou Williams and Anthony Morrow), a reliable All-Star at center (Al Horford) and an All-Star-caliber power forward (Josh Smith) who should be plenty motivated during a contract year. That's more than enough to clinch a playoff spot in what many might have assumed would be a rebuilding year after the Johnson trade.
Forrester Despite the early-season absences of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, there are a lot of reasons to believe the Wolves will still reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004. There's Rick Adelman, whose history as a turnaround artist is as underrated as his offensive schemes. And that's to say nothing of his experience forging winning teams in Houston without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady at various times. There's a rebuilt level of depth, with Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger trumping the departed Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson and Martell Webster. There are the developing Nikola Pekovic, who proved to be one of the NBA's most productive big men on a per-minute basis last season, and former No. 2 pick Derrick Williams, who reportedly spent the summer working on his conditioning and ball-handling. Finally, there are Love and Rubio, who are good enough to fuel a second-half run should the Wolves get off to a slow start, which is likely.
Dollinger The Grizzlies came within a Game 7 of making the Western Conference semifinals last season, and they could be ready to get there this season. O.J. Mayo is gone, but a rejuvenated Rudy Gay and a slew of hard-nosed role players will make them one of the toughest outs in the league. Their big-man duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is second only to the Lakers' superstar tandem.
Thomsen They're going to make the playoffs in Year 2 of their transition, so it's unfair to refer to this team as a disappointment. But it's also fair to point out that the Mavs won't be living up to their inordinately high standards. Dirk Nowitzki is going to miss fellow leaders Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.
Mannix Expectations are that the Bucks will compete for a playoff spot, and GM John Hammond made smart, savvy moves to bolster the frontcourt in the offseason. But I'm not sold yet on the Brandon Jennings-Monta Ellis pairing -- two ball-controlling guards in contract years -- and if they struggle, Milwaukee's offense will go south, quickly.
Mahoney Phoenix wasn't exactly a heavy hitter last season, but life without Steve Nash should prove to be a humbling experience. Things never turn out well for teams loaded with decent players but lacking All-Star talent. Gone will be the top-10 offense, and there's a very real possibly that Phoenix's D goes from very bad (24th in the league last season) to worse.
Jenkins Jason Kidd is coming of the worst season of his career. So is Raymond Felton. And these are supposed to be the point guards who make New York forget about Jeremy Lin and lead the Knicks to an Atlantic Division title. It's more likely they finish third, behind the Celtics and Nets, squeezing into a final Eastern Conference playoff spot again. As long as Amar'e Stoudemire is healthy (he's expected to miss the start of the season), the Knicks' front line will be strong, with Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony. But the backcourt, and especially the point, remains problematic.
Golliver The Carmelo Anthony/Amar'e Stoudemire tandem still doesn't work, a motivated Raymond Felton is still only a marginal player and the big-man rotation, aside from Tyson Chandler, can't be trusted to stay healthy or play heavy minutes. There's still enough to qualify for the postseason, but that's it. Given how many headlines these guys consistently generate, that's enough to count as a flop.
Forrester Despite a run to Game 7 of the second round last season, red flags abound: After starting 20-9 last season, the Sixers went 15-22 the rest of the way before catching a break in the first round when Derrick Rose tore his ACL; Doug Collins reportedly lost much of his locker room last season and has burned out himself or his players in every previous stop, which may be why he has never coached an NBA team beyond three seasons (this is his third in Philadelphia); and new center Andrew Bynum, who has played more than 65 games only once in his career (and sat out six of 66 last season), already has missed the entire preseason with knee discomfort. Sure, everything could break perfectly with the Sixers' new faces meshing with Collins. But that's asking for a lot of pieces to fall in line, maybe too many for one season.
Dollinger Skyscraper expectations don't help, but the Knicks could be poised for disaster. Amar'e Stoudemire's knee injury might be just the beginning. After adding a group of marquee-named, over-the-hill veterans, New York is built around players who could break down at any moment. Jeremy Lin's departure takes away some distractions, but it also takes away some of the magic and optimism. Carmelo Anthony will get his, but the rest of New York's season isn't as certain.
Coach of the Year
George Karl:: Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
Thomsen George Karl. He'll be the only coach of a team with home-court advantage that wins without a traditional superstar. Andre Iguodala, it must be noted, has been a reluctant scorer throughout his career, but Karl's up-tempo system of scrambling defense and fluid offense will make the most of a roster that has been built to his style of coaching.
Mannix Rick Adelman. There are few better offensive minds than Adelman, who will expertly navigate Minnesota through early-season injury problems. When Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio reunite in December, the reloaded Wolves will surge into the playoffs.
Mahoney Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra is the perfect candidate for the Coach of the Year award: He has a winning innovation, a roster set for a gaudy win total and some shiny new jewelry. Plus, with the improvement of the Lakers, Nets and Nuggets attributable to their star acquisitions, Spoelstra's strategic growth will draw even more deserved praise and attention.
Jenkins Tom Thibodeau. He won it in his first year and would have won it in his second if Gregg Popovich had not discovered the fountain of youth in San Antonio. Nobody does more with less than Thibodeau, who led the Bulls to the best record in the Eastern Conference again last season, even with an ailing Derrick Rose. Now that Rose is out at least until midseason while recovering from knee surgery, expectations are at the floor. But if Thibodeau's track record is any indication, the Bulls will still be one of the best defensive teams in the league and one of the hardest working. They will more than tread water until Rose returns, make a late dash and earn Thibodeau another trophy.
Golliver Erik Spoelstra. Rick Adelman would have been the pick here had Kevin Love not self-inflicted serious injury via knuckle push-ups. In lieu of what would have been Minnesota's irresistible feel-good playoff push, Spoelstra takes this home with a 60-plus-win season, the street cred that comes with Miami's 2012 title and his innovative re-imagining of player positions around LeBron James.
Forrester George Karl. This isn't to say that Karl will be a better coach this season than he has been in years past, but his Nuggets may be too good to ignore. In 24 years on the bench, Karl has won in all manners -- with offenses run at breakneck speeds, with defenses geared toward suffocating opponents, with egos big and small -- but he's never captured the award. To this season's Nuggets he adds Andre Iguodala, who should provide a needed shot of defensive adrenaline to a team that ranked third in offensive efficiency last season. The Nuggets will battle the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs for first place in the West. Considering the lack of a true superstar in Denver, the notion that the team's whole is more than the sum of its parts may garner Karl the honor.
Dollinger Mike Brown. The Lakers seem like a lock to win at least 50 games, but Brown has a chance to turn his new-look megasquad into something historic. Much of that hinges on the Lakers' newly implemented Princeton offense, but Los Angeles should have no problem making its second-year coach look good even if its offense doesn't fit the pieces.
NBA's Best Point Guard at Season's End
Chris Paul :: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Thomsen Rajon Rondo. Whether his Celtics meet the Heat in the second round or the Eastern Conference finals, once again they're going to give Miami its most difficult test thanks to Rondo. Other point guards are rated ahead of Rondo individually, but none has proved capable of doing more for his team, and no point guard is better on the biggest stage. Rondo might not win one-on-one contests, but no rival point guard is more valuable to his team.
Mannix Chris Paul. The competition will be fierce, but Paul has the talent (Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford and a returning Chauncey Billups join a second-round team) and motivation (contract year, baby!) to have a monster season.
Mahoney Chris Paul. Paul has done more than enough to establish himself as the league's best point guard until further notice. Essentially, we're waiting on Derrick Rose's health (and growth), Russell Westbrook's restraint or Kyrie Irving's evolution before there's even a discussion to be had on the subject, and I'm not counting on any of those possibilities to come through in a single season.
Jenkins Rajon Rondo. Maybe this reads too much into last season's Eastern Conference finals, when Rondo averaged more than 20 points in addition to 11 assists and nearly seven rebounds, repeatedly burning the Heat with surprising mid-range jumpers. Rondo shot better than 48 percent in that series, and even sank some threes, prompting hope that he can begin to make defenses pay for leaving him. In one offseason, Rose remade his shot, and he won the MVP award. Rondo already does everything else on the court, and if he can build off his success against the Heat, he could assume the point guard mantle.
Golliver Chris Paul. This one shouldn't be up for debate, not with Derrick Rose expected to miss a significant portion of the season while recovering from knee surgery. Paul's chief competition, Russell Westbrook, might put up better scoring numbers, but there's no question that Paul is the league's best all-around floor general. His reputation as a late-game monster continues to grow, and it gained a world stage during USA Basketball's run to the Olympic gold medal.
Forrester Chris Paul. Last season, Paul ranked second in assist-to-turnover ratio, led the league in steals and shot a solid 47.8 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three-point range. Most important, he made the Clippers relevant enough to persuade Blake Griffin to sign a five-year extension (that alone might make him the game's best general manager). Presuming Griffin improves, Paul should have no problems posting a similar performance. Though Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford are low-wattage additions, Paul can incorporate them into making the Clippers a sneaky-potent playoff team. And that is Paul's greatest gift: getting a team that is clearly a step below the elite to punch above its weight.
Dollinger Rajon Rondo. Chris Paul is the league's most complete point guard, but Rondo is its finest. The Celtic is already a game changer with his court vision and ability to wreak havoc on defense. Is this the year he adds more scoring to his repertoire? If so, look out.
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