THE PICKS ARE IN

A new Western power will topple the champs, but the Heat is the team to beat
December 26, 2011

WESTERN CONFERENCE

NORTHWEST

THUNDER (2)

TRAIL BLAZERS (6)

NUGGETS (8)

JAZZ (10)

TIMBERWOLVES (11)

SOUTHWEST

MAVERICKS (3)

SPURS (4)

GRIZZLIES (5)

ROCKETS (13)

HORNETS (14)

PACIFIC

LAKERS (1)

CLIPPERS (7)

WARRIORS (9)

SUNS (12)

KINGS (15)

CONFERENCE FINALS

ThunderoverLakers

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ATLANTIC

CELTICS (3)

KNICKS (4)

76ERS (9)

NETS (10)

RAPTORS (13)

CENTRAL

BULLS (2)

PACERS (7)

BUCKS (8)

PISTONS (12)

CAVALIERS (14)

SOUTHEAST

HEAT (1)

MAGIC (5)

HAWKS (6)

WIZARDS (11)

BOBCATS (15)

CONFERENCE FINALS

HeatoverBulls

NBA FINALS

HeatoverThunder

2011--12 REGULAR-SEASON OUTCOME (conference ranking in parentheses)

HOW THEY COMPARE

For some the championship window is closing, for others it's opening, and for still others it could be a while before the window even comes into view. Here's where every team stands

Five Teams That Must Win Now

Heat Miami can't—and won't—go another year without a championship.

Lakers Whether or not L.A. trades for Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant (in his 16th season) needs another title.

Spurs This could be the last relevant year for their Big Three.

Celtics Ditto.

Magic Winning is the only thing that will persuade Howard to stay—so Orlando must find a way to land a star to complement him.

Five Teams with Solid Long-term Plans

Bulls Can they beat Miami? That's going to be the question for Derrick Rose & Co. for the foreseeable future.

Thunder OKC needs James Harden to become a star with reliable range.

Mavericks Dallas is trying to create cap space for next year while seeking to repeat this year.

Knicks New York has star power but must improve defensively and decide if Baron Davis is the answer at point guard.

Clippers Seeking maturity from DeAndre Jordan, shooting and depth.

Five Good Teams That Are ... Just Kinda There

Hawks Deep and talented, Atlanta is a dark horse to push into the conference finals—but history (the Hawks have never won more than one playoff series in 43 years in Atlanta) says not to count on it.

Grizzlies Rudy Gay's return has to make them better ... doesn't it?

Blazers Tough-minded coach Nate McMillan gets the most out of his team despite a litany of injuries.

Bucks Andrew Bogut is healthy, and new acquisition Stephen Jackson should mesh well with coach Scott Skiles.

76ers Philly should build on last year's 41 wins, but the Sixers need to develop a front line around Elton Brand.

Five Intriguing Young Teams

Nuggets They have a high-energy roster, including recently re-signed center Nenê and coaches who develop young talent.

Pacers Indiana has depth, appealing assets and now David West's leadership.

Jazz Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter create enormous depth up front.

Timberwolves Can new coach Rick Adelman harness talent around rookie Ricky Rubio—who had Minnesotans chanting Olé in his Wolves debut?

Kings Sacramento has a young core of DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette--but no vets to set an example.

Five New Coaches, Five Challenges

Warriors Mark Jackson has the talent to challenge for the playoffs in his first season as a coach at any level.

Pistons Lawrence Frank will teach young Pistons to focus on details, which they sorely need to do.

Raptors Dwane Casey needs time to toughen Toronto's defense.

Bobcats The first full year with depleted Charlotte will be a long one for Paul Silas.

Rockets Former teammates believe Kevin McHale will excel in his new setting, but a thin roster means it could take time.

Five Teams Destined for The Lottery

Suns A shallow front line will keep Steve Nash and Grant Hill out of the playoffs.

Nets Everything would change with a trade for Howard or another star to play alongside Deron Williams.

Wizards Washington will continue to build patiently through the draft with cap space to be used in future years.

Hornets This season is all about finding an owner and rebuilding through the draft.

Cavs Cleveland owns the Clippers' pick too, which was a great asset until the Chris Paul trade.

Three Reasons To Pick Miami

1. The team's three stars have learned how to play together.

2. LeBron will renew his old aggressive play—with a better post game.

3. The Celtics and Lakers are a year older, the Mavs lost Tyson Chandler, and the Thunder and Knicks are at least a year away.

Three Reasons to Pick Against Miami

1. The Bulls will get more firepower from Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton.

2. The compacted schedule and especially heavy burden on James and Wade make them more vulnerable to injury.

3. Karma may not have a statute of limitations.

The Envelope, Please ...

MVP

LeBron James,Heat

He and his team will dominate all phases of the game.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Mike Brown,Lakers

His new style will rejuvenate the Lakers at both ends.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kyrie Irving,Cavs

No rookie will have a better opportunity to put up numbers.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Tyson Chandler,Knicks

New York will grow defensively behind the leadership of their new man in the middle.

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR

Neil Olshey,Clippers

He gave up a lot, but the Chris Paul deal transformed—and electrified—Los Angeles.

Five Most Pressing Issues

Kobe's happiness: How patient will he be for the Lakers to upgrade the roster after unloading Lamar Odom?

Howard's future: As the Magic seek the best offer, will his plight become this season's version of the Carmelo Anthony saga?

Mavericks' defense: Can they fill the Tyson Chandler--shaped hole in the middle and defend their title?

Stability in New Orleans: The Hornets need a new lease and an owner. With their two best players (Paul and David West) departed, how will the team that was 26th in attendance last year draw fans?

Lockout fallout: Anger from players and owners over the attempted trade of Paul to the Lakers shows feelings are still raw all around.

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PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONAPPROACHING STORM Behind scoring champ Kevin Durant, the Thunder will blow past the Mavs and the Lakers to reach the Finals. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BRYANT) PHOTOGREG NELSON (ROSE) PHOTOGARY DINEEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BOGUT) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (NENE) PHOTODAVE EINSEL/AP (MCHALE) PHOTOBOB MARTIN (WILLIAMS) PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (JAMES HAPPY) PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (JAMES SAD) PHOTONATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (CHANDLER) PHOTOWINSLOW TOWNSON (HOWARD)

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