This year, I’m going to preview the NBA season by starting with the lowest of the low and working my way up to my Finals picks. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff also-ran, I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason.
#5: Orlando Magic
Doesn’t it seem like the mojo that the Magic had a couple of seasons ago is long gone? The Vince Carter trade backfired and the supporting pieces don’t seem to fit as well as they used to. Rashard Lewis is coming off his worst season in a decade, and the team didn’t do much of anything to improve in an offseason where the rest of the East got a lot better. That said, there’s still a lot of talent in Orlando and they’ll compete each and every night, assuming the players don’t start to tune Stan Van Gundy out. But unless Dwight Howard suddenly finds a go-to post move, I don’t see the Magic getting out of the East when they have to get by the Heat, Celtics and Bulls. Cap-wise, Orlando’s payroll is bloated ($94 million) and there’s no relief in sight until the Summer of 2013, when Lewis finally comes off the books. More and more, the Magic are starting to resemble the Dallas Mavericks. A huge payroll can buy lots of talent, but it can’t buy a championship.
#4: Oklahoma City Thunder
I hesitate putting the young Thunder this high, but OKC took the Lakers to seven games last spring and Kevin Durant’s performance at this summer’s FIBA World Championships indicates that he’s hasn’t yet reached his ceiling. Throw in and improving Russell Westbrook and the fact that the West is going to be a bit down with the loss of Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer (and potentially Carmelo Anthony), and the Thunder could very well finish the season with the second-best record in the conference. They could just as easily finish #7 or #8, which goes to show how much parity there is in the conference. Barring a banged up Kobe or Pau Gasol, I don’t see the Thunder getting past the Lakers (or the Heat or Celtics, for that matter), but they are more than capable of making a deep run if all goes well. OKC also has one of the best payroll situations in the league, and are projected to have about $24 million in cap space next summer. On the whole, the future looks very bright for Durant and Co.
#3: Boston Celtics
Just when we thought we could write off the Celtics, they pulled it together for another postseason run. Kevin Garnett’s knees looked (relatively) fresh and Rajon Rondo proved that he’s one of the best all-around point guards in the league. From last season’s rotation, the C’s lost Rasheed Wallace and probably won’t miss him much with the addition of Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal, who have shown they can still play in spurts. However, the loss of Tony Allen will hurt. A lot. Allen has developed into one of the best (if not the best, if you believe Jeff Van Gundy) perimeter defenders in the league and would be extremely useful in a series against Dwayne Wade and the Heat or in a rematch against Kobe and the Lakers. Boston signed Delonte West, who is a much better offensive player, but the Celtics will have a tough time replacing Allen’s defense. Cap-wise…does it matter? The C’s are surely in win-now mode, but they could rebuild as soon as the Summer of 2012 thanks to all the short-term contracts on the books.
#2: Miami Heat
Ah, the Heat. The Super Friends. Miami Thrice. Whatever the nickname, there’s no doubt that with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the lineup, the Heat will be one of the most difficult teams to match up with. Throw in some savvy low-dollar pickups like Mike Miller (broken hand and all), Udonis Haslem, Eddie House, James Jones, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard, and Pat Riley is poised to win the league’s Executive of the Year award in a few short months. But first things first — the team needs to work out the kinks, and with Wade missing a lot of time in the preseason, it’s more important than ever that the Heat gel quickly. It sounds like LeBron is using all the (justifiable) criticism directed his way this summer as motivation, and if he (finally) plays with a mean streak — watch out. The Bulls and Magic are a concern, and the Celtics are more than capable of knocking off the Heat, but I think by season’s end, the Heat will represent the East in the Finals.
#1: Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe’s knees aren’t what they used to be, and that’s a valid concern. But the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint, and next April is a long way away. As long as he’s feeling at or near 100% when the postseason starts, the Lakers should be just fine. They upgraded from Jordan Farmar to Steve Blake (which is an upgrade) and also added Matt Barnes to shore up the bench. Pau Gasol is arguably the best offensive big man in the game, Lamar Odom seems to be getting more consistent and Ron Artest proved in last year’s playoffs that he’s money when the game is on the line. After repeating as champs, one might expect that the Lakers could get complacent, but with all the attention that Miami’s new Super Friends received this summer, I don’t think L.A. will be lacking for bulletin board material this season. Lakers/Heat would be a hell of a series — let’s just hope that all the stars on both teams can stay/get healthy for the postseason.