By Jon Levin, howiGit Contributing Writer, Los Angeles, CA
The NFL’s preseason is officially underway and baseball is in its final regular season stretch, yet I find myself primarily intrigued by the NBA – basketball hasn’t managed to disappear this offseason. This summer will go down as one of the more wild and significant off-seasons in the league’s history. Numerous perennial all stars and franchise players changed teams to drastically shift the NBA’s balance of power. Specifically, the Eastern Conference got much stronger.
Chicago has gone from a low playoff seed to a championship contender with the acquisitions of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer (basically half of the 2009 Utah Jazz), and CJ Watson. They already had a great core with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson — now they have another beast inside, shooters/perimeter defenders to compliment them, and a new coach in Tom Thibodeau — who in my opinion has the best defensive mind in the game.
Milwaukee had a tremendous year last year considering everyone’s expectations for them. They ended up a six seed and played extremely well against Atlanta. Brandon Jennings has the potential to be a top 5 point guard in the next few years; the Bucks resigned John Salmons, traded for Corey Maggette, and drafted a huge sleeper in my eyes in Larry Sanders. If Andrew Bogut comes back healthy and playing at the level he was last year (a top 5 center), the Bucks will continue on their path of improvement and could easily sneak out of the 1st round of playoffs.
The Knicks are also a team that greatly improved. Their starting lineup last year looked something like this: Toney Douglas, Wilson Chandler, Tracy McGrady, Danillo Gallinari, and David Lee. Now, it’s probably going to look more like this: Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler/Roger Mason, Danilo Gallinari, Anthony Randolph, and Amare Stoudemire. With Amare, Randolph, and Felton coming in, the Knicks have a new look of veteran players that aren’t past their prime and still have a lot left in the tank. They also have depth with guys like Toney Douglas, Ronny Turiaf, and Bill Walker coming off the bench. While they’re not seriously going to contend for a title, they made good moves this summer and have put themselves in a position to get into the playoffs and make another splash in the free agency market next summer (Carmelo?).
When it really comes down to it, the NBA only has three teams in each conference with any legitimate chance of making the finals. In the East, its Miami, Boston, and Orlando. In the West, it’s the Lakers, Thunder, and Mavericks. Orlando still has the best interior defender in the league and has surrounded Mr. Howard with tons of perimeter shooters to help run their inside-out offensive game plan. It has worked quite well for them the last few years, however they just don’t seem to have enough consistency with their outside shot (what 3-point shooting team really does?) as they have fallen to the Lakers and Celtics respectively. Vince Carter also completely disappeared in the playoffs last year, and for a guy who makes over $16 million a year, you just can’t expect to win it all when your secondary option on offense falls apart when you need him the most.
Boston has a very similar look to last year with the return of all five of their starters, yet their bench will have a very different look. You can tell their focus was on bolstering up their frontcourt with the signings of Jermaine O’Neal and Shaq due to the serious knee injury Kendrick Perkins suffered in game 6 of the Finals. However, I think the loss of Tony Allen is much bigger than it may seem right now. I watched this guy give LeBron the hardest time he may have ever experienced on a basketball court in the 2nd round this year. It was actually really fun to watch how well Tony Allen was able to stay in front of LeBron and deny his ability to get to the line, which he tried to do even more than usual due to his “injured” elbow. Allen also did a solid job making life much more difficult on Kobe than most wing defenders are capable of. The Celtics are hoping young rookie Avery Bradley will be their backup two-guard who can come in and replace Tony Allen’s defensive-minded approach off the bench. In that respect, he has some large shoes to fill.
The Heat have gotten a ton of attention this summer, and rightfully so. They went from irrelevant to having 2 top 5 players in the league and arguably 3 of the top 10. I find it hard to imagine them struggling in the regular season, but when the playoffs come around, injuries affect everyone and players’ true colors always shine brightest. The Heat represent a “wait and see” championship contender for me. If one of the big three goes down or is half the player he can be because of an injury (especially Chris Bosh), their chances decrease much more drastically than other teams like Boston and LA, who have serious depth off the bench.
The Thunder have the best young core of players in the NBA. I truly believe they will be a top 4 seed in the West this year and they’re only going to continue to get better. Kevin Durant is a superstar, Russell Westbrook is a consistent jump shot away from being a star, Jeff Green is a great third option, and James Harden’s role and impact are going to increase. The Thunder also showed a level of effort last year that I haven’t seen from a team in a long time. I really don’t see any team but the Lakers giving them serious problems for the next few years.
The Mavericks on paper look pretty crazy. Kidd, Marion, Nowitzki, Butler, Haywood, Chandler, and Beaubois. I see the Mavericks having another successful regular season, yet even with all that talent, I cant see them beating the Lakers (or even the Thunder) in a 7 game series that they probably wont have home court advantage in. Their level of talent and established veteran roster still keep them relevant in the discussion.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the Lakers. I know its going to come off as being a homer, but I still think the Lakers are the best team in the NBA. They still have the best player in the game, the best starting frontcourt in the game in Gasol & Bynum, a top 3 perimeter defender in Ron Artest, a clutch performer in Derek Fisher, and the greatest coach of all-time in Phil Jackson. Oh, and they got better this summer too. They added Steve Blake, Matt Barnes (who was a starting SF on a 59 win team last year – he’ll be the 8th man on this team?), and don’t forget Lamar Odom (a member of Team USA this year). Both on paper, and considering they are back-to-back defending champions, you can’t really dethrone the champs just yet.
PREDICTION: Heat vs. Lakers Finals, Lakers win in 6 games. The NBA has wanted LeBron in the finals these past three seasons and now that he joined Wade’s team in Miami, they finally just might get their wish (and no way he gets swept out of the finals again, not that I would mind that).
A final thought – I couldn’t help but notice the past few weeks that Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, and Tracy McGrady were all having an extremely difficult time finding a job and all weren’t considered the top free agent available. For the first time in my life, I feel old.