And the winner is…a little bit hard to predict.
This year in the NBA there are a few powerhouse teams, potentially, that is. The Lakers could jump out and win seventy games. It’s unlikely, but, at a stretch, it’s possible. The Cavs will be strong, as well as the Celtics. A talent-and-hope infused Spurs team looks to be a legitimate contender for Kobe’s throne this year.
On the outside looking in are the Mavs and the Magic. Wait, the Magic made it to the Finals last year, why are they on the outside looking in? The answer to this question is both simple and complex, but boils down to two words: “LeBron” and “Garnett”.
Will anyone stop LeBron James this season? Is it possible to keep him out of the Finals? This is the question I’d like to ask to start the season. The man is a force and he has been scorned. Even if his talent could be matched, his desire to win cannot. Will anyone stop him from finally being crowned King?
Analysts have described this year’s off-season by saying the “the strong got stronger”, and this seems undeniable for everyone but the Magic. This is no slight to Vince Carter. He is a fantastic scorer and could lift the Magic a half-notch higher in the talent pool. But when we look at what San Antonio added, what the Lakers added, and the Celtics, we have to relegate the Carter trade to the bottom of the list of off-season moves among the contenders.
San Antonio has quite a line-up at this point. Starring Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, and Richard Jefferson, this is a veteran squad with some real flexibility. Adding a sizable small forward in Jefferson, it seems that this is a team that can score from everywhere on the floor, from every position.
The Lakers lost Trevor Ariza to Houston, but they picked up Ron Artest, from Houston. Will Artest become the third point in the triangle in LA as Dennis Rodman was for the Jordan-Pippen Chicago Bulls when they went 72-10? Or will he be the psychological chink in the armor, the psychosis that Phil Jackson cannot heal, the one-man multiple personality that will topple the house of cards?
After losing to the Celtics in the Finals of two years ago, the Lakers said they were going to “get tougher”. They did and they showed their new grit against the Nuggets in the conference finals. How much tougher do they need to be?
Also in the West, the Mavericks look to be strong. On the face of it, they lack a pure scorer. The acquisition of Shawn Marion – a changed player from his Phoenix days – may put this team over the top. This remains to be seen and makes the Mavs an interesting team to watch.
On the other side of the league, we have two teams that stand above the others. Two teams that made big off season moves, acquiring veteran big men. Are these big men, Shaquille O’Neal and Rasheed Wallace, too old to contribute? Their new teams don’t think so.
What a story it would be if O’Neal helps LeBron James to a title as he helped Dwayne Wade, another member of the 2003 draft class. Shaq’s impact on the court is far from a guaranteed positive, though the marketing potential in Cleveland is as big as Shaq’s out-sized personality, as gargantuan as his shoes, as glittering as the Big Aristotle’s smile, etc.
The reason that Cleveland is again a contender for the Finals is not the O’Neal pick-up. This is the same team that had the best record in the league last year, minus Ben Wallace who has gone back to Detroit. He didn’t play most of the season anyway.
It’s the same team that boasted two all-stars and the league MVP, coming back with renewed desire and a big, funny man, veteran “true center”.
Narratively speaking, Shaq’s return to the east creates some very interesting possibilities. Consider the story-line if Cleveland faces the Miami Heat and it’s star Dwayne Wade (see above) in the playoffs. Or, if Cleveland were to meet Orlando it would be Superman I vs. Superman II. It’s even possible that O’Neal and the Cavaliers could go to the Finals and see (who else?) Kobe Bryant. In that case, fans would be rewarded with the coveted Kobe versus Lebron match-up with the added spice of O’Neal versus Bryant.
In a perfect world, again narratively speaking, Cleveland and LA will have the same number of wins in the regular season, Kobe and LeBron will compete once again for the MVP trophy, Cleveland will play against Miami, then Orlando, then Boston to reach the NBA Finals and play against the LA Lakers for the title. Wow. Wouldn’t that be a ride? If there is anyone out there who believes in “the Secret”, start using it now.
Can Boston make the conference championship in the east? Of course they can. With the addition of Rasheed Wallace, they become an even deeper (albeit older) team. Exciting Rajon Rondo showed his mettle against the Bulls in the playoffs last season, shouldering the load with Garnett on the bench and everyone else hanging their heads. With a healthy team and, dare I say it, the best point guard in the league, Boston could easily reach the conference championship and the Finals.
Going into this season the questions to ask are: With talent and drive on his side, can anyone stop King James from claiming his crown? Will the Celtics recognize that this is a now or never again season for their aging core and put together a championship run? Will Ron Artest unify or divide a deep Lakers team?
Western Conference Championship Prediction: Spurs vs. Lakers.
Eastern Conference Championship Prediction: Cavaliers vs. Boston
NBA Champs…I’ll tell you at Christmas.