LeBron James will be an integral part of Miami's charge towards back-to-back NBA Championships
The off-season in the NBA could be summed up by saying the big guns got bigger, and the list of teams with Buckley’s chance of winning a championship grew even longer. To think that the Lakers were able to bring in both Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the same off-season to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in Los Angeles is just mind boggling. Then again, Miami managed to snare future Hall of Famer Ray Allen to provide some assistance on the wing when ‘King’ James, ‘D-Wade’ and Chris Bosh (who tried to nickname himself as the ‘Random Guy’ last season) get sick of toying with opposition teams.
Here’s a look at the title contenders, the teams to watch, as well as some of the best bets for the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year crowns.
Miami Heat (Last season 46-20; NBA Champion)
So you’re the reigning NBA champion; you have arguably the greatest all-round basketballer ever seen, a former scoring champion and NBA Finals MVP, and a seven-time All-Star in the middle. What do you do in the off-season? Well, you figure that the only way teams can stop you is by filling up the middle, so you go out and find the best three-point shooter in the land.
As if the Heat needed to get any better, they now have Ray Allen, who (although he never would) can boast credentials including 10 All-Star game appearances, a 2008 Championship ring, and his place as the league’s all-time leader in three-pointers made. To add further to their perimeter weaponry, Miami also signed Allen’s former Seattle teammate Rashard Lewis on a two-year deal.
The lack of a big-name centre didn’t prove their undoing last season, and Bosh will spend most of his time in the five-spot, while LeBron James will resume his role as a ‘point forward’ as the team’s primary ball-handler. The three-time league MVP averaged 27 points, 8 rebounds and 6 dimes per game last season, and with far better wing targets, he may even lift that assist average.
Miami won games two through five in the finals to beat the Thunder 4-1. With Chicago’s main man Derrick Rose potentially missing the entire season after tearing his ACL in the playoffs in April, the Heat shouldn’t find any roadblocks between them and home court advantage, at least through to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Prediction – NBA Champions
Oklahoma City (Last Season 47-19; Lost NBA Finals)
Unlike Miami, Oklahoma City didn’t feel the need to tinker with their roster ahead of the 2012-13 season (unless you count Hasheem Thabeet – arguably the worst No. 2 draft pick in NBA history – coming in for Nazr Mohammed to play limited bench minutes). When you have Kevin Durant, the most potent scorer in the league, and the most dynamic playmaker in Russell Westbrook, already on your books, that’s a pretty good start. The big concern over the off-season was contract extensions for defensive dynamo Serge Ibaka and the best sixth man in the business, James Harden.
Ibaka is now locked away, but James Harden's trade to Houston is a blow. With that picture now clear, the Thunder can turn its attention to the hardwood and replicating last season’s efforts where they finished with the league’s third best record before going down 4-1 in the finals to Miami. OKC won game one comfortably, and pushed the Heat in games two, three and four.
Talent-wise, there is no reason they can’t reach that point again. They’re great offensively, and Ibaka’s presence lifts them to very good status at the defensive end. The Lakers are standing in their way, which poses an intriguing match-up; Westbrook and Steve Nash can’t defend each other, Bryant and Durant will fill it up at their respective ends, so it may come down to how Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins deal with the Dwight Howard threat down low. Such a shame we’ll have to wait until the middle of next year to find out who wins that battle.
Prediction – NBA Finalist
Los Angeles Lakers (Last season 41-25; Lost Western Conference Semi-Finals)
Purely on paper, you may as well skip the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs and just have a seven-game finals series between the Heat and Lakers. Los Angeles was as active as anyone in the player market during the off-season, picking up two-time MVP Steve Nash, along with the biggest beast of them all, Dwight Howard from Orlando. Put those two together with Kobe Bryant and you have three guys who are almost certain to end up in the Hall of Fame. Add a dash of European skill-base with the multi-talented Pau Gasol, and this is a starting five which could potentially go head-to-head with the great Bulls, Pistons, Celtics, and, of course, Lakers teams of the past.
Two things will define this team in 2012-13, though; injuries and chemistry. There’s no hiding from the fact Nash is 38, Bryant has just turned 34 and Gasol is 32. If they can be nursed through a full 82-game season with plenty of steam left for the playoffs, they’ll be in the mix come May and June. The support cast is respectable, but they’ll need to make sure the veterans aren’t playing 40+ minutes on a regular basis.
How these guys will blend is the big question mark. Nash has never really played with a dominant shooting guard like Bryant. With all due respect to the previous point guards who have played at the Staples Centre, Kobe has never had a playmaker of Nash’s ilk. Bryant is used to running the Lakers’ offence, and too often last season created isolation plays for himself as the shot clock wound down. He’ll have to adjust his game seriously with a distributor like Nash around. How ‘Superman’ Howard responds to not being the focal point on offence will also dictate LA’s fortunes.
Prediction – Western Conference Finalist
San Antonio (Last Season 50-16; Western Conference Finals)
Much like the Lakers, the Spurs have an ageing core of superstars. The only thing is Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been together since 2001. Surprisingly, what was once a great defensive team has now evolved in to an offensive-minded outfit, with the Spurs second only to Denver in points per game last season.
Truth be told, San Antonio wasn’t far off getting back to the big dance in the 2012 Finals, and it was only a rampant Thunder that stopped them, coming from 2-0 down in the Western Conference Finals to triumph in six games. The likes of Australian Patrick Mills, Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw came in down the stretch last season, so long-time coach Gregg Popovich has had a full off-season to work on his near-new recruits. The only unfamiliar face is combo guard Nando de Colo – he’s not at the level of countryman Parker, but he’ll give ‘Coach Pop’ another option off the bench.
Prediction – Western Conference Semi-Finals
Los Angeles Clippers (Last season 40-26; Western Conference Semi-Finals)
So often the poor cousin of the Lakers, ‘Showtime’ was well and truly on view at the Staples Centre last season, but this time it was the Clippers bringing fans to their feet. They have a frontcourt with two ridiculous physical specimens in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan playing alongside Team USA’s starting point guard at the Olympics, Chris Paul. The future looks exceedingly bright.
Whether the Clippers can take the next step may well revolve around the production of two veterans. The Clippers were 19-9 when guard Chauncey Billups went down with an Achilles injury last season. Despite making the switch to the two spot and playing second fiddle to Paul, the Clippers looked a qualify outfit with a tenacious defender and secondary ballhandler like Billups in the line-up. He’s back for the start of the season, as is Lamar Odom, who went through an annus horribilis last season in Dallas. The former Sixth Man of the Year came across in a four-team deal after the Mavs listed him as inactive towards the back end of the season. Odom has the versatility to play all five positions and if he delivers back in LA, that move could be one of the masterstrokes of the off-season.
Prediction – Western Conference Semi-Finals
Ones to Watch
Brooklyn (Last Season 22-44; 12th in Eastern Conference) Owner Mikhail Prokhorov didn’t just bring basketball to Brooklyn, he also brought over a ton of talent. Joining gun point guard Deron Williams will be All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson from Atlanta, while the Nets also managed to hang on to offensive-minded centre Brook Lopez. They’ll score plenty, but whether Avery Johnson can get this team playing team ‘D’ is another matter.
Minnesota (Last Season 26-40; 12th in Western Conference) You couldn’t help but be impressed by Ricky Rubio’s injury-shortened rookie season. The Timberwolves were 21-19 before he did his ACL and 5-21 for the rest of the season. If he’s back before the end of 2012, the T-Wolves could really stir things up in the West. That’s a big ‘if’, as is Brandon Roy’s return from retirement. If his knees hold up, he’ll add an extra dimension to this team, as will Russian Andrei Kirilenko. Can Kevin Love improve on his staggering 26-point and 13-rebound per game averages from last season, too? He’ll miss the start of the season due to a broken hand, though.
New York (Last Season 36-30; Eastern Conference First Round) With ‘Linsanity’ gone from New York and a host of other players jettisoned, it has become perfectly clear that this is Carmelo Anthony’s team. Yes, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler make up a talented combo in the frontcourt, but the Knicks’ will live and die this season by Anthony’s performances. Unless, of course, he gets injured like last season and another Jeremy Lin pops out of nowhere.
Denver (Last Season 38-28; Western Conference First Round) Without the star power of Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets were predicted to drift in to oblivion. Somebody forgot to tell exciting young playmaker Ty Lawson and his crew of role players, who pushed the Lakers to game seven in the first round of the playoffs last season. The addition of Andre Iguodala, who can do pretty much everything in the game, could give this team an exciting edge, especially if the ‘Manimal’ Kenneth Faried builds on his exciting rookie season.
Philadelphia (Last Season 35-31; Eastern Conference Semi-Finals) The 76ers stunned the Derrick Rose-less Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, but by taking Boston to seven games in the semis showed there is some potential in Philly. Their major wing weapon, Andre Iguodala, now finds himself in Denver, but they have shored up the middle with Andrew Bynum coming over from the Lakers. Bynum wanted to be the main man in LA, but gets his chance with the 76ers. Former No. 2 draft pick Evan Turner picked up his game markedly when inserted to the starting line-up last season, and if he and young point guard Jrue Holiday continue to improve, the Sixers could sneak in to the top couple of seedings in the East.
Most Valuable Player (Reigning MVP – LeBron James) By all rights, if they both stay healthy, this award should be fought out again between LeBron James and Kevin Durant . They were streets ahead in voting last season, and with both the Heat and Thunder maintaining last season’s rosters, there is no reason why either should be knocked off their perch. Should either of the superstars get injured or have a down year, there is a bit of value to be found.
Chris Paul finished third in MVP voting in his first season with the Clippers, and with a fit again Chauncey Billups around, along with recruit Lamar Odom, Paul could build up his tally if LA heads towards a 60-win season. The same can be said for a couple of other gun point guards in the Nets’ Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo in Boston.
The Knicks belong to Carmelo Anthony this season, and he has the potential to average 30 a night if the chemistry is right. A 50-win regular season in New York would put him right in the mix.
Rookie of the Year (Last Season’s Rookie of the Year – Kyrie Irving) There was never any doubt the Hornets were going to pick Anthony Davis first in the draft, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a lock for the Rookie of the Year award. Yes, three of the last four No. 1s have won the top rookie gong, but Davis has a different skillset to most first picks. He’s a beast on the glass and is almost immediately going to be one of the best defensive players in the league, but, at best, he’ll be the third option on offence behind Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. You only have to go through the ROTY honour roll to see defence doesn’t win you this award alone.
Since 1974, only one player (Mark Jackson – 18th pick in 1987) picked outside the top ten has won the best first year player award, so don’t expect to find any smokies outside the lottery picks. Damian Lillard has been handed the keys to Portland’s offence, and the rookie point guard will have some decent targets with the bulk of the scoring likely to come from LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicholas Batum. The number six pick out of small-time basketball school Weber State averaged 16 PPG in the pre-season at a 46% clip from the field, along with 5.5 assists.
There’s some value around with No. 3 pick, Washington’s Bradley Beal . When you’ve been compared to Ray Allen since high school, you know this guy has a seriously good shooting stroke. He’s not as good off the ball as Allen and doesn’t have great athleticism, but this 19-year-old is strong and has the ability to penetrate, as well as knock down the outside shot (despite shooting just 34% from three-point land in college). He’s a very good rebounder at the shooting guard position and a quality defender, who could very well put up 15 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game in his rookie year. He should also get plenty of open looks once John Wall starts breaking down defences in late November when he returns from a patella injury.