NBA Preview: A forward look at the probable contenders for this year’s NBA crown

Miami Heat

Max Grodnick

The most hyped summer of the NBA free agency has passed. “The Decision” has been criticized from every possible angle, and now Lebron James has begun to display his talents in South Beach. The bookmakers have the Heat as the odds-on favorite to win the championship at 8-to-5 and have set the over-under wins total at a league-best 63 1/2 games. Yet I’m here to tell you right now why the Heat will not only live up to its ballyhooed hype but actually exceed it. First off, it goes without saying (sorry Kobe fans) that Lebron James, a two time defending MVP who received 116 of a possible 122 first place votes last season, is the best basketball player on the face of the earth today. At 6’8” and 250 lbs. of pure muscle, James has the rare ability to play all five positions on the court.

The craziest thing about James is that we have yet to see his best. For the past seven years, James was forced to carry a sub-par group of players in Cleveland, headlined by the pedestrian likes of Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, and was still able to carry them to the best record in the NBA the past two seasons. Yet his critics will be quick to remind you that James failed to carry the Cavaliers to a championship. However, aside from the lack of talent surrounding him, James suffered in Cleveland from being forced to carry the load every night, a style of play that does not maximize his talents—he is at his best when he has teammates with whom to share the ball.

For the first time in his career, Lebron James has teammates of comparable skill levels, a scary thought when one considers all that he has already accomplished. With less of a premium placed on his need to score, expect the two-time All-Defensive First Team player to elevate his non-scoring game to unimaginable levels. His point total will surely decrease this upcoming season, but expect his rebounding and assists to increase to the point where James might average a triple-double for the entire season, something only accomplished once before when Oscar Robertson did the unthinkable in the 1961-1962 season.

And that’s just Lebron. There’s still Dwayne Wade, a top five NBA player, and Chris Bosh, one the most versatile power forwards in the league who is good for at least 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. Both Wade and Bosh are far and away the most talented players James has ever joined forces with.

When the three men finally announced their much-speculated decision to play together in Miami, most people assumed the Heat would be lucky to fill the rest of their roster with Dave Liss PO ’10 and Herzoege Wolfenbuettel’s own Justin Sexton, given how much of the payroll was committed to the three stars. But Heat President Pat Riley managed to add Mike Miller, a career 40% three-point shooter who shot 48% from beyond the arc last year for a weak Wizards team. Given the attention defenses will have to give to the Big Three, it is not inconceivable that Miller will average better than 50 percent from downtown. Besides Miller, the Heat brought back Udonis Haslem, Miller’s former college teammate at Florida, who was an integral part of the Heat’s 2006 title run. Haslem started for the Heat from 2004 to 2009, making him more than qualified to come off the bench and take out the trash under the hoop as James and Wade draw the defense’s attention. And Lebron wasn’t the only Cavalier to jump ship for Miami. Big Zydrunas Ilgauskus and his respective talents will be joining James in South Beach. While the elder Lithuanian isn’t the baller he once was, he’s more than capable of knocking down open 18-footers, of which he’ll get a lot. In the backcourt, the Heat return Super Mario Chalmers, a career 35 percent three-point shooter and no stranger to the big stage. His three-pointer in the 2008 NCAA championship game still haunts Memphis fans. Like Miller, Chalmers will have plenty of WIDE-open looks at the hoop from downtown (home of Danny Brown PO ’12). Expect his shooting percentage to go up as well.

Over the summer, former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said, “The Heat will not only be great, but historically great. They will break the single-season win record [of 72], and I think they have a legit shot at the Lakers’ 33-game [winning] streak [from 1971-1972] as well.” Barring injury, which is a legitimate concern considering both James and Wade have missed considerable time already in the preseason, I think Van Gundy will be right. Quickly scroll through the teams in the NBA––who can realistically beat these guys come playoff time? Only a few teams, in my opinion, even have a remote shot. The Celtics are too old, and have no one—let alone three—of James’, Wade’s, and Bosh’s caliber. The Magic are led by Dwight Howard to whom the Heat have no real answer. But then again, there are really only a handful of big men in the league capable of containing Howard, who I seriously doubt has the offensive weapons necessary to overcome the scoring of the Big Three plus Miller. That basically leaves the Lakers, who will definitely create match-up problems inside for the Heat. But can they outlast the versatility of the Heat in a seven game series? That is the big question heading into the 2010-2011 season. As for the answer, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

LA Lakers

Alex Sigoloff

Never in his head coaching career has Phil Jackson failed to win a third consecutive NBA championship after winning two in a row. Let that sink in. eleven championships later, the Zen Master is going after it again with a roster that may be his deepest ever. The core group from the three-time defending Western Conference Champions is intact with yet another year together, and the team’s only significant loss in the offseason was Jordan Farmar.

As opposed to other contenders who loaded up with old, fat, washed up talent (see: Shaquille O’Neal), the Lakers added relatively young veterans Steve Blake and Matt Barnes to bolster the defense and keep the squad hungry for more. Not that motivation will be a problem considering the hardest driven player and best closer in the league is leading the way (see: Kobe Bryant). With Pau Gasol coming off another strong season as the premier post scorer in the league, Lamar Odom returning from a successful gold medal World Championship campaign, and Ron Artest enrolled in stable and regular therapy, it looks as though the only challenge the Lakers will face this season is injuries (and possibly those guys in South Beach). With Andrew Bynum sidelined until at least Thanksgiving because of a knee injury and Kobe coming off summer knee surgery, the Lakers will need to play smart and rely on their depth as they navigate the season. Otherwise, it looks like another exciting season awaits the two-time defending champions in their quest for a third straight. When healthy, nobody is bigger, more talented, deeper, and less beatable than this team. Bring it on, Boston.

Portland Trail Blazers

Galen Diez

Heading into last season, the Portland Trail Blazers were media darlings and considered by many to be the most promising young team in the league. Then everything fell apart. Off the court, highly regarded general manager Kevin Pritchard and other top management staff were fired after feuding with ownership. Backup shooting guard Rudy Fernandez transformed himself from Spanish heartthrob to the most hated player on the team by constantly complaining to the media about not being a good fit for the Blazers—or the NBA at all. On the court, the Blazers suffered many injuries, from the typical—like those of young injury-prone starters Greg Oden, Nicolas Batum, and leader Brandon Roy, who missed extended time during the season and the playoffs—to the absurd—center Joel Przybilla slipped and injured his knee while taking a shower. After trading for Marcus Camby to fill the void left by Oden and Przybilla in the post, Camby went down with an injury, causing the Blazers to head into the playoffs with no centers. Even coach Nate McMillan tore his Achilles tendon during a practice. And just to add fuel to the fire, Kevin Durant, whom the Blazers passed on to take Oden in the 2007 draft, became the most lovable superstar in the league, as he led division rival Oklahoma City to the playoffs and the USA basketball team to a gold medal.

Ironically, despite being forced to start 37-year-old Juwan Howard at the five-spot during last year’s playoffs, the Blazers’s biggest strength when healthy is their size. Oden, Przybilla, and Camby give the team three seven-footers who are among the top rebounders in the league, and starting power forward Lamarcus Aldridge and the recently signed Fabricio Oberto are just a hair below seven-feet tall themselves. The team is even big on the wings. Small forwards Batum and rookie Luke Babbitt, shooting guards Roy and free agent signee Wesley Matthews, and point guards Andre Miller and rookie Armon Johnson are all large for their positions while combo forward Dante Cunningham is capable of swinging down to the three. The height advantage works well with the Blazers’ style of play—an extremely slow pace and a focus on avoiding turnovers and crashing the offensive glass. This strategy helps the team get lots of shots per possession, making the Blazers one of the best offensive teams in the league when healthy. While the Blazers’s defense hasn’t been anything special since McMillan arrived, it should see improvement this year with full seasons from Camby, Batum, and Matthews.

Other than injuries, the biggest question mark for the Blazers entering the 2010-2011 season is the same as it was last year: how best to utilize starting guards Miller and Roy. When Portland acquired Miller in the 2009 off-season, skeptics wondered if he would be a good fit alongside Roy, as both are at their best with the ball in their hands and Miller is a poor outside shooter. After a chaotic first year playing together, the two have yet to show good chemistry, leading to speculation that Miller may be packaged with young prospects for a different point guard. Portland has a lot of skill, but the roster will take time to mesh after last season’s turmoil. With Miller gradually returning to playing shape, expect McMillan to tinker with the lineup over the first few months to ensure enough shooters are on the floor at a time.

Unless well-respected new general manager Rich Cho makes any blockbuster trades during the season, expect the Blazers to play at about same level as they did the past couple years: a mid-50-win playoff team. The only significant changes to the roster this year are the addition of Matthews and subtractions of Jerryd Bayless and Martell Webster. If healthy, the Blazers are talented enough to win a couple playoff series, but we’ve learned that that’s a big if.

Nevertheless, looking ahead, the team still has a ton of potential with its four young stars in Roy, Batum, Aldridge, and Oden. Over the next five to 10 years, injuries appear to be the only thing keeping the Blazers from seriously contending for a Western Conference Championship.

That and Kevin Durant.

Boston Celtics

Sam Lind

NBA talk this offseason revolved around the Heat and its new band of mercenaries, but all the while something big and nasty was being baked up on the Eastern Seaboard in a little fishing town known as “Boston.” Fresh off of a heart-breaking loss in the NBA Finals to the L.A. Freshwaters, the Celtics had their most active offseason since acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007. The professorial Rasheed Wallace retired to a quiet life of marijuana and philosophical contemplation, while Tony “Clownshoes” Allen took his balloon artistry to Denver. Perhaps the most saddening loss for Celtics fans was the departure of Brian “My Body Is Literally Made Out of Veal” Scalabrine to the Chicago Steers. Scalabrine was deeply loved by Boston for the look, quality, and feel of his hairstyle, on both his head and his chest. To make up for this particular loss, Celtics GM Danny Ainge replaced the tragedy of a Ginger with the elfin charm of a pair of Irish brothers, Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal, thus returning the Celtics to their ethnic roots. Indeed, the sheer beef these men provide in the painted area will be an improvement over the consistently bizarre Rasheed Wallace experience, which last year was two parts Antoine Walker and one part Wesley Willis. The Celtics also signed Delonte West to replace Tony Allen at the backup shooting guard position, but both Ainge and coach Doc Rivers have stated that West will also play a critical role in the Media Relations department, specifically the Gloria James Relations department, where he distinguished himself last year for his ability to take it to the hole. Despite the numerous arrivals and departures of new faces and bodies, perhaps the most important piece of this offseason was the move the Celtics did not make in replacing their coach, as they somehow convinced Doctor Rivers to return for another season.

This Celtics team ought to be better than last year’s version, with greater depth both in the frontcourt and at the guards. Rebounding will continue to be an issue, as all of the big men are too old to jump at this point. There is also the possibility that Ray Allen transitions from inconsistently good to consistently not good, like he was in two games in last year’s Finals. But the upgrades to the bench and the continued mutation of Rajon Rondo’s alien DNA toward the Space Jam model should be enough to allow the Celtics to again win their division and perhaps even get the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Provided Kendrick Perkins returns healthy and mean as ever, this team really ought to be the favorites in the East again, as Miami has nothing outside of its big three and the Magic return a team most similar to a high quality bath towel: it retains its softness over several years of use. In the opinion of this writer, NBA fans should look for a repeat Celtics-Lakers finals.

Chicago Bulls

Stefan Castellanos

Not since the 1998 preseason have Chicago fans had more to which to look forward. Fresh off the first All-Star campaign for a Bulls player since MJ over a decade ago, Derrick Rose is back and looking more explosive than ever. The aggressive point guard is already perplexing defenses in the paint and—much more consistently as of late—on the perimeter, but it’s the addition of former Utah power forward Carlos Boozer that could really push the Bulls into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. The return of the prolific Boozer from a hand injury—likely suffered in mid-November—should take some of the load off Rose and give Chicago another much needed crunch-time scorer. Newly acquired sharp-shooter Kyle Korver, formerly of the Jazz as well, should get plenty of open looks set up by the penetrating Rose, while newcomer CJ Watson provides the Bulls with a serviceable backup at the point. And let’s not forget versatile small forward Luol Deng, who has proved to be a legitimate scoring threat, averaging more than 15 points per game in his five years of NBA service. Overall, the attack should have a much more balanced feel to it than it has the past two seasons.

This is great news for new head coach Tom Thibodeau, who will need all the help he can get being creative on offense. Known primarily as a defensive tactician, Thibodeau was the mastermind behind the smothering D displayed by the Boston Celtics in their latest playoff runs. And given the talent at his disposal in the Chicago frontcourt, his defensive success in Beantown could easily be replicated in Chi City. Second-year power forward Taj Gibson provides rebounding and shot-blocking (and look for his offensive game to improve under the tutelage of Boozer), and fan favorite Joakim Noah will be up to his old tricks: dominating the boards, energizing his teammates and the crowd, and being ugly as hell. Few centers in the league work as hard as or run the floor like Joakim—though he should really be leading a fast break to the barber shop for a haircut and shave. His unselfishness and tenacity down low make Noah a perfect complement to Carlos Boozer.

The acquisition of Turkish seven-footer Omer Asik also gives the Bulls depth at center, as well as a darkhorse candidate to win the coveted ‘Ugliest on the Team’ award. Watch out, Joakim. Aside from his looks, the skillful Asik provides a disruptive paint presence to further strengthen an already talented defense. And if, or should I say when, the offense does come around, the Bulls will be a force in the Eastern Conference. Look for them to win 50 games and take the four-spot in the East, behind Miami, Boston, and Orlando. Also, if you’re in the neighborhood, join Boozer at the newly opened Sprinkles Cupcakes in downtown Chicago as he unveils the Bulls cupcake. You’ll probably wonder who that chubby red-head hogging all the samples is, but that’s just the newest Bull Brian Scalabrine trying to eat away the pain of being dumped by the Celtics.

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