NBA Season/Playoff Preview and Predictions.

With the NBA season upon us, it’s only right that an “NBA meth-head” like me makes my predictions on playoff teams, awards and who’s going to win the NBA Finals.

The lockout presents some interesting changes to basketball this season – a 66 game schedule played in 126 days.  This means a multitude of back-to-back games that are sure to take a beating on player’s bodies both mentally and physically.

With the whirlwind of free agency happening so quickly due to the aforementioned lockout, a lot of players were moved very quickly, and with no summer league and a shortened training camp and preseason it will be very interesting to see how teams develop chemistry.

I expect a roller coaster season filled with unpredictable wins and losses from teams all across the board. Unlike seasons in the past, the competition is balanced with talented, hungry and experienced teams in both conferences.

EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS

1. Miami Heat:  After a heartbreaking loss in the Finals last year I expect the Heat to play with a vengeance all season long.  After seeing them in their first few games this season, they look unbeatable when focused.  They play the best defense in the league and have a multitude of scoring threats with two potential MVP’s (Lebron and D-Wade) at the helm.

2. Chicago Bulls:  Picking up where they left off a season ago, the Bulls are now a year older and more experienced.   Led by MVP Derrick Rose, the Bulls are hungrier than ever to avenge their loss to the Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.  Adding veteran Rip Hamilton was a great move, The Bulls now have a catch and shoot scorer who will be able to capitalize off Rose’s penetrating and playmaking ability.

3. New York Knicks – A full season of Amar’e and Melo together should spell trouble for opposing defenses all season.  Throw in Tyson Chandler and Baron Davis and you have a team that can make some serious noise in the East.  The biggest question is whether or not the Knicks can play anything that resembles respectful defense.

4. Atlanta Hawks: After finally bouncing out their division rivals the Orlando Magic in the playoffs last year, the Hawks look to move beyond the second round for the first time in franchise history.  Having invested heavily in keeping their core intact, the Hawks will have the exact same starting lineup as they had a year ago.  I’m thinking another year of experience will bode well for this team; however, Kirk Hinrich recovering from shoulder surgery will be a big loss.

5. Boston Celtics: With the “Big Three” another year older, the Celtics seem to be a little less threatening.   They are still feeling the effects of trading away Kendrick Perkins and to top off that deal, Jeff Green is out for the season with an aortic aneurysm (wishing you a safe and speedy recovery).   Acquiring Brandon Bass was a nice move, but the C’s desperately need an addition of youth/talent if they hope to have any real success.

6. Orlando Magic: The Magic’s entire season is covered in a cloud of uncertainty and confusion.  The ultimate goal of the front office is to convince Dwight Howard to stay while keeping him happy and motivated.  If the Magic can persuade Howard to align himself with the franchise, they will at the very least remain competitive.   The additions of Glen Davis and Von Wafer are helpful, but the Magic are a shadow of the Finals team they were a few years ago and are in need of some talented acquisitions in order to once again seriously compete.  If Dwight Howard does end up getting moved, all bets are off and the Magic once again go back into rebuilding mode – having lost two of the greatest centers of the past 20 years.

7. Indiana Pacers:  The Pacers are my sleeper team this season.  Not to win it all, but to surprise the league with how well they can play.  Adding David West to their already solid, young core the Pacers could challenge in the East.  Tyler Hansborough and Paul George have another year of experience under their belt and the addition of George Hill gives this team another point guard option.  The biggest key to this team is Roy Hibbert; if he can continue to improve, Indiana could be scary.

8. Philadelphia 76ers:  With the leadership of Doug Collins, I expect the 76ers to continue to improve on their promising season from a year ago.  This team has a myriad of gifted young players – Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Jodie Meeks, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner.  The question will be if Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand can step up and be leaders, because this team will definitely have go through some growing pains this year in order to reach their potential.

WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS

1 Oklahoma City Thunder:  The Thunder are no longer the up-and-coming team they have been deemed the past few seasons.  2010-2011 was a breakthrough year for the Thunder and there’s no reason to think that they won’t continue to improve and contend.  This team has their entire core back, including a healthy and much slimmer Kendrick Perkins.  They had a taste of success last year reaching the Western Conference Finals and now they are ready to take the next step.  Kevin Durant is the truth and will gather his fair share of MVP votes this season.

2. Dallas Mavericks:  Coming off a fairytale like playoff run that included a sweep of the Lakers and a stunning defeat of the favored Miami Heat in six games of the NBA Finals, the Mavs are in the enviable position of having to defend an NBA title.  Nowitzki will once again put up numbers and having both Jason Terry and Lamar Odom (acquired from the Lakers) off the bench, this team will still be incredibly dangerous but will miss Tyson Chandlers game changing defense, as well as JJ Barea’s firepower.

3. San Antonio Spurs:  Sure the Spurs haven’t won it all since 2007, but they are in the mix year in and year out regardless of age.  Age will play a factor, especially with Tim Duncan, but the Spurs are still tough and will now have to focus on developing young players like Kawhi Leonard, James Anderson, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter.  Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can still carry a team and Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA.  I’m not saying the Spurs are going to win it all, I’m just saying don’t write them off just yet.

4.  Los Angeles Lakers:  After last year’s monumental collapse to the Dallas Mavericks, change was apparent and necessary for the Lake Show. Enter new coach Mike Brown.  The Lakers essentially traded Lamar Odom for Troy Murphy, Josh Mcroberts and Jason Kapono – all of which have talent.   However, the Lakers desperately need a point guard (missing out on Chris Paul was a huge blow) and neither Matt Barnes nor Metta World Peace (I can’t believe I really have to call him that) are the players they once were.  Kobe’s wrist could be problematic and their entire season relies on whether or not the Mamba will be able to play.   I am very interested to see how the changes the Lakers made end up panning out.

5. Memphis Grizzlies:  After upsetting the Spurs and pushing the Thunder to seven games in last season’s playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies have officially arrived as a legitimate threat in the Western Conference.  Zach Randolph proved himself to be a reliable and legitimate star that came up big time and time again for the Grizz all season long.  The re-signing of Marc Gasol, keeps a young, exciting core intact and ready to make a big push this season.  The biggest question will be whether or not a healthy Rudy Gay will add to or take away from the chemistry of an already burgeoning team.

6. Los Angeles Clippers:  With the Clippers making the biggest trade of the offseason for perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul, “Lob City” was born.  Throw in veterans Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler with human highlight reels Deandre Jordan and Blake Griffin and you have the most exciting team in the league.  The Clippers are my pick to fill the void left by the Thunder as the up-and-coming team to watch out for in the NBA.  They need to figure out how to clear up the logjam at the point guard position (Paul, Billups, Mo Williams and Drew Bledsoe all deserve minutes) and are still young and will need some to gel and gain chemistry, but once they do – watch out.

7. Portland Trailblazers:  The loss of Brandon Roy was a significant blow to the Blazers.  Nonetheless, the additions of Gerald Wallace (last season), Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton alongside rising stars Lamarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews (I miss him in Jazz uniform) give Portland a solid, young, athletic team poised to do some damage.  Nate McMillan is a brilliant coach, who amongst incredible adversity (injuries and letdowns), continues to find ways to win.  Portland fans have plenty to be optimistic about.

8. Denver Nuggets:  Much like Indiana in the East, the Nuggets are my sleeper team out west.   They are continuously left for dead (Carmelo trade, JR/Kenyon/Wilson Chandler China deals) and still find ways to win.  Brining back Nene was a key move alongside bringing in solid role players such as Andre Miller and Corey Brewer.  Expect the Nuggets to be just as exciting as they have been in past seasons.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

1st Round, East:  Heat over 76ers, Bulls over Pacers, Knicks over Magic, Hawks over Celtics

1st Round West:  Thunder over Nuggets, Mavericks over Blazers, Clippers over Spurs, Lakers over Grizzlies (Finally a Pau v Marc Gasol matchup!)

2nd Round East:  Heat over Hawks, Bulls over Knicks

2nd Round West:  Thunder over Lakers, Mavericks over Clippers

Eastern Conference Finals:  Heat over Bulls

Western Conference Finals : Thunder over Mavericks

NBA FINALS: Heat over Thunder

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