This has the potential to be one of the best NBA seasons of our lifetimes. Jon and I could barely come up with five teams we wouldn't want to watch. The NBA regular season might mean nothing at all, like actually nothing at all, but I know we here at the TW42Minutes are super excited. We didn't name our blog after a Z-Bo quote for nothing (also, Sexing Mutombo was taken). So without further adunk, let's get into this year's basketball preview.
We'll start at the top with serious awards and get sillier as we go down. So if you don't like the best basketball analysis on the planet but want to laugh your ass off, scroll down now.
Eastern Conference Finals
Steve: Heat-Celtics, not that it matters. The big question mark for the Celtics, obviously, is health vis-a-vis age. But they've found a way to be healthy at the right time, and I think they'll be able to put themselves in a nice position (maybe the 3-seed in the East) going into the final stretch of the season. I think Rose will struggle out of the gate coming back for the Bulls, and I see the Celtics being able to keep Bynum and the Sixers at bay. Obviously, no one is going to beat the Heat and come out of the East. The Heat are so clearly the best team in this conference.
Sean: Heat-Bulls. I can just see the Bulls, with a completely healthy Derrick Rose, getting the 7 seed, beating an overmatched Pacers team and then beating the winner of a Knicks-Hawks 3/6 matchup. The Celtics' age is going to catch up with them and they are going to literally limp to the four seed setting up the real Eastern Conference finals in round two with the Heat. So to be clear: the Bulls will be in the actual ECF, but the Celtics-Heat round two matchup will be the real thang.
Jon: Heat-Celtics for the third consecutive year. Every team has the caveat of "barring injury," but with the Heat they could lose either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh and still make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Eastern Conference is full of mediocre to slightly above average teams (Nets, Knicks, Hawks, 76ers) and any team with LeBron should be able to beat them. That leaves the Celtics, who will most likely have a 2 seed and thus wouldn't meet the Heat until the Conference Finals. I think they've more than replaced Ray Allen with Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and a (hopefully) full season of Avery Bradley, and they should also roll on their side of the bracket.
Western Conference Finals
Steve: Lakers-Thunder. And this, unlike the East, will be very much a real matchup. I think these teams will be the 1 and 2 seeds in the Western Conference, and I think they'll be able to get through everyone. The Lakers won't have to worry about lack of depth AS MUCH in the playoffs, so they'll play even better in the postseason as long as they don't suffer crushing injuries. This will be a great series and I'm dying to see it. Sorry, Spurs.
Sean: Lakers-Spurs. The Spurs will get their revenge on the Thunder because Perkins and Ibaka aren't going to score 40 points on 95% shooting in game 5. Also, Kevin Martin is in like his ninth year and has made the playoffs once. There is going to be a certain amount of bed pissing that hurts their chances. The Lakers may struggle with more athletic teams like the Nuggets, but they still have size and guys who can always get high-percentage shots. I fully expect the Lakers to struggle during the regular season, prompting dozens of stories like is Kobe done? Can Nash really be this bad at defense? and maybe even do they really miss Bynum? Then they will get it together for the playoffs because that's when people start trying 100%.
Jon: Lakers-Thunder. I realize I'm picking chalk for both conferences, but they're really top heavy. I think Lakers and Spurs will be the 2 and 3 seeds and they'll play an epic semifinal, but the Lakers' size advantage will trump San Antonio (as was their Achilles heel against Memphis two seasons ago). The Thunder have significantly lowered their ceiling by swapping in Kevin Martin for James Harden but Durant is a top-3 player and Westbrook is top-10. Only the Lakers (with Howard and Kobe) and the Heat (duh) can say the same.
Steve: I can't really get around saying the Heat. Whichever Western Conference team will come off a grueling playoff run, whereas the Heat will be able to have a relatively normal regular-season rotation throughout the playoffs. They'll be prepared and potentially well-rested. They're also just the best team, so any other slight advantage can push them over the top. This is the dynasty we've been waiting for. Let's all just hope Wade finally gets really old and can't play.
Sean: Heat. These guys are so fucking good. The only way they lose is if they just get dominated on the boards by a bigger team. However, the Lakers (my pick for the Finals) can't afford to keep their bigs up for offensive rebounds because the Heat in transition is lethal. LeBron James won a title last year with a hurt Wade and Bosh. Them being fully healthy and having Ray Allen shooting the wide open threes that Mike Miller got make this team that much better.
Jon: I hate it too, but I gotta pick the Heat. Of course I'm picking them to beat the Lakers, so either way America loses. LeBron figured out his game last playoffs and the team can ride that to a championship. If all their principals are healthy, the Heat will win. The Lakers I see more along the line of the Heat two years ago. I don't know that they'll have totally figured out their identity in just one season together, and while talent alone will take them to the Finals, I think they'll lose to the Heat. This meshing of styles will be particularly interesting to watch because it's probably Kobe's last truly elite year (I know we've said this like 3 years running) and it will be interesting if he actually cedes the team to the newer stars in any way.
Steve: Since LeBron won the title last year, I think there's a bit more of the good feelings toward him as a player. He's shaken off the "can't get it done when it counts" reputation. The big question for him will be whether he can produce at the same level/a higher level than he did last year. The media made the MVP race between LeBron and Durant artificially close last year, and if LeBron fails to put up the spectacular numbers he did last year, it may not be enough for him to win the MVP, even if he still is clearly the best player.
That being said, the next logical winner is Durant, who will have a fellow top-10 player by his side (as does LeBron probably in Wade, but the media is over that). That may discourage people from voting for him. As a sort of come-out-of-nowhere, Derrick Rose-type MVP decision, I'm gonna go with Kevin Love. His team will improve a lot this year, and he will again have gawdy numbers. LeBron and Durant (and others) will absolutely deserve it more, but Love will take it home in the same way Derrick Rose did.
Sean: This will be the year that people get tired of picking LeBron. I'm thinking that Durant leads the Thunder to the #2 seed and somewhere around 60 wins, and he gets the award. Just like Barkley and Malone before him, he'll get an award he doesn't deserve because people don't want to just write James (or Jordan) every time. Do you think those guys look at their trophies and just sort of wince? Or do they just delude themselves into thinking they were the best player? My guess: Durant won't, Barkley won't, and Karl Malone will absolutely believe he deserves his two MVPs. Go back to hunting little Mexican girls, Karl.
Jon: The MVP should always be LeBron, just like it should have been A-Rod for like 8 years in a row but people found ways to nit-pick. I'll just say LeBron misses just enough time (maybe 12 games) that people will think twice about picking him for MVP, instead of preemptively hating sportswriters for being awful. My pick for MVP is Chris Paul. I think he puts up another of those unprecedentedly efficient point guard seasons for a 50+ win team with plenty of crunch time wins.
All-NBA First Team
Steve: Paul, Bryant, James, Durant, Howard. Kobe nails this one because the Lakers' success will be attributed to his ALPHA DOG status. And I know I picked Love for MVP, but didn't put him on the first team. This will be a "Tyson Chandler is DPOY and Dwight Howard is Defensive 1st Team" situation. Voters will find any excuse to give a white guy the MVP while admitting that two other forwards were better. They are capable of unspeakable doublethink.
Sean: Paul, Wade, LeBron, Durant, Dwight. Wade will edge out Kobe while the Lakers struggle. For the other guys, they might as well start carving in their names now. Barring injuries, this is our All-NBA team for the next three years at least.
Jon: Paul, Westbrook, LeBron, Durant, Howard. So we only disagree on the second guard. Pretty solid.
Steve: Minnesota. They finally appear to have a lot of good pieces in place, and they're ready to take the next step. Keep these guys healthy for a year, and they can really go far. They won't crack the elite, but they'll make some noise this year.
Sean: The Spurs. Year in and year out they get overlooked, but they should be co-favorites in the West with the Lakers. They make threes, they play defense, and they have high basketball IQs. We haven't seen the last of Duncan doing his thing.
Jon: I expect the Hawks to be close to a 50-win team. I know they replaced Joe Johnson with Lou Williams, but I don't think the drop-off will be that steep and they were without Al Horford for most of last season. Al Horford is in the running for second best center in basketball.
Steve: Chicago. Rose will return 100% at some point, but it won't be this year. He's going to struggle to get back to where he was. Expect to see the old D-Rose in 2013-2014. Without him, Chicago will still be good, but the comeback and the team will be disappointing.
Sean: The Mavericks. The game against the Lakers was great, but the days of this team being a contender with Dirk as their #1 guy are over. They made a huge mistake breaking up their core after the championship and are now relying on the core of the 2005 Clippers--Chris Kaman and Elton Brand.
Jon: This is a tough question because so few teams have really high expectations. Both the Bulls and Mavericks are very good choices, and I would throw in the TWolves as well. Many expect them to compete for the 8 seed this year but with Love and Rubio's injury situation I think that's another year away.
Who is the next big man to get Mozgoved by Blake Griffin?
Steve: Drew Gooden. Overrated piece of stool. It would be a great cap to a fantastically awful career. Worst player ever to average 12 points and 8 rebounds.
Sean: Dwight Howard. I absolutely want this to fan the flames of this budding rivalry. Unfortunately, you just know that ESPN will ruin it. But, for the first ten times I watch the replay, it will be glorious.
Jon: You need a guy who's willing to challenge Griffin at the rim and has either the height or the ups to make the dunk exceedingly difficult, which is why I'm going with Roy Hibbert. He's tall and kinda slow and would absolutely try to block a dunk and get the ball stuffed in his face. Love him on Parks and Rec though.
What team, in each conference, will make the playoffs this year that didn't last year?
Steve: This question is interesting because there are a lot of good choices in the West, and basically one obvious choice in the East. My pick for the West is Minnesota. Hopefully they'll have a full year of Rubio, and hopefully Brandon Roy can come back and contribute. I'm really rooting for him, and I hope he comes back and succeeds. He was such a great player. Plus they added Greg "Bill Russell" Stiemsma.
I gotta go with Brooklyn in the East. Milwaukee would be the only other team that one could possibly fathom, but they have major problems. They have Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, and they drafted Doron Lamb. Those three are exactly the same. They're going to have to keep rebuilding this year and figure out what their team is going to look like. I don't see it this year in Milwaukee. Brooklyn will take Orlando's place in the playoffs.
Sean: In the West, the easiest pick for me is the Rockets. I don't think they are quite good enough, but if they can stay healthy they might be able to take one of the final two spots. James Harden might not be quite good enough just yet, and Jeremy Lin is recovering from a torn meniscus he suffered eight months ago (this is for real), but they do have some talent.
Jon: I'm going with the Blazers. The West is loaded, but it doesn't have eight complete (pushing 50 win) teams anymore and I expect the Blazers to sneak in around 39 or 40 wins. LaMarcus Aldridge is a legitimate guy to build a bad playoff team around and I expect them to be there, and then get blown out by OKC in the first round. In the East, the Nets are the obvious choice.
Who will win more games: the Heat or Lakers or Thunder?
Steve: Yeah, the Lakers are going to win the most games. Kobe Bryant is officially their 2nd-best player, and their 4th-best player is officially Pau GD Gasol. This just isn't fair. They're not very deep, but they don't need to be. Even if Kobe and Gasol continue their very gradual decline, and even if Nash begins his real decline this year, this is a team that is, all of a sudden, an absolute force on defense, and extremely hard to defend on offense. They're much better constructed than Miami, and though Oklahoma City is deeper, they just don't have the Lakers' talent. Barring serious injury to Dwight, it'll be LA. But their old asses will be tired come playoff time.
Sean: The Heat. The East is just a smidge worse at the bottom than the West. This is now year three of these guys figuring out how to play with each other and Ray Allen is an improvement over Mike Miller for bench scoring. The Lakers are going to take some games to figure it all out and battle injuries. I think they are just as likely to get the 3 seed behind the Spurs and Thunder than the #1 seed.
Jon: The Thunder. I'll give the Lakers a few weeks to fully mesh and decide whether or not they actually want to play the Princeton offense. The Heat pretty publicly coasted at points last season and got blown out on national TV a few times (I know those losses don't matter more than other losses, but they're memorable). The Thunder just gave up their third best player but he played staggered minutes with the top two and the team still has a very solid top three. They won't go through growing pains like the Lakers and they'll play balls to the wall every night unlike the Heat.
Is James Harden a top 25 player?
Steve: Yeah, he's like the 25th-best player. Ehh, maybe he's 26th. So no. He's a top-26 player DEFINITELY.
Sean: As the trade has gone down, people have called him top 20, top 30, or even higher. The answer is no, he isn't a top 26 guy yet. He might have unfairly been ranked low because of the low degree of difficulty he had playing against back-ups and with two other elite offensive players, so here's his chance to make the leap into the top 25.
Jon: For context into this weirdly specific question, I called James Harden a top-25 guy at the end of last season, at which Sean laughed endlessly. To answer it, these three intrepid bloggers worked on a list of the top NBA players and we put Harden at... 26. So he was definitely just about there last year, and I believe he'll make another leap forward this year (the Rockets do, too). He's only 23 and he's made significant leaps forward each season he's been in the league.
What is the most absurd fake Knicks story that has like a 2% chance of actually happening?
Steve: Guess who wrote this question! NOBODY GIVES A SHIT
Sean: Rasheed Wallace teaches Steve Novak how to trash talk. Steve Novak takes it too far one day in practice and JR Smith murders him. Someone in the NY media makes a joke that "JR never saw a shot he wouldn't take."
Jon: God I hope Sheed gets caught with a blunt at a game. That's all I want.
How awkward will it be when Jeremy Lin starts for the Western Conference All-Stars and one of CP3, Nash, Westbrook, and Parker likely won't make it. Does this mean that every Western PG will just destroy Lin out of vengeance?
Steve: Well CP3 is gonna be hurt, so it won't be awkward for him. But when Tony Parker has to miss the All-Star Game because Silicon Valley and UCLA voted him in, we're all gonna feel pretty uncomfortable. And we're all gonna feel uncomfortable about why we feel uncomfortable. Because we're all gonna like Yao Ming a little less.
Sean: It was okay when Yao made it because center is kind of a crappy position. However, the Western PGs are loaded and Jeremy Lin is absolutely going to get the votes from China to start. Ugh. You just hope that Russell Westbrook drops 45 on the Rockets and Lin. Then, James Harden will glare at Sam Presti and the cheap ass owners after Patrick Patterson travels for the fifth time in a half.
Jon: Uh, pretty awkward? I think the players handled it okay with Yao Ming. Lin's important to the league, whether he's an all-star or not.
Least Favorite Player (non-Kobe category)
Steve: My least favorite non-Kobe player is well-documented. Joakim Noah.
Sean: This is really hard. My first thought was Dwight Howard so I'll stick with that. His free throw shooting is atrocious and he dicked over Orlando only to land in an awesome situation that masks the fact that he can't be the focal point of a great offense. Ugh fucking Lakers.
Jon: Brook Lopez. YOU'RE SEVEN FEET TALL TRY REBOUNDING FOR LIKE ONE SECOND MAYBE. I might mean Robin Lopez. I can never remember.
Steve: As much as everyone loves the high-top fade, I'm gonna have to go with my main dude, the Manimal, Kenneth Faried, and his unstoppable dreads.
Sean: Iman Shumpert. His hair makes him the sexiest 7 footer in the league and he's only 6'6''. If he doesn't do the running man after every three pointer he makes, we all lose.
Jon: Sideshow Bob... I mean Anderson Varejao. Wait, did you mean worst hair? Otherwise, obviously Norris Cole and his high-top fade. That thing is early '90s incredible.
Favorite European Player
Steve: Leandro Barbosa.
Sean: Luis Scola. Crafty, smart, unathletic, and looks like Alan Rickman.
Jon: Steve Nash. Have you seen how he was dressed last night? European for sure. Or Bill Nye. Luis Scola looks like Prince Valiant, by the way.
I think that's about it for us. See you in the playoffs.