Posted Dec 22 2011 11:46AM
The best team won't necessary win the 2011-12 NBA championship. The best survivor will. The team that makes it through 66 games, mined with hamstring-pulling back-to-back games and even Achilles-straining three-in-three-nights games will be thrilled to be fit enough to lift the trophy, much less win it.
Welcome to a season where players will get a full salary for an abbreviated number of games and actually earn it. Nobody's quite sure if the season will deserve an asterisk. But it will require plenty of ice bags (extra for the Celtics, please). So much basketball condensed in such a short time frame will claim some victims and ultimately impact what happens in the spring and summer.
The big concern for the NBA, aside from an injury to a box-office player, is a serious dip in quality of play. This is almost unavoidable, given the frequency of games, which will force coaches to reach deeper into the rotation than they'd like. All of that matters in the postseason -- in the big picture anyway -- because the more the league distances itself from the lockout, the better the perception.
As for predictions on what's likely to happen, we have a few.
Surprises. The Hornets, who have a good coach in Monty Williams and shooting guard in Eric Gordon, won't be awful. Baron Davis is suddenly motivated to play for a winner. And you'll love Kemba Walker, because the Bobcats finally got it right.
Disappointments. There are too many past-prime players and potential turmoil surrounding Dwight Howard for the Magic to achieve anything near what they did last season. Better enjoy All-Star Weekend, Orlando. Carlos Boozer will get folks in Chicago asking how many years are left on his contract. Ditto for David Lee if he doesn't play any defense for the Warriors.
Shortened season will spell doom for Tim Duncan. All of those back-to-backs and five games-in-six-night stretches will take a toll on a player who looked old in a first-round loss last spring against the Grizzlies (12 points, 44 percent shooting). The Spurs have squeezed Duncan's minutes the last few years but Duncan will be 36 years old when the playoffs begin.
Greg Oden will not wear a Blazer uniform beyond June, if ever again. Owner Paul Allen said he's done with spending at any cost, which means the Blazers are unlikely to throw serious coin at Oden next summer. At this point he's too much of an injury risk to gamble with a huge investment, and maybe it's time for a brittle center and unlucky franchise to part ways and move on.
Suns will finally see the light, move Steve Nash by deadline. Obviously the Suns ignored the Branch Rickey Rule about trading players before their value drops, so anything they get now for Nash, a free agent next summer, will be less than a year ago. Still, this must be done, more for the benefit of Nash, who at 37 can finish out with a contender. Think Lakers, Heat, Knicks.
Underrated offseason pickup. On a value-for-value basis, it's hard to top Rip Hamilton joining the Bulls, a win for both. He got his check from the Pistons after receiving a buyout and now gets to play next to Derrick Rose on a championship contender. The Bulls got a dangerous mid-range shooter for cheap who can upgrade the two-guard spot and keep defenses from constantly doubling on Rose.
Overrated offseason pickup. Tyson Chandler came off looking super in the NBA Finals against a Miami team with no low-post offensive threat, and he leveraged that into a $58 million contract from the Knicks. It was just a year ago this time when Chandler was a salary dump by the Hornets and became the regular center in Dallas only because Brendan Haywood was the competition. The defense-starved Knicks hope Chandler can be what Marcus Camby was for them 10 years ago.
Best team if this were 2006-07. The Hawks signed Jerry Stackhouse and Tracy McGrady for reasons other than nostalgia; they came cheap and the Hawks lost Jamal Crawford.
Clippers will win the dunk contest (again). Did you know DeAndre Jordan didn't score a single basket outside the paint in 2010-11? That might be an unofficial record. And Jordan did that without the benefit of catching lob passes from Chris Paul. So the guess here is Jordan goes wild in the paint again, followed closely by Blake Griffin, because point-blank baskets will happen in a hurry for the Clippers this year. A top-shelf point guard makes all the difference, and Paul is cut from the make-your-teammates-better mold, a pass-first guy on a team of finishers.
Guards will rule the rookie class. The last two No. 1 picks were used on point guards and the position will keep on giving this season. Kyrie Irving will get the kind of playing time he never saw in his injury-interrupted college season at Duke. Kemba Walker will press D.J. Augustin for minutes and will become the starter in Charlotte. Jimmer Fredette will have the green light to shoot in Sacramento, which is starving for a gate attraction. Norris Cole already has the respect of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami. And Iman Shumpert will get plenty of looks in New York as the Knicks search for backcourt stability. Also, Ricky Rubio qualifies as a rookie.
Comeback player. Rudy Gay missed out on all the fun last spring when the Grizzlies made a surprising playoff sprint without him. But let's be clear, Memphis is not better off without its leading scorer. Now healed from a bum shoulder and just entering his prime, Gay will lead the Grizz to a division title ... and maybe more.
Comeback coach. Rick Adelman's time in Houston ran its course and now a different challenge awaits in Minnesota, where the young Wolves need a calm and steady guiding hand. Adelman is two steps up from Kurt Rambis and locked with George Karl as the best active coach without a ring. This year is all about teaching Ricky Rubio and convincing Kevin Love to re-sign. Adelman can do both.
Comeback general manager. The Pacers haven't had a winning season since Metta World Peace disturbed the peace in the Palace and sent the franchise on a six-year tailspin. Larry Bird was stuck with too many bad contracts to maneuver his way out of the muck until now. In the last few years he brought back coach Frank Vogel, drafted Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert, traded for George Hill and Darren Collison and signed David West. It's a fresh start for the Pacers and just maybe, one for Bird as well.
Eight playoff teams in the East. Heat, Bulls, Knicks, Celtics, Sixers, Hawks, Pacers, Bucks. Yes, no Magic. The Dwight Howard era won't end well.
Eight playoff teams in the West. Thunder, Clippers, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Jazz, Blazers, Spurs, Lakers. Nuggets miss out. Lakers will be lucky to get the eight seed if Kobe's body doesn't make it through the 66-game grind in one piece.
Two finalists: Oklahoma City is stacked, Kevin Durant will win MVP and Russell Westbrook's in contract drive, all of which will push OKC past the Clippers. In the East, Derrick Rose can't get past Miami just yet.
Champion: Miami, because for this team and LeBron James, the NBA Finals is all that matters.
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