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Sam Smith's 2011-12 NBA preview and predictions

Veteran NBA writer Sam Smith takes a look at the Eastern and Western Conferences, ranking the teams 1 to 15, and provides his predictions for the postseason award winners.
Derrick Rose's Bulls may need an extra big, but they already have more than any of the other contenders. They have a relentless coach who emphasizes defense after ranking one/two all last season with Miami. And there’s a quiet confidence you can palpably feel around the team that this is their time.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

So, they’re off. That final turn is going to be here sooner than usual, and the general consensus seems to be when they shouting stops, it will be the Miami Heat with the first of those multiple championships they were promising. I’m not convinced, though they won’t be easy to defeat. I still don’t quite understand how they are so much improved with Shane Battier when they didn’t address not having a starting level point guard or center. But they do have Udonis Haslem for the season this time.

The Bulls are expected to make it most difficult for Miami, though this time expectedly instead of the surprise of last season. But other than the Heat and Bulls, it is a vastly uncertain and likely changing face of the NBA for 2011-12. The old guard of Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Mavs are aging and presumably fading, though I have to credit Mavs owner Mark Cuban for recognizing that and failing to bend to sentimentality in letting go several key pieces of his championship team, including center Tyson Chandler, to try to add a star to escort Dirk Nowitzki for a few more productive seasons. I must be happy to see the NBA back praising Cuban, though Cuban may not be too thrilled trying to get through this transition season after the way the Mavs were pummeled Sunday by the Heat.

The Thunder is supposed to be ready in the Western Conference with the Clippers and Grizzlies—yes, this is a new NBA—perhaps providing the biggest surprises. In the East, the story will be “Where’s Dwight” and the Melo and Amar’e circus.

It was a good start Christmas Day, and here’s one view of how it might finish:

Eastern Conference

1. Bulls: They won the most games, 62, last season by surprise. It isn’t anymore. The Richard Hamilton acquisition seems an ideal fit to get them out of the bottom third in scoring, even if the opener didn’t suggest it. They may need an extra big, but they already have more than any of the other contenders. They have a relentless coach who emphasizes defense after ranking one/two all last season with Miami. And there’s a quiet confidence you can palpably feel around the team that this is their time. But have I been around them too much? Everyone else is picking Miami.

2. Heat: They say they have the quiet confidence. So there. They get to talk about it more on national TV, so it seems more prevalent. There’s no dismissing them as their defense on the wings is terrific, though the Bulls matchup much better this season with Hamilton on Dwyane Wade. Or should. I still think their best lineup features Chris Bosh at center with Haslem at power forward. We’ll see if Bosh will go along. I do think their experiment with Eddy Curry is a good risk that could pay off later.

3. 76ers: This is my sleeper team, which also may suggest I’m sleeping on my picks. They are a bit short on the longs, that being big men. If they cannot get another good season from Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes doesn’t give them enough they’ll be in that fight for eighth again. But they have the most depth in their division with athletic players and I see improvement from Evan Turner. There are always rumors about Andre Iguodala being unsettled, but Doug Collins has him more in control than ever. In this short season where you can steal games by pushing through, I like a Collins team.

4. Pacers: I’m leaning toward depth in this season. Although I only saw a bit of David West, he looked recovered and I loved the George Hill pickup. If they had been able to pry O.J. Mayo from Memphis they really had something. Danny Granger is key if he’d just get off the three point line and sacrifice some. But Paul George could really come with some aggressiveness and Tyler Hansbrough is a Sixth Man candidate.

5. Knicks: There’s always too much made of whatever they do. Like I always write, the definition of a dynasty is when a family in China rules for 1,000 years or a New York team wins three straight. Who knows if Stoudemire and Anthony can get along, if Baron Davis will play, if Chandler can defend the basket on his own. And how did he become Bill Russell? I’m sure this soap opera is only beginning.

6. Celtics: The big slide begins and the question will hang over them of whether Danny Ainge is willing to break it up or face another falloff like in the late 80’s when they kept Bird, McHale and Parish. They have virtually no size with Jermaine O’Neal, sort of, at center and a tough break losing Jeff Green to illness. They could even slide out of the playoffs with one key injury.

7. Hawks: Another team that could slide out as well. The East is brutal at the bottom with perhaps five teams playing for the last four playoff spots. They’ll miss Kirk Hinrich until he returns, perhaps in January, and I don’t see how having Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse is going to provide stability. You hear that Joe Johnson and Al Horford aren’t exactly thrilled with things, and they could fade as well with any hardship.

8. Bucks: Another of the teams with so many ifs. They did improve, on paper, as it’s said, though paper sometimes crumbles quickly. There’s always Andrew Bogut’s back pain and a quick pain when Stephen Jackson with his own alleged bad back starting talking about a contract extension with two years left. They were one of the better defensive teams last season, but worst offensive. In Jackson, Mike Dunleavy, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih they have changed. But Jackson’s mind remains the key, a tough place to be.

9. Magic: This could change depending on whether they trade Howard or whether he goes into another pout or sulk about his future or whether he embraces the Magic and signs on. They have enough shooters around him to stay in contention and could be a top four team in a weak East. But you don’t have a good feeling about how it is going.

10. Pistons: They should be playing for a tie for 15th with perhaps the league’s four or five poorest teams in the bottom of the East. They have the most talent of that group, but it’s mostly guards and wing players and Ben Wallace just won’t give up. I liked Jonas Jerebko before he was hurt and we’ll see if Ben Gordon with a new No. 8 is still behind the eight ball.

11. Cavs: They may not be very good, but they’ll be more interesting with Kyrie Irving, who looks like he can get to the basket effectively. Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao were forgotten last season, but are helpful veterans and Omri Casspi was a good pickup. I’m not sure what to make of the other high pick, Tristan Thompson, but scouts rave about his athletic ability.

12. Wizards: I usually say it’s too bad John Wall is in a group like that. But it’s more for JaVale McGee. In the right system with mature teammates, I’d much prefer him to Tyson Chandler. Bringing back Nick Young on a one year deal is a disaster as he’ll shoot them out of every close game. Andray Blatche is a constant letdown. They should cut everyone but McGee and Wall and start again.

13. Nets: Losing Brook Lopez was worse if they had a chance to get Howard, though likely not yet. Deron Williams is due for a long, unpleasant season. They scrambled getting Mehmet Okur, though we thought he’d retired and brought back poor Kris Humphries, who got taken by the Hollywood reality show tribe and he gets faulted. Lame duck seasons never are pretty.

14. Bobcats: Well, Kemba Walker is going to shoot a lot. If Tyrus lets him, that is. It’s a mess of a young team searching for, as owner Michael Jordan said, one star. They brought in rookie Bismack Biyombo, but appear to have an awful lot of raw, undisciplined pieces, which usually gets Corey Maggette to say he’s hurt.

15. Raptors: They don’t seem recovered quite yet from losing Bosh, though since they missed the playoffs with him it’s not like they had that much. DeMar DeRozan is the best player no one will ever see, and Ed Davis could be something. With Rasual Butler, Aaron Gray and James Johnson, at least Bulls players will have someone to point out the good restaurants.

Western Conference

1. Thunder: I actually thought there was a chance they could get there last season. So much is mentioned about whether Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant can coexist, but they have by far the best front line with Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and reserves like Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed. And James Harden may be the league’s most underrated player. They are loaded.

2. Clippers: There really is no No. 2 team. I’m not buying Dallas after losing five regulars and replacing them with the likes of Vince Carter, Delonte West and Lamar Odom. Are they running an assisted living facility? The Clippers could have the best starting five in the West, though not quite the depth. Chris Paul and Chancey Billups are like coaches in the backcourt, which should help Vinny Del Negro, and Caron Butler is a pro at three. There are no curses if you have talent.

3. Grizzlies: Another unappreciated team that made a big move last season. They have Rudy Gay back, which is either a good or bad thing. There have been teamwork problems with Zach Randolph, and there is the issue of whether they’ve had enough success, that being making it to the second round and Randolph and Marc Gasol being paid. Plus someone like Mayo in reserve is nice. If they still want to compete they’ll be there.

4. Lakers: So Kobe opens with a broken wrist and no surgery. Odom is gone. They tried unsuccessfully to trade Pau. Bynum comes off suspension after the first week, which means two more weeks until an injury. Gone also is Shannon Brown and you have Kopono, McRoberts, Murphy and World Peace. Throwing a Lakers’ jersey on the court doesn’t get you wins anymore. Showtime becomes slow time with Mike Brown.

5. Nuggets: Well, they do have a lot of guards. They say they like Afflalo and Lawson and Andre Miller, and then there’s Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer and Al Harrington and Danilo Gallinari play the perimeter. Is Nene a center? Perhaps they’ll get Wilson Chandler back later in the season after his excursion to China. They should have enough after a not so Melo season to compete.

6. Mavericks: Though they have enough to be here, I do wonder the effect of everyone knowing Cuban is remaking the team after the season. How does Jason Kidd feel about them supposedly eying Deron Williams? They have big plans to get Howard as well, and they’ll look to move someone for cap space during the season if they can. So they could take a fall from here if things don’t go well.

7. Spurs: Less because of their talent than Gregg Popovich knows about these short seasons—they won the last one—and with his aging guys he’s more likely to pace the team through the season to keep Duncan and Ginobili sharp later. He knew he faced an eighth place Knicks team to win in 1999. So we’ll see more of Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard and who knows where that gets you.

8. Trail Blazers: With the old guys slipping, they could move up some, though we always expect their bigs to suffer some unexpected hardship. What were you thinking, Kurt? Ray Felton is an interesting addition and we’ll see if they push the ball with a coach who doesn’t like to. Moving beyond the Brandon Roy saga should help, but they’ll need another big season from LaMarcus Aldridge.

9. Timberwolves. This should get Rick Adelman that coach of the year award. Could they even make the playoffs? Don’t see it, but they should be interesting, at least. They say Ricky Rubio won’t start, but despite being warned off I like him. They are a bit loaded on the wing with rookie Derrick Williams, Wesley Johnson and Michael Beasley. If Adelman can work through that, they could do something. With Kevin Love I’d play small and score. And maybe Brad Miller has something left for his favorite coach.

10. Warriors: Lots of talk, but they figure to be about where they were. I’m interested to see how this thing works with coach Mark Jackson saying he’ll also remain a pastor this season. I like rookie Klay Thompson to backup Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, but if you need Kwame Brown I’m still not sure they have faith in a return by Andris Biedrins.

11. Jazz: I think they are in for the biggest change, and who knows where it takes them. I see them dealing Al Jefferson and I’d take a chance on Monta Ellis. Hey, they have Jamal Tinsley and Josh Howard. The goody goody era is over. In rookie Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors they could have a front line for a decade and if they can add one big scorer they might have something. With Paul Millsap you can afford to move Jefferson. I suspect the Pistons are in the hunt for Jefferson as well.

12. Kings: I don’t think you ever go anywhere with someone like DeMarcus Cousins, though 12th isn’t exactly anywhere. Jimmer Fredette should be intriguing and he unlike most of the pure shooter guys who come out he can handle enough. Chuck Hayes may be able to beat some sense into Cousins as well. They’ve got some firepower with Marcus Thornton, John Salmons and Tyreke Evans, but a bit too much one on one play.

13. Hornets: Yes, their aborted deal may be better for the future, but the present is now. And you can quote me. They actually have some size with Chris Kaman and Okafor and Eric Gordon ought to be shooting all day for a new deal. Bringing back Carl Landry should help, and they at least will compete.

14. Suns: Only because I most prefer to travel there. It’s a bottoming out with free agency coming. We’ll see if Phoenix still holds that weather allure. Grant Hill is a late starter after offseason surgery and Steve Nash just has to be traded. I can’t see him finishing there. You figure the Knicks are calling every day, though I assume they are out of draft picks until 2025.

15. Rockets: They did try to trade the whole team in the Gasol/Paul deal and everyone knows it. They’d do it again in a second. They try for just about every big name and feature how they are the most sophisticated in statistical analysis. You have to wonder then how they got Hasheem Thabeet.

And the winners are…

-- MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City. I saw one ESPN poll of writers that had 30 voters and none for Derrick Rose. I don’t think he’ll be named MVP again, but there isn’t a more valuable player to his team. Rose still plays without an All-Star, which is not the case with any of the other top contenders, like Durant, LeBron, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. I made Dirk an exception and if the Mavs again have a big season he has to be up there. I don’t know how anyone could ever vote for James as he has shown time and again in the playoffs he has to rely on other players and prefers to play to them. He’s a great talent, sure, perhaps the best in the NBA. But he cannot be his team’s most valuable the way he plays. I go Rose second, Dirk third, Blake Griffin fourth and Dwyane James fifth.

-- Coach of the Year: This should be renamed The Coach of the Team we most Underestimated award. It rarely goes to the best coach who was the most admired by his peers and best in the profession. It goes to the coach of the team most expected to be bad and wasn’t as bad as we figured. It’s why so many winners get fired so quickly. It’s not that they were good coaches. It’s that their teams were underrated and overachieved. The vote then becomes, well, it must have been the coach. Uh, why? Adelman actually is a terrific coach, but he’ll get a boost here because the team has been so bad for so long. If the 76ers do as well as I’ve suggested, then Doug Collins could challenge. Otherwise, you might consider George Karl, Frank Vogel or even Vinny. Tom Thibodeau could be the best again if the Bulls win the East, though you can’t get voted twice even if it’s not a rule.

-- Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ve been promoting Rubio, but he may not play enough, or start. Irving looks good and should get plenty of chances with a new Cavs group and few real scorers. Depending on their playing time, I like the guards at the end of the lottery to be up there, like Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Jimmer Fredette and one of the Morris brothers both being with bad teams. Enes Kanter could come on late if the Jazz move Jefferson.

-- Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. I don’t like voting for the same guy or the time, or centers, really. But we know he’ll cry if he doesn’t win something. I guess you can make the case of the guy who you are most concerned preparing to play. Howard guards the basket the best and makes it difficult. You also need to be on a good defensive team. You can pick a guy like JaVale McGee, but his team doesn’t defend. And I still don’t fully buy Tyson Chandler even as the Mavs celebrated him last season. It’s often more system that makes the best defensive team, though. I like to go for individuals and Luol Deng should get more credit. He’s not nearly as athletic with the ability of someone like LeBron, but LeBron doesn’t play it as often. If he did you could make the case for him. The guys who make steals, like Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, generally aren’t very good man defenders but play in the lanes and from behind well. Guys like Tony Allen and Thabo Sefolosha get some mention, but they aren’t Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen.

-- Sixth Man: James Harden, Oklahoma City. Again, he’s my underrated choice, a guy who’d start most anywhere if they didn’t want to balance their team with some defense to start in Sefolosha. It’s actually perhaps the toughest field to pick from with a lot of legitimate candidates. The 76ers best players may be off the bench in Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young. Lamar Odom has a shot in Dallas and there’ll be some guard left out in Denver who’ll score big. Jamal Crawford will be firing them up on a one year deal and Tyler Hansbrough moves into that spot with David West in. Mo Williams got pushed back and is where he needs to be and we’ll also see with Ben Gordon, who was the premier sixth man until he got overpaid. The Bulls should get some mention, though that depends on rotation. So maybe Taj Gibson.

-- Most Improved Player: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers. I think he’s going to develop into an elite point guard, a guy who came into the NBA much too young and inexperienced as a mid first rounder and could surprise. This is also a very ill-defined one since there is little gauge of what exactly is most improved. I like to go with guys who were lower picks or reserves who came on as opposed to high draft picks who didn’t get a chance to play as Derrick Favors and Evan Turner will get some notice this season. Also, there’ll be voted for guys like Carlos Boozer or Andrew Bynum who had down years and come back. But I’m not sure how you can be most improved if you just go back to previous levels of play. I also like Tyler Hansbrough, especially if he plays against the Bulls more often.

Around the league

-- Brook Lopez admitted he was being “lazy” and not going after rebounds because Kris Humphries was doing so well and getting them. “It was a number of things. I was being lazy, first and foremost,” Lopez told New Jersey reporters. “Hump was doing such a good job a lot of the time, that I’d see him doing his thing and kind of leak out offensively. I didn’t really crash the offensive boards. There’s really no excuse for that because I didn’t leak out defensively at all.” Not sure this is the guy the Magic want to begin a rebuilding with. Then he got hurt, anyway, and is out a few months. And imagine Humphries. He gets swindled in that hoax marriage in which he was serious and a poll comes out naming him the league’s most hated player over LeBron. Really, who is voting in these things? Humphries is going to hear some bad taunting this season, especially at home in a lame duck season. … Amar’e Stoudemire mentioned Mike Bibby among the “great veteran players” who make his vision of a Knicks title realistic. Yup, 1970 Knicks all over again. The Knicks are talking about Baron Davis playing in January, making that a short eight to 10 weeks out. … It’s tough for Andres Nocioni, whom coach Doug Collins said is his sixth perimeter guy in a five-player rotation. Said Nocioni: "I don't know my role right now, but I'm going to wait my time. I need to stay in shape and be ready. Right now I'm just staying ready. I'm going to wait for my time."

-- Michael Sweetney didn’t make the cut in Boston. He was listed at 295, though declined to say if that was accurate. Sweetney really is a sweet guy and you feel for him. He told Boston media he was in counseling about his weight and now is on an organic diet, but closing in on 30 those soft hands are just not enough anymore. … The Atlanta Constitution on Tracy McGrady in preseason games: “He was just out there.” … Josh Smith was dominating Tyrus Thomas in the opening preseason game until Tyson landed badly with a sprained ankle and, predictably, writhed dramatically in pain. He does put on a show sometimes. … After saying he told his teammates “at the present time” he’s on the team, Dwight Howard said nobody is talking about him and that everyone is together. So if you buy that one…You wonder if Stan Van Gundy can survive all this in Orlando with another meeting in which Howard wants him to be less negative. You wonder if it will be one of those Mike Brown situations in which the star gets the coach bounced and then leaves. But Van Gundy is an excellent coach who’d be in demand. … Norris Cole, who is officially listed as the Bulls 2011 draft pick by the NBA before all the deals, is in Miami and the inside talk is they can see him beating out Mario Chalmers. … A few years back, the Jazz matched Portland’s offer to get Paul Millsap back. A lot of teams believe in the notion you don’t let teams steal your players. Then Utah let Wesley Matthews go to Portland, and with the needs you could see a deal making sense now of Matthews back to Utah for Millsap. As I suggested above with Favors and rookie Kanter showing promise and the Jazz going nowhere for now, I can see Al Jefferson as the first 20/10 big man dealt (sorry Dwight). I know there was this complaint against Monta Ellis, but I hear he’s not that bad a guy and there are questions about the allegations. Golden State struck out going for every big man, and the Jazz could use a scorer to go with their young big men. You know me: Just trying to help. Favors was 25 and 12 in the first preseason game.

-- One team quietly not so thrilled with the new labor agreement was the Thunder. That so called Derrick Rose 30 percent rule over the previous maximum 25 percent of the cap limits their flexibility as Durant moves up to 30 percent and likely Russell Westbrook. It could lead to some moves for salary purposes. … The Clippers have sold out every home game this season, L.A. media reports, while the Lakers have not as yet. … Chauncey Billups to the Los Angeles Times on Vinny Del Negro: "I just knew that everybody loved playing for him and he was like a players' coach. I could kind of see that from the outside because he played. He has an awesome basketball mind, just knowing little stuff about the game. I've been around and I like asking questions and I'm learning still myself. He's good.” Added Chris Paul: “Sometimes you come across coaches that have big egos that don't want input. He's communicated with me, Chauncey, Mo, from day one. It's been a good experience so far."… You know the Lakers season could be heading the wrong way when Snoop Dogg (he’s a person not an actual dog) uses Twitter to offer this: “Pau gasol is soft as (bad word) we need to get his (bad words) on the 1st thing smoking hes a (bad word) weanie. this is comn from laker fan #1.” Mr. Dogg then added this tweet: “(Bad word) gasol hes a (bad word) we need mark gasol this ones a punk (bad word). We need a pointguard bynum ballen his (butt) off!” To paraphrase Charles Barkley, Rappers are really, really, really not role models. Oh, right. You probably knew that.

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