Sam Smith's 2010-11 NBA preview and predictions

Is it just a four-team league anymore with three in the Eastern Conference? The Bulls, Spurs, Mavericks, Thunder, Jazz, Trail Blazers and Nuggets might like to think otherwise. But barely anyone believes they stand a chance against the Fantastic Four.

LeBron's done it again! No, but the NBA's newest hero/villain finally opens the 2010-11 NBA season Tuesday with his new Miami Heat super team in Boston against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.

It's the culmination of one of the most remarkable periods in NBA history with James' season-long free agency odyssey that occupied the NBA to James' shocking ascension to league wide villain following the buildup to his announcement, his much condemned TV show and subsequent vitriol from his former team and fans around the NBA.

Now comes James fighting back in a new Nike commercial where he plaintively asks whether he should "Be who you want me to be?" James, or at least the Nike creative writers, acknowledge mistakes, questions about his legacy, a shot at Charles Barkley's famous "I am not a role model" declarations and a studied defiance that he would transcend all of that.

Not a bad opening shot, if not yet heard around the basketball world.

We'll see, but we will be watching as the NBA knows how to put on a show with a heck of a first week that starts with the Heat in Boston and then their home opener Friday against the 2009 Eastern Conference champion Magic, their home state neighbor who has dominated them for years and gets barely an acknowledgement anymore.

The Lakers open at home Tuesday and get their championship rings, though they are a virtual after thought now with the drama of the Eastern Conference with Shaq now starting for the Celtics and their Big Three (plus Rondo), the last NBA champions before the Lakers' repeaters.

Now, the Heat, with LeBron and Wade and Bosh, are supposed to capture those titles shared by the Lakers and Boston and threatened by the Magic.

Is it just a four-team league anymore with three in the Eastern Conference?

The Bulls, Spurs, Mavericks, Thunder, Jazz, Trail Blazers and Nuggets might like to think otherwise. But barely anyone believes they stand a chance against the Fantastic Four.

We begin to find out Tuesday in what may become the Revenge of LeBron.

Here's one look at he 2010-11 season:

Eastern Conference

  1. Orlando Magic: They've got a second unit that might make the playoffs. Look at it this way--J.J. Redick probably would have been the Bulls' starting shooting guard. He's now probably ninth man on the Magic. Dwight Howard seems tired of hearing he doesn't care much and is frowning much more now. They're so deep at forward they can't find time for guys like Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson, who could start most places. They played the preseason with a scorched earth mentality, winning by an average of 25 per game. They've been accused to taking their foot off the pedal before. Not now, you figure.
  2. Miami Heat: No, I don't see a championship, though I do see a lot of wins. Put it this way: LeBron averaged more than 60 wins the last two seasons without playing with an All-Star. Mo Williams? Watch him now. They can't not be successful. Yes, we dislike them so much we have to use double negatives. They're going to win a lot of games, but health and questionable depth will eventually derail them. Wade's last two years dragging that team alone are going to have an effect as well s Bosh's knee issues. We all believe before too long Pat Riley will be coaching and rather than stuff like who takes the last shot and playing together, I think the larger question is whether they play that slow, Riley defensive style they are not suited for or open the game, which Cleveland never did and still won 60 something. We do know every game they play will be the biggest in the NBA that day, which is nothing like we've seen since Jordan's Bulls in the 90s.
  3. Boston Celtics: While the Heat got the stars, they added with the idea of beating the Lakers. The Lakers edge over everyone is size, so they added every known big O'Neal they could find. It helps to have more Irish in Boston as well. It will be challenging when the self proclaimed captain of the defense-and delusional-Kendrick Perkins returns in midseason. We'll find out if Garnett is really all the way back or how far. They glided through last season and still went to the seventh game and could have won, certainly with Perkins. So they probably won't have the edge to push all season. But they should be there to face the Magic in the conference finals.
  4. Chicago Bulls: They seem good enough to get here, though much depends on their consolation prize, Carlos Boozer. And it wasn't a good start with Boozer breaking his hand. It could put them in a big hole early, which they might spend all season fighting out of and deny them a chance to win 50 games. But it's difficult to see anyone else in the East good enough to blow past them once they get healthy. Shooting guard is a major issue and if they can address that during the season they might be primed to make some big time noise in the playoffs.
  5. Milwaukee Bucks: Like the Bulls, they made several new additions, and fitting all that together will be the challenge. They've got a lot of potential scoring with Corey Maggette, John Salmons and Drew Gooden, though all have been identified as selfish players at times in their career. Health is always an issue with Andrew Bogut and you wonder if they left themselves a bit unguarded letting Luke Ridnour go with only Earl Boykins behind sometimes erratic Brandon Jennings. They're counting a lot on Scott Skiles getting everyone to defend.
  6. Atlanta Hawks: They have the biggest potential to drop back with Jamal Crawford unhappy about his contract situation and Al Horford perhaps so as he was still trying to get an extension this week. They're changing the defense from that switching game they played under former coach Mike Woodson, and they still have a most undisciplined Josh Smith. We'll see how much a devastating playoffs last season affected them.
  7. Charlotte Bobcats: I didn't think they'd make the playoffs this season, if only because they are counting on Tyrus Thomas. But I couldn't figure out anyone else in the East who would. The East is the story of the NBA this season for the first time in more than a decade, but it's the top heavy part. They have the elements of a collapse with no real point guard in having lost Ray Felton to the Knicks and no center in giving away Tyson Chandler and then Erick Dampier to save money. Mike is now your biggest born again luxury tax hawk. Yes, makes a difference when your money is in the pot. Plus, this usually is the time Stephen Jackson gets on coach's nerves, and it doesn't take long to do so with Larry Brown. But they've got a few tough, hard playing guys, which should be just enough.
  8. New York Knicks: Maybe I'm buying into the hype as well, as I saw Amar'e Stoudemire finished off the preseason with one of his classic 25-point, three-rebound games. Ray Felton is an upgrade at point, but it seems to me they made a huge blunder taking a chance on all that Golden State detritus when they should have just kept David Lee with Stoudemire. The irony, of course, is how much Mike D'Antoni disliked Stoudemire in Phoenix and frequently noted how they played better when he was hurt. Being shut out in free agency makes strange bedfellows. So maybe they become the best of the least.
  9. Philadelphia 76ers: I usually bet on Doug Collins, but he has such a mismatched roster. But if they can figure out a way to move Andre Iguodala to clear things out some and get more guys to buy into Collins' methods, they could move past the Knicks and Bobcats. Collins is usually the best in putting guys in position to improve, and he'll have a test with the slowing Elton Brand. It also depends on how fast touted second year man Jrue Holiday advances along with Evan Turner. But few coaches are better at turning around underachieving programs than Collins.
  10. Cleveland Cavaliers: Everyone expects them to crater big time, and missing the playoffs, I suppose, would qualify. But LeBron isn't worth 40 games. They'll still have a defensive mentality thanks to Mike Brown, and Brown probably would be the right coach now as you want a slow team with their lack of scoring. Varejao was their best center, anyway, and they can bring Antawn Jamison off the bench. I can see Ramon Sessions starting at point guard, though he's a shooting point as well, and making Mo Williams a shooting guard, which he's basically been with LeBron handling the ball. Guys like playing for Byron Scott and they'll have some motivation to surprise. They won't be that easy an out.
  11. Detroit Pistons: The Pistons were the first to dip into the free agency pool, but the water was cold. They spent all their money for Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, both of whom can't break into the starting lineup. They've got a ton of scoring from the perimeter with so little inside game that the world's skinniest basketball player, Austin Daye, is their power forward. Ben Wallace returned, though he's double dipping with his Social Security check. Losing Jonas Jerebko hurt and Greg Monroe seems a long way away. Perhaps they offload Tayshaun Prince finally and begin to rebuild yet again.
  12. Washington Wizards: This is the toughest team to read as they have some unusual talent with rookie John Wall and Gilbert Arenas, whom coach Flip Saunders clearly doesn't want to play with Kirk Hinrich around. If Josh Howard were healthy they might have been a playoff team. Their big issue is their bigs, talented in Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee, but erratic and defenseless. I can see Yi Jianlian getting a lot of time as a result. Gilbert can play, but he generally remains too much of a distraction given his 800-pound elephant status.
  13. New Jersey Nets: Now, if they manage to trade for Carmelo, they'll go up a bit and perhaps close to the playoffs. Still, they will improve and could be better than this. New coach Avery Johnson isn't going to put up with the lack of discipline that went on there and, as a result, Brook Lopez and Devin Harris should go back to playing. They struck out in free agency, but picked up some spare parts in Anthony Morrow and Travis Outlaw who could surprise along with Troy Murphy if he remains healthy, which he doesn't often. The Anthony trade will continue to hang over them until it's resolved.
  14. Indiana Pacers: They made a good deal in getting the Hornets' Darren Collison and perhaps someone finally takes T.J. Ford. They have a bunch of contracts coming off after this season and that's where they're looking. They've made something of Roy Hibbert and rookie Paul George looks like a player. Danny Granger is going to keep firing them up there, and at some point you can see them deciding to move him as he's likely become too enamored of scoring for a bad team.
  15. Toronto Raptors: Turns out they were just a 30-something win team with Chris Bosh and way overrated. They're not anymore. They've basically got no front court and an erratic backcourt. They'll have games scoring a lot if Andrea Bargnani is hitting and Leandro Barbosa is running, but they're going to be giving up a lot, a real lot.

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers: Like in the U.S., the gap between the rich and poorer only continues to widen in this conference. Whereas once they had to fend off 60-win types like the Suns, Mavs and Spurs, they've all fallen back while the Lakers go merrily along looking for that three-peat and Phil Jackson's 29th championship. I'm counting American Legion baseball. Fun fact: Jackson once batted against Satchel Paige. Really. That's what I call a Zen experience. They don't worry much about Andrew Bynum being out again because the road is fairly clear. Kobe is coming slowly off knee surgery and Ron Artest seems to have less and less trouble with his sanity. Everyone in the West went to get seven footers to try to deal with Pau, Bynum and Lamar, which is the key to their success. Steve Blake could be one of the big finds of the offseason. If Matt Barnes isn't. They have real backups for a change. Watch for them in June again when we're done watching the Heat.
  2. Utah Jazz: Yes, they're awfully small up front, especially with Mehmet Okur out to start the season, as if he's a real center if he were playing. But no one's beating the Lakers, anyway. They've rebooted after losing Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer and done so nicely with Al Jefferson, Raja Bell and Earl Watson. They may even be better off. They'll still play the same Jazz system, which creates good shots and defense and just be more consistent as Deron Williams quietly has become as good as there is at point.
  3. San Antonio Spurs: I could see them sneaking up to second as well. They have the most overlooked Big Three ever with Manu Ginobili back in the starting lineup this season. They've said they'll take the titles instead. They got their spare seven footer from overseas in Taigo Splitter, who was hurt in preseason, an Anderson Varejao type big man. They'll likely retain a tight rotation with George Hill and Antonio McDyess off the bench and DaJuan Bair starting until Splitter returns, or perhaps even when he does. And this time Richard Jefferson says he understands. They've really had some remarkable run over the last two decades and as long as Tim Duncan stays around you cannot overlook them.
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder: They're the popular pick to move up behind the Lakers after last season's first round playoff scare. And they have the goods with expected MVP Kevin Durant. But you also get the feeling they could get a little full of themselves with all the predictions of a break through. There'll be contract issues as only Durant got extended so far and they're still unsettled at center with Nenad Krstic and Nick Collison hurt and Jeff Green still small at four. Will they have the same defensive dedication? It's tough to make that next jump after 50 wins.
  5. Dallas Mavericks: They're aiming at the Lakers and still believe they can get there. They've got two more mobile seven footers since the start of last season with Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler and scorer Caron Butler. Dirk looks as tough as ever and some bench spark plugs in Roddy Beaubois and J.J. Barea to go along with Jasons Terry and Kidd. Though with age as Shawn Marion seems in fast decline, you get the sense again they'll trip up along the way as they always do.
  6. Portland Trail Blazers: They're the if only team, as if only Greg Oden didn't keep getting hurt and Joel Pryzbilla didn't, either. They have, on paper, anyway, the best shot at the Lakers size, so we'll see if they're back by the end. Throw in LaMarcus Aldridge and wing firepower in Brandon Roy, Andre Miller and Nicholas Batum with Rudy Fernandez still not back in Spain and they have a lot of weapons and talent, if also a lot of dysfunction and injury. If only they could rely on more of the former.
  7. Memphis Grizzlies: If they hadn't come up with the hair brained idea of starting the season with Allen Iverson, they might be working on a second straight playoffs. They've got a lot of talent in that starting lineup and scoring size with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay seem to have worked things out reasonably well over scoring, basically throwing it to Zach more, from where balls go to die. But they're also finally putting together a bench with Tony Allen from Boston, Darrell Arthur and Sam Young. Now if Hasheem Thabeet can only…Nah, that's asking too much. But they should be in the hunt.
  8. Houston Rockets: I'm not sure how this part time Yao thing will work, but they were in the playoff chase much of the season last year without him. I didn't like dealing Carl Landry, but they said Kevin Martin would complement Yao. We'll see. They're also counting on Brad Miller a bit more than seems reasonable, but Rick Adelman is perhaps the most unsung coach around. They're smart and tough and hustle with Most Improved Aaron Brooks, a backcourt jet, and rugged Luis Scola. They've got depth with Courtney Lee, Jared Jeffries and Chuck Hayes and a bunch of picks from the Knicks that could make the future look brighter. You also get the sense they are involved in just about every trade talked about.
  9. Denver Nuggets: Carmelo is still there. But what time is it? Those Anthony trade rumors aren't going away, which won't be good. They've got a heck of a lot of scoring potential with Ty Lawson, Aaron Afflalo and Al Harrington, the latter when healthy, coming off the bench. But with Kenyon Martin out until who knows when they'll have to start Shelden Williams with Nene. Way too small. We'll see what they come up with in trade, but you figure they're on the edge of a rebuilding.
  10. New Orleans Hornets: Chris Paul is going to be disappointed as well. They're trying to fix things to get him to not be upset and want to leave, but it's going to be tough. Already, David West doesn't want an extension. That can't be a good sign of confidence in the franchise. There's a new coach and GM and new ownership still expected. They're also on the verge of starting again.
  11. Los Angeles Clippers: I'm basing a lot of this on Blake Griffin, and especially his health. And, of course, the big key remains if new coach Vinny Del Negro can unlock the curious combination to Baron Davis' brain. Eric Gordon had a nice summer with USA Basketball and they quietly picked up Ryan Gomes, a serviceable small forward to go along with Rascal Butler. And with Chris Kaman they have a front line that should score well. They have the pieces to compete for the playoffs, but being the Clippers something always happens.
  12. Phoenix Suns: They should have rebuilt. Perhaps the biggest mistake of the offseason was the Suns trying to get better. They took on a bunch of role players with long contracts at a time they could have divested and had salary cap room, and that's a place where players want to play. But between management changes, owner Robert Sarver made the personnel moves and Steve Nash isn't going back to the playoffs unless he leaves. You hope he can have a better end to his career somewhere else.
  13. Sacramento Kings: They're putting together some nice young pieces with Tyreke Evans and now big man DeMarcus Cousins, though we'll see if the erratic Cousins-so they said at Kentucky-can straighten out. Francisco Garcia is back from injury and they have the valuable Carl Landry from that Kevin Martin deal. They don't shoot particularly well, but they'll surprise some teams.
  14. Minnesota Timberwolves: It's not the disaster area it's been in recent years and they could move up some if coach Kurt Rambis scraps that triangle offense. They moved Al Jefferson to play Kevin Love, and you wonder why they couldn't figure that out. They're taking a shot with Michael Beasley and made a nice pickup to get Luke Ridnour from the Bucks to stabilize Jonny Flynn. And, yes, now they have Darko and he's really, really serious this time. We'll see.
  15. Golden State Warriors: Nellie is gone, though getting paid, of course. But they're still a wild bunch with Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis fighting for the ball in the backcourt. They made a nice pickup in David Lee, who will give them a workman's effort and Andris Biedrins may not be too scared to miss a free throw now with Nellie gone. But there's basically no backups in the backcourt and they're going to wear those guys out, though not before they shoot their shoulders out of whack.

So what happens in the playoffs?

Of course, it's stupid to make those kinds of predictions now not knowing about injuries and trades. But it's not like predicting everyone's season isn't equally stupid.

So in the Eastern Conference finals, it's Orlando over Boston. Yes, sorry, LeBron and D-Wade, who now said he doesn't want to be called Flash, which Shaq named him. I actually was interviewing Shaq in a one-on-one when he said he was making it up to give me a story. Shaq liked me then. Now LeBron wants Wade called a LeBronette.

In the Western Conference finals, the Lakers get in on a bye as no one feels worthy enough to play them. Nah, but it's too hard to figure. I'd say Lakers over the Spurs in the Spurs last gasp until we decide that's really next year.

Then it's Lakers over the Magic for title No. 17 and Phil gets on his horse and you know the rest.