Tuesday, October 26, 2010

2010-11 NBA Season Predictions: More Wide Open Than We Think?

Happy Opening Day, everyone. The League is back, rejoice.

When The Decision was announced on July 8, we assumed that a presumptive Heat-Lakers matchup in the 2011 NBA Finals was an overwhelming likelihood. As the summer moved on and turned to fall, various moves and developments have led us to believe that the field of championship contenders is more wide open than we thought. We feel like the Heat and Lakers are more vulnerable than we believed in mid-July... but we just can't figure out who's going to be strong enough to topple them.

Let's take a capsule look at seven potential championship contenders:

EAST
MIAMI HEAT
What we like: The obvious: the overwhelming talent of two of the top five, and three of the top 10-15 players in the league. It'll be particularly hard to stop this team's offense, considering that defenses will be unable to shade help to either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade without leaving the other at an advantage. Chris Bosh may shoot 60% with all the open looks he's going to get alongside these two. If everything clicks, this team could be completely unstoppable. We can't wait to watch Miami play.

What we don't like: The bum hammy which wiped out Wade's preseason was a reminder that he's missed 20+ games in three of his seven seasons. Couple that with Mike Miller's thumb injury, and it's a reminder of how top-heavy this roster is. Beyond the superstar trio, Miami's roster would struggle to win the Euroleague. Also, almost all of the six other teams listed here will have a significant advantage in quality size over Miami. Even in this era in which smallball has been in vogue, quality bigs have been a championship requirement.

ORLANDO MAGIC
What we like: On the heels of its crushing preseason - the Magic went 7-0 with a +25.0 average point differential - Orlando looks like a regular-season juggernaut. Basketball Prospectus noted that they've been especially effective going with a big lineup with Rashard Lewis at the 3. We wouldn't be surprised if the Magic end up with the best regular-season record in the NBA. The Magic still have an extremely deep roster, and Dwight Howard promises to be a matchup nightmare for Miami.

What we don't like: Last year, we picked Orlando to win it all, and they seemed to be on track to do so, until a shockingly lethargic showing against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. Also, they will again be reliant on Vince Carter to create offense in key situations. To borrow some old Public Enemy lyrics: Can't truss it, no no no no. We think the Magic are being slept on as a championship contender, but we're gun-shy after they disappointed us so deeply last spring.

BOSTON CELTICS
What we like: Around mid-July, we thought the Celtics were headed toward a disaster of a year, with Kendrick Perkins sidelined deep into the season, and having suffered underrated losses to their formidable defense with the departures of Tom Thibodeau, Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen, who went unreplaced for much of the summer.

A series of good news slowly changed our minds. We liked the strategy of addressing the Perk absence with a volume of solid bigs in Jermaine O'Neal and Shaq, and then even Semih Erden looked surprisingly good at the FIBA Worlds. We loved the late pickup of Delonte West to replace Allen, and the underrated signing of a good head coach, Lawrence Frank, to fill Thibodeau's role as top assistant. Then, we got to camp, and KG looks a bit healthier, and Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels appear poised for improved performance based on preseason play. All of a sudden, the C's have a roster that appears to go 10 deep, and with the superior heart they showed last season, they just can't be counted out.

What we don't like: Nothing creative here, it's mainly just age. Ray Allen is 35, Kevin Garnett is 34, Paul Pierce is 33, and all showed signs of deterioration last year. While Allen keeps himself in outstanding condition, similar players have fallen off a cliff in terms of production at his age. Pierce in particular needs to create shots for this team - can he still do it over the long grind? As deep as Boston's roster may be, they still need strong production from the old Big 3.

As much as we like Frank, we do also still wonder if Boston's D can remain extraordinary without Thibodeau - it needs to be at that level, given this team's offensive challenges. Considering the C's will likely finish no better than 3 in the East, it seems like a tall order to count on such a magical playoff run as last season, when there was seemingly a different hero every night.

WEST
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
What we like: The power of incumbency. While we tend to think the Lakers are more vulnerable than most others do, L.A. largely needs to just play to its capabilities, whereas most of its challengers in the West need to have a lot of stuff go right. These Lakers still have the best collection of versatile, skilled, talented bigs in basketball, they still have Kobe Bryant, and the symmetry of a fourth threepeat to close out Phil Jackson's career just feels right. One needs to prove why someone else should win the West, more so than why L.A. will lose it.

What we don't like: This has quietly become an older team. Every key player other than Andrew Bynum is on the decline, even if ever so slightly (especially considering that the margin of error last spring was not that great). It feels like this could be a long slog of a year for the Lakers, with Bynum still a month away, and with Bryant looking terrible in the preseason, as both recover from knee surgery. Coupled with three long playoff runs, it wouldn't surprise us if L.A. struggles to get it going during the regular season, and has to make its run from a 3 or 4 seed.

While we think Steve Blake is a good fit for the triangle offense, we're not sold that he's that good of a player. As much as we respect this ball club, we didn't think the '10 champions were nearly as good as the '09 team, and we think this team is lesser still. We're concerned about whether Kobe's knees can continue to carry such a big load. We think the Lakers need to rely on more consistent production from Bynum to offset the expected declines on the perimeter, and that makes us nervous, given Drew's injury history. We just can't tell you who in the West can beat them.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS
What we like: We really liked the offseason that the Spurs had in terms of filling needs. First and foremost, there was the signing of Spanish League MVP Tiago Splitter, who should allow San Antonio to return to the style of play from its championship years: they can play big again, and the interior defense should be formidable. The Spurs D should return to a top 5 unit, after slipping to 8th last season, their worst showing since '96-97. The Splitter acquisition should be a huge help in the matchup vs. the Lakers' bigs.

Also, the Spurs seem to have beefed up their outside scoring with Gary Neal, another signee from the European pro leagues, and rookie James Anderson, who seems like he could follow in the mold of productive San Antonio late first-rounders. Couple all this with the return to full strength of Tony Parker, and we've just got good vibes about the Spurs. They've infused their team with a nice amount of youth to bolster the vets, and they appear to match up pretty well with the Lakers.

What we don't like: It just feels like a little too much needs to go right. The trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker needs to stay healthy, and Duncan and Ginobili need to ward off the effects of aging. While Splitter is much more of a proven veteran than the normal NBA rookie, he's still an NBA rookie. There's no guarantee he'll be the player S.A. expects until he proves it. Same goes for guys like Neal and Anderson. We do believe that this team's ceiling is high enough to be the 2010-11 NBA champions, but they're going to have to live a pretty charmed life to get all the way there.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
What we like: Well, let's start with the fact that Portland won 50 games last season, despite one of the most injury-decimated campaigns you'll ever see. Statistical models absolutely love this team, with projections extremely high for guys like Nic Batum and Greg Oden as well as Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. The numbers suggest this team could finish the regular season no. 1 in the West.

What we don't like: Yes, we know. We used the name "Greg Oden" above. He's still working on an unknown timetable for his return, and his health can't be counted on even upon return. There's a little bit of bad karma with questions of whether Brandon Roy and Andre Miller can co-exist, and with Rudy Fernandez's unhappiness. We're high on this team in '10-11 in general - they have too much talent to bust - but again, there's just too much that has to go right for Portland to contend for a title.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
What we like: The youngest team to ever win 50 games, seemingly with the best team chemistry ever assembled, and rising young stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The sky is the limit. Would it shock us to see the Thunder win 60 games and take the no. 1 seed? Nope.

What we don't like: Everything went right last season, most notably that the rotation players averaged 79 games played. It seems likely that the trajectory will level off a little bit in '10-11 before heading back skyward. OKC's still a little green to be expected to make it through four rounds of playoffs.

After all that, we don't think that Miami and L.A. are unbeatable, we just can't see who's going to be better come springtime, so we're going to stick with talent. Heat over Lakers is our pick for the NBA championship in 2010-11.

***************************************

Here are The Painted Area's 2010-11 NBA season predictions:

EAST
1. Miami
2. Orlando
3. Boston
4. Chicago
5. Milwaukee
6. Atlanta
7. New Jersey
8. Cleveland

-First Round: Heat over Cavs, Magic over Nets, Celtics over Hawks, Bulls over Bucks
-Conf. Semis: Heat over Bulls, Magic over Celtics
-Conf. Finals: Heat over Magic

WEST
1. L.A. Lakers
2. Portland
3. San Antonio
4. Oklahoma City
5. Utah
6. Dallas
7. Houston
8. Denver

-First Round: Lakers over Nuggets, Blazers over Rockets, Spurs over Mavs, Thunder over Jazz
-Conf. Semis: Lakers over Thunder, Spurs over Blazers
-Conf. Finals: Lakers over Spurs

-NBA Finals: Heat over Lakers

Random thoughts on other teams:
- The 7/8 spots in the East were impossible to predict: New Jersey, Cleveland, New York, Charlotte, Indiana, possibly Washington and Philly all seem like they could be in the mix, especially considering that it should only take in the mid-30s for wins. We're rolling the dice on a big improvement for the Nets. Nothing from about 15 wins to 45 for the Cavs would surprise us; we're banking that the outstanding D from the preseason carries over, and carries them to the 8 seed... projecting a potential matchup vs. Miami was too delicious to resist.

- In the West, there seems to be a lot of potential for "League Pass teams" which are really fun to watch even if they aren't playoff teams. Every single team we have in the lottery - Phoenix, New Orleans, Memphis, LA Clippers, Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota - potentially fits this role. An undefeated preseason for Memphis portends that they could be a playoff sleeper, while a strong preseason for Minnesota suggests that they could make Kevin Love's prediction of 30 wins come true.

Award predictions:
MVP: LeBron James, Miami
Not really sure what to do here. We think that LeBron James will quite easily be the best regular-season player, but we think that the voters will be inclined to go in a different direction, when even Brian Windhorst is saying stuff like this:
    "People will never forget the way that he played in those playoffs. He did not play like an MVP. I voted for him for MVP over the last three years and I don't care if he scores 35 points a game next year I don't think I'll ever vote for him for MVP because he's proved he cannot be an MVP when it counts the most."
I mean, I don't argue with the initial point, at all, but am I supposed to consider the 2010 playoffs when I vote for the 2010-11 regular-season MVP? I don't know.

Kevin Durant is clearly the media darling, but I tend to think OKC's regular-season standing will not be strong enough to earn him the award. Dwight Howard could be a sleeper, as I wouldn't be surprised if that's a 60-win team, though MVP voters don;t tend to prefer guys who aren't big-time scorers.

Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, Clippers
A fricking beast, with a 17 and 12 on 60% FG in 29.5 minutes per game in the preseason. ROY seems to favor the flashier players, such as John Wall, but Griffin's production should be enormous enough to surpass him. Wow, what a year for rookies, with two dynamite guys coming in.

In a strange quirk, we wouldn't be surprised if the All-Rookie First Team includes three guys who weren't drafted in 2010 - Griffin, Tiago Splitter and Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic will score efficiently from the low post; we think he'll be better than rookie teammate Wes Johnson, the no. 4 overall selection.

Let's tip this baby off - happy 2010-11 season!

5 Comments:

At 9:23 AM, Anonymous rolando said...

Just a thought off the top of my head... you say that minus the top three, the Heat would struggle to win the Euroleague. If we merged the NBA and Euroleague, where would the top Euroleague team finish? Your statement suggests that it'd be toward the bottom of the league, but I'd say that a team like Barcelona would make the playoffs.

 
At 2:40 PM, Anonymous Simos said...

Well, actually, I'm curious to find out which NBA teams could win the Euroleague without their 3 best players. I can't think of anyone.

Also, I believe that had the 09 Lakers gine up against last year's Celtics, they would defenitely have lost.

 
At 12:17 AM, Blogger James Katt said...

Steve Blake is the best of the non-big-three free agents this off-season. He won this night's game against Houston. He wasn't afraid to take the game-winning 3-point shot.

Sure, the Lakers got older. But they also got BETTER. The bench is WAY BETTER than last year or in 2009. The defense is going to be WAY BETTER than last year's team.

Veteran teams win championships.

Pau Gasol is in his prime.

The team as a whole has years of championship contention left.

 
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