The NBA season is officially upon us. With the season beginning tonight, The Saber has a comprehensive season preview, complete with conference rankings and playoff predictions. Next to each team’s name is their Predicted Conference Rank (PCR), or where The Saber predicts them to finish in the regular season.
Eastern Conference Finals – Miami Heat over Indiana Pacers in five games. The Pacers are the only team in the East that can come close to matching the Heat talent-wise. They’re also deeper. However, Miami’s smallball style will render Roy Hibbert relatively useless, so unless there’s a surge in skill from Paul George or Danny Granger, the Heat will get by.
Western Conference Finals – Los Angeles Lakers over San Antonio Spurs in six games. The Lakers will mesh together at some point this season and most likely will beat the Spurs purely on talent. Once again, the Spurs will lose to a hungrier team in the Conference Finals. However, it will be a series of close games, and the Spurs could push this to seven, and even have a chance to win.
NBA Finals – Miami Heat beat Los Angeles Lakers in 7 games. The two most talented teams on paper in the NBA will likely square off in the Finals. The Heat have a few edges, notably that Kobe and Steve Nash may not hold up all season. Their biggest advantage is the fact that they have the personnel to play any kind of basketball. The Lakers also lack any one player that can guard Lebron James, and that will make the difference in the series.
Eastern Conference/Southeast Division
1. Miami Heat (PCR: 1) – It’s a no-brainer that there’s a 99% chance that the Miami Heat will repeat as Southeast Division champs, and quite possibly NBA Champs if everything goes according to plan. This year they surround the Big 3 (Lebron, D. Wade, and Chris Bosh) with an array of 3-pt threats in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, in addition to Mike Miller and James Jones. With the Big 3 all in the middle of their primes, there’s no reason to count out the reigning champs.
2. Atlanta Hawks (PCR 6) – Even without Joe Johnson, the Hawks are still levels better than the other three teams in their division. However, the other teams in the East are still more powerful than Atlanta. The Hawks plan to rely on their own slew of 3-pt shooters, with Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow acquired through trades, and John Jenkins drafted out of Vandy. New GM Danny Ferry already sent away two of the worst contracts in the league in Johnson and Marvin Williams, giving Atlanta flexibility in Josh Smith’s contract negotiations this offseason.
3. Orlando Magic (PCR 13) – Orlando did their best Denver Nuggets impression, and traded their disgruntled superstar for an abundance of talent, a word I use lightly. Orlando will rely on former All-Star Jameer Nelson to take them back to the promised land. The Magic also are hoping for Hedo Turkoglu to return to his form during the Magic’s Finals run in 2009.Aaron Afflalo could become a breakout star for Orlando, something they truly need after sending away Dwight Howard.
4. Washington Wizards (PCR 14) – The Wizards are continuously getting better, but they just haven’t gotten good enough to move up in the East. The continued improvement of John Wall is refreshing to the franchise, and they hope 3rd-overall draft pick Bradley Beal out of Florida can exceed expectations and put this team ahead of schedule concerning development. A solid low-post combo of Nene and Emeka Okafor could surprise some teams in the East.
5. Charlotte Bobcats (PCR 15) – Last season, the Bobcats lost almost 90% of their games (a .106 winning percentage). They have to be better this year, right?...RIGHT??? Michael Jordan & Co. hopes that the team can turn it around with the help of 2nd-overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Kentucky. MKG will team with Kemba Walker and Ben Gordon to form some semblance of a Big 3 in Charlotte, but the Bobcats are far away from contention. They do, however, have some pretty awesome new uniforms.
1. Indiana Pacers (PCR 2) – This year is the year that the Pacers end the Chicago reign over the Central Division. The team’s core of Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Paul George, and David West gets another year to play together. The question will be whether or not the Pacer bench can contribute to the team’s success. Indy has a very shallow set of reserves, highlighted by the Hansbrough brothers and Gerald Green. That’s a bench that just screams “We can’t keep a lead!”
2. Chicago Bulls (PCR 3) – From a shallow team with great starters to a deep team with average starters because their star is hurt, and will be out for most of the season. The Bull showed that they can win without D.Rose last season, to a point, gaining the best record in the East while Rose only played 39 of 62 games. This season the Bulls are worse, replacing Rose with Kirk Hinrich, a player who’s first stint with Chicago went so well that they drafted Rose to replace him, and Nate Robinson.
3. Milwaukee Bucks (PCR 9) – The Bucks are hoping that they can run teams out of the building AAU-style with a backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Having two volume shooters usually doesn’t work well unless you’ve got quality players on the rest of the team, which Milwaukee doesn’t have. Ersan Ilyasova improved dramatically last season, and could develop into a 3rd-option for the Bucks.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (PCR 11) – The Cavs are at least one year away from contending for the playoffs, but a return to the postseason is definitely in the short term future for Cleveland. Reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving gets some more help this season from 4th-overall pick Dion Waiters and rookie Tyler Zeller. These players could form a solid core as the Cavs look for veterans in the next few years to round out the team.
5. Detroit Pistons (PCR 12) – Detroit has some serious young talent in the way of Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe. However, more pieces have to be added to the puzzle if the Pistons want to get back to the glory years. Tayshaun Prince is the unquestioned leader of this team, but he’ll need to relinquish control to the young guns with the Pistons want to improve for the future.
1. Philadelphia 76ers ( PCR 4) – The 76ers made a splash by knocking out the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls in the playoffs last season, then followed it up by landing Andrew Bynum out of the Dwight Howard trade, sacrificing Andre Igoudala. Bynum will have the weight of the 76ers on his shoulders, but he does have help from an array of young talent like Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holliday, and Evan Turner. Also, Jason Richardson provides some veteran presence for the young team that is the most talented team in the Atlantic.
2. Boston Celtics (PCR 5) – The Celtics are officially in a transition, handing the reigns of the team from the soon-to-be-retiring now Big 2 to Rajon Rondo. The biggest problem is that Rondo still has some growing up to do before he can lead a team. Between chest bumping an official in the playoffs last season, to being accused of running Ray Allen out of town, Rondo has to mature a bit before leading Boston’s talented young up-and-comers. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry will be around to guide Rondo, and the rest of the squad.
3. Brooklyn Nets (PCR 7) – Joe Johnson will be able to return to the 2nd-option role in whih he flourished in Phoenix now that he’s playing with Deron Williams in Brooklyn, and that’s enough to push the Nets from 12th in the East to 7th in my book. Also, another year of experience for Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez, and Marshon Brooks helps the Nets tremendously. Now, if only they had some help designing better jerseys…
4. New York Knicks (PCR 8) – Speaking of better jerseys, the Knicks have eliminated the black out of theirs, going with a more old-school look. They Knicks also added some old-school talent, picking up Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, and Rasheed Wallace, the youngest of whom is a brisk 38. The aged talent, combined with a young core of Iman Shumpert, Steve Novak, oh and that Carmelo fellow, are good enough to keep the Knicks in playoff contention, as long as Amare Stoudemire doesn’t punch anymore fire extinguishers.
5. Toronto Raptors (PCR 10) – The Raptors are a decent enough team to make some noise in the East if everything goes according to plan. They plan to build around the young core of Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan, and Ed Davis, as well as hoping that Andrea Bargnani finally lives up to his 1st-overall hype from 2006.
Western Conference/Southwest Division
1. San Antonio Spurs (PCR 1) – No matter what, the San Antonio Spurs are a regular season team, with the best record in the West in each of the last two seasons and three of the last four. With virtually the same roster as last season, there’s no reason to think that the Spurs won’t take the West again. The Lakers will take a while to gel, and the Thunder got worse. Continuity is a powerful principle in the NBA, and the Spurs will show that this season.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (PCR 6) – The Grizzlies didn’t get worse this year, the rest of the conference just got better. Another 4th place finish in the West is highly improbable, as the Griz lost sixth-man O.J. Mayo to the Mavs and lack a quality bench behind their great starters. The core of Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will lead Memphis to a respectable record in a strong Western Conference.
3. Dallas Mavericks (PCR 10) – The Mavs have gotten consistently worse since their championship run in 2010. Dirk Nowitzki starts off the year injured, and could possibly start showing signs of his age. Behind Dirk, the roster is shaky, at best. Management tried to help the team by bringing in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo, but they are useless without a bonfide star. Whether or not Nowitzki can still be that star is yet to be seen.
4. Houston Rockets (PCR 11) – Houston has made plenty of questionable moves this offseason, highlighted by paying $5 million a year to unproven youngsters Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. The Rockets played it safe and snatched James Harden away from the Thunder, and will offer him a maximum deal. With all that money tied into 2 potential stars and a former sixth-man, the Rockets must have a front office full of gambling men.
5. New Orleans Hornets (PCR 14) – Times are looking up for the Hornets, as they won the Anthony Davis lottery in the draft and kept the high-scoring Eric Gordon. 10th-overall pick Austin Rivers has all eyes on him to see if he can live up to the hype he generated at Duke. This young trio is what the Hornets hope to build around for the future. However, Gordon has shown discontent with NOLA in the past, and could become a problem in the locker room.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (PCR 2) – I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid…yet. While the Lakers reloaded for a title run with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Antawn Jamison, there are plenty of questions that surround the team. How will Kobe play now that he’s actually teamed with an All-Star point guard? Will Dwight Howard contract negotiations become a problem? Will Father Time hit Kobe (age 34), Jamison (36), and Nash (38) like a train? If the Lakers can work through these issues, they could unseat the Heat.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (PCR 4) – Lob City is still a step behind the Lakers, but not a big step. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin lead the talented team with a mix of young players and talented veterans. With all their weapons this season, plus Caron Butler and Lamar Odom, the Clips have a legitimate shot at the NBA Finals as long as they don’t run into their Staples Center roommates.
3. Sacramento Kings (PCR 8) – The Kings have been quietly building a powerhouse in Sacramento, and it’s going to get them back into the playoffs this season. With a core of Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, and Marcus Thornton, as well as numerous other high potential young studs, the Kings could play very, very well, or very, very poorly. I’m going with well.
4. Golden State Warriors (PCR 13) – The Warriors won’t be getting out of the bottom of the conference anytime soon, starting the year without Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry. David Lee will have to carry the load for Golden State’s rag-tag team of former college studs and journeymen vets until Bogut and Steph get healthy. Even then, the team needs a little bit more, especially in the defense department.
5. Phoenix Suns (PCR 15) – The Suns are the only roster that made me verbally say “what were they thinking?” After essentially giving Steve Nash away, they grabbed solid, but not star players like Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and Michael Beasley, traded for Wesley Johnson, and for some God-forsaken reason, signed Jermaine O’Neal. Every player on the Suns look like they belong on the bench outside of Beasley, Scola, and Dragic, who will be expected to act as starts for this team. Scary.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (PCR 3) – The reigning Western Conference Champions made possibly the worst move of the offseason by trading James Harden and a few other players to Houston for Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, and draft picks. Durant and Westbrook can carry a team, but without a solid 3rd option, OKC will be hard-pressed to return to the NBA Finals. Also, Martin’s high-volume shooting and poor defense could disrupt OKC’s balance.
2. Denver Nuggets (PCR 5) – The Nuggets jumped into the Dwight Howard trade, grabbing Andre Igoudala for Aaron Afflalo and Al Harrington. Now, with Iggy, Ty Lawson, and whichever of their seemingly endless young forward steps up, the Nuggets could make some noise in the West. I have my money on Kenneth Faried, the hard-hustling, physical player who finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves (PCR 7) – They’ll go the first month of the season without star pair Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, but the T-wolves have enough depth to survive until the pair makes their returns in December. Minnesota also brings back some former stars in Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy. Fun fact: in a league dominated by African-Americans, the Timberwolves only have four Black players, with most of their roster of European origin.
5. Utah Jazz (PCR 9) – Even though the Jazz were last season’s 8-seed, and bring back their core of players, replacing Devin Harris with Mo “Jumpshots” Williams and Marvin Williams will bring this team down and out of the postseason. A stellar effort from star bigmen Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap will be the only things that push Utah into the playoffs.
5. Portland Trailblazers (PCR 12) – The Blazers plan to build around forward LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the most underrated PFs in the game. Rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard will make immediate impacts, but Portland is still very far off from contending in the packed Western Conference.