2012-2013 NBA preview

THE MINT — The Association’s debut tonight is always my favorite time of the sports year, so here’s my take on the 2012-2013 season. And oh, DA Bulls!

Eastern Conference

1. Miami Heat 

With all the pressure off the Heat after winning the title in June, Miami will be more relaxed, evidence that will show no greater than in LeBron James. As the Heat hold the key of power to the NBA, as to what their lack of pressure will pertain to: 70 wins, a historic season from James — we won’t know until everything unfolds. With all the weight off his shoulders, if James doesn’t win the MVP, it’ll all but surprise everyone but me. But with Chris Bosh sliding over to the center position, James moving over to more of a point-forward position and the Heat adding sharp-shooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, Miami’s smaller lineup could be havoc on the rest of the league. If the Big 3 open up their perimeter shooting with the snipers Allen and Shane Battier back there, that alone puts them in real good shape to repeat.

2. Indiana Pacers 

The reason why the Pacers garner the No. 2 spot is two-fold: First, with Derrick Rose’s ACL injury keeping him out until at least February (or beyond), the Bulls won’t be able to maintain the top spot in the East, let alone the Central. It’s Indy’s turn to take the Central and they should run away with it. Secondly, like the Oklahoma City of the East, Indiana’s young group  has this natural evolution about themselves, it’s their time to make a move.

With a front line of Danny Granger — who’s injury might delay Indiana’s ascent as first — David West and Roy Hibbert remains strong and with the re-signed George Hill and Paul George in the backcourt, Indiana has one of the more interesting starting five’s in the league. But with no bona fide superstar, they’ll really have to put in a team effort to beat Miami. They had it early on in the Conference Semis against the Heat, but Dwyane Wade and LeBron James turned up the Heat (no pun intended) and the Pacers couldn’t rely on guys like George, who disappeared when it mattered. The same could happen, but their depth and starting line should be tough to contend with. After all, the team is a year older, wiser and better.

3. Boston Celtics

KG and company showed me something in the 2012 East Finals. No matter how old the Celtics can be, they can still contend. And with the draft and offseason signings in the books, this team still has a chance to win it all.

Garnett will still be a force on the glass, and he’ll have Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger to back him up. In the backcourt, Rajon Rondo at the point might be as good as you get. Jason Terry replaces Ray Allen on the perimeter. You can’t replace Allen’s 3-point shooting, but Terry can knock down the 3-ball and is a little more versatile than Allen. Terry at least can find his own shot whereas Allen didn’t seem to have the mobility like before. Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley provide good depth at the SG position and Paul Pierce is a gamer, so you can’t count the age against the Celtics if the season isn’t going to be crammed this time around. They’ve seemingly found a balance between the age and youth and it might be a recipe for major success.

4. Brooklyn Nets

New arena. New court. New look. New bureau. Empire State of Mind. Season 1 in Brooklyn begins. Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez look to be a poor man’s Miami. Not getting Dwight Howard hurt them, but their roster evened-up quite nicely. The seem to be solid at every position in the starting five and time will tell if they’re a legit contender, or a middle-of-the-pack kind of team.

5. Chicago Bulls

It was clear after the Bulls lost its first round series against Philadelphia was that Derrick Rose IS their team and they can’t win without him.

And without Rose, the Bulls at-best have a range of No. 4–7 in the East. That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. The Bulls make you work on defensive end for 48 minutes, head coach Tom Thibodeau’s signature. The Bulls should still rebound well with Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. And if the backcourt of Richard Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson can hold the fort down until Rose comes back, which is likely February, this team will give the East a run for its money. Boozer has to be a good scorer and can’t disappear as he does from time to time, even if his stats show his numbers are there. Their bench is the biggest question mark, as the Bench Mob all relocated elsewhere and a new group will have to establish themselves, led by Gibson. The East is hoping Rose won’t return this season, because if the Bulls get to all-star break with a substantial record and Rose returns to form around playoff time, nobody will want to see Chicago come April and May.

By the way, Rose will return.

6. New York Knicks

Already the Knicks look old, slow and injured and with the acquisitions of Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby and the injury to Amar’e Stoudemire’s knee, they are. I’m not sure if they’re trying to re-create 1999, but this is 2012 and a big year for Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. They must step up for a Knicks team that’s infested with mediocrity  and must show that letting Jeremy Lin was a good thing — which was a good thing. But winning is another thing. Signing Kidd and re-aquiring Raymond Felton does offset the loss of Lin. Defensively, Chandler, Iman Shumpert and Ronnie Brewer does give the Knicks something. But the Knicks will be as good as they’ve been since Melo got there. Which means, they’ll suck, but not bad enough to miss the playoffs. The Knicks were better in the pick and roll in Mike D’Antoni’s system and when J.R. Smith loses his mind and starts chucking and taking away from Anthony, even if Amar’e Stoudemire isn’t lacerating his hand on fire extinguishers, the Knicks don’t have enough to get into the top four.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

Doug Collins has to love that he has a legitimate big man in Andrew Bynum to compliment the rest of his young stars in Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young. In some cases, Philly might be able to get away with having Spencer Hawes and Bynum on the same front line, but with a more balanced lineup, it might be harder for this younger team initially to discover their identity. Are they going to play the halfcourt set or speed things up a bit?  The Sixers’ perimeter must pick of the slack of losing Iguodala. Holiday, Turner, the newly acquired Jason Richardson and Nick Young on the perimeter have to do the things Iguodala and Lou Williams brought to the table.

8. Atlanta Hawks

You’d think ATL would fall off the map after trading Joe Johnson to the Nets. But hold it right there. A healthy Al Horford and Josh Smith still has some sort of potency on the blocks. Plus, add together all the pieces they received this summer, including Lou Williams from Philadelphia, Devin Harris and DeShawn Stevenson  and the Hawks become pesky. Jeff Teague can bust out here if he wants. Not a 4 or 5 anymore, but still playoff worthy.

9. Milwaukee Bucks

A lot like last year, the Bucks will lurk around the last spot and will provide intrigue at that position with guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Milwaukee drafted UNC’s John Henson with defense in mind. Apparently, Scott Skiles likes that method. But regardless of Ersan Illysova’s talent at the forward position, it’ll be interesting to see how Ellis and Jennings gel — this is not the Staples Center and they’re not Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul. This could be a problem and will probably help Milwaukee miss out the playoffs by a game or two.

10. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers are in the post-LeBron era and are in good shape with reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving. The Cavs are going to contend in a few years with Irving and Tristan Thompson leading the show. Dion Waters was the biggest gamble of the draft and it’ll just be a wait-and-see for this kid to grow. But they’re not like Sacramento, who’s loaded with potential but going nowhere (may be Seattle?). It just has to gel; it’s a process, but the Cavs are getting better. Who knows? May be LeBron comes back in two years?

11. Detroit Pistons

I almost decided not to write a blurb about the Pistons, because I don’t really care about Detroit. Greg Monroe looks like he can be force down low at the center position and Andre Drummond has put together a nice preseason. Those two might compliment each other quite well. Rodney Stuckey still has something to prove. Corey Maggette will add veteran leadership but he could be on the market for a team looking to make a jolt at the deadline.

12. Washington Wizards

The Wizards did a very good thing this summer and at the end of the last season: they got rid of the negative influences. Gone are JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche. In are Trevor Ariza, rookie Bradley Beal and Nene at center. Suddenly if their young guns like Jan Vesely can be more consistent, Washington could be a lot better than No. 12. John Wall’s injury does detour things, but that backcourt of him and Beal is going to be very, very interesting. I just wish they’d go back to the Bullets if they’re going to wear those jerseys.

13. Orlando Magic

Dwight Howard’s departure was so similar to Shaq’s in 1996. The difference was that Shaq left a really talented team, whereas Howard left a mediocre team that got some return. They managed to add Aaron Afflalo and Al Harrington, but losing Howard, Ryan Anderson and Jason Richardson is a big blow to group of Glen Davis and J.J. Reddick. And that’s their team. David, Reddick, Jameer Nelson. They get really thin after that and they’re already thin. OK, may be not Big Baby.

14. Toronto Raptors

They’re from Canada. I don’t really pay too much attention but their front line with Amir Johnson and Andrea Barganni can be a force if they can put it forward.

15. Charlotte Bobcats

MJ’s Bobcats will continue to struggle. They have Tyrus Thomas. That’s enough for them to hurt. But Ben Gordon and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will revamp Charlotte a smudge.

Western Conference 

1. Los Angeles Lakers

Showtime returns with one of the most collaborated rosters in Laker history. Lakers brass is in serious championship mode, adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to a group that Kobe Bryant so desperately wants to lead to a title. That sixth title he wants so bad for himself (to match Michael Jordan) will hinge on Howard staying healthy and the Lakers gelling at some point in time in the Princeton offense, which will thrive on good passing and cooperation from Howard and Pau Gasol, who will have to make good decisions in the post. Nash is obviously way too selfish and that should help their pick and roll. Each superstar brings a necessary skill to the table which could win them the title, let alone 70 games.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

When OKC made the NBA Finals, many insisted when or lose they’d be back for years to come. And they nearly came a few calls short of being up 3-2 instead of the Heat winning the title. The notion is that they’re so good, so young, the West is their’s to lose. Until they traded James Harden. Regardless of having Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, Harden was so important to their success. Harden was a lot like Toni Kukoc in Jordan’s Bulls era. Harden was that third scorer who came off the bench and brought different elements than its other two superstars. Harden’s dribble penetration and ability to take anyone of the dribble or shoot the three helped the Thunder when Durant and Westbrook drew double teams. Harden was a major safety valve. He kept teams honest. It’ll be hard to replace that on a nightly basis. OKC will still be a team to beat. But with the Lakers making moves and the Clippers surging, OKC might have wasted a good shot at a title last season because there’s no promise they’ll get there again this season.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

This season in Lob City becomes very critical. After losing to the Spurs in the conference finals, they’ll have to advance to the conference finals to have any success and that becomes key if they want to keep Chris Paul, who becomes a free agent in July 1. The Clippers don’t appear to be losing Paul for the time being. Chauncey Billups is back. Blake Griffin is signed long-term. They also added Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford for more depth. They’re going to have to knock out the Lakers or the Thunder, which is a tall task. But remember, before they lost Billups to an Achilles injury, the Clippers were a very potent group and the expectation is with a year under their belts, this team is gelled and ready to go for an exciting season at Staples.

4. San Antonio Spurs

Every time you want to count the Spurs out because of their age, the old dog comes away with new tricks. But the clock is ticking on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, where an injury could very fold any title hopes. They were able to win 20-straight games last season, but with the Clippers, Lakers and Thunder all projected to have good seasons, the Spurs are really going to have to count on guys like Gary Neal, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson to play collectively in the roles they had last season. It’ll be good enough, but down the stretch against a younger Oklahoma City squad, the Spurs really couldn’t find an offense to keep up with them. And that’s what separates other teams from the Spurs, who are more like a Euro team in the West than anything.

5. Denver Nuggets

Andre Iguodala will make the Nuggets a much better team than they’ve been since trading Carmelo Anthony. He’ll add defense. And he’s more suited for an uptempo system anyway, George Karl might win a Coach of the Year award because of it. JaVale McGee showed us his intense potential and if he ends up to be a big steal after his performance against the Lakers in the postseason, Denver has something to build on. But it remains to be seen if McGee can do so throughout the regular season with his maturity ultimately being the factor. Depth isn’t a problem here. Kenneth Faried is highly robust in the paint. They return Wilson Chandler and can throw out so much at you. They had the Lakers on the ropes and whoever they get in the first round, will not want to try to keep up. Denver could be the surprise of the West.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

Last season I was giddy about this young team getting back Rudy Gay to an already young, promising team with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph being such tough fixtures to move in the post. Those two compliment each other so well and it’s great to see that Randolph has come into his own. O.J. Mayo bolted for Dallas. And Memphis replaced him with Jerryd Bayless, a shooter who will help them defensively. But their position in the West doesn’t change, solely in regards to their offense. Defensively, they’re going to be a force. But offensively, things could get stale and they’ll have to play rugged to beat you and hope that their defense can make plays to score easy baskets.

7. Utah Jazz

Can Marvin Williams be an x-factor? Can he bust out this season? Utah added him and Mo Williams to a group that surrounds Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors, players who when they want, can be very tough to guard by the basket. The Jazz have a very high upside with a blend of players than can hurt you inside and as well as on the perimeter, and although the splashes they made in the offseason weren’t flamboyant, it’s good enough to keep them in the playoff race and ultimately in the dance.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love out until January, the Wolves won’t be anything exciting to watch. But when Minnesota’s cornerstones do return, this will be one of the most exciting teams in the league and they’ll get to the playoffs. They’ve added pieces with the return of Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger. That alone adds a new dynamic to the Wolves offense, who never really had a perimeter shooter to depend on. Does Andrei Kirilenko have the impact we all expect to have in his NBA renaissance?  Coach Rick Adelman can do some pretty good things with talented ball clubs. This might be his finest combination yet.

9. Dallas Mavericks

This team barely made it to the playoffs, albeit on a terrible last few weeks. And as bad as they looked at the end of the regular season with the team they surrounded Dirk Nowtizki (and thought-to-be Deron Williams), in all honesty, they should have beaten the Thunder in the first round. But this team doesn’t have the intangibles or the defense Tyson Chandler brought when they won the title in 2011. O.J. Mayo is a great add, but Elton Brand and Vince Carter doesn’t equate to playoff basketball anymore. Bye bye, Dallas.

10. Golden State Warriors

Andrew Bogut’s addition could be huge for the Warriors, if he’s healthy to pair with David Lee. Stephen Curry has the keys to the team now that Monta Ellis is gone and it’ll be interesting to see how Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes shake out with a potentially interesting squad in the Pacific. They’re thin with size, but athleticism they are not. Look for the Warriors and T’Wolves to be competing for one of the last spots in the West and if injuries really hammer Dallas. Golden State is looking — well, golden. Draymond Green could also be the steal of the draft for the Warriors.

11. Phoenix Suns

As much as the Steve Nash era was fun, the Suns had to set on it at some point. Phoenix will still be competitive. Michael Beasley has a shot to really prove himself and Luis Scola and Martin Gortat can greatly improve the Suns interior. Goran Dragic has to come in and be Nash. Dragic needs to do well with the pick and roll. He needs Gortat and Scola to be valuable options near the hoop and the new weapons he’ll have with Beasley must have huge seasons in order to have at least a shot.

12. New Orleans Hornets

Eric Gordon wanted out of NOLA for Phoenix. The Hornets said too bad. If that ticked off Gordon, that’s one thing. But now that Gordon is surrounded by Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, Gordon has to be relieved the Hornets dramatically did more for him to win than the Suns. Rivers and Davis will need time. Rivers more than Davis, as the Unibrow will be the Rookie of the Year. Ryan Anderson is as close as an all-star as you can get and center Robin Lopez should be a nice complement.  Suddenly, Gordon’s anger turns into optimism and the Hornets turn into a contender very soon.

13. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers are going young and Meyers Leonard at the center position and Damian Lillard are keys to a solid start in the building process. They’re doing so still with LaMarcus Alridge, who they’re building around. Nicholas Batum and Wes Matthews still provide some spark on the perimeter but it’ll be a while until the Blazers are competitive.

13. Houston Rockets

The Rockets looked like fools when they went all-in for Dwight Howard and got nothing but Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. But now they’ve landed James Harden, and everything has started to hum. They’re not playoff contenders, but a group of youngsters and marginal free agents at best are going to have to make it work until they land a big name player, especially a low-post forward or center. Harden will start instead of coming off the bench and he’ll be their primary scorer as Lin will provide the spark off the pick and roll. But other than Harden and Lin in the backcourt, Houston is thin.

15. Sacramento Kings

The Kings will only go as far as DeMarcus Cousins, who still has to prove he’s mature as he’s talented. None of their youngsters have taken the next step. Tyreke Evans has loads of talent, but that ROY trophy is long behind him and in order for the Kings to have success, the team has to mature and expose all its potential on the court. Thomas Robinson will add to the frontcourt as a rookie, but while the Kings continue to load up on good younger players, that hasn’t equated enough in the win column.

Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant — Oklahoma City

Rookie of the Year: Anthony Davis — New Orleans

Coach of the Year: Rick Adelman — Minnesota

Conference Finals 

East — Heat over Pacers

Much like last year’s Eastern Semis, the Pacers will have the personnel and mind frame to beat the Heat. And they might be able to jump on them early again. But until they can stop Wade and James and not disappear when they can put a stranglehold on the series, this is like those Bulls-Pistons series of the late 80’s. Mentally, Miami just takes it.

West — Lakers over Clippers

For the first time since I can remember; and check it out: I’m pretty sure it’ll be the first time ever a Western Conference Finals series will stay in the same building at Staples Center. And it’s going to be monster competitive. I just don’t see the Clippers being able to match the Lakers star power, as it’ll be tough to stop Howard and Gasol down low along with all their weapons on the perimeter. This series though, like a Yankees-Mets, Cubs-Sox series, could be very emotionally charged and going 7 games wouldn’t be surprising. There’s intangibles in that you can’t predict.

NBA Finals — Lakers over Heat in 6 

Here’s a dumb fact that might tell us something about this year’s Finals.

The last team to play in three-straight Finals were the Lakers, who lost in 2008 but did the 2-peat in 2009 and 2010.

Before those Lakers were Shaq and Kobe’s squad from 2000-2002. That team won the 3-straight.

Michael Jordan’s Bulls did so twice in the 1990’s. Chicago never went to four-straight titles but never lost a title series in the process. They were 2-0 in 3-peats.

Magic Johnson’s Lakers went to three-straight from 1987-1989 but their two-year title reign that was guaranteed by then coach Pat Riley was foiled by Detroit in the ’89 Finals, the beginning of two-straight titles for the Bad Boys. Detroit never got back to a third-consecutive Finals, as the Bulls took over those reigns and went on to win three-straight. Twice.

Magic’s Lakers seemed to defy this stat, as they went to 7 of 10 NBA Finals in the 80’s, winning five, losing two.

That was the last time a team participated in four-straight finals. But Magic only came away with half of those titles. Boston won two of those, in ’84 and ’86, yet couldn’t 3-peat in their three-straight appearances. Then we can get into the Lakers and Celtics of the 60’s and 70’s.

Only Michael’s Bulls, Kobe’s Lakers have won three-straight titles. Magic and Bird could only go back-to-back, yet it was Magic’s teams that were always there. There seems to be an association with Magic and LeBron with the styles they play, so it seems in that regard that LeBron would have some sort of edge to make to a Finals for a third time, may be a fourth next season. And since the Heat lost in 2011, may be ’12 and ’13 are the Heat’s years.

Miami, making their third Finals appearance, is 1-1. The odds of them repeating are good, but returning in 2014 aren’t due to the facts above. Legs over the years tell us that at some point in time, a team falls apart. Kobe’s Lakers in 2011 were primed to square off with Miami in their fourth-straight Finals, but the Lakers fell apart to Dallas, the eventual champion. Four years of playing well into June takes it toll and you have to wonder when it will hit Miami.

Kobe Bryant will be as motivated as you’ll ever see him in the 2013 Finals. Tying Michael Jordan for six NBA championships is something James and Wade can’t say they can do right now. Bryant can. To by synonymous with Air Jordan is Bryant’s will.

So, he’ll unleash his Super Team, and Miami’s size problem will be evident. But defensively, the Lakers could be in big trouble as Gasol and Howard will have to step out on Miami’s small lineup. However, Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison could be major factors off the bench for hybrid Laker lineups. Ray Allen and Shane Battier will stretch the floor. This could go 7, and come down to who has home court advantage.

The key will be how Kobe demonstrates himself. If he leads by example and is the Mamba, the Lakers will hold another title and Bryant will spark a major argument about whose best, Michael or Kobe? And while LeBron can’t have that, Bryant can’t lose this one, either. Beating LeBron in his prime and matching Jordan can kill two the hugest birds with one stone.

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