Preseason predictions are an exercise in futility because the make-up of the team at the beginning of the season is different from what it will be come playoff time . Now that the trade deadline is over and the rosters are set, we can get a better handle on what might happen in the playoffs though injuries can still alter the picture. Who then are the teams that will make the playoffs and which of them are genuine contenders with a chance of winning it all ?
Eastern Conference:With about 18 games left in the regular season , it looks like these teams will make the playoffs…Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks,Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats, Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors. Of these , it seems to me only the Cavaliers and the Magic have a shot at winning it all. Of the rest , the Boston Celtics are suddenly feeling their age and while the Hawks and the Bobcats( espescially the latter) are dangerous teams that are capable of putting off an upset, neither can win a 7 game series against the Cavs or the Magic.
On the face of it, the Cavs would appear to be the prohibitive favorites to win it all , not just the Eastern Conference. LeBron James is unquestionably the best player in the league and the Cavs strengthened themselves immeasurably with their trade dealine acquistion of Antawn Jamison.If ,as expected, Ilgauskas re-signs with them after the 30 day waiting period, they will have given up precisely nothing in the trade with Washington. ( Where are all those who were screaming about the “one-sided” trade two years ago when the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis ?)
There are two things which prevent me from anointing the Cavs as the NBA champions just yet. One is Shaquille O’Neal’s health. The Cavs need him to battle Dwight Howard in a projected Conference finals match-up against the Magic. O’Neal is injured right now and is slated to return just before the end of the regular season. How effective will he be, particularly in seven game series against the better teams ? Second, Mike Brown’s coaching is still suspect in my eyes after the way the Cavs collapsed in last year’s playoffs. It was not just the other players who stood around watching LeBron try to do it all ; the coach also appeared to be a spectator. True, this years Cavs are much improved with the emergence of J.J.Hickson , the continued improvement of Mo Williams and the toughness and defense of Antawn Jamison but a Cavs title is by no means a slam dunk.
Like the Cavaliers, the Magic improved themselves mightily this season. They did lose Hedo Turkoglu but they more than made up for it in the one-sided trade with New Jersey that brought them Vince Carter and Ryan Andersen. Carter’s slashing moves to the basket give the Magic offense a dimension that it didn’t have last year and Andersen gives the Magic a deep bench along with Brandon Bass , Mickael Pietrus, Matt Barnes and Marcin Gortat.Dwight Howard is as dominant as ever in the paint though his offensive game hasn’t improved that much and his foul shooting is still an adventure. If Shaq is not around to battle Dwight, I would tap the Magic over the Cavs.
Western Conference : The playoff teams will almost certainly be the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Cowboys , Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder , San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and the Portland TrailBlazers. Memphis and Houston are good teams but they won’t be able to make up a 5 game deficit with only 18 or so games to go. Top to bottom, this is a stronger bunch than the Eastern playoff teams and certainly any one of them is capable of pulling off an upset.In particular , I’m thinking of the battle hardened Utah Jazz and the emerging OK. Cty. Thunder with their young superstar, Kevin Durant. However, when it comes to winning it all, there are only three teams that merit consideration : Lakers, Nuggets and Mavericks.
The defending champion Lakers have appeared vulnerable of late, losing three games in a row on the road and relying on last second heroics from Kobe Bryant to beat Toronto and avoid a fourth straight loss. There also appears to be some dissension in the team with Pau Gasol complaining about his lack of touches and a struggle among the Busses with Jerry and son on one side and Jeanne Buss and her boyfriend, coach Phil Jackson, on the other. Derek Fisher’s age, Kobe Bryant’s injuries, the plateauing of Andrew Bynum and the inconsistent bench are all disquieting to a Laker fan like myself. However, one cannot forget that last year’s team won it all without any significant contributions from Andrew Bynum and besides, Ron Artest is a huge improvement on Trevor Ariza. I’m not ready to give up on the Lakers just yet. One big advantage the Lakers will have is that if they finish first in the Western conference during the regular season , they will have to play only one of their two closest contenders . The Nuggets and the Mavericks are likely to finish #2 and #3 and will have to play each other in the semifinals before they can advance to the finals an challenge , presumably, the Lakers.
The Nuggets have looked good all season and they have the confidence that they can beat the Lakers. They have a great starting five and a very deep bench.They are very quick and their guards are a handful for the Lakers. Aaron Afllalo and the rookie Ty Lawson are too quick for Derek Fisher , J.R. Smith gives Kobe fits with his defense and Chauncey Billups is a terrific floor general. Add in Carmelo Anthony’s offensive brilliance , the solid play of Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin and off the bench, Chris Andersen, and I can see the Nuggets upsetting the Lakers.The one question mark is the health of the George Karl , who is undergoing treatment for throat cancer. He is the glue that holds this team together . They would miss him sorely if he is not behind the bench but , on the other hand, he is well liked by all and his illness could spur them to even greater efforts.
Until last night , when the Mavericks lost by 34 points , at home, to a weak N.Y.Knicks team , I thought the Mavericks could provide a serious challenge to anyone. The trade with the Wizards brought them two starters ( C Brendan Haywood and G/F Caron Butler ) and an important bench player ( DeShawn Stevenson) for the disgruntled Josh Howard. They already had plenty of firepower in Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Shawn Merion, a rejuvenated Jason Kidd to distibute the ball and keep everybody happy and a deep bench. Brendan Haywood gave them the defensive presence they lacked in the middle and their 13 straight wins were very impressive.The magnitude of the loss to the Knicks , however, has caused all the old doubts about their mental toughness to rise up once again. True it’s only one loss but …
Much as I hate to say it , I think the Nuggets stand a good chance of upending the Lakers. They came close last year and , if Kobe is any less than at his most stellar, I think the Nuggets will win the West.