Even though a few prominently named players remain unsigned and trade speculation persists for Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, the 2011-12 NBA season is just six days away so it's not too early to prognosticate about it will shake out. Let's start with the Eastern Conference...
Looking back at last season's NBA preview, I whiffed with my Celtics-over-the-Lakers NBA Finals prediction as well as my prediction that the Nuggets would finish outside the playoffs were Carmelo Anthony to be traded for expiring contracts and picks (to be fair to myself, I had no idea that the Nuggets would maintain their competitiveness with the trade rather than rebuild).
But I got a few things right, too.
I called the Oklahoma City Thunder being better than our Nuggets (to much consternation from our readers), the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks regaining their prominence in the Western Conference (although I certainly didn't foresee an NBA Championship in Big D) and the Miami Heat's "Big Three" generating immediate success (I know, I really went out on a limb there). Of course, I also missed big time on the late-season rise of the Memphis Grizzlies and the regular season dominance of the Chicago Bulls.
Entering a manic 66-game, 120-day 2011-12 NBA season you have to think that the dawn of the Celtics and Lakers is finally over and that the hectic, condensed schedule will favor young, healthy teams that are used to playing together like the Heat, Grizzlies, Bulls, Thunder and our own Nuggets to some extent. Other teams - like the Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks - have vastly upgraded their rosters but will have some difficulty acclimating their new players into their respective systems with little training camp time and all those back-to-backs on the schedule.
So factoring all that in, here's my best guess as to how the 2011-12 season is going to shake out, starting with the Eastern Conference. Given that all teams will play 66 games - as opposed to a mere 50 as we saw after the 1998 lockout - I don't believe this season is asterisk-worthy. But the shortened schedule could net some unforeseen surprises, even more so than what we saw last season.
DENVER STIFFS EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
1. MIAMI HEAT
Outlook: The Heat lost out on having the best regular season record to the Bulls last season by four games, but that didn't stop the Heat from decimating Chicago in the Eastern Conference Finals in just five games. And if LeBron James weren't so scared of the fourth quarter, the Heat would have been 2011 NBA Champions.
With an NBA Finals humiliation and a full season of basketball under their belt, Miami's "Big Three" of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are on the odds-on favorite to win the 2012 NBA Championship. And by adding Shane Battier, the Heat got exactly what they needed: a veteran leader who plays great defense and stretches the floor offensively. As much as it pains me to say this, 2011-12 should be the Heat's year to deliver James his first NBA Championship.
Miami Stiff: One of the greatest wastes of size and talent at the center position in recent memory, Eddy Curry is attempting to rebuild his career in Miami and has pledged to get into shape. I'll believe it when I see it, but at least Curry is drawing down $11 million this season.
2. CHICAGO BULLS
Outlook: Signing Rip Hamilton was a good move for the Bulls, but it doesn't make them better than Miami. Yet again, superstar point guard (and now MVP) Derrick Rose will have to carry the load for Chicago if they're to replicate last season's success. Luckily for the Bulls, with the exception of the Knicks no team improved much in the Eastern Conference to pose a threat to their "top-two" status in the conference.
Chicago Stiff: After signing a lucrative free agent contract that will pay him $16.8 million three seasons from now, Carlos Boozer rewarded the Bulls' faith in him by averaging playoff career lows in all categories across the board last season.
3. NEW YORK KNICKS
Outlook: The Isiah Thomas Era is fast becoming a distant memory in the Big Apple. Even though the Knicks mortgaged much of their future to acquire Carmelo Anthony last season, it's hard to ignore a front line of Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and (recently signed) Tyson Chandler. Seemingly overnight, the Knicks have built the best starting front court in the Eastern Conference.
The back court, however, leaves much to be desired. Recent signings of Mike Bibby and Baron Davis are intriguing, but pairing two aging, shoot-first point guards together ensures the Knicks won't get to the Eastern Conference Finals.
New York Stiff: I'm assigning the New York "Stiff" to the team's bench, or lack thereof. And the team's long-range shooting, or lack thereof, will be an ongoing question mark throughout the 2011-12 campaign.
4. BOSTON CELTICS
Outlook: Acquiring David West would have been great for Boston, but it didn't happen. Having Jeff Green on board for a full training camp and season would have been great, too, but that's not happening (tragically, due to Green's heart condition). Instead, the Celtics have an always-aging "Big Three" combined with a sure-to-be disgruntled Rajon Rondo being thrown into a 66-game season. Barring a big mid-season move, look for Boston to slide in the standings and get bounced from the playoffs in the second round (again).
Boston Stiff: Instead of picking up a solid, young veteran like Jamal Crawford or Mike Dunleavy, the Celtics get to spend $6.2 million on Jermaine O'Neal who is almost guaranteed to miss half of the 66 games this season due to an assortment of suspect injuries.
5. ATLANTA HAWKS
Outlook: The only notable moves made by the Hawks was the acquisition of Tracy McGrady and the non-trade of Josh Smith, who allegedly wants out. Meaning yet again, the Hawks will find themselves in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack without a legitimate shot at further advancement.
Atlanta Stiff: He's hardly a Stiff today, but Hawks' All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson will get paid almost $25 million when he's 35 years old. Now you know why the NBA had a prolonged lockout this year.
6. ORLANDO MAGIC
Outlook: Like the Nuggets last season, the Magic are the toughest team to handicap given the uncertainty surrounding star center Dwight Howard. With a happy Howard in place all season, the Magic could finish as high as third in the conference. With a disgruntled Howard in place all season, the Magic will finish sixth. And without Howard? Depending on who the Magic get back in trade, they could struggle to make the playoffs at all.
Orlando Stiff: General Manager - and former Nugget - Otis Smith's gun slinging ways have finally come home to roost. Smith took a championship caliber team and traded it away for a collection of aging, expensive swingmen that resulted in a first round playoff exit last season. And he just doubled down on stupid by trading away Brandon Bass for Glen "Big Baby" Davis and overpaying Davis soon thereafter.
7. INDIANA PACERS
Outlook: I used to joke about the Pacers' oversupply of white players. Well, that collection of players got itself into the playoffs last season, gave the 62-win Chicago Bulls a run for their money in the first round and will enter the shortened 2011-12 season as one of the exciting up-and-coming teams in the Eastern Conference. Signing All-Star David West to a two-year, $20 million deal will bolster a solid front line that already includes Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert.
Indiana Stiff(s): Pacers fans. Rather than support this exciting young team, Pacers fans vacated their seats in the 2011 playoffs allowing so many Bulls fans into Conseco Fieldhouse that the Bulls essentially got five home games in a row. Here's hoping we don't see that much red in the stands this season as the Pacers get better.
8. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Outlook: Like the Pacers, the 76ers provided one of the surprisingly good story lines for the 2010-11 NBA season under head coach Doug Collins. Unlike the Pacers, however, the 76ers did nothing in the offseason to substantively upgrade their lineup and as a result will barely repeat making the playoffs.
Philadelphia Stiff: The second overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Evan Turner was somewhat of a disappointment in his rookie year, contributing little to the 76ers successful regular and post-season. Let's hope that Turner worked feverishly on his game during the lockout and proves not to be a bust.
9. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Outlook: One of the biggest disappointments of the 2010-11 season, the Bucks look to rebound in 2011-12 having added the mercurial (but good) Stephen Jackson and the inconsistent (but good) Beno Udrih, in addition to Shaun Livingston and (just recently) Mike Dunleavy, Jr. With Brandon Jennings and Carlos Delfino already in place in the back court, the Bucks suddenly got more dynamic and deep at both guard positions. If center Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and head coach Scott Skiles doesn't piss everyone off, the Bucks could get themselves back into the playoffs in 2012.
Milwaukee Stiff: Jackson has had a falling out with virtually every franchise he has played for. It's hard to imagine that he'll be happy in Milwaukee all season long.
10. NEW JERSEY NETS
Outlook: A full season with Deron Williams at point guard should improve the Nets' fortunes greatly. But without a second star - like Dwight Howard - on board, the Nets will be relegated to the lottery once again and may lose Williams to free agency next summer as a result.
New Jersey Stiff: The entire Nets roster not named Williams, (Brook) Lopez and (Anthony) Morrow. Who is Williams supposed to pass to?!
11. DETROIT PISTONS
Outlook: It's hard to imagine why Lawrence Frank jumped at the chance to coach this Pistons team (other than the sizable paycheck, of course). Not only is there a dearth of talent presently, but thanks to the bad contracts owned by Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and the hefty contracts recently given to Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey, Detroit's future is crippled, too.
Detroit Stiff: It's hard to label Pistons' GM Joe Dumars a "Stiff" given that he once ran the NBA's most profitable franchise that generated back-to-back NBA Finals appearances (and one championship) not too long ago. But in recent seasons Dumars has overpayed for mediocre players and has overseen two straight playoff absences.
12. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Outlook: The Wizards will miss the playoffs - again - but could be exciting to watch with second-year point guard John Wall joining forces with some exciting rookies Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. Center JaVale McGee and power forward Andray Blatche should continue to improve, as well, but overall the Wizards are a collection of young, raw players that are at least a season or two away from competing in the playoffs.
Washington Stiff: It's not Rashard Lewis' fault that he's the second-highest paid player in the NBA (that would be Otis Smith's fault), but $22 million is a lot to spend for a guy who averaged 11 ppg last season.
13. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
Outlook: The Bobcats have assembled one of the most unappealing rosters in the NBA and whatever fans they have left should be asking a lot of "Who's?" Who's going to score? Who's going to rebound? Who's going to defend? Who's going to fill out the starting five. And, perhaps most importantly ... who cares? The additions of Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo could pay off down the road, but 2011-12 is going to be a painful season in Charlotte.
Charlotte Stiff: Michael Jordan's stewardship of the Bobcats franchise has been suspect at best. If it weren't for His Airness himself owning the team, the Bobcats - along with the Hornets - should be contracted.
14. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Outlook: The Cavaliers' extreme makeover in the wake of LeBron James's departure continues, with the latest incarnation featuring #1 overall pick Kyrie Irving, #4 overall pick Tristan Thompson and new addition Omri Casspi from Sacramento (I like Casspi, but don't like him more than J.J. Hickson whom he was traded for). But like all super young teams, the Cavaliers will struggle to stay out of the Eastern Conference basement.
Cleveland Stiff: Owner Dan Gilbert's incessant whining may have cost the Lakers Chris Paul and who knows what other repercussions will come of Gilbert's behavior in the future.
15. TORONTO RAPTORS
Outlook: Until rookie center Jonas Valanciunas shows up (which could be a year away), the Raptors will go through the motions as a bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference. At virtually every position, the Raptors have below-average or near-the-basement talent with the exception of center/power forward Andrea Bargnani
Toronto Stiff: The Raptors' management team, for stealing Gary Forbes from our Nuggets!
Coming next, The Denver Stiffs 2011-12 Western Conference Preview...