Best Regular Season Record
Here's how I think the Eastern Conference Playoffs will shape up:
Central Division Champions: Indiana Pacers
Rick Carlisle has been one of the best regular season coaches for the past three years. This may be Reggie's final year. Jermaine O'Neal is bigger and better. The only question mark is will Ron Artest remain the mature player he was for most of the regular season or will he be the guy whose personality peeked out at points during the playoffs and this offseason?
Atlantic Division Champions: Boston Celtics
This is a layup. Only other Atlantic team can even make the playoffs, and that will likely be the Knicks competing for the eighth spot. The Celtics are much like the Phoenix Suns except they also have a center. Re-signing Mark Blount was probably their most important move of the offseason. Plus, with Gary Payton already teaching Marcus Banks more than he was taught all of last season, Boston's bench is among the best and deepest in the league.
Southeast Division Champions: Miami Heat
I'm not 100% sure of this one. The Heat will no doubt be in the playoffs but Shaq's team may very well sneak up on people. There's a solid chance the Heat don't beat out the Magic for the top spot. But that chance is less than 50% so the nod goes to the favorites. This is probably the team in the league that is most sensitive to any injury to its best player.
And the rest:
Perhaps the deepest frontcourt of any team in the league. The defending champions. One of the best backcourts in the league. Great character and locker-room presence. The Pistons will give a challenge all the way to the wire to the Indiana Pacers for the regular season record, and might just break through. This is the closest divisional championship in the league.
Even without Tracy McGrady, this is a very talented team, and GM John Weisbrod recognized the importance of having a solid center, and he has two in Kelvin Cato and Tony Battie. The biggest question mark is who is going to play backup minutes behind Dwight Howard, or even in front of Howard if it turns out he is not quite ready for prime time. Whoever it is will be playing at least slightly out of position.
They have a slew of excellent point guards in Jeff McInnis, Eric Snow, and LeBron James, each of whom could play either backcourt position, and James can even play small forward. Z is ready to go and Drew Gooden is going to rehabilitate his career and his value. This will be a very exciting team to watch and one that could potentially challenge for the title of most team assists.
Though they are essentially the Golden State Warriors of a few seasons back with Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas, and Larry Hughes, they also have a solid frontcourt, and a terrific coach in Eddie Jordan. They will run and they will defend. They may not follow the same path as the Nets did of going to the Finals one year after going to the lottery, but they have a terrific shot at the playoffs.
New York Knicks
For all the hoopla, the utility function of the Knicks doesn't seem to be winning championships or even regular seasons, but creating an exciting and interesting brand of basketball. For example, Isiah Thomas would probably never trade Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford for, hypothetically speaking, Baron Davis and Jamaal Magloire, because his Knicks are his favorites, and he needs to give New Yorkers someone to cheer for even when they're losing. The Knicks should be paying players less than other teams, given the increased endorsement opportunities the players would get, but they pay more. Sigh. The Knicks are valuing community relations a little more than winning, but they do have enough talent to probably sneak into the playoffs. It might be close, however, with the Sixers hot on their tail.
Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats
Here's how I think the Western Conference Playoffs will shape up:
Southwest Division Champions: Houston Rockets
They may be competing for the best regular season record after the All-Star break. It might take them a little while to gel but when they do, man, look out. A lineup of Yao Ming, Juwan Howard, Jim Jackson, Tracy McGrady, and anyone at point ought to make the opposition shudder. If they can get a brand-name point guard to run the show, if they could have gotten someone like Eric Snow, they would be the favorites to make a run at the 72 win record. Even with dependable Charlie Ward or triple-double threat Bobby Sura running things, they will be near the top of the league in defense, just because it is Jeff Van Gundy's show after all, and they will, finally, be near the top of the league in offense, just because these guys all know how to get the ball in the hole with the least resistance.
Pacific Division Champions: LA Lakers
Kobe Bryant's arguably the world's best player and despite the absence of Shaq he is still surrounded by incredible talent. Caron Butler will return to form. Lamar Odom will maintain last year's strides. Brian Grant and Vlade Divac will man the middle. Chucky Atkins will get the ball to Kobe. Their biggest challenger will probably be the Phoenix Suns, who, if they had a strong center, would probably get the advantage.
Northwest Division Champions: Denver Nuggets
Another tight one, this one a three-way competition. I see both the Timberwolves and the Jazz challenging for this spot, and even though Denver has some issues including tension among players and between coaches and players, they have the excellent combination of amazing talent, clear vision, and depth. They are strong at every position except shooting guard, and if Carmelo Anthony slides over to that spot and Kenyon Martin moves to the three, they would have a very tall yet very explosive lineup. Martin was a sensational pickup for the fast-breaking Nuggets.
And the rest:
San Antonio Spurs
Their two best players are tired from the Olympics. They got a great pickup in Brent Barry. They will as always improve going into the end of the regular season but they might not have enough gas in the tank to overtake the Rockets for the best record in their division.
This is going to be a very exciting team. They are loaded with swingmen, talent, and youth. The only thing they are missing is a solid, name-brand center. If they could land disgruntled Jamaal Magloire for any one player not named Shawn Marion, they would be challengers to the Lakers for the division's top prize.
Kevin Garnett is not tired after any Olympics. He is ready to repeat as MVP. He will again have a monster year. But will his aging sidekicks make it through the rigors of the regular season? Will Sam Cassell either get an extension or just play anyway? Will Michael Olowokandi finally learn to play strong inside rather than taking baby hook shots from two feet out? A lot of questions. If everything comes together, they will beat out both the Nuggets and the Jazz for the Northwest Divisional championship. But if it doesn't, they won't be too far behind, and they will be in the playoffs.
Unless Jerry Sloan unexpectedly retires at some point this season, Utah is going to have a terrific year. He has all the talent in the world at every position. He has a solid and deep frontcourt. He has one of the best young point guards in the world in Carlos Arroyo. His guys WILL play tough, it's not even a question. And they will present a formidable challenge to the Nuggets and the Wolves for the top spot.
Last year was not a fluke. The Grizzlies might not make it back to 50 wins but they will have another strong year.
Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, LA Clippers, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Mavericks