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With the Miami Heat coming off their second consecutive NBA Championship, and LeBron James looking nearly unstoppable, the same question we asked prior to last season is still valid today: Who can beat the Heat?
The San Antonio Spurs were: one rebound/made free-throw/missed-Ray Allen-game-tying three pointer-in-the-final-seconds from doing so in Game 6 of the Finals last year.
What about this season?
Can a healthy Kevin Durant-Russel Westbrook duo finally climb over that hill after failing to do so two years ago? How will Tim Duncan and Tony Parker hold up with nearly the same team as last season? Some guy who is a former MVP named Derrick Rose makes his return this season, are the Chicago Bulls the number-one threat to de-crowning Miami in the East?
So many questions, so many of them unanswered.
MIAMI: Given the fact that the LeBron James-Dwayne Wade-Chris Bosh trio is coming back for another season, the Heat have to be favored in the East again. Until a team outside of South Beach proves that when healthy-if healthy- they can take four of seven games from Miami in May, its hard to believe the Heat will beat themselves; they’re just too talented. Ray Allen proved to be an essential pickup for the team last season; there’s no reason to be reminded why. Questions surround the health status of Wade and Bosh moving forward, but as long as the current best basketball player in the world continue to be that, Miami is not going anywhere.
CHICAGO: Two words: Derrick Rose. He is that prominent of a player in a conference as weak as the East is. Whether he can round back into 2010 MVP Rose-form is the question the entire league awaits an answer for. Coach Tom Thibidaeu’s defensive schemes rank second to none. If Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah can remain dominant in the post, while swing-man Jimmy Butler continues to grow as an up-and-coming shooting guard alongside Rose, and Luol Deng proves to be the X-factor on both sides of the court; Miami could be holding their breath come Conference Finals time.
INDIANA: The Pacers are the only East team outside of the 2012 Boston Celtics to take the Big-3 era Heat to a full seven-game series in the playoffs. Paul George is arguably the best shooting-guard in the Eastern Conference right now. The core of George-David West, George Hill-Roy Hibbert is entering its third season together. Throw in the comeback of Danny Granger and the acquisition of Luis Scola to help bolster their front line, along with their rebounding facet (led league last year) and their stout defense (second in NBA in points allowed last year); the Indiana Pacers are set for another deep playoff run.
BROOKLYN: Some may call them the Brooklyn Celtics. Their off-season moves that brought in veteran hall-of-famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (along with Jason terry) shook the NBA world. Trading three future first-round picks for a couple of guys on the wrong end of their careers (and the latter ages of 30) is a risk that may come back to bite them. Pierce and KG add a toughness and veteran element that Brooklyn desperately needed. Add the All-star play of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, and they may have the best starting five in the league. Two big questions face this team that will have major implications of how their year plays out. 1) How will freshly-retired first-year head coach Jason Kidd fare as a rookie sideline leader and 2) will this team be healthy come April and May. If both answers come out to weigh positively for the Nets, a Finals appearance is not out of the question.
NEW YORK: Where to begin with one of the most entertaining teams in the league? Their talented core players of- Carmelo Anthony-Tyson Chandler-J.R Smith and whatever is left (if any) of Amare Stoudemire and Andrea Barganani is enough to compete in the Eastern Conference. An Iman Shumpert and Metta World Peace defensive duo on the outside–along with Chandler’s inside presence–looks promising too, if Peace doesn’t show his age too drastically. Melo is the best scorer in the conference, and even had one vote for MVP last season (taking away LeBron’s unanimous honor). If the Knicks can ‘get it’ on the defensive end, they may put a scare to the four teams ranked ahead of them; as long as they don’t wear black to the funeral this year.
CLEVELAND: This may be the year the Cavaliers come back from the dead and show signs of life in the post-Lebron decision era. Kyrie Irving is flirting in the conversation of the best point guards in the NBA. Mike Brown returns to the sidelines along with new acquisition Andrew Bynum. If–and that’s a Bynum-sized if– the seven-footer finds a way onto the floor, and plays effectively with Anderson Varejao, Cleveland may become the East’s ‘sleeper team’. Jarret Jack brings a veteran presence to the back court, and young players Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett will look to prove themselves as top lottery picks in the last two drafts.
DETROIT: Small-ball style has dominated the NBA as of late, but the Pistons have the potential to change that. With a towering and talented front court trio that consists of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andrew Drummond, Detroit should have no problem dominating games down low–on both sides of the floor. Can Brandon Jennings and his shaky point guard play orchestrate an offense decent enough to compete? Maybe. Chauncey Billups–if he can stay on the floor– brings a veteran leadership to a team that might surprise some people.
ATLANTA: The Hawks always seem to find themselves in the conversation when the playoff hunt comes down to the wire. Losing Johnson two years ago, and Smith this past off-season, may result in too much hill-climbing for this team to overcome. Paul Milsap’s arrival will compliment Al Horford’s game, giving Atlanta a legit down-low presence. Jeff Teague and Lou Williams will have to spark an offense that ranked in the middle of the pack last season. The Hawks are still talented enough to make the playoffs, but a first-round exit seems inevitable. The top of the East is too strong.
* Between Dallas and Minnesota, Dirk Nowitzki may be the deciding factor–assuming he plays better than last year. Timberwolves core of Rubio-Love-Pekovic-Martin could compete for that last spot.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: A team with as many question marks as any other (Westbrook’s return? Durant’s patience? Can anyone finally fill James Harden’s void?), the Thunder still have arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league (KD and RW) when all is said and done… and healthy. This is Serge Ibaka’s time to shine in a season where he will be counted on heavily at the beginning of the year with Westbrook out, and when the playoffs roll around. Their combination of top-heavy talent, youth, athleticism, and home-court advantage is hard to ignore.
SAN ANTONIO: No need to remind anybody that this team wasup five points and 26 seconds away from dethroning Miami before every possible Spurs fan nightmarish play (Missed free-throws, missed rebounds, Ray Allen) snowballed on-top of one another. Sure, the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio’s cliche of “they’re getting old” has been beaten to death. And it may finally come to life after all this season. But, it still hasn’t, and until then, how do you go against what the Spurs showcased last June? Greg Popovich is still the master of ‘getting his team to play right at the right time’. Danny Green may be the best shooter in the league behind those two guys from Golden State. And the Spurs will make sure you know those ‘no-name’ guys who have non-coincidentally given their team a boost more frequently than expected.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: Well, Doc Rivers will get the chance to prove if he’s deserving of that ‘second-best coach in the league’ label many experts refer to him as. After an early first-round exit from the playoffs last season, the Clippers return with the same core of Chris Paul-Blake Griffin- DeAndre Jordan along with Jamal Crawford and new additions J.J Redick, Darren Collison and a haven’t-done-anything-lately Antawn Jamison. Sure, they fly-high during the regular season. But what about the playoffs when the game slows down? Can Griffin and Jordan learn to hit crunch-time free-throws? Can CP3 orchestrate a Rivers offense that Rondo struggled with in Boston? Another team with a lot of questions, but also a lot of talent that can mask away some of their deficiencies…to an extent.
HOUSTON: Bold but no so bold prediction: the Rockets will go as far as Dwight Howard takes them. D12 is out of the Hollywood spotlight. No more Kobe to nag on him. No more need to use D’Antoni’s offense as an excuse. He’s now paired with a top-10 player/best shooting guard in the Western Conference in Harden, three-point shooters like the old’days in Orlando (Chandler Parsons) and coached by one of the best power forwards to ever play the game (Kevin McHale). it may be year one of the Howard era, but Houston will have problems if expectations are not met.
GOLDEN STATE: Last year’s Spurs-Warriors Conference Semis series was one of the most entertaining in the entire playoffs. A new team was born. The Steph Curry-Klay Thompson duo is second to none when ranking the best-shooting back-courts in the NBA. When healthy, David Lee is an animal in the post; a walking double-double who will post 20 points consistently. Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green fit seemingly in their roles as the young supporting bucks. Oh, and their defense could and should improve this season with the addition of Andre Iguodala. The Warriors are not so underdog anymore.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: Two big questions that need to be answered. 1) How will the departure of Lionel Hollins affect this team’s toughness? 2) Who is their go-to scorer, especially at the end of games? The Grizzlies were a team that looked well on their way to the 2013 Finals before getting drubbed by the Spurs in conference finals. The absence of Rudy Gay hit Memphis hard, as their offense struggled mightily when offensive possessions are sacred in a slowed-down playoff style game. Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol down-low create nightmare match-ups for other squads–so does Tony Allen’s on-the-ball defense– but how far can this team go without a major roster move before the playoffs?
DENVER: The difference between their offense and defense was night and day last year: Denver scored the most points (106 ppg), but allowed the seventh-most (101.1 ppg). They lost George Karl and Iguodala. Ty Lawson is still the fastest and one of the most underrated point guards in the league. Even at 37 years old, Andre Miller provides that veteran presence that goes un-valued. Kenneth Faried and Danillo Gallinari’s roles will have to increase dramatically if Denver envisions even a shot of getting out of the first-round next spring.
DALLAS: This entire pick is based on the prediction that the difference between Dirk’s play this year and last year–assuming that difference is positive– will be enough to get the Mavericks a final spot into the playoffs and a first-round elimination date with either the Spurs or Thunder. Monta Ellis can help big-time offensively, if he’s used right. Outside of Jose Calderon and maybe DeJuan Blair, who else outside of the first two players mentioned can be counted on? I also wont be surprised if Minnesota finishes in this position and this entire Dallas prediction is irrelevant.