Your 2009 NBA Champion is going to be one of these teams

Los Angeles Lakers
Shortly after the Gasol trade last season, me and one of my many Suns-supporting friends (who for unnamed reasons shall be known as the Cougar Hunter) were musing about the Lakers fortunes. “It’s so unfair”, was the overriding theme of that conversation, not a surprising realisation from a Suns fan and a Pistons fan whose teams were already faced with enough challenges getting to the top of the NBA. The best player in the world was already lucky enough to have an up and coming potential All-Star centre by his side, and now he had a Top-5 power forward as well (for the record my Top 5 PFs in no order would be Duncan, KG, Amare, Dirk and Gasol, with Boozer and Bosh close behind). Now eight months later the same sentiment remains: “It’s so unfair”.

Kobe Bryant is still the best player in the world – I honestly don’t know how John Hollinger can say “[Lebron] James is, hands down, the best player in basketball, and it amazes me how long it’s taken people to realize it”. I accept some people rating Lebron more highly than Kobe, but not “hands down”. Take your head out of the numbers John and you might appreciate some basketball. Anyway, in the book of “Secret Formulas to Winning NBA Championships” there are several key roles set out that any team needs to seriously contend for a ring. I snuck a peek at just a few of them:

The Dominant Centre – A force to be reckoned with on the inside, can quickly take control of the paint, ala Steven Seagal on that battleship in Under Siege. See: Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwan, Steven Seagal
The Versatile Power Forward – The combination of power and finesse, inside and outside game that creates a nightmare for any coach: too big for the quicks, too quick for the bigs. See: Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki
The Scottie Pippen-type Player – A category all of its own, Scottie Pippen-type players didn’t exist prior to 1987 because Scottie Pippen wasn’t invented yet. It’s a unique combination of length, ball-handling ability, superb defensive skills, with an all-round offensive game. See: Scottie Pippen
The Athletic 2-Guard – The one-man highlight show, the offensive weapon, the physical freak. The athletic 2-guard is just as important for his steady scoring output as his momentum-swinging demoralizing plays. See: Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Brett Rainbow

If you haven’t connected the dots yet let me hit you with some knowledge: The Lakers have every single piece of that puzzle to contend for a championship. Bynum is that dominant center, yeah he might still be young and raw but based on his behavior last season before injury, he’s already an elite center in this league. Gasol is that versatile forward who can play back to the basket, front to the basket and even sideways to the basket. Lamar Odom is not Scottie Pippen but is one of the closest things we’ve seen since Tayshaun Prince decided he’d stop scoring more than 14 points a game for the rest of his career. And Kobe Bryant’s picture is in the dictionary next to “athletic 2-guard”.

I’ve told people I think the Lakers could win 75 games this season. When I think about that seriously I laugh – 75 wins is obviously absurd. But when I think a little more I realise two things:
1) When Kobe and Bynum were hitting their straps last December/January the Lakers were by far the best team in the league, going 17-3 (a 70-win pace) before Bynum went down with injury
2) After picking up Gasol, he and Kobe went 22-4 to end the season (remembering Gasol was injured for nine games) which is a 69-win pace, before making it all the way to the Finals and losing in six games

Here’s the equation:
Player A (Kobe) + Player B (Bynum) = 70 wins
Player A (Kobe) + Player C (Gasol) = 69 wins

So what does A + B + C equal? Go on tell me, what does it equal? 75 wins? 82 wins? 104 wins? I honestly have no idea. But I do know that at first glance it tells me that 75 wins isn’t such a ridiculous proposition. Clearly the equation isn’t all about Kobe, Bynum and Gasol either. Throw in the best coach in the league, arguably the deepest bench (the loss of Turiaf will more than be made up for with Bynum’s presence and the healthier Trevor Ariza) and Lamar Odom and you have by far and away the league’s best team. It’s not even an argument.

Best that could happen: Championship
Worst that could happen: Another Finals loss to the Celtics
Update 22/10: I wrote this before KB went down with his knee injury today. Not sure of the severity yet but you’d expect a slow starting Lakers team. I might detract my 75-win comment, but the “best team in the league” comment stands.

Boston Celtics
I’m one of those people that think Boston was ahead of the curve by winning the championship last season – I expected they’d need one or two seasons together before that happened (as did our resident Celtics fan). I’m also one of those people that aren’t giving the Celtics a big chance coming into this season. My reasons being:

1) The Hunger
A lot of people have talked about this, how winning a championship might tone down the desperation in the eyes of KG, Pierce and Allen. The fact is, it will. They will simply not be as desperate. This is not really such a huge problem – any team that wins a championship has obviously relieved a lot of pressure and expectation, and will go into the next season a lot more relaxed. The problem is, the “hunger factor” was so huge for this Celtics team last season… I’m talking REALLY huge, so huge that if you shrunk it down and folded it eight times it still wouldn’t fit into Gemma Atkinson’s bra (one of my standard units of measurement). I don’t think there’s been a team with more to prove than last season’s Celtics in a long time, and therefore I don’t think there’s a team that’s as ready for a post-championship slump.

2) The Loss of Posey
I think this matters more than most people realise. The number of big shots Posey hit throughout the playoffs and Finals is unappreciated. I said enough about him in my Hornets preview (below) so I won’t say much more, except that the Celtics will sorely miss this guy, and they probably won’t realise till next May.

3) Age
It’s no secret the Big Three are a year closer to retirement, we all know that. What we don’t know is how a 106-game season (that’s what these guys played in regular season and playoffs combined) will affect those aging bones. KG, Pierce and Allen have never had to play through June, and now they’ll be expected to do it all again. Can these guys handle playing 16 months of NBA basketball over a 20 month period? With Ray’s already dodgy ankles, Pierce’s worrisome knees, and KG carrying over injuries from last season, I’m not so sure they can.

I’m clearly playing devil’s advocate here because the Celtics are still a top contender and I would be utterly shocked if they didn’t win at least 55 games and finish #1 or #2 in the East. To me, it just feels like last season was a dream for the Celtics, a big novelty. KG was amazing, Ray was shooting buzzer beaters, Pierce was heroic when he needed to be, bench players stood up and took over games (Glen Davis against Detroit and Powe against the Lakers comes to mind), they pulled off record-breaking comebacks, and every move Doc Rivers made seemed to pay off. Surely they can’t have another season like that, right? Ultimately I think the Celtics were so good defensively last season that I don’t think they can repeat it, and when you consider the Lakers improved their defense by about 200% by adding Bynum, the Celtics might be playing for second position this year.
Best that could happen: Back-to-back Championships
Worst that could happen: Falling out in the Conference Finals

Utah Jazz
This team is built for a championship right now, no two ways about it. Like I said many times last season, they are a complete team that have the tools to handle every other elite team in the league. Boozer is one of the best interior scorers in the league, I would say his post game and jump shot is second to only KG as far as power forwards are concerned. Deron Williams is one of the best closers in the league; the fact he has developed a pretty lethal three point shot makes him one of the most unguardable players in the league – offensively I put him ahead of Chris Paul. They have lock down defenders to guard the Lebron’s and Kobe’s of this world, they have great outside shooters include big guys like Okur who constantly stretch the defense. They have all this with still a young team, a brilliant coach, and the best home-court advantage in the league.

The only reason the Jazz didn’t make the Finals last season is because they ran into Kobe Bryant at the peak of his career (Kobe has NEVER played better than he did against the Jazz and Spurs in those playoffs), and that is a pretty daunting obstacle for any team. Remember DW got injured in that series, so things could have been very different. The big question for me is how much improvement will we see out of guys like Ronnie Brewer and CJ Miles? That improvement has to offset the Lakers adding Andrew Bynum, and while I don’t think it will, it will be close. Close enough for the Jazz to easily find themselves facing the Celtics or Pistons in the Finals.
Best that could happen: Championship
Worst that could happen: 3rd in the West and missing out on home-court advantage through the first couple of rounds

Detroit Pistons
Yes I was down and dirty on my Pistons after their third straight Eastern Conference Finals loss last season. Yes I suggested that Tayshaun Prince should be traded, that Sheed had given up the fight, that we had become the all-conquering underachievers of the NBA. But you should know by now that the Pistons are like a bad girlfriend, and just like I predicted during that emotional outpouring three months ago, I’ve forgiven her and want to start all over again.

Something is a little different this season though. People (read, “the media”) are actually showing a little faith in the Pistons this pre-season and believe they can rebound, or *gasp*, even improve on last season’s Eastern Conference exit. I can honestly tell you, not since 2005 have I heard this much pro-Pistons talk prior to a season starting. I’m guessing this is a combination of the emergence of Stuckey, Maxiell, Johnson and Afflalo (the Zoo Crew) as well as the new coach Michael Curry. But don’t read too much into all of that. This Pistons team is still very much all about its starting core, and it’s still very much the same starting core that existed in 2004. 2004!!! That is a long time ago. Back then Chris Webber was actually good. Back then Lance Whitnall was still slim. Wait, no he wasn’t. Point I’m trying to make is that this core Pistons unit has always been a backs-against-the-wall type team, always played their best with a chip on their shoulder, when they had something to prove. Here’s a list of their motives the past few season:

The motive: Everyone thinks the Pistons getting past the Lakers in the previous Finals was a fluke, everyone thinks the Pistons are still only the 3rd or 4th best team in the league behind the Spurs and the new Shaq-fuelled Miami Heat.
The result: Pistons travel through the season under the radar then grind through the playoffs to reach a second straight Finals. Five minutes away from going back-to-back in a Finals game 7.

The motive: Larry Brown has been dumped as coach and everyone thinks they’ll lose their defensive identity with Flip Saunders coming on board. The Spurs, Heat, Mavs, Suns and even Pacers are getting more pre-season wraps than this Pistons team. Before the season started you could get $13.50 on the Pistons winning title. Three weeks into the season this was below $4.
The result: Pistons explode for 64 wins during the season and the leagues best record before faltering at the hands of Wade and the Heat in the Conference Finals.

The motive: Ben Wallace, the heart and soul of the franchise and their defensive leader, has left for Chicago. No one thinks the Pistons can plug this hole, not with Nazr Mohammed anyway. In their annual survey the NBA GM’s pick the T-Wolves, Suns and Magic ahead of the Pistons (who got zero votes) as teams to win the championship (WTF?!).
The result: Pistons finish comfortably on top of the Eastern Conference but again fall out in the Eastern Conference Finals, allowing Lebron to face the Spurs in the Worst Finals Ever.

The motive: After two straight Eastern Conference Finals exits everyone thinks the Pistons are done. Sheed, Dyess, and Billups are getting too old and the bench is young and unproven. The Celtics are the new kids on the block and the Bulls are the most popular pick to finish #1 in the East.
The result: Pistons cruise to 59 wins, the second best record in the league. Fall out again in the Conference Finals to the ultimate champions the Boston Celtics.

The motive: There isn’t really any. The “too old, too slow” sentiment is being balanced out with the hype and expectations for the Zoo Crew. Everyone believes Michael Curry can get these Pistons motivated and erase that sense of entitlement that seemed to cost them in past seasons.
The result: ?

The point I’m trying to make is that the world isn’t ganging up against the Pistons like it has in the past few seasons. The world is tired of it. I’m probably a lot more sensitive to the doubters than most, being a Pistons fan, but I can definitely tell you there is a lot more praise and respect being served up to the Pistons this season. And I’m worried about it.

I’m worried because I don’t know if the Pistons of old – Chauncey, Rip, Sheed and Prince – can deal with going through the motions of a regular season without a chip on their shoulder, without some overarching emotional story line they can bask in after each win. After every against-the-odds win in ’05 the Pistons were talking up how unaffected they were by the loss of Larry Brown, and in ’06 every win was seemingly an excuse to prove they didn’t need Ben Wallace. What will they be talking up now? Will they survive without that chip and go back to playing tough, hard Pistons basketball? Or will they flounder?

For me, the answer to that lies in the answer to these four questions:
1) Will Rodney Stuckey be good enough to win games by himself?
2) Can Jason Maxiell prove he’s more than just a baby-eating energy guy?
3) Can Amir Johnson get regular minutes every game and show the world what a defensive monster he really is?
4) Can Kwame Brown play basketball?

Those are my Big 4 Pistons questions that I will be monitoring every week of the season. Maybe Rip, Chauncey, Sheed and Tay should have a read of that list. The fact they’re not mentioned might give them something to prove.
Best that could happen: A team so revitalized by its young players that come April/May, they don’t even look like the Pistons as we know them now. A third finals appearance in six years.
Worst that could happen: Pistons leave the playoffs early because it looks like they didn’t want it enough.

New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets are a very sexy pick for this year’s NBA Championship, for a few reasons.
1) They already looked like title-contenders last season despite having a very young core of players, who remember, had never made the playoffs before. 2) They have one of the best five players in the league in Chris Paul, the best point guard of his generation (ok maybe I’m a little early with that, but you might as well get used to hearing it now… it will become fact in a few years). 3) The picked up James Posey in the off-season, the kind of playoff-savvy veteran they were lacking

It could be argued that the Hornets overachieved last season, so maybe the kind of improvement we’re expecting from them won’t result in that many more Ws. Can Chris Paul really go for 21 points, 11.6 assists, 2.7 steals and 4 rebounds again? Can David West play at an All-Star level again? And more importantly, can he avoid injury? Can Morris Peterson keep knocking down threes at 40%? A lot of things went right for the New Orleans Hornets last season, and I can’t help but feel they had a lot of success because they took everyone by surprise. A season later every team knows what to expect from CP3, they know to honor David West’s mid-range game, and they’ll sure as hell be ready to defend the Paul-Chandler alley-oop that was the source of so many easy points last season. Do the Hornets have any tricks left up their sleeve?

One trick they’ve added is the James Posey factor. Posey is one of those guys in the league who is seemingly overrated and underrated at the same time (a few other examples of this occurring: 1) Ben Wallace circa 2002-2006, while obviously a great defender he was so hopeless offensively that many people thought he was an undeserving All-Star. Others rated him as the best defensive center of the last decade. It could be argued that the Bulls rated him even higher, leaving themselves in the unenviable and rare position of grossly overrating an overrated/underrated player. 2) Rip Hamilton, often gets called overrated owing to his one-dimensional offensive game and the fact all his points come from the same play. The flip side is no one can seem to stop Rip scoring 18-20 points a game, so how limited can he really be?)

Posey is overrated because there’s no way in hell he’s worth the $25 million over four years that the Hornets are paying him. But he’s underrated because he will do things on the court – those one or two plays – that can help you win a championship, and you can’t put a price on that can you? Plays like that three he hit in Game 6 of the 2006 finals with four minutes left, a shot that Pat Riley called “the biggest play of the game”. Plays like that steal on Tayshaun Prince with two minutes left in game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, a play that stopped the Pistons in their tracks after they closed the margin to four points (that was one of the most demoralizing plays Pistons fans have had to endure in recent years). Plays like that three against LA with one minute left in game 4 that sucked the air out of the Staples Centre and capped off what was the most amazing Finals comeback in NBA history.

Posey will not dominate for 48 minutes a game, he won’t stuff your stat sheet or explode for 30 points. But he has an unnerving ability to make those big plays and I can see him ending his career as a Robert Horry / Ron Harper type guy who teams will overpay just for their big-game presence… and of course, those one or two plays.

The Hornets have most of the ingredients needed to win a title. They have a superstar point guard who can take over games, an inside scoring presence (the Seventeen Foot Assassin no less), a strong interior defender and intimidator (interesting note – David West had more blocks last season than Tyson Chandler, true story), and a bunch of guys who can knock down shots (Peja, Mike James, Posey). It’s no secret that where they’re lacking is in their depth and their experience. I don’t think the depth is so much a problem because this Hornets core is so young right now (thus can play a lot of minutes), and the additions of James and Posey do strengthen their bench. Experience though was a telling factor last season – you could sense the inevitability of a Spurs victory in game 7 of the Semi Conference Finals. In fact, when you look at the probable top eight teams in the Western Conference this season the Hornets are the most inexperienced playoff team by far.

Fortunately for the Hornets they have 82 games before playoff experience becomes a factor, and as the Boston Celtics proved last year, you don’t necessarily have to have played together for years to build the kind of belief and chemistry that you need for a championship. Considering they stole one of Boston’s keys to success in James Posey, the Hornets might find themselves in good hands come next May/June. Especially if it comes to down those one or two plays.

Best that could happen: A classic 7-game duel with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals
Worst that could happen: A second round playoff exit

Houston Rockets
No way I’m falling for this again, not this year, not a chance. Every year I fall into the trap of tipping the Rockets to finish at the pointy end of the Western Conference – basically every year since T-Mac arrived there. And every year I get made to look like a fool. It didn’t matter so much a few years ago as an over-opinionated Uni student working at Donut King (as a rule, no one tends to take you seriously when you’re wearing bright pink shorts). But when you have your own blog you kind of have to deal with the constant reminder of your past blunders sitting there in cyberspace, blunders such as this pearl of wisdom last season: “Houston will bolt through the regular season – they could have the best record in the league”. Yeah, they could. And I could nail Rebecca Twigley if I just shaved my head and ran around in no. 5 Carlton jumper (although I kid you not, many of my friends and one of my aunties tell me I look like Chris Judd, which has lead me to seriously contemplate the shaved-head idea from time to time) The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve learnt my lesson, and not even Ron Artest can change my mind.

I’ve spoken to several people about the Artest trade, and I’m starting to think people have lost their mind when it comes to Ron Artest. Somehow Ron Artest managed to live off the reputation of a seriously misguided DPOY campaign (which I’ve vented on here) four seasons ago. What has the man done since? Since that 2004 season he’s made one All-Defensive Team, zero All Star Teams, and one barely memorably playoff run with the Kings in 05-06. People tell me he’s now a legitimate offensive threat, yet maybe they’re forgetting Artest has scored most his points the past few seasons on a team that has plain sucked. He hasn’t even been the leading scorer on that team – Kevin Martin was for both the past two seasons. Artest is being made out to be a savior for this Rockets team and I’m not buying it. People are telling me, “He’ll bring some much needed toughness”, “He’s a fierce competitor”, “He’s a winner, he’ll do whatever it takes to win”. Ah yeah right. Ron Artest, a winner…

I do admit that the Rockets already stingy defense is about to be taken to another level, and that having Artest and Battier to throw at guys like Kobe and Lebron is a supreme luxury, but ultimately the success of this Rockets team comes down to their main two guys – T-Mac and Yao – and both of them are too injury prone and too soft. Both these guys need to HTFU or they’re not getting out of the first round again. The fact the Rockets went on that ridiculous streak last season (which in hindsight, will be one of the most forgotten yet amazing feats in NBA history) without Yao should be ringing enough alarm bells. Isn’t he supposed to be the cornerstone of that franchise? They have yet to show me in four years that T-Mac and Yao can cohesively exist on the floor and consistently beat good teams – what hope have they got of adding Artest to the mix and getting all three to coexist? Add the fact that Rafer Alston is your starting point guard (probably the worst point guard on a championship-contending team) and Brent Barry is like 43 years old, and you have a lot of doubt surfacing.

I don’t wanna make it all seem bad for Rockets fans though. While I’m skeptical of the Rockets this season, I do admit they have on paper everything you need to win a championship. You need guys like Battier and Scola on your team to win a title. The one good thing that came out of their win-streak last season was confidence for these role players – they now believe they can beat any one in the league. That belief should be enough to get them out of the first round, even though according to Artest “the first round is not really in the Houston Rockets’ or the city of Houston’s vocabulary”. Right.
Best that could happen: 58 wins and a Western Conference Finals appearance
Worst that could happen: Do I even need to say it? It starts with “F” and ends in “irst round exit”.

San Antonio Spurs
“You can’t bet against a team with Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Popovich blah blah blah” yeah I’ve been hearing it for years. Except this year I am betting against them. You cannot possibly tell me that the Spurs will improve (or even remain the same) this season, and similar to the Pistons, they seem to be starting their downward spiral after a long reign at the top of their conference. Unlike the Pistons though, the Spurs have no young guns and no one outside the usual Duncan-Parker-Ginobili triangle who can step up and carry that team, which is a problem because Ginobili is going to miss a big patch of the season. Without that infusion of youth it means Coach Popp is going to have to push his old players to play more minutes than they should, and while they’re still good enough to win 50 games, they simply won’t have enough in the tank to push for a deep playoff run.

Signs of their fading dominance were evident in last year’s Western Conference Finals – they blew a 20 point lead in game one, and in game two got blown out by 30 points. Since when does a Tim Duncan team suffer those kind of losses? Not ever, as far as I can remember. The only thing in their favour that I can possibly think of, is that the Spurs are fully aware of all of this. They are aware that this is probably the last season they can have a crack at the title before blowing apart this team and sending a few of them home to retire. Tim Duncan is probably ready to deliver the last knock-out blow of his career, a career as the best power forward of all time. You can’t bet against Tim Duncan you know.
Best that could happen: An injury-free season and another Western Conference Finals
Worst that could happen: 45 wins and a first round exit to a younger, hungrier team. Any one remember the Miami Heat in ’07?

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