It’s that time of year again folks. The 2012-13 NBA season is upon us, and although it feels like we say this every year, this could be the greatest NBA season ever.

So many intriguing story lines. So many fascinating sub-plots. So many stacked teams and potential champions. We put the NBAMate brains trust together to make sense of it all, including our very special guest Mookie whom you all know from his very excellent blog. Enjoy.

PS – some of this was written before the Harden trade.

1. Who comes out of the East and West to meet in the 2013 NBA Finals?

Robd: Out East it’s a no-brainer for me. Miami will be too strong and are now as battle-tested as any team. The West is trickier. Given their learnings from last season, you’d think the Thunder would get back to the Finals, and Westbrook and Durant will only get better. But the Lakers got way better, and if they’re healthy, I just can’t bet against a Dwight-Kobe-Nash-Gasol core. Even if their best two players (Dwight, Kobe) have a bad game, you’ve still got two other guys (Nash, Gasol) who could win a ballgame themselves – which other team can you honestly say that about?

JT: West – Lakers. The Miami super team experiment taught us this – no matter how good it appears on paper, you can’t rush the process. The experience/intelligence of Kobe, Pau and Nash will help in this regard, but the challenges will be many: their depth; adapting to the Princeton offense; Gasol playing out of position again; convincing Kobe to let go of the rope some; managing all the egos; and finding a way to properly integrate Dwight so that they’re maximizing his talents. And I’m not convinced that Mike Brown is the right man to tackle this.

But then OKC – who in my mind would have beaten them – goes and trades James Harden and basically hands it to them on a platter……..Staggering.

East – Miami over Boston. See question 4.

SP: Lakers (West) Heat (East). With the departure of Harden, it seems as though OKC will take a backseat to the Lakers this year, and with another year under their belts, Miami are miles ahead of their conference.

Mookie: I think it has to be the Lakers in the West, with the roster they have assembled. I think OKC may have lost something with the trade of Harden, which I think they did purely because they don’t think they can afford him down the track.

In the East, definitely the Heat.

Ash: East – Miami over Brooklyn in the ECF 4-2. West – Lakers over Clippers in the WCF 4-1.

2. Who wins the Championship?

Robd: Miami. On paper they’re not the best team, but they figured out their formula to success by throwing conventional positions out the window, and playing to the strengths of their key guys. They’re by no means unbeatable though, and they will need superhuman efforts from LeBron to taste championship glory again. It just so happens that LeBron is primed to deliver superhuman efforts this season – he’s free from criticism and he knows he knows how to win (that was no typo). The only thing that can take him down – and I mean only - is a revitalised Dwight Howard. People forget Dwight could/should be the league’s most dominant player, and if he raises his game and his teammates (and coach) give him the reigns in LA, the Lakers will be unbeatable (odds of this happening: slim).

JT: Miami. LeBron James, at age 27, is now entering the peak of his prime. He’s got one hellava monkey off his back and has rapidly transformed into a killer on the block. Good luck trying to take him down.

SP: Miami Heat. The Lakers have built a nice team around Kobe for his last championship run, but this is LeBron’s time to take a strangle hold over the rest of the NBA and he showed us last year he’s capable of delivering.

Mookie: Unfortunately, I’m going to say Miami. I just question how the Lakers’ old bodies will hold up — particularly Kobe. I’d love to say that the Lakers could do it, as it’d be nice for Nash and Kobe to have that one last fairy tale finish, but my head says Heat again.

Ash: Miami in 7. These series always come down to whoever is the best player on the court on both teams. LeBron is still the best player in the league. The problem with the Lakers is that their best player right now is probably Dwight, which comes with two issues:
- He’s never been known for really stepping up when it matters (and indeed, his FT issues means he can become pretty useless in the clutch)
- Who thinks Kobe’s surrendering his crown as King of Lakerland in a hurry?

So yeah. Heat in 7.

3. Your predictions for 2012-13 award winners:

ROY – Anthony Davis. Popular choice, but hard to disagree.
COY – Avery Johnson. Especially if the Nets finish higher than the Knicks.
Most Improved – Greg Monroe. Last season was a 15-10 guy under the radar. This season he’ll go close to 20-10 and get the cred.
DPOY – LeBron James.  He wants this award more than you realise.
Scoring Champ – Carmelo Anthony. Should be Durant, but Melo has to win one of these one day.
6th man – Jason Terry. I think he’ll mesh so well with this Boston squad.
MVP – LeBron James. People will be tired of voting for him, but the Lakers are too balanced and Durant is nowhere near him yet.

ROY – Anthony Davis (but keep an eye on Jared Sullinger)
COY – George Karl
Most Improved – Derrick Favors (I don’t think he’ll actually win the award, but if given the opportunity (and that’s a big “if” as long as Al Jefferson is there) he will make huge strides)
DPOY – Dwight Howard
Scoring Champ – Kevin Durant
6th man – Jason Terry
MVP – LeBron James

ROY – Anthony Davis
COY – Erik Spoelstra
Most Improved – Michael Beasley
DPOY – Dwight Howard
Scoring Champ – Kevin Durant
6th man – Jason Terry
MVP – LeBron James

ROY – Damien Lillard – Blazers represent!
COY – Kevin McHale (Houston Rockets)
Most Improved – OJ Mayo
DPOY – Dwight Howard
Scoring Champ – Kevin Durant
6th man – Jose Calderon
MVP – LeBron James

ROY – Anthony Davis. I also see him being in the top 5 for DPOY. This kid’s too good.
COY – Byron Scott (Cleveland). Hold this thought.
Most Improved – Brook Lopez. Maybe I’m biased but I sense a breakout year from him. If he can give the Nets 22/8 per game and stay healthy he could see an All-Star nod and an award.
DPOY – Eh…Dwight I guess. His reign was broken by Chandler last year.
Scoring Champ – Kevin Durant
6th man – MarShon Brooks
MVP – LeBron is the easy name to suggest, but for the sake of variety I’ll say Chris Paul. In almost any other season he would have won it last year and I can see him really carrying this Clippers team again, only deeper into the playoffs.

4. Who will be the surprise team of 2012-13?

Robd: The Nets. A dramatic improvement on last season won’t surprise everyone, but given the East is still very weak it’s not impossible for the Nets to be Top 4 or thereabouts. Their starting line-up is quality, and I have a feeling with the added talent Deron will start giving a shit and submit an MVP-calibre season. Brook Lopez could also finish the season as the consensus #2 centre in the league, if Bynum bombs the way I think he will.

JT: I was going to say the Warriors but with Bogut and Curry ailing that’s just way too dicey. Honestly, going down the list, I don’t see a big ‘surprise’ team this year, so I’ll go with Boston – a team that should be a notch better (quicker and more athletic) than they were last season. Their depth is incredible, especially in the backcourt, with a five man rotation of Rondo/Lee/Terry/Bradley/Barbosa (that’s the best in the league). The return of Jeff Green should give them a big boost on the wing (especially defensively) and the rookie Jared Sullinger looks the goods. My money is still on the Heat to emerge from the East, but if the Celtics can stay healthy they should earn a high seed in the playoffs, progress through the early rounds and give the Heat all they can handle in the ECF. And for a team that looked cooked at various stages last season, that would be a pretty good outcome.

SP: Phoenix. As you might have noticed from my most improved pick, I think Michael Beasley is going to thrive as the go-to guy on a sub-par team. He has all the talent in the world, but hasn’t yet found himself in an ideal situation. He’s shown glimpses of what he could one day be and I really think this the year he establishes himself as a star in the NBA.

Mookie: Before launching into my response, I just want to bask in the fact that I predicted the Indiana Pacers to be the surprise team last time around, and they were pretty darn impressive. This time I predict the Houston Rockets to take some people by surprise. They are a bit of a frankenstein of parts, but I see Jeremy Lin and James Harden having big seasons with so much responsibility on their shoulders and guys like Omer Asik and some of their rookies really contributing. They won’t be great, but they won’t be terrible like most would expect.

Ash: I can see my Nets getting the #2 seed in the East, which would surprise a lot of people who don’t even seem to think they’re a top 4 team right now. I can also see Minnesota making the playoffs in the West, but that’s not exactly a revelation given how good they were last year before Rubio popped his ACL.

However, my surprise team of 2012-13 is…(Drumroll please)…the Cleveland Cavaliers. My reasoning behind this is that I think Kyrie Irving is a superstar in the making, and he’s only going to get better this year. Let’s not forget that the Cavs were just a few games out of 8th place before the trade deadline last year before they began a mini-tanking process.

The Cavs also have some intriguing pieces around Irving. While they haven’t added any veterans of note, Tyler Zeller in particular is a guy I see making an instant contribution. 7 footers who can run the floor and have his variety of skills aren’t a dime a dozen. Dion Waiters had his struggles in Summer League but that’s rarely an accurate projector of a guy’s NBA future. I just get a bit of a 2010 OKC vibe with this team – a young and energetic bunch in a conference with some openings and too dumb to realise it’s not their time yet. I give them 42-45 wins and the 8th seed.

5. Who will be the most disappointing team of 2012-13?

Robd: My initial reaction was to say Dallas, because I think they’ll miss the playoffs, but then again no one has high expectations of them this season. As I alluded to above, I think Philly is in for a rude awakening if they think Andrew Bynum can carry them.  Bynum simply won’t be used to the attention and expectations, and will likely get injured at some stage, which could result in minutes for Kwame Brown which automatically means you’re a disappointing team.

JT: There’s no point saying the Knicks because they always disappoint, so Brooklyn. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll be a playoff team and pretty decent, but they won’t sniff the title, as some are suggesting.

The razzmatazz surrounding their move to Brooklyn has clouded some serious issues with their roster. All they’re key pieces (except Williams) have issues, and I’m not even getting into the fact that every one of them is grossly overpaid. Lopez is a poor defender and atrocious rebounder for his size; Humphries is a poor defender and very limited offensively; Wallace is aging badly; and Joe Johnson, whilst a very good player, is a renowned floater. To me, their only x-factor and potential bright spot (both now and for the future) is MarShon Brooks. If he doesn’t come on in a big way, their potential is capped (as a second round (at best) playoff team).

As usual a lot of fuss will be made of the New York teams, but do your best to ignore all that crap because they won’t be there at the business end.

SP: Memphis. A couple of years ago they appeared to be built for the future, and it’s hard to see any improvements they’ve made since their second-round exit in 2010/11.

Mookie:The Lakers. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still predicting them to get to the Finals, but I see them having some very dry patches during the regular season, the accompanying questions and drama, and consequently them not having a fantastic regular season record.

Ash: Tough to say really. Indiana look like they’re set to take the Joe Johnson Hawks title as the team good enough to make the playoffs every year but not good enough to do much once there. Philly could go completely bust with a tempramental Andrew Bynum as “The Man”. Who knows what way the Knicks are going to go.

I’m going with an unpopular opinion here though. I’ll say Oklahoma City. As I’ve said many times before – I don’t completely trust this Thunder team and will not until they show they can win close games consistently and get the title that a team with their talent level and chemistry should have. Add the potential of a James Harden saga and I get the feeling that OKC are headed for a slight regression season. Not missing the playoffs or anything, but possibly a fourth seed and a second round playoff exit. Which, for this team, has to be seen as disappointing.

6. Dwight Howard and Chris Paul – do they stay in LA (they’re both unrestricted free agents at the end of the season)?

Robd: Howard is stupid if he leaves, because he has a legitimate shot at winning titles and going down an all-time Laker great (which will appeal to his ego). I also can’t see Paul leaving after everything he’s said about being a Clipper since he signed. I think he genuinely loves the franchise and loves being the underdog across-town rival. They both stay for me.

JT: Howard’s not going anywhere, but Chris Paul is a different proposition, although I do think he’ll eventually re-sign. But if things go south this year and they don’t make meaningful progress from last season – be it due to injuries or the Clipper (Donald Sterling) curse – then he may bolt. And if he does, really, who could blame him.

Here’s my take on the Clippers: until Blake Griffin can address his weaknesses (shooting and defense) and become the bona fide second superstar that they (and Chris Paul) desperately need, they’re not a legitimate title contender. And they have issues – most notably frontcourt depth and defense – and their offseason acquistions (the horribly inefficient Jamal Crawford, the flaky (and overweight) Lamar Odom and the ancient Grant Hill) just don’t move the needle. They were shortsighted.

Question: who’s going to guard the likes of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant or even Andre Iguodala in a playoff series? The 40 year old Hill, or washed up/injury-prone Butler?

SP: Howard’s a Laker for life, but I have a hard time believing that the Clippers will retain CP3. He left New Orleans for a shot at a title, and I expect him to do the same with the Clippers.

Mookie: Yes. It’s all about big markets and that’s what these guys are after. Dwight is a certainty to stay in LA in my opinion, whilst the only chance I see Paul leaving is if he is to land with the Knicks.

Ash: Please God I hope so. I don’t think I can take another Dwightmare. In all honesty, the only way I can see either of them leaving is if Kobe mentally disintegrates Dwight and Steve Nash can’t get them to play nice (a possibility I haven’t ruled out) or Donnie Turkowitz does something dumb with Chris Paul. Which again is a legit possibility.

I’d put the odds on D12 re-signing at 90% and CP3 at 75%. If Chris Paul re-signs I can also see him trying to get more influence within the organisation (i.e. giving Vinny Del Negro a bus ticket and bringing in a better offensive system).

7. As we have done in years past, predict something that no one else will.

Robd: Detroit makes the playoffs.

JT: Everyone will be kissing Dwight’s arse next year after a mammoth season and establishing himself as the clear-cut best player on the team. No one’s ripped the guy more than I have in recent times for being an absolute prat, but diss him as a player at your peril.

SP:The Clippers freak out before the deadline approaches, trade Chris Paul for pennies on the dollar and fall out of the playoff picture.

Mookie: Wesley Matthews will be an all-star in 2012-13.

Ash: The Knicks will come charging out of the blocks, being a top-3 seed after 20, 30 games and getting everyone talking about the resurgent Knicks and Jeremy Who?, then Carmelo will start demanding more touches, Amare will break a nail and they’ll eventually stumble into the playoffs and get spanked by someone.

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