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Preseason predictions's experts weigh on the MVP race, top rookies and brewing feuds

Posted: Tuesday November 2, 2004 2:01PM; Updated: Tuesday November 2, 2004 5:37PM

With the 2004-05 NBA campaign upon us, surveyed our NBA writers, Chris Ballard, Marty Burns, John Hollinger, Paul Forrester, Jack McCallum and Ian Thomsen and TNT's new NBA Insider David Aldridge to get an early read on the season.

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Shaquille O'Neal
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Aldridge: Tim Duncan, Spurs. I think San Antonio will have the best record and if there's a guy on the team with the best record who's MVP-worthy, he'll get the hardware. And I think he's got something to prove this year after going out in the playoffs last season. The Spurs feel like they should have beat the Lakers last year and they didn't.

Ballard: Shaquille O'Neal, Heat. He's mad, he's (relatively) slim and he's got something to prove. That something will come easier against the glorified power forwards who play center in the East

Burns: Shaq. He's energized by his new South Beach digs, and motivated to stick it in Kobe's face. As long as he stays healthy enough to play 70 games, he'll outpace Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.

Forrester: Shaq. Haven't we all had that lingering suspicion that the Big Aristotle had one more take-no-prisoners season left in him if he could just get motivated enough to get in shape and compete consistently? Thanks, Kobe.

Hollinger: Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves. Duncan will challenge, as always, and Tracy McGrady and Shaq will be in the picture, but Garnett is at another level right now.

McCallum: Duncan. After blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Lakers last spring and undergoing a frustrating Olympic experience last summer, Duncan will be nothing if not motivated. And he will get plenty of perimeter help from offseason acquisition Brent Barry.

Thomsen: Duncan. With Shaq gone, Duncan will emerge as the dominant player in the West.

What team will be this season's biggest surprise?

Aldridge: Chicago Bulls. I really like their draft; I think Ben Gordon and Luol Deng are going to both be good players. Kirk Hinrich is going to be a great point guard, and when you have a great point guard you can improve quickly. Getting rid of Jamal Crawford will help them with their identity and in terms of their rotation. But their success depends on Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, obviously, and I think one of those two guys will have a breakout year.

Ballard: Utah Jazz. It shouldn't be surprising that a Jerry Sloan-coached team is good. With new additions Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur, this Jazz team is a significant upgrade from the squad that almost made the playoffs last year. Could finish as a 4 or 5 seed in the West.

Burns: Philadelphia 76ers. Nobody's talking about them, but they've got a premier scorer in Allen Iverson; solid big men in Kenny Thomas, Brian Skinner and Sam Dalembert; and a defensive-minded coach in Jim O'Brien.

Hollinger: Washington Wizards. Easy division, lots of young talent and adding Antawn Jamison turns weakest position into huge strength.

Forrester: Cleveland Cavaliers: GM Jim Paxson made up for losing Carlos Boozer by bringing in a mix of youth and veterans that, in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, could have the Cavs in the mix to open a first-round playoff series at home.

McCallum: Phoenix Suns. They won only 29 games last season, but, with the additions of a real point guard (Steve Nash) and a real scorer (Quentin Richardson), they should make the playoffs.

Thomsen: 76ers. Philly will win the Atlantic by returning to a familiar formula -- tough defense and an Iverson returning to form offensively.

What team will be this season's biggest flop?

Aldridge: New Jersey Nets: This year will be very hard on them mentally. After you compete for a championship you get used to it. They're not going to compete for one this year, and I think for some of the guys who have been around for the run -- the Jason Kidds and the Richard Jeffersons -- it's going to be tough for them to slug it out day after day knowing that you don't really have a chance.

Ballard: Dallas Mavericks. They'll miss Nash a lot more than they think. Dirk Nowitzki needs a point guard who knows how to get him the ball; I don't buy that Jason Terry or Marquis Daniels is that guy.

Burns: Denver Nuggets. Kenyon Martin was a great pickup, but the combination of a lame-duck coach (Jeff Bzdelik) and a brittle center (Marcus Camby) could come back to haunt them in the ultra-competitive West.

Forrester: Boston Celtics. Danny Ainge is moving a lot of furniture around, but I question whether the pieces fit together. They're expecting an awful lot out of a surgically reconstructed Raef LaFrentz and an aging point guard -- Gary Payton -- who was reluctant to even show after he was traded by the Lakers.

Hollinger: Los Angeles Lakers. Losing Shaq hurts, but not having Karl Malone is the underrated blow that keeps them out of the playoffs.

McCallum: Memphis Grizzlies. I use the word "flop" reluctantly, but considering the improvement that will be shown by Denver, Phoenix and Utah in the West, the Grizzlies, who stunned the NBA world by winning 50 last season, won't reach that mark this year and will struggle to make it into the postseason.

Thomsen: New York Knicks: While team president Isiah Thomas has improved their talent quickly, he needs more time to improve their chemistry.

What player will have a breakout season?

Aldridge: Jarvis Hayes, Wizards. He's going to start and this kid can play. And now he'll get an opportunity to show what he can do.

Ballard: Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Warriors. Golden State's system is now built around him, he's smart and he's multitalented. Manu Ginobili will also have a good year (but he may already have broken out).

Burns: Jonathan Bender, Pacers. Injuries have limited his progress, but he's got All-Star talent. With his buddy Al Harrington now in Atlanta, he'll get a chance for bigger minutes and a bigger role for a top title contender.

Forrester: Drew Gooden, Cavaliers. With the one of the league's most preeminent big-man tutors -- Paul Silas -- as his coach and LeBron James to draw the attention of opposing defenders, Gooden will surpass Boozer's offensive production and equal his work on the boards.

Hollinger: Bender. With Harrington in Atlanta, it's his turn to shine ... half a decade after they drafted him.

McCallum: Quentin Richardson, Suns. He almost doubled his scoring average (to 17.2) last season, so it's not like he's been hiding. But it was a "soft" 17.2, an irrelevant 17.2, considering that he did it with the underachieving Clippers. He'll have a much noisier 19.2 with the rising Suns.

Thomsen: Tracy McGrady, Rockets. T-Mac will re-emerge as an MVP candidate by slashing to the basket and playing aggressive defense for Jeff Van Gundy.

Who will be this season's best rookie?

Aldridge: Emeka Okafor, Bobcats. He's ready to play now. He's already a fully formed basketball player already and he's certainly going to get a lot of playing time in Charlotte.

Emeka Okafor
With three years of college under his belt, Emeka Okafor should be s a step ahead of his fellow rookies this season.

Ballard: Luol Deng, Bulls. He already possessed an NBA game at Duke and will get plenty of PT in Chicago.

Burns: Dwight Howard, Magic. He might only be 18 years old, but the 6-foot-11 power forward looked extremely comfortable in the preseason. On a Magic team that can't help but improve, he'll get enough hype to beat out Deng and Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala for the honor.

Forrester: Okafor. When it's all said and done, he won't be the best rookie out of this year's class, but he's the most ready to compete on this level right now.

Hollinger: Andres Nocioni, Bulls. Not sure if he'll win Rookie of the Year, but between his defense and his ability to fill the boxscore, he's the first-year player who will perform at the highest level.

McCallum: Shaun Livingston, Clippers. It's the old story: To win Rookie of the Year, your team must need you to play. The Clips need this guy, who has been compared, as expected, to Magic Johnson because he's skinny (as the young Magic once was) and not overly athletic, but is a magician with the ball and a guy with a lot of personality. It's too early for those kinds of comparisons, but the kid can play.

Thomsen: Okafor. The national champ will be the most productive rookie because of his college experience and the opportunities he'll earn with Charlotte. Point guards Devin Harris of Dallas and Jameer Nelson of Orlando, though, will also emerge as contributors to winning teams.

What coach is on the hottest seat?

Aldridge: Rick Adelman, Kings: More than Don Nelson -- who'll just bump himself up to GM whenever he stops coaching -- Adelman may not be there at all if the Kings don't get through this year, and they won't get through this year. Losing Vlade Divac is going to hurt Sacramento in the locker room; he really kept it together, more so than people realize. And it just won't be Peja Stojakovic who's going to miss him.

Ballard: Adelman. Sacramento is ready to splinter and he's the one who has to keep them together.

Burns: Lenny Wilkens, Knicks. If things don't go well early, New York fans will turn up the heat. Isiah Thomas has too many big contracts to make any trades, so his only recourse will be to ax the coach.

  Lenny Wilkens; Stephon Marbury
With lofty aspirations in the front office, Lenny Wilkens won't get much leeway in New York if the Knicks should start slowly.

Forrester: Wilkens. Shouldn't he have the term "caretaker" in front of his name? It's surprising he's lasted this long. He may be a better tutor for Stephon Marbury than Don Chaney was, but Wilkens has been coaching on fumes since he left Cleveland. And with Thomas itching to win now, the slow start the Knicks may endure as they meld Jamal Crawford and Marbury may doom the Hall of Famer.

Hollinger: Jeff Bzdelik, Nuggets. Not only is he on a lame-duck contract, but the Nuggets have already hired his potential replacement, Michael Cooper.

McCallum: I could be obvious and say Don Nelson because some say he doesn't get along with Dallas owner Mark Cuban. Or even more obvious and say Mike Dunleavy because Clippers coaches are always eminently fireable. But I'm going to say Wilkens because expectations in New York are high (and not necessarily realistic) and because Thomas is impatient to win now.

Thomsen: Bzdelik. He's maxed out his talent in Denver the last two seasons, but for the second straight year hasn't received a contract extension.

What controversy do you foresee brewing over the course of the season?

Aldridge: The collective bargaining agreement is going to be a major issue because you have this lockout looming like a sword of Damocles over everybody. I think there's a chance an agreement will get done, but it's still going to be a major problem. There are some owners who want even more concessions and I think the players are going to be reluctant to give much more than they did last time.

Ballard: The possibility of a strike/lockout in the future. Players are already talking about it.

Burns: The Chris Webber-Peja Stojakovic feud. It won't be as public or ugly as Shaq-Kobe, but their disharmony could affect the Kings. Eventually, Stojakovic could be dealt (perhaps to the Pacers for Ron Artest?) in a trade that tilts the balance of power like the Rasheed Wallace deal for the Pistons a year ago.

Forrester: When the season being played is potentially the last one that will be played for a while, that's a cloud that will hang until a new CBA is signed. The league is savvy enough to avoid hockey's fate, but it will come down to the wire.

Hollinger: Ever-plummeting scores as the tweaks the NBA gave to the rules accomplish little, culminating in 43-38 contest between Spurs and Pacers in Finals.

McCallum: I see a real carryover (hangover might be a better word) from the debacle in Athens. There will be endless discussions about weak fundamentals, shoddy team play and a game that has seriously devolved since the 1980s. And it won't be just talk: With so many rookies and young free agents playing prominent roles, the pro game will, indeed, look like a bronze-medal product. Let's hope some good will come out of the ensuing discussions.

Thomsen: The negotiations with the union for a collective bargaining agreement -- and the potential of a work stoppage next season -- will be the cloud hovering over this season.

Who is the biggest name that will be traded this year?

Aldridge: Ray Allen, SuperSonics. Realistically, they are not a contender and I don't see the Sonics putting a lot more money into him knowing that. His contract is up after this year, and they've been trying to get an extension done with him for a while and it hasn't happened.

Ballard: Chris Webber, Kings. Or at least they should trade him and build around Peja, Mike Bibby and Brad Miller.

Burns: Jason Kidd, Nets. He's unhappy with New Jersey's rebuilding project, and there are teams (Dallas?, Portland?) that would like to have his services badly enough to take a chance on his big contract and surgically-repaired knee.

Forrester: Kidd. He's all but demanded a trade, which will probably come once he proves he's healthy and worth trading for. Expect to see him on the floor for the Nets before the trading deadline and playing elsewhere after.

Hollinger: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Trail Blazers. I don't think the other "trade-me" guys (Vince Carter, Peja, Baron Davis) will get moved, but Portland's showcasing Shareef and he has an expiring contract.

McCallum: Kidd. He wants out, and new owner Bruce Ratner wants to cut costs. At $14.7 million this season, J-Kidd is a big cost, particularly if he's disenchanted.

Thomsen: Carter and Davis may both be traded -- perhaps for each other.

Finally, what teams will be in the NBA's Final Four?

Aldridge: East: Detroit and Miami. West: San Antonio and Minnesota.

Ballard: East: Miami and Indiana. West: San Antonio and Minnesota.

Burns: East: Detroit and Indiana. West: San Antonio and Minnesota.

Forrester: East: Detroit and Indiana. West: San Antonio and Houston.

Hollinger: East: Indiana over Detroit, because Jamaal Tinsley won't get hurt this time. West: San Antonio over Dallas -- Barry gives the Spurs a new alternative when Tony Parker starts playing crazy.

McCallum: I hate to be obvious and unoriginal, but I like Detroit and Indiana in the East and San Antonio and Minnesota in the West.

Thomsen: East: Detroit and Miami. West: San Antonio and Minnesota.

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