Writers' predictions for 2008-09
Three of six writers picked the Lakers to win the title; only one went with Boston
LeBron was a near-unanimous choice to win his first MVP; Kobe got one vote
The Clippers were cited for their surprise potential, the Nuggets as a possible flop
SI.com NBA writers Ian Thomsen, Marty Burns, Jack McCallum, Chris Mannix, Steve Aschburner and Paul Forrester forecast the 2008-09 season.
1. Who will win the conference finals?
Thomsen: East -- Celtics over Cavaliers. West -- Spurs over Lakers.
Burns: East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Spurs over Rockets.
McCallum: East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Hornets over Lakers.
Mannix: East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Lakers over Hornets.
Aschburner: East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Lakers over Hornets.
Forrester: East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Lakers over Hornets.
2. Who will win the NBA Finals?
Thomsen: Spurs over Celtics. These are the league's two best teams with potentially six Hall of Famers between them. It's a coin flip who wins Game 7. Pick the Spurs because it's their turn.
Burns: Celtics over Spurs. The Celtics still have the Big Three, but it will be their team defense and the continued development of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins that keep them atop the East. Boston won't win 66 games again, but it will still rack up the NBA's best record against the weaker East competition. With home-court advantage to help them along, the Celtics will hold off the Spurs for the franchise's first back-to-back titles since 1968 and '69.
McCallum: Hornets over Celtics. The Celtics can tell you all about making a quantum leap in one year. But remember that the Hornets' leap would not be so quantum -- they won 56 games last season and took the defending champion Spurs to seven games in the Western semifinals. In the Finals, Chris Paul will play like the MVP candidate he'll be, Tyson Chandler's defense will (almost) neutralize Kevin Garnett, David West will (almost) neutralize Paul Pierce and two-time champion James Posey will supply the winning edge. And remember that coach Byron Scott has been to the Finals as both player and coach.
Mannix: Lakers over Celtics. The Lakers lacked toughness when they lost to Boston last season, but returning center Andrew Bynum has it in spades. The deepest Lakers team in years ends the Celtics' brief reign at the top.
Aschburner: Lakers over Cavs. The Lakers will get back to the Finals thanks to their combination of depth and experience and will only briefly wonder why their old foes, the Celtics, aren't there again (think injury to one of the three key guys). The Cavs, as much on LeBron's sheer force of will as any offseason or trade-deadline maneuvering, will represent the East just fine, thank you, with James -- while facing more wrinkles, defensively, than a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon -- going head-to-head, endorsement deals-to-Nielsen ratings with Kobe. The Lakers' front line, in the end, will account for the difference.
Forrester: Lakers over Cavs. LeBron bests Kobe in their head-to-head matchup, and Cleveland doesn't get swept like it did two years ago by San Antonio, but the Lakers' frontcourt proves to be too much for the Cavs' aging big men.
3. Who will be the regular-season MVP?
Thomsen: Kobe. The world's top player holds off a challenge from LeBron. His Lakers will be the No. 1 seed entering the playoffs (though in the postseason his supporting cast will be exposed by the star power of San Antonio's Big Three).
Burns: LeBron. At age 23, in his sixth season, James is entering his prime. He will put up his usual monster numbers across the board while leading the Cavs near the top of the East. With Kobe having won it last year and Chris Paul still just in his fourth season, LeBron will be the media's choice this time around.
McCallum: LeBron. It took a long time for voters to finally fall in love with Kobe, so I can't see a repeat happening. James' inspired and mature play with the U.S. Olympic team showed he is ready to make the step, and the Cavs' addition of playmaking guard Mo Williams will help him.
Mannix: LeBron. Perhaps a couple of years overdue, James earns the award with an Oscar Robertson-esque stat line and by keeping the Cavs fighting for the top spot in the East all season.
Aschburner: LeBron. It's possible that Bryant could repeat or Tim Duncan could reassert himself as the Spurs have a big season. But James has been awfully good at a see-the-goal, get-the-goal approach to life on and off the court, and the MVP is a pretty big one still absent from his portfolio.
Forrester: LeBron. The leadership he showed with Team USA will carry over as he helps keep the Cavs more focused than they were last season. That will convince all those writers who haven't figured it out yet that James is the game's best player.
4. Who will be the top rookie?
Burns: Derrick Rose, Bulls: I'm tempted to go with Beasley since he will put up big scoring and rebounding numbers. But Rose showed late in the preseason why he was the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-3 point guard is incredibly fast, with an ability to explode to the basket and finish at the rim, while also setting up teammates. His leadership of the Bulls will set him apart from Beasley, Oden and others.
McCallum: Rose. Yes, we hear that Vinny Del Negro intends to take it slow with the Memphis product, who just turned 20. But a Rose by any other name is still the class of his class, and he will get the chance to show it. Minnesota's Kevin Love will give him a run for his money.
Mannix: Beasley. Kevin Durant was the most NBA-ready rookie last season. Beasley has that distinction this year. He will face stiff competition from Oden.
Aschburner: O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies. The smart pick is Oden, who is eligible and way capable. Beasley would be my choice except for the touches he'll yield to Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion. Rose is going to have his hands full overseeing the other Bulls. Mayo, meanwhile, is explosive and freed from much in the way of team expectations, so he's my guess as long as voters focus on his stats and not on the Grizzlies' record.
Forrester: Oden. Last year's No. 1 pick won't wow offensively, but he will be a sight on defense, blocking shots, rebounding and making drives into the paint a pain.
5. What team will be the biggest surprise?
Thomsen: Trail Blazers. One of the league's youngest rotations will outplay more experienced teams down the stretch thanks to the discipline of coach Nate McMilllan and sage leadership of Brandon Roy. Also, contrary to speculation, Dallas and Detroit won't be washed up and will stay stubbornly in contention.
Burns: Clippers. Despite the loss of Elton Brand, the Clippers still have a lot of the pieces to succeed in the NBA: an elite point guard (Baron Davis), a true 7-foot center (Chris Kaman), a defensive anchor (Marcus Camby), a rising young star (Al Thornton), a bevy of veteran scorers (Cuttino Mobley, Ricky Davis, Tim Thomas) and a proven coach with authority over personnel decisions (Mike Dunleavy). If Baron Davis stays healthy and Dunleavy can manage the egos, the Clippers will win a lot of games.
McCallum: 76ers. They're deep, they're athletic and now they have Brand. OK, maybe it's not a surprise that they'll be pretty good. But after making the playoffs last year as the seventh seed, I see them battling Orlando and Detroit for those first-round home-court-advantage spots behind Boston and Cleveland.
Mannix: Bucks. New general manager John Hammond has done a masterful job reshaping a mediocre roster in just one offseason. With Richard Jefferson on board to ease Michael Redd's scoring load, and pass-first point guard Luke Ridnour stepping in for Mo Williams, the Bucks will contend for a playoff spot.
Aschburner: Clippers. The sportswriting boneyard is full of people who have, at one time or another, predicted breakthroughs for this franchise. Projecting team success on any roster that includes Ricky Davis always is risky. But with Baron Davis pushed to prove his move south was about hoops more than Hollywood, and with Camby and Kaman up front, these guys will have a spot in the playoffs.
Forrester: Clippers. Not just because of Baron Davis' arrival or the fact that they parted with a talented, but generally disgruntled, Corey Maggette. This has a lot to do with the trade for one of the NBA's most versatile big men in Camby, whose presence alone should revitalize what was one of the league's worst defenses last season.