Writers' predictions for 2009-10
Writers are split on Celtics, Cavs, Lakers and Spurs as possible NBA champions
LeBron James was a unanimous choice to win his second straight MVP honor
Wizards expected to rebound this season while Grizzlies will likely struggle again
SI.com's Ian Thomsen, Chris Ballard, Chris Mannix, Jack McCallum and Arash Markazi forecast the 2009-10 season.
1. Who will win the conference finals?
Thomsen: East -- Celtics over Cavaliers. West -- Lakers over Spurs.
Ballard: East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Lakers over Spurs.
Mannix: East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Spurs over Lakers.
McCallum: East -- Cavs over Celtics. West -- Spurs over Lakers.
Markazi: East -- Celtics over Cavs. West -- Lakers over Spurs.
2. Who will win the NBA Finals?
Ballard: Cavs over Lakers. It's the season of LeBron. Shaq will do just enough on the court -- and perhaps just as important, deflect some of the media attention off it -- to put the Cavs over the top, and with Anthony Parker they now have another spot-up shooter to go with Mo Williams. It'll be a fun series: Shaq tweeting insults about L.A., Ron Artest trying to sumo wrestle James on D and Kobe wondering where, oh where Trevor Ariza is.
Mannix: Celtics over Spurs. It won't be easy, as second-seeded Boston will have to go through Orlando in the second round and Cleveland in the conference finals. But a healthy superstar (Garnett), a revamped bench (Wallace, Marquis Daniels) and a renewed hunger will power the Celtics to their second title in three years.
McCallum: Spurs over Cavs. Wait a minute, isn't that San Antonio franchise ancient history? Didn't it fail to get beyond the first round last year, and didn't the Spurs fail to land the one offseason piece (screwy as he might be) they wanted when Rasheed Wallace went to the Celtics? And isn't it just LeBron's time? Well, maybe. But doesn't a rotation of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Roger Mason, along with new acquisitions Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and rookie DeJuan Blair sound pretty solid? It won't be a replay of the 2007 championship series when the not-ready-for-prime-time Cavs were swept by the formidable San Antonio defense. But I see the Spurs in seven.
Markazi: Lakers over Celtics. Kobe told one of the more bizarre Artest stories last year. Bryant said that after the Lakers lost Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals in Boston, he was alone in the shower when Artest, who had apparently talked his way into the Lakers' locker room, walked up to him and said, "I want to come help you. If I can, I'm going to find a way to come to L.A. and give you the help you need to win a title." (You can just imagine Kobe saying, "Um, yeah, let me just dry off and we can talk.") Well, it may have taken longer than both would have liked, but Artest is finally a Laker and Bryant finally has his enforcer. The Lakers were exposed as a soft team by the Celtics in their last Finals meeting, but two years later, the Lakers, with the toughness of Artest and a healthy Andrew Bynum, will return the favor.
3. Who will be the regular-season MVP?
Thomsen: LeBron James. Not only will he continue to put up ridiculous numbers, but he'll also take responsibility for successfully integrating Shaq into the offense.
Ballard: James. Sure, it's a boring pick, but barring injury James should rack up a few of these in a row, a la Larry Bird in the 1980s. Kobe and Dwight Howard will also be in the mix. A rejuvenated Allen Iverson won't.
Mannix: James. Kobe will be Kobe and a healthy Chris Paul will emerge as a dark horse late in the year, but from here on out the MVP award is LeBron's to lose. James' scoring might dip with Shaq in the lineup, but his assists will rise and the Cavs will make a run at a 70-win season.
McCallum: James. There is no doubt that Kobe, having surrendered the award last season to the Cavs' star, will be looking to reclaim it in 2010, and a motivated Kobe is a dangerous Kobe. But the younger LeBron (24 to Kobe's 31) is at the top of the game, and having O'Neal in the middle can only help his quest.
Markazi: James. He may be in the midst of becoming the first player to win the award four seasons in a row as he enters the prime of his career.
4. Who will be the top rookie?
Ballard: Tyreke Evans. Of course, it helps that he's on a Kings team where he'll be the second scoring option, but I love the way this guy plays. He's the rare guard with the speed and strength to do straight-line drives -- think Corey Maggette but more fluid. He'll get competition from Griffin (even with the injury) and Curry, who should put up big numbers.
Mannix: Griffin. Big, explosive and polished beyond his years, the Clippers' Griffin should eventually slide past a relatively weak rookie class. Curry will be a strong candidate, too.
McCallum: Evans. No sooner had the ink dried on my Griffin-in-a-landslide prediction when news came down about the knee injury that will keep him out for at least six weeks ... and that's optimistic. So I'm going with the Kings' Evans, who looked sharp in spots in the preseason and, most importantly, he'll get big minutes on a really bad team.
Markazi: Griffin. Yes, I know he's going to miss several weeks. Yes, I know the Clippers are cursed. But I still think Griffin will win the award. The preseason doesn't count for much, but Griffin showed glimpses of what could be a special season for him once he gets healthy. Evans will score more points and Curry will dish out more assists, but Griffin will be the best all-around rookie and the only one of the top candidates to lead his team to the playoffs.
5. What team will be the biggest surprise?
Thomsen: The Wizards. The 63-loss Wizards of last year will approach 50 wins this season thanks to a big year from Gilbert Arenas and his healthy, hungry teammates.
Ballard: Wizards. Flip Saunders + healthy Arenas + Caron Butler & Antawn Jamison = 50 wins. The Mavs will also be better than people expect, as Jason Kidd is going to make Shawn Marion look five years younger.
Mannix: Hornets. The high expectations from last year are gone, replaced by surprisingly modest ones. But last year's 49-win team will get a boost from new center Emeka Okafor and a retooled second unit featuring rookie Darren Collison and new sixth man Peja Stojakovic. The result: a place behind only the Lakers and Spurs in the West.
McCallum: Jazz. One of these years this team has to escape a serious injury epidemic, doesn't it? (Of course, Utah isn't off to a good start, with C.J. Miles and Kyle Korver already on the shelf.) And except for the Lakers and Spurs, I still think a rotation of Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko, Ronnie Brewer, Paul Millsap, Miles and Korver is as good as any in the West, including the rising Trail Blazers.
Markazi: Clippers. The Staples Center's "other team" will squeak into the playoffs and finally give L.A. fans their long-awaited "Hallway Series" with the Lakers. Not only is Baron Davis slimmer and more focused, but the combination of Eric Gordon's development as a playmaker and the relentless toughness Griffin will add when he returns will finally give Clippers fans a team worth watching after the All-Star break.
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