Guide to the 2010-11 season (cont.)
MVP. The favorite is likely to be Durant, in part because of his phenomenal growth over the last year, and in part because people believe LeBron's numbers will shrink in Miami. My feeling is that James' stats won't reduce so much as they'll be reordered -- fewer points but more assists and rebounds as he seeks triple-doubles. Miami is going to lead the league in victories and James is going to have a highly focused season culminating in a third straight MVP award. But will he go back to Akron for the ceremony?
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR. John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins may win it, but I think it will go to Clippers forward Blake Griffin. The year he spent around his team last season leaves him better prepared than any other rookie.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR. This award doesn't exist anymore, but maybe it should be reinstated. Yao Ming, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu are trying to recover their status -- all for different reasons.
CARMELO ANTHONY. Having made it clear that he won't re-sign with Denver, Anthony has left the Nuggets with no choice but to move him. Many in the league believe the Nuggets' options will dwindle the longer they wait, that they'll be able to strike a better deal sooner than later.
Commissioner David Stern's goal of cutting player salaries by one-third in the next collective bargaining agreement serves to further complicate Anthony's future. He wants to be traded to a team of his choosing -- New York is the most obvious landing spot -- and then sign a max three-year, $65-million extension before the current CBA expires at the end of this season. But will he see all of that money in the next CBA, or will Stern and the owners seek to slash all of the current contracts by one-third to meet their budget goals? (The NHL owners set the precedent by instantly cutting player salaries by 24 percent after their most recent lockout.)
The start of the season will affect this drama. The team's performance as well as Anthony's mood and the fans' reaction will deliver urgency to the trade talks. If things aren't going well around Anthony, the Nuggets will find themselves in a greater hurry to get it over with and move him.
GILBERT ARENAS. He'll spend the first half of the season auditioning for a trade. As much as the Wizards need to rebuild around Wall, they'll also want to feature Arenas in order to move him and his expensive contract at the deadline. But he's going to have to return to his long-ago All-Star level to create interest.
I made picks for the coming season in this week's Sports Illustrated, but I wasn't able to explain them.
So, starting with the East:
10. New Jersey
11. New York
In the conference finals, Miami's younger legs will get the best of Boston in a seven-game series that will be as tight and competitive as the NBA Finals last June. The home-court advantage will turn out to be crucial for the Heat.
There are six strong teams in the East, and all of the others may wind up with losing records. The Bucks have improved, but the Hawks kept their roster together and should retain home-court advantage. The Bulls will need more perimeter shooting to move past Milwaukee and Atlanta.
Among the bottom nine teams, the Pistons have the most talent and -- health permitting -- I expect Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince (if he isn't traded) to lead them back to the playoffs at No. 7. The Raptors are lacking in star power and will finish last, though they won't be awful; look for them to win at least 20 games on nights when the ball is moving and the threes are dropping.
The teams in between Toronto and Detroit are flawed and hard to separate. The Bobcats have lost talent, leaving them weaker at point guard and center, but they still have Larry Brown, Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. The 76ers must develop Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner while rejuvenating Elton Brand. The Wizards are strong in the backcourt but skimpy up front. The Pacers will be competitive but are mainly waiting for cap space to arrive next summer. And whether the Cavs turn out to be very bad or surprisingly resilient, they'll still be defined by LeBron's absence.
I picked the Nets to nose ahead of the Knicks on a hunch. The Knicks are improved but they're going to miss David Lee's rebounding and playmaking, though Amar'e Stoudemire promises to score a few more points per game than Lee did. The Nets lost 70 games last season but they'll be defined by their newfound structure under coach Avery Johnson, who will have them playing better defense as the season wears on, and that defense will lead to more organized offense.
I figure both New York and New Jersey to have win totals in the mid-30s. My biggest concern with the Knicks involves their leadership. Connect the dots with me here: After two years of buildup, they weren't in the running for the top three free agents last summer, which could not have pleased owner James Dolan as he watched them all sign with Miami; and lately, there have been published reports out of New York that Dolan won't allow team president Donnie Walsh to hire Chris Mullin. Is everyone on the same page within that franchise? Is more turmoil on the way? The Nets had their own devastating issues last year but now they have a front-office team in place around Johnson and GM Billy King.
The bottom of the East is so tightly bunched that it's almost impossible to forecast. The Knicks may finish ahead of the Nets, but not by much. The certainty is that the Knicks won't be able to move up in a big way until they resolve whether to put their faith in Walsh.
As for the West:
2. Oklahoma City
3. San Antonio
9. New Orleans
13. Golden State
Pau Gasol is so good that he can win games for the Lakers while Bryant is dealing with his sore knee. The Thunder will move up as their young players continue to improve, but their lack of perimeter shooting around Durant will hurt them in the playoffs. I'm guessing the Spurs will knock them off in the second round before losing to the Lakers in the conference finals.
San Antonio and Dallas will be the main contenders to reach the Finals if injury should wreck the Lakers.
The bottom four playoff teams all have major issues. Portland and Utah could be second-half teams, as the Blazers regain their injured centers and Al Jefferson picks up the Jazz system and discipline. The Suns are weaker without Stoudemire, but they remain in the playoffs because of Steve Nash (though it may be asking too much of him to guide this thin team). I'm also figuring that Yao will recover from reconstructive foot surgery to lead the Rockets back to the playoffs.
The Hornets, Clippers, Nuggets and Grizzlies are capable of edging themselves into the postseason in their crowded conference. But New Orleans lacks depth, the Clippers always have issues, the Nuggets now have more issues than the Clippers, and the Grizzlies can't expect to make another big leap without improving their roster. The bottom three -- the Warriors, Kings and Wolves -- have talent but the West is too strong to enable them to move up.
In the end, I'm picking the Lakers over Miami.