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Posted: Thursday December 22, 2011 12:47PM ; Updated: Thursday December 29, 2011 11:45AM

2011-12 NBA season predictions

Story Highlights

The Heat and Thunder were unanimously selected to win their conferences

Heat are favored to win it all, Thunder forward Kevin Durant predicted to win MVP

Stakes are raised for Vinny Del Negro; Dwight Howard bound to be traded

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SI.com's NBA writers give their predictions for the 2011-12 season.

1. Conference finals

IAN THOMSEN: East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Lakers.

LEE JENKINS: East -- Heat over Celtics. West -- Thunder over Mavericks.

SAM AMICK: East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Lakers.

ZACH LOWE: East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Mavericks.

BRITT ROBSON: East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Mavericks.

CHRIS MANNIX: East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Lakers.

PAUL FORRESTER: East -- Heat over Bulls. West -- Thunder over Mavericks.

2. NBA champions

THOMSEN: Heat. Miami's three stars will play more cohesively, and the distress of last year will toughen LeBron James and Chris Bosh and make them more dangerous than ever. At both ends of the floor, Miami will be the league's best.

JENKINS: Heat. With other contenders in flux, the Heat suddenly look steady. Free of the relentless scrutiny that followed them early last year, they will start quickly, and the experience they gained in last season's Finals will help them edge the Thunder at the end.

AMICK: Heat. We all seem to forget they were only two games away from winning it all last postseason. This time, the season's worth of chemistry, coupled with the addition of Shane Battier, will make the difference.

LOWE: Heat. The Heat are going to be the favorites as long as the James/Dwyane Wade/Bosh trio is healthy. Their case is only stronger now that the Mavericks are without Tyson Chandler, the Lakers are in a state of semi-chaos, the Magic have essentially stood pat and the Celtics and Spurs look aged. The Bulls could push the Heat, as they did last season in a very competitive five-game conference finals, and the Thunder will be beasts. But Miami has the most talent, and even if Battier remains its only meaningful upgrade, that acquisition plus better health for the supporting cast might be enough.

ROBSON: Thunder. LeBron won't escape the pressure cooker until he wins a title, and after his mysterious no-shows at crucial points in the past few postseasons, I lack the faith that he can deliver. Plus, if it comes down to these two teams, OKC matches up very well.

MANNIX: Thunder. A slimmed-down Kendrick Perkins provides Oklahoma City with a rugged low-post defender to match up with past Thunder tormenter Pau Gasol in the West finals. An improved Russell Westbrook will rebound from a heavily scrutinized 2011 postseason and the Westbrook/Kevin Durant/James Harden trio will send Miami home without a title for the second straight season.

FORRESTER: Heat. With all of the roster shuffling going on around the league, the Heat's salary-cap restrictions have kept their roster relatively stable. Though last season didn't produce one of the six-plus titles LeBron predicted from the start, it did give the Big Three (and especially the Big Two of James and Wade) a chance to figure out how to play together. And given the talent on Miami's roster, good chemistry should be worth at least another two more wins in the Finals than the Heat grabbed last June.

3. Regular-season MVP

THOMSEN: LeBron James. I picked him to win this last year, and it's a more certain choice this time because he has a much better understanding of how to win with this Miami team. And he has all the skills -- including a more aggressive post-up game -- to make it happen.

JENKINS: Kevin Durant. He was the MVP of the lockout, dominating the summer street-ball circuit, and spent enough time in gyms to improve his post-up game. He will be the scoring king for the best team in the West.

AMICK: Kevin Durant. The two-time scoring champion will find a way to best the likes of reigning MVP Derrick Rose, James and Dwight Howard to earn his first trophy. And, no, the Westbrook dynamic that sparked so much controversy in last season's playoffs will not get in Durant's way.

LOWE: Kevin Durant. I don't see a Rose repeat, and my choice from last season, Howard, might switch teams at some point, complicating his candidacy. Chris Paul will make the Clippers into a winning team, but he'll split the Clippers-based MVP talk with Blake Griffin. LeBron is the best player in the league, but playing with Wade and Bosh will always make it hard for him to win this award in the eyes of many voters. So let's go with Durant, one year after everyone thought he'd win it. He, too, has an All-Star teammate in Westbrook, but Durant is the top-dog scorer and the Thunder are better positioned than any team to handle the compressed schedule.

ROBSON: Blake Griffin. Another year's experience and the addition of Paul will allow Griffin to post incredible stats; meanwhile, his team should dramatically improve, and he already has the marketing momentum of his "wow" factor. Runners-up: Durant, Dirk Nowitzki.

MANNIX: LeBron James. Bad PR aside, James quietly put together another impressive season (26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists per game) in 2010-11. It was James' clutch shooting and shutdown defense on Rose that pushed Miami to an improbable (well, in December anyway) Finals appearance. Expect more of the same from a looser, more comfortable James this season.

FORRESTER: Kevin Durant. The compressed schedule likely means veteran teams such as the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks will favor rest over domination in the regular season. That will open the door for the Thunder's young legs to sprint atop the West, and MVP voters love a winner -- especially one with gaudy stats.

4. Rookie of the Year

THOMSEN: Kyrie Irving. No other rookie will have a better opportunity to put up big numbers than the Cavs' point guard, who, for the time being, is the face of the franchise.

JENKINS: Ricky Rubio. He won't score a lot and he will struggle at times to defend, but he will already be one of the best passers in the league. Get ready for some Rajon Rondo-esque stat lines as Rubio makes a similar impact in Minnesota.

AMICK: Derrick Williams. The former Arizona star has the sort of game that translates immediately, and he'll show all season long why he could have -- perhaps, should have -- been the No. 1 pick instead of going No. 2 to Minnesota. New coach Rick Adelman isn't known for relying on young players, but Williams will convince him to make an exception on the upstart Timberwolves.

LOWE: Kyrie Irving. This award more than any other is about minutes, and with Baron Davis gone, we can be pretty confident that Irving, the top pick of the draft, is going to pile up some nice-looking numbers on a bad team. Other rookies stand to get serious playing time, including Kemba Walker in Charlotte, Williams in Minnesota, Iman Shumpert in New York and as many as a dozen others. But Irving is the safe choice, and the safe choice is usually right in the end.

ROBSON: Kyrie Irving. Irving and Williams both looked NBA-ready in their first preseason games, and Irving will get more minutes. He'll also have a better rookie year than John Wall a season ago. Sleepers: Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Rubio and Nikola Vucevic.

MANNIX: Kyrie Irving. The Cavs' decision to waive Davis cleared the way for Irving to receive big minutes. Coach Byron Scott has an excellent track record with point guards (Jason Kidd, Paul) and will give Irving a long leash to make mistakes. A pair of Timberwolves (Williams, Rubio) will push him, but if Irving stays healthy, it's his award to lose.

FORRESTER: Kyrie Irving. Assists will be hard to come by on a team this limited, but Irving showed in his limited time at Duke that he's a capable scorer driving the lane or stepping behind the three-point arc. Scott has a good track record in understanding what makes a great point guard tick and helping him flourish, and that bodes well for a player who professed his desire to be tutored by now-former Cav Davis and to earn his way into the starting lineup. And if that doesn't make the difference, the Cavs' lack of talent will still get Irving the playing time and stats he'll need to sway voters for the award.

5. Biggest surprise

THOMSEN: Lakers. It's been too easy to write them off after last season's playoffs and the departures of Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom. But this remains a highly skilled team, and coach Mike Brown's new energy will renew them.

JENKINS: Timberwolves. They lost a ton of close games to top teams last season. They won't make the playoffs, but they will be respectable under Adelman, who is raising the defensive intensity and highlighting the Rubio-Kevin Love connection.

AMICK: Celtics. When word leaked that general manager Danny Ainge was looking to swap Rondo for Paul, the widely held assumption was that the Celtics' incumbent floor general would go into a funk as a result. The opposite will prove to be true, with Rondo dominating and Boston's Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen making one more push in the East before the band is broken up (Garnett and Allen are free agents next summer).

LOWE: Nuggets. People sort of wrote off the Nuggets when Nene entered free agency and half the team went to China. But with Nene and guard Arron Afflalo both re-signed, the foundation of a team that tore through the league last season is still here. The Nuggets nearly led the league in both points scored and allowed per possession after the Carmelo Anthony trade last February, and if Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari continue their upward trajectory, this should be a playoff team -- and a dangerous one.

ROBSON: Nuggets. Not many people expect Denver to be a top five or six team, but that lineup is deep, well-blended and attuned to coach George Karl's preferred "get after it" style. I also like the 76ers to battle for home-court advantage in the first round. And the Kings have a load of talent and will take a big step forward if a pecking order can be established and DeMarcus Cousins grows up.

MANNIX: Pacers. Indiana addressed its need at power forward in the offseason by signing two-time All-Star David West. A West-Roy Hibbert combination will be formidable, as will third-year point guard Darren Collison, who last season proved he can be a full-time starter. If second-year swingman Paul George can settle into the starting shooting guard role, the Pacers could fight their way into the top five in the conference.

FORRESTER: Pacers. With Paul now in L.A., it would be a surprise if the Clippers didn't challenge for a top-four seed. Quietly, though, the Pacers have built up a team that could make more than a token appearance in the postseason. West is an offensive option on his own, and his mid-range game will create more space for Hibbert to continue his improvement down low. George showed flashes of explosiveness as a rookie and, after growing two inches to 6-foot 10 in the offseason, he figures to be an unsightly matchup for opponents. Throw in the steady production of Danny Granger (four straight seasons averaging at least 19 points and five rebounds per game), and Indiana is likely to be in the mix to host a playoff series in Round 1.

 
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