Early line on 2012 title favorites
Oddsmakers have installed the Heat as the favorites to win the '12 championship
The Bulls should improve to give Miami a stiffer playoff challenge in the East
The up-and-coming Thunder might actually be the team to beat next season
It's never too soon to start thinking about next season (assuming there is one, of course), and the online gambling site Bodog has the early lines on the favorites. Miami (5-to-2) leads the field, while Toronto (150-1) is the longest of the long shots. Here's a look at the top six contenders on the board and our view of their chances of winning the championship in 2012, with the caveat that the effect of the new collective bargaining agreement on roster decisions is obviously a huge unknown.
Bodog odds: 5-2
SI.com odds: 7-1
Why they will win: It's easy to assume they will be even better next season after finishing two wins short of the title in the first year of the Big Three. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh are in their primes, and president Pat Riley will likely try to persuade a veteran free agent or two to sign a cheap deal for a chance to win a ring. A more assertive Mario Chalmers will stabilize the point guard position, coach Erik Spoelstra will grow from the hard lessons he learned going up against Dallas' Rick Carlisle, and a healthy Mike Miller (41 regular-season games in 2010-11) and Udonis Haslem (13) will strengthen the bench.
Why they won't: The Heat will breeze through the regular season and the early rounds of the playoffs. But unless James and Wade develop better chemistry, the Heat will still be susceptible to fourth-quarter collapses against the league's best teams, just as they were against the Mavericks in the Finals. Getting out of the Eastern Conference could be more difficult, too, if Chicago continues its progression.
Bodog odds: 11-2
SI.com odds: 8-1
Why they will win: The Lakers are still loaded. The core of the back-to-back championship team is intact and motivated after being swept by Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals. New coach Mike Brown will shore up the defense, which was solid in the regular season but folded against the Mavericks. At 24, Andrew Bynum could be poised to increase his offensive role, allowing the soon-to-be 33-year-old Kobe Bryant to ease his body through the regular season.
Why they won't: That loaded core is aging. An often-echoed refrain is that after five years in Cleveland of handing the ball off to LeBron and ordering a collection of role players to play off him, Brown won't know what to do with three players (Kobe, Bynum and Pau Gasol) who both need and want the ball. Bynum's hints that he wants more touches next season -- or else -- and the uneasy alliance of Bryant and Gasol represent instability. Derek Fisher's defense continued to deteriorate last season, a major problem in a league full of elite point guards.
Bodog odds: 6-1
SI.com odds: 7-1
Why they will win: There's no fast-forward button for maturity, and the Bulls and their rookie coach, Tom Thibodeau, looked overwhelmed by the magnitude of the conference finals. Next time, they will be more comfortable in the moment. Chicago could use a shooting guard (Michael Redd is lurking), but it also will benefit from the next phase of development of MVP Derrick Rose (yes, he can still get better) and four-year center Joakim Noah, who figures to keep adding to his versatile game.
Why they won't: And the second option is ... who? Carlos Boozer was supposed to fill that role. And he did -- in the regular season. But Boozer's production plummeted in the postseason as teams played him tight and forced the undersized (a generously listed 6-foot-9) power forward into difficult shots. Like LeBron in Cleveland, Rose can't win a significant series by himself. He needs help that Boozer just isn't equipped to provide.
Bodog odds: 8-1
SI.com odds: 5-1
Why they will win: Every core player can improve. Kevin Durant will be better at creating space against a physical defense and playing through contact. Russell Westbrook will continue to mature as a playmaker. Kendrick Perkins will come back 20 pounds lighter with healthy knees that make him a lot more mobile. James Harden's Manu Ginobili-like game will put him in the hunt for an All-Star berth. With a full season as a power forward, Serge Ibaka will be a better one-on-one defender. This isn't guesswork: Oklahoma City's rise has been rapid, and having the league's third-youngest roster coupled with the return of its top eight players means this conference finalist will get better.
Whey they won't: The Durant-Westbrook marriage has been compared to the ill-fated pairing of Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury in Minnesota. Off the floor, Westbrook and Durant are close. But any on-court chemistry issues could derail this team's seemingly inevitable rise to the top.
Bodog odds: 10-1
SI.com odds: 12-1
Why they will win: Uh, they're the champs? The Mavericks are an aging team -- how many times has Dirk Nowitzki called 38-year-old Jason Kidd a fossil now? -- but they still have enough left in the tank to defend their title. They are going to have to hand Tyson Chandler a lucrative contract one year after signing fellow center Brendan Haywood to a deal that guaranteed him $42 million over five years. Tough decisions need to be made on other free agents, including Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson. But if whole, this Mavericks team is strong and plays with the kind of chemistry that will make it tough for any club to beat it four times in a seven-game series.
Why they won't: In a weak free-agent class, Chandler is going to be a hot commodity. If the Mavericks were to lose him, they have no real replacement. There is also the chance that Kidd will start to lose his fight with Father Time and that age will begin to affect the games of Nowitzki (who will be 33 at the start of next season), Jason Terry (34) and Shawn Marion (33).
Bodog odds: 12-1
SI.com odds: 10-1
Why they will win: Boston's Big Four -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo -- proved last season that it could still play at a high level. When Shaquille O'Neal was healthy, the Celtics were among the best teams in the league in the first half of the season. Plug another big, defensive-minded live body in there, and add a swingman to fill the role that Marquis Daniels handled early in 2010-11, and the Celtics could easily regain their swagger. And come playoff time, no team in the East is as experienced or well coached as Boston.
Why they won't win: Right now, they don't have a center, at least not one they can count on to play 70-plus games next season (sorry, Jermaine O'Neal). The Celtics will have to be careful not to overextend Garnett, Pierce and Allen in the regular season and then hope their aging bodies hold up in lengthy playoff series against Chicago, Miami or both. Boston's margin for error is thin.