Playing favorites: Heat, Thunder, Lakers stand out from the pack
An informal poll of coaches and execs shows a three-team race for the 2013 title
Poll: Miami is a heavy favorite, with the Lakers and Thunder getting some support
The new-look Lakers will need to come together quickly to unseat OKC in the West
No matter how the 2012-13 season ends, Jason Terry's newest tattoo won't upset the NBA history buffs.
The latest bold addition to the new Boston shooting guard's body features the Celtics' mascot holding a Larry O'Brien trophy on the inside of his left bicep, which is fine considering the storied franchise has taken the prize 17 times. It's the sort of all-in move that endeared Terry to Mavericks fans during his eight seasons in Dallas, a cocky complement for the championship trophy he had inked on his inner right arm some eight months before the 2011 title run.
Though Terry is hoping to play the role of fortune teller again and help bring title No. 18 to Boston, an informal poll of 20 NBA front-office executives and coaches made it clear that even Lucky the Leprechaun won't be enough to help him with that cause. According to a group of basketball minds (including 11 general managers) who were asked to pick their favorites for the 2013 championship, the Celtics and every other team not named the Heat, Lakers or Thunder are second-class citizens in the league's changed landscape.
The final tally, with three of the voters submitting only first-place votes: The defending champions in Miami received 16 first-place votes, one second-place vote and two third-place votes; their Finals foe, Oklahoma City, garnered two first-place votes, six second-place votes and nine third-place votes; and the Lakers, who have added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, got two first-place votes, 10 second-place votes and six third-place votes. The Lakers may not be seen as the favorites to win it all, but the idea that they're the top threat to the Heat is not only a topic of much discussion in the media but also clearly a very real sentiment in NBA circles.
For good measure, my top three -- with all of us playing in this pretend world where everyone is fully healthy -- would be the Heat, Lakers and Thunder. Reality, of course, may be something altogether different.
Tempting though it was to put the Lakers in the hypothetical top spot, there is a laundry list of factors to keep an eye on as their star-studded season unfolds: the health of Howard, who is still not doing on-court activity after having back surgery in April; the age and mileage of Nash (38 years old, 16 regular seasons and 118 playoff games played) and Bryant (34, 16 regular seasons and 220 playoff games); the question of chemistry and whether Bryant will defer enough to let Nash work his magic while keeping Howard happy enough in his new locale that he wants to re-sign as a free agent next summer; and the installation of Pete Carril's famed Princeton offense (former Wizards and Kings coach Eddie Jordan, a Carril protégé, is expected to be hired as an assistant and do the teaching under defensive-minded head coach Mike Brown).
Miami and Oklahoma City are the known commodities by comparison. The Heat's championship experience, quality additions (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and the fact that the best player on the planet, LeBron James, is still getting better means they're even more dangerous than before. And while the Thunder's most significant offseason moves were securing extensions for coach Scott Brooks and power forward Serge Ibaka, it's been three straight years of relentless progress for them and the lesson should have been learned by now that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden & Co. are not to be trifled with. What's more, Harden's uncertain status beyond this season creates a potential "make or break-up year," as one voter said.
As for what else may come into play along the way, here's a sampling of perspectives from the men who weighed in anonymously so as to allow for a more candid -- and less politically correct -- point of view. And no, for the record, not one mention of the Celtics or their conference-finals counterpart from the Western Conference, San Antonio.
Eastern Conference general manager who picked the Lakers as the front-runner but didn't select a second or third team: "Lakers, hands down. They landed arguably the best center in the NBA and the only point guard who can bring out D12's best. It all hinges on how much Kobe is willing to defer."
Western Conference general manager who ranked his top three as Miami, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City: "Miami: Obvious reason. Lakers: If Nash can stay healthy. OKC: Too much talent."
Eastern Conference executive who voted Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles: "The Lakers will have an adjustment period for sure, but Mike Brown is so good defensively that I can see Dwight being a monster this year. He'll have to be, because Nash is brilliant but he has taken a step back defensively. It's just like Miami, which needed a year to adjust to each other. The Lakers will face the same issues. The difference is that Nash and Kobe are a little older and less inclined to be stoppers defensively.
"They'll be really good and should challenge for the Finals, but OKC should be a very good matchup for them. Kendrick Perkins has proved to be capable of defending Dwight in one-on-one situations and Ibaka can defend Gasol one-on-one, which limits the Lakers' advantage slightly. I get the sense that people are underestimating the Thunder slightly given the moves that teams around them made, and that plays right into their hands. They'll use it for motivation."
Eastern Conference head coach who voted Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles: "Miami because of LeBron; OKC because of Durant and its experience of losing last year; the Lakers because of Kobe, Nash, Gasol -- in that order. IF Howard is healthy, he will be the fourth reason."
Eastern Conference executive who voted Miami, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City: "The Lakers had the best summer additions by far. New coaches and players will rejuvenate Kobe. He will definitely be possessed. They need to mesh quickly but it sure looks like they're going deep into June right now. The bench needs to be better" -- a group that includes free-agent additions Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks and power forward Jordan Hill, who was re-signed.
"Developing the bench players will be huge for them," the executive continued. "Gasol will be more effective with [Jordan on staff]. He'll make plays like Vlade Divac used to [while playing under a similar system in Sacramento]. Gasol will still score. Hiding Nash on defense will be the biggest challenge."
Western Conference executive who voted Miami, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City: "LeBron and Dwyane Wade will carry the Heat once again. The Lakers will need to jell and stay healthy, but with their new mix of players they will be tough to beat. I don't see the Thunder getting back to the Finals if the Lakers play to their potential, but the Thunder should be back in the West finals again for another crack at it."
Eastern Conference executive who voted Miami, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles: "The Heat are a defending champion who now knows what it takes to win it all. LeBron is chasing history. The pressure is off in a sense because he has a title in his back pocket. The Thunder are entering the prime and have the experience to win now. The Lakers obviously have enough to win it all, but how will Kobe and Nash hold up during the regular season? There is a lot of basketball to be played before getting to the playoffs. If they can somehow manage their minutes during the season, and win enough to be a top-three seed in the West, they will be a tough out in the playoffs. Dwight will clean up the defensive shortcomings they have on the perimeter."