As we head into this most intriguing of NBA seasons, let's get one thing clear: The regular season really doesn't matter. At least in terms of crowning an NBA champion, it doesn't.
The really good teams will make the playoffs. Whether they're a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed won't affect how they perform in the postseason (just ask last season's Celtics). Sure, the middle-of-the-pack teams will duke it out for playoff spots/saving coaches jobs. But, ultimately, the NBA is a very predictable league. The teams you expect to be playing in June usually are.
Just consider the recent past champions:
2010 — Lakers, No. 1 seed
2009 — Lakers, No. 1 seed
2008 — Celtics, No. 1 seed
2007 — Spurs, No. 1 seed
2006 — Heat, No. 1 seed
2005 — Spurs, No. 1 seed
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You get the point.
So with that in mind, here is my short list of teams I actually think could win the 2010-11 NBA title:
Orlando (very iffy)
Oklahoma City (yes, Kevin Durant is that good)
With all this being said ... the regular season is going to be very watchable. To start with, every Heat game will grab high ratings simply because of LeBron, D-Wade and crew. It'll be very interesting to see how the team comes together. And it'll be fun to monitor the receptions the team, especially a certain Cleveland outcast, receives in opposing arenas.
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So how will things shake out come early April? Let's start with the Eastern Conference.
(Finishing place in the conference is in parentheses.)
(3) Boston Celtics, 52-30: The Celtics found a winning formula last season: Stink it up during the regular season, fooling everyone into thinking you're finished. Then start playing hard in the playoffs with a healthy, fresh squad and come within a horrid second half of winning it all. I expect a similar formula this time around with more depth in the frontcourt.
(7) Philadelphia 76ers, 39-43: Hopefully Doug Collins paces himself with this team, because it's young and will wear on him constantly. The biggest question mark remains, What the heck has happened to Elton Brand? It's like he's still playing on West Coast time. The backcourt should be pretty strong if Evan Turner lives up to his hype; if not, it will be a long season and more gray hairs for Collins.
(T-11) New York Knicks, 34-48: So the Knicks cleared out their payroll and ended up with Amar'e Stoudemire and ... Carmelo Anthony? Reportedly, 'Melo has been chatting it up with Spike Lee, which is the only reason Knicks fans can be hopeful that a decade of drudgery might end anytime soon. Because the current outfit won't play defense or rebound very well. Not a winning formula.
(13) New Jersey Nets, 32-50: There is hope for the Nets. Devin Harris and Brook Lopez form a nice outside-inside combo, and Derrick Favors has as much upside — yeah, that confounding word — as anyone from the '10 draft. Oh, and they'll improve by almost 20 wins. Baby steps, baby steps. Carmelo would help, but it's not looking likely.
(15) Toronto Raptors, 23-59: Quick — name me two players on the Raptors (and spell their names correctly). Yes, it's officially rebuilding time, since Chris Bosh decided to take his talents to South Beach. Let's not forget that this team features a fairly recent No. 1 pick, Andrea Bargnani, who should now be the focal point of the offense. His progression will be about the most fun thing to watch.
(4) Milwaukee Bucks, 51-31: Nobody talked about this team during the offseason, big surprise. But it made some moves that have it on a path toward a division crown. For one, Andrew Bogut is almost fully recovered from the gruesome elbow/wrist/hand, broken-bone catastrophe. Also, John Salmons is back and Corey Maggette/Drew Gooden are in town. Good moves; improving and dangerous team.
(5) Chicago Bulls, 50-32: Speaking of moves, the Bulls made some very solid ones, too. No, they didn't get the grand prize. But, hey, there's only one South Beach. Carlos Boozer fits perfectly into their lineup alongside defensive-rebounding behemoth Joakim Noah; Ronnie Brewer is a serviceable, team-guy shooting guard; and I have a feeling Kyle Korver will be in at the end of games making outside shots.
(8) Detroit Pistons, 38-44: They won't be as bad as last year, namely because no one wants to repeat that last-place disaster. This roster is better than that. Still, speculation will encircle the futures of Detroit fixtures Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. And Joe Dumars will, and should, continue to receive a lot of heat for completely ruining an annual championship contender.
(T-11) Indiana Pacers, 34-48: This would be a pretty damn good college team, featuring Darren Collison, Mike Dunleavy, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush and, oh, Tyler Hansbrough — with Dahntay Jones and Josh McRoberts coming off the bench. On second thought, the Pacers are one Dukie/Tar Heel short of being able to put an all-Tobacco Road lineup on the floor. Not a good NBA team, though, even led by the stellar Danny Granger.
(14) Cleveland Cavaliers, 30-52: Starting at small forward ... Jamario Moon!! Oh, Cleveland. Yes, this team has the potential (rather, lack thereof) to go from the best team in the East to the worst. It'll be up to Mo Williams, who (jokingly?) considered retirement in the offseason, and Antawn Jamison to carry the offensive load. The only player with "upside" is J.J. Hickson.
(1) Miami Heat, 63-19: No, they won't break the Bulls' 72-10 record for regular-season dominance. Injuries are already a problem before the season, as Mike Miller will be out for a few months. That will hurt the team's outside shooting, and, no, Jerry Stackhouse isn't an adequate replacement. I have a feeling the Big Three (do they have a nickname, yet?) also won't be together every night. But, ultimately, this team will be made or broken in the playoffs. Obviously.
(2) Orlando Magic, 55-27: There's no team entering this season — at least teams with potential — with more of a chip on its shoulder. Dwight Howard is mad, and, like James, perhaps will drop a bit of his humorous side in favor of a more serious demeanor. The Magic have been fuming about all the attention their neighbors to the south have received. Howard has worked on a mid-range game. Their fate might depend on how furnished it is.
(6) Atlanta Hawks, 49-33: Guess who received the largest contract during the offseason? Not LeBron, not Chris Bosh. Yep, Joe Johnson. The Hawks didn't really have a choice, either. Actually, the choice was: Stay relevant with Johnson or become irrelevant sans him. Unfortunately, they won't get much better than the team that's looked listless in the second round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
(9) Washington Wizards, 36-46: The Positive: John Wall; he's been as advertised during the preseason and is a captain as a rookie. This is his franchise, and, thus, it's headed in the right direction. The Negative: Gilbert Arenas; what a horrible distraction. He's already talked about heading in another direction and parting ways with the Wizards. Well, that isn't happening. And, for now, neither is a playoff season.
(10) Charlotte Bobcats, 35-47: So Charlotte let Raymond Felton go to New York this offseason and then tried to make a move for a starting point guard — and ultimately failed. And now, Larry Brown is stuck with D.J. Augustin, who spent much of last season in his doghouse. Not good. Brown's best teams have featured a point guard that understood what LB. wanted. Not happening here.
Stay tuned for my Western Conference preview and, finally, playoff predictions.