By Chris Le
Is there any way this season lives up to the hype?
For that to happen the majority of the following would have to occur: Chris Paul is 100 percent healthy and reenters the “Best Point Guard in the League” debate, the union and owners agree on a CBA, Yao Ming and Greg Oden play full seasons, Jeremy Lin ignites the Bay Area and becomes the Asian-American Jackie Robinson, Carmelo Anthony goes to the Knicks, LeBron enters the dunk contest, Blake Griffin and John Wall shoulder their respective teams to the playoffs, Kevin Durant averages 37 points per game, LeBron averages a triple-double, Beyonce performs at both the All-Star game and in the Finals, the Heat win 73 games and win the title after beating the Lakers in triple overtime of Game 7.
Will any of it happen? Here’s my take:
1. Carmelo Anthony will be a Knick. He wants out of Denver so badly that he ignored 65 million convincing reasons to stay. The question is of where he’ll go. As reported, it’s either Chicago or New York. I’m crossing out Chicago because Denver would likely want Joakim Noah in the deal and the Bulls would be idiots to agree. Noah is Chicago’s best defender, their emotional life vest and one of my top 5 favorite players. And I want him to stay a Bull. So this is more a wish than a prediction. But that doesn’t change the fact that Chicago and Derrick Rose need Joakim Noah. Carlos Boozer, rugged as he is, would not fill his void.
That leaves the Knicks. They have Eddy Curry’s and Kelenna Azubuike’s attractive expiring contracts and could include Anthony Randolph, Danilo Gallinari, Toney Douglas or Ronnie Turiaf as a throw-in. It’s the utilitarian deal: the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, including Melo’s wife. Lala is in the entertainment business (kinda—Hosting VH1 reality shows barely qualifies as “in the business.”) and Melo loves the celebrity lifestyle. New York just makes sense. It also preserves the possibility of another Super Team if/when Chris Paul joins the Knicks. It’s inevitable. As Bill Simmons says, this is the worst-kept secret in the league.
2. The Rookie of the Year race will be more entertaining than the MVP race. I haven’t been this geeked about a Rookie Race since Durant vs. Oden in 2007. (Let’s ignore how that one ended.) And there haven’t been two rookies this obviously talented in seven years. Two top overall picks. Two athletic freaks. Two of the most exciting players in the league; you can already see it. The only way to describe Griffin’s game is “violent.” He’s never seen a rebound he can’t put back for a dunk, and he goes after every rebound like he’s a bench player vying for playing time, only he’s already the best player on the team. The kid’s a beast.
Expect at least one of these every three games:
And a dash of this:
He’s so good I was this close to predicting the Clippers making the playoffs. Then I remembered they’re the Clippers.
But there’s a star quality to John Wall. There’s a confidence to his walk. There’s a self-assurance that matches his considerable talents. I’ve already stated that he’s the best prospect I’ve seen since LeBron, and now that I’ve seen a few preseason games, Wall somehow looks faster. The combined over/under on the number of “holy shit” moments for Wall and Griffin has to be at 50. At least.
Rookie of the Year
1. John Wall
2. Blake Griffin
3. DeMarcus Cousins (Mark him down for a double-double, and 34,59,685 fouls)
4. Who cares?
3. The Spurs aren’t dead yet. No one besides me cares about the Spurs so I’ll keep this short and go to bullet points.
- Manu is rested, back in the starting lineup and ready to overtake Duncan as the Spurs’ best player. Watch out for the Gino and DeJuan Blair combo. There’s chemistry there. They know each other’s games and can read a situation, especially the pick-and-roll, on a dime.
- Parker is in a contract year. He’ll be playing for a raise. Even if it’s not from the Spurs.
- Richard Jefferson is no longer hesitant. He finally looks comfortable. No more looks of confusion that scream, “Should I drive or pull up?” which, last season, translated to an awkward hybrid of both, resulting in a turnover or bricked shot. He’ll be more decisive this season. Whether his shots go in is still a question … but at least he won’t look lost!
- Tiago Splitter is exactly what the Spurs need. A legit 6’11”. Rugged back-to-the-basket scorer who likes to defend. A Luis Scola-type. Splitter along with Blair’s semi-emergence will alleviate a rapidly aging Timmy (L).
4. The Miami Heat probably won’t win over 69 games. As if that’s a disappointment. But let’s temper some expectations. It’ll take a few weeks for them to gel. Talent means nothing without chemistry (see the Clippers), and no one outside of Magic Johnson can instantly create a connection with teammates without a warming period. LeBron, Wade and Bosh have a total of three minutes of game time together. It’ll take at least 10 full regular season games to learn each other’s tendencies. And as the preseason shows, health is never a given.
If healthy, here’s how I see the Heat season panning out: After a hobbled start of 6-3 including losses to Boston and Orlando, the Heat discover an identity, find a comfort zone with each other and go on a roll like Genghis Khan in 13th century Asia. Expect 12-, 15-, 18-game win streaks, regular 20+ margins of victory, a whole lot of butt-slapping and a cheesy pre- or in-game gimmick or three, culminating somewhere in the province of 65-69 wins.
Bill Simmons almost guarantees under 70 wins, noting that the Heat lack a mental linchpin like Jordan with the ’96 Bulls. Steve Kerr says his ‘96 Bulls won 8-10 games they should’ve lost because Jordan willed the team to victory. I agree the Heat lack a Jordan-like security net, but I’ll stop short of saying 70 wins is impossible … because they might not need one. The ’96 Bulls didn’t have the horsepower of the Heat. Secondary options Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc were never pure scorers, the starting frontcourt of Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley was an afterthought, if not completely ignored on offense, and the burden to score was solely on Jordan. The Heat have two pure scorers in Wade and Bosh and then LeBron, who can drop 30 while still facilitating. Unlike Jordan, either of them can “take a night off” to little negative effect. If Miami somehow builds a connection out the gates, 70 wins is entirely possible.
5. Dwight Howard will be the MVP. The usual suspects will be out of the race this year. Kobe won’t be as productive: The back-to-back-to-back seasons of non-stop basketball will catch up, and he’ll show evidence of age (watch his lift) while fighting through the usual nicks. He’ll still be brilliant, but only in short bursts. Pau Gasol is likely to up his production and steal some of Kobe’s thunder. I know I’ve said Kobe has the “Best Player in the League” title until Durant or LeBron go further in the playoffs, and I stick by that, but it’ll be tough when both are more productive and healthier. Speaking of which…
LeBron will be historically efficient, scratching at a triple-double average (My projection: 23.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 10.1 assists). * But he’ll suffer from the Kobe/Shaq syndrome: having two of the league’s top four players on one team makes winning an MVP nearly impossible. Kobe and Shaq, the dominant players of their era, have two combined. It’s a travesty. A travesty likely to repeat itself in Miami. Wade will have a campaign of his own, taking votes from LeBron, fueling the fire of the haters (of which there are many) arguing that LeBron and the Heat’s brilliance are a result of osmosis. Which, of course, will be bullshit. **
That leaves Durant and Howard. Here’s how I see the two-man race breaking down.
Durant’s projected resume:
- 32.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and improved defense
- League leader in scoring—by far
- Three or four “wow” moments that you will remember at season’s end: buzzer beaters, maybe a 55-point game, a shootout with Melo/Wade/LeBron/Kobe in which Durant comes out on top, perhaps he embarrasses one of them in a game.
- Extra points for being the most feared player in the league. Who else can so demoralize a team with 50 points on any given night? Will he dethrone Kobe and Kyra Sedgwick as the best closer?
- Second seed (possible first?) in the West
- Increased vocal leadership
Howard’s projected resume:
- 21.1 points, 13.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.9 blocks and improved offense
- League leader in blocks, field goal percentage, dunks
- Best defender in the league—by far
- One of the better two-way players in the league?
- Second (possible first) seed in the East. And the East has better top-end teams than the West.
- Possible signature wins against the center-less Miami Heat
- Does more than Durant with a weaker supporting cast
It’s close. But I expect dividends from the three days Howard spent with Hakeem Olajuwon, in the form of improved footwork, a better sense of spacing and touch, a drop-step move or any semblance of a post game. Then again, Dwight might be an incapable student; for two years, Patrick Ewing, the most prolific jump-shooting center, mentored Howard, and he still can’t hit a jumper to save his life. Maybe he just doesn’t have the scorer’s DNA. So I have no grand delusions: Howard won’t be Dream-shakin’ anyone, and he’ll still clang more 12-footers than anyone in the league. But he will be an offensive threat. No more games where he takes under 10 shots.
Look at it this way. Durant will be the best offensive player in the league, Howard the best defensive player. That cancels out each other’s strength. It boils down to their weaknesses: Durant’s defense and Howard’s offense. At this point, the way I’m projecting it, I prefer Howard’s impact on offense.
*The wildcard: LeBron is angry. His eyes have the glow of a scorned lover. He remembers the reactions to “The Decision”: the burning jerseys, Dan Gilbert’s rant written in Comic Sans, the angry tweets, the racial slurs. LeBron has a fire under his ass for the first time in his career, and he’s out to make the haters look stupid. If he channels this rage and clicks into Jordan mode, I’m not betting against him. But that’s if he channels his rage. If LeBron doesn’t show the mental switch this year, he never will.
**And I don’t care what anyone says: This is LeBron’s team. It may be Wade’s town and he’s got the history, but the better player always shines through. Through sheer force of play and personality, LeBron will be undeniable.
1. Dwight Howard
2. Kevin Durant
3. LeBron James
4. Dwyane Wade
5. Pau Gasol
6. The Miami Heat will win the title. In 2008, the Boston Celtics won 66 games and the title in the first season of “The Big 3.” Winning a title in a new team’s inaugural year isn’t unprecedented. Skeptics, however, point to two supposed Achilles heels: defense and the center position.
Defense shouldn’t be a problem. Wade and LeBron could be a poor man’s Jordan and Pippen, two wing defenders so good that they compensate for a missing stalwart around the rim. The mid-90s Bulls were great defensively, even with a plodding frontcourt of Luc Longley and Bill Wennington. The same could happen in Miami. LeBron showed glimpses in 2009 of a lockdown on-ball defender, a role I hope he fully embraces in Miami now that the offensive burden is lifted. And Wade will wreak havoc in the passing lanes, leading to innumerable fast breaks. Plus, teams should worry about outscoring the Heat more than the Heat should worry about stopping them. They’re a tougher defensive assignment than the D’Antoni-, Nash-led Suns at their height.
(Lakers Nation, cover your eyes.)
The Heat’s biggest hurdle won’t be the Lakers. After another long season and a possible WCF war against KD and the Thunder, it’ll be hard for Kobe to be Kobe. He’ll need at least two Jordan-type efforts against Miami and with injuries and weary legs, I can’t see him taking over a game that late in the season (see Game 7 against the Celtics).
(Okay, you guys can look now.)
The biggest threat to Miami is Boston. The Celtics have the team defense, veteran leadership, unselfish offense and most importantly, the size to exploit the Heat’s only weakness. The wave of Perkins, Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal could prove insurmountable for Big Z and Joel Anthony. But at this point, Garnett, Pierce and Allen are more likely than Kobe to dwindle.
The title is ripe for picking. And all signs point to Miami. Can they live up to the hype?