The last time the NBA played an abbreviated season was following the 1998-99 lockout. Fifty games were crammed into a three-month period between the beginning of February and the start of May. That broke down to roughly a 12-and-a-half-week season, which when averaged out, meant each team played a fairly ridiculous four games per week.
This time the NBA is compressing 66 games into 17-and-a-half weeks, meaning each team will play an average of 3.7 games per week. Compare that to last season (or really any regular 82-game NBA slate), where teams played an average of 3.4 per week. While decimal points can be dismissed as negligible, it still adds up to about three games more per team, per month. Factor in travel, and you've got a noticeable difference. Ask NHL players their true feelings on the compressed Olympic season schedules of 2001-02, 2005-06 and 2009-10 -- and those were merely skedded to accommodate a two-week break.
What's the point? Age and conditioning win out in a tight season. While injuries will always play a huge role in any season in any sport, its even moreso the case here. So barring injuries, it's simple. The teams to beat -- and the teams I'll bet meet in the NBA Finals in June are The Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What's another hammer hanging over the Eastern Conference this season? The Dwight Howard saga. Should he get dealt between now and the trade deadline, Orlando could conceivably go from a playoff team to a lottery team (obviously depending on who the Magic get back). But when you consider even if the Lakers, say, were to cave and give up both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum for Howard, the Magic don't transform into a much better team.Eastern Conference picks
(Projected top 3 conference standings, division winners)Miami
What can you say? Dislike them or hate them, they are still the odds-on favourites to win it all. Last year's fourth quarter disappearing act by LeBron James has to have weighed on his conscience all summer. Great players respond to things like that. The addition of Shane Battier is a huge one too. Chicago
Basically returning the same team that won 62 games last year, a lot of people in the Windy City are calling for a championship. While they lost a great perimeter defender in Keith Bogans, the man who replaced him, Richard Hamilton, is a good defender too -- and on offence, he can still wear out defences with his wiry frame. New York
In a short season the Knicks may be able to challenge for a higher seed, but the third spot and Atlantic Division Champs is most likely. Tyson Chandler is the definition of a key addition in that he brings game-changing defensive capabilities to a Mike D'Antoni squad. This also frees up Amare Stoudemire to play the four. With Carmelo Anthony at small forward, this is one of the best front lines in the NBA.
The rest of the playoff teams:Atlanta, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee and Indiana
(not necessarily in that order)
The sexy thing to assume right now is that the Celtics are screwed. Given their age and the fact that Jeff Green is out for the season with an aortic aneurysm, playing that average of 3.7 games a week should catch up with them. However old or not, they are still the second-best team in the Atlantic, and if they can somehow conserve some strength for the post-season, they may not be a pushover. But it's an if.
Atlanta and Orlando could place anywhere from fourth to seventh. Again, with the Magic it depends on Howard's situation. The Bucks, as always, are intriguing; Andrew Bogut could be an all-star if he actually stayed healthy, and Brandon Jennings is due for another step upwards. Required Canadian content:
The prediction for Toronto Raptor victories this season vary anywhere from six (ridiculous) to 25 (too high). The reality is this squad is the definition of being in the midst of a rebuild. Dwane Casey may get these guys to hustle on defence, but let's face it, there's just not that much there. DeMar DeRozan figures to take the another step, and at least that will be enjoyable to watch. My call is 16-50.
And while it's no consolation to shell-shocked Toronto fans who historically deal with names like Andrea Bargnani, and albeit a completely different situation, Yu Darvish, they can take comfort in the fact that it's shaping up to be a good draft (although typically for the Raps it lacks a true superstar) in 2012, packed with wings.Western Conference picks
(projected top 4 teams, *denotes division winners)
A shortened season could be a perfect storm for the Thunder. With their age and talent, the squad that won 55 games in a real schedule could be poised to win more games than any team in the league in this truncated season. The only question is will they be ready in the post-season? While "experience" is an overrated term in sports, the Thunder's deep run last year certainly didn't hurt their development. The rumours of discontent between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are sure to continue, but what else would the media have to talk about in a place like Oklahoma City?L.A. Clippers*
They could easily pass the Lakers, which makes the prospect of this same-arena rivalry so much fun. Even Monday night's pre-season game between the Clip and the Lakers was must-see TV. With Chris Paul lobbing to Blake Griffin all year, expect tons of highlights. And because all he can do offensively is dunk, throw DeAndre Jordan into that mix as well. Chauncey Billups playing off-guard is different, but he's played combo guard before. They are a little thin off the bench, but if there's one issue it's the fact Vinny Del Negro is their coach.
For the sake of argument, you could make the same case for the Mavericks as you can for the Celtics. Their core is a year older, and they lost Chandler, Barea and DeShawn Stevenson while adding Lamar Odom and Vince Carter. Brendan Haywood will start at centre, which means somebody needs to reprise his stat line Twitter feed (@haywoodstats
) just for fun. But they're the champs, so I'm giving them respect.L.A. Lakers
The gold and purple have been run roughshod over since J.J. Barea torched them in the playoffs last spring. For a start, Mike Brown is their new coach. Then David Stern kiboshed the Chris Paul trade, leading them to deal an insulted Lamar Odom to Dallas. Then news of Kobe Bryant's divorce broke, and while it really isn't shocking, you have to wonder how being a wealthy resident of California without a pre-nuptial agreement (put it this way: Big mistake) will weigh on his psyche for the next few months. But some pundits are still ranking the Lakers ahead of their upstart roommates at Staples, and it's because they're still the Lakers. Kobe at 33 is still one of the best players in the game. But the reality is they are on the downswing. Would a Howard trade change that? Stay tuned.The rest of the playoff teams:Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, Denver
(possibly but not necessarily in that order).
The Spurs are old too. But they've got at least one playoff appearance left in them. Memphis returns basically the same team that won 46 games and upset San Antonio last year, with Marc Gasol pairing with Z-Bo up front -- and they'll have a healthy Rudy Gay. Portland, while losing Brandon Roy, is still a playoff team. If Denver can get their three Chinese exiles (J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin) back after the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions' and Xinjiang Flying Tigers' season ends, it will certainly help their chances more.
If one of these teams falters, the Phoenix Suns could slide in, but the best-case scenario for the best Canadian in NBA history is for Steve Nash to be traded to a contender while he still has some game left.Finals prediction:
Heat over Thunder
Take solace in the fact that when the Spurs won the 1999 title, Phil Jackson immediately called it into question by calling it an "asterisk" championship because of the shortened season. Well, Heat haters can do the same this summer.
Regular-season MVP prediction:
Kevin Durant, ThunderRookies to watch:
Obviously, Kyrie Irving and Canadian Tristan Thompson on a bad Cleveland team; Derrick Williams of the Wolves; the Lakers' Darius Morris; Iman Shumpert of the Knicks; Brandon Knight of the Pistons; Kenneth Faried of the Nuggets; Kemba Walker of the Bobcats and Sacramento's Jimmer Fredette.
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