Lakers will unseat Heat for NBA title | Basketball | CBC Sports

NBALakers will unseat Heat for NBA title

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2012 | 01:39 PM

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With Dwight Howard, left, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the Lakers have formed the NBA’s newest power trio. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images) With Dwight Howard, left, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the Lakers have formed the NBA’s newest power trio. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

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With Steve Nash's and Dwight Howard's moves to L.A. and James Harden's deal to Houston tilting the balance of power out west, here's a division-by-division breakdown of the entire NBA heading into the 2012-13 season.
Well, it only took one season of NBA basketball fully removed from the careers of Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming for the league to decide the position of centre didn't really exist anymore.

With teams playing smaller - and the true centre continuing to disappear (listening, Jonas Valanciunas?) - the NBA eliminated the five spot from All-Star ballots and will now offer selections of three frontcourt slots.

That's one of the changes heading into the 2012-13 NBA season. With Steve Nash's and Dwight Howard's moves to L.A. and James Harden's deal to Houston tilting the balance of power out west, here's a division-by-division breakdown of the entire league.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division
Predicted order of finish (*denotes playoff team):
New York*

Boston remains the best team in the Atlantic by default. Rajon Rondo and a healthy Jeff Green give you back anything that the age of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry takes away (which I don't think is much anyway). New York and Brooklyn have their shortcomings - Jason Kidd and defence, respectively - and Philadelphia's success pivots on whether Andrew Bynum will play a full season.

The Raptors will be in the fight for the No. 8 playoff spot, but on paper they're on the outside looking in. Then again, sports aren't played on paper. ESPN writer John Hollinger's much-maligned 33-win prediction was a little negative, but not light years off. It's the East, where a ninth-place team normally places in the mid-30s.
Central Division

The absence from the Bulls lineup of Derrick Rose likely until March isn't the only reason Indiana will take away Chicago's division title. Most of the Bulls' productive bench the last few seasons  including Kyle Korver, John Lucas III, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik and C.J. Watson - are gone, replaced by the likes of Marco Bellinelli and Nate Robinson. Meanwhile, the Pacers got a little deeper - and this is a team you got the feeling watching in the playoffs last spring that could make a jump.

Down in Cleveland, word from Brampton, Ont., native Tristan Thompson is that he gained 15 pounds of muscle over the summer. Along with last season's Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving, the Cavs could be ready to bypass Detroit and climb out of the Central's basement.
Southeast Division

The Miami haters may point out that last season was truncated to 66 games because of the lockout, and therefore the champion should come with a Phil Jackson-issued asterisk. It's nonsense, but here's Miami's chance to dominate an 82-game sked and win a title afterwards. They're probably good for 60-65 wins.

For perennial midlevel squad Atlanta, second place comes by virtue of Josh Smith being in a contract year and getting rid of the frustration known as Marvin Williams. Rookie Canadian forward Andrew Nicholson of Mississauga, Ont., could be a bright spot in what's shaping up to be an atrocious season for the Orlando Magic.
Western Conference

Northwest Division
Oklahoma City*

Conventional wisdom says the Thunder put a bow on the Western Conference title for the Lakers late Saturday night when they traded James Harden to the Rockets. It's probably true, but it was something that the Thunder felt they had to do. Oklahoma City works on a strict financial template - playing in a small market, they can't afford to be bumping up into the luxury tax. As a result, a figure that could be as low as $4 million US broke up one of the best young trios in recent memory. Can they keep KD and Westbrook together down the road? We'll have to wait and see. The positive for OKC is what they got in return. Kevin Martin is a good player who has played on bad teams his entire career, there's rookie Jeremy Lamb, and there's two first-round draft picks (including the Raptors' lotto-protected one that went to Houston) in there as well.

Denver, Minnesota and Utah will jockey for position behind the Thunder. The Wolves' loss of Kevin Love for the first month of the season may turn out to be a blessing in disguise -- he should be getting into full gear alongside Ricky Rubio by early spring. And they could be dangerous.
Southwest Division
San Antonio*
New Orleans

I just put in San Antonio by rote, given Gregg Popovich's ability to keep regenerating this squad. And given changes in Memphis and Dallas (plus Dirk Nowitzki's knee injury), the Spurs are still the team to beat. The Mavs seem to be in a half-rebuild mode - as evidenced by a sketchy roster, but signing O.J. Mayo away from the Grizzlies and adding Chris Kaman - and it's quite possible they don't make the playoffs. If they fizzle, the Rockets could easily contend with their new backcourt of Jeremy Lin and Harden.
Pacific Division
LA Lakers*
LA Clippers*
Golden State

The whole villain thing is starting to become overplayed in the NBA. Part of it, of course, is that the general public has the memory of gnats. Two years ago the outrage from LeBron James's "Decision" was palpable. Throw in the bad blood directed from north of the border at Chris Bosh, and you'd think the Miami Heat were Ivan Drago. Then this past June, we all felt at least a little happy for them when they hoisted their first trophy.

The upside for Dwight Howard from the start in L.A. is that's he's neutralized by Kobe Bryant (another former villain) and Steve Nash. While D-Ho deserves the same criticism James got for the handling of his departure from Orlando, I suspect much of it will be forgotten next spring. While in a pure basketball sense it is going to take a little while for this trio to gel, the Pacific Division crown is theirs. Playing in the West will leave them behind Miami in terms of the league's overall best record (and home court in the Finals), but there's no reason - barring an injury, back or otherwise - that you won't see the Lakers topping the Thunder for best in the West.

Their housemates, the Clippers, need a big year in order to convince free-agent-to-be Chris Paul to stay put. Blake Griffin is still a highlight reel waiting to happen and DeAndre Jordan should continue to improve. Which brings up a good question - with Kobe, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin all playing in the same building, who needs hockey in L.A.? Even if they are the Stanley Cup champs.

Western Conference Finals: Lakers over Thunder
Eastern Conference Finals: Heat over Celtics
NBA Finals: Lakers over Heat
Regular-season MVP: LeBron James, Heat
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, Blazers
Rookies to watch: Lillard, Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors), Anthony Davis (Hornets), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Bobcats), Andre Drummond (Pistons).

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