After a grueling lockout and everything but sane offseason, the 2011-12 NBA season is finally here. And I could not be any more excited. Here is my preview for the 2011-12 NBA season.
Let us begin with what will be the biggest stories and trends -
The New York Knicks will be the most over rated team
The New York Knickerbockers, who I will now call the 2008 Western Conference All Stars*, will begin the season with high expectations. After adding Tyson Chandler at center and Baron Davis at point guard (who will not be seen for the first two months), the sports media will cover the Knicks as if they amongst the upperclass of the Eastern Conference.
Are they really though? Listen, I love the New York Knicks. But I feel that this team is hopeless. They are too invested in Carmelo Anthony (who they will never trade) and Amar'e Stoudemire (who they simply cannot trade) long term. These are two guys who are particularly great at scoring, rebounding, and average or worse at everything else. Neither guy makes his teammates better offensively or defensively (like a LeBron James, Derrick Rose, or Joakim Noah would). Both are inconsistent defenders. Both need the ball in their hands to be effective, and don't know when to let the other guy dominate*. Throw in Amar'e's knees, as well as lack of shooters and depth, and you have yourself a 3-6 seed for the next five years who will never be good enough to contend for a title, and yet never bad enough to draft some quality players (oh wait, they don't have any draft picks!).
*The Baron Davis and Tyson Chandler acquisitions are not so big when you consider that neither player has been an All-Star team since 2005.
**Last year in game one against the Celtics, Amar'e was scoring at-will on Boston's front court. Nobody passed him the ball in the last four minutes.
The Chicago Bulls will somehow be the most under rated team
Remember last season when the Chicago Bulls surprised the NBA by claiming the league's best record? Remember when Derrick Rose won the MVP award despite playing without Carlo Boozer early in the season and Joakim Noah late in the season? Remember when they lost to Miami, and everyone was saying that they were one shooter away from being a scary team?
Well, the Bulls fixed the shooter issue by obtaining Rip Hamilton, a guy who runs of screens better than anyone and can still defend at a high level. Derrick Rose is still very young and will continue to improve. Boozer seems healthy (for now), and the Bulls did not seem to miss a beat without him last season. How is nobody talking about this team? They play in one of the top markets, will probably have the best odds at beating Miami in a seven game series, and will be much better than they were last season.
Hamilton to the Bulls will be one of the more under-looked acquisitions
The most disappointing rookie class since 2001
And you thought I was going to say 2000! A lot of people forget how crappy the 2001 rookie scene was. Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry were the first and fourth overall picks (need I say more?). Tyson Chandler was the number two pick, struggled his entire rookie season on a young Bulls team and never lived up to his position in the draft. The draft is perhaps best known for its' sleepers (Joe Johnson at number 11 and Zach Randolph at 19). Aside from Pau Gasol being a monster and Jason Richardson winning The Dunk Contest, nobody was really excited about the rookie scene in 2001.
Fast forward - 2011. Most of the top college dogs stay in college because of the looming NBA Lockout, leaving the NBA's bottom feeders with nothing but shit and more shit. Do you see anyone getting excited for the three match-ups between Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight (the two top point guards selected who happen to play in the same division)? Do you see anyone writing interesting columns about who should be rookie of the year? Is anyone besides maybe Timberwolves fans* paying top dollar to see what these guys can do? I didn't think so. You know you're in for a ride when Jimmer is getting the most buzz.
*This might be the first time in NBA history that one team has the top two Rookie of the Year candidates with Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams
Rise in technical fouls
We're only one season removed from David Stern telling the officials to call more technical fouls and to crack down on players reacting to calls. Additionally, the NBA is now telling officials to not give calls to players that create contact, and that those fouls are now non-shooting fouls. With the amount of players in the league that rely on getting to the line and superstars that are used to getting the benefit of the whistle, I think that a lot more players will get frustrated and lash out at referees when they don't get the calls.
For the first time, the most exciting teams are actually the best teams
With the addition of Chris Paul, the Clippers will be one of the best and most exciting teams
Remember the days when run-and-gun, offense-first teams like the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, New Jersey Nets, and Sacramento Kings were always ahead of the pack, but lost in the playoffs because they couldn't get stops or score in a half court offense? Then NBA fans everywhere would collectively spend the offseason bitching about how boring the NBA Playoffs were with slow paced, defensive, grind-in-out teams like the Pistons, Celtics, and Spurs competing for the title. This year, the top dogs are faster, athletic teams like Miami, Oklahoma City, and the Clippers. And depending on whether or not Dwight Howard gets traded, we might add another team to that mix.
Shift in conference power
Aside from the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City, and Dallas - How many teams are you comfortable with making the playoffs in the West? Portland just lost their marquee player in Brandon Roy. The Grizzlies lost Shane Battier (which will be and under rated loss for Memphis and and under rated gain for Miami), will be dealing with OJ Mayo trade talks all season long*, and three of their top four guys just got huge, I-Can-Go-Into-Cruise-Control paydays. Houston got screwed by the Chris Paul trade. It's difficult to tell how good the Hornets are going to be. Half of the Denver Nuggets are playing in China. Nobody knows when Steve Nash will begin his decline. Nobody knows when the Spurs will decline. And the rest of the West is full of young teams loaded with high draft picks from the past few seasons (Minnesota, Sacramento, Golden State, and Utah).
On the other hand, the East is very top heavy and not nearly as bottom heavy in year's past. As a Pistons fan, I have been trying to find scenarios where the Pistons can sneak into the playoffs. I have found this very difficult considering that the Heat, Bulls, Knicks, and Celtics are locks to make the playoffs. The Hawks*, Pacers, and Sixers are very likely candidates to make the playoffs again. The Magic (if they trade Dwight Howard) and Nets are huge wild cards at the moment, I wouldn't be surprised if those teams missed the playoffs but wouldn't be surprised if they made the playoffs. And the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards are both young, but not unbearably terrible like the Bobcats, Raptors, and Cavs. I really want to be an optimist and think that Greg Monroe will make a sophomore season leap, that Brandon Knight will emerge as the league's top rookie (and point guard that the Pistons desperately need), that Jonas Jerebko will continue to improve as the steal of the 2009 draft, that Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey Stuckey will finally emerge as a cohesive backcourt with Rip Hamilton off the team. But in all honesty, if I had to wager money on the Pistons making the playoffs, I would decide that there are much safer investments.
*OJ Mayo is in the last year of his rookie deal. Memphis cannot afford to keep him because they have to pay $45 to $50 million to Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph for the next few seasons. They either need to trade Mayo, or amnesty one of the other four guys this summer to keep him.
**Joe Johnson took a step back last season and losing Joe Crawford will hurt more than people think. Not to mention this team still does not have a point guard or any physical, defensive bigs outside of Al Horford. Throw in some possible Josh Smith trade rumors, or possible Josh Smith is unhappy stories, and this team has the perfect recipe for disaster.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder - They benefit from the lockout in both ways: They're not old and injury prone to the point where the compacted schedule will kill them on back-to-back-to-backs. And they did not make major adjustments to their roster, so everyone knows their roles and nobody has to get used to newer faces.
2. Memphis Grizzlies - I have a feeling that I will regret putting them this high. But they are in a similar position as Oklahoma City. Not to mention, the city of Memphis is legitimately excited about basketball, and Zach Randolph and finally found a situation that he is comfortable in. If they can land some good pieces for OJ Mayo, even better.
3. Los Angeles Clippers -What hasn't been said about the fucking Clippers?
4. Portland Trailblazers - Not gonna lie, I had them at number eight before remembering that
A) They will likely rebound the ball better than anybody with Camby, Aldridge, Wallace, Oden, and Felton
B) They have Raymond Felton playing point guard*
C) That the loss of Brandon Roy does not really hurt them considering that he barely started last season anyway
D) A lot of people expected them to upset Dallas in the first round last season
*I have read and heard people compare Felton's game and career to Chauncey Billups' in the sense that they are both under-appreciated, often forgotten about, and control games without filling up the stat sheet. Someone should add that both players have a knack for getting passed around the league like a joint at Dave Mathews concert.
5. San Antonio Spurs - Although this team isn't the freshest team in the league, Duncan and company always find a way to compete.
6. Los Angeles Lakers - Kobe is one year older and Bynum does not have the best knees in the world. This might really hurt them with the compacted schedule. The loss of Lamar Odom doesn't help either.
7. Dallas Mavericks - Dirk is still Dirk. The addition of Lamar Odom really makes up for the loss of Tyson Chandler. However, with Jason Kidd one year older and losing JJ Barea, this team will struggle in the backcourt.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves - Before you laugh, remember that
A) The West is weaker than people think
B) Rick Adelman is a pretty good coach and has a history of success with up-tempo teams
C) They finally add Ricky Rubio and will likely have the best rookie in 2012
D) This is going to be a very odd season, and 'Sota will likely benefit from older teams playing back-to-back-to-backs
1. Miami Heat - Same reasons as OKC. Not to mention the addition of Shane Battier.
2. Atlanta Hawks - Just kidding.
2. Chicago Bulls - I believe I already covered this.
3. New York Knickerbockers - Ditto.
4. Orlando Magic - If they can hang onto Dwight Howard until at least the trade deadline, they will be well above .500. That's not to mention that they might get a good return on him. Say Pau Gasol from the Lakers? He's good enough to keep them over the hump, right?
5. Atlanta Hawks - Johnson-Horford-Smith is still one of the better trios in the NBA.
6. Indiana Pacers - Tough team. Does all of the little things right and has a go-to scorer in Danny Granger.
7. Boston Celtics - Given I think the long schedule hurts them the most of any team besides the Lakers, they still have the talent and will to make it to the post season.
8. Philadelphia 76ers - Out of all the teams left, this is the one that I would put my money on.
Only Minnesota will care about the Rookie of the Year trophy this season
Eastern Conference Champions: Chicago Bulls
Western Conference Champions: Oklahoma City Thunder
NBA Champions: Chicago Bulls
Most Valuable Player: Chris Paul
Coach of the Year: Lionel Hollins
Defensive player of the Year: Joakin Noah
Rookie of the Year: Ricky Rubio
Sixth Man of the Year: Mo Williams
Most Improved Player: John Wall