2011-12 NBA Season Predictions: Oklahoma City Thunder over Miami Heat
The league is (finally) back, rejoice.
A year ago, when we offered our 2010-11 season predictions, we noted in our headline that the NBA was "More Wide Open Than We Think." The consensus was that the Heat and the Lakers would meet in the Finals, yet we presented cases for seven teams (including Miami and Los Angeles) as contenders... and we didn't even include the team which ended up winning it all, the Dallas Mavericks, not to mention other teams which emerged as tough squads, like Memphis and Denver.
This year, as we survey the NBA landscape, our feelings have done something of a 180. Namely, we'll be surprised if anyone other than the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls end up playing in the 2012 NBA Finals. Beyond our Big 3, we see a vast second tier of teams with too many question marks to truly contend for the Larry O.B. in this condensed lockout season.
On top of that, we're picking the Thunder to beat the Heat to win the 2011-12 NBA championship. If we had to boil it down, we'd have to say that a decisive factor is that we simply don't trust LeBron James anymore. In our opinion, LeBron's underachievement in key playoff games is the primary reason that his teams have not won championships in each of the last two seasons.
We think Oklahoma City is poised to dominate the Western Conference this season - we could foresee the difference between first and second being about the same as the gap between second and seventh. The Thunder were really not that far from becoming the youngest team to ever win it all last year. OKC was clearly a better team than Dallas for the first 42-44 minutes per game, but the veteran Mavs out-executed the Thunder at crunch time.
Now, the Thunder are back with that experience under their belts, with its key players still young on the rise (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are already among the league's top dozen players, and James Harden and Serge Ibaka are poised to bust out further), plus they'll have a svelte and healthy Kendrick Perkins available for the whole year, and their exceptional team depth leaves them perfectly suited for this year's schedule.
What's not to like? Well, coach Scotty Brooks is the big question mark, for sure, after getting Dirks run around him by Rick Carlisle. But we think another year of experience will help the Thunder execute better, and the depth of talent on their roster is just too strong.
We certainly expect the Miami Heat to be a formidable ballclub again, and likely improved after one year together. We're especially excited to see their new "pace and space" offensive philosophy (as described by Tom Haberstroh in an exceptional piece on ESPN.com) in action, as it seems to be a style of play, which fits the personnel much better than the fairly methodical, set-heavy game which Miami employed for much of last season. We'll see if, when the games are on hardwood rather than whiteboard, more freedom works, and sticks for the entire season.
We were expecting the Heat to have a better offseason than they did. Maybe they can still grab a buyout guy or a Chinese League refugee, and maybe promising late first-round pick Norris Cole can provide just the boost Miami needs at point guard, but the Shane Battier signing left us largely unmoved. Yes, he should be a good fit this season, though he is clearly in decline at 33, and with a three-year deal, Battier continues the Heat's disturbing trend of signing guys until they're 35, joining Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. Also, the Heat's lack of depth, given this year's schedule, makes us think that they'll once again have to chase the Bulls without home-court advantage.
Still, via experience and a new style of play, we think this will be an improved team, and we're giving them a narrow edge over Chicago.
Speaking of the Chicago Bulls, they come back with their well-constructed roster largely intact, providing cohesion which should serve them well this season, and a roster with no returning rotation players over 30, suggesting they are still a team on the rise. The key move was exchanging Keith Bogans for Rip Hamilton. As with Battier, we have some concerns about adding a 33-year-old wing, but we think Hamilton will be a good fit under Tom Thibodeau, and is certainly an upgrade over Bogans.
These Bulls should be neck-and-neck with Miami, but they'll need much-better playoff production from Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer than they got in the Eastern Conference Finals. With its depth and cohesion, Chicago should be the top seed in the East, though one wonders if Thibodeau's ceaselessly hard-driving style has a chance of backfiring given this season's schedule.
Here are some quick thoughts on teams we rate in the next tier:
Denver Nuggets: We spent most of the summer assuming Denver would take a step back, with three free agents going to China, and Nene likely to sign elsewhere, with the possibility of Arron Afflalo. But now that they got those two guys back, we've bought John Hollinger's logic on the Nuggets hook, like and sinker: *very* deep roster, headed by two borderline All-Star talents in Nene and Danilo Gallinari, plus high-altitiude, and maybe a dash of a March acquisition of Wilson Chandler, and these guys should roll up the regular-season wins. We're drinking some Mile High Kool-Aid: we agree with Hollinger about Denver finishing second in the West.
Dallas Mavericks: We certainly feel uneasy about discounting the Mavs' title chances after last season. But this was the second-oldest team to ever win a championship, so we think it's going to be tough to recapture that lightning in a bottle, especially given the tough blows to the team defense in losing both Tyson Chandler and assistant coach Dwane Casey, despite the donation of Lamar Odom from the Lakers. Rick Carlisle will win them more games than they should, and Dirk is still Dirk, but it's too much to ask the 2011 postseason magic to continue.
Los Angeles Lakers: It's not shocking that the Lakers' odds to win the championship are right up there with the Heat, Thunder and Bulls, given that they're such a public team, but boy howdy, is it sure ridiculous. As we've been saying since L.A.'s ugly playoff exit, this is a team in clear decline without many means for getting better. With the inexplicable Odom trade, the Lakers are pretty much down to three good players, two of whom (Kobe, Bynum) may have trouble withstanding this year's punishing schedule at peak effectiveness. We don't see this team finishing top-four in the West, and we absolutely don't see them contending for the championship, barring some sort of incredibly favorable deal for Dwight Howard.
San Antonio Spurs: It's been weird that, all offseason, conventional wisdom has seemed to suggest that the Lakers' championship window is still open, while the Spurs' is unquestionably closed, given that San Antonio was a better team in the regular season and the playoffs last year (Spurs losing to Memphis in six tough games with a banged-up Ginobili > Lakers beating a David West-less New Orleans, the worst team in the playoffs, in six tough games). Certainly, there are questions about the aging of the Spurs' Big 3, and we think George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard is a downgrade in the short term, but we still see this as a formidable team. Tiago Splitter is the key player if the Spurs are going to be true contenders. He has to become the contributor he was expected to be coming off the kind of MVP season in the Spanish League that guys like Luis Scola and Marc Gasol used to propel them to quality NBA career.
Los Angeles Clippers: We certainly can't wait to watch the Lob City Clippers, as this promises to be a League Pass team for all time, and we certainly think this ballclub can ride the good vibes of the Chris Paul trade to significant improvement leading to a possible top-four finish in the West. While we think the Paul is a definite improvement, we wish that L.A. had held out for a better deal (considering it was unclear what other team was a realistic trading partner for the Fifth Avenue Hornets). Long-term, every asset counts when you're trying to compete with the OKC juggernaut Sam Presti has put together. Indeed, the Clips gave up so many assets to acquire Paul that they are extremely thin, though they do have four good point guards - we'll see if they can deal for frontcourt depth. Caron Butler might be a decent fit for now, but we certainly don't like him on a three-year deal, and Vinny Del Negro is still a cause for concern. But sit back and enjoy the ride - the Clippers definitely have a good chance to win the championship of L.A., even if an NBA title still requires a few more moves.
Memphis Grizzlies: With its strong starting unit, Memphis could once again be a very tough out come playoff time, but lack of depth is a problem - and now a serious one up front following the loss of valuable reserve Darrell Arthur - which should cost the Grizz a few regular-season wins. We have the Grizzlies sixth in our predicted conference standings, (again, we think there's a good chance that sixth will be closer to second place than second will be to Oklahoma City in first), but advancing to the second round again.
Portland Trail Blazers: We just wanted to pour out a little 40 to honor the Blazers era that should have been. Yes, Portland has done quite well to stay competitive amidst its myriad injuries, and still has plenty of intriguing assets for the future. But, right now, we should be gearing up for an epic rivalry developing between the Roy-Oden-Aldridge Blazers and the Thunder. But it was not meant to be, and that sucks.
Boston Celtics: We've written off these Celtics before, at our peril, so we're reluctant to do so again, but it's tough to see this as anything but a team in decline, as Boston's Big 3 ages without any significant young talent to the rescue other than Rajon Rondo, whom the C's don't seem particularly inclined to keep, and with the death of ubuntu following the Kendrick Perkins donation to Oklahoma City. Last year, this team was on the same tier as Miami and Chicago. Not this year.
Orlando Magic: Even if Dwight Howard were committed to staying, we wouldn't have the Magic on the same tier as Miami or Chicago. Wasting a valuable trade asset like Marcin Gortat in last year's disastrous trades blew Otis Smith's best chance to keep this team viable. Now, with long-term signings of Jason Richardson and Big Baby Davis, Smith continues to pile up questionable moves, and the glass appears half-empty at best for Orlando.
New York Knicks: The Knicks should be too thin to rack up gaudy regular-season numbers, but could be a pesky postseason team with the nucleus of Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Baron Davis. It's a bit perilous given the collective health history of those four, and New York doesn't have enough depth of talent to win the East, but this is clearly the best Knicks team since Jeff Van Gundy left a decade ago, and a Heat-Knicks playoff series would be wildly entertaining.
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are a fascinating team, with lots of red-chip players, but zero blues. Indiana has very good depth, especially among its bigs, which could be huge given this year's schedule and which gives them a definite chance to vault thinner teams like Boston and New York into the top four in the East.
Here are The Painted Area's 2011-12 NBA season predictions:
4. New York
-First Round: Bulls over Sixers, Heat over Bucks, Pacers over Magic, Knicks over Celtics
-Conf. Semis: Bulls over Knicks, Heat over Pacers
-Conf. Finals: Heat over Bulls
1. Oklahoma City
3. San Antonio
4. L.A. Clippers
7. L.A. Lakers
-First Round: Thunder over Blazers, Nuggets over Lakers, Grizzlies over Spurs, Mavs over Clippers
-Conf. Semis: Thunder over Mavs, Nuggets over Grizzlies
-Conf. Finals: Thunder over Nuggets
-NBA Finals: Thunder over Heat
MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
As has been proven over and over again, narrative plays a critical role in determining the NBA MVP. Given that we expect Oklahoma City to run away with the West, we think Durant is perfectly positioned to be the odds-on favorite for the award.
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
Not only do we think that Irving is the best player in this rookie class, but we also think that he's ready to contribute right away, and that he'll also get plenty of playing time to rack up some good numbers. Stir it all together, and that's your Rookie of the Year.
OK, with the late release of the season win over/unders, we're racing to get our annual O/U picks before season tip-off. Hope to have something shortly. Thanks for reading, as always, and enjoy the season.