The Top Ten:
1. The Heat
I’m not a Heat doubter, I’m a Heat hater. The basketball world will eventually forgive LeBron because people like Henry Abbott (who’s great, by the way) want you too, and won’t stop talking about it, and because people like David Stern want you to, so you’ll buy LeBron jerseys. The story line “there was controversy, but look at this amazing basketball play, look at this phenomenon, playing at the height of their collective powers, just enjoy”—is gathering strength daily and I have no doubt it will win.
But you just don’t do that. On the playground, you don’t do that. If it were a pickup game, LeBron and Wade would be the guys about whom someone else would say “well, we gotta separate these two,” when teams were being picked, and they’d laugh, and smile, and try to bust each other the whole game.
This is someone who wants things to be guaranteed, wants them to be easy. Afraid of not being able to live up to expectations without Magnum-sized help. This is General McLellan, the Union General whom everyone agreed, at the time, was the smartest and the best, getting kicked out of office after two years because he could never bring himself to fight a battle and possibly lose.
But, whatever. Yes, I’m concerned about their lack of interior defense and rebounding. But it’s hard for me to see anyone beating them. LeBron and Wade, both, by themselves, made playoff teams out of the Cavs and the Heat when everybody else on both these teams was just horrible. They made them both Finals teams, or Finals-caliber teams, when they finally had a just-decent supporting cast.
My point is, they’ve never not been able to get to the playoffs on their own, and each represents, individually, more help than the other has ever had. They’re the one and two best players alive. And they’ve also got Bosh, who’s an efficient player and a good rebounder—I wouldn’t rank him higher than the fourth or fifth best PF in the league, but that’s nothing to sneeze at–and then there’s a couple of other guys like Mike Miller who will absolutely thrive on having open looks.
I’m calling it. This thing works from day one. Which is too darn bad, in my belief system.
2. The Lakers
First, let’s put aside the notion that Pau Gasol is the best PF in the game. Obviously, I understand the correlation pundits make between success and talent. It’s not always wrong, it just bears examination. Even Michael Jordan, greatest player ever, greatest team ever, and all that—well, the year after his first retirement, the Bulls still won 55 games and still got to the 7th game of the 2nd round in the playoffs. The success of the Lakers after they got Pau—and Artest, and Bynum and so on—helps his reputation a lot.
But it’s a stupid argument. Pau’s a great player, certainly a top 5 PF. People act like he could be a much better player if he wasn’t subordinating his role for the sake of the team. But, no. The 18-19 points he’s averaging for the Lakers is exactly the same as he averaged when he was The Man on the Grizzlies, when no one was fighting him for shots. And it’s not like he’s a sterling defender, or an exceptional rebounder. His 11.4 last year was great, but before that he’d had over 9 boards a game exactly twice.
And people act like when he was The Man on the Grizzlies he was some kind of rookie, but he wasn’t. He was 25—what most people would call their prime, the same age LeBron was last year, and several years older than Kevin Durant–and in his fifth season when the Grizzlies got absolutely waxed by the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, led by the real best PF in the game. They’ll say things like “Well, Dirk’s the best now, but maybe some day, Pau….” Like he’s still a young guy. He’ll turn 30 next season. It will be his tenth season.
He’s a 19-10 guy—with Kobe or without. He shoots high percentage shots, has a very crafty post-game, and is ideally suited, in many ways, to be a complementary player to Kobe. That’s great. Leave it there. Dirk’s better, Duncan, if you want to count him as a PF is better, Bosh is better. Amar’e’s better. Gasol is somewhere between those guys and LaMarcus Aldridge and Antawn Jamison. I don’t want to put Boozer in this ranking system.
I’m using this space to complain about the media’s infatuation with Gasol because I don’t have much to say about the Lakers.
They’re the opposite of a box of chocolates.
3. Orlando Magic
The major difference between the Magic and the Celtics on the one hand, and the Spurs, the Thunder, the Mavs etc.etc, is that the Magic and Celtics have consistently made either the Conference Finals or the Finals the last couple of years. It’s not talent. So the Magic are here for this reason, but I think that basically 3-7 is a push.
On the other hand if Howard’s work with Olajuwon means he wants to improve they’d definitely be the third-best team in the league. But I just kind of doubt it. Either you’re interested in imposing your will on the game, all-game, every-game or you’re happy with being the largest human being on Earth, who can only be stopped in Conference Finals games.
4. Boston Celtics
See above. The thing is the Celtics would be the NBA champions right now if Kendrick Perkins hadn’t got injured—but how did that happen in the first place? How did the folks in the NBA Finals– ground my 10 seasons, 50 wins Mavericks have sniffed exactly once—get in there with just one serviceable center?
And how come, while my Mavericks, who have exactly one player over 33, are constantly derided as too old to have a viable chance, this particular team, with a 35 year old Ray Allen, a 34 year old Kevin Garnett, a 33 year old Paul Pierce, who this summer, to fix that problem added Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal, the oldest 32 year old since Benjamin Button, which is sort of like going for the grocery store needing eggs and coming back with two hundred year old men, is still kicking butt?
But, they are, so they’re here until further notice.
5. Dallas Mavericks
‘Cause I’m a huge homer. But ALSO, despite a disappointing playoff event, thanks I feel, in large part, to weird coaching, the two indisputable facts about the Mavs, no matter who you are is that 1) They did get 2nd place in the West last year and 2) They did get better.
They didn’t get nearly as much better as Mavs fans sort of expected, at least strongly hoped for, but that doesn’t ACTUALLY make them worse than they were last year. More Roddy could make a big difference, though I’m afraid the kid is injury prone. Tyson Chandler is going to be a big improvement on Erick Dampier—just you watch—unless he gets injured. Dom Jones is not going to be a consistent offensive threat for a while, but if he can get on the floor, he’ll play good defense and the one thing that has ALWAYS killed the Mavs is quick point guards. Plus, J.J. Barea keeps getting on the floor and there’s really not a single thing that he does better than a REAL NBA player.
Reflect: The Mavs started last season with a center rotation of Dampier and Kris Humphries. Their SFs were Shawn Marion and Quinton Ross. Now they have Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler at center, Caron Butler and Shawn Marion. Not too bad.
6. San Antonio Spurs
Until they show they’re not going to, anymore.
7. Chicago Bulls
I’ll be honest, I still believe in an East bias. Because it’s now the case that two or three real Title Contenders have come out of there the last couple years, the story line has been that the East is back .But of course that’s absurd. After the top four or so it’s the same desolate wasteland of basketball talent it’s always been, and that does really inflate win totals—consider the 127 games the Cavs have won the last two years with no Finals berth to show for it.
Or, consider the annual godawful Atlanta “this is supposedly a Championship Contender” Hawks series, like the one two years ago against the equally unimpressive Heat where each team shot about -37% percent in an interminable seven-game series. Or last year where they got swept and then spent a zillion dollars keeping the team together.
Point is, on an ABSOLUTE level, it’s really hard to be sure about East teams. However, I really like the Bulls. And the reason I really like the Bulls is because they have their talent in great places.
Look, I’m a Mavs fan. Saying a bad word about Dirk Nowitzki hurts me inside. But if Dirk were, say, 6’6” and an SF (I know, it would never work, bear with me), and the Mavs could have had a PF who played defense the last ten years, who knows what might have happened? But when you have a guy like Dirk, there’s never any question you’re going to play him. You luck into players like that.
I think it’s fair to say that when you luck into two guys like Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, your team has a lot more flexibility. A one makes the whole offense better and the five makes the whole defense better.
Throw in guys like Luol Deng, a multi-talented player on both ends, and three point shooters like Korver and Bogans and you have some really good complementary pieces. When Boozer comes back, they’ll have a real post game. It could be really good.
7. Oklahoma Thunder
Not sold on the Thunder. Kevin Durant had what some people consider his coming-out party this summer, but he had 30-8-3 last season. So how much could that go up and how much different could it make? But you do win more games when you get more used to winning games.
And Durant is great. And Westbrook was really good, this summer. And Harden could be huge, and Cole Aldrich might help. But I don’t see how they don’t have the same problems as the Heat do (lack of interior presence, etc.) with less talent.
I really liked the Al Jefferson move for Utah. I bet they don’t miss a beat. But it’s an interesting contrast. Boozer could be one of the top ten players in the game today, but he never wanted to be. And you never knew what made him tick. He passed on the chance to play with LeBron for a fairly negligible amount of extra cash, and whether he plays well or not doesn’t seem to be determined by situation in the least.
Big Al, on the other hand, seems like a nice young kid who has never played on a winning team. Will he be able to produce every night?
Anyway, though. Deron Williams is the best PG in the league. And even if Gordon Heyward was the most predictable pick in the draft (Utah drafts the best white guy available? Unbelievable!), you still had to like what he did for Butler.
They’d be a lot higher except for the obvious Carmelo Anthony related business. Even if he plays, is there any chemistry left? The Nuggets are a huge mystery to me. They have tons and tons of talent, but they never even really threaten. So it goes.
I hate Atlanta, except for Al Horford. Actually, I like Josh Smith, but he should be doing something else, with a lesser role.
11. Hornets—Because Chris Paul is back.
12. The Clippers—Because Blake Griffin is huge and they have too much talent to keep being terrible.
13. Portland—Because they’re very talented, only, they have no centers who have…legs.
14. Houston—Who knows, but maybe Yao and Kevin Martin can work something out. Mutually beneficial.
15. Memphis—Lots of young talent, otherwise dysfunctional
16. Milwaukee—They’d be a lot higher if I felt good about when Andrew Bogut would come back. They were a terrific team at the end of last year.
17. Phoenix—Phoenix without Amaré? Love Nash, but this feels right.
18. New York Knicks: Amare might be enough to put them up here, with Danilo and Felton and suchlike. But who knows.
19. Charlotte: I don’t know, they were pretty good last year, but when you look at that roster…Augustin—Jackson—Wallace—Thomas—Mohammed doesn’t sound quite done yet, to me.
20. Washington: Actually, Washington could really be pretty good. Wall is going to struggle, but he, McGee, Blatche, Howard, Hinrich—that’s really not a bad core group. Throw in Arenas, if he makes it to the regular season, and Yi Jianlian, along with a couple intriguing guys like Thornton, Young, and Seraphin, you really just don’t know. Bu I hate predicting huge jumps for teams with that kind of, shall we say, uncertain”talent.
21. Golden State—Last season: 2nd, points per game. 30th, rebounds per game. 5th, assists per game. 30th, points per game. Without Don Nelson, you’ll get less of that, but with their personnel how will they do anything else?
I am happy to be surprised by any of this crop of teams. The odds are pretty good that I will be. But it’s hard to forecast much anything from Philly, Toronto, Detroit, Sacto, Minnesota, Indiana, Cleveland.