By Craig Kwasniewski
Hey stranger... long time no talk. And just in time for the season...
In all reality I just want to get in a few predictions just to block quote myself in "I told you so" post this June. (BTW - I've been "making predictions" for years and have yet to furnish an "I told you so" post if you know what I mean.) Anyway, let's quickly roll out the predictions before Miami throws a championship parade...
1. David Stern will continue to play the MLB handbook of how to publicly negotiate a CBA. The NBA is thinking about contracting???? Right on schedule David. Soon we'll hear about most of the teams hemorrhaging money... oh wait we already heard that? Yep, David Stern is following Major League Baseball's book of negotiating the CBA in the media. The next six months will be gloom and doom. We'll hear a lot of talk about "despite the success of the Miami Heat" teams are still losing money. They whole contracting thing was Stern's tell. Come on David, you're better than that to play that card so soon.
Listen closely... THE NBA IS NOT CONTRACTING!!! This is just CBA psycho-babble. And it was a bunch of billionaries in Major League Baseball complaining that they're losing money that completely turned me off to the sport. It wasn't the steroid era or the '94 strike or Red Sox fans acting like they're cursed when the Cubs are the real cursed franchise. Nope. It was ridiculously rich guys manipulating their finances to negoitiate with the player's union. And if anyone remembers, it was congress that asked for MLB to "open their books" that we realized things weren't all that bad.
Stern's playing the same card, saying how the NBA is struggling in it's current form, claiming contraction may be necessary and talking about how there needs to be a hard cap for the league to survive. I guarantee we won't see ticket prices drop the same percentages of this hard cap. Hey, how about a hard cap on ticket prices. Yeah, I thought so. This is just a ploy for the rich to get richer and just like baseball, sadly I may find myself tuning out the NBA.
2. LeBr-ANGER will reign in the media. I'm not talking about the backlash from last summer's The Decision, but the backlash to the backlash. Oh there will be a lot of writers on their high horses around December when the Heat have the best record in the NBA. These are the LeBron James guys who are quietly lurking, waiting patiently to jump out and scream 'I KNEW IT!!!!" These are the same ones who were OUTRAGED!!! that LeBron wasn't a unanimous MVP last season. Remember, Bron had something like 99.9% of the votes yet how dare the few dissenters get in the way of his legacy (or is it LeBregacy). How dare people have an independent thought!!! Well, there's already a slow, steady rumble... just you wait until Christmas Day after the Heat beat LA (who could care less about a regular season game and won't get wrapped in the hype).
3. Phoenix will be better than people think. Amar'e bolted for the bright lights of NYC. (Well bolted wasn't the reality. More like Phoenix low balled him, giving him no option but to head to the Knicks. What a shock, the Suns went on the cheap.) Gone is their athletic superstar, true highlight reel, their best rebounder, best lowpost scorer, annual All-Star and "we're a contender with this guy" guy. In comes Hedu Tukoglu, exiled from Toronto for good reason... he stunk and Hakim Warrick. On paper a true 50 cents on the dollar deal. But I like the gamble. Instead of finding a big for a big they went long and fast. Meaning, they grabbed two guys that will fit in Alvin Gentry's SSOL offense.
The Suns found their rhythm last year because they were loaded with guys who could hit the deep J's and spread the floor for both Nash and Dragic to work their magic. Turkoglu was always able to shot from beyond the arc and he brings another clutch player for the Suns down the stretch (remember, he was THE Magic's go to guy during their title run in 2009). Yes, Turkoglu doesn't play any defense, but let's be honest here neither did Amar'e. The Suns know exactly what kind of team they are in a speed, great perimeter shooting and just enough D. The X-factor is Steve Nash's leadership and I expect a 2009 Turkoglu instead of the Toronto version. I'm not saying the Suns are a repeat Western Conference Finalist but I expect a top 6 finish.
4. Utah Jazz are a legit threat to the Lakers. First off, I was completely wrong in thinking the Al Jefferson deal didn't improve the Jazz. I'm still a little weary an injury-prone player who never seemed to carry his team to the playoffs. But I saw Jefferson play the Lakers last week and they guy is seriously locked in. I know it was preseason, but he gave Pau Gasol fits on both ends of the floor. He controlled the glass and scored anytime he posted up. Utah just might be able to hang with LA's size.
But the real reason why Utah is a legit threat to LA is the sneaky-good Raja Bell signing. Lakers fans never really felt threatened by the Jazz the past three seasons because they never had a player who could hang with Kobe. When all else failed, Kobe could bail out the Lakers with a dominant 40 point game. AK-47 might hang with Kobe a quarter or two but eventually Bryant would break, leaving Kirlienko walking away with slumped shoulders and shaking his head. Despite his age and being maybe a slight step slower, Raja Bell has physical skills and more importantly mental make-up to hang with Kobe. Great baseball closers never let the last pitch get under their skin. A blown save is easily forgotten the next day. Bell (like Bruce Bowen) approaches defending Kobe the exact same way. Kobe might be in one of those zones where every deep three is falling and Staples Center is going crazy, yet there's Bell in Kobe's face with the same lock-down intensity regardless of the score. Combined with Kirlienko, the Jazz can work and older Kobe all game defensively. I expect a few off nights against Utah this season. Mix one of the top coaches in NBA history, a top 3 point guard and still one of the best home courts and the Lakers have a serious challenge with the Utah Jazz.
5. LeBron will win the MVP. Kevin Durant will be the early favorite and for good reason. What he did last summer with Team USA, carrying them on his back and winning the World Champioship, was beyond impressive (and sad that few will remember the feat because most Americans can give a crap about the FIBA championships). I'm looking forward to watching Durant grow as a player the next few years. HOWEVER, I feel as this season continues people will appreciate what LeBron does with the Heat. It's not easy to create a team out of thin air, no matter how talented, and lead them to 60-plus wins. And make no mistake (football cliche), the Heat are LeBron's team and he'll earn that MVP.
6. Lakers will threepeat. Yeah, big shock, a Lakers fan goes with his team to with the title. Hear me out... Miami will match and probably exceed the hype. But it's hard to create a championship out of nothing. The playoffs are all about talent, heart and soul (which Miami has) but it's also about experience as a team and the belief in one another. The Heat haven't been down that road yet. How will they respond to a series deficit or the slow/grind-out style of a team like the Celtics (LeBron's Pistons though we're no longer allowed to compare him to Jordan). 2010-11 isn't the Heat's year... but 2011 thru 2014 will be a different story.
I don't really need to go too deep into why the Lakers will win as we've heard it all before. But the the signings of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes were exactly what the doctor ordered. The Lakers sorely needed PG depth and Blake is a perfect Triangle Offense guy with his hoops IQ and outside shooting. Barnes is the Lakers counter to LeBron-to-Miami. Like Bell and AK-47 will combine to give Kobe a tough 48 minutes, Barnes and Artest will do the same for LeBron. Two strong, physical, defensive-minded forwards and most importantly 12 fouls for LeBron. Oh and the Lakers have quality depth up front. Miami is going with Ilgauskus? But I'm getting ahead of myself as...
I don't think Miami gets past the Boston Celtics. The Celtics basically traded Rasheed Wallace for the O'Neal brothers. The Celtics have a ton of depth up front to close off the lanes against Miami and control the pace. Plus, after last season, Doc Rivers has entered in the exclusive coach-for-the-entire-season rather than game-to-game group with Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich (seriously, after last season I really believe Doc is a top 5 coach. The NBA is all about massaging egos and those three are THE experts at it.) The Celtics are built for two things, to beat the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. Rondo will only get better and The Big Three have just enough in the tank for one or two more runs at a title. I can't wait to see how this Celtics squad plays out and will keep a close eye on them from out here in LA. Plus, let's be honest, Shaq riding off in the sunset in the Finals against LA would be, dare I say... fan-Shaq-stic!
Lakers will beat Boston in 7 games to win the 2010-11 title and give Phil Jackson a four threepeat.