As this is posted, I’ll be trying desperately to get mentally prepared for tonight’s preseason game between the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat, as well as the idea that I won’t have many more chances to enjoy Dwight Howard in a Magic jersey. And as my team prepares to slide into its second post-superstar Dark Ages, I thought we could take some time today to take a look around the NBA, since the season starts on Christmas Day and most of these guys look like they haven’t touched a ball in months.
As always, I’ll point out that I am not an expert, and these rankings are based solely on my gut feelings and observations as a rabid-yet-ignorant fan. Besides, this season couldn’t be any more predictable if it was a Disney film. Shortened from 82 to 66 games because of a lockout that has changed virtually nothing, expect to see the usual suspect big market teams do their things, but at least there might be plenty of wild cards and surprises in play.
Feel free to correct me or shake your keyboards in rage in the comments.
What We Like About Them: Well, that whole winning the NBA Championship last year means they’re pretty good, so they get to keep their No. 1 ranking for now. They added Lamar Odom, who was incredibly important to the Lakers’ depth, but clearly not as important as freeing up money to acquire Dwight Howard.
What We Don’t Like: Speaking of Howard, the Mavs also treated this shortened offseason as an opportunity to move to the front of the line for the D12 free agency sweepstakes. Odom is not Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea signing with Minnesota hurts, too.
Wild Card: Odom can either play like the guy who cried over not being an All-Star last year or he can ride off into the Texas sunset. Either way, he brings Khloe Kardashian with him, which I’m sure Mark Cuban loves for attention, but not if she’s bitching about team wives and girlfriends ignoring her like she did with Vanessa Bryant.
The Result: I wouldn’t count them out of a return to the Finals, I just don’t think this team will have the same *clears throat* fortune as some others.
What We Like About Them: They’re f*cking diabolical. While the league was locked out, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were playing and organizing exhibition games like crazy and they were constantly studying their greatest opponents, while they were also recruiting with the whole “Look how much fun we are” routine. These guys are evil geniuses.
What We Don’t Like: Not much. Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem need to make up for last season’s shortcomings, but with Shane Battier this team is terrifying.
Wild Card: Ummmmmmmm, health? That’s about all I’ve got. I can’t even picture egos getting in the way. All of last year’s hurdles are behind them. James learned to deal with his villain status and his PR efforts during the lockout won him a lot of fans back.
The Result: Easiest prediction in sports and probably the quickest with which to piss off Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Knicks fans. They’re winning a title and us haters are going to bow down to our new overlords.
What We Like About Them: Derrick Rose is the anti-Dwight. He signed his extension and offers no distraction to his team, other than his occasional frustrations. Also, Rip Hamilton is a nice addition. It won’t be easy for Miami.
What We Don’t Like: Rose’s aforementioned frustrations, for starters. He has to get past his belief that he needs to be the man. That’s not a criticism, because that’s a good trait, but he also needs to help the other guys push Carlos Boozer harder.
Wild Card: Two things – 1) Boozer. If good Boozer shows up, this team is incredible. If it’s bad Boozer, then it’s like they’re playing 4-on-5. 2) Will the Bulls try to get in on Howard? I say no because Adidas wouldn’t want its two main guys on the same team. I say yes, because Joakim Noah and Boozer is better than anything else the Magic have been offered.
The Result: Hopefully, one hell of an Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat.
What We Like About Them: Kevin Durant, of course, who basically did the same thing that James and Wade did by keeping up his condition and play with other NBA stars. I also love the idea that James Harden is finally going to be a starter.
What We Don’t Like: Russell Westbrook’s inconsistency. Durant can’t do everything.
Wild Card: I really think the Thunder should try to get in on Howard. Durant and Howard would be incredible together. Send Harden and Westbrook to the Magic and bring over Howard, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu, or whatever works financially. I suck at math.
The Result: They should win the Western Conference Finals, but I still hang my hat on the champs until it happens.
What We Like About Them: No matter what, they’re still the Lakers and they will still win plenty of games.
What We Don’t Like: New coach, the failed Chris Paul deal, losing Odom, Andrew Bynum’s knees and maybe pissing of Pau Gasol by trying to move him? Means absolutely nothing. The only thing that matters is what divorce is doing to Kobe Bryant mentally. He can either become Tiger Woods and fall apart, or he becomes Darth Vader and just destroys everything in his path. Either way, more Jessica Burciaga, please.
Wild Card: I’m convinced that it won’t be long before the Lakers agree to send Bynum and Gasol to the Magic for Howard. I hope it doesn’t happen, but it just seems so obvious.
The Result: I don’t see a Finals run in this team.
What We Like About Them: Tim Duncan told people that he’s not ready to think about retirement yet. That’s pretty cool, I guess.
What We Don’t Like: That Duncan is old enough for us to be suggesting that he’s close to retiring. Good Lord, that makes me feel old. It feels like just a few years ago that he was going to sign with the Magic and then said, “JK LOL!” Also, how does Tony Parker feel about Eva Longoria hooking up with Matt Barnes (allegedly)? HMMMMM? WE NEED TO KNOW THESE THINGS!
Wild Card: Health, I guess. If Manu Ginobli and Parker are healthy, this is still a really good team that’s capable of beating anyone. They’re just really, really boring. I also quietly predicted a few months ago that the Spurs could suddenly appear on the Howard trade radar (trade-ar?) and I maintain my wild theories.
The Result: One last push out of Duncan for a title? I could see the Spurs in the Finals.
What We Like About Them: From Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Baron Davis to Griffin, Jordan, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. And the other guys they play with. Youth and excitement plus a really pissed off veteran equals big trouble.
What We Don’t Like: Not much. They also just added Reggie Evans for rebounding help, so chemistry would be my only concern, but Caron Butler seems to be content with the role of elder statesman, so I’m out of guesses.
Wild Card: The black cloud of sports karma that looms over Donald Sterling, as well as the looming jinx of the sudden celebrity bandwagon.
The Result: It’d be pretty cool to see the Clips make a title run, or at least make the Finals. It can definitely happen.
What We Like About Them: Like the Lakers, they’re still the Celtics and they’re always going to win their games. Plus, I’m both pissed off and excited to see Brandon Bass with the Celtics because he should fit in great there. It’s going to haunt Orlando.
What We Don’t Like: Blah blah blah age blah blah blah injuries. Kevin Garnett only gets to take a few weeks off this time around, but he’s already been taunting opposing players in preseason action so he’s in championship form.
Wild Card: Rajon Rondo needs to answer the trade rumors and his perceived discontent with some solid, steady offense.
The Result: I don’t see the Celtics making it past the second round, but that’s what they want people to think.
What We Like About Them: The high-powered offense of Carmelo Anthony and A’mare Stoudemire, combined with the new imposing championship-winning presence of Tyson Chandler.
What We Don’t Like: Losing Billups and thinking Mike Bibby is a qualified replacement is a good place to start, but everyone thinks that Landry Fields is due to break out and take this team a step higher, so what do I know?
Wild Card: If Baron Davis comes back healthy and can handle being a role player in New York City, this could be the start of a nice final chapter for him. If.
The Result: They’re definitely capable – with a little help from the basketball gods – of an ECF run. Finals? Ehhhhhhh, my gut says no. Also, more Pizza Rolls.
What We Like About Them: Re-signing Nene was huge. I didn’t think there was a chance it could happen, but I also expected more teams to be going nuts over him. Not max contract nuts, but pretty damn close. Also, I like George Karl’s belief that you don’t need a superstar to win. If only more GMs and owners shared that theory, we’d see less stupid contracts.
What We Don’t Like: Screw it, not having a star player to put in the center of the great role players. Remember, I’m old-fashioned and live in a fantasy world.
Wild Card: I think Nene can be a star big man. That’s why I expected more teams to say, “Screw Dwight, we’ll just take this guy now.”
The Result: They can definitely cause headaches in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
What We Like About Them: Dwight, for however much longer they have him.
What We Don’t Like: The pieces that are left once Howard is gone. If they had any value they would have been traded to New Orleans for Chris Paul weeks ago.
Wild Card: Somehow, perhaps with the help of a mystical being with special powers, GM Otis Smith can work out a Band-Aid deal with the Warriors or 76ers to bring in Monta Ellis or Andre Iguodala, respectively, and appease Howard into at least riding out the season.
The Result: Depends on when Howard leaves and who he’s traded to. If it’s New Jersey for Brook Lopez and someone like Gerald Wallace from a third team, the Magic won’t make the playoffs. If it’s the Lakers for Bynum and Gasol and it’s at the trade deadline, they’ll be an 8-seed with no hope. If he stays through the season, the Magic might make the second round.
What We Like About Them: Somehow, despite all of the many, many injuries, the Blazers still manage to win. It’s a modern medical miracle. Also, Jamal Crawford coming home should add an extra pep to his step.
What We Don’t Like: The injuries, obviously. Greg Oden may never be healthy. We could dip him in that goo from Wanted and he step out and you’d hear a snap.
Wild Card: LaMarcus Aldridge has to stay healthy, so it’s nice that he’s back. But what if Oden gets healthy in time to contribute late in the season? Stop laughing, we have 18 more teams.
The Result: They’ll need to win early or they’ll be starting summer vacation a little earlier thanks to a 1- or 2-seed sending them home.
What We Like About Them: From that picture above, it’s hard to think that I can find something to like about them if Joe Johnson can’t even find something. Though I am still waiting for Otis Smith to desperately send Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick to Atlanta for Josh Smith, at which point I think everyone in Atlanta will smile and nod.
What We Don’t Like: The roster isn’t much different from last year. I mean, signing Jannero Pargo doesn’t make people yell, “Hot damn, title town!”
Wild Card: I’ve always thought Marvin Williams could be a lot better, and I think there are some Hawks fans who probably share that sentiment. But aside from actually being able to lock up a star player, I don’t think this team is much different than Orlando.
The Result: First or second round at best. Flip a coin, really, because it’s impossible to tell when ice cold shooting is going to arrive.
What We Like About Them: The Pacers hit free agency harder than anyone, as the David West signing was pretty big and he makes Indiana a big pain in the ass for the teams that are just hanging on to their middle seeds.
What We Don’t Like: They’re still young and they’re going with an old school approach so the translation could take some time.
Wild Card: Like the Nuggets, someone should at least want to be a star on this team of quality talent. I know Danny Granger is a very good player, but I wouldn’t call him a star. He should want us to.
The Result: I could see this team grabbing the 5- or 6-seed and causing trouble. Looking at you, Orlando and Atlanta.
What We Like About Them: They were last year’s surprise darlings. Who wasn’t pulling for them to keep causing trouble in the playoffs, so long as they didn’t end up in the Finals against the Heat? It’d be nice to see that excitement carry over.
What We Don’t Like: They’re still very young. Aside from Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Brian Skinner (SKINNER!!!), there’s not a guy with more than 4 seasons of experience on the roster.
Wild Card: It’s just about starting with momentum and hoping some other teams are too rested.
The Result: I think the Grizz can make it back to the playoffs, but the NBA pessimist in me is just waiting for Marc Gasol to be traded to the Lakers.
What We Like About Them: Deron Williams seems like he’s set to stay and Kris Humphries is back – please, hold your laughter. And Mikhail Prokhorov seems hellbent on winning, because the dude is a billionaire and he might run for President of Russia, so something tells me he’s going to figure out a way to get Dwight Howard.
What We Don’t Like: Until they have Howard, the Nets aren’t that good. Brook Lopez already admitted that he knew he was playing lazy last season and that’s why he averages 6 rebounds as a 7-footer.
Wild Card: Humphries isn’t a good player by any means, but he’s going to have to get over being humiliated worldwide. Even if he doesn’t feel like we’re laughing at him, he needs to play like he doesn’t care.
The Result: It all depends on Howard. I think the Nets will be good enough for a 7- or 8-seed without him – maybe even better, if Williams plays at super duper star and Lopez plays at better-than-average. But if they get Howard at any point they’ll jump to at least the same level as the Knicks.
What We Like About Them: They seem to be really trying to get better in the face of losing their star center, and that’s why it sucks that the league canceled the Rockets’ trade with the Hornets and Lakers.
What We Don’t Like: Beyond the busted Lakers trade for Pau Gaosl, the Rockets should have done anything and everything to get Nene. Max contract, sign-and-trade, truck stop handjob, whatever.
Wild Card: If the Lakers agree to send Gasol and Bynum to Orlando, I could see Gasol still going to Houston, if the desire is still there.
The Result: The playoff picture is hazy at best. If I were a magic 8-ball, I would tell you to try again later.
What We Like About Them: Evan Turner is going to be fantastic, Andre Iguodala is a very snazzy dresser and Will Smith is now part owner.
What We Don’t Like: The team gives Iguodala way too much money with which to purchase his snazzy duds.
Wild Card: I should probably have these guys ranked a little higher, because no team ended the season better than the 76ers, aside from Dallas and Memphis, obviously. So that begs the question – were they for real, taking Miami the distance?
The Result: Philly is a playoff team, but youth and exuberance won’t have the luxury of playing confusion and frustration in Miami again.
What We Like About Them: They want to win, as evidenced by their effort to acquire Chris Paul. And everyone with a working set of eyes knows that Stephen Curry can be a star.
What We Don’t Like: Curry is already injured. And it’s that same ankle. If he’s healthy, the foundation of Curry, David Lee and Monta Ellis – you know, if they keep him around – is better than what most middle tier teams have. But Kwame Brown? Ugh.
Wild Card: Can Monta Ellis step it up and lead with Curry out? And I imagine the workload for Brandon Rush just got a little tougher.
The Result: Not looking so hot. The Warriors may have to sit this postseason out and wait to add one more piece.
What We Like About Them: Kevin Love, who I would have bet was going to be the offseason’s top trade rumor if there hadn’t been a lockout. Also, as much as they’re made fun of because of GM David Kahn’s questionable choices, the T-Wolves have put together a solid, young core.
What We Don’t Like: Until they start winning, I won’t trust anything that has Kahn’s stamp of approval on it.
Wild Card: Ricky Rubio has a lot of hype to live up to.
The Result: They’re my pick to be called a Cinderella team the most this season, and if some teams with older guys suffer injuries, we’ll hear a lot of it.
What We Like About Them: I like that Grant Hill stayed, and I love Steve Nash’s intensity. I think that’s a nice way of saying, “Yawn.”
What We Don’t Like: Owner Robert Sarver. He’s probably the reason my opinion of the Suns is so low.
Wild Card: How long until Nash trade rumors? I don’t see them competing enough to not at least entertain the idea of finally sending him to a winner again.
The Result: The problem with talking about the Suns and trying to predict what they’re going to do is that they’re so unpredictable. I hope they win and make the playoffs, but I also hope Sarver slips in the shower.
What We Like About Them: It’s pretty cool that Bismarck Biyombo is taking care of his contract with his Spanish team so he can begin his NBA career. Let’s just hope he stays healthy.
What We Don’t Like: Reggie Williams and Eduardo Najera are already out up to 8 weeks. Not like they were the dividing line between playoff success and a lottery pick.
Wild Card: Can young Michael Jordan show up and play?
The Result: We’re starting to slip into the realm of hopelessness if you haven’t noticed already.
What We Like About Them: It’s a team of quality rookies surrounded by decent enough veterans to help the transition.
What We Don’t Like: The roster just looks so sloppy. It looks like the Jazz were the third team in every deal of the last three seasons. I imagine we’ll be hearing a lot of teams calling the Jazz about role players as the deadline nears.
Wild Card: The veterans could actually be fun to watch. I doubt it, but anything is possible.
The Result: Another lottery pick would be a blessing.
What We Like About Them: At least Stephen Jackson is a veteran that still plays with his balls on his sleeve. You know, when he’s healthy.
What We Don’t Like: This team is putting a lot of offensive pressure on Brandon Jennings. It could work and I could be vastly underrating the Bucks, but the offense is just very unimpressive.
Wild Card: Scott Skiles is a pretty good coach, so maybe he can build a fire out of this soggy wood.
The Result: Anything is possible at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but the Bucks just don’t seem to have enough to squeeze in at the end.
What We Like About Them: Not to say that other teams aren’t excited, but the Pistons just seem more excited than others to prove that they don’t suck.
What We Don’t Like: A new coach has to turn around a 30-win team in a shortened season. Me no likey.
Wild Card: At least Ben Gordon will get more playing time, which should be interesting since he makes a nice chunk of change. Maybe that will make him happy, since he’s been openly mopey for two years.
The Result: Same as the Bucks, it wouldn’t be the most shocking turn of events if the Pistons somehow made the playoffs as an 8-seed, but are you going to make that bet in Vegas?
What We Like About Them: John Wall. JaVale McGee’s slam dunks.
What We Don’t Like: Flip Saunders is already fired and he knows it. There’s no way he can make the team listen to him.
Wild Card: There’s not a big enough “potential, maybe, what if” on this team to matter. Rashard Lewis spent the lockout bitching that he was tired of being singled out as a bad contract, and he was partially right, but he also said he’d prove everyone wrong and have his best season yet. Sure thing, bud. I’ll hold my breath.
The Result: Keep building around Wall and McGee and maybe put Lewis in a box and send it to the moon.
What We Like About Them: Giving Kyrie Irving’s trial-by-fire a chance to succeed by getting Baron Davis the hell away from him.
What We Don’t Like: This team is way too young, and as long as Anderson Varejao is out there flopping around, it leaves Antawn Jamison and Anthony Parker as the leadership. Yikes.
Wild Card: Maybe the Cavs can open a daycare center right next to the court to distract people from how young the players are.
The Result: Dan Gilbert’s championship proclamation dies a brutal death this season.
What We Like About Them: Dwane Casey is possibly the most optimistic head coach in the NBA in terms of what he wants from his young team.
What We Don’t Like: That young team has no chance of fulfilling his hopes this season.
Wild Card: The young guys can learn fast, that’s about the best Toronto can hope for.
The Result: Possibly the worst record in the NBA this season, but even if they do pull that off, the Raptors will have more potential than some of their peers.
What We Like About Them: Yelling, “JIMMER!”
What We Don’t Like: Community instability and youth mostly. Sure, there’s promise in the talent and the Maloofs claim that they’re selling plenty of tickets, but until the city actually offers an arena proposal, I’d say that Fredette and the boys should keep renting.
Wild Card: I don’t believe in miracles.
The Result: Maybe not dead last, but close enough.
What We Like About Them: That someone could buy them and stop letting David Stern and the league run them like a pain-in-the-ass orphan.
What We Don’t Like: That the league runs the team.
Wild Card: It sucks for Eric Gordon that he was traded to the league’s bastard, but at least now he can show how good he is.
The Result: Realistically, this team is probably going to finish dead last, and Stern will sell it to another schmuck.