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The NBA season is just a few days from tipping off and Las Vegas has weighed in with their picks for the 2011-12 campaign. Like most everyone else, the book makers see the Miami Heat winning the Eastern Conference and the Oklahoma City Thunder winning the Western Conference. The Phoenix Suns are projected to win 27.5 games and finish 10th in the West and with the 19th best overall record.
Here's how they see the Western Conference in order of projected wins on the 66-game 2011-12 NBA season:
Those over/under odds are courtesy of Bovada (www.Bovada.lv) as are these prop bets for the Phoenix Suns:
The Western Conference of the NBA will once again be superior to the East in the 2011-12 season, but like we saw last year, the balance is shifting. The top two teams in the East are certainly as good as the best in the West. The depth of talent and quality, however, still leans heavily towards the Pacific coast.
This conference, in fact, is so deep as to be nearly impossible to predict. There's really only three teams we can absolutely rule out of the playoffs, the New Orleans Hornets, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. And the Kings have enough talent to potentially surprise a lot of teams; they certainly won't be an easy opponent on any night.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are everyone's favorite pick to win the West and for good reason. They bring back their entire team and should be even better with a slimmed down, healthy Kendrick Perkins. They have youth, continuity, and depth which are the ingredients for a good regular season this year. The only reason they won't have a better record than the Heat or Thunder is the imbalanced schedule that has them facing better competition.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers have already shown in the preseason that they will be a fun rivalry to watch. We predict the Clippers Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Blake Griffin trio will edge out Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Tucked in between the two L.A. teams is the defending World Champion Dallas Mavericks who Shawn Marion rightly points out isn't getting enough respect. He didn't point out that they replaced Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea with Lamar Odom, Delonte West and Vince Carter. The Mavs will still be a very good regular season team, though, and should finish in the top half of the West.
After those top four teams things get dicey. The San Antonio Spurs are older but we expect Tiago Splitter to have a break out season. The Memphis Grizzlies seemed ready to continue their progress but the loss of Darrell Arthur will hurt but they seem willing to move O.J. Mayo for a big at some point.
Then we have the Phoenix Suns in the seventh spot in what we readily admit is a homer pick. After that comes the Portland Trail Blazers who have enough talent with LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews but they don't have the super star any more and depth is an issue (although Jamal Crawford will certainly help off the bench).
The next three teams are a complete mystery. We have the Minnesota Timberwolves surprising a lot of people and using all that talent to go further than many expect. Then the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets could easily be lottery teams in the West but mid-range playoff teams in the East. They could also be mid-range playoff teams in the West. Who knows.
We are fairly confident that the bottom three teams in the West will be the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Hornets. But only the Hornets will be in the same category as the worst teams in the East.
Here's how it lays out:
The MVP race for the 2011-12 NBA season will be interesting. There is no lack of top flight talent in the NBA right now which should make this year's discussion very interesting. Derrick Rose was a bit of surprise last year but won't be sneaking up on anybody now. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant will be in the discussion but this year lines up perfectly for Kevin Durant to walk away with the honor. Dwight Howard should have won last year but it's hard to see him having another great year with everything that's going on. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin should also both be in the mix. Here's a look at the candidates.
Kobe Bryant: We all know you can never count Kobe down and early indications are that he's healthy and motivated and with less talent around him he will naturally feel the need to score even more.
LeBron James: James has to split stats with Dwyane Wade but he seems to have a better mental approach to this season and could have to pick up a larger load if the schedule wears down Wade. James might have worn out a lot of his welcome, but it wouldn't take much for him to bounce back.
Derrick Rose: Rose was incredible last season but he had to be on that team that didn't have enough other scoring options. He was still a fairly inefficient scorer and very well could be a better point guard this year but see a decline in his scoring totals.
Dwight Howard: Dwight should have been the MVP last season with his combination of defense and improved scoring in the post. This year, however, he will be wrapped up in his future and could see a slight (temporary) decline.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin: These two will certainly make each other better and will be a LOT of fun to watch. For the MVP race, however, they will steal each other's thunder. It might not be fair, but the package deal will likely hurt their individual chances.
Kevin Durant: Things line up perfectly for this young stud. The compressed schedule will help his young legs and there will be plenty of shots available for him on that team. Durant should also show us some new facets to his game, including better defense and passing. He's our pick for NBA MVP for the 2011-12 season.
Most Improved Player is always a difficult award to predict. It's hard to say who will jump forward and the award is often tied to a return from injury.
The traditional candidate for MIP is Andrew Bogut. He should be fully recovered from the elbow injury and could easily take a big leap forward. Other second-year players to consider are Evan Turner and Greg Monroe. We expect both to make a big jump this season. Bogut is our pick.
Individual awards have never held a big attraction for this writer. Basketball is a team game and the greatest players are those who's teams have success. That said, we all pay attention to these things and you better believe NBA players do as well. So here's our predictions for Rookie of the Year for the 2011-12 NBA season.
Rookie of the Year: Last season it was a forgone conclusion that Blake Griffin, as a second-year pro but in his first season of play, would walk away with ROY. This season, things aren't nearly so clear. This rookie class has a lot of talent and some interesting players sprinkled across the lottery teams but there is no clear cut preseason favorite. Here's a look at the candidates:
Prediction: I have to go with Irving to win Rookie of the Year for the 2011-12 NBA season but it's a choice made without a lot of conviction. This race is wide open.
The NBA Eastern Conference is fairly easy to predict for the 2011-12 season. The wildcard, of course, is what happens with Dwight Howard. For the purposes of these predictions, we assume he stays in Orlando. Obviously, if he's traded that will change things, especially if it happens early in the season.
Outside of the Dwight saga, everything else should fall into place. We see the Miami Heat coming back very strong this season and have them battling tooth and nail with the Chicago Bulls for supremacy with LeBron and Wade getting the edge. The Indiana Pacers might surprise some being ranked third, but not those who've paid attention to the great moves they made in the offseason.
The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics both should beat the Pacers in a playoff series but we have serious concerns about depth with this compressed schedule. Amare Stoudemire should benefit from the addition of Tyson Chandler but he can't play 40 minutes per game and stay healthy. The Celtics are in even worse shape with their aging core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece and Ray Allen.
Further down. the Atlanta Hawks seem on pace to have another Hawks-like season with lots of ups and downs and no real chance to advance deep in the postseason. The Philadelphia 76ers is the one team here that we might have ranked too low. We could see them taking a big step forward this season and out-performing expectations.
From there, things get ugly fast. We're not buying into a Milwaukee Bucks team led by Stephen Jackson and Brandon Jennings. The Washington Wizards could be on the rise but probably are another year away. The Detroit Pistons seem mired in mediocrity while the rest of the teams are just plain bad.
Here's how we see the NBA Eastern Conference playing out this season:
The Southeast Division features the Miami Heat along with Dwight Howard and the highly talented Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Unfortunately, they also are saddled with the Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards who provide a lot of extra easy wins for their entire conference.
The big question here is how much the Heat learned from their disappointing NBA Finals loss and how long will Otis Smith play chicken with Dwight Howard. We'll predict the first but not the second.
Miami is out of excuses for not winning. They had a full year together and upgraded their roster with the addition of Shane Battier and will have a full season with Udonis Haslem (barring another injury). They brought back James Jones and they could even get productive minutes from second-year big Dexter Pittman. But what really matters is how much LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh learned from last season's circus. This time around they won't be the shiny new team in the.. SQUIRREL!
Prediction: 50-16, 1st place Southeast Division
The Hawks are a funny team. They are really bad and yet seem to keep on winning. That's what talent in the NBA will do for you and playing in the East doesn't hurt either. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford and yes, even Marvin Williams are good enough to win a lot of regular season games. They've proven, however, not to have enough good role players to go much further and will likely miss Jamal Crawford who went to the Trail Blazers unless of course, Tracy McGrady has perfected the Hot Tub Time Machine.
Prediction: 41-25, 2nd place Southeast Division
It's pretty unclear what the Orlando Magic are trying to do other than hold on to Dwight Howard as if their lives depended on it. They downgraded from Brandon Bass to Glen Davis and still have no depth to speak of behind Dwight unless Daniel Orton turns out to be a real NBA player. Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson will do some nice things at times and J.J. Redick has made himself into a decent option off the bench. But they are still saddled with Hedo Turkoglu's contract and even though they amnestied Gilbert Arenas they have to write him a paycheck every two weeks which must be the most painful thing anyone in an NBA front office anywhere is tasked with.
Prediction: 40-26, 3rd place Southeast Division
Is this the year the Wizards young talent finally shows signs of improvement? They had better. John Wall is not going to put up with losing for long which means JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche better get their heads straight. Maybe the addition of Ronny Turiaf will help with that. The Wiz kept gunner Nick Young and added rookie Jan Vesely but mostly they just got older which is bad for the Suns, Celtics and Spurs but good for Washington.
Prediction: 27-39, 4th place Southeast Division
We said previously the Toronto Raptors might have the worst roster in the NBA but that was before we reviewed this one. The Bobcats don't have anything approaching a star on their team unless Kemba Walker is one of the best rookies ever to play the game. We're excited that Bismack Biyombo bought his way out of Spain but when the most skilled player in your front court is Boris Diaw and your coach says the offense will run through Corey Maggette you know there's a long season of losing ahead. Good thing the 2012 NBA Draft looks like fun.
Prediction: 12-54, 5th place Southeast Division
The Central Division of the Eastern Conference features the Bulls and Pacers who got better this offseason and then three more teams who have a long way to go. This typifies the East which is top heavy as compared to the West which is deep but lacking at the top in comparison to Chicago, Miami, New York and Boston.
Here's how we see the Central playing out. Not surprisingly, the Bulls will run away with things again.
The Bulls didn't make a big splash in the offseason but they did upgrade slightly at their biggest position of need, shooting guard. They replaced Keith Bogans with Rip Hamilton who can provide more scoring from the wing so Derrick Rose doesn't feel the need to take 25 shots per game. Other than that, this is the same team that won 62 games and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals but with these guys, the continuity and experience will only make them better.
Prediction: 50-16, 1st place Central Division
Most people think the Pacers had one of the better offseasons of this funky, abbreviated offseason. They added great front court depth with Lou Amundson and Jeff Pendergraph and a potential All-Star in David West. Youngsters Paul George, Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough and Rob Hibbert should all improve and Danny Granger provides the star power every good team needs.
Prediction: 47-19, 2nd place Central Division
The Bucks always seem to be a tough team to get a handle on. They have talent on the roster with Andrew Bogut, Stephen Jackson, Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova but they don't have great depth and S-Jax is a powder keg just waiting to destroy any team. This team could do well this year but I'm just not feeling it.
Prediction: 33-33, 3rd place Central Division
Bring back Tayshaun Prince is nice and shows that if you throw enough money at a guy, even a bad team can keep good players. The problem is, they Pistons don't have any great players. Instead they have a lot of guys who can play basketball but no one to really lead the way. This is basically, the Houston Rockets of the East with guys like Will Bynum, Ben Gordon, Jonas Jerebko, Charlie Villanueva and Jason Maxiell. If they are going to beat expectations it will be on the back of center Greg Monroe who is poised to take a big step forward this season.
Prediction: 25-41, 4th place Central Division
This Cleveland team is at least headed in the right direction after last season's misery. First overall pick Kyrie Irving should be fun and Tristan Thompson is at least intriguing. They added a quality wing in Omri Casspi but on the flip side are still stuck with Antwan Jamison's bloated contract. Anderson Varejao is remains their most valuable trade asset. It will be interesting to see if they move him to contender and stockpile more assets or if they hang on to him and wait it out while their young guys develop.
Prediction: 19-47, 5th place Central Division
The Atlantic Division of the NBA's Atlantic Division has two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference and three of eight playoff teams. It also has the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors who, barring any trades for Dwight Howard, will be horrible.
Here's our predictions and previews for the Atlantic Division.
The Knicks, like the Clippers, are back. Unlike the Clippers, however, the Knicks actually have a past to come back to. They've managed to finally shed all the bad moves from Isiah Thomas and have assembled their own Big Three with Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. Those parts fit nicely together and the Knicks were able to replace one veteran point guard, Chauncey Billups, with two veteran point guards, Mike Bibby and Baron Davis.
New York still has depth issues but like Miami last year, will rely on star power to overcome.
Prediction: 42-24, 1st place Atlantic Division
Boston still has their top four players (Garnet, Pierce, Allen and Rondo) but they are getting older and don't have great depth. They lost Jeff Green for the season to a heart condition and will have to hope that Chris Wilcox, Brandon Bass and Jermaine O'Neal can hold things down in the front court. The biggest hole, however, is the lack of scoring off the bench.
Prediction: 35-32, 2nd place, Atlantic Division
Look for the 76ers to continue to improve with another year under coach Doug Collins and natural growth from young players Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young. Vets Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala are still around and Philly has a pair of X factors in Lou Williams and Marreese Speights. The Sixers are far from a complete team but they are bringing back the same group that made the playoffs last season and they should be even better this year.
Prediction: 34-33, 3rd place, Atlantic Division
New Jersey is in a temporary state of limbo as they try desperately to pull off a trade for Dwight Howard. Barring such a deal, the Deron Williams and Brook Lopez show will be in full effect with a smidgen of Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar and some other dudes (three of who also are named Williams).
The Nets, as they currently stand, will lose a lot of games and that won't make D-Will happy doing into his free agency summer.
Prediction: 22-44, 4th place, Atlantic Division
The poor Raptors are no closer to being a better team. They are hoping last year's rookie, Ed Davis will improve and DeMar DeRozan seems to show some progress each year, but this group is still very flawed and one of the worst rosters in the NBA.
Prediction: 14-52, 5th place, Atlantic Division
We finish our preview and predictions for the NBA’s Western Conference with another deep division that’s nearly impossible to predict. The Northwest Division has no weak teams and will likely be a dog fight with the lucky and healthy making it to the playoffs.
Only the Oklahoma City Thunder are a lock and given the schedule they are also our pick for the best record in the West this season. Everyone else has a ton of potential but winning and losing is a binary thing and even more so in this shortened season, the game within the division will be key.
The OKC Thunder are understandably everyone’s favorite pick to win the Western Conference this season and I don’t see any reason to buck that trend. The Thunder bring back the same team that went to the WCF last year and will have a full season with Kendrick Perkins. The young core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka should be able to handle the tough schedule as well as any team in the league.
Prediction: 48-18, 1st place Northwest Division
The Trail Blazers are officially moving on without Brandon Roy and will almost certainly not see Greg Oden on the floor this season. Those two healthy would make Portland a legitimate title contender, but even without them they are still loaded with talent. LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton is still a powerful starting line up. Depth will be an issue but there is some young talent with Luke Babbit andNolan Smith.
Prediction: 36-36, 2nd place Northwest Division
The T-Wolves have one of the most talented and exciting young rosters in the league with a handful of valuable vets sprinkled in as well. New coach Rick Adelman will have plenty of options to work with but will also have his hands full with all the young energy. Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, J.J. Barea, Wesley Johnson, Anthony Randolph, Derrick Williams, Michael Beasley, Martell Webster, Darko Milicic, Brad Miller and Anthony Tolliver make this one of the deepest rosters in the league.
The Timberwolves are expected to be bad because they’ve been bad for a long time but with all this talent we think experienced coach Rick Adelman could shock some people if he can mange the minutes, shots and egos that will fill this young locker room.
Prediction: 35-31, 3rd place Northwest Division
The Utah Jazz enter their first season with out Jerry Sloan at the helm since Theodore Roosevelt was in office. They will also be without staples like Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko. In their place will be a new generation of Jazz players led by rookie Enes Cantor and 2nd year forwards Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. Vets like Devin Harris, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap will try and keep things together but this team feels like it is still in transition.
Prediction: 32-34, 4th place Northwest Division
Denver has manged to retain center Nene Hilario by throwing more money at him than any other team could and will partner him with Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington and a back court led by Andre Miller and Ty Lawson. RFA Arron Afflalo is still unsigned which is odd but the Nuggets did pick up Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer from the Mavs and added rookies Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton. The roster is interesting but features no star players and a lot of disparate parts that may or may not fit together.
Prediction: 32-35, 5th place Northwest Division
The 2011-12 NBA season is right around the corner. With the shorted preparation time we've had to rush our season previews and predictions and we expect there will be some player movement early in the season or right before things tip off on Christmas Day.
We've shared our predictions for the Pacific Division with the Lakers and Clippers battling it out for the top spot. Now we move to the Southwest Division where the defending NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks aren't even a lock to finish on top of their own division.
The defending NBA champs are back. Unfortunately, hey are one year older without Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea who left the team in free agency. In their place, the Mavs added Lamar Odom,Vince Carter and Delonte West and should be able to get more from youngsters Dominique Jones and Rodrigue Beaubois who were both injured much of last season.
The schedule won't be kind to the aging Carter, Kidd and Marion but this team still has Dirk Nowizki and will find ways to win more than their share of games.
Prediction: 40-26, 1st place Southwest Division
The Grizzlies surprised a lot of people last season but that won't happen again. They locked up Marc Gasol to play next to Zach Randolph and will have a healthy Rudy Gay to start the season. The Grizzlies didn't add much to the roster that went to a Game 7 against the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs, but they really didn't need to. This team is well-balanced with good depth.
The Grizz could miss Shane Battier's leadership and Darrell Arthur's toughness (Arthur appears to be done for the season due to injury) but otherwise, Memphis looks poised to continue their progress. They could easily end up winning the division but we'll put them slightly behind the Mavs as a sign of respect for our elders.
Prediction: 39-27, 2nd place Southwest Division
The Spurs are still hanging around but with Tim Duncan on his last knee will need to get a lot more from Tiago Splitter in his second year in the NBA. The trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Richard Jefferson is back and should provide plenty of scoring with a fair amount of depth on the wings and back court with the likes of James Anderson, Gary Neal and rookie Kawhi Leonard.
The biggest questions for the Spurs remain front court depth and how this aging team will deal with the brutal schedule. There's no reason to think, however, that they will drop out of playoff contention.
Prediction: 37-29, 3rd place, Southwest Division
The Rockets are the team that got hurt the most when the NBA killed the proposed Chris Paul trade to the Lakers. They would have upgraded to Pau Gasol but instead are once again left with their roster filled with talented players but no superstar. With all these pieces, it would be shocking if the Rockets don't make some more moves.
Barring some other deal(s), new coach Kevin McHale will be faced with trying to win in a very deep division without the benefit of star power. Their best players remain Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, and Chase Budinger.
Prediction: 30-36, 4th place Southwest Division
The Hornets finally moved Chris Paul and are left with the least attractive roster in the Western Conference. They are led by Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Chris Kaman which isn't exactly a murders row of top NBA talent. They did bring back Carl Landry and still have Emeka Okafor on the front line but with Jarrett Jack as the only point guard on the roster, the Horents look to be in big trouble this season.
Prediction: 15-51, 5th place Southwest Division
The 2011-12 NBA season will be an interest affair with the compressed schedule and several teams sporting revamped line ups. Here's our previews and predictions for the season.
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