Former Deacon Tim Duncan celebrating his 4th NBA Championship
The regular season has come to a close and it is time for the playoffs. There are many intriguing story lines in this years playoffs. The Western Conference is wide open and there should plenty of exciting matchups. In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic seemed destined to to have a rematch of last years Eastern Conference Finals, which Orlando won in 6 games.
Many fans are asking if this is the year that LeBron James wins his first ring. I believe that the Cavaliers have all of the pieces necessary to win this year's title, but by no means is it a guarantee. The NBA dreams of a Kobe vs. LeBron Finals matchup, as made evident by the MVPuppets commercials, but will that happen?
No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Chicago Bulls
Is this the King's year? This certainly appears to be his best chance. After losing to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the Cavaliers brought in 4 time NBA champion, Shaquille O'Neal. This year, at the trading deadline, Cleveland brought in all-star forward Antawn Jamison. The line up also features all-star guard Mo Williams.
This is by far LeBron James' best opportunity to win his first ring. They are the deepest team in the league. In addition to the players already mentioned, they have great shooters in Anthony Parker, Deltone West, and Daniel Gibson. Their front court also has a lot of depth in JJ Hickson, Anderson Varejao, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Even with all of these excellent players, LeBron James is still the star among stars. In my opinion, he is clearly the best player in the world. He is an unstoppable force driving to the basket. He is the best passer in the league. He is a great defender, and at his size 6'8" 250 lbs. he is a very effective rebounder. He has rested the last four games in preparation for the playoffs. Lack of consistent free throw shooting could hinder this team, but I believe they will overcome that. This team is focused on winning the championship, and I believe they will do just that.
Their first round matchup will be against the Chicago Bulls, who are on an impressive run having won 7 out of their last 10 games. Several weeks ago it appeared that that the Toronto Raptors would be getting the 8 spot, but an injury to Chris Bosh all but ruined their chances. The Cavaliers would much rather be matched up against the Raptors than the Bulls right now.
The Bulls are a very talented team with a phenomenal point guard in Derrick Rose. The number one overall draft pick in the 2008 showed that he was worthy of that selection last year with his impressive performance against the Boston Celtics in the first round. Joakim Noah has been very impressive this season. He is tenacious on the boards and averages 11 per game.
In addition to Rose and Noah, Chicago has solid perimeter players in Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. Rookie Taj Gibson has also been a strong presence inside all season long. Wake Forest's own, James Johnson, has started to progress as the season has gone along. He has begun to receive more minutes, and he is contributing. He has lost 30 pounds since the start of the season, which shows his work ethic and desire to be a good player in this league.
While the Bulls will make this a better series than the Raptors would have, this will ultimately come down to the Cavaliers have LeBron James and the Bulls don't.
Cavaliers in 5
No. 2 Orlando Magic vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats
This is the worst matchup that the Bobcats could have asked for. They could compete against Cleveland, Atlanta, and Boston, but Orlando just provides too many matchup problems for Charlotte. Dwight Howard commands an automatic double team, and the Bobcats do not have the personnel to defend him. Nazr Mohammed and Tyson Chandler cannot defend Howard, who averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds per game this season.
Against most teams in the league, Charlotte is able to utilize their wing players' versatility to create matchup problems. Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace are both very skilled players on the perimeter. Orlando, however, has Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus, and Matt Barnes who will be able to hold their own against Jackson and Wallace. Raymond Felton has improved this year, but Jameer Nelson should still have the advantage in that matchup.
The Bobcats have three x-factors in D.J. Augestin, Larry Hughes and Boris Diaw, but Orlando has too much depth for Charlotte. Charlotte does have the coaching advantage. Larry Brown is one of the greatest coaches of all time, but Stan Van Gundy, coach of the Magic, has playoff experience himself during his time at Miami and Orlando. Ultimately the combination of Dwight Howard and Orlando's depth will be too much for Charlotte.
Magic in 5
No. 3 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks
The Atlanta Hawks are arguably the most athletic team in the league. They have fantastic players at every position. Joe Johnson is one of the most under appreciated players in the league. He averages 21 ppg while shooting 46% from the field. The Hawks also have fantastic players in Al Horford, Marvin Williams, and Josh Smith. They have a veteran point guard in Mike Bibby. The Hawks also bring Jamal Crawford off the bench, who should be this year's 6th Man of the Year. He provides instant offense, and score 30 points on any given night.
The Hawks also have playoff experience. They aren't the young team that they used to be. Two years ago they pushed the eventual world champion Boston Celtics to 7 games, and last year they beat the Miami Heat in the first round. Their athleticism and experience will just be too much in this matchup.
The Milwaukee Bucks have been very impressive since they acquired John Salmons at the trading deadline. Scott Skiles has done an outstanding job coaching this year, and deserves some consideration for Coach of the Year. Unfortunately, last week while playing the Phoenix Suns, Andrew Bogut suffered a nasty injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the season. Rookie Brandon Jennings, who will be on the all-Rookie team, has been very exciting this season, but is the rookie ready for the big stage of the playoffs? Last year he made a revolutionary decision to play professionally overseas instead of playing in college. So far, it seems to have been a successful decision. With Bogut I would give the Bucks a chance, but I just can't see them beating the Hawks in this series.
Hawks in 5
No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat
The Boston Celtics have been in disarray the past month, having lost 7 of their last 10. While still 4th in the East, they have certainly taken a fall from grace when they were the world champions just two seasons ago. That team was on a mission. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen were driven to win their first world championships. Since that time age and injuries have caught up to them. Kevin Garnett is not the dominant player he used to be. Rajon Rondo continues to get better, but he alone cannot compensate for the age of his teammates. Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and Rasheed Wallace are too old.
In addition to their age, they just lack the desire and urgency that they had two years ago. With the team in disarray and Doc Rivers considering leaving after this season, it could be a very short playoffs for the Boston Celtics. I know they have experience, but the players just look disinterested. Even when they appear interested, they just cannot sustain an energetic pace for 48 minutes. At the beginning of the season I thought they would make the Finals. They appeared to have a lot of depth and experience. They still have the experience, but with older starters and a weak bench, it appears that their window has closed.
Dwyane Wade will be the best player in this series. Quite frankly, it's not even close who the best player in this series is. He also has proven that he can dominate a playoff series. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat have nice complimentary players in Michael Beasley, Jermaine O'Neal, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, and Quentin Richardson. The Heat have a nice blend of young players and veterans. Normally in a matchup of youth versus experience I will take the experience, but this Celtics team is done. Dwyane Wade will be unguardable in this series. The Celtics have bigger names and a better tradition, but that will not be enough to win this series.
Heat in 7
Cavaliers over Heat
Magic over Hawks
Eastern Conference Finals
Cavaliers over Magic
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder
This is a battle of a superstar in Kobe Bryant versus an up and coming superstar in Kevin Durant, who was this year's NBA scoring champion. It is also a matchup of one of the older teams in the league versus one of the youngest teams in the league. Phil Jackson, who has won 10 NBA championships as a head coach, has already started his plea to the officials. He believes that Kevin Durant gets to the foul line a little too often than he should.
If Durant is able to get to the foul line, it should be a very interesting series. He shoots 90% from the foul line, so he will make the Lakers pay for sending him to the line. The Lakers are one of the biggest teams in the league. They feature a front line of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. They have incredible back court experience. Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher have each won 4 NBA championships.
Kobe Bryant is a top 3 player in the league and has an assassin's mentality. His desire to win is matched by no one except for Michael Jordan. He always seems to rise to the occasion and hit a big shot when it matters. While Kevin Durant is an up and coming star, he seems to fade down the stretch of some big games.
The Thunder have been a great story this year. Kevin Durant should finish 2nd in MVP voting and Scott Brooks deserves to be coach of the year. At the beginning of the year I did not believe that they would make the playoffs, but the young team has played fantastic basketball this season and has made the playoffs for the first team since moving to Oklahoma City. They have a very young team, which features Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Nenad Kristic.
While shit should be an exciting series, I believe that the Lakers will just be too much for the Thunder. The Lakers have too much experience and should be able to dominate the paint. It's very difficult to win in Oklahoma City, but I do not see the Thunder being able to steal a game on the road.
Lakers in 6
No. 2 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs
The trading deadline acquisitions of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have turned the Mavericks into championship contenders. Jason Kidd is a very experienced point guard, who has led the New Jersey Nets to the Finals several years ago in addition to helping the United States win a Gold Medal in 2008. Dirk Nowitzki is back to MVP form. He has been outstanding this year. He has the best mid-range jumper in the game.
Caron Butler provides this team with tenacity and toughness this team lacked. He is a capable scorer and has playoff experience from his time in Washington. Brendan Haywood has also provided an inside presence that the Mavericks have lacked for years. Jason Terry and Shawn Marion round out a very talented rotation. Jason Kidd's weakness is his inability to defend quick 3's, but the way the seedings are, they should be able to avoid matchups against fast point guards.
This Spurs team has impressed me as of late. I thought they were done when Tony Parker went out with his injury, but Gregg Popovich proved why he is one of the greatest coaches of all time. They replaced Parker with George Hill, and the moved worked just fine. Manu Ginobili has really stepped his game up as of late, and has been playing as well as anyone else in the league. I do believe the Spurs made a mistake by signing him to a contract extension during the season. I believe the contract was on the back of his mind and was giving him an extra incentive to play hard.
But you can't talk about the San Antonio Spurs without mentioning Wake Forest's own Tim Duncan. For my money, he is the best power forward to ever play the game. He has been the model of consistency ever since he came to the league. The Big Fundamental should have a great series, but as great as he is, I still believe the Mavericks have too many weapons. I normally don't bet against the Spurs, but I'm going to have to this time.
Mavericks in 6
No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers
I really like this Suns team. I criticized Steve Kerr for not trading Amare Stoudemire, and I was wrong. It turns out to be the best move he never made. For the past 6 weeks, Stoudemire has been a monster. He is playing inspired basketball, and his team is thriving having won 8 of their last 10. Steve Nash is back to his old tricks again, having another MVP type season.
They have slowed down their scoring pace somewhat under coach Terry Porter, but they play much better defense now. They have great complimentary players in Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Robin Lopez, Leandro Barbosa, and Channing Frye. As a team they shoot 41.3% from behind the 3-point line. That's just absurd. I can't guarantee the 3's will continue to fall, but if they have shot 41.3% over 82 games, I believe they can keep up the pace for this playoff series.
The Trail Blazers have such a talented roster. The problem is not the coach or team chemistry; It's the injury bug. They just can't stay healthy. It's amazing that they are still a 6 seed considering how many injuries they have had this year. Greg Oden is out for the year as is Joel Przybilla. On Sunday, all star guard Brandon Roy tore his meniscus. He is going to attempt to play, but I can't help but think that he will be very limited in his play.
They have an exceptional front line in LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby. Marcus Camby was a great trade deadline acquisition. When Oden and Przybilla went out, they needed another front line player. Andre Miller and Nicolas Batum are also good players, but this team just isn't healthy enough to win this years. If they were healthy, I wouldn't be shocked at all if they won the West. They are that talented when healthy.
Suns in 5
No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
The Denver Nuggets are one of the most talented teams in the league. Carmelo Anthony is the best scorer in the league. I know Durant is the scoring champ, but Carmelo is so versatile. He can score with contact, hit the mid-range, connect from 3, and convert from the foul line. Chauncey Billups is also a stud. The former Finals MVP has been just what the Nuggets needed. They needed a distributor and someone who could score when it counted. Allen Iverson could score, but his style of basketball was not helping the Denver Nuggets win playoff basketball games.
Chauncey helped lead this team to the Western Conference Finals. J.R. Smith provides instant offense off the bench and can score 20 points in 7 or 8 minutes. He's that good from behind the arc. Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin provide great length and athleticism to the front line. Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson provide good depth at the guard positions. I used to like this team much more, but since George Karl started undergoing cancer treatment, this team just hasn't been the same. This team has a lot of talent, but I don't see them getting back to the Western Conference Finals.
The Utah Jazz are led by one of the two best point guards in the league in Deron Williams. He is very difficult to defend. At 6'3" 210 lbs, he can see over smaller guards, and he can just use his strength to attack the basket. Williams just keeps getting better and better, and it is a joy to watch. Carlos Boozer is a force down low. He averages 19.5 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game. While he is not as athletic as Denver's front line, he is stronger and more disciplined, and therefore should have an advantage.
Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko, and Paul Millsap have provided solid depth to Utah's front line this season. C.J. Miles, Kyle Korver, and Wesley Matthews have provided excellent back court depth. Denver should have an advantage in the back court, but Utah's front line should help them prevail in this series. Jerry Sloan is a fantastic coach and should have his team ready to win this first round matchup.
Jazz in 7
Lakers over Jazz
Mavericks over Suns
Western Conference Finals
Mavericks over Lakers
Cavaliers over Mavericks
I believe this is the year LeBron James wins his first of several championships. The runaway MVP is clearly on the best team, and they should win. They have the personnel, they just need to go out and execute. The road to the championship will not be an easy one, but I believe that the Cavaliers will bring the city of Cleveland its first championship in over 40 years.
Thanks for reading. I'd love to hear everyone's opinion on who is going to win.