When we last saw the NBA, LeBron James led the Miami Heat to the championship, defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the NBA Finals, and finally earned a championship ring.
Will the Heat repeat? Who will win it all this year? Here are my Conference Finals and NBA finals picks, plus my projected top four teams in each conference.
Eastern Conference Finals: Heat over Pacers
Western Conference Finals: Thunder over Lakers
NBA Finals: Heat over Thunder
1. Miami Heat: The Heat are riding high after last year’s Finals win over the Thunder, and may be even better this year. Ray Allen comes over from the rival Celtics to join arguably the most talented team in the league. LeBron James is coming off a year where he won NBA MVP, an NBA Title, the NBA Finals MVP, and an Olympic Gold in London, joining Michael Jordan as the only player to win all four in a single year. Chris Bosh is healthy again after missing some playoff games last year, and Dwayne Wade is still an elite player. Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier are solid contributors at point guard and power forward, respectively. With all the talent gelling together, the Heat will once again be lifting the trophy in June.
2. Chicago Bulls: How far the Bulls go this season depends on the health of Derrick Rose. In 2010, a healthy Rose produced an MVP season and led the Bulls to the Conference Finals. However, Rose spent much of last season on the injury list, and was lost for good in the playoffs, where they were upset by the 76ers. To help with that, Chicago brought back former star Point Guard Kirk Hinrich to be a backup to Rose and added Nazr Mohammad to help out Joakim Noah in the frontcourt. While Rose will take Chicago far if he’s healthy, as a whole, this team just doesn’t have the talent of the Heat.
3. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers enter the season with high expectations for the first time since Reggie Miller retired in 2005, largely because of their front line. All-star Center Roy Hibbert delighted Pacer fans by signing a four-year contract extension in the offseason. David West is a solid power forward who could help Hibbert form one of the best frontcourt duos in the NBA. Danny Granger is an all-star small forward who is becoming one of the league’s more versatile players and fellow young star Tyler Hansbrough is quietly getting better each year. The Pacers have the pieces to become a championship contender and they’ll be a tough out in the Eastern Conference.
4. Boston Celtics: The Big Three Era in Boston is over as Ray Allen took his talent to South Beach this offseason. While Boston does still have Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to lead the lineup, Allen’s clutch three-pointers will be missed. Former Sixth Man of the Year, Jason Terry was signed in the offseason to replace Allen’s shooting. Garnett and Pierce are getting older and are losing some of their skills, and young Rajon Rondo looks to be the primary focus this season. While Garnett and Pierce are still a formidable frontcourt duo, Boston’s championship window may be closing fast.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder’s run to the Finals last season was a preview of things to come for Oklahoma City. The Thunder has arguably the best young team in the league with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. However, with Harden’s contract set to expire in July, the Thunder have reportedly traded him to the Houston Rockets for Jeremy Lamb, and Kevin Martin. Harden’s clutch play off the bench was a major contribution in the playoffs, and he will be missed. Serge Ibaka made great strides last season, and acquiring Kendrick Perkins from Boston paid off as he and Ibaka were stellar in the paint last season. The sky seems to be the limit for this young team and they should make it back to the Finals.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers made the biggest splash in the offseason, landing all-star Point Guard Steve Nash and Forward Dwight Howard in sign and trade deals with Phoenix and Orlando. They’ll team up with Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace to attempt to bring a championship back to L.A. While this is a very talented group of veterans, their aging legs won’t be able to keep up with the young Thunder.
3. San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs didn’t make any major offseason moves and they didn’t really need to. Led by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, they’re always a tough out in the West. However, age and injury are catching up to these three, and with the Lakers’ offseason moves and the young and talented Thunder, the Spurs may find it hard to return to the ranks of the elite in the West.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin and Chris Paul have brought legitimate hype back to the long-suffering Clippers. Griffin may be the most exciting player in the league not named LeBron, but he’s coming off an injury that sidelined him from the London Olympics. Paul provides the team with a floor leader at the point guard spot, but like Griffin, was injured during training camp for the London Olympics. Center DeAndre Jordan was a major surprise last season and helped take some of the scoring load off Griffin and Paul. If he can keep up his game and Paul and Griffin stay healthy, look for the Clippers to challenge in the West this season.