Happy New Year everyone. With a new year comes resolutions, redemption and repeats in the NBA. Some teams are set to resolve this is not the year for them (Toronto Raptors, par exemple). Other teams are looking to redeem themselves and right wrongs (Boston chasing a championship title or Miami proving everyone - at least in Cleveland - wrong). Then there are the teams who are desperately holding onto hope, despite their season record so far (L.A. Lakers), they will put another winning ring on their finger. Let's face it. Playoff predictions are merely educated forecasts into the future and since we lack a crystal ball here at the DNB, let's look at the facts and stats before us and begin our conversation here.
Standing out in the Standings
Let's look at the top five teams in the Eastern and Western Conference in order. In the East, we have Boston (26-7), Miami (27-9), Chicago (22-10), Orlando (22-12) and Atlanta (22-14). In the West, we have San Antonio (29-4), Dallas (25-8), Utah (24-11), L.A. Lakers (23-11) and Oklahoma (23-12). This is not to say teams not making today's top five discussion are ineligible of making a run at a playoff spot. But realistically, teams like Cleveland and Sacramento, bottom of the East and West respectively, are booking tee times right now.
Trying to figure out all the outcomes and variables going into any professional playoff race is daunting. So if anyone tells you they know -right now- who is going to win the 2011 NBA Championship beyond a shadow of doubt, is clearly still high on Christmas fruitcake. At this point in the season, we can look at variables and how these variables will move us forward. For example, at the start of the season, no team looked ready to stop the Lakers from making a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals. Not San Antonio, not Oklahoma and certainly not the Miami Heat. But now Miami is finding their rhythm and San Antonio has the best record in the league right now. It doesn't look as if we will have another Celtics-Lakers final but don't count out either team just yet. Both Boston and the L.A. Lakers are essentially playing with similar motives: a retiring or possible retirement of a coach or teammate. Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson announced at the start of the season this will be his last year coaching in the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal has made no such proclamations, however; if the Celtics win a championship this year, I seriously doubt Shaq will entertain the last year of his contract. Both teams are looking to go out on top.
East versus the West
No team in the Eastern Conference looks as though they can match what Miami and Boston can bring to the table. So if we forecast a Boston-Miami Eastern Conference Final, based on stats, playoff experience and consistent play, Boston takes the prize. But Miami's momentum as of late and finding their groove finally, is a variable. If our crystal ball is right and these two teams meet in the Eastern Conference final, it would be a classic. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh going head to head with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal? Priceless.
The Western Conference looks a little different but still, realistically, has two teams coming out on top: San Antonio and Los Angeles Lakers. Oklahoma is giving them a run for their money and Utah has a better record (by one game) but neither team match the core strength and talent of the Los Angeles Lakers. Which leaves Dallas, our second team in the West. A month ago, I might have said Dallas was going to be a real threat in the West but with Dirk Nowitzki, Rodrique Beaubois and now Caron Butler on the Dallas Mavericks' inactive list, things don't look to sharp for the Mavs. So based on what we have in front of us, a San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers Western Conference final could be on the horizon. The variables to watch for the remainder of the season will be can players like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker move their their teams from playoff to championship contender? Will they stay healthy and be able to go the distance physically and from a conditioning standpoint? Will the Lakers finally get down to business and block out all distractions? Time will only tell.
Thanks for joining me this week. Join me again on Thursday for more Raptors' opponent analysis in "Behind Enemy Lines".