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NBA season preview

Predictions

MVP: Only three players are in the discussion, right?: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Any pick is a good one, but we say it's LeBron's turn now that he has a little help from Shaq.

Rookie of the year: Practically every analyst is going with power forward Blake Griffin, the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Clippers out of Oklahoma. There's a reason he is the pick. He's that good.

Defensive player: Kevin Garnett still guards as well as he ever has, and his intensity is infectious for the Celtics. But Orlando's Dwight Howard is just like KG, except nine years younger. We'll take Howard.

Sixth man: Rasheed Wallace has joined the Celtics, and that's a perfect team for him to step into and just do his part instead of having to carry it.

Coach of the year: Be honest. If you could pick anyone in the world to coach your team, would you take anyone other than the Lakers' Phil Jackson? But let's look for a coach who can take a team to new heights. By that standard, we'll go with Washington's Flip Saunders, who might even triple the Wizards' 19 victories from a season ago

Eastern Conference playoff teams: Celtics, Cavaliers, Magic, Wizards, Raptors, Hawks, Bulls, Heat

Western Conference playoff teams: Lakers, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Jazz, Nuggets, Mavericks, Hornets, Clippers

Finals: Get ready for yet another Celtics-Lakers matchup. The Celtics won the title two years ago, beating the Lakers. The Lakers won last season by beating the Magic, though they might have played the Celtics had Kevin Garnett remained healthy. To us, the real title series will be the Eastern Conference final, involving some combination of the Celtics, Cavs and Magic. Whoever survives that will win it all. So let's go with the Celtics over the Lakers.

There's a new big man in Cleveland. The big man in Boston is back. And Orlando's big man is ready to make another run at the Magic's first NBA title. The NBA season opens Tuesday with four games, including a right-out-of-the-chute showdown between Eastern Conference heavyweights Boston and Cleveland. So here's the Two Cents preview of the NBA.

Three teams to beat in the Eastern Conference

1. Boston Celtics

While the Cavaliers and Magic are the teams du jour in the East, let's not forget that the Celtics pushed the Magic to seven games in the playoffs last season and they did it without Kevin Garnett, above, who remains as good a big man as there is in the NBA. With KG back, point guard Rajon Rando getting better every season and the acquisition of Rasheed Wallace, the Celtics are our pick as the team to beat in the East … provided KG stays healthy.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

Now they have a big man to go with superstar Le-Bron James, above left. Shaquille O'Neal, above right (helping lift Mo Williams), might not be the player he was five years ago, but he's better than any center LeBron has played with. And he's still dominating enough at times to take some of the heat off LeBron. Anthony Parker was a nice signing, too. A team that won 66 games last season got better. But so did the other top teams in the East.

3. Orlando Magic

On paper, adding Vince Carter to a team that has Dwight Howard seems like a can't-miss move, but we won't be convinced until we see it work. Will Carter create offense for himself, or for Howard? If Carter is willing to share the ball, the Magic can play with anybody. The Magic will miss Hedo Turkoglu, a go-to guy at big moments. Orlando might be better than a season ago, when it lost in the Finals to the Lakers, but it might be worse, too. Depends on Carter.

Three teams to beat in the Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant, above, remains the game's elite player, and there's nothing to suggest he's headed to the backside of his career. The question mark remains in the middle with Andrew Bynum, who hasn't been able to stay healthy. The wild card is new acquisition Ron Artest. If he can blend in and be a part of the "team,'' the Lakers could roll through the West. But Artest's reputation suggests otherwise.

2. Portland Trail Blazers

Portland's biggest issue last season was inexperience, and now, well, the Blazers have another year of experience. Speaking of experience, they upgraded at point guard by bringing in veteran Andre Miller, above. Oft-injured Greg Oden needs to stay healthy, but this team doesn't rely on one player, though Brandon Roy is the star, and perhaps the most underrated player in the game. If Roy played in New York, he'd be doing Gatorade and Nike commercials.

3. San Antonio Spurs

Do you realize the Spurs have had 12 consecutive winning seasons? Get ready for No. 13. The core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and sixth man Manu Ginobili remains intact, and they've added Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. And they drafted DeJuan Blair, above, who was a monster big man at Pitt. We're saying they are the third-best team in the West, but it wouldn't shock us if they turn out to be the best in the NBA.

Three teams on the rise

Washington Wizards

The Wizards won 19 games last season. Why so few? Star Gilbert Arenas, left, was out injured. Now he's healthy, and his presence alone turns this team back into a strong playoff contender. The Wizards also had a strong offseason, adding Randy Foye and Mike Miller. But the best move might have been hiring veteran coach Flip Saunders.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors went nuts in the offseason and start this season with 10 new players, the biggest being Hedo Turkoglu, left. And they might be the most exciting team to watch for two reasons: They should have a great offense and a terrible defense. Plus, they still have Chris Bosh, and we love Chris Bosh. They won't threaten for a championship, but they will win a heck of a lot more than the 33 games they won last season.

Oklahoma City Thunder

This team won a mere 29 games last season, mostly because they were one of the youngest, least experienced teams in the NBA. But they are getting older and better, led by Kevin Durant, left, who at 21 is already a star. The playoffs likely remain out of reach, but this team is just about on the verge of being really good.

Three teams on the decline

Houston Rockets

It almost isn't fair to list the Rockets on the decline, because their issue is injuries. Yao Ming, left, is out for the season with a foot injury, and Tracy McGrady has a knee problem. Plus, they lost Ron Artest. Look for them to miss the playoffs for just the second time in seven seasons.

Dallas Mavericks

It's not that we hate the Mavs. What's to hate about a strong starting five that includes Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, left, and Shawn Marion? It's just that the Mavs just aren't getting closer to winning the championship they were supposed to have won by now. They remain steps behind the big boys in the West.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers won 36 games last season, so it's not like we're going out on a limb. We just didn't like what they did (or didn't do) in the offseason. And we're not sold that their first-round draft pick — Tyler Hansbrough, left, who was taken 13th overall out of North Carolina — is going to be an impact player.

NBA season preview 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 11:42pm]

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