Team to beat in the East
The big question in the NBA is whether LeBron James will stay with the Cavs when he becomes a free agent this summer. And no one is sure whether winning an NBA title means he's more likely to stay or leave. But this is clear: Until James does win an NBA title, he cannot be considered on the same level as some of the all-time greats, including current rival Kobe Bryant. Point is, James is motivated to win and Shaquille O'Neal is motivated to get James his ring. The only team (at the moment) that appears good enough to challenge the Cavs is the team that eliminated Cleveland last season — Orlando. But this feels like the Cavs' year.
Team to beat in the West
If every team in the West was healthy and on top of its game, the Lakers would be the pick. But not every team is healthy and on top of its game, most notably the Lakers, who are hobbled and only 16-11 since the All-Star break. We'd love to pick Dallas, but the Mavs seem to lack heart at crucial times, and even when they win, they barely win (they finished with a 2.7 point differential). Denver has struggled without coach George Karl. Utah is not a great road team. San Antonio is looking old. Portland is beat up. Phoenix isn't deep. Oklahoma City is too young. Yeesh, when you get right down to it, the Lakers make it by default.
What are the Magic's chances?
After reaching the NBA Finals last season, the Magic essentially swapped out Hedo Turkoglu for Vince Carter, right. While Carter helped the Magic offense improve slightly during the regular season, Turkoglu made his mark in last year's playoffs. ESPN's Jalen Rose said: "It will be interesting to see if Vince Carter can perform the way Hedo Turkoglu did last year in the playoffs and help Orlando defend the Eastern Conference crown. If he plays at an efficient, All-Star level, he will give the Magic a chance to return to the Finals." Historically, however, Carter's shooting goes down in the postseason (41.8 percent). Orlando is good. Real good. Just not as good as Cleveland this season.
First-round at a glance
Eastern Conference Cleveland (1) vs. Chicago (8)
Cavs center Shaquille O'Neal is still recovering from a thumb injury, but it's not like the Cavs will need him to beat Chicago. The Bulls do have Derrick Rose, and former Gator Joakim Noah shows up in big games, but the Bulls are seriously overmatched. Cleveland rested LeBron James down the stretch, so it might take him a game to knock off the rust. With O'Neal working his way back into the offense and James finding his playoff gear, the Cavs might not go from zero to 60 in one game, but they're in no danger of being upset. Cavs in Five
Orlando (2) vs. Charlotte (7)
The Bobcats gave up the fewest points in the NBA this season and with a slew of big men, they have plenty of fouls to give to make life miserable for Orlando center Dwight Howard. While Howard will have to be the star for the Magic to win it all, it might need a big contribution from Vince Carter to win this series. This isn't to say the Bobcats are a huge threat to take out to the Magic in the first round, but with Charlotte coach Larry Brown calling the shots on the other side, the Magic will have to put in some elbow grease and show patience against the slow-tempo Bobcats to grind out a series victory. Magic in Five
Atlanta (3) vs. Milwaukee (6)
It would appear the Bucks' shot in this series ended when center Andrew Bogut was lost for the season with a dislocated elbow. Plus, they have a rookie point guard (Brandon Jennings). He's solid, but still a rookie. Look for the Bucks to rely heavily on outside shooting. The Hawks, led by Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, won 53 games and are just on the cusp of being able to play with the Cavs and Magic. They still might be a year or so from being true title contenders, but they should easily move on to the next round. Hawks in six
Boston (4) vs. Miami (5)
The Celtics are not looking like the Celtics. They were 27-27 after a 23-5 start, and they won only three times in the final 10 games. The offense has struggled all season and, more alarming, the defense has struggled of late. Plus, hard to believe, the Celtics have also struggled at home, losing five of their past six in Boston. Meantime, the Heat is, well, hot. It finished on an 18-4 run and gave up the fewest points in the league since the All-Star break. The Heat relies on Dwyane Wade, who will get his points. The question is, who will help him? This could go either way. Celtics in seven
Western Conference L.A. Lakers (1) vs. Oklahoma City (8)
It felt like the Lakers muddled through the past few weeks just waiting for the playoffs to start. The big concern for L.A. is its health. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum are beat up, and the Lakers need both if they are going to repeat as champs. The Thunder wants to play run-and-gun in this series and rely on the spectacular Kevin Durant, who is the youngest player (21) to ever win the scoring championship. The Lakers just have too much, but the Thunder did win 50 games this season. Lakers in five
Dallas (2) vs. San Antonio (7)
At times, Dallas has looked like the NBA's best team, and it finished the season with a five-game win streak. Still, when you finish second, you expect an easier matchup than the playoff-tested Spurs. San Antonio big man Tim Duncan, left, who turns 34 on April 25, is starting to show signs of age and doesn't dominate games like he used to. It's unlikely he can carry the Spurs deep into the playoffs, but he might muster up enough energy to make things scary for the Mavs. Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki remains one of the NBA's truly great players, and now he has enough help to make the Mavs a serious title contender. This series will be close. Mavs in seven
Phoenix (3) vs. Portland (6)
The Suns are one of the league's hottest teams, going 23-6 in their final 29 games. Portland is 19-8 since picking up Marcus Camby, but injuries are a major factor in this series. Portland has been without centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla for months (both with knee injuries), and now comes word that star guard Brandon Roy has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will miss the playoffs to have surgery. The Suns' Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire are starting to looking like John Stockton and Karl Malone with one another. Suns in five
Denver (4) vs. Utah (5)
The Nuggets reached the Western Conference final last year, mostly because of Carmelo Anthony's play in the postseason. On paper, we actually like the underrated Jazz more. But stars Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko are not 100 percent, and Denver matches up well against Utah. The Nuggets won three of the four meetings during the regular season with Anthony averaging 33.5 points in those games. Neither team is great on the road, so holding home court is huge. Nuggets in seven
St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones gives his Two Cents preview of the NBA playoffs.