NBA season preview: Repackaged schedule, teams begin play

Merry Christmas and Happy NBA season. ¶ After a lockout that nearly wiped out the season, the abbreviated 2011-12 season gets under way today with a slew of marquee games featuring the defending champion Mavericks, the new-look Clippers and Knicks, and old standbys such as the Celtics and Lakers. So here is our Two Cents preview of the NBA season:

Three teams to beat in the East

1. Miami Heat

Say what you will about the Heat throwing gobs of money at free agents and trying to buy a champion­ship last season with LeBron James, right, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The fact is, it just about worked. The Heat came up only two wins shy of an NBA title. With the Big Three having a year's experience together and the addition of Shane Battier, the Heat is the favorite to win the East again and, this time, win two more games in the playoffs.

2. Boston Celtics

There's every reason to doubt the Celtics. They traded center Kendrick Perkins at the end of last season, lost forward Jeff Green for this season with an aortic aneurysm, they shopped point guard Rajon Rando in the offseason, and 30-somethings Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are another year older and slower. But they have a great coach in Doc Rivers, and they might have enough pride for one more good run.

3. Chicago Bulls

Talented, young and deep. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose is only 23. Joakim Noah is only 26. Carlos Boozer just turned 30. The Bulls added veteran leader and winner Rip Hamilton to a team that won 62 games last season. Now they just need to figure out how to get past the Heat, which beat the Bulls in five games in the East finals last season.

Three teams to beat in the West

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

This is the chic pick in the NBA and this great stat from Sports Illustrated points out why: The Thunder's best four players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka) are all 23 or younger and each has 23 games of playoff experience in the past two years. Durant is just about ready to take over as the league's best player, and the Thunder is the team to beat in the West.

2. Dallas Mavericks

Oh yeah, the defending champs. It's hard to pick against them, especially since Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion are back, and the Mavs added Lamar Odom and Vince Carter. But we're going to see just how important center Tyson Chandler, who is now with the Knicks, was to this team. Still, don't count out the champs.

3. Denver Nuggets

It's tempting to put the revamped Clippers in this spot, and it feels odd not to have the Lakers or Spurs among the top three. But we like the idea of the Nuggets being among our top three, especially because everyone thought they would fall apart after trading Carmelo Anthony during last season. This team won 50 games last season, they're young and they're deep. Really, though, there seems to be a drop between the top two teams in the conference (Thunder, Mavs) and everyone else.

Three teams on the rise

1. Los Angeles Clippers

The addition of guard Chris Paul, above, to star alongside Blake Griffin has turned the Clippers from a mediocre team into a contender out west. In fact, the Clippers may now be the best team in the city. But the Clippers' postseason hopes will depend on Paul's health and Los Angeles' ability to defend.

2. New York Knicks

The building blocks already were in place with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, but now the Knicks are starting to put solid pieces around them with the addition of big man Tyson Chandler and guards Baron Davis, Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby. New York could get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves

Okay, let's not get carried away. The T-wolves aren't a playoff team. But this franchise has a chance to win, oh, 32 games, which is what they won the past two seasons combined. New coach Rick Adelman has two impact players in rebounding monster Kevin Love and guard Ricky Rubio, who makes his NBA debut after playing in Europe since being drafted fifth overall in 2009.

Three teams on the decline

1. Los Angeles Lakers

This team still could win the whole thing, but we're starting to see enough cracks that it wouldn't surprise us if the Lakers didn't get out of the first round of the playoffs. It seems as if Kobe Bryant is starting to have more and more physical problems, guard Derek Fisher is 37, Lamar Odom was traded to Dallas and who knows what Pau Gasol's frame of mind will be after the Lakers tried to deal him in the offseason? It's a crossroads year for the Lakers.

2. Orlando Magic

The Magic has headed in the wrong direction since making it to the Finals in 2009. Team officials have torn up and rebuilt the team a couple of times since then, but many of the moves (see: Gilbert Arenas and Vince Carter) haven't panned out. Now it appears as if it's a matter of time before star center Dwight Howard, above, is traded. It's going to get worse before it gets better in O-town.

3. New Orleans Hornets

The Hornets had no choice but to trade star point guard Chris Paul, and they got as much as they could for him, but, overall, it was a net loss. They also lost David West to free agency. Just four seasons ago, this team won 56 games, but it hasn't been the same team since then and it will be difficult to match last year's 46-victory season.

Predictions

MVP: Kevin Durant, Thunder

Rookie of the year: Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers

Defensive player of the year: Dwight Howard, Magic

Coach of the year: Vinny Del Negro, Clippers

Playoff predictions

East: Heat, Celtics, Bulls, Knicks, Hawks, 76ers, Magic, Pacers

West: Thunder, Mavericks, Nuggets, Lakers, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Rockets

NBA Finals: Okay, this is the season it all pays off for the Heat. The talents down in South Beach will take the title in a rematch over the Mavs. Heat in six.

Three things that popped into my head

1. For all the talk about big market versus small market in the NBA, there is something exciting about the fact that the playoffs could feature teams from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas and two from Los Angeles.

2. Under-the-radar teams that I will definitely make a point of watching whenever they're on TV: Clippers, Thunder, Knicks. Under-the-radar players that I will definitely make a point of watching whenever they're on TV: Jimmer Fredette (Kings), Kevin Love (Timberwolves), Darren Collison (Pacers).

3. My favorite late-night television show is TNT's Inside the NBA. After the second game of a doubleheader, at 1 in the morning, you never know what Charles Barkley might say.

tom jones' two cents

NBA season preview: Repackaged schedule, teams begin play 12/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 24, 2011 6:59pm]

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