Note the odds of each team winning an NBA title are listed in parentheses.
Id like to think the Atlanta Hawks (+4500) could win a title this year. Theyve improved their win total each of the last five seasons and have developed a strong core of young talent. They took the Celtics to seven games in 2008, then advanced to the second round of the playoffs in 2009 before getting swept by Cleveland. Atlantas good but last years post-season showed us the vast talent differential between the Hawks and the Cavs. Theres no reason to expect anything different this year.
Id like to think the Chicago Bulls (+6000) could win a title this year. They gave the KG-less Celtics all they wanted in a fantastic seven-game series last year before finally running out of gas. Luol Deng returns healthy, Derrick Rose will have another year under his belt and it looks like Joakim Noah is finally coming of age. But they failed to re-sign Ben Gordon in the off-season and will miss him more than they realize. Bulls fans better hope losing him is not a step in the wrong direction.
[image-1]Id like to think the Detroit Pistons (+6500) could win a title this year. They made some serious off-season acquisitions. They added Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Chris Wilcox to their roster. They still have Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince as well as Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell. But they have a first year head coach John Kuester who, despite his impressive resume, has no previous NBA head coaching experience. Pat Riley in 1981-82 was last rookie head coach to win an NBA title. Im not saying the Pistons cant win a title this year. Im just saying they dont have Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing for them.
Id like to think the Philadelphia 76ers (+4500) could win a title this year. They eagerly await the return of a healthy Elton Brand. They also have size down low with Marreese Speights and Stromile Swift. Andre Iguodala is a one-man highlight reel. Other than him, though, the Sixers should struggle with a lack of quality guard play.
Id like to think the Miami Heat (+7500) could win a title this year but this team still relies way too much on Dwyane Wade. Hes surrounded by Jermaine ONeal, Michael Beasley, Udonis Haslem, Quentin Richardson, Mario Chalmers and Jamaal Magliore, who are all decent players, but considering what they have to go against in the East, Im not so sure that line-up strikes fear into the hearts of many.
[image-2]Id like to think the New Orleans Hornets (+2500) could win a title this year. They have one of the brightest young stars in the game in Chris Paul. But superstar point guard alone does not make a title. Just ask Allen Iverson. The Hornets traded Tyson Chandler straight up for Emeka Okafor in July but thats not enough to make us think New Orleans is for real. Fans are much better off pinning their hopes on the Saints.
Id like to think the Utah Jazz (+2000) could win a title this year. Theyre always so close, but this is the NBA, not horseshoes. Deron Williams continues to rival Chris Paul as the best point guard in the league. Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur and Ronnie Brewer are all back. But theyre still inferior to the other Western Conference powers who all improved themselves dramatically in the off-season.
Id like to think the Portland Trailblazers (+2000) could win a title this year. Now entering his fourth year in the league, Brandon Roy has increased his scoring output each season, as has LaMarcus Aldridge. But too many questions surround Greg Odens durability. Even with a healthy Oden, an NBA title would be a stretch for the Trailblazers.
Id like to think the Phoenix Suns (+4000) could win a title this year but their window of opportunity slammed shut years ago.
Now that weve excluded the contenders light, we can also eliminate Toronto, New York, New Jersey, Milwaukee, Indiana, Washington, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Los Angeles (Clippers), Golden State, Sacramento, Houston and Memphis from any legitimate title conversation.
Now that thats over, lets move on to the seven teams that have a chance to win it all.
[image-3]Boston Celtics (+295) Memo to the Eastern Conference
Kevin Garnett is back. He alone makes watching basketball that much more enjoyable. The Celtics were not the same without their cog, best player and emotional leader when he went down with a knee injury last season. As a result, they were taken to the brink by Chicago, then ultimately defeated by Orlando. But KG appears 100% after successful arthroscopic surgery in the off-season. The Celtics return most of their core and are poised to make another title run. The big three are back in Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Additionally, the Rasheed Wallace experiment is about to begin. Hes already received a technical foul this preseason, proving hes already in mid-season form. Despite his volatility, his addition to the lineup means Boston features four potential Hall of Famers in 2009. Rajon Rondo will play point and if he continues to improve as he has every season of his young career, the Celtics will be very tough to beat. Their supporting cast still includes Eddie House, Glen Davis and Tony Allen. It will be interesting to see how Shelden Williams fits in. He seemed like a sure thing coming out of Duke but has already played for three teams in three years. Expect the Celtics to make another deep playoff run come June.
[image-4]Cleveland Cavaliers (+200) This LeBron James guy is good. Hes the reigning MVP and could be on the verge of reeling off a few more. Hell be joined by another big name and former MVP this season. Perhaps youve heard of him. Shaquille ONeal is going to give a championship one more shot with King James. Point guard Mo Williams will have another years experience playing with LeBron. The Cavs also return Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao and picked up former Celtic Leon Powe. The Cavs proved inferior to the Orlando Magic last season but are hoping the Diesel will be the edge theyre looking for when it comes to matching up with Dwight Howard in June. Post-season seeding could be key for the Cavs. Whichever of the big three (Boston, Orlando, Cleveland) earns the best overall regular season record will garner home court advantage. That will force the other two to play each other before coming to Cleveland, where they only lost two games in the regular season all year.
[image-5]Orlando Magic (+1500) The Magic overachieved last year, reaching the Finals by knocking off both Cleveland and Boston. Ownership decided even that wasnt good enough and made one of the leagues biggest off-season moves, trading Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie for Vince Carter. They also decided not to re-sign Hedo Turkoglu who came up huge for them last year. That means Vince has big shoes to fill and all eyes are watching. Expectations are already high. Jameer Nelson will return healthy and should lead an exciting Magic team that still boasts Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard. The Magic will also start Brandon Bass at power forward in the hopes of giving Superman some rebounding help. Coach Stan Van Gundy has already called out Vince Carter this preseason for his lack of defensive intensity but apparently theyve kissed and made up. Remember, he called out Dwight Howard last year and Howard responded admirably. If this team can find a groove, they could very well be competing for another title.
[image-6]Los Angeles Lakers (+110) For those of you who werent paying attention, the Los Angeles Lakers won it all last year, giving Kobe Bryant his fourth championship and Phil Jackson his tenth. In the off-season, they added Ron Artest, the leagues best perimeter defender. They re-signed Khloe Kardashians husband, Lamar Odom, and still have the best Spaniard in the game, Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic all return from last years championship team adding to the many reasons the Lakers are a considerable favorite to repeat.
[image-7]Dallas Mavericks (+2500) Im torn on Dallas. On paper, they look pretty good. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Tim Thomas, Josh Howard, Drew Gooden, Erick Dampier. This is a team that should contend. Theyll likely win fifty games and be one of the top four seeds entering the post-season. But its what happens in June that matters most. This team is getting older and is slowly watching the sands of the hourglass. Thomas, Terry, Kidd, Nowitzki, Marion and Dampier are all over 30. It might be now or never for this Dallas team. Experience counts but so do aching bones.
[image-8]Denver Nuggets (+3500) - Will the Denver Nuggets ever live up to their potential? This team starts three top-three draft picks in Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin. Finally realizing the importing of the stop, Denver has dramatically improved their defensive woes. In 2007-2008, Denver allowed 107 points per game. Last season, they shrunk that by six. This team can score with the best of them but needs to bring that number down even more if they want to contend. Nene Hilario proved to be a capable center down the stretch last year. Chris Andersen was a huge emotional spark off the bench. JR Smith will have to work on his consistency. And rookie Ty Lawson could do worse than learning from Chauncey Billups. If youre looking for a sleeper, Denver could be the pick.
[image-9]San Antonio Spurs (+1300) The Spurs arent spring chickens either, but theyre good and theyre no longer just the big three. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will be joined by Richard Jefferson who will help relieve much of the scoring load. While hes no Bruce Bowen defensively (few are), Jefferson is a career 18 ppg scorer. Ownership wants to give Big Fundamentals at least one more solid shot at a title so they also picked up some size in Theo Ratliff and Antonio McDyess. The Spurs return Matt Bonner and Michael Finley as well. But as usual, the Spurs will come and go as does their health. They struggle when Ginobili is out of the lineup. The Spurs at 100% will give any team in the league a run for their money.
Just because Boston, Los Angeles and Cleveland are significant favorites does not mean the NBA season is a foregone conclusion. Even the big three have questions. Can the Lakers mesh with Artest, whos always ripe for a meltdown? Can the Celtics stay healthy through June? Is Shaq enough to bring Cleveland to the promised land? And how will the other big off-season acquisitions help their respective teams?
Several teams have enough talent to make things interesting in 2009-2010. But Ill take these magnificent seven against the field and bet the house on it. If only that were allowed.