I must say that I am extremely ecstatic that the NBA is back in the fold. Like most fans, I was full of anxiety at the thought of missing many more games.
Christmas Day games to start a season is quite possibly the best present a die hard like me could ever want.
Because of the shortened training camp and 66 games, long losing streaks, key injuries and players struggling to get in prime condition will be key and hard to recover from.
Three games in three nights to go along with five games in six days will test every player and team. The ones who go along and stay mentally strong will prosper. The teams and players that complain and cave in to the pressure will fail and disappoint.
We have already started to see some injuries that normally occur during a long training camp, but unfortunately players don't have a 30-day period to heal and get prepared.
I find it hard to believe that we could quite possibly have another competitive season and tremendous playoffs like last year, but I am here to tell you we will and I can’t wait.
Will the Miami Heat cruise and expect to win games with spectacular performances from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? Or will they play with a sense of urgency for 48 minutes? They did not do that consistently last year and it led to a Finals meltdown.
Can Shane Battier be a big enough three-point threat to play in the fourth quarter and allow James to roam and create havoc defensively? Can Eddy Curry be resurrected into the person we thought he was when the Knicks signed him to a huge contract a number of years ago? Will Mario Chalmers take control of the ball and make sound decisions, thus allowing James and Wade to operate below the free-throw line and out of the sight of five defenders ready to double- and triple-team?
Most importantly, will very good young coach Erik Spoelstra allow his team to up the tempo for longer stretches than he did last year?
Are the Bulls primed to show they will be around for many years to come? Will Carlos Boozer make up for the inconsistent first year he had in a Bulls uniform? Can Derrick Rose duplicate the MVP season he had last year? Can Richard Hamilton give them the veteran leadership offensively down the stretch when Rose is double-teamed and has to give up the ball? If those things occur, the Bulls will be facing the Heat in the Conference Finals.
Can the Boston Celtics slow down the aging process and make a run at the conference title? Will losing Jeff Green for the season solidify that notion? Can Brandon Bass give them the lift Glen 'Big Baby' Davis provided over the last few years? Will Rajon Rondo get tired of the constant trade rumors? Can Paul Pierce overcome nagging injuries and lead in many categories? Can Kevin Garnett continue to be a force defensively? The one constant is the tremendous coaching of Doc Rivers and that will always have the Celtics in the thick of any playoff race!
The Orlando Magic won 52 games last year and looked like a possible Eastern Conference finalist, but lost in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks. Can they stay focused when Dwight Howard has asked out? Will Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu go retro and play at a level that convinces Howard they could have a great season? Can Stan Van Gundy tone down his coaching on the sidelines, which obviously has been a problem for Howard? The Magic have enough talent, but can they play consistent enough to make a difference in the playoffs.
Will the New York Knicks finally become relevant again? Will the addition of Tyson Chandler raise their defense to a championship level? Can Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony coexist offensively by realizing they should concede to whomever has it going on a particular night? Will Baron Davis finally show up and play at the All-Star level he has been avoiding since leaving Golden State? I will go on record and say if Baron does, the Knicks will become the main obstacle for the Heat because of their potent frontline, which I believe is the best in the NBA.
Can the Hawks repeat a first-round series win having lost their best clutch performer in Jamal Crawford? Will Joe Johnson recover from a subpar season and take on more responsibility offensively to make up for the loss of Crawford? Can Josh Smith become more potent by attacking the rim and stop shooting too many jumpers? After passing on so many great guards like Chris Paul and Deron Williams during drafts over the years, can Jeff Teague step up and perform solidly? The Hawks will be viable, but the East Top 4 teams will keep them in their place.
Can Philadelphia and Indiana move up to the next level? They had competitive first-round series last season and come into this year with hopes of building on that. I like the youth the Sixers put on the floor every night and I love the length of the Pacers. I expect both to create numerous problems during this shortened season.
What teams will make a run to the playoffs among the bottom feeders from last year?
New Jersey with Deron Williams and Milwaukee with Stephen Jackson should win some games and fight for a 7th and 8th seed, but I don’t expect much more.
The rest should look forward to another offseason and a very good 2012 draft and continue to add pieces that will make them viable.
It’s hard to repeat a championship - especially when you lose two guys that played a significant role. Well, the Dallas Mavericks will be trying to accomplish that feat without Tyson Chandler and Jose Juan Barea. They replaced them with Lamar Odom and Vince Carter and the judges will be evaluating that trade off every game beginning Sunday. The major question will be how many minutes Jason Kidd can log, especially in back-to-back games? Dirk will be Dirk and that means a nightmare for whoever guards him. Also, Brian Cardinal, who was my ball boy at Illinois, is back in the fold. The Mavericks are the team to beat, so why isn’t anyone picking them?
The Spurs dominated the regular season till the last few weeks, when they allowed the Bulls to overtake them for best overall record. Fatigue was obviously the reason. Can they stay motivated mentally to fight for home-court advantage this year? Can Tim Duncan produce in back-to-back games? Can Manu Ginobili play a full season? Will Tony Parker ever get his just due in regards to how good he is? Can Richard Jefferson make open shots? Expect the Spurs to slow the pace in hopes of having fresh legs come playoff time.
The Lakers wanted a three-peat, but got embarrassed by eventual champion Dallas in a sweep. Can Kobe Bryant will this team to get back to a conference final despite a wrist injury? Can the Lakers replace the tremendous skill set of Odom? Can the Lakers grasp new coach Mike Brown's system in a shortened season and still produce? Will Andrew Bynum make it through a full season? Will Pau Gasol start to tire of the constant rumors regarding Dwight Howard going to L.A. and him heading to Orlando? Despite the drama, the Lakers will always be in the mix as long as Black Mamba is in uniform.
Oklahoma City can't lean on being too young any more. I expect them to reach the Conference Finals and I will not be surprised if they are in the Finals facing the Heat. I am interested to see if the harsh criticism directed at do-it-all point guard Russell Westbrook has made him better. I expect Serge Ibaka to become a member of the All-Defensive Team and be considered for an All-Star berth. I expect Kevin Durant to score 30-plus a game and go head-to-head for MVP against LeBron James. Will James Harden win Sixth Man of the Year? I expect the Thunder to accumulate the best record in the Western Conference and finally shed the youth label that has become a crutch when they struggle.
The Los Angeles Clippers will be must-see TV thanks to Chris Paul. The argument can be made right now that they have the best starting five in the NBA, but will that translate into victories? They call it Lob City in Clipper Land now, but I want to see if Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler and Mo Williams consistently knock down open shots to keep double-teams away from Paul and Blake Griffin. I expect the Clippers to seize a Top 5 seed in the West. I also expect them to unseat the Lakers as the team to watch this season in Los Angeles and beat them in a first-round series.
The Memphis Grizzlies are primed and ready. I rode that bandwagon the entire postseason and it is not a fad. They bring back Rudy Gay and I expect him to blend in with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to have one the best offensive frontlines in basketball. I think head coach Lionel Hollins will keep them focused defensively, which allowed them to upset top-seeded San Antonio last year. I would not be surprised to see a Memphis–Clippers conference final.
The West has a number of teams that could catch fire and find a way to secure a playoff berth. The Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Suns, Hornets and Jazz will battle it out and the team that gets off to a quick start will secure a spot.
Portland would be the favorite, but they have been continuously decimated by injuries. LaMarcus Aldridge is the real deal and Gerald Wallace brings toughness that could elevate them.
Denver got picked apart by the Chinese Basketball Association and I think it might have made them better. Kenyon Martin and JR Smith signed free agent contracts and allowed the Nuggets to focus on the player they really needed - Nenê. I expect Ty Lawson to emerge as a force for the Nuggets. I am interested in seeing if Kenneth Faried is as good as he showed in his two exhibition games against Phoenix? Will Arron Affalo be able to handle expectations that go with a big contract? Can Danilo Gallinari step up and be a consistent offensive force nightly?
I expect the Suns to score and anytime Steve Nash is around that’s a given. The key that I will watch out for is the defensive improvement under the watchful eye of newly hired assistant coach Elston Turner. I also expect Grant Hill to continue to fight father time and produce. I am extremely interested in how Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez mesh as an interior twosome. That could become the key to the Suns' success. The most important player is Channing Frye because he is a matchup nightmare and if he is knocking down three-point shots, Phoenix becomes a dangerous team most nights. Sensational athlete Shannon Brown will try and prove he can get it done outside the triangle offense and away from Kobe. The Suns need a good start, but are facing a treacherous schedule early.
New Orleans and Utah have made a plethora of changes and in a shortened season they will have to come together quickly to make a run at the 7th and 8th seed.
Although I don’t see Golden State, Minnesota and Sacramento making a run, I will enjoy watching all three teams compete and grow. They are stockpiling young talent and with a few more veteran additions will be advancing up the ladder very soon.