I love the NBA Playoffs. They may be a bit too predictable (those seven game series’ almost always favor the better teams over the upstarts) and they can sometimes drag on, but the NBA Playoffs are something special. For a kid who grew up on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Bulls, the NBA Playoffs are maybe the best event in sports. Pro basketball at its best is an active sport that engages fans like no other. Plus, for the first time in many years, all four of the biggest franchises-the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Boston Celtics-are back in the playoffs and three of them have a legitimate chance to win the NBA Title. Knowing that, it should be an incredibly exciting few weeks of action. Let’s break down the threats in each conference, my predictions for the conference champions, and my thoughts on who will win the NBA Championship.
Unlike the West, which continues to have a number of contending teams and parity, the East is top-heavy. However, the East’s best teams are exceptional. Chicago, the top overall seed, features likely-MVP point guard Derrick Rose and three All Star level players in power forward Carlos Boozer, center Joakim Noah, and small forward Luol Deng. The Bulls also have the NBA’s best bench, depth through eleven roster spots, and the league’s most stifling defense. Because of their combination of elite defense with capable offense and an exceptional bench, the Bulls are my pick to get through the East to the NBA Finals.
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However, even though the Bulls are my pick, there are other contenders for the East title. The Southern beast, Miami’s Heat, features MVP level stars LeBron James and Dwayne Wade as well as All Star forward Chris Bosh. Despite having almost no other notable contributors, the Heat are the third overall seed and play stifling defense. Nonetheless, if history is any indicator, their complete lack of bench depth will wear their starters down in the playoffs and their lack of size will expose them defensively to teams with size. The three other contenders for the East title-the Bulls, Celtics, and Lakers, all have phenomenal size so it is unlikely the Heat will successfully make it through the gauntlet.
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As for the Celtics and the Orlando Magic, both squads are very capable but have notable flaws that could sink their playoff hopes. The Celtics are dealing with regression from point guard and team maestro Rajon Rondo and a frustrating lack of frontcourt depth due to injuries to Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, and the Kendrick Perkins trade. A fully healthy 2011 Celtics team can beat anyone but the prospect of full health for this team is unlikely at best. As for Orlando, MVP-level center Dwight Howard keeps them in fringe contention but their lack of elite complimentary defenders (Gilbert Arenas anyone) or a legitimate second option will keep them out of the Finals. Simply put, the Chicago Bulls are the conferences’ most complete team and their elite leadership and coaching, historic defense, and special bench should get them to the NBA Finals….at the very least.
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The Western Conference has many good teams but each has serious flaws. The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs have not been healthy for a month and Tim Duncan’s mileage will be a concern; the thirty-five year old Hall of Fame power forward already looks tired and the playoffs have not even started. As usual, the Lakers have elevated their game with the playoffs looming but Andrew Bynum is one bad fall away from the inactive list, all their key contributors are ageing (even Kobe picks his spots now and Ron Artest no longer plays offense), and their bench depth remains a concern. The Dallas Mavericks are very good but the health of center Tyson Chandler will prove critical. Perhaps the best sleeper team here is the Oklahoma City Thunder; the Thunder have all the pieces they need for a title after the Kendrick Perkins trade. However, Perkins remains injured and the Thunder have not fully integrated their post-trade roster.
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It’s hard to pick a Western favorite as no team is really complete. The Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks, and Thunder all have a legitimate shot. The Nuggets are an interesting wildcard. However, at the risk of appearing stale, I have to pick the Lakers: no coach is better in the post-season than Phil Jackson, Kobe and Pau Gasol know how to win, and Bynum is still healthy.
All the experts seem to like the Los Angeles Lakers over the Chicago Bulls if that is indeed the Finals matchup. However, I disagree; I think the Bulls are the younger, fresher, better, and more complete team. The Bulls have better defense than the Lakers now and they will combine that with a superior bench and a powerful sense of team unity. The Bulls also have a legitimate star capable of going toe to toe with Bryant in crunch time, which could prove crucial. Ultimately, I think that will be a long series but Chicago will have home court in Game 7 and their home prowess, youth, athleticism, and determination should see them through to the end.
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