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Who will win it all in 2012?
The dramatic ending of the current NBA season answered many questions about many teams, but it also raised new questions about what happens next. Assuming the lockout will either not happen or will end early, here’s a look-see at the favorites to win the championship a year from now.
Although Miami's stunning failure against Dallas will cause lingering psychological problems, the Heat are still the team to beat, primarily because of their incredible firepower and because their most important players will still be in their respective primes. However, hating the haters and being motivated by revenge is not a program for success. Instead, LeBron James must keep his mouth shut and dig deep inside his heart-of-hearts to find the wherewithal to shrug off the immense pressure and become a Jordanesque closer.
What Miami needs: Assuming Mario Chalmers will be the starting point guard, a quality pass-first backup is absolutely necessary. So is a bulky center with decent post-up moves and a huge appetite for rebounding and playing defense. Another wing shooter capable of creating his own scoring opportunities would be useful.
The Mavericks were the oldest team in the NBA and will be a year older next year. Keeping their key players healthy for the duration will require an adjustment in playing time and an increased reliance on the bench. Here’s where a healthy (and re-signed) Caron Butler would be a critical factor. Look for the Mavs to win fewer games in the regular season but be primed for the playoffs.
What Dallas needs: Owner Mark Cuban to reach even deeper into his money bag to re-sign Butler, Shawn Marion, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and, especially, Tyson Chandler. It would help to find the Fountain of Youth, rumored to be somewhere in the Panhandle.
The Thunder are young and willing but in dire need of discipline. Can Russell Westbrook avoid taking ill-advised shots and become a true point guard? Can Kevin Durant get stronger and more assertive without compromising his quickness? Can James Harden play sufficient defense to warrant a third-scorer’s minutes in the starting lineup? Can Serge Ibaka’s education be accelerated?
What OKC needs: More defensive coordination and intensity. Another scorer off the bench to replace Harden. A backup for the foul-prone Kendrick Perkins.
Although the Bulls’ roster will remain virtually intact, they are not as close to usurping the Mavs as might be expected. While Derrick Rose desperately needs some scoring help, he also must develop both his jumper and his judgment. Something must also be done with Carlos Boozer — either by trading him or bringing in a better big and sending him to the bench.
What Chicago needs: Scoring, scoring and more scoring. Specifically, a creative wing (or two) with a reliable long-distance jumper. An alternative to the defenseless, slow-moving, profoundly unreliable Boozer.
The Lakers will return with several questionable parts still in the mix. For example, the physical well-being of Andrew Bynum. The inconsistency of Lamar Odom. The mysterious passivity of Pau Gasol. And the relationship between new coach Mike Brown and Kobe Bryant. If LeBron tooled Brown in Cleveland, the new coach will have an extremely difficult time satisfying the demands and gaining the respect of Kobe. This is especially true since the 33-year-old Bryant’s skills and ability to dominate in the endgame are in rapid decline. Rather than experiencing a fresh boost of energy and motivation under the new regime, the Lakers will suffer a letdown. But miraculous endings are the norm in Tinsel Town, and the Lakers certainly have the length, experience and talent to reclaim their elite status atop the league.
The also-rans include the following:
The aging Boston Celtics, who must rely on Rajon Rondo for more offense, hope that Jeff Green is as good as they think he is (he isn’t), find a durable center in lieu of Jermaine O’Neal and the departed Perkins and Shaq, re-sign Ray Allen and Delonte West and let Glen Davis go elsewhere and replace him with a more clutch-worthy big.
This San Antonio Spurs' season demonstrated how much Tim Duncan’s game has declined — he’s slow off his feet and has limited lateral movement. In addition, Manu Ginobili is increasingly fragile, Tony Parker is disgruntled, Richard Jefferson is useless and Tiago Splitter is not close to being ready. Expect San Antonio’s roster to be dramatically reshaped. But never underestimate what coach Gregg Popovich can accomplish.
The Denver Nuggets showed signs of the kind of teamwork and all-around hustle that never existed when Carmelo Anthony was their featured player. Although Nene must be re-signed, and Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen are over the hill, the Nuggets are now blessed with a deep bench, youthful players with incredible upsides and, in George Karl, an experienced leader.
Sooner or later (hopefully the former) the gates will be unlocked and the greatest athletes in the world will be back in the business of trying to be the best of the best.