Michael Wilbon: This season, elite teams will dominate the NBA
Don't waste a minute of your time looking for an upstart, a dark horse, a team that will come out of nowhere to sneak up on the favorites. There aren't going to be any, not in the NBA this season. You want Cinderella, find another league. More than in any professional sport, the favorites win big in the NBA. So, for the favorites to begin the season with greater separation than usual from the others is saying something.
Oh, there'll be some spirited battling for playoff spots. Portland and Toronto could leapfrog some teams. Houston and Detroit could take a tumble. Blake Griffin, Al Thornton and Eric Gordon could make the Clippers not only competitive but watchable. But this season, when it's time to play for the big prize in June, it isn't going to be about the evolution of youngsters or the maturation of a team that's fairly close. The middle and working classes have zero chance of overthrowing the blue bloods between now and then.
The 2009-10 season will be dominated by teams that were already rich and got richer, teams that were championship material and sought to become great before training camp even began. The Lakers, who added Ron Artest; the Cavaliers, who added Shaquille O'Neal; the Spurs, who added Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess; the Celtics, who added Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels; and the Orlando Magic, which pretty much revamped a squad that made it to the Finals just five months ago, will be the favorites. It's almost impossible that any team outside that quintet will make it to the 2010 conference finals.
Three of those five (Lakers, Celtics, Spurs) have won championships the last three seasons and all five have been to the Finals. Just look at the acquisitions alone. Shaq won it all most recently in 2006. Jefferson went to the Finals twice with the Nets. McDyess went to the Finals with the Pistons in 2005. Wallace won with the Pistons in 2004. Daniels went to the Finals in '06 with the Mavericks. The only player being counted on to deliver at a level he's never delivered is Orlando's Vince Carter, whose theme should be: "Son, you're incredibly overdue."
Orlando is the team that's clearly taken on the biggest risk; yes, even bigger than the Lakers taking on Artest or Cleveland taking on Shaq. Orlando's best player is Dwight Howard, but the player most important to the team's success was Hedo Turkoglu, whose willingness to facilitate teammates is not a trait associated with Carter. But Orlando may have scored a coup with the acquisition of Brandon Bass, a tough guy, to play power forward alongside Howard. Still, Turkoglu's loss is going to hurt.
Incorporating Shaq doesn't happen overnight, which the Suns learned the hard way. . . . But Cleveland didn't give up anything of note to get O'Neal. Wallace is a pain and he's going to pick up technical fouls just as he always has. But put him in a rotation with Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis, and the Celtics have uncommon depth and versatility in their front court, enough to beat Cleveland if they're all healthy to start the playoffs.
The Lakers did, in essence, give up something to get Artest: Trevor Ariza, a player who is much more efficient than Artest when it comes to economy of shots, time possessing the ball, spacing the floor and knowing how to play with a superstar. Ariza seemed a perfect fit for the Lakers. Playing with and off a star is one of the most difficult jobs in pro basketball. Ask Scottie Pippen. Ask LeBron James, who has yet to find a guy who can adequately do that.
Any other coach in the NBA, even the really good ones like Stan Van Gundy and Doc Rivers, and I'd really fear this Artest-to-the-Lakers move. But Phil Jackson (and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich) knows how to deal with high maintenance/special needs players; Pop, remember, won a championship with crazy Stephen Jackson in his starting lineup. Maybe it's just what the Lakers need to keep complacency away from the locker room.
That's not a problem for the Spurs, because they slipped completely under the radar last year. San Antonio is in "prove it" mode again. Is there one more title run in them with Tim Duncan, now that they're fortified by Jefferson and McDyess? Well, of course. Tony Parker is just entering his physical prime at 27. Manu Ginóbili is healthy and leads a bench that includes Matt Bonner and rookie DeJuan Blair, who might prove to be the greatest draft steal in 10 years.
Don't believe a word of Rasheed Wallace's claim, that the Celtics could win 70 or more games. There aren't enough gimmes for any one of the five to reach 70. A former pushover, say the Bobcats, could actually make the playoffs with a tiny bit of luck. As awful as a team like the Nets may look on the surface, they do have Devin Harris at point guard and Brook Lopez at center. Oklahoma City probably isn't ready to even make the playoffs yet, but there are some nights a team featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, will just take out one of the Big Five, or even the second-tier teams like the Trail Blazers, Raptors, Mavericks, Bulls or, yes, the Wizards.
For the fifth time in the last six years, there's reason for optimism in Washington. The Wizards are amazingly deep in professional perimeter players. If Gilbert Arenas is 90 percent of the way back and is interested in leading his team, not just scoring a ton of points, the Wizards can be, as Sports Illustrated predicts, one of the four best teams in the Eastern Conference. Of course, the bigs really have to play big because the Wizards don't have enough of them. It's Brendan Haywood, Fabricio Oberto and second-year novice JaVale McGee and that's about it. Scouts around the league are hailing Flip Saunders's offense, but Eddie Jordan had every bit as good an offense as Saunders has run. The issue with the Wizards has been defense. The question is: What can Saunders do to improve that -- and with limited bigs?
Do the Wizards have enough to overtake the Hawks, Bulls and Raptors in the Eastern Conference? Probably not, though they should make the playoffs, which given last year's plunge should be a good re-starting point.
When the playoffs roll around, here's exactly where the Wizards should fit in my order of finish in the Eastern Conference: Cavaliers, Celtics, Magic, Raptors, Bulls, Hawks, Wizards, Heat.
In the Western Conference, it's Lakers, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Hornets, Jazz, Mavericks, Suns.
The Western Conference finalists will be the Spurs and Lakers for seemingly the 100th time, while the Celtics and Cavs (no huge surprise there) will play in the East.
The Cavaliers and Lakers will survive to give us the Kobe-LeBron Finals we didn't get last year.