As the 2012-13 NBA season approaches, what better time to ponder whether or not the Miami Heat will repeat, if Oklahoma City is ready to challenge, and if the new-look Lakers can be tops once again in the West.
As to the last question, Kobe says it's still his team, and the arrival of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash make LA the game's most devastating pick-and-roll squad. Then, there are the question marks surrounding Derrick Rose and that torn ACL. And let's not forget Jay-Z's favorite team and the other franchise in the Tri-State.
One Black Mamba And One Superman, Please
Even if Kobe Bryant still insists that the Lakers -- owners of the league's highest payroll -- are his team, no player is more important to this franchise right now than Dwight Howard. The towering 26-year-old center and three-time Defensive Player of the Year gives LA its first dominant big man since Shaq left, and it could not come at a better time. The pick-and-roll combination between him and free agent acquisition Steve Nash will be dynamic, as will Howard's herculean ability to protect the paint. But the Lakers still don't have an especially quick team on the perimeter. Aside from Howard in the middle, its most important player on defense will be Metta World Peace, who was superb during the second half of last season as a lockdown defender, holding opponents to a mere 29 percent shooting in off-the-dribble situations (per Synergy Sports). While 2011 proved to be a challenging season on both sides of the ball for a Laker team that was ousted by Oklahoma City in five games, 2012 should be much better -- if Kobe is willing to defer. Veteran free agent acquisition Antawn Jamison should bolster the bench, Pau Gasol should be better and Nash instantly takes the playmaking pressure off everyone else, particularly No. 24.
Thunder And Lightning
No team in the league has a better combination of youth and talent than Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is certain to be an MVP candidate for the better part of the next decade, and while the questions about him coexisting with trigger-happy point guard Russell Westbrook will seemingly never end, there is not a more electric duo in basketball. Even so, the Thunder was exposed by Miami in last year's Finals as too undisciplined at both ends of the floor. Durant, the mega-superstar that he has become, still doesn't command the ball enough, and James Harden, a wonderful talent, was just traded to Houston. Without him, OKC will be reliant on rookie Jeremy Lamb, whom it acquired in the deal, and loses the league's reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner. Perhaps the most important player for the Thunder is Serge Ibaka, who has the size and skill set to haunt GMs across the league. Ibaka, whom GM Sam Presti shrewdly extended for four more years during the offseason, is a terrific pick-and-roll big who can shoot it with ease from as far out as 16 feet. Defensively, however, he must be more dominant. As Miami proved, teams are not afraid to challenge Kendrick Perkins in the paint. Despite leading the NBA in blocked shots last season, Ibaka fell at or below the league average in pick-and-roll defense, per Synergy Sports. In the Finals, that led to exposed interior defense and poor rotations that eventually led to a five-game beat-down.
The Return Of D-Rose?
Before Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first round of last season's playoffs, the Bulls were a prohibitive favorite with their best chance at a title since No. 23. When disaster happened, Chicago not surprisingly fell apart. But were they truly elite to begin with? Rose shot just 21 percent in the conference finals two years ago against Miami, and 6 percent with LeBron James guarding him. Under head coach Tom Thibodeau, this team has built an identity as a tough defense, ranking first in both total points allowed (88.2) and rebounding last season. But lackluster scoring has been a recurring issue. Carlos Boozer has not delivered since signing a five-year, $80 million deal in 2010, and Luol Deng, while solid, has shown he cannot carry the Bulls when Rose struggles. Playing high-level defense is certainly a positive, but when you're dealing with high octane Miami in the East, it simply is not enough. So the pivotal question is: Whither the Bulls if Rose, reportedly recovering ahead of schedule, isn't the same D-Rose he was before?
No More Flopping!
For fans sick of seeing NBA players making a bid for an Oscar, the league's new flopping rule is a welcome development. "Flops have no place in our game -- they either fool referees into calling undeserved fouls or fool fans into thinking the referees missed a foul call," NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson has said. The first punishment will result in a warning, followed by a $5,000 fine for a second violation and on up. Foreign players known for their acting skills, like Cleveland's Anderson Varejao have take notice: "I'm not flopping anymore," he said. "I used to flop a little bit." Then there is <a href="http://mavsblog.dallasnews.com/2012/10/david-stern-dirk-nowitzki-agree-to-disagree-on-flops.html/">Dirk Nowitzki</a>, who told the Dallas Morning News: "I think it's a bunch of crap to be honest with you. Are they going to come back after a game and fine you for flopping? That's tough to do to me." Some worry that the new rule will result in fewer charges called, as its easily the most subjective call officials make. Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer has a <a href="http://newsok.com/nba-means-business-with-flopping-crackdown/article/3720958#ixzz2A2xexSeV">response</a> to that: "We don't flop over here," he said. "We play D. If we take charges, it's a real charge. There are some teams that live and die by the flop. I like the rule. It puts pressure on guys to play better defense." There is also the new "Reggie Miller rule" in effect for 2012. Miller, of course, infamously patented the jumper leg-kick to initiate contact with the defender and draw a cheap foul. The rule states that referees will call the offensive player for the foul and not the helpless defender. That said, a similar rule in the NFL is supposed to apply to cornerbacks and wide receivers when both have an equal right to the ball.
The Other New York Team?
With the Brooklyn Nets generating most of the offseason buzz in the Tri-State, the Knicks have taken a back seat. Here's a scary statistic: When Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler (the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year) played together, the Knicks scored 98.5 points per 100 possessions, well below the bottom third of the league. With Jeremy Lin gone and Raymond Felton back, coach Mike Woodson is hoping his team's pick-and-roll game will again excel. Of course, if it doesn't, the Knicks can just decide to dump the ball into the paint. Stoudemire, fresh off an offseason working on his post-up game with Hakeem Olajuwon, is coming off his lowest scoring average in a non-injured season since he was a rookie. Anthony, meanwhile, comes off a marvelous summer with Team USA, when he captured his second-straight gold medal as one of the club's leading scorers. Over the summer, the quality of his play was more a byproduct of his surroundings than actual change on his part. Anthony has yet to take over an entire playoff series and lead the Knicks on a deep playoff run. At 28 years old, he is theoretically in his prime. Woodson's plan to implement his arsenal of offensive abilities will often consist of playing him at the four, a role in which he excelled in London. NBA fours are significantly better, but giving 'Melo the freedom to play in the paint and bring slower defenders out to the three-point line should be a terrific move.
They've Got Next
Anthony Davis may be the next Kevin Garnett. Washington's Bradley Beal is one of the most gifted offensive rookies I've ever seen. Charlotte's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is already an elite perimeter defender. Portland's Damian Lillard may be Russell Westbrook 2.0, and Golden State's Harrison Barnes will prove exactly why certain players are meant for college and certain players are meant for the NBA. Not since the famed 2003 draft class of LeBron, D-Wade and Carmelo have has there been an abundance of rooks so stout. Whether or not this class lives up to the hype is impossible to know, but the 2012 draftees will go down as one of basketball's most promising.
Without Ray Allen on the perimeter banging triples, Boston will turn its shooting guard reins this season over to third-year man Avery Bradley. Bradley, who supplanted Allen last season in the starting role, gives Boston one of the league's quickest and most dynamic backcourts alongside point guard Rajon Rondo. He is a lethal on-ball defender with an improving jumper and provides a much needed infusion of overall team speed. The other noteworthy element for the Celtics is in the rebounding department, which derailed their upset bid against Miami in the playoffs. For the season, they ranked 28th overall in rebounding percentage, at 47.3 percent. Boston fans hope that will change in 2012 with the drafting of 7-footer Fab Melo and power forward Jared Sullinger, both first round picks. The re-signing of Kevin Garnett didn't get big headlines, but KG's passion and leadership -- along with his scoring ability -- should keep Boston relevant in the East, at least for one more season.
Leave it to Miami to poach Celtics free agent Ray Allen and his 2,718 3-pointers. Then there is Rashard Lewis (1,690 made 3s), along with Game 5 Finals hero Mike Miller, who give the Heat three of the NBA's top-13 active players in 3-pointers made. The reason for acquiring three elite shooters is pretty simple: Teams have figured out that one of the only ways to slow LeBron and Dwyane Wade is to pack the paint and force them to go through more bodies. As we saw in the playoffs, doing so leaves shooters with consistently clean looks from deep. Allen, while not the perennial All-Star he once was, remains one of the league's most lethal bombers, converting over 45 percent on 3-pointers last year. Lewis and Miller are knockdown standstill threats who also can't be left alone. Defensively, with the remarkable length and quickness of James, Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami forced turnovers at a league best 17.6 percent of opponent possessions, while ranking first in the NBA in both isolation and transition defense, per Synergy Sports. The issue that many teams face in trying to attack the Heat -- Oklahoma City in the Finals is a prime example -- is an inability to space the floor. It's not merely that Miami has superb one-on-one defenders in James, Wade and Mario Chalmers, but in combination with lightning-fast rotations they are truly elite. The postseason is generally a half-court game, and until teams figure out how to consistently beat the Heat by actually running offense, this team remains the favorite to capture a second-straight title.