Kobe will burn Heat

Over the last three months the NBA
landscape has changed dramatically. With star players changing addresses and
teams appearing stronger, story-lines abound for the start of the 2010-2011
season next week.

Arguably the biggest issue is the
Miami Heat. A mediocre team the last handful of years, Miami bulked up big time
in signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh this summer. James is a two-time league
MVP and is coming off a number of playoff campaigns with the Cleveland
Cavaliers. Bosh meanwhile has quietly been a double-double threat with around
20 points and 10 boards a game, which was the lone positive for Toronto Raptors
fans who saw few post-season berths. Pair them with electric scorer Dwyane Wade
(who is returning to the Heat) and Miami has a legitimate case for being among
the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Their big men talent is
questionable, their point guard play has to improve and the bench has to step
up. Yet the Heat are still a club that can rattle off 55-plus wins this season.
I have doubts about the Heat making the NBA Finals, much less the conference
finals. But I cannot see them finishing lower than second in the East.

The only team that I see being
better than the Heat are the Orlando Magic. Much of the same side is back in
the fold that nabbed the East’s top seed last year. Dwight Howard is one of the
most athletic and dominant big men in the game today and can dominate on both
ends of the court. Couple him with an offensively stout supporting cast in
Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter and the Magic have the potential
of replicating the 2009 regular season campaign.

J.J. Redick steadies a bench that
is pretty solid as well. Orlando have the chemistry and the talent to be a
long-term threat in the East and I can see them making the NBA Finals for the
second time in four years. They should find a way to win 58-60 games this
season and make it to the conference finals once again.

The only reason why the Magic are
not guaranteed a NBA Finals spot is because of the Boston Celtics. The original
Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen remain in place and have
another good year left in them. Now the side has solid support up front with
Kendrick Perkins (as long as he is healthy), Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine
O’Neal to go with Rajon Rondo.

Shaq, for all intensive purposes,
is past his prime but he sounds motivated. His presence will be needed if the
Celtics hope to challenge the Lakers in the Finals again. The prospect of that
match-up is iffy though Boston’s rise to 50 wins and the third seed is crystal
clear.

After the top three clubs the East
is an interesting collection of sides that are good but not great. Chicago has
the talent to rise up to the fourth seed with Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer.
Their 46 wins will be followed closely by the Atlanta Hawks who, in spite of
bringing back stars like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, are a team that has
reached its peak. Milwaukee had an unfortunate injury to Andrew Bogut late in
the season but Brandon Jennings can team up with the Australian enough for 44
wins and a sixth seed. The last two seeds should see Amar’e Stoudemire guide
the New York Knicks to about 42 wins while the Cleveland Cavaliers, even
without LeBron, should squeeze out 38 wins behind Mo Williams.

The West may seem like an
after-thought with all of those entities in the East. But the fact remains that
Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are the defending champions and they are
set to make a three-peat. With Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher the
Lakers are the most complete team in the sport. Anything less than 60 wins, a
first place spot and run back to the NBA Finals would be a shock and a
disappointment.

A number of clubs are close to the
Lakers level. I think the Denver Nuggets, when they have their minds right, are
the most talented and can stack up the best on paper. Carmelo Anthony is
disillusioned with Denver but guys like Chauncey Billups will not let Anthony
give a subpar effort in what should be a 58-win, second seed performance for
the Nuggets. Hot on their tails should be the Dallas Mavericks who can score
for days with Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. Anything less than a
third seed and 56 wins would be a shock.

A legitimate fourth seed is the
Portland Trail Blazers behind Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge. Greg Oden is a
ticking time bomb with his injury concerns and the bench seems a bit depleted
but Portland should be in the thick of things with 54 wins. At this point I put
the Oklahoma City Thunder in fifth as league-leading scorer Kevin Durant has
tremendous upside. His development alongside Russell Westbrook will give the
Thunder an excellent 53 win showing and maybe another shot at the Lakers. The
Phoenix Suns may now have Hedo Turkoglu on the roster but in reality the loss
of Stoudemire is devastating. Sure Steve Nash can shoot like nobody’s business
and score in bunches but they’re no better than 51 wins, a sixth seed and a
first round exit.

The San Antonio Spurs will be in
dangerous position once again at the seventh seed. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili
and Tony Parker all look a step slow and will be a struggle for the Spurs to
create the kind of post-season noise to offset a 48 win campaign. The eighth
and final seed should go to the Houston Rockets, who have one of the fastest
guards in the game in Aaron Brooks.

With Yao Ming coming back Houston
has enough size to get to 46 wins and a first round rematch with Los Angeles.