In nine seasons, LeBron James has shattered just about every major offensive record for his age group, created and perfected a brand new NBA position and changed the entire landscape of the league in a way that NBA fans have seen about three times.
Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics had 11 championships; Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s rivalry brought the NBA to the masses; Michael Jordan made being a star athlete in America an international experience; and now LeBron, fresh off one of the best post-season runs in history and a gold medal in the London Olympics, is in a position to take exclusive control of the league.
There are about four teams – and just one in the Eastern Conference – that actually have a chance to stop the locomotive that the Miami Heat seem to be riding en route to a second title in as many seasons. Not included in that foursome are Chicago Bulls, who, even after getting Derrick Rose back from a torn ACL in late February, will be too far down in the standings and exhausted from trying to stay afloat in the conference to make a legitimate run at the Heat.
Also not included in that foursome are the many up-and-coming teams in both conferences. The Indiana Pacers are a sleeper to earn the second seed out of the East. Andrew Bynum moving to Philadelphia makes the 76ers a player in the East as well. The Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies are both capable of winning multiple series in the Western Conference. Top to bottom, the Western Conference is so much deeper than the East, it is hard not to wonder how many fringe playoff teams in the West would sleep easy in the East.
Without further ado, the four teams that have a shot in hell this season to hang around with Miami, followed by the league’s team to beat:
5. Boston Celtics
The TD Garden will once again be rockin’ through May, as the Celtics properly countered the loss of Ray Allen on the wing by adding significant depth at the guard positions. 2011 NBA champion Jason Terry will do very well in the same backcourt with Rajon Rondo, arguably the most creative backcourt league-wide. Courtney Lee will be a great filler in the starting lineup until Avery Bradley returns from injury – if he returns this season. Rounding out guard play is Leandro Barbosa, who can score in bunches.
Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Paul Pierce provide plenty of experience and late-game ability in the starting lineup, but there are some doubts about the bench down low. Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo are probably too young to handle the minutes Doc Rivers is going to ask from them. And how many minutes are the Celtics going to hand to journeymen like Chris Wilcox, Jason Collins and Darko Milicic? And is Jeff Green going to be healthy all year? All big question marks.
As long as Boston has Rajon Rondo, they will bother the Heat. Pierce and Garnett have unfinished business with their former teammate Allen to boot. But they will not beat Miami in the conference finals.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
Wow, wow, wow. The Lakers starting lineup transformed after a busy off-season, as it might be the best the league has seen in years. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol at the forward spots, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash at guard and an all-league defender in Metta World Peace will give opponents nightmares on and off the court all season long; except Miami.
What Miami has that Los Angeles does not is a deep bench filled with offensive weapons. The Lakers do have veteran Antawn Jamison playing sixth man, a position he is more than qualified to play at this stage in his career, but beyond Jamison, there are a lot of so-so options. Jordan Hill, Devin Ebanks and Steve Blake all return to the roles they played last season, but are average. Jodie Meeks and Earl Clark are new additions that can play multiple positions, but their careers have been defined by inconsistency.
The Lakers could absolutely be the representative out of the Western Conference and might have the best shot at negating Miami’s big three out of any team in the league. But LeBron and Wade will wear them down over a series, as the Lakers are too thin off the bench.
3. San Antonio Spurs
The most fluid offensive team in basketball, the Spurs return the same 12-man rotation that rattled off a 23-2 record to close out the regular season, sweeps in the first two rounds of the playoffs and a six-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals.
The Spurs will accomplish a lot of the same things in ’12-’13. The Spurs should finish with an elite regular season record and claim a top two seed in the playoffs. From there, look for the Spurs to completely outperform their first round opponent. If Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and head coach Greg Popovich learn their lessons from Oklahoma City – and common wisdom says that Popovich and company do not make the same mistakes twice – the Spurs could return to the NBA finals for the first time since 2007.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Yes, the James Harden trade is controversial and imperfect. Yes, most of the pieces acquired from the Houston Rockets do not help this season’s Thunder team all that much. But if the guard play of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and a healthy Eric Maynor can make up even 75 percent of the Harden loss, the Thunder will still have three pieces that the rest of the Western Conference simply does not have, which will allow them to prevail.
The Thunder have the league’s best shot-blocker (Serge Ibaka) and an NBA champion at center (Kendrick Perkins) in the frontcourt; they have the most athletic point guard in the NBA, who also doubles as a top five scorer in the league (Russell Westbrook); and the Thunder have the world’s best scorer (Kevin Durant). As long as those four players remain motivated and hungry, the Thunder are the team to beat in the west.
1. Miami Heat
So they added the greatest three-point shooter of all-time to a roster that outshot the Thunder in the finals, brought back their plethora of glue guys – Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Mike Miller – and still have Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh? The Heat will be really tough this season.
And yes, they have LeBron James; the best player on the planet; the most unguardable player on the planet; a living-legend. It is the Heat’s title to lose.