A few games into the 2008-2009 NBA season, I think a few things have been made clear.
-The East is far more balanced than a year ago. Teams like Indiana are no longer doormats and have the potential to win on any given night. Even more to my point, a "second level" team such as Orlando has the look of a team ready to make that proverbial next step. We know what stars like Dwight Howard or Rashard Lewis can do. It's time for former St. Joe's star Jameer Nelson to become a 15 pt and 8 assist guy. I didn't get to see the Celts-Bulls game in full on Halloween but after watching the replay of the game later that night, I am positive Chicago made the right choice with their top pick in Derrick Rose. The kid's gonna be a stud.
-Washington made the wrong choice in giving The Mad Blogger Gilbert Arenas a $100+ million deal. They haven't played well so far without him but last year they proved they're better without their much-maligned, shoot-first point guard.
-LaMarcus Aldridge may not have Greg Oden beside him but he is vastly underrated and it will be a travesty if he's not in the All Star Game this year.
-Elton Brand doesn't look completely healthy, which should be cause for concern for the Sixers. However, Thaddeus Young is one of the best up and coming small forwards in the game. Should be a very interesting team.
-The Jazz have been impressive going 4-0 without their leader Deron Williams. I still don't think they'll have enough to win a playoff series, though. The Lakers, Hornets and Rockets have served notice to the West they'll be in the conference semis. The Spurs, who barely squeaked out a double-overtime win over the Timberwolves last night thanks to Tony Parker's 55 points, are sitting at 1-3. The loss of Manu Ginobli will continue to hurt until December but they'll be sitting pretty if they can hover around .500 until then. This will be a dangerous team come playoff time because of Gibobli's ability to bring energy and intensity while scoring his customary 18+ points a night.
League MVP: It's time for the King to finally get coronated (individually, at least). Lebron James will have have one of those transcendent seasons and has the luxury of facing competition whose stats won't be quite as plentiful due to the other scoring talent on their teams (Kobe, Paul Pierce, Yao Ming and others). He'll be a joy to watch as I plug him into my fantasy lineup every night.
Side note: I had both Amare Stoudemire's 49 point effort and Parker's 55 point explosion on my other team the other night. Those are the nights you live for when you play fantasy basketball.
Rookie of the Year: Michael Beasely purely for the volume of stats he'll put up. I do think Rose will easily be the better player. There was kind of a similar case last year with Kevin Durant and Al Horford (or even Louis Scola). I thought Horford had a better year than Durant but had less touches and plays a different position. Note: I am not saying Horford will be better than Durant, just that his game was a bit more polished last year.
Coach of the Year: This award is a tough one to figure for me. Is it defined as the coach of the best team or the coach who does the best job with what's around him? I've heard the latter the majority of the time but it doesn't seem to be an exact science. Someone like Byron Scott last year was an easy choice as him team overachieved and finished close to the top of the conference. I'm pretty sure Phil Jackson had some decent talent with the 72-win Bulls of 95-96 and won the award. Then there's coaches like Sam Mitchell two years ago who won it based on the fact his team far exceeded expectations. The man I'm choosing this year is Terry Porter in Phoenix. He has the task of transforming the Suns into a half-court team with a group of players in their mid-30's. I think this can be done when you have a guy like Amare on your team. The trouble will be on defense. If he can get it done while winning 50-55 games, he'll roll to the award.
Comeback Player: Jermaine O'Neal is a shoe-in for this award if he play defense. His stats won't sky-rocket scoring-wise but he can prove that he can still rebound and form a great tandem with Chris Bosh for the Raptors.
I'm expecting the final four of the East to be Boston, Cleveland, Philly and Toronto. The premiere series will be the Eastern Conference finals between Boston and Cleveland. This series could evoke memories of the Bulls-Knicks in the early '90s. The Celtics got the better of the Cavs opening night but I think they will be a much different team come May when Mo Williams and Lebron are comfortable with each other.
The West will have the Lakers, Hornets, Spurs and Rockets as its final teams. Once again I think it will come down to the Lakers and Spurs. This might be one of Tim Duncan's last stands and they won't go as quietly as last year to the Lakers.
The Celtics will come down to the wire with Lebron again this year but this time they beat the Cavs on the road in game 7. The Lakers beat the Spurs in 7 at home and Kobe goes nuts, dropping 48 points and wearing the older Spurs out.
Until the Lakers prove they can bang with the Celtics down low and guard the perimeter better than the Finals, I'm going to pick the Celtics. These Celtics remind me a lot of the late-90s Bulls teams because of the way they can pick up their defensive intensity in the second half of games and just stifle their opponents. Boston does just enough on offense to win these games but obviously it will be the defense that could lead them to their second straight title.
Pierce, Garnett and Allen know they have a chance to etch their name in everyone's minds as truly a great team. Everyone remembers the Rockets who won back-to-back championships during Jordan's hiatus but, as Bob Ryan has said, who remembers the 1978-1979 Seattle Sonics? (You knew the late Dennis Johnson was on that team, right?)