Alex Harkaway/For the Review
Question: What is light blue and white, was born and raised in the Northwest and is awful at basketball?
Answer: The Oklahoma City Thunder.
Jokes aside, this team has all the makings of a terrific basketball season, with plenty of intriguing storylines, from Oklahoma City’s new team to Greg Oden’s rookie year. In November, all 30 teams can fancy themselves contenders, but, come June, only one will be crowned champion. But why should you have to wait seven months to know who will win it all? I will profile the defending champion, the Boston Celtics, and their six closest competitors and analyze each squad’s shot at glory before ultimately predicting the 2009 NBA champion. My forecast may surprise you.
Rockets: Houston is a popular preseason pick for most improved team, mostly because of the acquisition of lockdown defender Ron Artest. But who will carry the team during playoff time? Their perennial all-star, Yao Ming, is too soft for the task, and their best player, Tracy McGrady, has never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. That is where this team’s dream is destined to die. Eliminated: first round.
Pistons: By firing its coach, despite a 59-win season, Detroit sent the message that anything less than a championship will not be tolerated. The team ensured that it will not do any better this year by trading away for Allen Iverson. Entrusting the primary ballhandling duties to a shoot-first-ask-questions-later player in the twilight of his career will not improve the team’s postseason fate. Eliminated: second round.
Blazers: Hmm. Their point guard is a journeyman, has little playoff experience and the franchise savior can’t stay healthy (or avoid the Sam Bowie comparisons). So why are they on this contenders list? Because they are our hometown team. Sadly, that is the only reason. Eliminated: first round.
Spurs: Tim Duncan’s whining to the officials, Bruce Bowen’s cheap shots and dirty plays and Manu Ginobili’s ridiculous flops: Basketball fans will have grown accustomed to these things by June. Last year, the New Orleans Hornets almost did us all a favor by eliminating them in the second round.
Thankfully, there will be no “almost” this year. Eliminated: second round.
Lakers: Last year Kobe Bryant showed his ability to take fewer shots, score less and defer more to his teammates while playing at an MVP level. Those are the very sacrifices that helped lead Los Angeles deep into the playoffs, but to win it all, many more will need to be made. Pau Gasol must learn to play away from the paint to stay out of Andrew Bynum’s way. Lamar Odom needs to accept his relegation to a sixth-man role. Blossoming young guards Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic must tolerate far fewer minutes than they would receive elsewhere. Barring another midseason trade, a title run is too much to ask. Eliminated: conference finals.
Celtics: Hungry for a championship, three superstars united in Boston last season. They played the best defense of their careers and stepped their game up when the game mattered most. Can they do it again? All three of their stars are in their thirties, and the best role-player behind them left in free agency to the Hornets. Boston still has enough talent to make it to the finals again, but this time around there will be a new champion. Eliminated: NBA finals.
Introducing your 2009 NBA champions: the New Orleans Hornets. A surprise? Sure. An upset? Certainly. But the Hornets have what it takes to shock the world. Their point guard is the best player in the game today. Around Chris Paul, the Hornets have stockpiled athletic, defensive-minded players and deadly outside shooters (as well as ex-Celtic supersub James Posey, who is both). Unlike the other contenders, they have no notable chemistry, leadership or coaching issues. Time will tell if they go the distance, but do not be stunned if, by June, the best storyline in the league comes from New Orleans. Remember this prediction, and we’ll see what happens.