The 2008-09 NBA season was full of compelling story lines. Our Chicago Bulls went further than anyone imagined on the shoulders of a Rookie of the Year point guard Derrick Rose. LeBron James finally earned an MVP, but failed to produce the kryptonite to stop Superman Dwight Howard and his Orlando Magic. And the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Byrant finally won a championship without the aid of Shaquille O'Neal, The drama is over. Or is it...
The summer basketball drafts and free agency activity have generated more movement than The Black Eyed Peas' latest tunes. So who are the winners and losers thus far in this special summer season?
WESTERN CONFERENCE MOVES
Defensive superstar Ron Artest was acquired by the Lakers adding to a lineup that almost look like a great fantasy team or video game lineup, with Derrick Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum almost insuring a back-to-back title run. With all that talent and the decision by Head Coach Phil Jackson to stay for another year it looks like it will be a two-team race for the West with Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.
After the Spurs' first round loss to the Dallas Mavericks, it was obvious they would have to shake things up, and that's exactly what they did. With the additions of sharpshooter Richard Jefferson, defensive role player Antonio McDyess, and young offensive rookie power including Pittsburgh star Dejuan Blair (combined with the return of a healthy Ginobli) the Spurs look like a contender once again.
EASTERN CONFERENCE MOVES
With the addition of one of the most dominant post players, Shaquille O'Neal, the Cleveland Cavaliers may have added the essential piece for a viable title run (after all post play was their undoing in 2007 against the Spurs and this year against the Magic) The big question is whether an aging Shaq can give them enough minutes to make a difference and keep up with the Cavs' speed and defensive mindset.
Last year's champions, the Boston Celtics, appear to have helped themselves by adding another superstar Rasheed Wallace to join Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and a healthy Kevin Garnett. If the Beantowners can stay healthy in the 2009-10 season they have a chance at another run for rings, but they clearly cannot go deep into the playoffs with Garnett, Allen or Pierce on the disabled list.
In Orlando they lost a majority of their go-to guys from last year's run including Hedo Turkgolu, Rafer Alston, and Courtney Lee (right), but in return received up-and-coming power forward Ryan Anderson and all-star Vince Carter. This may boost ticket sales, but it is uncertain that these transitions will amount to a step up for the team.
The Chicago Bulls are young and determined to compete. With Derrick Rose running the point and a healthy Luol Deng and John Salmons on the wings, the Bulls actually have a chance to be among the top teams in the League. Even though they lost Ben Gordon to free agency, all is not lost. Rumors abound that might send Kirk Hinrich or Tyrus Thomas elsewhere with the potential of a Carlos Boozer or another big man. No matter where this settles out, the Bulls will still have a strong, young core with Joakim Noah and the others that should continue to make them competitive.
But anything can happen in the NBA. Question marks surround teams like Oklahoma City, Detroit, and the single worst basketball team of all time, the Los Angeles Clippers.
Will last year's NCAA player of the year and number one NBA draft pick Blake Griffin, combined with Eric Gordon, transform Baron Davis's cellar dwellers into giant killers? Will the nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and rookie James Harden in Oklahoma become a guard trio comparable to the 2004 Pistons' combo of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince?
Here's an educated guess of where each team will end up in the 2009-10 season:
EASTERN CONFERENCE OUTLOOK
1. Boston Celtics
When KG is healthy there is no other forward who can hold him down. Along with hometown hero Paul Pierce, sharpshooter Ray Allen, the ever improving Rajon Rondo, and the signing of Rasheed Wallace, it will be hard to stop the Green Machine next season.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Lebron James is obviously the best player in the League (sorry Kobe) and in the last year of his contract you can bet he will be playing his heart out. With Mo Williams running the offense and Shaq coming from the Phoenix Suns it will be all or nothing for the Cavs this year.
3. Orlando Magic
I love Dwight Howard. But even Superman needs some help and losing Turkgolu, Lee, and Alston is huge. Now Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, and Rashard Lewis will have to pick up their games if they want to compete in the East.
4. Atlanta Hawks
A team that has freak athletes at every spot on the floor and were also able to sign Jamal Crawford, the Hawks will be ready for another competitive run on the wings of Josh Smith and the shot of Joe Johnson.
5. Chicago Bulls
With Rose leading a determined young Bulls team, expect a fearless pursuit for the Eastern Conference championship. They may be one piece away from becoming a real contender for the title so watch for a serious free agent pick up before the summer is over.
6. Miami Heat
Dwyane Wade is a warrior. He reminds me of young Allen Iverson who would beat everyone's expectations, but his teams were filled with NBA bench players. For Heat fans, just hope that Wade can deal a new contract before the madness of the 2010 free agent craze, or you will lose all chance of winning a championship.
7. Charlotte Bobcats
One of the best NBA coaches of all time, Larry Brown, is leading a talented Bobcats team with high-flier Gerald Wallace, dead-eye shooter D.J. Augustin (left), and powerful force Emeka Okafor. Watch out for the Bobcats to make the jump from expansion team to a playoff team.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
The biggest dark horse in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks, even after losing Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva, will be an interesting team to watch. If Andrew Bogut can hold down the post along with Michael Redd's sweet stroke from the outside and the awesome rookie talent of Brandon Jennings, the Bucks will be a hard team to beat.
9. Detroit Pistons
Poor Detroit. Everything was so good before the trade of Chauncey Billups. And also with the loss of Rasheed Wallace, it will be difficult for the guard-heavy Pistons team to compete. Watch for playing time disputes between Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon, which could signal disaster for Detroit. Georgetown star Dajuan Summers' summer league performance has some in the Motor City thinking he could be a younger, quicker Rasheed.
10. Toronto Raptors
Chris Bosh's mindset is to play to his best ability this year so in the free agent 2010 dealings he will get huge dollar signs. But a explosive Bosh will not be able to win anything in Toronto, even with the addition of Hedo Turkoglu and a healthy Jose Calderon at point.
11. Philadelphia 76ers
So much for the City of Brotherly Love. Elton Brand was not as good a fit in Philly as some hoped, Andre Miller wants out, and Samuel Dalembert is not a powerhouse center. Only Springfield-native Andre Iguodala shines on this lost team.
12. Washington Wizards
Who do they have other than the injury-prone Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood? Oh that's right, no one. Washington's staff has to rebuild and realize that yes, Arenas is good, but he gets hurt more often than an NFL quarterback. You cannot build your team on something that is not solid.
13. New Jersey Nets
A lot of questions, and no answers. If the young players can mesh and play as a team, they may surprise with the athletic Brooke Lopez, Devin Harris and new arrival Courtney Lee. Maybe in a few years, but right now they may be playing without a net.
14. Indiana Pacers
A team where college stars like Georgetown's Roy Hibbert (right) and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough go to fizzle out. This team has no defense and only one scorer and player in Danny Granger. Unless Granger can improve off of his fantastic 2008-09 season, expect the same losing season as last year.
15. New York Knicks
New York is literally taking the year off. No direction for this team other than to hope and pray for LeBron in the 2010 free agency race. The rest of this year will be a bunch of ball hogs all trying to get better stats so they look better when they become free agents themselves.
WESTERN CONFERENCE OUTLOOK
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The NBA champion Lakers must have thought, "Hey you know what would be awesome? If we had one more NBA all-star to add to Kobe and Gasol." That's exactly what they did with the acquisition of Ron Artest, making the unstoppable Lakers even more unstoppable. Nothing short of another banner in the Staples Center is acceptable.
2. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have re-energized their decade old line-up with the additions of Richard Jefferson and rookie talent. With the always consistent Timmy D controlling the paint, the Spurs are as ready as ever for another playoff run.
3. Dallas Mavericks
Owner Mark Cuban gets what he paid for, and with the money he just shelled out for Shawn Marion, it had better be a championship. With phenom Dirk Nowitzki and NBA bad boy Josh Howard, Shawn Marion will have a place to show his multi-faceted talents. Let's just hope everything works in Dallas or get ready for more flailing and screaming from its owner.
4. Denver Nuggets
The surprise of last season, the Nuggets, were able to compete against high level teams with a combination of talented scorers and an overall new defensive mindset, set up by Chauncey Billups. It will be tough to repeat though, since now the league has their eye on the Mile High Squad.
5. Phoenix Suns
With the release of Shaquille O'Neal, the Suns are finally able to go back to the exciting run and gun style we all fell in love with when they still had Shawn Marion and a younger, healthier Steve Nash. Even with age and a brutal regular season, Nash has plenty of gas in the tank to make a legitimate run.
6. Utah Jazz
Under Jerry Sloan, the Jazz will always be a contender. Led by University of Illinois star Deron Williams (left), who is still vying for the title of best point guard in the NBA, the Jazz will be ready to compete on both ends of the court.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
Dark horse of the West with young inexperienced talent. But with physical phenoms and scorers Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, James Harden, and Peoria-native Shaun Livingston it's hard not to notice the promise in the young Thunder team.
8. New Orleans Hornets
Chris Paul will take the Hornets as far as they will go. If he struggles at times the Hornets will lose. No other player on their team can step up and give New Orleans the push they need to win games. Just pray for CP3 to play his best.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
The young Blazers team with oodles of talent just has to figure it out and find what works fast. Also this is the final year of Experiment Can Greg Oden be a NBA prime-time center. If he cannot live up to the hype there is no chance that the Blazers will make the playoffs.
10. Golden State Warriors
Trade rumors surround the Warriors like bees on honey but even without all that nonsense Golden State has been able to assemble a decent team. With speedy guard Monta Elllis and college sensation Stephen Curry heading up the guard positions the Warriors will be ready to roll once the season rolls around.
11. Los Angeles Clippers
I don't care how many number one draft picks "this" Los Angeles team gets, they will suck. In a recent poll about the best and worst franchises in sports history of the four major sports, the Clippers came in dead last. Blake Griffin will draw some fans but hell, now the losses will be just a bit more respectful.
12. Houston Rockets
Last year the Rockets looked like a team that would be able to compete against the Lakers with the newly acquired Ron Artest and healthy All-Stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Well just take back everything I just said. Artest is gone, T-Mac was injured at season's end and there is some uncertainty as to whether he can play 82 games, And Yao is undergoing foot surgery this summer and is doubtful to play all next year. While the acquisition of Trevor Ariza should help this team looks to have trouble getting off the launch pad this next season.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have more potential than this ranking might indicate. With the addition of UConn's 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet working with talented Rudy Gay and O. J. Mayo (left), they have all the ability in the world. The big upside is that Thabeet unlike others on this team is known for his defense. My hunch says these cubs will be hibernation until they learn to play team defense.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
The T-wolves made the biggest mistake on draft night when they dealt loads of money and players so they could get four celebrated point guards including Spain's pretty boy Ricky Rubio. But the Spanish Maravich seemingly will not play in Minneapolis and will stay in Europe in hopes of playing another day in the NBA but in a larger market and a warmer climate. Too bad for the Timberwolves. They still don't have a forward to accompany Al Jefferson in the post. The draft promised to improve the Timberwolves. Despite the promise, they will go hungry yet again once again.
15. Sacramento Kings
There is absolutely nothing regal about these Kings. They are the NBA version of the NFL's Detroit Lions. They have no real star power other than the rookie Tyreke Evans from the University of Memphis. This team not only does not have star power, they have no direction for the future other than suck so much that maybe they get the number one pick in the draft next year.