This Monday through Friday, I’m going to give my season predictions in a countdown from worst to first. The format will be three teams per post, one post in the morning and one in the afternoon. Whichever team you’re a fan of, there’s a good chance you’ll feel like I’m disrespecting them. I understand this, and I promise you I won’t take your insults personally.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
When making a case for the Thunder finishing at the top of the Western Conference this season, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook obviously come first to mind. But even though they’re each just 23 years old, I feel like if they’re haven’t quite reached the peak of their potential, they have to be pretty close. It’s their supporting cast that I expect to rise up and help take this team to another level.
I’m talking about James Harden, who surely can’t be kept out of the starting lineup for much longer. I’m talking about Kendrick Perkins, who brings the interior defense and toughness they’ve been missing. And I’m talking about Serge Ibaka, who could prove to be their secret weapon if they end up meeting the Heat in the Finals. Who else on this team could guard LeBron? This is the most complete team in the Western Conference, and first place is theirs to claim.
2. Chicago Bulls
When an already-great team acquires a good player that is a perfect fit for its needs, fans of other teams typically get pretty bummed out. But the Rip Hamilton signing is just so perfect for the Bulls that we can’t even be mad at ‘em. We have to just nod our heads and say, “Nice.”
So why don’t I see them finishing first in the East? As great as they are, I don’t think what happened in the Conference Finals was a fluke. And I don’t even think the addition of Rip and full seasons from Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah will make up the difference. I don’t have anything negative to say about this team — they’re excellent defensively, really good offensively and extremely deep. I enjoy watching them and Noah might be my favorite player so I’m certainly rooting for them to slay the South Beach beast. But if I had to put money on who was going to finish with the best record in the 2011-12 season…
1. Miami Heat
I’m just going to go ahead and throw this out there: 58-8. I’ve done the math and that’s an .879 winning percentage — the 1995-96 Bulls’ winning percentage in their historic 72-10 season was .878. I’m wearing armor as I write this in preparation for the slings and arrows of your outrage.
Remember when the Heat got off to a 9-8 start last season and everyone was celebrating their “failure”? They went 49-16 for the rest of the regular season and entered the Finals with a 12-3 post-season record before they were solved by the Dallas Mavericks. There should be no question that this team is capable of being this good — it’s a matter of whether or not they’re healthy and have the mental toughness to avoid the slumps that almost every team endures. If the Heat don’t have a 17-3 record or better over their first 20 games, I’ll admit that I gave them too much credit.
What’s different about this team from last season? There won’t be quite as much focus and pressure on them, they’ve added Shane Battier and they’ll open the season with a healthy Udonis Haslem, and head coach Erik Spoelstra will no longer feel like a trap door might open under him after every loss now that he’s been given a two-year extension. Granted, almost everyone still wants them to fail, but they’re used to that now.
Keep in mind these are regular season predictions, so spare me your retorts about LeBron choking in the playoffs once again. Besides, all this talk about his supposed lack of mental toughness conveniently overlooks all the pressure and drama he’s overcome just to get to this point. I’d love nothing more than to see LeBron go ringless in Miami, but I’m not naive enough to think that’s actually going to happen. Their floor for this season is an Eastern Conference defeat at the hands of the stacked Chicago Bulls. Their ceiling is a scorched-earth display of sheer dominance that will leave their staunchest haters agape as a triumphant LeBron proclaims, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”