Lebron is back in Cleveland with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving after his “coming home” charade earlier in the summer. Meanwhile, Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, and Joakim Noah are just down the road in Chicago attempting to form a big three of their own. Out west, the city of Los Angeles has turned its attention to the Clippers high-powered offense while Kobe Bryant tries to right a sinking ship in the Lakers. San Antonio, the defending champions, have basically done what they’ve always done this off-season, nothing, and that’s just the way they like it.
New coaches in Golden State, New York, Cleveland, and Brooklyn should make for exciting turnarounds in big markets. Perhaps the most anticipated rookie class in the last twenty years, the 2014 crop features Jabari Parker (Bucks) and Andrew Wiggins (Timberwolves) who both look to be the leading scorers on their teams. Following are my picks for the playoff spots in each division.
In the Eastern Conference, I project the following order of finish: Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Toronto, Charlotte, and New York. It should be no surprise that Cleveland and Chicago are at the top. Don’t buy into the notion that Lebron and company will need time to “gel” or “form team chemistry” because this is the NBA, and talent, not team chemistry wins championships. While the Cavs and Bulls are near locks to be at the top come playoff time, it’s the next tier of playoff contenders that has so many wondering about the talent in the East.
I call Washington, Atlanta, Miami, and Toronto “The Unknowns.” Each of these teams will be looking to take the next step and contend for a high playoff seed. In Washington, for the first time in, well, forever, expectations are high. John Wall and Bradley Beal (out for first month due to injury) team up with future Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce in an effort to bring a championship to DC. Miami moves on from the King, and much like the Heat of the early 2000’s, Miami is led by Dwayne Wade teaming up with a low-post star, only this time it’s Chris Bosh, not Shaq. But the most interesting team of the “unknowns” is the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks, led by second year coach Mike Budenholzer, are a team that comes into the year highly underrated in my opinion. Returning All-NBA center Al Horford paired with rebounding machine Paul Millsap make for a formidable frontcourt, while young point guard Jeff Teague and sharp shooting Kyle Korver make up the Hawks backcourt. Atlanta will need big production from their starters as well as 6th man Shelvin Mack, but if they can stay healthy, the Hawks may wind up being one of the top three teams in the East.
The Western Conference may not be as hard to figure out. Here’s how I see the playoff teams stacking up: Los Angeles (Clippers), Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Golden State, Portland, Denver, Houston, and New Orleans. The “Big 3” in the West remains the same with the Thunder, Spurs, and Clippers at the top of everyone’s projections. OKC will certainly be hurt by the Kevin Durant injury early in the year, but Russell Westbrook and company should be able to at least hold serve until he returns around Christmas. San Antonio will likely go through the regular season like they always do, with lethargic stretches followed by scorching hot winning streaks before reaching the playoffs where they always excel.
“Lob City,” as they call their new-look Clippers in the Staples Center, is expected to be in contention near the op all year long. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan lead the Clipper high-octane offense under the direction of head Coach Doc Rivers. Now that new owner Steve Ballmer takes over for retired racist Donald Sterling, the Clipper franchise looks poised to make a championship run.
I see the Clippers knocking off the Thunder to advance out of the West, while Cleveland will beat Chicago to take the East. In the end, it will be Cleveland that wins the 2014 NBA crown. Lebron James is the best player on the planet, and surrounding him with better players than he had in Miami is bad news for the rest of the league and excellent news for the championship-starved Cleveland fans. Lebron came home, and he is bringing a championship with him.