- Special Sections
By DYLAN MALONE
The Pacers 9-0 start has had me so giddy about the NBA season that I just couldn't help but write a column about the league through 1/8th of the season.
Listen to people who are anything but an avid Pacers fan and you'll be treated to a conversation about how pleasantly surprised they are about how well Indiana is playing so far this season. Yes, I know they were trounced by the Bulls the other night but let's forgive them one road game against one of the two teams that is supposed to rival Indiana for the East this season. Indiana still leads the league in point differential with a 9.8 points per contest edge.
Looming as they seem to do in the opening parts of the season, however, is the Miami Heat. As a Heat-hater I am not blind to the talent that the team has and they are rolling all of a sudden despite a 4-3 start. Miami is still the favorite to take the East but I'll repeat what I've said all along to anyone within ear shot who will listen.
Miami may get past either Indiana or Chicago in the playoffs but they will not get past both.
There, I said it. Come April when the playoffs roll around I want someone to remember who said Miami would not win the East.
That brings me to Chicago, though. Derrick Rose's return was almost guaranteed to be a slow one but I think NBA fans got spoiled by his hot pre-season start. While I've never played a game in the Association, I can only imagine the pressure that a player would be under after missing an entire season and trying to come back good as new. The pre-season is nothing like the real thing.
Having said all of that, Chicago will be anywhere between the 1-2-or 3 seed at the end of this season if they stay moderately healthy, something they didn't do last season while still making a good playoff run without Rose.
When Rose gets his game back, which he will, Chicago will be as tough an out as Indiana for the Heat and there will be fireworks in the playoffs with some of the best basketball coming out of the midwest.
A lot of people had the Knicks vying for the top four slots in the East but I've never been sold on Carmelo Anthony winning anything. He's too selfish and along with JR Smith there is just too much ego to go around for that team to work.
Brooklyn, the other New York team this year, is another interesting team. Just like Project Dwight in LA last season, the Nets brought in a few aging stars in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett along with the already established trio of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez. The problem Brooklyn will face is the same one the Lakers dealt with. Sooner or later, the old bodies that inhabit the starting lineup for the Nets will break down and they will be nothing but a shell of what they looked like on paper.
In the West it is simply a race to the finish for the Spurs who would probably have won five titles in a row with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili if the playoffs started a month after the season began. The fact is that after 82 games in a grueling regular season, the Spurs look how a lot of people think they look...old. Coach Pop is trying his best to keep those legs fresh, however, allowing for games off here and there. I still don't think the Spurs can repeat what they did last year though.
The other question mark in the West is whether or not Durant and Westbrook can stay healthy in OKC. We saw what happened when Westbrook went down last year. KD simply could not do it alone and it'll take a team effort to win the West, the conference that has been stacked for the last 15 years.
The wild cards in the conference include Minnesota, Memphis, Houston, Golden State, and the Los Angeles Clippers. Health could be an issue for every one of these teams hence the toss-up. If all of these teams stay healthy I would have to give the edge to the Clips because they've been right where they want to be in the playoffs and came up short...twice...against the Grizzlies. That won't happen again.
Golden State adds Andre Iguadala, a true-blue x-factor that is loads and loads above having Richard Jefferson as your starting three. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if the young guns repeat their playoff performance and even beyond. They are that good. It is a true measure of a team's talent against a team's expectations. Last year it was the (low) expectations that ended the Warriors' run.
The Timberwolves have all the pieces as well with Rubio and Love healthy. They feel a lot like the Rockets in that they have big time names combined with big time role players. The mystery will be whether either of these teams can fuse the chemistry THIS season. No doubt they'll both be in the conversation for a few years to come.
EAST- #2 Indiana over #3 New York in six games; #1 Miami over #4 Chicago in seven games.
Pacers over Heat in conference finals in six games
WEST- #3 Warriors over #2 Rockets in seven games; #1 Thunder over #5 Timberwolves in five.
Thunder over Warriors in six games.
FINALS- Thunder over Pacers in six games.