CHICAGO, December 26, 2011 – This NBA season is unlike many others in that there is a team that is an overwhelming favorite to win the title at the start of the year. The Miami Heat are that team. Nobody wants to admit it, but the Heat have improved on a roster that easily could have won the title last year, signing Shane Battier and drafting upstart rookie Norris Cole.
The Heat have improved, yes, but their greatest in-conference rival have a better chance of beating them this year than they did last. If Rip Hamilton is as good as advertised, then this is the Bulls’ year to defeat the Evil Empire of Miami in the playoffs.
The Heat got better, the Bulls got better, the Knicks got much-needed defensive help in the form of Tyson Chandler, and the Pacers seemed to have their breakout season last year in a hard-fought playoff series with the Bulls. A frontcourt with Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert is bound to start making waves in the playoffs sooner or later.
Keeping all that in mind, what do you have to say for yourself, Western teams? A short offseason whirs by and all you have to show for it is a reborn Clippers team? The Lakers went into self-destruct mode by trading Odom away for nothing and the Mavericks lost two of their most important pieces when JJ Barea an Chandler left via free agency. This conference is falling apart as quickly as the East is improving, and it’s shaping to be a long dynasty for the East.
The aforementioned slackers leave the top teams in the West as the Thunder, the Clippers, and the Grizzlies. Does anyone really think that either of those two teams can compete with the new-look Bulls or Heat in a best of seven series? Russell Westbrook can’t pass, the Clippers are like a scaled-down version of the Heat with the same talent dropoff and the Grizzlies haven’t improved much since losing to the Thunder. So no, they can’t stop the East.
While the West has been busy setting up and whining about blockbuster trades, wrecking their rosters and otherwise doing nothing to speak of, the top dogs of the East have been making all of the right moves to improve their teams. The way the league is right now, the Clippers and Thunder will battle in the Western Conference finals for the right to get blasted by the winner of the Bulls-Heat war. For the record, that will be the Bulls over the Thunder in five games.
It’s pointless to try to deny the chokehold that the Bulls and Heat have over their conference, and predicting a winner of that series is a coin toss. But it’s even more pointless to predict a winner in the West, because that really just doesn’t matter. The Thunder always seemed to be The Team of the Future, but last year they showed their difficulty embracing the title of Team of the Present. There’s no reason to think that that’s going to change this year.
Gone are the days of other teams being scared of speaking the word “Laker.” Gone are the days of the Spurs’ age being something that they can overcome, and gone are the days of the East folding under pressure when battling the West for the title.
As the league is right now, the East won’t be under any pressure at all.
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