We're about one-third of the way through the modified 2011-12 NBA season, and plenty has become apparent:
Today also seems like the ideal date to look back at preseason predictions, mock them, and make revisions.
(As a note, my NBA Midseason Award Show will come out on Feb. 20, featuring your standard honors such as the MVP, ROY, and WWTTSTD (What were they thinking signing that dude?!) awards. For today, though, we're going to stick strictly with playoff races, conference championships, and the NBA Finals.)
First, let's look at and analyze my preseason projections:
East champ: Heat
West champ: Thunder
NBA champ: Thunder
A few quick observations . . .
First, the good. Miami and Oklahoma City still make up the most realistic Finals match-up. (Of course, just about every media outlet had them two in this spot before the season, but that's neither here nor there.) As predicted, Chicago, Dallas and the Clippers are all leading their divisions, and the Pacers, one of my sleeper teams, are delivering, out of the gates at 14-6.
Now, the bad. Philadelphia is not a six-seed, and Memphis is not a three-seed. I think you'll still see some regression from the Sixers in the coming weeks -- they do have the league's easiest schedule so far -- but they are the class of the Atlantic Division, and will have homecourt in the first round. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, are suffering from the loss of Zach Randolph, and as of today, are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. I see them making a run and getting into the top eight of the loaded Western Conference, but getting to the West Finals, as I had predicted, is a very long shot.
And of course, the ugly: The Knicks, the Hawks, and the Nuggets. New York's incompetence on offense has taken everybody by surprise, and Baron Davis is still sidelined. That doesn't make up for the fact that I had them losing in the East finals to Miami, though. It'd take a series of major upsets for the Knicks to even sniff Finals. And considering the chemistry issues that are still far from being resolved, it won't happen.
On the flip side, I owe Atlanta and Denver apologies. The Hawks have the fourth best record in the NBA, even though their most important player, Al Horford, is injured. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and (surprise!) Jeff Teague have kept Atlanta among the elite. As I noted the other day, they haven't been tested much since Horford's injury, but you can't argue with 16-6.
For the Nuggets, I've got nothing. Initially, I even had Denver on the outside of the Western playoffs. I thought Danilo Gallinari was tracking toward a breakout season, but the emergence of Ty Lawson, efficiency of Nene Hilario and play of Andre Miller have all caught me off guard. As you'll see momentarily, they've convinced me well beyond a shadow of a doubt.
So let's take a mulligan and look ahead! Your fresh-out-of-the-box Feb. 1 NBA playoff predictions:
I can't remember who tweeted it, but they were right: Miami isn't going to lose five games in a month again this season. LeBron James is on fire and in the middle of a career year, and with Dwyane Wade on the court, the Heat offense is unstoppable. The Bulls are easy at No. 2, same for Philly at No. 3. It gets hairy 4-6, but in some order, you'll see Atlanta, Boston (remember, the Celts are 10-7 in their last 17, and 6-2 in their last 8) and Indiana. Finally, you have the league's two unluckiest teams: the Knicks get it together enough to sneak into the playoffs only to get embarrassed by the Bulls, and Cleveland takes the eight seed with 30ish wins, then promptly gets swept by the Heat. Wondering where the Magic are? If Dwight Howard sticks around, they might make the playoffs. But this team is so close to an implosion, you have to think a trade is imminent.
8. Trail Blazers
Again, not much hesitation 1-through-3. Oklahoma City should cruise to the conference's best record, the Mavericks are back to playing elite basketball and Denver's offense will let them cruise to the three-seed. I'm a little concerned about the Clippers' having only played six games on the road, but come playoff time, nobody will want to see them. I've campaigned for the Lakers pretty frequently on the blog, and it continues here: critics can knock their inconsistencies on offense, but they keep beating quality teams. The Grizzlies will bounce back and move up to the six seed ahead of the upstart Wolves and up-and-down Blazers. San Antonio and Houston were tough to leave out, but each have their problems: the Spurs can't win on the road and I don't think Tony Parker can keep up his hot start scoring the ball, and at some point, you have to think Kyle Lowry and Samuel Dalembert will regress ever so slightly.
East champ: Heat over Bulls in five
Can you imagine any other Eastern finals at this point? I don't think Chicago can hang with Miami in a series.
West champ: Clippers over Nuggets in seven
What?! By this juncture, Los Angeles is going to be rolling, and they'll upset the Thunder in the second round. I've become a believer in the NugKnicks, but they'll just barely come out on the wrong end.
NBA champ: Heat over Clippers in six