Looking ahead to the 2012 season

1. Who is the best player in the NBA?



Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: Three weeks ago, my answer would have been someone in a Miami Heat uniform. After watching the Finals, I fear that LeBron James is too frail of spirit and Dwyane Wade too frail of body. I'll take the easy way out and call it a three-way tie between Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant.

Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: I simply cannot believe it is anybody other than LeBron. As baffling as his Finals disappearance was, he is capable of doing more things than any other player, and we've seen glimpses that suggest he wants to be the game's dominant two-way player.

Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: Dirk Nowitzki.
LeBron James is the most complete player in the league. His physical attributes, athleticism and capabilities on both ends of the floor earn him that distinction. But he's not the NBA's best player. Nowitzki made his teammates better, hit shots when they mattered most and, of course, won a championship.

Robert Silverman, Knickerblogger: Despite a less-than-stellar (to put it mildly) performance in the finals, it's still LeBron.

Andrew Tonry, Portland Roundball Society:
It's gotta be Dirk. In consecutive playoff series, Nowitzki prevailed over Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Finishing games, Dirk was a surgeon. It was surprising when shots rolled out. To be sure, hunger played an inordinate factor in Dirk's dominance, and whether he can contribute at such a high level remains to be seen.

2. Potential lockout aside, what is the big question of summer 2011?

Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: There's been an influx of young talent during the past few seasons. Players such as Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul have firmly entrenched themselves among the league's elite. However, the past five NBA championships belong to players from the old guard -- Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki. Which of these young guns is ready to reap the whirlwind and lead his team to a title?

Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: Which young team makes the most out of its suffering this offseason? A bumper crop of young, exciting teams are at home licking the wounds of early playoff exits, and I'm inclined to believe that at least one of them, such as the Thunder or Bulls, will emerge from this spring's crucible with a dominant chip on its shoulders.

Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: How will a new arena in Sacramento be financed?

If they build it, the Kings stay. If not, they leave. A committee composed of citizens from across Sacramento's six-county region has been assembled. In the next two-and-a-half months, they'll try to answer that question and figure out a way that a new Kings arena can benefit not just Sacramento but also the entire region.

Robert Silverman, Knickerblogger:
I tried for a good eight to 10 minutes to conjure up something more noteworthy, but honestly, ruminating on where Jimmer Fredette will land in the draft is the remora hanging on to the Great White Shark that is the impending lockout

Andrew Tonry, Portland Roundball Society
Call me a homer, but Greg Oden's health and contract are potentially powerful punches. On the court, Oden can be a high-caliber game-changer in a way few NBA players are. And as it happens, not many of those players are on this summer's market. In Portland or elsewhere, a healthy Oden could vault a team into title contention. But with a new contract approaching, the perennially injured first overall pick could just as easily hamstring a franchise for years.

3. Who will win the 2012 Western Conference finals?

Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: The Thunder. However, for them to reach the Finals, they must make offensive adjustments. Regardless of who's taking the last shot, they can't win the West if Options 1 and 2 are isolations for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They have plenty of pieces, and if Scott Brooks can find a better way to make those pieces fit together offensively, they should be out front all season long.

Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: I would take the field in any bet I was forced to make, but I'll have to say the Thunder. I'm particularly intrigued by the idea that they may have figured out how to use James Harden, so their young legs could be matched with a savvier, more unpredictable offensive attack.

Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: The Oklahoma City Thunder.

Their failure in the WCF is an experience they'll learn from. Scott Brooks is going to look back at the coaching errors he made on film and correct them. And if Durant can become more effective better off the ball, that, in turn, will make Westbrook's game better. Maybe less criticized, too.

Robert Silverman, Knickerblogger: I have a feeling the Lakers are in for a few major trades that could alter my opinion, but as of June 16, I'd say the Thunder.

Andrew Tonry, Portland Roundball Society
With the return of a healthy Caron Butler, it's tempting to believe that the Dallas Mavericks could repeat. But that would disrespect the absolute burning hunger driving Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and the rest of the championship Mavs. Hunger was the difference, and they'll miss it come 2012. Instead, I picture Durant and Westbrook having watched Dallas' impeccable team-first basketball and having learned a lot. Durant could now be the hungriest man in the West.

4. Who will win the 2012 Eastern Conference title?

Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: The Bulls. Like the Thunder, they need offensive changes. Step one is upgrading their offensive personnel. Step two is creating a system to score points without Derrick Rose having to shoot 30 times a night. Step three is persuading Rose to buy in the same way he did with their new defensive principles. Improvements on offense and dominating defense make them my favorites in the East.

Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: Again, no candidate is likelier than the rest of the options, but I'll go with Miami. I don't put enough stock in armchair psychology to believe that a defensive-minded, athletic team that carries three of the best 12 or 15 players in the game won't continue its rise.

Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: The Miami Heat.

Boston is old. Carlos Boozer's signing in Chicago is looking a lot like Cleveland's signing of Larry Hughes several years ago. The Magic can't upgrade their roster anymore because the albatross that is Gilbert Arenas' contract. And unless Al Horford makes a superstar leap, the Hawks are still just a first- or second-round contender.

Robert Silverman, Knickerblogger: If Chicago manages to snag a second scorer to match with Rose, I'll be singing a different tune, but again, as of June 16, I think the Miami Heat will be back again next year.

Andrew Tonry, Portland Roundball Society:
The Heat aren't getting any worse. Sans injuries, a full season with Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem should only improve their rhythm. Mario Chalmers had an extraordinary playoffs and ought to get Mike Bibby's starting job. Plus there will be new signings. And despite LeBron James' playing hot potato in the fourth quarter throughout the Finals, it's hard to believe that the Heat won't be able to grow and learn from their mistakes. That was Year 1.

5. Who will win the 2012 NBA title?

Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: The Thunder. They've shown a steady pattern of development both as individuals and as a team. Their roster already has the talent to win a championship. One more season of experience for the players and coaching staff should help them iron out the kinks and maximize that talent. I'm going on record -- one year from now, Cole Aldrich will be an NBA champion.

Danny Nowell, Magic Basketball: If my dream of a Heat-Thunder Finals comes true, I have a tough time calling it. Both teams are athletic, tight rotating units that get the most from players who defy rigid positional definitions, so the matchup would be tremendous. Still, as much as I prefer the young bunch from OKC, Miami's talent should dominate for a long time.

Jonathan Santiago, Cowbell Kingdom: The Miami Heat.

They almost won this season with a roster pretty deficient in depth and talent outside of the South Beach triumvirate. Heat brass now know exactly what works and what doesn't work with the Big Three. With presumably a longer offseason, they'll have plenty of time to figure out who can complement Wade, James and Chris Bosh next season.

Robert Silverman, Knickerblogger:
LeBron. The narrative of redemption is just too delicious for him (and his fellow Heat) not to win it all. Unless the Mayans were right and we're all devoured by an earthwide cataclysmic event. (Although some say LeBron actually winning a title qualifies as an earthwide cataclysmic event).

Andrew Tonry, Portland Roundball Society:
It kills me to say it, but I have no choice: 2012 looks like the Heat's year. Unless the Lakers get Dwight Howard ahead of schedule, Oklahoma City will represent the West, making the Thunder young bucks compared to the Finals-experienced Heat. So ... no, forget it: LeBron James chokes again as Kevin Durant leads a parade to the line, drills 30-foot 3s at the shot-clock buzzer, and averages 42 points per game. Ahhh. ... That feels better.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Ian Levy, Danny Nowell, Jonathan Santiago, Robert Silverman and Andrew Tonry write for the TrueHoop Network.
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