The NBA finally has its curves back   

Updated: October 28, 2008

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If the 2008-09 NBA season were a TV character, it would definitely be Joan Holloway from "Mad Men." You know her as the saucy, bosomy redhead who can't even be called "curvy" because that would be like calling Amy Winehouse "troubled" or Isiah Thomas "embattled." It's too big of an understatement. See, Joan Holloway is built like an "S." Top-heavy and bottom-heavy at the same time.

Joan's figure became obsolete for Hollywood characters in the age of healthy eating, chain-smoking, overexercising, plastic surgery and a few nefarious weight-watching tricks I'm not allowed to mention. In 1962, you could take Joan on a date to a diner, and she would order a patty melt, onion rings and a vanilla malt and finish off everything with a smile on her face. In 2008, if you took her to that same diner, she would order a Diet Coke and a garden salad with the dressing on the side, leave three times to smoke Marlboro Lights, stare at your onion rings for 20 minutes before eating two of them, disappear into the bathroom for another 20 minutes, then ask you to pay the check because she couldn't be late for her Pilates appointment. Also, there's a decent chance one of her ribs would break when she put on her seat belt on the way home.

Christina Hendricks

Mathew Imaging/WireImage

The new symbol of the NBA: "Mad Men" actress Christina Hendricks.

Call me crazy, but I liked the old days a little more. I have a friend who went to the 2008 Emmys and reported that the actress who plays Joan (Christina Hendricks) nearly caused a riot every time she walked across the room, left her seat for a bathroom trip or whatever. People were gaping at her the same way everyone would stare at a UFO if it just randomly landed on the stage. What's wrong with curves? What's wrong with a few female celebs defying the unwritten rule that it's much more appealing to men if they whittle themselves down to an unnatural weight like they're training to fight Brian Chute? Nothing against Courteney Cox, but I walked by her in Hollywood last year, and she was built like a manhole cover. It was genuinely depressing. I miss "Dancing in the Dark" Courteney Cox. You could have ordered her a milkshake or a Guinness without worrying about having it thrown back in your face. And while we're here, if I ever see Lindsay Lohan in person, I just might sob Nancy Kerrigan-style and start screaming, "Why????? Why???????"

Back to the NBA: This league used to have curves. Parity might work for the NFL, but for the NBA's purposes, we're always better off as fans when there are nine or 10 teams that fall somewhere among "wildly entertaining," "very good" and "potentially excellent." Because of overexpansion, overpaid/overhyped stars, untimely injuries and a genuine talent swoon, the league lost its way competitively from 1994 through 2007. The comeback season in 2007-08 happened for four specific reasons: the decade-long influx of foreign players; an established rookie salary scale that prevented talented youngsters from pulling a Kenny Anderson on us; a boom of gifted young players in the 20-to-25 age range; and a generation of well-known stars in the 30-to-37 age range who can now remain effective because of medical and training advances. The comeback season was pushed over the top by three have-nots (Memphis, Seattle and Minnesota) strengthening two haves (Boston and the L.A. Lakers).

Now we're headed for a 2008-09 season with eight contenders firmly entrenched in the "very good/potentially excellent" range (Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Houston, L.A., San Antonio, New Orleans, Utah), four wannabes itching to join them (Orlando, Philly, Phoenix, Dallas) and three teams that have a chance to be "entertaining/intriguing" (Portland, Toronto, Miami). Why is this happening? Because we also have a swollen number of doormats in the "fairly incompetent/unabashedly rebuilding/shamefully young/worse-than-you-think" range (by my count, a whopping 10 teams). It's like anything else -- the rich can't get richer unless the poor get poorer, right? Why do you think the league was in such good shape from 1984 through 1993?

After 15 grueling years, we're back to having some curves again. Maybe this isn't a good thing if you root for Memphis, New Jersey, Sacramento, Minnesota, Golden State, Charlotte, Milwaukee or the City That Shall Not Be Named, but everywhere else? It's a good thing. The truth is, I don't know who will win the NBA title this season. Any of eight teams could take it. But I know it will be fun to find out.

If you missed my fantasy preview from Friday (which includes a host of thoughts about specific players), click here. Without further ado, here are 20 predictions for the 2008-09 NBA season:

1. At least 23,370 times this season, Mike D'Antoni will mentally kick himself for not waiting two more weeks to see what happened with the 2008 lottery.

We know the Knicks offered to overpay him to fail with the wrong roster for his style, bottom out, then pin their 2010 hopes on LeBron and the long-standing rumor that Nike will immediately give Bron a $50 million bonus as soon as he joins a New York or Los Angeles team. We also know Chicago failed to pursue D'Antoni with the same passion (and dollars), but the Bulls had a better roster for his style, a slew of young athletes born to play the up-and-down game. Whatever. He grabbed the money. A scant 10 days later, Chicago lucked into the No. 1 pick and Derrick Rose, one of the five point guards on the planet born specifically to play for D'Antoni. Which means Mike D. gets to spend the foreseeable future being tortured by subpar points, yelling at Zach Randolph and watching Eddy Curry waddle up and down while the guy who could have turned him into basketball's Bill Walsh lights it up for Chicago. But seriously, I hope the extra $6 million was worth it.


MVP: LeBron James
ROY: Michael Beasley
Most Improved: Charlie Villanueva
Comeback Player: Shaun Livingston
Defensive Player: Kevin Garnett
Sixth Man: Rodney Stuckey
Coach: Nate McMillan
1st Team All-NBA: Paul, LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Duncan
2nd Team All-NBA: Pierce, Deron Williams, B. Roy, Nowitzki, Amare
3rd Team All-NBA: Calderon, Kevin Martin, David West, Garnett, Dwight Howard
Unintentional Comedy: The Lopez twins
Best Random Good Season: Kelenna Azubuike
Biggest Cancer: Josh Smith
Worst Contract: Emeka Okafor
Biggest Star Traded: Vince Carter
Biggest Disappointment: Shaq
First Coach Fired: Mike Woodson

(Important note: If the Knicks land Ricky Rubio two years from now, the previous paragraph becomes moot and the Bill Walsh/Mike D. scenario immediately goes back into play. Hey, did the fact that I nearly set up a Google alert for Rubio last week make me a fan or a stalker? Since I held off, I say I'm still a fan. Although that might change when I move to whichever city drafts him. OK, I'm a semi-stalker.)

2. The window will officially close on Dallas and Phoenix as title contenders.

Remember how excited we were when the NBA briefly shed the "No Balls Association" tag this past February and Dallas (Jason Kidd) and Phoenix (Shaq) swung for the fences? Well, it didn't work -- the Kidd gamble was doomed from the start, and the Shaq gamble was nullified when Phoenix suffered a colossal Stomach Punch loss in Game 1 of the Spurs series (and by the way, the Suns choked that game away, so I'm not absolving them). If this were "Entourage," the '09 Mavs and Suns would be a reeling Vincent Chase right after "Medellin" bombed, only they don't have a superagent like Ari to save them. Stick a fork in them. And yes, I picked that analogy only because it combined Marc Stein's favorite show with his two favorite NBA teams.

(The good news: We haven't lost either team from the "wannabe contender" group just yet, and they still have a chance to win 45-50 games. Also, we get another elite year of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki; a potential career year from Amare Stoudemire; 15-20 box scores from opposing point guards against Jason Kidd that will resemble some of Oscar Robertson's best work; a full season of Josh Howard jokes; two Suns with WNBA hairdos; tons of bitterness from the Phoenix fan base toward Robert Sarver, not just for blowing their 2004-2008 window by being cheap but also for indefensibly selling the Rudy Fernandez pick in 2007; and Shaq officially shifting into Kareem-in-1989/Ewing-in-2000 full-scale calcification mode.)

3. You will be treated to a bunch of "Could this be the end of the line?" stories about the struggling Spurs in November and December.

And they will struggle for two reasons: Manu Ginobili's still-healing ankle combined with a supporting cast that became perplexingly mediocre overnight. Matt Bonner. Ime Udoka. Jacque Vaughn. Fabby Oberto. An equally washed-up trio of Bruce Bowen, Mike Finley and Kurt Thomas. If they don't get anything from rookie George Hill (whom everyone seems to like), they might have the worst 3-through-12 guys in the league until Manu comes back. The last time the Spurs stumbled with their supporting cast -- during the 2001-02 season, the bridge between the David Robinson/Tim Duncan era and the Duncan/Manu/Tony Parker era -- a 25-year-old Duncan carried them to 58 wins with his greatest statistical season (25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 blocks per game, and 51 percent shooting from the field) before the Lakers trounced them in the Western semis. At 32, with 979 games on his NBA odometer, that 2001-02 season isn't happening again.

So where does that leave us? With the following sequence of headlines:

November: Spurs Struggle to Disappointing Start
November: Stern Demands Popovich Shave Creepy Beard
December: Manu Returns, Spurs Continue to Struggle
January: Did Holt's Penny-Pinching Kill Duncan Dynasty?
February: Quietly, the Spurs are Rounding Into Shape
March: Look Out, Here Come the Spurs!
April: Isiah Accused of Attacking Caddy with 9-Iron

(Whoops, I got my future headlines screwed up; that was from the "Where Isiah's Life Could Be Headed Next" section that I ended up leaving out of this column. Does anyone else find it a little unsettling that Isiah lives in a lily-white suburb, plays golf every day and seems profoundly unhappy that he's not a major player in the sports world anymore?)

4. Gilbert Arenas will become the new C-Webb.

Not in a basketball sense, but in a "My God, why did we commit such a staggering amount of money to a guy who clearly has knee issues and might have already peaked as a player when nobody else could have come within $30 million of our offer?" sense. The Chris Webber contract murdered the Kings; Gilbert's contract could murder the Wizards. And by the way, C-Webb was better than Gilbert -- a healthy, happy C-Webb made you a title contender, whereas a healthy, happy Gilbert makes you a 5-seed in Round 1 at best. Big difference.

(When I asked for a one-sentence defense of Gilbert's $113 million contract from my buddy House, a lifelong D.C. fan, here's what he sent back: "I would prefer not to, as I think it is a franchise-crippler and thus indefensible." Well said. When do you think sports franchises will break out of the "We need him to put butts in seats!" mindset and realize winners are the only things that put butts in seats? 2015? 2020? 2030? Hey, that reminds me …)

5. The 2009 Blazers will become the single most popular team in the history of the Internet.

Greg Oden

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

How interesting are Greg Oden and the Blazers? Bill has them near the top of his can't-miss games to see.

These guys bring everything to the Internet bandwagon table: youth; likeability; a real excess of talent; foreign stars; a rabid fan base; an expiring contract for Trade Machine purposes (Raef LaFrentz, everybody!); rookie of the year dark horse and potential NBA heartthrob Rudy Fernandez (a cross between Paul Westphal and Antonio Banderas); a superb group of beat writers; multiple players who translate well to YouTube clips; a shrewdly run front office that spends its riches correctly (unlike everyone else); the whole "Will a Western rival pick up Darius Miles for 10 games just to screw their 2009 cap space?" subplot; a top three (Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge) that ranks off the charts on the Good Guy Scale and might have broken the record for a professional sports team; the smart decision to split the 10-man rotation into two units and keep it that way (love it); the increasing probability of a Roy-Fernandez-Travis Outlaw-Aldridge-Oden crunch-time lineup (really love it); the ongoing "Will Oden ever be the guy we thought he would be?" and "Isn't it a bad sign that a 20-year-old franchise center looks and runs like he's 37?" debates; even the whole Duke/Rocky, "When Apollo died, a part of me died, too, but now you're the one" dynamic with the disenfranchised Sonics fans who might jump to their side.

There's just a lot going on with the 2008-09 Blazers. They were made for blogs and message boards and YouTube and losers like me who watch the NBA every night and everything else. Call 'em the Portland Internets. And by the way, when I made my wish list for "Teams I Absolutely Have to See" for my Clippers games this year, the list shook out like this: Celtics, Lakers, Blazers, Cavs, Hornets, Heat, Suns, Knicks, Pistons, Rockets, Durant's Future Former Team. Believe me, I can enjoy just about any NBA game in good seats. But those are the 11 teams I have to see in person at least once ... and Portland ranked third on the list. What a turnaround. Let's hope this paragraph isn't the moment when it peaks.

6. "Wally Szczerbiak's Expiring Contract" will become America's favorite new phrase.

Move over Theo Ratliff, there's a new sheriff in town! Expect Wally's contract to be thrown into more than 15 million fake trade scenarios over the next four months, and with reason: The Cavs are desperate. The LeBron Clock is ticking. I threw out the Michael Redd/Dan Gadzuric for Wally/Sasha Pavlovic possibility in Friday's column. How big of a gamble will Cleveland take? Would the Cavs roll the dice with Vince Carter or Andrei Kirilenko? Would they be desperate enough to trade Wally's contract and Eric Snow's expiring deal to Denver for the unseemly Allen Iverson/Kenyon Martin contracts and save Denver from Luxury Tax Hell? I just know that Wally is about to become the mint to the ESPN Trade Checker's mojito. We should even give him his own link: "Make your own Wally Szczerbiak trade!!!!!"

(My prediction if the Redd trade doesn't happen: Wally, $3 million and a future No. 1 to Utah for Kirilenko, a move that clears enough cap space for Utah to pay Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap next summer and, more importantly, gives the Jazz an unparalleled Clean-cut White Guy Trifecta of Matt Harpring, Kyle Korver and Wally. Can't you see those guys riding a ski lift together or crashing a raging Sundance party? I'm excited already.)

7. You will regret thinking Philly is a sleeper contender in the East.

In a league in which you're only as good as your best three guys, the 76ers are paying a second banana (Elton Brand) and a third banana (Andre Iguodala) first banana money, and they're paying a role player (Sam Dalembert) third banana money. In a league in which you need a proven crunch-time guy to battle the other proven crunch-time guys in the last three minutes of close games, they don't have a proven crunch-time guy. (And don't tell me it's Brand. I watched him for four years on the Clippers; he's not that type of player.) Fundamentally, this can't work for anything beyond 45-47 wins and maybe a second-round appearance … and that's before you factor in the skewed level of expectations already in place, or the fact that, again, they just spent $83 million to reunite the best two guys on a 27-win Clippers team from 2003. I just don't see it.

Elton Brand

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Note to Sixers fans: Hope you enjoy building around the 2002 Clippers!

You want a sleeper contender in the East? Check out the goofy team Pat Riley slapped together in Miami. Could a healthy Dwyane Wade win 40 games by himself? Hell, yeah! He's Dwyane Wade! Then you have Michael Beasley (a guaranteed 18 and 8), Shawn Marion (either what he gives them or what they get when they deal him), Udonis Haslem (a playoff-proven banger) … and what if they get something from Shaun Livingston? What if Mario Chalmers turns out to be as cool/collected as he was at Kansas? What if new coach Erik Spoelstra turns out to be the Jon Gruden-like savant everyone keeps predicting? What if they land a key buyout guy like Boston did with P.J. Brown in February? I'd rather bet on a healthy Wade than the heart of the '03 Clippers joining forces with Iguodala and Dalembert. But that's just me.

(Random Miami note: I watched Game 3 of the 2006 Finals on NBA TV earlier this month. It featured at least eight incomprehensibly bad calls or no-calls and should always be mentioned on the short list of NBA playoff games with the fishiest officiating. I look at the Tim Donaghy Saga as a good thing now; there's just no way anything like Game 3 of the 2006 Finals will ever happen again. You will never see three referees collectively decide either consciously or subconsciously, "We're giving every borderline call to Team X and that's that." Anyway, I blocked this out of my mind, but seriously, how bad was Miami's "every fan wears white" gimmick for those games? They looked like they should have been rooting for Zac Efron's team in "High School Musical 3." What an appalling Finals in every respect. Maybe the league's worst moment since the Kermit Washington punch. And yet I digress.)

8. The words "struggling economy" and "2008-09 NBA season" will cross paths more than once.

You probably thought it was weird when Denver inexplicably extended Nene's deal for $60 million, then was forced to dump leader Marcus Camby on the Clippers two years later for luxury tax reasons even though Camby is a much better player. That was the NBA equivalent of having your house repossessed because you spent too much money on a yacht. Well, just wait -- things are about to get super-duper, "Turtle dating Meadow Soprano in real life"-level weird. We're about to hear the word "sunk cost" over and over again.


1. Boston, 63-19
2. Cleveland, 58-24
3. Orlando, 48-34
4. Detroit, 54-28
5. Miami, 44-38
6. Philly, 43-39
7. Toronto, 41-41
8. Chicago, 41-41

1. Lakers, 66-16
2. New Orleans, 62-20
3. Utah, 53-29
4. Houston, 52-30
5. San Antonio, 48-34
6. Dallas, 47-35
7. Portland, 45-37
8. Phoenix, 43-39

14. Denver, 42-40
13. Atlanta, 37-45
12. Sacramento, 37-45
11. Indiana 36-46
10. Golden State, 35-47
9. Washington, 35-47
8. Clippers, 33-49
7. Milwaukee, 29-53
6. Minnesota, 28-54
5. New Jersey, 25-57
4. New York, 25-57
3. Seattle SloppySeconds, 23-59
2. Charlotte, 21-61
1. Memphis, 16-66

What is a sunk cost? In financial terms, it's a lost cause -- you're paying for something that has lost its value to you. Let's say I spent $200 on one of those beautiful, 6-foot-high, glass-blown water bongs and named it Barack Obonga. And let's say I smoked a little too much of the special hydro weed they give to cancer patients, decided someone was watching me through my front window, ran outside in my underwear with a baseball bat, and eventually spent the next two hours sitting in a tree waiting for the imaginary guy to come back before my neighbors called the police. And let's say the whole experience made me say, "You know what? I need to quit smoking pot, it's making me a little crazy." Maybe I'd try to sell the bong on Craigslist to no avail, and none of my friends would take it because there's nothing grosser than owning someone else's bong. At that specific point, Barack Obonga would become a sunk cost; that money is out the window. It's gone. I need to accept this fact and move on.

The NBA landscape is littered with sunk costs every season, but teams rarely do anything about them for three reasons: stubbornness, a fear of admitting failure and a fear of having the sunk cost haunt them on another team. Look at the Pacers right now. Jamaal Tinsley is a sunk cost. They can't trade him without taking back someone else's problems. They can't play him because their fans have turned on him. So what do you do? Admit that he's a sunk cost, buy out 85 percent of his remaining $21 million and allow him to sign somewhere else. Before the current economic swoon, teams may have decided, "Screw that, I'm not doing that just to save a couple million" or "Let's keep him and his expiring contract will be worth something down the road." Not anymore, not with walk-up ticket sales expected to drop severely. So not only will you see the usual group of expiring vets jettisoned to save a few bucks in February (Antoine Walker, Malik Rose, Stephon Marbury, etc.), but for the first time, we might also see veterans cut loose with two or three years left on their contracts: Tinsley, Bobby Simmons, Greg Buckner, Kenny Thomas, Dan Gadzuric, Brian Scalabrine, Brian Cardinal, Speedy Claxton, maybe even overpaid guys with whopper contracts like Kenyon Martin. If you're running the Nuggets, would you offer K-Mart $35 million spread over three years to buy out the remaining $45 million of his contract, considering you'd potentially save $20 million total with the luxury tax? And if you're K-Mart, couldn't you make that money back on another team?

What does this mean for the 2009 playoff picture? For all we know, one of those sunk costs might end up swinging the race. I can only guarantee that it won't be Scalabrine.

9. You will regret all the time you spent hearing and reading about the Jermaine O'Neal/T.J. Ford deal.

Here's my take: Ford can't stay on the floor (sorry, this has been painfully established over the past few years), and if O'Neal somehow returns to 20-10 form, it would be the first time that a big man rejuvenated his career in his 30s without the excuse, "He's not doing cocaine anymore" (which happened a few times in the '70s and '80s). Power forwards and centers are like porn stars and singers: When they lose it, they lose it. That's it. End of story. We have six decades of evidence to back this up. So the Raptors aren't just gambling on O'Neal's returning to All-Star form, they're gambling on an improbable turn of events that has no precedent in the 62-year history of the NBA. Tom Chambers, Antoine Walker, Artis Gilmore, Ben Wallace, Mutombo, Ewing, Hakeem, Shaq, Moses, Larry Johnson, Derrick Coleman, Ralph Sampson, George McGinnis, Spencer Haywood, Jerry Lucas, Nate Thurmond ... seriously, find me a former All-Star big guy whose statistics dropped as dramatically as O'Neal's did from 2005 (24-10) to 2008 (13-7) and then rallied back the other way. You will come up empty.

10. You will regret not fully appreciating Cleveland for swiping Mo Williams from Milwaukee.

Now here's a trade that didn't get enough attention: Cleveland's swipe of Mo Williams from Milwaukee. Only 25 years old and blessed with grapefruit-sized melons, Mo might be a shoot-first point guard, but shoot-first point guards thrive on teams with a creator in place ... and the Cavs have LeBron. Perfect! According to, Williams finished second in the league by making 51 percent of his 2-point jump shots. Throw in his 39 percent clip on 3s and that's a trade that makes sense to me. LeBron creates open jump shots for teammates. Mo Williams makes open jump shots at an alarmingly good rate. Sometimes it's that easy.

11. With Isiah finally gone from the Knicks, Charlotte will assume the mantle as the most frustrated franchise in the NBA.

Let's go through the Frustrated Franchise Checklist ...

Emeka Okafor

D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

$72 million for Emeka Okafor? When does college basketball start?

Overmatched owner who's in over his head? (CHECK)

Overmatched GM who gets routinely mocked by his peers? (CHECK)

Lack of a franchise player or any potential star? (CHECK)

Either a terrible coach or a veteran coach with a ballyhooed history of quitting on teams going nowhere? (CHECK)

Disturbed fan base that's already written off the brain trust as a bunch of clowns and wouldn't mind if the team just moved somewhere else? (CHECK)

Series of poor decisions that left the team crippled for the foreseeable future? (Let's see ... Adam Morrison over Brandon Roy, $27 million for Matt Carroll, $72 million for Emeka Okafor, $25 million per year for Gerald Wallace and Jason Richardson, trading for Nazr Mohammed's onerous contract, D.J. Augustin over Brook Lopez/Jerryd Bayless ... CHECK!)

It's a mess. Everything peaked when Charlotte passed on Lopez, a ghastly move that became five times worse when the Bobcats went 0-8 in the preseason partly because they only had one NBA-ready power forward (Sean May) who showed up so out of shape that Larry Brown announced publicly (I'm paraphrasing), "We have to slow things down and change the way I wanted to play because our only power forward can't run for more than three minutes without potentially puking all over the place."

Now here's the weird part: There's a famous story about last year's draft that Charlotte called Lopez and told him that they were taking him, then Brown talked them out of it at the last second because he wanted a point guard ... leading to an incredible moment when Lopez's jaw dropped in shock on live TV as he heard the words "D.J. Augustin." I heard this story in various forms all summer, then Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski wrote about it last week as if it were true. So screw it, maybe it's true. I would believe anything with the 2009 Charlotte Bobcats.

(Random awful summer decision that didn't get nearly enough play: The Kings' committing $60 million over the next five years to Beno Udrih and Francisco Garcia. Didn't Luke Walton's horrific contract teach everyone not to overpay mediocre players? Did Geoff Petrie really think he would be standing on the championship podium some day telling Stu Scott, "I knew we were headed for a title the day I decided to pay Udrih, Garcia and Mikki Moore three times what they were worth"? On the bright side, you can now gamble on any NBA game at the Palms that doesn't involve the Kings! Woo-hoo! If only their sportsbook wasn't the size of a closet.)

12. The Celtics will put the word "defending" back into "defending champs."

The last NBA champ that defended its crown with vigor was the '97 Bulls. They loved being "The Champs." They loved shutting up crowds on the road, fending off young upstarts and sending messages to potential contenders. On a nightly basis, Jordan (and most of the time, Pippen) simply wouldn't allow the Bulls to let up competitively, even carrying the slack for everyone else on the nights when nobody showed up. Beyond that, it meant something to that particular team, night in and night out, to show up as "The Champs" with a big bull's-eye on their backs and spend the next 150 minutes laying the smack down and proving why that bull's-eye was there.

For a variety of reasons, we just finished a 12-year stretch of defending champs that weren't wired that way. Either they were saving their legs for the playoffs (the '04 and '08 Spurs); they were overly arrogant and/or battling the usual array of demons that come after winning the title (the Kobe-Shaq teams, the '05 Pistons); or they were battling injuries/age/complacency (the '99 Bulls, '01 Spurs and '07 Heat). Only the '98 Bulls and '06 Spurs defended their title by winning 60-plus games and a No. 1 seed, but neither carried themselves with that definitive "Throw everything you have at us, we're ready!" swagger. (Important note: The '01 Lakers found that swagger in the playoffs and unleashed holy hell for two straight months. But since it didn't happen for nine months, they can't qualify.) I believe this Celtics team is wired like that '97 Bulls team. They won't have the ego/money/stats problems that develop sometimes after a championship. They won't mail in the regular season because Garnett and Pierce are too freaking competitive on a day-to-day basis to let it happen. They also developed two positive wrinkles: Pierce's "I'm an elite player, dammit!" challenge to himself, and Rajon Rondo's quest to make the All-Star team.

And then there's this: No team since Magic's last two Lakers teams has enjoyed a title more than last year's Celtics. They celebrated for six solid weeks. They celebrated in Boston. They celebrated in L.A. They celebrated in Vegas. They celebrated in Malibu. You could say that the veteran stars appreciated the significance because they could put it in the proper perspective, that the team was unnaturally close, that righting the league's most famous franchise pushed everything over the top. Whatever the case, these guys LOVE being the champs. They want to repeat for all the right reasons, and as a fan of the team, I'm looking forward to this season specifically for those 10-11 road games against good teams when they show up with their chest puffed out and their imaginary championship belts tossed over their shoulders. I don't think the Celtics will win a second straight title, but they will kill themselves trying. And that's really all you can ask for.

13. James Posey will end up being the Hidden Swing Guy this season.

James Posey

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Why the Celtics won't repeat: James Posey signed with the Hornets.

Here's why I don't think the Celtics can repeat: They made a decision not to match Posey's offer from New Orleans (four years, $24 million) because it would have messed up their salary structure down the road. (Remember, they're set up nicely for the next four years with Ray Allen expiring in 2010, Pierce in 2011 and Garnett in 2012, giving them a ton of cap flexibility even when factoring in Rajon Rondo's inevitable $60 million extension.) Really, they sacrificed a terrific chance at repeating to avoid messing with 2011 and 2012, hoping that Posey could be replaced with Tony Allen, Billy Walker and whomever else. I'm fine with that decision. I don't think it will work, but it was a logical move in my opinion.

Important note: My dad hated the move. Hated it. We argued about it for at least 10 hours this summer. "The whole point is to win a title," Dad kept saying. "I don't care about 2012. I might not be around in 2012! I care about 2009. We would have repeated with Posey. Instead, I have to watch Tony Allen for two more years? Put this in your column: We should have re-signed James Posey. Huge mistake. These guys won a title and decided they were geniuses -- it's just like what happened with the Red Sox."

Ouch. I agree with Dad on one thing: The Celts probably would have repeated with Posey. And he can't be replaced; it would belittle what he did last season. You can't replace his clutch 3s, his ability to stretch the floor, his unselfishness, his defense, his leadership/spirit, his man-hugs and his knack for coming through in big games. (Don't forget, in their two biggest road playoff wins, Game 6 at Detroit and Game 4 at Los Angeles, Posey was prominently involved.) And now that he's gone, they can't play a small-ball lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Posey and Garnett anymore. Damn it all. His departure hurts Boston for the same reason it helps the Hornets, who desperately needed a swingman who could do Posey things (and allow them to go small from time to time). I don't want to talk about this anymore.

14. The "Which NBA star will pull a reverse David Beckham and flee for Europe?" question will gain steam throughout the season.

It really comes down to two guys: Shaq and Kobe. Shaq makes more sense since he fits the Beckham mold (big name, past his prime, could make more money there than here, might extend his career three more years against crummy Euro centers), but you can't count out Kobe, who spent much of his childhood in Italy and might embrace the chance to become a megastar overseas. One of the many fascinating subplots from the Olympics was Kobe's insane popularity in China; he will never be that beloved in the States because he has been too polarizing a figure over the past eight years. So let's say the Lakers win the title this year. If you're Kobe, and you have nothing left to prove, and your NBA odometer is running close to 1,100 games ... why not make a Pele-like jump overseas for twice as much money and 10 times the attention and become a global superduperstar?

(Even better, what if they BOTH jumped? What if the Shaq-Kobe rivalry continued for another four years on foreign soil? I support any scenario that leads to Shaq potentially learning how to sing "tell me how my butt tastes" in Italian and Greek.)

15. You will enjoy having the Lopez twins in your life.

Brook & Robin Lopez

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

And you thought the Van Gundy brothers provided good comedy.

They're like the Hanson brothers with jump hooks. I could totally see them opening one of their suitcases and having 20 little race cars fall out. That reminds me, here are some other things you will enjoy about the 2009 season ...

A. The Raptor Truthers slowly turning on Jermaine O'Neal. I can't wait for this. I would set Jan. 19 as the over/under and take the under.

B. Lamar Odom being a good soldier and coming off the bench for about six weeks, then going into Full Sulk Mode because he's in a contract year. Lakers fans, you better hope he doesn't run into Manny Ramirez and Scott Boras at an L.A. party this winter.

C. Did you know that Atlanta's bench this year consists of Ronald Murray, Zaza Pachulia, Mo Evans, Solomon Jones and Acie Law? Really? That's your bench? The Hawks should just have Feces Night and have their cheerleaders shoot dog doo out of T-shirt cannons at their fans. What a disgrace.

D. Scott Skiles coaching Charlie Villanueva. Either Skiles will light a fire under Charlie and turn him into a quality player, or they will fight to the death. It's one or the other.

E. Marc Stein slowly backing off a summer spent pimping the Sixers, then eventually pretending the whole thing never happened.

F. Chad Ford watching a Nets-Grizzlies game this winter, seeing Yi Jianlian and Darko Milicic awkwardly bouncing off one another like bumper cars in an amusement park for a few minutes, then sadly making himself a pina colada in a giant half-coconut.

G. Speaking of ESPN, did I mention that we decided to form a pregame show team of Stu Scott, Avery Johnson and Bill Walton? Have we ever seen anything in television history that remotely approaches those three voices? Why couldn't they get Cartman from "South Park" to be the fourth guy? Hell, why couldn't they have brought in me? It's the ESPN Pregame Show, sponsored by Tylenol!

H. Vegas sweating out the 10-to-1 odds for Jose Calderon to win the assist title. What were they thinking? Way too high! Put $1,000 on Chris Paul (6 to 5 odds) and $200 on Calderon and you're guaranteed to win $1,000 this year.

I. My brewing feud with Jazz fans. Because I keep dismissing the Chris Paul-Deron Williams "rivalry" and wrote last week that Paul was the Pearl Jam to Williams' Stone Temple Pilots, that earned me a steady stream of hate mail from Utah and an extended rip in something called the Deseret News. Look, people of Utah -- you ruined the 2002 Olympics because nobody could buy a stiff drink or a beer that had a real level of alcohol, and I think "Last Call" was 8:30 at night. As my friend Jacoby jokes, "Each brewery around the world has to brew and bottle special low-alcohol beer solely because Utah hates fun." It's true. The only reason we still put up with you is the skiing. I'd keep it down.

J. The ongoing "I still can't believe I talked myself into a head coaching job" look on Vinny Del Negro's face. Vinny, we can't believe it either.

K. The U.S Airways terminal in Phoenix on the Thursday before and the Monday after the 2009 All-Star Game. Because the airline industry has positioned it so that you really can't get to Phoenix without using U.S. Airways, it's going to be a murderers' row of autograph seekers, card collectors, groupies, bimbettes, strippers, media members, B-list celebrities and, yes, basketball players. I say we just equip the place with cameras and run a 24-hour feed on ESPN 360. Let's go over to Baggage Claim A, where Audrina Patridge is hitting on Dwight Howard.

L. The Gay-Mayo Era in Memphis. One of my favorite eras of all time. I don't even care how it ends.

M. Eric Gordon's beautiful, moonball, knee-weakening, once-in-a-generation jump shot. It's just perfect. I love it. I love everything about it. Every time he shoots it, the Clippers crowd goes quiet for a split-second like one of the cheerleaders just pulled up her shirt. Even the spin is gorgeous. I can't say enough about it. I am in love with Eric Gordon's jump shot. I want to marry it. I want to have kids with it. I will go to at least one practice or shootaround this year just to see him hoist 200 of them. And by the way, the kid is going to be great -- he's bigger than I thought, and when he drives to the lane, defenders just bounce off him. He will end up being the third-best guy in that draft. Unless, of course -- and I'm contractually obligated to mention this since it's the most jinxed franchise in sports and we're only two years removed from Shaun Livingston's knee flying off his body and landing in the eighth row -- something horrible happens to him. Please, Lord, no. Just give us a decade of Gordon jump shots. I don't ask for much.

16. You will see three teams win 60-plus games this year.

Boston, New Orleans and Los Angeles. The Lakers will finish with the best record because they're built for an 82-game season -- they go 11-deep and two-deep at every position, they can throw every type of look at you (big, small, medium, whatever) and they won't let down competitively night to night because of Kobe. They also upgraded at two spots from the team that nearly won last year: Ronnie Turiaf to Andrew Bynum ("upgrade" isn't a strong enough word there), and Slightly Tentative Jordan Farmar to Shockingly Better Jordan Farmar (he has looked fantastic). The 2008-09 Lakers are loaded. On paper. And that's the key. Because the playoffs come down to four things: Chemistry, defense, toughness and crunch-time scoring. The Lakers failed in all four categories in last year's Finals and that's why they lost. Will they be able to get stops next spring? Will they get pushed around again like they did in June? Will they quit when the going gets tough like they did in Game 6 of the Finals? Again, they look fantastic on paper ... but I don't see it translating into a title. Too many variables.

17. You will remember the 2008-09 season for an imaginary torch.

We have seen the best of the generation that replaced Bird and Magic (and eventually, the Jordan-Barkley-Hakeem-Isiah group) in the mid-'90s: Shaq, Kidd, Iverson, Hill, T-Mac, Penny, Payton, C-Webb, Vince, Nash and Jermaine O'Neal, with only Garnett, Duncan, Pierce, Nowitzki and Kobe remaining franchise guys ... and all five of those guys have peaked as players. But another group is itching to take the reins: LeBron, Wade, Carmelo, Paul, Amare, Howard, Deron Williams, maybe even Brandon Roy and Chris Bosh, with Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and (hopefully) Greg Oden lurking in the wings. And that shift will be personified by my last three predictions for the season ...

18. We will have a full-fledged Dwyane Wade return to prominence.


Boston over Chicago
Cleveland over Toronto
Orlando over Philly
Detroit over Miami
Lakers over Phoenix
New Orleans over Portland
Utah over Dallas
San Antonio over Houston

Boston over Detroit
Cleveland over Orlando
San Antonio over Lakers
New Orleans over Utah

Cleveland over Boston
New Orleans over San Antonio

Cleveland over New Orleans

As in, "It's OK to schedule me for 13 nationally televised games and take me in the top-five of your fantasy draft again, and by the way, you don't want any part of me in a playoff series." Remember, he's the only guy from the previous paragraph with "Finals MVP" on his résumé.

19. We will see LeBron's first MVP season.

Remember, the Cavs came within a couple of plays of toppling the Celtics last spring. They were damned close ... and that was without Daniel Gibson. Assuming they jump a level with Gibson, Williams and Whoever They Get For Wally, and assuming LeBron submits a career year (something like a 31-9-8), and assuming the media gets behind him (and not Chris Paul), LeBron will take the trophy home. He's due.

20. We will see LeBron win the Finals MVP as well.

My pick: Cleveland over New Orleans in the 2009 Finals. You will remember it as the first LeBron/CP3 Finals some day, a seminal moment in the league's history, the season when a new generation of stars symbolically moved the previous regime out of the way. The NBA ... where rejuvenation happens.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.