We are two months away from crowning the kings of 2010-11, but the path to the NBA title is getting clearer. Which team has the trickiest path? Who should win the title? Who will?
We asked five writers to gaze into their crystal basketball:
1. Which top contender has the most difficult path to the NBA title?
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The Spurs first have to get through a solid 46-win Memphis squad that would be the 5-seed in the East. After that, it's either the Thunder or Nuggets, two teams that have a bunch of athleticism and youth, two things the aging Spurs could struggle with. And then, of course, the Lakers.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: Without question, it's the Spurs. Not only is Manu Ginobili likely to miss Game 1, but the Spurs really struggled against Memphis this season. Then, according to the seeding, they'll have to overcome the Thunder and the Lakers. Worse yet, the Lakers' half of the bracket is comparatively easy. Bad luck for San Antonio.
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: If one considers Boston and Dallas top contenders, it has to be them, with tough draws from start to finish. The Spurs are a sleeper here -- they were an underrated, indirect trade-deadline loser, in that their second-round matchup got a lot tougher with the post-trade improvements of Oklahoma City and Denver. And then the champs lurk.
Ryan DeGama, Celtics Hub: The Celtics. Want to argue the regular season means nothing to this flip-the-switch team? New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles is the counter-argument. Not only that, Boston will face the latter three prospective series without home-court advantage. But at least they can go small with Jeff Green. Ugh.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The Boston Celtics will face the on-any-given-night Knicks for two weeks. After that, their thoroughfare to the NBA Finals will likely run through Miami and Chicago, two confident teams with the defense and athleticism to run the C's ragged. Should they scrap their way to the FInals, the West champ figures to be a beast.
2. Which top contender has the easiest path to the NBA title?
Young: The Bulls get to play the worst team left in the field, then will likely get an Orlando team that is a cold shooting night from playing terribly.
With the Celtics banking on Shaq's crumbling body and the Heat sort of a question, Chicago's path to the NBA Finals has the fewest potholes.
Varner: Who could deny it's the Lakers? Chris Paul's Hornets are struggling, due in large part to the absence of David West. The Mavericks' recent play is strictly mediocre. And the Spurs? As mentioned above, they have a hard road between now and the conference finals. L.A. should coast.
Haubner: Has to be the Lakers. I'd rather be at 2 in the Western Conference -- the Hornets stink without David West, the Mavericks' geezers are probably a better matchup than Oklahoma City/Denver's young legs, and the Spurs are a good matchup for L.A. The Lakers are just too big for S.A.
DeGama: There are no free rides in either conference, but Chicago is in good shape. Indiana's nothing more than a warm-up, and Orlando and Atlanta have already hit their high-water marks. Plus, Chicago's two biggest conference rivals will spend the second round savaging each other. The Bulls will dispose of either and should have plenty left in the tank for the NBA Finals.
Arnovitz: In the Pacers, the Bulls draw this season's cupcake in the first round. Though Orlando would be no pushover (should the Magic get past the Hawks), they're a deeply flawed team that has trouble scoring. After that, things get tough -- but that's true for any squad playing basketball after Memorial Day.
3. Who are your NBA Finals teams and how did they get there?
Young: As is now a customary playoff tradition, this is contingent on the health of Andrew Bynum.
But the Lakers should cruise past the Hornets, then the Blazers in a tough series and then top the Spurs in the Finals. Chicago goes through Indy, Orlando and then Miami in a great series.
Varner: The smart money is on the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. The Lakers will breeze through the opening two rounds, play a tough series against either the Thunder or Spurs, and eventually find themselves in Chicago. The Pacers and Magic should be easy enough for Chicago. And ultimately the sum of the Bulls' collective parts will outshine Miami's less than cohesive team attack.
Haubner: I'm sticking with my preseason Heat-Lakers pick. Miami's presumed toughest threat, Boston, is sinking, and I'm not sure Chicago can top its regular-season play -- I'll take Miami over both. I mapped out L.A.'s path above: Hornets/Mavs/Spurs. Too many skilled, mobile bigs -- though they're going to need a healthy Andrew Bynum this year.
DeGama: Chicago and Los Angeles.
Chicago, via the path above, and L.A., because they'll have enough to beat OKC after it takes care of New Orleans (tenderized meat without David West) in the first round and either Dallas (only one superstar) or Portland (one former and one not-quite-superstar) in the second.
Arnovitz: The Heat finished with far and away the highest offensive efficiency in the East, and they continue to refine their offense. That's progress they can ride to June, even against some tough defensive opposition. The Lakers practically invented the postseason sports "switch" and they're about to flip it -- though the Spurs will take them to seven.
4. Who should be favored to win it all, and who will win it all?
Young: The Lakers should be favored, because they're the Lakers and that's how the world works.
But the Bulls will win it all. I believe in defense and nobody does it better than Tom Thibodeau's Bulls. Chicago has the size, the skill and the depth to pull it off.
Varner: The Bulls and the Bulls. Chicago finished strong, securing the league's best record behind the play of should-be MVP Derrick Rose. And then there is the Tom Thibodeau factor. Prior to Chicago, he was known as great defensive coach. Now he's just a great coach, full stop. Thibodeau is the difference-maker.
Haubner: Since the title seems up for grabs this year, the Lakers deserve the benefit of the doubt to be favored, as two-time defending champions. L.A. is my pick, too, though I'm concerned about its non-Odom bench -- they seem vulnerable to the slightest injury. A fourth three-peat to end Phil's career just has too much symmetry to resist.
DeGama: Los Angeles and Los Angeles.
Let's see. The defending champs have a huge and talented frontline, a legacy-hungry Kobe, and Phil in victory lap mode. Bynum's health seems the biggest potential fly in this three-peating ointment. And even if he goes down for a few games, Artest's bicep-kissing should still ensue.
Arnovitz: The Spurs should be favored. They sport the second-best offense in the NBA and have the league's most creative postseason coach. The Heat will win it all by actualizing the potential that's been simmering for a few weeks and about to explode.
5. Who will be the Leading Man of the 2011 NBA postseason?
Young: When it's somebody's season, it's somebody's season. And it appears to be Derrick Rose's season. He's headed to an MVP and as a result, will have the target on his back. But Rose dies for his team every night. He's ready for this. He's had two first-round exits and he's prepared to own the 2011 playoffs. And I think he will.
Varner: Derrick Rose. This season's MVP race featured several worthy candidates, and the arguments for each of those candidates is strong. But Derrick Rose should win MVP, and we'll remember this postseason as the Q.E.D. counter-argument to all his detractors.
Haubner: Given that I picked the Lakers, I have to say Kobe Bryant, since a sixth championship would revive all those ridiculous Jordan comparisons. In the back of my mind, though, I wonder if LeBron James is now being seriously underestimated. Expectations for him seem much lower than the past two years, yet he's still the most talented player alive.
DeGama: Derrick Rose.
Kobe will get the ring and another undeserved Finals MVP, but Rose will outplay him over the next two months. I'm especially looking forward to the blowbyability highlight reel that will come out of Rose cooking up Collison, Nelson, Rondo and whoever else tries to stay in front of him. MVP? Who cares? The dude's a monster.
Arnovitz: Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr. LeBron will log some sick stat lines and record a couple of triple-doubles -- so consider him a strong candidate as well. But Wade has been finding seams that allow him to attack the basket with impunity. The pick-and-roll game he's recently established with Chris Bosh has been lethal.