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October 27, 2009
2009-10 NBA Preview
Our Picks

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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The 2009-10 NBA season tips off tonight with a TNT double-header and two other games. Just in time, Basketball Prospectus NBA analysts Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton make their predictions for the season and player awards.

Division Winners

Atlantic - Boston
Central - Cleveland
Southeast - Orlando
Southwest - San Antonio
Northwest - Portland
Pacific - L.A. Lakers

Kevin Pelton: Five of the six divisions seem like easy picks. That leaves the Northwest, which could go any of three ways. I had to revisit my pick after Nicolas Batum's shoulder surgery, announced yesterday, but I think Greg Oden's upside still makes the Blazers the very, very narrow favorites.

Atlantic - Boston
Central - Cleveland
Southeast - Orlando
Southwest - San Antonio
Northwest - Portland
Pacific - L.A. Lakers

Bradford Doolittle: The only division that doesnít have a clear-cut preseason favorite is the Northwest, where the Jazz, Nuggets and Trail Blazers are all viable contenders. NBAPET has the Jazz pegged to win the division, but I think Portland is ready to break out and become one of the top three teams in the West. The Blazers have a fully-stocked roster and their core players now have a little experience under their belts. The Jazz needs a couple of its young rotation players to take a step forward, but even if that happens, Utahís lack of pure shooters will be exacerbated by the early absence of Kyle Korver. Denver should be strong again, as well, but does not have Portlandís depth. No team does, really.

Worst Team
Sacramento Kings
This can be a positive season for the Kings even if they win fewer than 20 games for the second straight season, so long as the young guys are developing into the core of a contending team. Desmond Mason's presence in the starting lineup is not a promising sign.

L.A. Clippers
NBAPET has Washington and Milwaukee projected to lose one more game than the Clippers, but I still think there is a toxic mix of players on Mike Dunleavy Sr.ís roster. I was thinking of picking the Clippers here even before the news about Blake Griffinís broken kneecap, and that story seals the deal for me.

Most Surprising Playoff Team
New York Knicks
Sometimes, SCHOENE spits something out that makes me double-take. This isn't one of those cases. In their first season adjusting to a major stylistic change on the sidelines, the Knicks won 32 games. They lost Quentin Richardson while adding Darko Milicic and rookies Jordan Hill and Toney Douglas, not to mention a healthy Danilo Gallinari. So why are people expecting New York to get worse? To me, this feels like an overreaction to a summer that could have been ugly had the Knicks not been able to re-sign David Lee and Nate Robinson. With them in place, there's plenty of talent in the Garden and the right coach to mold it.

Charlotte Bobcats
The Tyson Chandler-Emeka Okafor trade is already looking better and better for Charlotte even before the season tips off. I like the depth and the versatility of Larry Brownís squad. They lack scorers, but Brown will find a scheme that allows the defensively-solid Bobcats to be just efficient enough on offense to win more games than they lose. Thatíll get them into the playoffs for the first time.

Most Surprising Lottery Team
Washington Wizards
I'm not sure any of the East's mid-tier teams missing the playoffs should be a huge surprise, but of the group I'll take the Wizards. I think people are underestimating the potential for things to get ugly with injuries for a second straight year. Antawn Jamison's shoulder injury is an ominous start.

Atlanta Hawks
Iím standing behind NBAPETís projection on this one. Atlanta has players ripe for regression (Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson) and developing players whose ceiling may not be what the Hawks believe it to be (Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams). On top of that, they have introduced Jamaal Crawford into the mix. Crawford is not a bad guy, but his game is a bad fit Ė for any team.

Eastern Conference Finals

Orlando over Cleveland
As was the case last year, the East should come down to two series: the 2/3 semifinal and the winner of that series against the top seed in the conference finals. With Boston aging, I like a rematch of last year's matchup. I'd expect such a series to be even more fiercely contested, but Orlando to again emerge victorious.

Cleveland over Boston
I see Boston edging Orlando in the semifinals as the presence of Vince Carter finally catches up to the Magic. The Cavaliers will knock out the Celtics in seven games, if for no other reason than that itís LeBron Jamesí time to take his place at the pedestal, matchups be damned.

Western Conference Finals

L.A. Lakers over San Antonio
Either the Lakers or the Spurs has won the West 10 times in the last 11 seasons, and they've faced each other in the conference finals three times in that span (twice more in earlier rounds) ... so this is not exactly going out on a limb. San Antonio improved dramatically over the offseason, but enough to unseat the Lakers? I'm dubious.

L.A. Lakers over San Antonio
I actually think the Spurs will end up with the top seed in the West, but their age will catch up with them by the time the conference finals roll around next May. This will be a great series, though. Seven games. The Spurs donít have a perimeter stopper to take the place of Bruce Bowen and that void will be apparent against Kobe Bryant and company.

NBA Finals

Orlando over L.A. Lakers
Why should a rematch be different this time around? The biggest change might be the presence of a healthy Jameer Nelson to run the point for the Magic. Additionally, Orlando would have the ability to play bigger against the Lakers if necessary with the addition of Brandon Bass. Lastly, I do think the Lakers have slightly hurt themselves by "trading" Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest.

Cleveland over L.A. Lakers
You know the execs at ABC are already drooling over this possibility, right? Kobe vs. LeBron. Kobe vs. Shaq. By adding Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, the Cavaliers have the personnel to make things difficult for Bryant, while the improved depth of their bigs should allow them to handle Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers will throw Ron Artest at LeBron James and at this point it those playersí evolution, thatís a complete mismatch.

MVP
LeBron James, Cleveland
What would other competitors need to claim this award? Kobe Bryant would need an enormous season, both individually and by his team. Dwight Howard has a chance if the Magic threatens for the top record in the NBA. If the Hornets rebound, Chris Paul might be the toughest competition, while Dwyane Wade is always in the mix. Still, for now this is James' award to lose.

LeBron James, Cleveland
There was a gap between James and the leagueís other elite players last season. That gap is only going to get bigger. James is at the point of his career where Michael Jordan once resided. Heíll be the best player in the NBA every season that he is healthy for the next seven or eight years, at least. He may not win the MVP in all of those seasons, but there will always be a strong argument that he should.

Rookie of the Year

Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers
During the course of writing this column, the news broke that Griffin could miss up to six weeks with a stress fracture of his left patella. You know what? He's still my pick. The numbers and the history of rookie point guards suggest that the other top candidates (Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans and Jonny Flynn) might need a little more time to adjust. James Harden is my pick for runner-up. The most interesting question to me: Will DeJuan Blair do well enough to get votes? He averaged a mind-boggling 31.3 points and 17.7 per 40 minutes during the preseason. Let that sink in.

Tyreke Evans, Sacramento
You can believe me or not, but I already planned to pick Evans here before the news came down about Blake Griffin. Heíll have a dramatic effect on the Kings on both ends of the floor and heíll play big-time minutes in a featured role. No rookie is guaranteed as much court time.

Defensive Player of the Year
Shane Battier, Houston
After Michael Lewis' New York Times Magazine feature highlighted Battier's defense, the Rockets forward finished fourth in the voting despite missing 22 games due to injury. A healthy season could net Battier some hardware.

LeBron James, Cleveland
James now has a year with a heightened defensive reputation behind him. This year, he wonít have to do as much in terms of shutting down opposing teamsí top scorers because of the improved personnel around him. That will allow him to roam more and post even more of the gaudy defensive box score statistics that look so good at balloting time.

Sixth Man Award
Paul Millsap, Utah
A lot of interesting possibilities for this award: Manu Ginobili, reigning winner Jason Terry, Lamar Odom. Of the group, Millsap might have the best chance to put up big numbers if Ginobili's minutes are limited to keep him fresh for the postseason.

Kirk Hinrich, Chicago
Hinrich should again play starter-type minutes as the Bullsí third guard and he is perfectly suited for the role. He can play both backcourt positions effectively, running the offense when Derrick Rose is off the floor and spotting up when playing alongside Chicagoís young leader. On top of that, heís the Bullsí best defensive guard.

Most Improved Player
Danilo Gallinari, New York
If Gallinari can stay healthy and maintains the shooting touch he displayed as a rookie, he is going to open a lot of eyes around the league this season.

Derrick Rose, Chicago
I always look for a second-year player for this award and if you can find one that plays heavy minutes and is also in that precious age 19-21 development stage, then you have your man. Rose will not only have those factors in his favor, but heíll play an even bigger role for the Bulls than he did last season because of Ben Gordonís departure. Iím not sure that a player has ever won the Rookie of the Year award one season then followed that up with a Most Improved honor the next. Kevin Durant certainly could have pulled it off last season. In any event, I think Rose is going to make that much of a leap.

Coach of the Year

Stan Van Gundy, Orlando
If the Magic posts one of the league's best records again, the voters can't deny Van Gundy the award he probably deserved last year, can they?

Rick Adelman, Houston
If my team projections turn out well, then this will be a three-horse race between Adelman, Larry Brown and Jerry Sloan. Adelman will get the edge because not only do I think the Rockets will exceed their consensus preseason expectation by a significant margin, but they will also be playing a different style than past seasons. This Houston squad will have more of Adelmanís fingerprint than any of the others and if the Rockets win 45-50 games and make the playoffs, heíll be recognized.

First Coach Fired

Lawrence Frank, New Jersey
The high turnover a year ago will make it difficult for teams to change coaches again. Vinny Del Negro is the only other strong contender I see. Prospective Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov will probably want to put his stamp on the team if and when he takes over, and given his pocketbook, paying two coaches the rest of the year hardly seems like much of a concern.

Mike Woodson, Atlanta
Despite the Hawksí improvement over the last couple of seasons, Woodson has not been rewarded with a long-term deal. If the team slips as much as I think they will in the coming season, Woodson will be an easy target and Rick Sund isnít the guy who hired him in the first place.

Executive of the Year

R.C. Buford, San Antonio
Unless things blow up for the Spurs this season, Buford probably guaranteed himself this award during the summer. Would you believe that Buford has never been honored as Executive of the Year despite his role in molding the San Antonio dynasty?.

Danny Ferry, Cleveland
If an executive can add Shaquille OíNeal to an established core and succeed, heíll run away with this award.

Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.com. See our PBP 09-10 page for more details and to purchase your copy in printed form or as a downloadable PDF.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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