Column: A look at the NBA’s top contenders

Ron Rokhy

Ron Rokhy:

Western Conference

1) Los Angeles Lakers
Coming off back-to-back seasons where they combined for a single win in the second round of the playoffs, the Lakers quickly adapted by filling up the glaring holes in their starting lineup. Bringing in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard gives the Lakers an unprecedented edge over every team in the Western Conference — both on offense and defense. When Nash was on the court last season, the vast majority of Suns’ players saw a 6-9 boost in their field goal percentage. Howard, who has threepeated the Defensive Player of the Year award, led a Magic defense that held their opponents to under 95 points per game four of the past five years. These figures, coupled with the fact that they’d now apply to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol instead of Jared Dudley or Brandon Bass, should land the Lakers the one seed without any problems.

2) Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite losing the finals last year to Miami, Oklahoma’s young nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who have an average age of 23, can only get better as time goes on. Though they recently lost James Harden in a trade that sent him to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and picks, the offseason improvements to Durant and Westbrook, along with Martin’s added scoring, should be enough to compensate for his loss. The additions of rookie Perry Jones III and the return of injured backup point guard Eric Maynor clearly makes OKC the de facto team of the future, but if they hope to be the team to beat now, Westbrook is going to have to learn to be a pass-first player and Durant needs to improve his defense.

3) Denver Nuggets
The NBA’s highest scoring team got a huge defensive boost this offseason as the trade that sent Howard to LA also sent Andre Iguodala to Denver. Iguodala, a veteran small forward, is a versatile player who can average LeBron-like numbers except in the scoring department. His best characteristic, though, is his ability to lockdown nearly any perimeter player — Iguodala held opposing small forwards to just 5.9 PER per game, by far the lowest in the league. The Nuggets’ well-balanced and deep roster, with improvements to youngsters Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee, should land them the three seed as the aging Spurs gradually decline.

Eastern Conference

1) Miami Heat
No-brainer here. Not only did the Heat stomp everyone in the East last year (don’t be fooled by the seven game series against Boston, Bosh missed four games), they also improved their firepower this offseason. The additions of sharpshooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, who reunite after a five-year absence of being teammates on the now-defunct Sonics, give them two reliable threats from downtown. With league MVP LeBron James and Dwyane Wade attacking the paint at will forcing double teams, Allen and Lewis will get all the open looks they want. The defense of Shane Battier and Chris Bosh adding 18 and 8 a night puts the Heat head and shoulders above every other team in the East.

2) Boston Celtics
Boston’s aging core barely showed any signs of decline last season as both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett posted similar PERs to their 2010-2011 campaigns. Despite this, the Celtics revamped their bench by injecting it with youth (ignoring 35-year-old  Jason Terry, who’ll make an adequate replacement for Ray Allen). The returns of Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, along with the additions of Courtney Lee and rookies Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger, will compliment the stellar play of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Boston’s medley of veterans and youth is enough for a two seed, but not enough to overtake Miami.

3) Brooklyn Nets
The Nets will be the most surprising team this season. The addition of Gerald Wallace late last year and the offseason acquiring of Joe Johnson, along with the return of injured young center Brook Lopez, make the Nets one of the most well-rounded teams in the league. Savvy point guard Deron Williams, who averages 9.2 assists per game for his career, now has competent targets to dish the rock to. If second-year guard Marshon Brooks can build on a rookie campaign that had him scoring 12.6 points per contest and European sharpshooter Mirza Teletovic can provide the much-needed long range threat they need off the bench, the Nets will outgun the competition for the three seed.


Ammons Smith:

Western Conference

1) Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder made it to the Finals last season but were defeated by the  Miami Heat. They’re a young team with playoff experience, which gives them the edge over other teams in the Western Conference entering this season. Kevin Durant is arguably the second best player behind final’s MVP Lebron James but KD must make the next step to become champion by playing more aggressive and being a better leader on and off the court.

2) Los Angeles Lakers
They lost to the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs but have revamped their team this year by acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. The Lakers have filled the two glaring weaknesses on their team and now they must rely on the bench to help this team get back to the Finals. Howard has to maximize his full potential for this team to compete against the Thunder and Heat.Kobe Bryant is at the end of his career so he will play with all the heart and determination he has to make sure this team does not become underachievers.

3) San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs lost to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals and will be back in the race to compete for a chance at the finals. In their conference, the Spurs have finished in first place the last two years without reaching the Finals. The Spurs have aging players, which will cause the team problems later in the year. They’re better than the rest of the teams in the conference because of their experience but this veteran team needs help from their youth if they want to defeat the Lakers and Thunder.

Eastern Conference

1) Miami Heat
Finally, the Heat delivered by winning the NBA Finals but they have a new challenge to accomplish. Their mission is to become a dynasty like the Chicago Bulls, Lakers and Boston Celtics have in past decades. James earned his first title and had his best season statistically in the NBA. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made many significant plays to keep the Heat from falling apart during last season. It is up to new acquisitions, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to make the bench stronger than ever. As long as the big three can stay healthy, they will be able to get back to the finals for a third straight appearance.

2) Boston Celtics
Boston lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals and lost Ray Allen to their rivals during free agency. Their aging players drew doubts from critics that didn’t believe they could make it as far as they did in the playoffs. Veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce must stay healthy in order to make a run at the playoffs again this year. Even though Rajon Rondo has been a great point guard for the team, he will have to provide more for the offense by creating more shots for himself. Players like Leandro Barbosa, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and Jason Terry must provide life coming off the bench to keep this veteran team in good condition.

3) New York Knicks
For the last two seasons, the Knicks have been disappointing, getting booted out of the playoffs in the first round. Jason Kidd will provide the stability this team needs to play better during the season. His leadership will have a positive influence on the team. Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire have not been able to coexist on the court because both players can only operate when the ball is in their hands. They must learn to move without the ball and become leaders as well. Carmelo is outstanding on offense but he lacks integrity on defense.  If he does not maximize his full potential, his legacy will be similar to Tracy McGrady, who wasn’t able to catapult to superstar status.