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2011-12 Predictions: Durant, Thunder ready to take a big step

Politics is all about ideology these days and it seems like the average politician doesn't understand there is more than one way to look at a given situation.

That my way or the highway approach that dots both sides of the aisle in Washington flies in the face of common sense. After all, more often than not, there is more than one way to solve a problem.

In the NBA there are two schools of thought when looking over a condensed 66- game, lockout fueled schedule that is very heavy on back-to-back games and occasionally even features some back-to-back-to-backs.

In my mind, any time you play five times a week, it's going to favor the young legs and not a thirtysomething that's been through the wars time and time again.

Others assume lopping 16 games off the sked and the 560-to-600 minutes of wear and tear that goes along with it will help the older players like Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan, theoretically making them fresher for a possible postseason run.

Whatever you believe, one thing is certain -- coaching is going to be more important than ever this season.

How is Doc Rivers going to handle Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in Beantown? How many minutes will Popovich feel comfortable giving Duncan if he sees a back-to-back looming?

Already Doug Collins in Philly, who has a rather young team, has indicated that anyone who isn't "right" will sit when the team practices.

Getting to the finish line this season isn't just about the playoffs -- it's all about postseason health. A .600 winning percentage might be an admirable goal but so is sacrificing a few wins and perhaps a spot or two in the seeding if that means your veterans haven't had to start their own MASH unit.

Right now a mini-offseason is slowly fading to the rear-view mirror and the light of real basketball is finally shining at the end of the tunnel, with the locomotive bearing down.

The Association kicks off for real on Christmas Day with a five-game slate headlined by a rematch of the NBA Finals with the Heat and LeBron James visiting Dirk Nowitzki and the defending world champion Dallas Mavericks.

The power players haven't shifted all that much with Miami again playing the role of favorites and Dallas expected back as a serious contender. Last year's two top teams in the regular season, Chicago and San Antonio remain part of the championship conversation while the continued development of Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City likely means the Thunder will make a serious push for their first title in OKC.

If you are looking for improvement, start in New York where the Knicks and their impressive front line of Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler will attempt to join the heavyweights in the East.

As for the personal hardware. I see big things on the horizon for Cavs rookie Kyrie Irving and you can look for Durant to be the thorn in a certain Rose during the race for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award.

In deference to Denny Green, I'm not ready to "crown" anyone just yet but gazing into one's crystal ball before things start is almost a necessary evil.

So, here goes nothing.

A look at the 2011-12 NBA season...

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Chicago (Central Division champion); 2. Miami (Southeast); 3. Boston (Atlantic); 4. New York; 5. Orlando; 6. Indiana; 7. Atlanta; 8. Philadelphia

EAST CHAMPION: Chicago

If Rip Hamilton has anything left in the tank Chicago filled its biggest need while Miami has largely stayed stagnant around the Big Three. Of course, for as much criticism James received for disappearing late in the NBA Finals last season, let's remember that he was brilliant in the postseason up until that point.

It was the Bulls and Rose that were a disappointment out of the box, letting a flawed Indiana team hang around in most games and struggling with Jeff Teague and Atlanta before finally getting blitzed by the Heat. So, while everyone talks about James needing to step up when it counts, the same is true for Rose and Chicago.

That said, with Hamilton on board, and three defensive stoppers in the frontcourt, Joakim Noah, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, the Bulls are by far the most balanced team in the East.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Oklahoma City (Northwest); 2. Dallas (Southwest); 3. San Antonio; 4. LA Clippers (Pacific); 5. Memphis; 6. LA Lakers; 7. Portland; 8. Denver

WEST CHAMPION: Oklahoma City

Expect most of the conventional powers in the Western Conference to take a step back this season with the Lakers looking especially vulnerable. The Lakers have a new coach and no Lamar Odom. Meanwhile, personal problems, injuries and Father Time seem to be stalking Kobe Bryant. That has many wondering, including yours truly, if the Lakers are even the best team in Hollywood right now.

Meanwhile, the reigning world champion Mavericks seems to have stepped 'Back to the Future by bringing in Odom and high-scoring swingman Vince Carter. Remember this is a club that often won 50-plus games and came up short in the postseason until they acquired a few tough-minded defensive players like Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson. On paper the Mavs traded the defense that got them over the hump for more firepower, a scenario that's likely to result in an all too familiar denouement in the Metroplex -- an excellent regular season team that doesn't have the mettle to navigate the treacherous postseason waters.

In South Texas many prognosticators envision an aging club on the decline when talking about the 2011-12 version of the Spurs. That might be a little harsh since San Antonio is coming off a Western Conference-best 61-21 season. But, the window is certainly closing on the Spurs' chances to win another crown in the Tim Duncan-era. To do so the club must find ways to integrate some new pieces alongside their established All-Star veterans.

That leaves Durant and the Thunder, who sport the best finishing five in the business thanks to the ascending James Harden. If Russell Westbrook can temper the turnovers and Kendrick Perkins stays in shape throughout the season, OKC is ready to get over the hump.

NBA FINALS CHAMPION: Oklahoma City

You look to finishers in the finals. Sure, James is a better all-around basketball player than Nowitzki but the German star proved to be the best closer west of Mariano Rivera back in June and the Mavs are champs. Same will hold true this year when the Bulls meet the Thunder. You can certainly make a solid argument that the reigning MVP Rose is a better player but who do you want to give the dagger to in the final minutes of a close contest, a Rose or a Durant-ula?

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER - Durant, Oklahoma City

Rose took the award from James last season and Bryant is slipping a bit making things more interesting. "The King" is always the favorite but voters like variety, giving Durant a leg up this year. Don't sleep on Blake Griffin either now that Chris Paul will be feeding him on a daily basis.

Honorable Mention: James, Miami; Rose, Chicago; Griffin, LA Clippers; Dwight Howard, Orlando.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Kyrie Irving, Cleveland

This award is usually all about opportunity and no freshman should get more minutes than Irving, who will be handed the keys to the Cavs franchise.

Honorable Mention: Ricky Rubio, Minnesota; Derrick Williams, Minnesota

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Luc Mbah a Moute, Milwaukee

Make no mistake, Howard is going to win it again since the voters seem enamored by blocked shots and intimidating interior defense, something that certainly describes Superman. However, I prefer a lock-down perimeter defender for this award and no one is better than Mbah a Moute, a versatile guy that can check a shooting guard as well as a power forward.

Honorable Mention: Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia; Tony Allen, Memphis; Chandler, New York.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR - Jason Terry, Dallas

It's the usual suspects here, although some have new addresses. San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, Odom, Portland's Jamal Crawford and Terry are all possible winners but I suspect Ginobili and Odom could spend too much time in their respective starting lineups. Rick Carlisle loves Terry's offense off the bench and will keep him there.

Honorable Mention: Ginobili, San Antonio; Odom, Dallas; Crawford, Portland; Harden, Oklahoma City; Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER - Harden, Oklahoma City

Harden really came on in the 2011 playoffs as both a facilitator and scorer. His presence on the floor next to Durant and Westbrook makes OKC as tough an out that there is in basketball these days. A trio of emerging point guards should also be in the mix. Washington's dynamic John Wall, Philly's steady Jrue Holiday and undersized Nuggets' blur Ty Lawson.

Honorable Mention: Wall, Washington; Holiday, Philadelphia; Eric Gordon, New Orleans; Lawson, Denver.

COACH OF THE YEAR - Vinny Del Negro, LA Clippers.

The former point guard is rarely mentioned when people talk about the NBA's best coaches but the Clippers have been the league's laughing stock for so long that this expected turnaround will be big news across the country on a daily basis.

Honorable Mention: Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City; Frank Vogel, Indiana.

ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR - Mike Budenholzer, San Antonio

You might as well make this the Budenholzer achievement award until this guy gets a head coaching gig. The Spurs assistant has been ready to be an NBA head coach for at least three years now and is the master of "last two-minutes" edit. Budenholzer got his start as a video editor and is astute at pointing out the oppositions's deficiencies.

Honorable Mention: Michael Curry, Philadelphia, Mike Longabardi, Boston.

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Neal Olshey, LA Clippers

Some might argue that David Stern is the one responsible for steering Paul to the Clippers but the team's VP of Basketball operations is sure to get the credit when the Clips take the Pacific Division crown.

Honorable Mention: Donn Nelson, Dallas

MOST UNDERRATED ACQUISITION: Brandon Bass, Boston

With Shaquille O'Neal gone and the aging Jermaine O'Neal as the only true center left on the roster, Rivers will need to mix and match minutes in the pivot, often going with the undersized and underrated ex-Magic forward.

Honorable Mention: Chandler, New York; Butler, LA Clippers.

MOST IMPROVED TEAM: LA Clippers

With Paul, Butler and Chauncey Billups joining Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in L.A., it would be a major surprise if the Clippers didn't challenge for a top- four seed out West.

Honorable Mention: Indiana, Milwaukee

BEST INTERNATIONAL PLAYER: Nowitzki, Dallas

Nowitzki was unquestionably the best player in the postseason last year and swiped the mantle of best closer as well. His rainbow fadeaway is unstoppable at times and made Charles Barkley gush "Nobody can guard that guy." His coach, Rick Carlisle, even called him one of the 10 greatest players ever. With his terrific shooting range and basketball smarts, the bread and butter of Nowitzki's game has always been the ability to use his 7-foot, 245-pound frame to overmatch defenders. Never a top-tier on-ball defender. Nowitzki has also developed into a solid help defender and is much tougher these days.

Honorable Mention: Pau Gasol, LA Lakers; Ginobili, San Antonio.