Commentary

Under the radar predictions for 2009

Rooks better than sophs? Who's like Mike? NBA champ? We've got '09 predictions.

Originally Published: January 7, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesDavid Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesThrow your hands in the air, LeBron. 2009 is gonna be a big year for you and the Cavs.
It's a new year, and with that, it's time to look into my crystal ball and figure out what is going to happen in 2009.

With one caveat, that is: I don't have a crystal ball. When making predictions, the only truly safe one is that some of them will be wrong.

Nonetheless, we can make educated guesses about things that are likely to happen in 2009. Many are incredibly obvious -- for instance, the Celtics will make the playoffs, LeBron James will make the All-Star team and In-N-Out Burger will name its headquarters building after Marc Stein.

Others, however, haven't achieved mainstream acceptance quite yet. It is those events -- the ones that have good chances of happening but mostly are off everyone's radar -- that I'm trying to focus on here.

One of them I threw your way already -- in our predictions piece from all our NBA writers, I pointed out that the changing salary cap environment is going to have huge implications as soon as this trade deadline. The assumption of a rising salary cap isn't going to be fulfilled the next two summers -- in fact, it could decrease sharply in the crucial LeBron summer of 2010 -- and the luxury tax level will go down with the salary cap.

This is going to wreak havoc with a lot of teams' cap planning and force them to adjust on the fly, which begets a secondary prediction: This season's trade deadline will send more bodies flying than a Bruce Lee movie. Smart teams will be trying to get ahead of the curve and position themselves for the new cap realities of the next two years.

That still leaves plenty of room for more predictions, however, and I have plenty left to deliver.

So without further ado, here's what I see happening in 2009 that is largely off the radar right now:


1. This season's best rookie guard will not be Mayo or Rose

Since everyone sees this rookie of the year race as a two-man chase between Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo, let me steal a page from Rob Neyer and present this comparison:

Player A: 37.3 min., 16.3 pts., 6.2 ast., 45.9 FG%, 13.58 PER
Player B: 36.4 min., 17.7 pts., 3.8 ast., 43.8 FG%, 14.03 PER
Player C: 33.1 min., 15.5 pts., 5.1 ast., 46.2 FG%, 16.23 PER

Player A is Rose in the month of December. Player B is Mayo in the month of December.

And Player C, who has more combined points and assists per minute than either Rose or Mayo, a better shooting percentage and a higher Player Efficiency Rating? That would be Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook in the month of December.

He's getting zero attention because he had a dreadful November and his team has won only five games. But Westbrook has been spectacular over the past month -- he shot 34.5 percent in November but 46.2 percent in December and hung 22 points, nine assists and six rebounds on the Knicks on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Rose and Mayo have cooled off from their hot starts.

Westbrook also is the youngest of the three, the best defender and the only one who had to change positions upon arriving in the NBA. All of which suggests he's only scratching the surface of his potential -- as does the fact that he has a higher turnover ratio than the other two, which, in a paradoxical twist of logic, is actually a good thing for a rookie. Historically, those with high turnover rates have had much higher rates of improvement in subsequent seasons.

So 12 months from now, don't be surprised if we're calling Westbrook the top guard from this rookie class.



2. Everyone will realize they were comparing the wrong guy to MJ

For the past decade, the media has not been able to resist the temptation to compare Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan, no matter how one-sided the comparison. Don't get me wrong -- Kobe is a great player and will go down as the second-best to ever play his position. But the Jordan stuff was mostly to generate chatter.

Here's the irony: For nearly half a decade, we've had the Next Jordan in our midst: LeBron James. He's mentioned as MJ's heir and they share the same jersey number, but I've yet to hear one person compare LeBron James to Jordan beyond that. Perhaps it's a result of their different body types and styles, but it's a far more valid comparison than the Kobe ones.

Well, better late than never. This is the year that everyone will wake up and realize LeBron is that caliber of player. He's threatening to break Jordan's modern-stat-era PER record (there were no individual turnover records kept when Wilt Chamberlain played, so we can't say for sure how he'd rate), he seems likely to win his first MVP award and he might very well win his first championship.

He also is clearly the best player in the league and, at 24, appears to have several more years of this caliber ahead of him. So this summer might be a fair time to start asking how many MVP awards, scoring titles, championships, etc., he can earn. And that, inevitably, will lead to comparisons with the only perimeter player in history who can rival his accomplishments at this age -- Jordan.

That is, if anybody can shut up about 2010 for five seconds.



3. The rookies will beat the sophs at All-Star Weekend

Although it might not match the awesome individual talents of the 2003 draft, this has been perhaps the deepest rookie class in memory, and we'll get to see why next month in Phoenix.

The sophomores usually dominate this event, but this is the first time in a while that the matchup looks fair on paper. In fact, the biggest problem for the rookies might be narrowing their ranks to a nine-man roster -- 12 rookies have PERs greater than 13 while playing more than 20 minute a game, and that doesn't include defensive ace Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in Milwaukee.

The likely roster will be Greg Oden, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and Michael Beasley up front, Rose, Mayo, Rudy Fernandez and Westbrook in the backcourt and Mbah a Moute on the wing. Compare that lineup to the sophomores'. They will be giving up size with Al Horford as the lone center -- Carl Landry and Luis Scola are his likely cohorts on the front line -- and will have only one real guard, Rodney Stuckey. The rest of the roster figures to be forwards Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Thaddeus Young, Al Thornton and Wilson Chandler.

On paper, it seems like the rookies should be able to make quite a game of it. And since these usually are guard-dominated affairs and the sophs basically have no guards, the game might be even more in the rookies' favor.



4. Dallas will miss the playoffs

OK, time to try something brave: divining which of the eight teams competing for the seven final playoff spots out West will fall short.

All of the candidates have shown their warts. New Orleans is heavily dependent on one player and has no frontcourt depth. Utah's two best players have been hurt all season, and Boozer might not be back for a long time. Houston only wishes it could be as healthy as Utah, and one if its best players seems like he's tuning out. San Antonio is getting awfully long in the tooth and has a killer schedule the second half of the season. Denver won't have Anthony for a month and is hardly any deeper than New Orleans up front. The Suns aren't all on the same page and have major age issues. Portland is a lightweight on D, and its best player is a bit on the brittle side.

So why Dallas? It's simple -- we can't say anything went horribly wrong for them in the first 35 games. The Mavs have been reasonably healthy, have benefited from an unexpectedly strong performance from Terry and Jason Kidd, and aren't enduring any major dramas at the moment.

And even with everything more or less going right and most of the competition suffering form serious problems, they still can't pull away -- because basically, they just aren't that good. When the other top teams in the West lose, there's usually a good reason -- injuries, schedule, something. Compare that to the Mavs, who had all of their important players healthy and available in Memphis on Sunday and lost by 20. Their once-mighty offense is only 12th in efficiency, largely because only three guys can score -- in fact, their fourth-leading scorer, Kidd, averages only 8.4 points per game.

The bar in the West has been raised high enough that it likely will take 47 wins to get into the playoffs, and I just don't see Dallas getting there. The Mavericks aren't imposing on the court and lack the trade assets to get better. Maybe they'll get a reprieve thanks to another team's injuries, but it's equally likely that they'll be left in the dust by a few of their own. Handicapping the playoff race in the West is a fool's errand, but if I have to pick one team to fall short, it's this one.

And along those lines:



5. Playoff seeding again will become a hot topic

It's possible the No. 9 team in the West will have 10 more wins than the No. 8 team in the East -- yet the latter club will be the one that makes the postseason. It's possible a second-round series in the East will feature two teams with records better than anybody in the West. And it's possible, although unlikely, that the Lakers could make the Finals without playing a single 50-win team, while Detroit's path to the Finals could involve three 60-win teams in succession.

Suffice it to say, if the current standings hold up the rest of the way, we're going to have a very interesting playoff bracket, one that should only heighten the ongoing debate about whether it's worthwhile to seed the entire playoffs rather than split it into two conferences.

In the past this discussion had focused almost entirely on the glaring disparity between East and West, but this year there's a new twist -- a top-heavy East that features three heavyweights but may only have six or seven teams that are truly worthy of being in the postseason, and a middle-heavy West that lacks a real No. 2 but has eight teams of nearly equal quality piled up behind the Lakers.

As a result, expect the league to again at least pay lip service to the idea of examining different ways to seed the playoffs ... and expect TV to rule the day when it comes to why they won't. Switching the playoff seeding raises too many potential snags for scheduling instead of the predictable East-West doubleheader format the league can use in the first two rounds at present, and until a solution arises it's unlikely we'll see a new format just to satisfy the purists who want a slightly more fair system. But that won't stop us all from talking about it.



6. Cleveland will win the championship

Boston and L.A. are going to challenge for the league's top record and may even get it; in fact, with Orlando running a close third in the East, the Cavs may be forced to win three playoff series without homecourt advantage in order to win the title.

Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Cleveland has two massive chips on its side. The first is the expiring contract of Wally Szczerbiak. All indications point to the Cavs converting this into a useful player, which is a scary proposition given how good they've looked already.

The second is that they have a massive advantage in any playoff series, and it's called LeBron James. It's not just that he's a great player; it's that he's a great player who can play all 48 minutes without any noticeable decline in effectiveness. While it's imprudent to subject him to such a pounding in the regular season, do-or-die playoff games are a different story.

And if you think the Cavs are good now, imagine them with LeBron playing 11 extra minutes in place of somebody like Szczerbiak or Sasha Pavlovic. The Cavs are 17.1 points better per 100 possessions with James on the court, according to 82games.com, and his on-court vs. off-court differences the past few years have been massive too.

You can see the impact by looking at the Cavs' postseason results the past three years -- every season, they punch well above their regular-season weight. In 2006, a 50-win Cleveland team took a 64-win Detroit team to a seventh game. A year later, a 50-win Cavs team beat a 53-win Pistons squad. And last season, a 45-win Cleveland team took a 66-win Boston team down to the wire in Game 7.

If LeBron makes the Cavs that much of a postseason threat when they're only middling good in the regular season, imagine the effect he'll have on a 60-win team. If he and his teammates are healthy, I don't think seeding will even matter -- because I doubt they'll play a seventh game while storming to the title.

Check out six more of John Hollinger's predictions for 2009 Insider

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.