Summer Forecast: NBA champs

Updated: September 14, 2009, 3:31 PM ET
ESPN.com

Shaquille O'Neal and Ron ArtestGetty ImagesWild cards don't get much bigger than Shaq and Artest, voted among the Best and Worst Newcomers.
After sorting out the Eastern Conference and Western Conference last week, we've reached the ring ceremony in our Summer Forecast series.

According to our 53 voters, the race to the NBA crown couldn't be much closer, with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James once again in a fierce battle for NBA hearts and minds.

But it's not all about Kobe and Bron. We asked the panelists to explain their picks, and the names Ron Artest and Shaquille O'Neal came up a lot.

Without additional ado ...


Los Angeles Lakers (19 votes)

Our voters make the Lakers the slight favorites to win it all and have plenty of reasons for liking the champs all over again:

The Lakers won't win the title if they play as they did last season, because the bar has been raised in the East. But the Lakers are more than capable of lifting it themselves, as they hardly got anything from Andrew Bynum or Jordan Farmar while winning the title and beefed up their defense against big wings (read: LeBron) with the pickup of Ron Artest.

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This pick is based on the premise that Andrew Bynum will be healthy -- or healthy enough -- all season, which allows their front line to pose more questions than any opponent has answers. That advantage, plus Kobe, can overcome the decline of Derek Fisher and the fact that Ron Artest is not and never has been any good playing in a system or as a third or fourth option.

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Obviously, Ron Artest's ability to keep his wits about him is key, but assuming he does that, the Lakers are going to be world-beaters. They already had the best offense in the league; now they'll have the best (or nearly the best) defense. It's hard enough to finish at the rim against their trio of near 7-footers, but now perimeter players such as LeBron will have to get through Kobe and Artest, two of the best perimeter defenders of the past 10 years, before even getting to all that length.

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Two words: Phil Jackson. He's never won a championship without winning two more in succession. He's the master of the unique challenge of keeping his team both motivated and refreshed while defending a championship.

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The champs got better in the offseason, and of their core players only one (Fisher) is past his prime.

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If you were choosing a squad to play pickup ball in Bed-Stuy or to win an NBA championship, and you had to choose between Trevor Ariza and Ron Artest to have on your team, who would you choose? Which one would damn near guarantee victory? That's what I thought, too. That's what the Lakers thought. That's why they'll repeat.

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The Lakers will repeat as champions for one reason and one reason only -- Kobe Bryant. Having witnessed first the assassin-like focus of Michael Jordan in the '90s, I see the same glare in Kobe's eyes. No question he's got the talent, but he's also got that intangible "killer instinct" that maybe LeBron James doesn't have.

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I feel that the Lakers will win the title. With the addition of Artest and a healthy Bynum, I like their chances. They did lose Ariza, but by re-signing Odom they should be better than last season. Also look for a motivated Kobe to go back to back.

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I'd take the Artest addition over the Ariza subtraction any time. Artest makes the Lakers that much more formidable.

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Behold the Lakers. Kobe Bryant -- say no more. Phil Jackson -- ditto. But also Pau Gasol, who has solved the riddle of producing versus NBA playoff physicality, the big-hearted Derek Fisher, promising Andrew Bynum. Not only are they the presiding champions, but I'm in the camp that suspects they got vastly better by essentially trading Trevor Ariza for a hungry and motivated Ron Artest. Be afraid.

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Then again, most of our panel (64 percent) thinks the Lakers will come up short. A few reasons:

Anyone who has watched Artest closely over the last few years will attest to the following; he's not nearly as strong an on-the-ball defensive player as he used to be, specifically defending dribble-drives (he's still good at chasing shooters around screens). And he has voluntarily taken more poor perimeter shots than almost anyone in the NBA. Life always gets more dramatic when he's around. Maybe Jackson and Kobe can get him to fall in line, but if they can, they'd be the first to be successful at it in a long time.

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They deserve to be the favorites and they are. But the best team doesn't always win. Ron Artest is fierce, but in the Finals against Boston, L.A.'s front line will face nasty guys like Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace, while Paul Pierce and Kobe will cancel each other out.



Cleveland Cavaliers (18 votes)

The Cavs would like a do-over after falling a little short last season, and 34 percent of our panel thinks they'll get it right this time, in part because of the addition of a certain former Lakers No. 34:

I went with the Cavs over the Celtics in the East with a lot of hesitation, but I kept coming back to the fact that we've all witnessed LeBron take major, major steps forward each year since he came into the NBA, and winning a championship is the logical next step. I think a series against the Lakers would be a classic seven-gamer, with the Artest-LeBron sideshow making it even better, but I'd go with the young guy (LBJ) and the old guy (Shaq) being a little too much for the middle-aged guy (Kobe) and his Spanish sidekick (Pau Gasol) in Game 7.

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The addition of Shaq will make things easier on LeBron in all areas, plus they kept their team intact and brought in a couple of more athletic types -- I like the additions of Anthony Parker (guarding 2s and 3s) and Jamario Moon (guarding Rashard Lewis, Lamar Odom and Rasheed Wallace). Also, Mo Williams will be better because he now knows what the big stage is like. LeBron won't leave Cleveland without giving the city a championship.

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Sure, the Cavs added Shaq, but I like the role players added to the mix, particularly Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. The added depth will allow the team to enter the playoffs fresher, and because both Parker and Moon are perimeter threats, it will be even more difficult to pack it in on Shaq when he's got the ball on the block. And that says nothing about how well LeBron sets up his teammates on dribble-drives.

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The Cavs were the best team in basketball last season (also better than the Lions in football) and then they upgraded from Brick City Pavlovic to Big Daddy Diesel. That swap was like a Huffy for a Bugatti, even if the Bugatti is old, dented and costs extra to fill up.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers were the league's most dominant team last season with a 10.0-point differential per 100 possessions. Their probable path to an NBA championship was pushed off course by an Orlando Magic team uniquely suited to exploit their vulnerabilities. Don't count on that happening two years in a row. With the additions of Shaquille O'Neal and some very effective wing defenders, the Cavs have insured that there isn't a system in the league that can hijack their championship hopes in 2009-10.



San Antonio Spurs (8 votes)

Do the Spurs have a fifth title run in them? According to 15 percent of our panel, yes, and here are some of the reasons why:

Assuming the Spurs' Big Three will stay healthy is just as dangerous as assuming Ron-Ron plays into the Lakers' system instead of outside it. But this team addressed its biggest hole from last season, namely a lack of athleticism. Richard Jefferson will make a big contribution right away, and youngsters George Hill and DeJuan Blair are perfect energy guys with great basketball IQs (who are also very tough competitors). Mix in Antonio McDyess, and if healthy, the Spurs can stand straight up with L.A. It's a big if, but not the biggest if this offseason.

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I think the Spurs will win the West. They lost Bruce Bowen and Fabricio Oberto and added Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess -- can you say "upgrade"? Offensively, they won't have to rely on the Big Three any longer and will have depth at every position. Ron Artest will doom the Lakers in the playoffs and the Nuggets aren't as deep as the Spurs. Besides, some veteran will get bought out and will go to the Spurs to try to win a title. Happens every season, and this season when it happens, it'll really improve the Spurs' chances of winning a title.

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Championship-caliber teams don't stick around for a decade anymore, but the Spurs keep surviving. I love the offseason additions for Tim Duncan's team, and trust they'll be a top West seed and go all the way.



Boston Celtics (5 votes)

The Big Three are now the Big Four, and Boston is just 15 months removed from winning its 17th title. But add it all up, and only 9 percent of our panel sees the C's raising another banner in 2010:

I pick them to win the NBA title because it really is their last stand. Much like the 1968-69 Celtics, who won the 11th title in Bill Russell's career, this team is primarily a group of proud veterans who want to achieve a special place in franchise history. They won it once and may have won it last year had not Kevin Garnett been hurt. With Rasheed Wallace in the mix, Danny Ainge went all-in to win it in 2010.

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Maybe Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace aren't what they once were, but the Celtics should get a pretty dynamic season out of the combination of the two.

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The emergence of Rajon Rondo was the dose of youth and energy the Celtics will need to get them back to the top of the mountain.

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The Celtics have the best starting five in the NBA and added terrific depth in Marquis Daniels and Rasheed Wallace. With KG healthy, they may not be the best team in the regular season, but they will be in the postseason.



Orlando Magic (3 votes)

And here's the case for the defending East champs to win it all:

A lot of folks are focused on the Hedo Turkoglu-Vince Carter "swap." Since you can argue that one in either direction, let's call it a draw. So now you have a team that went to the Finals without its All-Star point guard, who has returned to join VC in the backcourt, with an improving superstar in the middle, a tough new power forward in Brandon Bass, an All-Star forward in Rashard Lewis, a driven coach in Stan Van Gundy, and a deep roster all around. And they'll be extremely motivated by personal and team goals to finish the job this season. What's not to like?

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Orlando, of course. Take the league's best defense, subtract the overrated Hedo Turkoglu and add Vince Carter to a lineup that already had three All-Stars, and what do you have? A team that's ready to handle Boston (again) and Cleveland (again) and get past a somewhat aging Lakers team (to whom the Magic gave away two Finals games in June).


The voters

Henry Abbott (ESPN.com TrueHoop senior writer), J.A. Adande (ESPN.com senior writer), Kevin Arnovitz (ESPN.com TrueHoop Network editor), Andrew Ayres (ESPN.com NBA editor), Jon Barry (ESPN NBA analyst), Bruce Bernstein (ESPN NBA Studio Production), Alfredo Berrios (ESPN Deportes editor), Dwayne Bray (ESPN Studio Production), Jordan Brenner (ESPN Insider editor), Lisa Brooks (ESPN Stats & Information), Maurice Brooks (ESPN.com NBA editor), Chris Broussard (ESPN The Magazine senior writer), Ric Bucher (ESPN The Magazine senior writer), Michael Bucklin (ESPN Interactive Games), Kevin Calabro (ESPN NBA broadcaster), Kevin Conlon (ESPN Stats & Information), Jay Corbin (ESPN The Magazine editor), Chad Ford (ESPN Insider senior writer), LZ Granderson (ESPN The Magazine senior writer), John Hollinger (ESPN Insider senior writer), Jade Hoye (ESPN Multimedia), Michael Jackson (ESPN Stats & Information), Scoop Jackson (ESPN Page 2 columnist), Avery Johnson (ESPN NBA analyst), Eric Karabell (ESPN.com senior writer), Rob King (ESPN.com editor-in-chief), Seth Landman (ESPN Fantasy basketball writer), Tim Legler (ESPN NBA analyst), Nancy Lieberman (ESPN NBA analyst), Keith Lipscomb (ESPN Fantasy basketball analyst), Patricia Lowry (ESPN NBA Event Production), Mike Lynch (ESPN Stats & Information), Eric Neel (ESPN.com senior writer), Pete Newmann (ESPN Stats & Information), Chris Palmer (ESPN The Magazine NBA writer), Greg Pike (ESPN NBA Studio Production), Chris Ramsay (ESPN.com NBA coordinator), Dr. Jack Ramsay (ESPN NBA analyst), Adam Reisinger (ESPN DB editor), Jalen Rose (ESPN NBA analyst), Bob Salmi (ESPN NBA analyst), Chris Sheridan (ESPN Insider senior writer), Marc Stein (ESPN.com NBA senior writer), Patrick Stiegman (ESPN.com VP/Executive editor), Otto Strong (ESPN The Magazine NBA editor), Mark Summer (ESPN NBA Studio Production), David Thorpe (ESPN Insider NBA analyst), Justin Verrier (ESPN.com NBA editor), Bill Walton (ESPN NBA analyst), Royce Webb (ESPN.com NBA editor), Josh Whitling (ESPN Fantasy Basketball writer), Matt Winer (ESPN NBA anchor) and Matt Wong (ESPN.com NBA editor).