Will Rip and Kobe Meet in the Finals?

As we close the books on another NBA season, there is an unusual air of excitement heading into this year’s playoffs. It is the first time in nine seasons that the Hawks won’t be watching the playoffs from their couches, and the Boston Celtics are back in the hunt after completing the single greatest two-year turnaround in NBA history. The West has never been tighter, and the bottom three seeds of the East have never been less impressive. With all of that said, here are my conference champions and my dark horses.

Eastern Conference

Champion: Detroit

The East is incredibly top heavy this year, and although the C’s might be the popular choice to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, I give the edge to the Pistons for one reason: they are battle-tested. Experience is the ultimate X-factor in the playoffs, and the Pistons, who have represented the East in two of the last four Finals, have savvy veterans who know what it takes to get the job done. The Pistons have four players averaging over 13 points per game, and three more that score over 7.5 per contest. Rip, Tayshaun, Chauncey and ‘Sheed have been playing together since Shaq and Kobe were friends. The Pistons’ grit, length at every position and tough-nosed team defense will key them in their run past the Boston Celtics and into the Finals.

Dark horse: Washington

Earlier this week DeShawn Stevenson called LeBron James overrated. Well, it seems as though the Wizards will have the opportunity to test that theory in the four-five match-up next week. The Wizards have three 20-point scorers on their team and great young depth on their bench. The Cavs have bounced the Wiz each of the last two years, but for the first time the Wizards have all three of their All-Stars in the lineup. Washington is young, fast and have the ability to score from every position. I expect the Wizards to handle the Cavs in their first-round series, and if they get hot from the floor, this team could make a surprise run deep in the playoffs.

Western Conference

Champion: Los Angeles

The stars have officially realigned in Hollywood, and in a season in which Kobe Bryant should win his first MVP award, I expect the game’s best player to lead Los Angeles back to the NBA Finals after a three-year hiatus. If there is ever a question that the Lakers will take the incredibly talent-laden Western Conference, take a look at the comparisons between this year’s Lakers and their last championship team of 2001-02. Like the ’02 Lakers (Shaq), this year’s team has an incredibly talented center (Gasol) that demands a constant double team and is a threat to put up 20 and 10 a night. Both squads present matchup problems for opponents with tall, yet very good outside shooting power forwards (Horry & Odom). Lastly, there are two constants that bring the teams full circle: Phil Jackson, arguably the best coach in the history of the game, and Kobe Bryant, the most dominant player since MJ. The Lakers are supremely athletic and deep off the bench with the likes of Farmar, Vujacic, and Radmanovic. As an added bonus, they defend well. The Lakers are the best team in the West and I expect them to represent the conference in the NBA Finals.

Dark Horse: Utah

This year’s Western Conference is the deepest and strongest of any in playoff history. While a case can be made for just about any of these teams to go the distance, I believe that the Utah Jazz could prove to be this year’s dark horse in the West. The Jazz lost just four times at home all season. Four! This means that it’s nearly a guarantee that the Jazz will take care of business at home. Also, with Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur and AK-47, Utah is more than capable of stealing a few games on the road against any team. Next to Chris Paul, Williams is the best young point guard in the game, sporting a 4:1 assist to turnover ratio. He controls the pace of the game well and is a highly underrated defender. Carlos Boozer has continued to prove that some Dukies can actually ball at the next level, and his ability to make the mid-range jumper and crash the boards for offensive rebounds could determine how far the Jazz can go. Ultimately, the West is a crap shoot, but the Jazz have the weapons on both offense and defense to challenge for a title.