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Countdown to Christmas: Predictions, predictions

12/22/2011

With the start of the season just around the corner, we asked some of our NBA experts to look ahead. Can the Lakers remain a title contender without Lamar Odom? Will the Clippers of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin deliver on their promise?

Andy Kamenetzky

LAKERS

Predicted record: 42-24

Predicted finish: Western Conference Semifinals, then eliminated.

The recent days haven't been sunny. Trades nixed. Sixth men traded. Direction questioned by the franchise player, who Monday added "torn wrist ligament" to a sea of recent injuries. By comparison, the lockout was fun.

Still, the sky hasn't quite fallen. Yes, the lack of two-guard depth and wings capable of creating their own shot is problematic, as is learning Mike Brown's systems on the fly. But the Laker big three stacks up well against any in the league, and some roster issues (frontcourt depth, outside shooting) were addressed. Plus, getting slapped by reality during the playoffs should erase any complacency.

I don't consider the Lakers front-runners anymore, but they're way too talented to dismiss. Good health and perhaps good use of the Odom trade exception, and they may just surprise.

CLIPPERS

Predicted record: 46-20

Predicted finish: Western Conference Finals, then eliminated.

The Bizarro-Lakers: Nothing but excitement, optimism, and finals talk. It's a mite early to declare L.A. a "Clipper town," but the legitimacy Chris Paul provides is a game-changer. Plus, that Blake Griffin character is pretty good, and Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan equal an excellent starting five.

Of course, there are questions about health (Butler, Paul), age (Billups) and the bench (low on scorers beyond Mo Williams). Vinny Del Negro isn't proven. And if a deep playoff run awaits, how will Griffin fare in his first appearance?

For that matter, how will overnight expectations of greatness be handled?

However, if the answer is "well," the Clips could be among the NBA's scariest teams.

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Dave McMenamin

LAKERS

Predicted record: 42-24

Predicted finish: Second round of playoffs

The reports of the Lakers demise are greatly exaggerated. While they might not be the top-five championship contender they've been the last several seasons, it's not like they're lottery bound either. As long as Andrew Bynum can stay healthy and Kobe Bryant doesn't miss too much time because of the torn ligament in his right wrist, the Lakers' core as it is currently constructed should end up somewhere in the 3-5 seed range, with a good shot at a home playoff series to begin the postseason.

CLIPPERS

Predicted record: 40-26

Predicted finish: First round of playoffs

They aren't quite there yet in terms of being a title team, but the offseason acquisitions of Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler should be enough to push them into the playoffs for the first time since 2006. They had better invest in a backup big man, however. After Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, their frontcourt depth gets very thin. Just because predictions are meaningless (does anybody else remember Phil Jackson guaranteeing the Lakers would be bringing their Western Conference semifinals series back to L.A. after falling down 2-0 and heading to Dallas?), I'll say the Clippers end up the five seed, the Lakers end up the four seed and I won't have to book any hotels, flights or car rentals for the first round of the playoffs.



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Arash Markazi

LAKERS

Predicted record: 45-21

Predicted finish: Second round of playoffs.

It was clear that the Lakers were in serious need of change after getting swept out of the second round of the playoffs last year by the Dallas Mavericks and losing the decisive fourth game by 26 points. The problem is that none of the changes the Lakers have made have improved the team. They replaced Phil Jackson with Mike Brown. Traded Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks for a trade exception and replaced him with Josh McRoberts. And they let Shannon Brown go to the Phoenix Suns and replaced him with Jason Kapono. It's hard to look at what they've done this offseason and picture them finishing the season further than the second round.

CLIPPERS

Predicted record: 46-20

Predicted finish: Conference Finals.

The Clippers' don't have any banners hanging up at the Staples Center but Neil Olshey really deserves one after the off-season haul he was able to land in a span of six days after the lockout. He signed Caron Butler, matched the offer sheet for DeAndre Jordan, claimed Chauney Billups and traded for Chris Paul. It was the kind of off-season championships are made of and if things fall just right for the Clippers that might just happen this year. They'll fall just short of that this season but they have built the foundation of a team that could one day actually hang a championship banner at Staples Center.

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Ramona Shelburne

LAKERS

Predicted record: 44-22

Predicted finish: Western Conference Finals

The Lakers have very little margin for error after trading away Lamar Odom for a box of donut holes and a glass of milk, but they also still have three of the top 20 players in the league in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. If they stay healthy and together, I think all three can make the All-Star team this year, with Bynum as the league's most improved player. I worry about their ability to pull out seven-game playoff series' against the younger, more athletic teams in the Western Conference if Bryant remains the only player on the roster capable of creating his own shot.

CLIPPERS

Predicted record: 40-26

Predicted finish: Second round of the playoffs

Conventional wisdom says it's going to take a year for this group to learn to play together. But after watching two exhibition games I'm already sold. There's no offense to master or defensive system to learn. The Clippers are running a simple pick-and-roll offense with the league's best point guard and two of its best finishers. In other words, Paul is the offense. He calls the plays, throws the passes and runs the show. Where the Clippers have issues is once you get past their formidable starting five + Mo Williams. Brian Cook is the primary backup to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Reggie Evans should be a good addition. But the Clippers' frontcourt is woefully thin right now. An injury, foul trouble or even just a run of bad play could really hurt.

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Brian Kamenetzky

LAKERS

Predicted record: 43-23

Predicted finish: Second round of the playoffs

Assuming Kobe basically plays a full schedule (which is in doubt right now) and Andrew Bynum stays healthy, the key for the Lakers will be the start. If they can weather early growing pains connected to learning each other and Mike Brown’s system along with Bynum’s five game ban, the Lakers ought to be playing much better as the season progresses. Their margin for error is smaller than ever, but they still have elite potential.

The problem? I doubt the Lakers can do much better than 43, 44, 45 wins . . . but it’s easy to picture them doing worse.

CLIPPERS

Predicted record: 42-24

Predicted finish: Lose second round of playoffs

They will be 66 games of unadulterated excitement, and should pile up a lot of points. The Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan combination is made for highlight reels, and having shooters on the perimeter will force teams to play them honestly. Adding Reggie Evans gives needed depth in the frontcourt, but the defense will still be a problem, and like the Lakers the LAC are playing with a little fire on the injury front, particularly with Caron Butler at small forward. I think next year will be better than this one, but their best case scenario probably bests the Lakers, which certainly constitutes a change.