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Through the first week of the season Kevin Durant is averaging 31.3 points per game, which is second to only LeBron James, who is averaging 32.7 a game. The only player who can keep Durant's point totals down is teammate Russell Westbrook (left), who likes to take over the offense, which has caused problems between the two. Durant is shooting 57 percent, while Westbrook is shooting only 37 percent from the floor. Photo by Jeff Lewis
Sentinel sports writer picks OKC to win title, Durant for MVP in lockout-shortened season. Following the conclusion of the NBA’s latest lockout a few weeks back, a condensed training camp, shorter free agent period and a normally 82-game schedule pared down to 66 games, are all of the elements for an unpredictable season.The first week of the season proves that theory, with the Lakers starting the season losing their first two games, and the defending champion Mavericks and the Celtics losing their first three games. The madness continued as the Spurs blew out the Clippers by 25 points on one night, and then the next night they lost by 20 points to the Rockets. New teammates do not have the luxury of gradually adapting to each other; rookie development will be accelerated, coaches must hit the ground running and front office executives will have less time to mull over trades.With fewer games, the margin for error is smaller--and every game will play an even heavier role in determining home-court advantage for the playoffs.If we use history as a guide, following the 1999 lockout, what may have been considered an “advantage” in years past, could be a non-factor.Remember, the Knicks, who were an eight-seed in ‘99, reached the NBA Finals before losing to San Antonio.That Knicks team remains the only eight-seed to play for a title, and their improbable run was likely one of the reasons Coach Phil Jackson famously said the Spurs’ first of four titles should be assigned an “asterisk.”Whether you or agree with Jackson or not, this much is certain: that title counts all the same in the record books.The current season may be shorter, but nonetheless, wins and losses and all of the players’ individual numbers will count the same.So, with everything equal, following are my predictions for which teams will reach the playoffs, win the Finals, and take home a few of the major awards.No asterisks included.Western ConferenceSan Antonio won the first of its championships during its dynasty, spanning from 1999 through 2007.The Spurs featured future Hall of Famer David Robinson along with veterans such as Avery Johnson and Sean Elliot. However, they didn’t bring home the trophy until Tim Duncan emerged.Duncan was just a second-year player in ‘99, but his poise, toughness and savvy play were well beyond his years.Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant may be at that same stage. And if he is, the league’s in trouble for years to come.Listed at six-foot-ten, but with the skills of a guard, Durant has already won the last two scoring titles and led the Thunder deep in the playoffs.Durant and teammate, Russell Westbrook, should lead the young Thunder to the West’s No. 1 seed. The Thunder’s fresh legs shouldn’t be stymied by a schedule that features many back-to-back games.Westbrook’s the key. If he can play under control, and defer to Durant during crunch time, the Thunder will contend.Despite their early struggles, I still think Dallas and the Lakers are the second and third best teams in the West.Neither team had a stellar off season in my view, but both are led by elite players, surrounded by veterans.The defending champion Mavericks are already showing signs of a team that may need to make additional moves.Predictably, they miss Tyson Chandler at center.The Lakers look like a shell of a team one-year removed from consecutive NBA titles. Kobe Bryant’s already suffered a wrist injury, Andrew Bynum’s suspended for the season’s first four games--and they still lack an adequate point guard.The Lakers rolled the dice when they traded Lamar Odom to Dallas and so far, snake eyes has been the return.The Lakers also have the added disadvantage of moving on from Jackson’s Triangle Offense to Coach Mike Brown’s more conventional system.When Bynum returns, this team should be a factor, but whether they have enough to reach the Finals remains to be seen.The Clippers could play spoiler in the West if all of their much-hyped moves bear out. Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups rival San Antonio’s Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as the conference’s best backcourt.Memphis, Portland, San Antonio and Houston are my picks to round-out the rest of the conference’s playoff spots.Eastern ConferenceLuckily for the Miami Heat, the new season hasn’t featured any elaborate pyrotechnics productions or ridiculous promises of winning seven or eight championships.Instead, with a more contrite LeBron James lamenting in recent interviews about last year’s “The Decision” and “Miami Heatles” missteps, the Heat appear to be all business.Shane Battier and rookie Norris Cole are the only significant additions the Heat made to their roster, however, the maturation of James will ultimately determine whether they bring home a title.I think Miami will finish with the best record in the East, but it won’t be easy.Reigning MVP Derrick Rose and the Bulls will be there to offer the stiffest challenge, especially with the addition of Richard Hamilton.If Baron Davis and Mike Bibby can provide the Knicks with any consistent play at point guard, they’ll also be dangerous.The Knicks starting five, now that Chandler’s at center, can probably rival many in the league. Lack of depth will be their undoing.I expect Boston to grab the fourth spot in the East. The reason why I don’t have them higher is because I don’t believe their veterans can stay healthy.Paul Pierce is already on the mend. Rajon Rondo’s a stud, but without a healthy Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen, the Celtics are ordinary.Orlando’s the wildcard in the East.Based on Orlando’s roster, I have them pegged fifth. However, if Dwight Howard is traded, the Magic will be ticketed to the Draft Lottery in all likelihood.I also like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Indiana to reach the conference playoffs.Rookie of the YearKyrie Irving, Cleveland CavaliersCoach of the YearVinny Del Negro, Los Angeles ClippersMost Valuable PlayerKevin Durant, Oklahoma City ThunderNBA Finals championOklahoma City defeats Miami Heat