Analysis: Although Miami and Boston garnered much of the preseason hype, Chicago entered the season as dark horse Eastern Conference contenders thanks to offseason acquirements of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer. Yet few would have projected prosperity for Tom Thibodeau's team after significant injuries to Boozer and rebounding wizard Joakim Noah. While Thibodeau's defensive dexterity and Luol Deng's dependability facilitated consistency, Derrick Rose was Chicago's stalwart in the absence of the Bulls' big men. Averaging 25.0 points and 7.7 assists, Rose's offensive imagination is often overlooked due to the team's imposing defense (91.3 points allowed). However, his creativity helped guide the team through a delicate assimilation period, integrating Boozer (17.5 points, 9.6 rebounds), who had missed training camp, and Noah (11.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks), who had yet to team with a formidable forward in his young career. Besides the fearsome foursome of Rose, Boozer, Noah and Deng, Chicago boasts a potent bench of Taj Gibson (7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds), sharpshooter Korver (8.3 points, 41.5 three-point percentage) and Ronnie Brewer (6.2 points, 1.3 steals). Thibodeau's reps as an assistant in Boston will alleviate any qualms concerning a lack of playoff experience amongst the roster, rendering the Bulls as challengers for the Eastern Conference crown.
Analysis: The biggest issue for the Lakers this season? Complacency. A quick glance at other back-to-back champions throughout NBA history will illustrate the same sentiment, as the long haul of 82 games can hamper one's desire to compete night-in and night-out. While a question of mental fortitude amongst his team appeared to be Phil Jackson's biggest concern, a recent injury to big man Andrew Bynum has translated to trepidation in Laker Land. Despite their center's susceptibility, Los Angeles remains the favorite in the West. Kobe Bryant doesn't possess his notorious first-step, but the two-time Finals MVP still poured in 25.3 points per game in '10-11, using a well-rounded repertoire of offensive moves to outsmart his opponents. Pau Gasol (18.8 points, 10.2 rebounds) maintains his designation as one of the league's most underrated players, as the adroit seven-footer tends to fall in the shadow of Bryant's personage. And although he's arguably more famous for his exploits off the floor, Lamar Odom (14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds) was a force off the bench and provides Jackson versatility in the post and open court. Aside from Bynum, Derek Fisher could be the team's Achilles' heel, as the elder statesman has been blown away by opposing guards like a paper bag in a hurricane. If the Lakers can provide reinforcement to Fish on defense, expect Los Angeles to be playing in June for the fourth straight season.
Chances of Winning NBA Finals: Bulls 28.3% - Lakers 24.6%