Matt Connolly:

Experience, consistency, defense, balance… Ginobili! With the exception of the latter, none of these things are particularly glamorous when talking about pro basketball. That being said, they can and will make all the difference when the San Antonio Spurs take home another NBA Championship in 2010. Before you get all hot and bothered — yes, I’m talking to you LeBron lovers and Mamba maniacs — let me make my case.

In the months of March and April the Spurs have a record of 17-7, including a two week stretch where they took down the Cavaliers, Celtics, Magic and Lakers. Simply put, they are getting hot at the right time, and the entire team is gelling heading into the playoffs. That being said, the reemergence of the super-schnozz of San Antonio’s Big Three is paying huge dividends.

When All-Star point guard Tony Parker went down over a month ago, Manu Ginobili made a seamless transition into the starting five and gave a big boost to the team’s sluggish half-court offense. Since his departure from the bench, the infamous sixth man has averaged well over 20 points per game including 30-point efforts in the wins over the Cavs and the Lakeshow and a season-high 43 against Orlando. With Tony Parker back healthy and Timmy D doing his thing, the offensive nucleus is there.

The Spurs also boast a reliable set of role players young and old to round out a championship caliber roster. Dong-flaunting George Hill is more than adequate at the point, the tandem of Keith Bogans and Roger Mason provide threats on the perimeter and the McDyess-Blair combo do work in the post and on the glass.

Unlike the Spurs, the Lakers have lost their edge coming down the stretch, dropping six of their last 10 including a 91-75 shellacking at the hands of the Thunder, their upcoming first round opponent. With a prima donna superstar butting heads with the team’s go-to big man, and question marks surrounding the return of their other big in Andrew Bynum, who knows where the purple and gold are headed? My guess is a first or second round exit.

Looking to the East, team LeBron has lost four of their last five while their king nurses his bumps and bruises. All the while, Shaq continues to rehab his thumb with countless games of Scrabble, but who knows what condition the Big Diesel will be in after months off the court?

Led by a head coach that has guided them to four rings and 12 consecutive postseason, the veteran Spurs are ready to do it again.

My pick: The Spurs in six without Big Shot Bob.

Jesse Byrd:

Truth be told, we all know these postseason predictions are just speculation and guesstimation. Need proof? A Bulldog-Blue Devil NCAA Championship. However, since there are far fewer teams to worry about, the NBA typically proves a little more stable. This stability usually translates into increased clairvoyance for professional analysts.

ESPN’s John Hollinger’s daily updated predictions have Orlando winning it all if the playoffs were to start today. In fact, his automated ranking system has the Utah Jazz as the most likely team to come out of the Western Conference. Shameful sagacity. I typically don’t discredit any postseason proclamation ever since my hometown 8th seed Warriors beat the 1st seed Dallas Mavericks in 2007. Still, the Utah Jazz making it out of the Western Conference and strong-arming the Orlando Magic in a seven-game series is premium-grade foolishness. James Powell, I mean Deron Williams, is one hell of a player, but they would be outmatched.

The safest and most sensible finals prediction is Cavaliers vs. Lakers. With a healthy Shaquille it would only make sense that the Cavs make it out of the East this year, considering their only insurmountable obstacle last year stemmed from Dwight Howard’s post dominance. Big Z and Varejao simply couldn’t handle Superman alone, and when the team sagged in to help, Orlando burned them with 3-point shooters. Unfortunately, although Shaq may be enough to get them to the Promised Land, he will not be enough to get them over the hump. I could’ve sworn that I saw him doing the truffle shuffle on the sidelines the other day.

Although I would argue that the West has a larger stock of dangerous teams, I also believe that things will play out a lot more smoothly. It will most likely be a Nuggets vs. Lakers conference final for which the Lakers have already secured arguably the best perimeter defender in the league, Ron Artest, to handle, or at least contain, Carmelo Anthony.

Thus, if the playoff race is in fact a race, the Lakers look more like Usain Bolt than anybody else. From a purely objective point of view, L.A. with a star-studded cast and a highly accredited head coach, is the safest bet to make in a seven game series. But who gives a damn about safe, my money’s not on the line!

My pick: The “underdog” Cavaliers in seven.

John Greely:

This is a tough year for playoff predictions. The best team in the West could be ousted in either the first or second round, but could just as easily win the whole thing. And the East features the league’s best player and its hottest team, setting up an epic showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals. As for the NBA Champions? I’ll get to that.

Looking at the West, the Lakers have a rough draw. Going through Kevin Durant is hardly a gimme for the # 1 seed, and an upset could very well be in the cards. With Kobe nursing a broken finger and the Lakers ice cold as of late, we might see an Oklahoma Cinderella story. Or we might not. But let’s say L.A. advances. They’re rewarded with one of two streaky teams that could easily oust the defending champs. The Nugs and the Suns (who continue to tear it up without Robin Lopez) are one of the best teams in the league right now. That’s another tough matchup. Utah and San Antonio are both more than capable themselves, and really the West is anybody’s to win right now. And whoever does come away with it will have the huge advantage of getting to face a beaten-up champ over on the East side.

Why must the Eastern Champion be beaten up? Because it will be coming out of the best series of the playoffs — Orlando versus Cleveland. They call Dwight Howard Superman, but a more accurate representation would be to call him Kryptonite. Because while LeBron has been the league’s best player and overall hero the last few years, Howard just has his number. The Eastern rivalry will be more fun to watch than anything out West, but the winner will be so gassed that taking down the NBA title will be extra difficult.

I am confident in saying that Phoenix comes out of the West — Steve Nash’s Suns have had bad playoff luck in years past and they’re due for a turnaround. In the East, LeBron finally gets the monkey off his back and upends Orlando to make the Finals.

P.S. ‘Sheed will average 30 ppg in a first round loss for the Celtics just to piss off
Bill Simmons.

My pick: Cleveland in five, giving King James his first of many rings.