by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad

The NBA is here. The season might be truncated, but The Post Up ain’t going anywhere. We’re back like we never left. Like the lockout was a bad dream, and suddenly we’ve awoken in a paradise somewhere near Lob City, where LeBron’s dying to get his ring, Dwight Howard trade rumors are swirling, and there might actually be a good team in New York City. Yep, consider this your wake-up call, and me the concierge on the other end of the crappy hotel phone. “Good morning, sir!”

Hi, I’m Abe, and we’re about to be best basketball friends. I’m that guy this year. The guy faced with the pressure of informing and impressing the loyal SLAMonline readership—and filling the Shaq-sized shoes once worn by Holly Mackenzie and, last year, Adam Figman. Big ups to both of them, who have made this space what it is over the years, and now moved on to bigger and better things (although I’m lucky to have Adam still looking over my shoulder as an Editor). Now that we’ve established who I’m not, I probably owe you some background on who I am. Let’s start there, shall we?

When people ask me where I’m from, I usually say “DC,” even though I was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, which sits less than a mile north of the District’s border. What that means to you is that you’ll have to deal with a heavy Wizards bias this season. Because unlike a disgustingly high percentage of DC-area hoops fans who claim they’ve been Heat fans “since before they had LeBron” or Lakers fans “because I like Kobe,” I ride for my hometown team. You may hate hearing about the Wiz, but I know you can respect the loyalty, so bear with me.

I played hoops growing up, and I was a pretty decent little point guard, too. The rest of my middle school P.E. class compared me to Jason Williams and Steve Nash, but I always likened my game to that of former Bullets/Wizards leading man Rod Strickland. In seventh grade, I was the only white kid on the school-sponsored travel basketball team. By “travel,” I mean we occasionally carpooled to another suburb to get blown out. And by “school-sponsored” I mean we didn’t get to keep the jerseys. Eventually, I played a year of JV hoops in high school before it became abundantly clear that I lacked the athleticism to keep up with the best 15 basketball players at my 3,000-student high school (I like to blame the fact that we had three head coaches in my four years in HS, but I’ll leave that debate to the local hoops historians).

But I refused to give up on the game, so I turned to writing. I ended up taking my talents to journalism school at Northwestern University out in suburban Chicago, where I continued to subscribe to SLAM while dabbling in every sports medium from print to radio. I graduated in June, still not having seen the Wildcats ever make an NCAA Tournament (seriously, ever), and returned to the East Coast, where after literally years of bugging Ben Osborne about writing for SLAM, I got my shot.

A few months later, and here I am, Posting Up, along with the rest of my musings and features over at the Being Billy Hoyle blog. Understand, my room at my parents’ house in DC is still covered in SLAMUPs, SLAM covers and pages I ripped out since age 13, so seeing my name in the mag and under the SLAMonline header is still a little surreal…

Enough about me. If you’ve made it this far, I like you already. Prediction time! First up, here’s my projected top-half of each Conference. Keep in mind we’re rocking a 66-game sked this year, and this is a regular season projection. Okay, now go ahead and tear it apart, along with the rest of my pre-season picks:

Top 4 in West:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Dallas Mavericks
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Los Angeles Lakers

Top 4 in East:
1. Miami Heat
2. Chicago Bulls
3. New York Knicks
4. Orlando Magic

Let’s face it: it’s gonna be a weird year. Not including the Spurs in the West’s top half seems criminal, I know. And you can make a case for the Grizzlies and Nuggets being up there, too. That’s what’s so crazy about this season—one injury at the wrong time, one bad road trip, one key free agent addition (like one of the guys returning from China)—is going to be the difference between a 3-seed and a 6-seed for a lot of these teams. Not to mention the East, where Dwight Howard’s situation makes coming up with projected standings near-impossible. Miami and Chicago are locked in at the top, but what happens to Orlando if Dwight goes, and where does he go? For now, I’m going on the assumption that he’ll be on the Magic this season, and even if he’s unhappy, Stan Van and crew should be able to withstand this year’s wild ride better than Boston or Atlanta. Look out for Indiana, though.

Most Improved Player: John Wall, Washington Wizards
I’m allowed one homer pick, right? My well-chronicledman-crush on young Mr. Wall will almost definitely be a theme in this space this season, so get used to it. For what it’s worth, here are four other names that I strongly considered for this spot, two guards and two bigs: Eric Gordon (will be handed the keys in NO), Stephen Curry (assuming Monta Ellis can chill), DeAndre Jordan (CP3’s influence cannot be overstated) and Serge Ibaka (didn’t this dude just learn to play ball like six months ago?).

MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
No, this pick is not about his “summer,” though his high level of activity during the lockout certainly won’t hurt his stamina, readiness or confidence. It’s more about this wacky season we’re about to endure. I subscribe to the belief that the Duncans, Bryants and Pierces of the League will rest along the way to save some energy for the post-season, so the older crew is out. Of the emerging superstuds, I don’t see Derrick Rose repeating (much as I love his game), and LeBron and Wade will split ballots. Howard’s a wildcard, but I expect Durant to win the scoring title and take the Thunder to the top spot in the West, which ought to be enough to add an MVP to his growing list of accomplishments.

ROY: Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves
I went with DWill in our “Rookies Most Likely To…” working off the premise that this year’s crop of rookie guards would struggle on bad teams (a la Wall in ‘10-11) and Williams might catch a few alley-oops and cruise to a near-double-double and the ROY in a weak Draft class. And while the pre-season made me wish I went with Kemba Walker or Kyrie Irving for pure playing time advantages, I’ll stick with the Wolves’ athletic big, and hope he can shine despite a crowded depth chart in Minny. Hate it or love it, SportsCenter highlights go a long way toward swaying opinions of first-year players. In the end, fellow rook teammate Ricky Rubio could be the key to him winning the award, or not.

From Playoffs to Lottery, East: Philadelphia
From Lottery to Playoffs, East: Milwaukee
The 7-8 spots in the East will be an absolute mess this season.

From Playoffs to Lottery, West: New Orleans
From Lottery to Playoffs, West: LA Clippers
Say, didn’t these two make a trade recently?

What I Want To See:
Western Conference Finals: Thunder over Clippers
Eastern Conference Finals: Bulls over Heat
NBA Finals: Bulls over Thunder

What I Think We Will See:
Western Conference Finals: Mavericks over Grizzlies
Eastern Conference Finals: Heat over Bulls
NBA Finals: Heat over Mavericks

Am I the only one who could envision a half-dozen Finals scenarios? Given the compressed schedule, vets nursing injuries and everything else that could go haywire this year, I see teams like the Lakers, Spurs and even the thin Grizz, conserving energy, nabbing a playoff spot and not caring much what seed it is. Hence how I snuck Memphis into the Conference Finals. For the record, I am not a Heat fan, nor do I share the feeling that I need to see LeBron get a ring. I’m not silly, though. Miami’s the odds-on favorite for the title and should be. Disagree? Get your picks in now, and we’ll come back to this post along the way this season.

***

I want to take a few words to extend thanks to Ben, Adam, Ryne, Susan and the rest of the SLAM team for passing me the Post Up torch, for the vote of confidence and, of course, for throwing me to the wolves. It probably had nothing to do with my hustle at the SLAM company pick-up games.

Lastly, to the commenters: this is for you guys. The Post Up doesn’t exist without your loyalty. I know I don’t have to ask for this, but please, keep me honest, keep the critiques, suggestions and questions coming. If you want more, speak up. Have an idea for a new twist, category, box score bit? Hit me in the comments section, as always. And to those of you on Twitter, feel free to interact with me during games, since you know I’ll be watching. All of a sudden, those late-night Clips-Kings matchups are mighty intriguing.

That’s all, folks. I’ll see you on Monday morning, after what looks to be one of the best, and wildest, opening days of basketball in recent memory. Until then, I’ll leave you with a pair of pre-season moments that got me giddy.