Even without the expected showdown of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the finals, the NBA is as healthy as its been since the end of the Michael Jordan era.  dwight-howard-nc-iconphotostwo182668-nba-jan-16-magi1

The NBA Finals which tip-off on Thursday in Los Angeles are being aided by growing public interest in the NBA, which saw each of the television networks covering the playoffs, experience standout ratings.

While LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers failed to make a second trip to the finals, the conquering Orlando Magic are more than just a replacement team against the Los Angeles Lakers.   It must be noted that during the regular season the Magic won both games against the Lakers.

Orlando has its own star in center Dwight Howard, who finished up the series against Cleveland with 40 points and 14 rebounds.   And believe it or not, Howard, the league’s defensive player of the year, and first team All-NBA center, is actually getting even better – right before our eyes, during the playoffs.

The Lakers which finished with the second best record in the league during the regular season are of course led by the incomparable Kobe Bryant  and are in the finals for a second consecutive year.  Kobe has Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to back him up.

My sense is that the Lakers – Magic finals will prove to be the best possible match up.   Cleveland, despite this season’s best record, proved at least for now that they don’t yet have an adequate supporting cast for LeBron.

But Orlando, with tall, athletic scorers in Hedo Turkoglo, and Rashard Lewis and slick shooting super sub Mickael Pietrus, backing up Howard, the Magic have more than enough firepower to disarm the Lakers.   The big question is do they have the will?  We know on the other side, the man who is arguably the league’s best player, Kobe Bryant, does have the will.  Kobe wants to prove once and for all that not only is he the best player, but that he doesn’t have to have Shaquille O’Neal on his team to win a championship.

The other variable that I’m excited about is the coaching match-up.   The Lakers’ Phil Jackson is looking to win his 10th NBA title as coach.   10 would be a record, finally surpassing the great Red Auerbach who coached the Boston Celtics to 9 championships.   Jackson, the master manipulator, is known for getting inside the heads of his players and pushing them to do better.  Of course it didn’t hurt his reputation as a pysch-master that he had Michael Jordan to help him win 6 of his titles.

On the other bench is the much-maligned Stan Van Gundy, who never seems to get the proper respect.  But the way I see it, Van Gundy is playing with house-money now.   The Magic were not expected to get this far, and Van Gundy was supposed to be the guy who “panics’,  as Shaq suggested earlier this year, when the going gets tough for his team.   Van Gundy even faced the criticism of his star Dwight Howard during the Boston series, when Howard publicly complained that he wasn’t getting the ball enough.   But through it all Van Gundy just keeps coaching and winning.  As a result I’m rooting for Van Gundy to prove his critics wrong.

So yes, I’m picking the Magic, because I think they are vastly under-rated, more athletic, better shooters, have the best defender  – and simply, its Orlando’s time.

But no matter who wins, the real winners will be the fans and the NBA.   Because even without LeBron and Kobe on the court together, the two best teams will once again play.  There is no need for contrived media or league hype.  Which leaves the fans with quite a finals to watch and enjoy, and the NBA with an unexpected, yet best possible series, to promote.

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