Last season was an exciting one in the NBA. The season began with controversy in Los Angeles, moved along with big contributions from rookies, was cut short for many due to catastrophic injuries, and culminated in a championship matchups between a traditional power (a LeBron led team) and a group of up-and-coming superstars (the Warriors). This season is sure to bring just as much excitement and drama as the last, but how will it shake out? This is my prediction for the upcoming season:
This is, by far, the worst division in basketball, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some decent players here. The C’s unexpectedly crashed the playoffs in Brad Stevens’s first year and got a good playoff spanking from LeBron James and the Cavaliers, but are in a good position to be even better than last year. The experience gained by last year’s players, and the additions of David Lee from Golden State and Amir Johnson from rival Toronto, will boost Boston above the Raptors. I love DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and I think they’re two of the most explosive players in the game. But they also have a tendency to be fairly streaky, and their supporting cast is fairly flawed- Patrick Patterson isn’t great on offense, DeMarre Carroll has only had one truly good year and hasn’t shown any consistency, and Jonas Valanciunas has hit to fulfill his potential- so I see them finishing towards the bottom half of the playoff places this year.
The bottom half of this division has 3 teams that could be vying for top-10 picks at the end of the year. Carmelo Anthony will get his points for New York, as always, but the rest of Anthony’s supporting cast is either unproven (Kristaps Porzinigis, Jerian Grant) or very hot-and-cold (Robin Lopez, Aaron Afflalo), and they might take a while to gel. Their neighbors in Brooklyn, the Nets, also have some talented players in Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, and Thaddeus Young. But Lopez struggles with consistency and injuries on a yearly basis, Johnson is losing his scoring touch as he ages, and Young is more of a steady sidekick than he is a player than can carry a team on his shoulders. And in Philadelphia, nobody really knows what’s going on. They could have a very, very good frontcourt if Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor develop, and that isn’t even considering Joel Embiid. The rest of the team, though, is… suspect, to say the very least.
Picking a winner in this division was fairly easy- Atlanta was fantastic last year, but with the loss of DeMarre Carroll and an expected regression to the mean, I think that Washington will be the top dog. John Wall and Bradley Beal have transformed into one of the best backcourts in the entire league, and big men Kris Humphries and Marcin Gortat have been fairly good wingmen. The difference maker for Randy Wittman, though, is that Otto Porter Jr. is finally starting to translate his first-round talent into solid production. Atlanta will still be a very good team- as a club with Jeff Teague and Mike Budenholzer running the show, and a philosophy that allows them to excel even if a couple of their starters have off days, they will certainly be one of the top teams in the East- but the Wiz will be the team leading the way in this division.
The bottom half of this division has a few interesting teams. The core in Orlando, highlighted by Victor Oladipo, is very fairly inexperienced, but new coach Scott Skiles is very disciplined and might help the team’s talent finally break through. The Miami Heat have a two high volume scorers in Goran Dragic and Dwayne Wade that are complimented nicely by Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside, but the team isn’t very good on defense and has an on/off switch when it comes to offensive consistency. The Hornets, headlined by Kemba Walker, made the playoffs two seasons ago, but haven’t been able to gel as a team since the departure of Josh McRoberts. Each of these teams has the potential to be in the race for the final playoff spots in the East, but I think that the one that will make the playoffs, and that’s the Magic. I can’t see the youngsters having their talent go to waste this season under Skiles, and I think they’ll hold off their division rivals to sashay into the playoffs for the first time since Dwight Howard was in town.
Cleveland is unquestionably the class of the Eastern Conference. Even though Kyrie Irving will start the season out with injury, having LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Iman Shumpert as your core players isn’t too shabby. The Cavs still need to figure out how to have a more balanced offense, but their talent alone will propel them to the top of the conference. Right behind them will be the Bulls. Joakim Noah had a longer postseason than normal to rest his troubled knees and should return as the leader of one of the deepest frontcourts in the league. New coach Fred Hoiberg will bring in a breath of fresh air into a team that seemed fatigued by Tom Thibodeau’s non-stop attitude. If Mike Dunleavy can stay consistently healthy and Derrick Rose can produce at high levels, there’s even a slim chance that the Bulls can surpass Cleveland, but I just can’t see that happening at this point. Lurking behind both these big Eastern powers are Milwaukee. The Bucks were one of last year’s surprises under Jason Kidd, going from a team in the lottery to a tough out in the playoffs. This year, with the addition of Greg Monroe and the return of Jabari Parker from his ACL tear, the Bucks might even be able to find a way to sneak into the top half of the playoff bracket. For now, though, I see them staying in the bottom half as a 6-seed.
The bottom two teams in this division are building on something special- they won’t make the playoffs this year, but could make some noise the following season. Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy shuttled Greg Monroe out of town and has decided, rightly, to build his team around Andre Drummond. Van Gundy acquired Marcus Morris and locked up Reggie Jackson to a long-term deal to help support Drummond, and the team has the contracts and players (Brandon Jennings and Steve Blake come to mind) to make a deal for another solid supporting player, if necessary. In Indiana, Paul George will be able to play for the entire season, and he will be ably supported by George Hill and Monta Ellis. Once Myles Turner develops and the team establishes some depth, they could be on their way to making it back to the upper echelon of the East.
The best division in basketball houses half of the playoff teams in the superior conference. They’ll be led by Houston, which is led by two bona-fide superstars in James Harden and Dwight Howard. The trade for Ty Lawson will make this one of the most exciting offensive teams in recent memory, and while there are worries about Lawson’s defense, I think that Patrick Beverly is more than capable of being the defensive spark plug off the bench. San Antonio will be right on the heels of their in-state rivals. GM RC Buford made arguably the biggest offseason move by signing star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to bolster a roster that already included do-it-all Kawhi Leonard and the ageless wonder that is Tim Duncan. The aging of Tony Parker and the lack of real depth are the only things preventing this team from being the top dog out West.
The other three teams in this division are all capable of making the playoffs. The Grizz have an amazing frontcourt led by Marc Gasol, and point guard Mike Conley Jr. has finally come into his own. The Pelicans are led by the otherworldly Anthony Davis, and have good players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Jrue Holiday to support him. The Mavs have Chandler Parsons, an aging but still silky smooth Dirk Nowitzki, and Deron Williams. I think that the injuries to Mark Cuban’s big signing Wesley Matthews, and the loss of Tyson Chandler to Phoenix, will hurt the team a lot, though, and prevent them from making it to the postseason. However, the other two team s have enough to hang around the middle of the pack, and possibly challenge for a higher seed.
This team is, of course, headlined by the defending champion Warriors. The only real loss from last year’s star-studded roster is veteran big man David Lee, who saw his minutes decrease as Draymond Green grew into a superstar. Because of that, there is no doubt in my mind that Golden State, despite whatever health complications coach Steve Kerr is having, will be very competitive in a loaded conference. Right on their tails will be the Doc Rivers-led Clippers, who overcame the adversity of the Donald Sterling scandal to have a very solid season, advancing to the conference semifinals. The addition of Paul Pierce, one of Rivers’s best players when he was the coach in Boston, can only serve to help the players in Lob City, as can the controversy surrounding the re-signing of DeAndre Jordan, which should give the mercurial center some extra motivation. I also see the Suns, who have tried to use outstanding guard play the past two seasons to overachieve relative to what was expected of them, to make the playoffs as a number 8 seed. The signing of Tyson Chandler gives the team an interior presence that should take some pressure off of Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe on offense and a true stopper on defense. This balance should be enough to break into the playoffs after two years of coming close.
The two teams at the bottom of this division are both in states of disarray. The Kings have two big-name players, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, that seem to be frequently conflicting with coach George Karl, and have a very messy ownership situation. The Lakers, meanwhile, have done well to build for the future through the drafting of college superstars Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, but the team is still centered around an aging Kobe Bryant, and the signing of big man Roy Hibbert is in direct opposition to the balanced “small ball” approach that the Warriors, and other successful teams, have made almost commonplace. Both teams will have trouble getting going this coming season, and might need to take a serious look at the structure of their organizations before they can really become competitive.
This division is the weakest in the West, but all of the teams here have enough talent to make some noise in the playoff picture if the right things fall into place. The Thunder, led by the electrifying trio of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka, should top the division. They shouldn’t end up in the top half of the playoff bracket, because when one of the team’s stars gets hurt their depth isn’t very good- and one of the previous players is almost bound to get hurt.
The other four teams in the division are quite literally in the middle of the road. They are stuck in a place between building with youth and using the existing talent they have to try and be competitive. The Jazz, for example, have two solid players in Gordon Heyward and Derrick Favors, but those two haven’t been enough to make Utah a playoff worthy team, so they have landed college stars like Alec Burks, Trey Burke, and Dante Exum in recent drafts. The Blazers, who lost big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez to free agency, will give more responsibility to youngsters Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee, as well as third-year guard CJ McCollum. The Nuggets have jettisoned Ty Lawson and hung on to Danilo Gallinari, but the Italian’s playing time is diminished, and the keys to the team belong to Kenneth Faried and rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. The Timberwolves have two former NBA champs on their roster in Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince, but have two number one picks as the faces of their franchise in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. All of these clubs are going to need to make up their minds as to how to proceed from here- what to do with their vets and how aggressive to be in free agency- because as of right now, they are all AT LEAST two solid rotation players away from being true contenders.
Cavs def. Magic
Bulls def. Raptors
Wizards def. Bucks
Hawks def. Celtics
Just like Boston last year, the Magic have some good talent that they can build on, but they won’t ever be able to topple a team led by a grizzled veteran like LeBron.
The Bulls-Raptors matchup might be the most intriguing of the playoffs- a typically disciplined Chicago team against a Raptors squad filled with many explosive players. I think that the difference here will be Hoiberg taking over the Bulls- the players will still have the discipline from previous seasons in their heads, but Hoiberg will allow them to be more free-thinking and creative when coming up with offensive and defensive sets, and that will make the Bulls the victors.
The Wiz against the Bucks is like matching the vets against the young guns, both playing and coaching-wise. I think that Randy Wittman’s flexibility with his lineups in last year’s playoffs really enhanced what his team is able to do, and even if the Bucks are able to neutralize some parts of Washington’s offense, the Wiz still have John Wall, and he will make the difference in this series.
The Hawks both have unorthodox coaches and unorthodox rosters- the Mike Budenholzer-led Hawks don’t have one star that really stands out, while the Brad Stevens and his Celtics seem to be strongest in their front court. The Hawks’ depth, and their playoff experience relative to Boston’s, will allow them to move on to the next round,
Cavaliers def. Hawks
Wizards def. Bulls
When the Cavs and the Hawks met in the postseason last year, Cleveland romped all over Atlanta, winning the series 4-0. One could argue that the loss of Kyle Korver in Game 2 upset the balance of the Hawks’ offensive game plan, which caused them to be largely underwhelming, and that person would be right. However, Cleveland was missing Kyrie Irving for two games of that series, and as much as I love Korver, Irving’s ability, and impact on his team, is far greater than the sharpshooter’s. I think Cleveland waltzes to the next round, just as they did last season.
It hurts to think that my Bulls won’t have the chance to face LeBron in the coming season’s Eastern Conference finals, but given the problems that Chicago has had with the Wizards in past playoff series, it makes sense not to pick them to move on. Washington’s recent lineup adjustments to play more unorthodox lineups will cause the Bulls some problems, and, at this point, I think that having a John Wall-run team is better than having one run by Derrick Rose. Washington moves on.
Cavaliers def. Wizards
The big difference maker that will have propelled Washington to this point is most certainly John Wall. In Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers have a man that matches up to Wall better than virtually any point guard in the Eastern Conference. Bradley Beal is a very well-rounded player, but the length of Iman Shumpert, the scoring ability of JR Smith, and the energy of Matthew Dellavedova are sure to cause the former Florida Gator some fits. And, of course, there are LeBron James and Kevin Love to consider. I don’t think that the Wizards have anyone that can really match up with either of those two guys- not that many teams do, consider that they are both top-25 talents- and for that reason, Cleveland will advance to its second straight NBA Finals.
Rockets def. Suns
Warriors def. Pelicans
Spurs def. Thunder
Clippers def. Grizzlies
The Phoenix Suns used to the ultimate example of what talented players could do in a high paced offense. Steve Nash was the playmaker on a team that broke numerous scoring records. Houston is the modern-day equivalent of those Suns, and shouldn’t have much difficulty outscoring the present Suns to move on to the next round.
These teams met in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and despite Anthony Davis’s best efforts, the Warriors won the series fairly simply. I don’t expect this season to be any different- the Warriors are simply a deeper and more talented team than New Orleans. The champs move forward.
This is the most intriguing first round matchup of the entire playoffs for me. Both teams certainly have star power- OKC has Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka, and the Spurs can counter with LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, and Tim Duncan. However, I think that San Antonio’s playoff know-how, and their depth (which isn’t great, but is better than Oklahoma City’s) will propel Gregg Popovich’s squad into the next round.
The Clippers are going to have a chip on their shoulder this coming season- they underwent a lot of heat for the resigning of DeAndre Jordan, and haven’t been as successful in the playoffs as many have expected after Chris Paul came to town. They’ll steamroll over a Grizzlies team whose window for success is quickly closing.
Rockets def. Clippers
Spurs def. Warriors
The Clips will come into this series fired up and filled with confidence after their easy first round win. But they won’t be able to topple a team that, on the whole, doesn’t have as much depth that they do, but has a much more talented starting 5, one that should especially challenge them on the defensive end. It will be close, but I think Houston pulls it out.
San Antonio realizes that the window of success with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker is very, very narrow, and they’ll be upset that they were knocked out in the first round last year trying to defend their title. The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge gives this team a more balanced attack than they had last year, though, and I’m sure of the fact that The Big Fundamental, Parker, and their buddy Manu Ginobili have enough left in the tank to compliment the new big man and help pull off the upset over the defending champions. The Spurs move on.
Rockets def. Spurs
The Spurs have a distinct coaching advantage here- I would take Gregg Popovich over Kevin McHale any day- and both teams have talented players and a squad with below average depth, so it seems that the Spurs have an advantage. The thing is, I think that while Kawhi Leonard may be unguardable for San Antonio, the Rockets have two, if not three, players on offense that are extremely tough matchups, and Leonard obviously can’t cover them all. At least one of the Harden-Howard-Lawson trio will be able to do his thing each night, and that makes the difference for me in this series. Houston moves on.
Cavaliers def. Rockets
Obviously, all eyes would to be on the two superstars in this series, Harden and LeBron. The two scorers effectively cancel each other out, as do Dwight Howard and Kevin Love. And both coaches, Kevin McHale and David Blatt, are not known for their exceptional motivational abilities. The outcome of the finals, then, will come down to the teams’ lesser heralded players. Ty Lawson and Kyrie Irving can both be offensive forces, but the former Duke star is a much better defender. Cleveland also has a deeper, more experienced bench- Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt, with JR Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Mo Williams in the backcourt, while Houston has only two real experienced backup is point guard real impact backups in Corey Brewer and Patrick Beverley. The greater talent level, and depth, that the Cavaliers have will, I believe, bring Cleveland the long-awaited championship it deserves.
MVP: James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
It makes sense for the best player on the team that I see winning the toughest conference in the league, both record wise and in the playoffs, to be the MVP. Many argued that Harden was a more worthy victor than the man that won it last year, Stephen Curry, and I think that the addition of Ty Lawson will only help boost Harden’s stats, catapulting him over his closest competitors- Curry, LeBron, and John Wall.
Rookie of the Year: D’Angelo Russell, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Many NBA scouts thought that Russell’s game would translate the best to the NBA out of all the other prospects, and while I’m not a scout, I can sure see where they are coming from. Russell is a capable scorer, but is also relatively strong on defense and seems to be very tough, very resilient. All of those things are very important when transitioning from the college game to the pros, and I think that as Kobe’s role begins to diminish, Russell will step in and take up his mantle as the face of the Lakers.
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, C/PF, New Orleans Pelicans
Being from a suburb Chicago, it’s always fun to make up lineups of great players in the league that have come from the city. Derrick Rose. Dwayne Wade. Jahlil Okafor. Patrick Beverley. The man that makes an all-Chicago team so great, though, is obviously Davis. His offensive game exploded this past season, and he has become one of the top-5 players in the entire game. However, while his offense has gotten him a lot of plaudits recently, Davis has been a defensive animal since his time at Kentucky, and this year, I expect him to be rewarded for it.
6th Man of the Year: Paul Pierce, Los Angeles Clippers
This is assuming that Lance Stephenson will keep his starting job throughout the season, which will not happen if he plays like he did last year in Charlotte. If he does, though, Pierce will be coming off the bench for, really, the first time in his career. While teammate Jamaal Crawford has won this award twice in his career, I just can’t see a fiery, pure scorer like The Truth being kept down, even if he is coming off the pine.
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
I don’t think that there were many people that expected much out of the C’s last season, and yet they ended up making the playoffs anyway. Many experts consider the Raptors to still be the favorites in the Atlantic, but if the season goes the way I think it will and Boston wins the division, it will be difficult to overlook how impressive Stevens’s work will have been in his 2 years at the helm of one of the league’s most historic franchises.