Last year’s NBA season was one for the ages- the game’s transition from a big man’s game to a perimeter player’s game continued, as shooting records fell left and right. We said goodbye to three legends of the game in Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan. We watched the Warriors break the record for the most wins in a season and roll through the play-offs, only to fall apart in the Finals and give LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers a very unexpected title victory. So what will this season have in store? Here are my predictions for the upcoming season:
The Warriors were the clear winners of this past off-season, having convinced Kevin Durant to come to the Bay Area, but I think that the Celtics came in a close second. They had two departures from their roster last season- Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner- and replaced them with guys that I feel are better for the team in Al Horford and Jaylen Brown. They also added Demetrius Jackson to an already loaded backcourt, cementing their status as the deepest team, and the best team, in the Eastern Conference. That depth will be key to keeping the division title away from the Raptors, who have a very talented team themselves and pushed the Cavaliers in the conference finals last season, but have question marks at power forward and back-up point guard. As for the Knicks, I don’t think they’ll be the super team that somebody envisions, but they have enough talent spread around their roster to snag a play-off spot in a conference that has a lot of talent, but not a lot of consistency. The bottom of the division will see the Nets and the 76ers battle for the honor of being the worst team in the conference- the Nets have Brook Lopez and a bunch of role players, and Philly has a bunch of young, unproven guys and a frontcourt that doesn’t have enough minutes to accommodate all of their big men. I have a little but more faith in the potential, so I think the Nets finish last, but neither team will be very good.
Both the Hawks and the Magic made some curious moves this past off-season; Atlanta signed Dwight Howard after seeing Al Horford leave for Boston, then traded away Jeff Teague for a draft pick in Baylor forward Taurean Prince. The Magic, meanwhile, got fleeced by Oklahoma City- though they acquired a good player in Serge Ibaka, they gave up a potential scorer in Victor Oladipo and two versatile big men in the forms of Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova. Nonetheless, these two teams are the best in their division- despite the strange transactions, they have some really good talent, decent depth, and fantastic coaches- and I expect both of them to be hovering around the middle of the pack when the middle of the season arrives. The Wizards have the stars to be a middle-of-the-pack team in this year’s Eastern Conference, and Scott Brooks is a vastly underrated coach, but the discontent surrounding John Wall and Bradley Beal seems a bit more serious than what everybody is letting on, and I think that that will be enough to derail a team that was once on the verge of being counted among the elite. Moving downward, the Hornets proved last season that they were basically just Kemba Walker, Nicholas Batum, and a bunch of adequate role players. Both of those guys are good, but they would need all the role players to have great seasons for the team to even think about a post-season berth, and I just can’t see that happening. As for the Heat, they seem like a team prime for a re-build: they lost their franchise player in Dwayne Wade, decided not to risk playing Chris Bosh, overpaid Wade’s back-up, and have a roster that centers around Hassan Whiteside, a seemingly disgruntled point guard, and a few versatile small forwards. They have little depth and little top-flight talent, and I expect them to struggle.
The defending champions don’t really look all that different from what they did last season- if anything, they’re better, having added the wily veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr. from the rival Bulls. Their older roster isn’t as tailor-made for the regular season as Boston’s, but I think that they have more than enough talent to snag the #2 seed. The Pacers, though, have a pretty good chance to give them a run for their money. Firing their coach aside, I think they made some very smart moves in acquiring Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson, and getting Thaddeus Young and Kevin Seraphin ain’t half bad, either. It gives them a more experienced, and more versatile (Jefferson’s signing means increased responsibilities for Myles Turner), roster, and the idea of Teague and Paul George running things in Indiana is a scary thought indeed. Detroit doesn’t have quite enough firepower to match the two big-guns in the division, but with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson at the center of a very nuanced offensive game-plan, there will be enough offensive efficiency, and defensive strength, to push the Pistons into the post-season. As for my Bulls, I think that the Wade-Butler-Rondo trio has potential, and I think that each of those guys will put up good numbers this season. However, as a whole, this roster isn’t assembled to play coach Fred Hoiberg’s system, and after a while, other teams will figure that out and shut Chicago down enough to send them home early for a second straight season. At the bottom, the Bucks are a team that has a very bright future, as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker will be stars one day. However, this league is very backcourt, and shooting, oriented, and that is where Milwaukee struggles the most, and unlike the Bulls, they don’t have enough team-wide talent to (somewhat compensate) for it.
It will sure be strange to see the Spurs without Tim Duncan on the court with them, but this team has been Kawhi Leonard’s team since he won the NBA Finals MVP, and while Duncan’s defense and leadership will certainly be missed, Pau Gasol is one of the most ideal replacements for the legendary forward, and the rest of the Spurs’ core remains the same, so they’ll still be a dominant force in the West. Houston was a relative mess last year, but without Dwight Howard around to provide a major distraction, James Harden should be able to function fairly freely, and that means lots of high scoring games. And with the way that the Rockets are built, without Howard and with Mike D’Antoni as the head coach, high scoring is a good thing; expect the Rockets to get back into the conference’s elite. The Mavericks were major beneficiaries of the Warriors signing Kevin Durant- it allowed them to acquire their new star, Harrison Barnes, and a center in Andrew Bogut that will allow Dirk to play the perimeter game he is more suited to without subtracting the team’s only paint presence. These moves will allow the Mavs to sneak into the final seed. Anthony Davis and the Pelicans have a chance at making the post-season if they can get some solid play from their guards, but with Jrue Holiday out as Lauren Holiday prepares for brain surgery, they’ll have to depend on an inexperienced Buddy Hield and the underwhelming duo of Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson, and that just won’t be enough. The Grizzlies are kind of in the same boat as the Wizards- they have the talent to make it to the play-offs. But instead of conflict bringing the Griz down, their style of play will- they depend too much on their frontcourt, which includes the injury-prone Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons and the slowing Zach Randolph, and that just won’t fly in a league that focuses so much on shooting and perimeter play.
It’s hard to imagine how anybody is going to stop the Warriors this season- their 4th option is one of the most versatile players in the game, and despite having a ton of money tied up in their best players, they still have some phenomenal depth, with David West and JaVale McGee being among the team’s more savvy signings. They should be able to win the conference’s weakest division with ease. The Clippers, too, shouldn’t really have a terribly hard time in winning a lot of games in this division- for all the claims of Blake Griffin’s inconsistency, Chris Paul’s decline, and the lack of bench depth, this team have one of the league’s best starting 5’s, and with one of the era’s best coaches at the helm, they’ll certainly be able to get the most out of their limited bench options and cruise to a high seed for the post-season. I loved what Jeff Hornacek was able to pull off with the Suns in his first season, and I’ve had very high hopes for them up until this season. They definitely have a good mix of young and veteran talent, but the type of talent that they have is very strong in specific areas- slashing guards that can’t shoot very well and big, strong frontcourt players- and very weak in others, such as shooting and small forward. On other words, they aren’t very balanced, and in the West, you aren’t going to make it very far if your talent isn’t evenly balanced, and sadly, that just isn’t the case in Phoenix. They still should be a significant amount better than the Lakers, though- the Lake Show will be playing without Kobe Bryant for the first time in forever, and they’ll have to adjust for so many things to compensate for his absence. However, they are definitely a team on the rise, considering their bright coach and plentiful young talent. That’s more than the Kings can say- outside of DeMarcus Cousins, there really isn’t much to look forward to. They’ll be incredibly bad, and perhaps even worse than that if Cousins ends up leaving Sacramento.
This is the best division in basketball, by a long shot. I considered who to put in the play-offs for a few days, trying to find any way I could to put every team here into them, but I just couldn’t find a place for the T-Wolves. Bringing in Tom Thibodeau will pay off in the long run, as he will help their very young and talented team develop into a very dangerous, well-rounded one, but that youth will come back to bite them just enough to keep them on the outside looking in for this season. They’ll be held off by the Nuggets, who have seemed to be one piece away from being a solid play-off team since they acquired Danilo Gallinari and co. for Carmelo Anthony. I’m a little worried about their backcourt, because a lot of pressure will be on 20 year-old Emmanuel Mudiay and 19 year-old Jamal Murray, but I feel like their veteran coach, Mike Malone, will help ease any fears of those guys failing to excel, and the team’s versatile forward crop, headlined by Gallinari and Kenneth Faried, will help Denver reach the post-season for the first time since 2013. At the top of the division, I expect Portland and Oklahoma City to battle it out for the lead. Ultimately, I think Portland will prevail- while I feel that OKC is slightly more talented, even after Kevin Durant’s departure (that Ibaka trade did them wonders), Portland is essentially keeping the same team it did last year and replacing Gerald Henderson with a better version of him in Evan Turner, and I think that consistency will be the difference in the regular season. Sandwiched in the middle will be the Jazz, who added some veterans in the forms of George Hill and Boris Diaw, guys that not only improve the roster’s quality, but give their young players, like Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, guys to look up to in order to figure out how to get over the proverbial play-off hump, something I feel that team is capable of this year.
Celtics def. Pistons
Cavaliers def. Knicks
Raptors def. Magic
Pacers def. Hawks
The Celtics should be able to make fairly short work of the Pistons- Andre Drummond will cause them some problems, but I think a combination of Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk will do enough to allow Boston’s backcourt to get going, and Detroit will have no answer for that. The Cavaliers are in a smilar boat- Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis will get theirs, but a strong defensive effort from LeBron, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson will be enough to allow guys like Kyrie Irving and JR Smith to get going and win the series. The Raptors are simply too good, and have too much play-off experience, for the Magic to have any chance of beating them; that series could be the most lopsided one out of all the first round match-ups. In the final series, I think things will get very competitive, especially with Jeff Teague going up against his old team, and I think that Teague still has enough in him to lead his new club past his old protégé and into the next round.
Celtics def. Pacers
Cavaliers def. Raptors
The Pacers will give the Celtics a lot of trouble, because the C’s strength, in relation to many other teams, is depth, and Indiana is probably the best equipped to handle the different match-ups that Brad Stevens can throw at them. That being said, Boston has four guards that are capable of being game-changers at any time, and I think that each of them has themselves a game, and those “games” will allow Boston to move on. In the other series, a match-up of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, I see the result being perfectly similar to last year’s, as well- the Raptors use their explosiveness to give Cleveland some trouble, but in the end, the talent of LeBron and Kyrie win out in the end. The Cavs will move on.
Celtics def. Cavaliers
This will be the more competitive of the two conference finals, and could be one of the best pre-Finals match-ups in recent memory. The Celtics have a talented array of guards, but the Cavaliers can counter with their strong batch of forwards. The Cavs arguably have more star power, whereas the C’s have more depth. Both teams have young, forward-thinking coaches at the helm. It’ll be a back-and-forth series throughout, and for this one I’m going to lean against the way I have, and will, for rest of the play-offs, which is towards the depth. Boston has just enough talent to negate Cleveland’s, and it’ll be the match-up issues caused by their versatile roster that will see them through to the Finals.
Warriors def. Mavericks
Spurs def. Nuggets
Jazz def. Clippers
Thunder def. Trailblazers
As much as I respect Dirk Nowitzki, I think that the Warriors will obliterate the Mavs- they’ll target Nowitzki on defense, and the team will either have to suffer watching the big German getting beat up on defense or pull him and sacrifice offensive efficiency. A simple series for Steve Kerr’s men. In contrast, the Spurs may have somewhat of a tough time with Denver- San Antonio plays a more controlled, methodical game, whereas Denver tries to utilize more of its athleticism, which could hurt San Antonio’s older team. In the end, though, I think the Spurs have enough to pull it out. The next series will see the first of two wins by lower seeds in the first round, as I expect the Clippers to continue their play-off woes and drop out early to the Jazz. Utah has a nice mix of talent and athleticism, youngsters and veterans, and the different things they can throw up at a surprisingly defensive-challenged team will boost them into the next round. The other first round upset will see the Thunder topple the Clippers. As I’ve said countless times, talent (mostly) trumps depth come play-off time, so while the Blazers may have more players that they can throw at Russell Westbrook and company, OKC’s new face of the franchise will blow by Damian Lillard and lead his team on to the next round.
Warriors def. Thunder
Jazz def. Spurs
Of course, it just makes perfect sense that there be a Kevin Durant Series in the play-offs, and I think that’s exactly what will happen (I didn’t mean to plan it this way, I swear!). Even though the Thunder have more depth than they did when Durant was on the team, depth doesn’t matter as much as talent in the play-offs, and well, Durant, Stephen Curry, and their buddies definitely trump any of the depth that the Thunder added this year, and they should be enough to get the Warriors on to the next round in an emotionally-charged series. In the other conference semi-final, the Spurs are going to run into a more talented version of the team that they played in the last round, a team that will ultimately be their play-off downfall. However, I don’t necessarily think it will be Utah’s athleticism that will propel it to the next round- rather, it will be the shooting ability and veteran savvy of two of its most experienced players, Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson, that will allow the Jazz to pull off the upset.
Warriors def. Jazz
I feel bad for the Jazz. They’ll have done so well to get this far, exceeding anybody’s expectations and giving off a very exciting vibe, only to meet a team that is just so loaded with ability from top to bottom that no amount of athleticism, or shooting, can outdo what Golden State has to offer. Sure, Utah will give it their best shot, as they should, but this series may not be all that competitive, as far as conference finals go- the Dubs will move on to their third straight Finals.
Warriors def. Celtics
Depth will have gotten the Celtics this far- of course, they are incredibly talented, arguably the best team, on paper, in the Eastern Conference- but the versatility of their roster, not their talent, will earn them a match-up with the vaunted Warriors. The problem for the C’s, though, is that the Finals are a different animal than the rest of the post-season. Golden State themselves are a perfect example of that- the Warriors steamed easily through their own conference and took an early lead in the Finals last season, but then the Cavaliers’ stars took over the series, the Warriors’ own big names faltered, and the Larry O’Brien Trophy was headed to Cleveland. The Cavs did a phenomenal job of shutting down Stephen Curry and continuing Klay Thompson’s rough streak of games, but now with Durant in the mix, they’ll become even harder to stop than they were last year. And remember, they set the NBA record for wins last year, and were only one win away from back-to-back titles. Boston is good, but they aren’t on Golden State’s level- the Warriors will take it in 5, and all of the super-team haters can commence their groveling.
MVP: LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Rookie of the Year: Kris Dunn, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, C/PF, New Orleans Pelicans
6th Man of the Year: Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
Coach of the Year: Nate McMillan, Pacers