The NBA Regular season is once again upon us, and with it comes what has become an annual tradition for me: season predictions!
It was an exciting off-season, with a multitude of stars moving to new teams. Jimmy Butler finds himself a member of the Timberwolves; Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are with the Thunder; Avery Bradley is now the starting 2-guard for the Pistons; and Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving traded spots. Additionally, Paul Millsap has landed with the Nuggets in free agency while Gordon Hayward has moved to Boston. Not least of all, Chris Paul managed to get himself traded to Houston.
The league has not had this many moves among its upper-echelon in a number of years. You might expect so many major moves to be indicative of a sea change and the emergence of new contenders. In this instance, that would be wrong. The two top-dogs in each conference are still firmly cemented at the top. If anything, Cleveland may be even more secure at the top of the East: they add Jae Crowder (still, somehow, underappreciated) and Isaiah Thomas to an already dominant group, and the Celtics, despite adding more firepower, are still integrating a whole slew of new players. And the West? Well...the Warriors are still the Warriors.
I'm going to do each conference by tiers.
Top Tier - West
- Golden State Warriors (63-65 wins)
Unsurprisingly, the Warriors are clearly on a tier of their own. I don't think they are as perfect as many do. They showed some, admittedly small, weaknesses in the Finals last year. What should be terrifying for the rest of the league is that the team probably got better in the offseason, with the addition of Nick Young, Omri Casspi and Jordan Bell. The team has serviceable depth at every position, which is ridiculous for a team that has this many highly paid players. The one position they don't have much depth at is PG; if Steph Curry were to miss any extended time, this team becomes a lot more vulnerable. But I doubt they play Steph enough for that to matter. This team does not have anything to prove, and won't have to go though the early season adjustment period it did last year with Kevin Durant. They won't risk playing their stars too many minutes. That's why I think they stay in the 63-65 win range, as well.
Playoff Locks Tier - West
- Oklahoma City Thunder (51-53 wins)
- Houston Rockets (52-54 wins)
- San Antonio Spurs (49-51 wins)
If it weren't for the ridiculousness of the Warriors, all three of these teams would be considered championship contenders. The Thunder and the Rockets both feature two undeniably top-25 players, while the Spurs feature probably the best two-way player in the league.
The Thunder are the most interesting team in my book, and the one that could, if all the cards fall just into place, challenge the Warriors. This team is defensively deep - Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant and (maybe) Josh Huestis should all be above average defenders. And it features three reliable scoring threats with Paul Georgie, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. Even slowed down as he is, Melo provides value on the offensive end this team simply lacked last season. The question marks for them will be if they can manage to figure out a way to balance out their rotations so that they have a good balance of offense and defense on the court at all times. The temptation will be to platoon Russ, Melo and Paul George, but the depth at PG and SF leaves much to be desired.
The Rockets went all-in on this team by trading for Chris Paul on what is, for all intents and purposes, a 1 year rental. While the situation is not that much different than the one Oklahoma City finds itself in, the difference is that the Rockets gave up much more. The Rockets gave up two starting caliber players (Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams), three prospects (Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer and Sam Dekker) AND a first round pick. While it certainly does not leave the cupboard bear, if CP3 leaves this team will find itself in a mini-rebuild. And, frankly, I don't see how this team beats the Warriors. Offensively, they play a similar up-tempo style, but they lack the defensive versatility and overall depth of the Warriors. And while having Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker as your 6th and 7th man is not the worst you could do, the talent really drops off after that. That hurts since Paul, Gordon, Ariza and Anderson all have a history of injuries that force them to miss some time. One player to watch out for: Isaiah Taylor. He likely won't get much playing time unless CP3 or Harden misses some time, but Taylor is one of the fastest on-ball players I have ever seen. He should be fun to watch in the D-League and against 2nd team units.
The Spurs are the team I am least high on among this bunch, but the most confident will finish in the top-4 overall in the West. Popovich and company are just that good at getting regular season wins. I had slightly higher hopes for this group when I thought Tony Parker would be out longer. Having his minutes taken by Patty Mills likely would have been worth an extra couple of wins for this team. The thing I just don't like about this team this year is the starting lineup. Parker-Danny Green-Kawhi Leonard-LaMarcus Aldridge-Pau Gasol just isn't that good of a lineup in 2017. To get anywhere close to last year's 61 wins, the team will need equally strong performances from 37 year old Gasol and 32 year old Aldridge. I think both of them likely diminish this season. This, however, leads me into what I really like about this team: the depth. If Gasol and Aldridge cannot play as many minutes, the Spurs can rely on Rudy Gay, Kyle Anderson and Joffrey Lauvergne to fill in. In combination with Mills and Ginobili, this is a potent offensive second unit, one that could just flat-out trounce the reserves for most of the rest of the league. I still don't like the Spurs against the Warriors in the playoffs, but they should once again be a lock for home-court advantage.
I cannot really imagine a scenario where one of these teams falls out of the playoffs. Perhaps the team most vulnerable would be the Spurs, given how reliant they are going to be on Kawhi. But it just seems so unlikely.
Likely Playoff Tier - West
- Los Angeles Clippers (45-47 wins)
- Minnesota Timberwolves (45-47 wins)
- Denver Nuggets (43-45 wins)
- Utah Jazz (44-46 wins)
You might notice that this could otherwise be labeled the Northwest Division (and the Clippers) I think it is really, really likely that 4 teams from the Northwest make it into the playoffs, and if the Clippers fall off (a distinct possibility), you might end up with five. But I'll come back to that.
The Clippers, barring any injuries, are the best of this group. For the first time in recent memory, this team features real, living depth. With Beverley, rookie Milos Teodosic, Lou Williams and Austin Rivers sharing minutes at the guard spots, this team features a backcourt that actually has a balance of offensive and defensive skillsets that can allow some lineup versatility. With Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin and Sam Dekker in the mix at the forward positions, the team has highly effective stretch options. And DeAndre Jordan remains one of the best players at his position in the NBA. With what I believe were back-to-back strong drafts (Brice Johnson in 2016, Juwan Evans and Sindarius Thornwell in 2017), this team even has some depth should players get injured which, given the history of some of these guys, seems pretty likely. Injuries are going to be the deciding factor for this team. If guys stay healthy, this team could push even higher.
The T-Wolves are the darlings again this year. Everyone seems to believe they are destined for a 50 win season. I'd like to pump the brakes on that a bit. This team is undeniably going to be better than last year, but there are still structural flaws. There is very little outside shooting (Jeff Teague is probably their best at a career 35.5%) in a league trending towards more pace and space offense. Other than Jimmy Butler, they don't really have any above average defenders, unless Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns both take a leap. And depth is a real problem. Other than Gorgui Dieng, the team really does not have an above average reserve. Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica could both be fine, but Jamal Crawford and Marcus Georges-Hunt or Shabazz Muhammad? Not a recipe for success.
The Nuggets are another team that some are in love with but about which I have serious questions. The signing of Paul Millsap could be huge. He's a (still) criminally underappreciated player who, at his peak, fits well next to star-in-the-making Nikola Jokic. Alongside Gary Harris, the team has a mini big-3 that should be able to provide a strong offensive burst. There are a number of reasons to be concerned about this team, however. They were atrocious on defense last year, and while I would normally expect Millsap to improve that, I'm expecting Millsap to drop off a bit this season. He will be 33 this season, and in his 11 years in the league he has only missed 20 games once, averaging 76 games a season before you account for his 9 playoff appearances over that time. He's been a truly great player, but I think he'll begin to show his age in this setting. On top of that, this team has massive depth concerns. They're likely starting Jamal Murray at PG, a position he has basically never played. Wilson Chandler is the only SF on the roster, and will be backed up by Juancho Hernangomez, a PF. This team really, really needs to try to move Kenneth Faried this season in order to either get a better backup SF or a suitable starting PG. Both seem unlikely, and without those things I would be really surprised if this team gets past the 45 win mark.
The final team in this group is the only one with real depth. The Jazz, for whatever flaws exist in their team, have the depth to carry out their concept. George Hill and Gordon Hayward are gone, and the potential of that team offensively is gone with it. But replacing those two with Ricky Rubio, Ekpe Udoh and Thabo Sefolosha creates a defensive juggernaut 1-10 on the roster the likes of which has not been seen in recent memory. With the exception of rookie Donovan Mitchell, who I slot as a negative because almost all rookies are defensive liabilities, there is not a single player in the likely 10 man rotation who would be considered worse than an average defender. Maybe, maybe you put Joe Johnson slightly below average at this point. And while this team may not light up the scoreboard, it does have an offensive profile that could be successful: overload on threes and leak back for defense. Johnson, Rodney Hood, Jerebko, Ingles, Sefolosha and Alec Burks (who may not even be in the rotation) are all competent to good three point shooters. If this team can leverage the interior presence of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors and the dribble penetration ability of Rubio and Mitchell, they might not be as bad offensively as is anticipated.
All of these teams have flaws that could see them fall out of the playoff picture. The Nuggets and T-Wolves could both find their depth issues too much to overcome. Injuries could derail the Clippers. The Jazz could find it impossible to generate enough offense to win games. I think the Nuggets and the T-Wolves are the most susceptible to that fall. The Clippers I think are most likely to move up into the next tier.
Potential Playoff Tier - West
- Portland Trail Blazers (40-42 wins)
- New Orleans Pelicans (40-42 wins)
I don't expect either of these teams to make it to the playoffs. If the teams above have problems with depth, both of these teams have gaping holes in their roster. While both of them could sneak in, I think it takes a major collapse from one of the teams above them for that to happen.
The Blazers snuck into the playoffs last year, edging out the Nuggets by a game. They were aided by the addition of Jusuf Nurkic mid-season, and addition they will hope to leverage in to a better than .500 record this year. The starting unit for this team -- Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic are an above average group, particularly offensively. They're a significant problem defensively, though, with only Aminu and Nurkic being clearly average or above players. And the bench doesn't really provide much relief there: only Pat Connaughton is likely to be a plus defender among the bench group. The team is going to rely on growth from younger players, or a better overall defensive effort from the group, if it wants to move into the playoff picture.
The Pelicans are a nightmare from a team-concept standpoint. I have no idea how Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins fit on the court together. If they figure it out - and I'm sure its possible, given how good both players are individually - I don't know how you put a lineup around them that complements them given what exists on the Pelicans' roster. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday shouldn't be playing together - Rondo can't shoot, and Holiday is just a slightly above average shooter. Who starts at the SF position is an open question with Solomon Hill out perhaps the entirety of the season. The overall depth on the roster is...well, it doesn't exist. Jordan Crawford is in the guard rotation, Dante Cunningham, Darius Miller and Tony Allen are all in the rotation at forward position. The best hope for this team may be that the reclaimed body of Martell Webster, out of the league since 2015, can come in and play like he did in...2012? 2013? That's not an encouraging prospect.
The Outside Shot Tier - West
- Memphis Grizzlies (36-38 wins)
- Dallas Mavericks (34-36 wins)
God, the West is deep this year. While I certainly am not expecting either of these teams to make the playoffs, I also wouldn't be super surprised if they did. Rick Carlisle is, in my opinion, the best coach in the NBA, and the Grizzlies are the NBA's version of Jason - every time you think you've buried them, they rise again from the grave. That being said, there are grave concerns for each of these teams that would require a transcendent season from multiple players to overcome.
The Grizzlies are the better of these two teams. With the familiar duo of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley back to helm the team, it might seem like not much has changed. In reality, this team has lost a bit of its identity, with Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and the ageless Vince Carter all on different teams. Those guys were 4th, 6th and 5th in minutes played, respectively. The players slotted to take those minutes are not exactly proven commodities. James Ennis played respectably last season, and its possible he grows into a poor man's Tony Allen, but he's simply not going to be able to fill Allen's role on the team. Randolph will see his minutes taken by Chandler Parsons who, judging by what we saw in the preseason and last season, is a shell of his pre-injury self. And some combination of Wayne Selden, Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore will have to replace Carter. If all the cards line up - if Tyreke Evans is healthy and playing like he did when he was last healthy in New Orleans; if James Ennis remains a stalwart shooter from beyond the arc and grows into a better overall defender; if Chandler Parsons can become an at least serviceable stretch-4; if all these things happen, this team could flirt with .500, ready to pounce should some of the teams ahead of them falter. But they need help.
The Mavericks are in an even more complex situation. The team's 'big-3' remains unchanged - Dirk is back for another run through, tailed by Wes Mathews and Harrison Barnes. They are clearly the best players on the roster and...that is not a good thing. Assuming the re-signed Nerlens Noel (who is playing on the qualifying offer) comes off the bench, as reports suggest, the Mavs have one of the worst CARMELO projections of any starting 5 (assuming Dennis Smith Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith round out the starting group). While it seems overall pretty bleak, I think there is some room for hope with this group. Outside of the core three, its a pretty young team - Smith, Finney-Smith, Seth Curry (currently injured), Yogi Ferrell and Dwight Powell (in the running for starting PF) are all in their early 20s. Continued growth from those guys could be enough to bounce this team from the 35 or so wins I am expecting to a closer to .500 record where, like the Grizzlies, they could stand poised to surpass a flailing team above them. I don't see how they get there - this isn't going to be a team particularly strong on either the offensive or defensive ends - but Rick Carlisle is a good enough coach that I think he could figure it out.
The No Way in Hell Tier - West
Los Angeles Lakers (29-31 wins)
Phoenix Suns (27-29 wins)
Sacramento Kings (26-28 wins)
These teams are not good. They won't be good. They never had any chance of being good. Do not let any media narratives convince you otherwise.
The Lakers have pieces that could be good. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez are both average starters in this league. Other than Larry Nance, they're almost certainly the only players on the team who would see rotation minutes on a good team. Luol Deng is a venerable veteran presence at this point, but he was frankly bad last season. His value to this team is almost non-existent, and if he wasn't owed so much money I would expect them to try to buy him out. I think they'll probably explore trade options, but they're likely nonexistent. As is, very likely, the market for Jordan Clarkson, who, barring significant growth this year in a diminished role, is on the path to an overseas career. Brandon Ingram has been a massive disappointment so far and, while I still have faith he is going to be an NBA player, my belief in his ability to develop into a star is fast fading. The team's fate relies on the performance of rookie PG Lonzo Ball, who was not impressive in his pre-season debut. I'm in a weird position with Ball - I think he has a really high floor because of his natural court-vision and ability to at least be a presence on the defensive end with his size. But I'm not sure what his ceiling is without a more developed offensive game. All told, while this team should be better than both Sacramento and Phoenix, they are probably still going to be awful.
Speaking of awful, my beloved Suns are almost assuredly going to fall into that category themselves. The Suns return just one above average starter this season: Eric Bledoe. Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley are solid veterans, if not spectacular at this point in their careers. The team is chock full of young talent - Devin Booker is an offensive phenom, Marquese Chriss is an athletic force, T.J. Warren is a throwback talent and Josh Jackson could be an immediately impactful defensive player - but its hard to know how any of the pieces fit together. My biggest problem with the whole rebuilding endeavor in Phoenix is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the team picks their players, simply pursuing year-on-year a best player available approach. The result is the jigsaw puzzle the Suns now face: how do you slot three negatives on defense (Warren, Chriss and Booker) next to a player with a limited offensive game (Jackson), while managing the minutes of three players that ostensibly share the same position (Warren, Chriss and Dragan Bender), one of whom you just re-signed to a large contract extension? The roster does not make much sense, and the coaching staff isn't helping much. Earl Watson is absolutely loved by his players. That cannot be in doubt. But it was really hard to see growth out of them last year. And part of that is because the team lacked any semblance of discipline: the team ran an offensive and defensive system that seemed to intentionally lack order, and the players themselves were, once again, rowdy and chippy to a fault. The team shouldn't be as bad as they were last year. But they could just as easily be massively worse particularly if management decides to move on from Chandler, Dudley and Bledsoe, who may just be the only ones imparting any sense of discipline upon the young core.
The Kings, having finally moved on from the moving maelstrom that is Boogie Cousins, find themselves in a familiar place: the dregs of the conference. Comically mismanaged, it is unsurprising the Kings find themselves here, but for once there is quite a bit of room for hope. They have a young, relatively exciting core: Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere return off of promising seasons, particularly post-Boogie, and the team has added De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Justin Jackson, all of whom I believe are likely to be NBA-caliber rotation players. The team also signed veterans Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, along with George Hill, to serve as mentors for the young core, which represents one of the first thoughtful moves the Kings have made in ages. The team isn't going to be good, but they should be fun. The young pieces they have show some semblance of a team concept, something the Suns' core lacks: Fox as a dribble-drive, defensively oriented PG (a la Eric Bledsoe), Hield/Bogdanovic as deadly spot up shooters at the two (a la J.J. Redick), Justin Jackson as a multi-faceted offensive swingman (a la Kevin Martin), Skal as a versatile defender at the four with the ability to switch onto almost anything and cover up the weaknesses of the wings defensively (honestly, a Skal comp is hard to think of), and WCS as a balanced center who can provide a mixture of offense and defense (a la Marcin Gortat). I'm not saying all of those players get there. I think, in particular, it is unlikely Hield and WCS advance to their full potential. But the team concept makes sense. The pieces fit together. This season, it seems, will be about maximizing the opportunity of those pieces to play together, to see if that concept can work.