This post was written by basketball coach and HtD contributor Juan Bernal.
How great has the NBA Season been so far… Not one regular season game has been played and we already have had a should be All Star/ is Olympian move because of his desire for 5 (25 million in actuality) million more dollars. It arguably takes OKC out of title contention for this season and elevates Houston into that logjam for the West 8th spot. Utah, Dallas, Portland, Houston, Minnesota will all battle for that 8th spot with 2/5 of those teams making it.
The East should also be interesting, although their is only one team outside the projected Top 8 that has any real shot of making the playoffs (Milwaukee). Toronto and Washington will be improved but not quite enough to catch a playoff spot.
So Here’s Part I of II of the NBA playoff preview, starting off with some not some conventional projections that come to some surprisingly conceivable conclusions.
11 Bold Predictions for this coming season:
1. Damian Lillard will be the Rookie of the Year. I think that he is in the best position because he has Lamarcus Aldridge (more on him later), Nic Batum and Wes Matthews (all experienced veterans) on his team. The Blazers will win more games than the Hornets, and the Hornets don’t quite have the personnel (aside from Eric Gordon) for Davis to put up the gaudy offensive numbers I think Lillard will put up. Davis will be the better player on the defensive end and long term (best big man prospect since Duncan), but I am on the Lillard will take the League by storm bandwagon, and it shows by this prediction.
2. Josh Smith will be an All Star and have a career year. The most non-talked about story of the off-season has to be the beef there was in Atlanta between Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. Smith wanted out of Atlanta all season last year, and his immediate reaction after Johnson was traded was “everything is good now.” There was obviously something that happened (Iso Joe never being able to get ATL past the second round could be it, or the result of Joe’s $120 million contract) I just want some NBA Insider to get to the bottom of it. Take the over on ATL’s 42.5 wins in Vegas and bank on the Hawks riding Smith to a playoff spot.
3. Lamarcus Aldridge will re-join the discussion of best PF’s in the game. Notice I didn’t say join, I said “re-join.” I’ve always been a fan of LA, and his All Star selection last season was LONG overdue. Too bad his season ended with a shoulder injury. LA should reap the most benefits from the addition of Lillard, as he should get a few more touches and opportunities. LA should be a pernennial All Star the next 5-7 years granted he stays healthy and the catalyst for Portland to contend for a playoff berth out West (if you follow the NBA closely, his chances for staying healthy aren’t exactly a given; See Portland’s training staff or Brandon Roy)
4. The only person stopping LeBron from winning the MVP is Rondo- It’s quite possible that LeBron will assimilate himself into the Jordan-like stratosphere this season… The man is on a mission to not just win another title, but become the best ever. However, there is a man with a title, with a bitter taste in his mouth and with a pretty good team of his own to carry and his name is Rajon Rondo. The Celtics aren’t exactly expected to win 60 games (I have them at 50) in the regular season, but the only player you can rely on night in and night out with Garnett and Pierce on their last legs is Rondo. Rondo will put up higher scoring numbers, slightly lower asst numbers and shoot better than that somewhat misleading 48% career average may lead one to think.
5. The Denver Nuggets will win the Northwest Division- The team with the most to prove in the West during the Regular season is the Nuggets. I think they are the underrated winners of the Dwight deal with the acquisition of Andre Iguodala (who fits perfectly on both ends). They are in their second full season of P.C (Post Carmelo) and typically that is when franchises see the risk/reward of investments. With a Top half player at every position (Lawson, Iggy, Danilo, Faried and Mozgov) in the starting lineup and a Top 3 bench (Wilson Chandler, who makes my All-Underrated team, Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos and the enigmatic Javale McGee, with Jordan Hamilton possibly seeing some minutes). Denver has a very real possibility for a Top 3 seed in the Western Conference.
6. Philadelphia 76ers will be the most disappointing team. Philadelphia had something incredible to build on after their run last season. After beating the Bulls, taking the Celtics the distance, Philly did what a middling NBA team should do… they took a risk. And that risk was gargantuan. They traded their best player for an enigmatic Andrew Bynum and let their leading scorer walk in free agency. They acquired Jason Richardson and Nick Young, both one way players who have their deficiencies defensively( not to say that Lou Williams wasn’t). I’m fine with those acquisitions with Bynum in the picture, but once you take him out of the picture it becomes a problem. Bynum is already going to miss the start of the season with a right knee issue that has been nagging him for most of his career. It’s undetermined how much time he could miss, but aside from Bynum, Philly’s most complete players are Jrue Holiday (who is on my all breakout team) and Evan Turner. I’m not sure they can score enough to consistently win games in the regular season (averaged 102/game in preseason, 2nd in the league) Philly will be a middle of the pack team because of it’s struggle to find an identity.
7. Paul George will be the be the face of the Indiana Pacers franchise- When you think of the Indiana Pacers, you think of a team that fell just short in the Eastern Conference Semis because they didn’t have a go-to guy. They struggled to get the ball to Hibbert (in fairness to him, it was a bad matchup since the Heat decided to go small after Bosh’s ab injury), Danny Granger tried to establish himself unsucessfully (more-so as a punk than anything else, but be that as it may). Paul George was an after-thought, struggling offensively for most of the series, but he made his mark defensively. George is 6’10, 22 years old with the ability to three positions. One of his close friends told me that he spent all summer in the gym after the Heat disappointment refining his offensive game. With Danny Granger recently expressing doubt that he can make it though a full season with a knee, David West an aging veteran in the final year of his contract, and a year removed from an ACL surgery and Roy Hibbert having some injury troubles of his own (not to mention the pressure of living up to a max deal), there is no question who the future of the Indiana Pacers is.
8. The Chicago Bulls will be a Top 5 Eastern Conference Team- Let me start of by saying first of all- Thibs is the best adjustment coach in the league and the fact that a first time head coach can win back to back regular season titles in today’s NBA speaks to how much of an impact Tom Thibadeau has on that team. With Derrick Rose being sidelined indefinitely, Thibs has the challenge of assimilating a whole new roster (six new players, and promising 2nd player Jimmy Butler) to play with Boozer, Noah and Deng. It should also be noted that Chicago played half the season without Rose and went 24-9. I expect more of the same this year, and Chicago should be in the thick of the Central Division race with resurgent Indiana. It will be interesting to see the development of Taj Gibson during the absence of Rose.
9. San Antonio Spurs will win the Western Conference- The big winners of the Harden trade were the San Antonio Spurs. They were the best team in the NBA and showed it prior to Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, where they ran into the buzzsaw that was the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC was a bad matchup for the Spurs, but I don’t see that being the case vs. the Lakers this year. The Lakers don’t have a dynamic wing or an ultra quick PG that can beat the Spurs the way Durant and Westbrook beat OKC. Also, continuity favors the Spurs more than any other team this season as they have been the only team not to make a trade during the offseason.
10. The Dallas Mavericks will miss the playoffs- The state of the Mavericks franchise is a precarious one. Two years after winning the World Championship, they finished 7th in the West. They lost Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Brendan Haywood and replaced them with two guys who were amnestied Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, a mercurial OJ Mayo and a punchline for one liners in Eddy Curry. As if that wasn’t a trying time, think about which team could have had a worse preseason when you lose your franchise player for the first month and your projected starting 2 guard in Delonte West. I do like the addition of Darren Collison, but without Dirk it’s a collection of aging veterans that lacks an overall identity. Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Brand, Kaman, Mayo, Brandan Wright and an inefficient/underacheiving Roddy Beaubois in your rotation, does that sound like a team that can make the playoffs in the competitive West?
11. These notable players will have new teams by midseason: Amare Stoudemire, JJ Redick, Andrea Bargnani, Tyreke Evans and Anderson Varejao.
Eastern Conference Standings- Division champs in bold
1. Miami 61-21
2. Indiana 53-29
3. Boston 50-32
4. Chicago 52-30
5. Brooklyn 48-34
6. Atlanta 46-36
7. New York 44-38
8. Philadelphia 42-40
9. Milwaukee 41-41
11. Washington- 32-50
12. Cleveland 30-52
1. San Antonio 59-23
2. Denver 57-25
3. LA Lakers 56-26
4. OKC 55-27
5. Memphis 51-31
6. LA Clippers 49-33
7. Utah 46-36
8. Houston 45-37
9. Minnesota 43-39
10. Dallas 42-40
11. Portland 37-45
12. Golden State 34-48
13. Phoenix 30-52
14. New Orleans 30-52
15. Sacramento 27-55