The eve of the regular season is not too late for a predictions…right? Well, after last year’s pseudo-predictions column, I had to do it right this year. So, in true Bases and Baskets fashion, this will be a three-part series that all just so happens to be released on the same day. Let’s start off with my 2015-16 NBA regular season and playoff picture.
I tweeted it yesterday, but I really think that the fight for the playoffs will be more compelling in the Eastern Conference than the Western Conference. Let’s take the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, and Miami Heat as locks. Then you have the Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Pistons, Raptors, and Wizards—six teams fighting for four spots. The Pacers have Paul George returning and Monta Ellis helping with the load on offense. The Pistons are the true wild card in the East because they had that impossible six wins in eight games stretch in March. And with Porzingis (I actually spelled his name right before Googling it) on the Knicks as a possible impact rookie, I don’t see why the Knicks can’t blow their lowly 30-win Vegas odds out of the water and land closer to 40. Granted, it could implode too, but when you have one of the best scorers in the game (even if he is coming off injury), you always have a shot.
Here are the eight teams that I see making it…
8. Detroit Pistons
Stan Van Gundy has turned it around in the Motor City. Andre Drummond is poised to make a DeAndre Jordan-like stand. Oh wait, he already has. The Pistons were awful so he didn’t attract as much attention as Jordan, but their numbers are eerily similar. Even down to the sub-40 free throw brick laying.
7. Boston Celtics
Brad Stevens at +1200 is a very nice dark-horse to win Coach of the Year, I will say that. He will know exactly how to maximize the off-season acquisitions of David Lee and Amir Johnson. If you’re looking to bet money on a reasonable long-shot in any area, this is your team. Don’t be surprised if they climb up a few slots by the end of the year or make a splash around the trade deadline.
6. Washington Wizards
I love John Wall’s character and I love his game. I think Otto Porter’s trajectory is pointing upward, as well. But I also loved Paul Pierce as the glue-guy veteran who could knock down big shots and keep the locker room tempered. There’s no reason that Jared Dudley who came in from Milwaukee can’t be that guy…but he also doesn’t have that championship pedigree that The Truth does. There’s a good chance I regret putting them this low but at the outset, I see five teams better than them in the East.
5. Toronto Raptors
Maybe it’s all the Drake that I’ve been listening to or the fact that I played as them in NBA 2K14 too much, but I’ve always had a mild bias toward Toronto. Kyle Lowry is a beast. Terrence Ross is an athlete. Amir Johnson had that edge…but is now gone. DeMar DeRozan is a solid scorer and Bismack Biyombo is an excellent interior defender even though he is anemic offensively. Perhaps parallel to Warriors’ big man Festus Ezeli, though, Biyombo will continue to see his stock rise.
4. Atlanta Hawks
They lost DeMarre Carroll to the Raptors but other than that did well to keep their same squad. We saw their magic run out in the playoffs and I expect more of the same in the 2015-16 regular season. They’ll be a contender in the East, but I don’t see them being in the traditional Cavs-and-Bulls elite tier.
3. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are a mainstay in the elite of this Conference, but I see one team sneaking their way back to the two-spot. Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Derrick My-Health-Is-Not-A Rose, Pau Gasol… This team is loaded. They’ve proven to be a regular season machine that finds a way to fizzle out come playoffs.
2. Miami Heat
You’d think it was #ThrowbackThursday with this pick. But Elijah, you say, LeBron left Miami a long, long time ago? This may be the case, but Chris Bosh is back and seems to be healthy. Dwyane Wade still has some juice left. Hassan Whiteside is a going to have a full year to showcase his ability to be an elite center. Goran Dragic, Deng, STAT, Birdman and Gerald Green round out a very capable rotation. Maybe I’m placing undue faith in Erik Spoelstra to make it all work, but this is his year to shine and prove that it wasn’t just a Big Three effort to win two championships. And at +2500 odds to win Coach of the Year, Spo is another good dark horse pick.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
You’re worried about Kyrie, and so am I. But it’s LeBron James. The man has gotten it done for seemingly his entire lifetime and almost pulled out a legendary upset in the 2015 NBA Finals. I’m not betting against him…yet.
So there’s the East. Two teams that I really like, the Pacers and Bucks, will end up on the outside looking in. And I want Eff-You Melo to make a playoff run but the East is surprisingly decent top-to-bottom in their seeding.
8. Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert is an elite center. Gordon Hayward shushed his big-contract haters. And I don’t trust a team that has Deron Williams, an aging Dirk Nowitzki, and JaVale McGee. Depth is a question and I’m really hesitant for them to get to the 45-win mark that’s been necessary to make the playoffs in the West but I’ll take my chances on them over Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix. Sacramento just seems like a poor chemistry experiment waiting to explode, even though they’re easily within the realm of playoff possibility. Next year, DeMarcus. Next year, for sure.
7. New Orleans Pelicans
This will be certainly a story to follow. New Orleans pried Alvin Gentry away from the 2015 champion Golden State Warriors and will hopefully translate some of the Warriors' wildly successful offensive strategy for use with Anthony Davis & Co. Speaking of Davis, most are placing him as an early favorite for the regular season 2016 NBA MVP...I say pump the brakes there. Davis is a monster and one of the best players in the league, but until New Orleans makes a jump into the upper echelon of the West, he will continue to be a fringe candidate unless his numbers are so outrageous you can't help but give him the award. For now, though, I don't see it happening. The quality of players in the West is too high to not allow team success to count for at least something in the MVP race.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
After holding a series lead in the playoffs against the Warriors, Memphis should feel very good about remaining in the thick of the Western contenders. Adding Matt Barnes to the mix will only give the grind-it-out Grizzlies a bigger "edge" in competitive spirit. Without the offensive superstars that each team ahead of them in my predictions has, however, teams still can game-plan for low-scoring games. Tony Allen's ineptitude on offense is a glaring weakness that the Warriors exposed, and it will only be further exploited this year. That's not to say that they won't earn measurable success...just that that success will be tempered.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers at five just feels low. Two superstars and one defensive stopper seems like it should be worth more. Adding Paul Pierce is valuable but the DeAndre Jordan saga this off-season exposed chemistry issues in LA. Bill Simmons also tweeted about some underlying issues these past couple months. The five seed is the right compromise between innate talent and inability to maximize potential because of chemistry.
2. With that said - since last summer, the Ballmer Clips have been just as much of disaster behind the scenes as the Sterling Clips were.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) August 25, 2015
4. The Clips organization has been as dysfunctional as ever - not just the team but especially off the court. It's a laundry list of things.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) August 25, 2015
6. Three most dysfunctional NBA organizations right now are the Kings, Hornets and Clippers and I am not sure of the order... (Ok I'm done)— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) August 25, 2015
4. San Antonio Spurs
Last season, I made the bold prediction that the regular season juggernaut Spurs would falter to a seed that was not top-3 in the West. That turned out to be true, and I think it will follow this year. The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge changed the trajectory of two organizations (Spurs positively and Portland, well... contender to rebuilding says it all). Pop will get it done but, as I emphasized last year, with a lack of focus on winning individual regular season games. That came back to haunt them in the playoffs with the first round matchup against the Spurs, but I don't anticipate the gameplanning changing with most of the organization only getting older. (Worth noting...look who I have them matching up in the first round with again.)
3. Houston Rockets
Ty Lawson completed the exodus of Denver's stars/fringe stars that began with Carmelo Anthony and most recently Andre Iguodala. Could he be what the Rockets needed to make the jump to the NBA Finals? I'm not so sure, but he definitely helps. Harden will come back from an MVP-less season with a vengeance and how entertaining would it be to see three Thunder draft picks vie for the MVP if Durant, Westbrook, and Harden go at it? Take a second to digest the fact that one team had three MVP candidates. Thunder fans are sick of hearing it but it's so mind-boggling that I can't help but to reiterate it.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
And yet, despite everything I just said, I still see OKC among the very elite in the West. Instead of three MVP candidates, they only have two. Awful, right? Durant and Westbrook, when healthy, are enough to carry an offense. Their battles against the Warriors are almost an old school vs. new school battle: one-on-one offensive superstars vs. a team-oriented mix of talents with one true superstar. I believe that the latter is both more effective and more sustainable, but this year will challenge that theory.
1. Golden State Warriors
As the only person I've seen who put the Warriors as 2015 champs in writing during the pre-season last year, I'm sticking with them this season. No championship hangover, no worry that Kerr will return eventually, and a continual growth of superstar (Curry) and team. Contract-year Harrison Barnes will be fun to watch and you know that a championship Draymond Green will only be more energetically braggadocious. This team is Zach Lowe's most entertaining team to watch in 2016 for a reason.
(My over-under regular season predictions as a bonus are here.)
Now on to the 2016 NBA Awards Predictions and 2016 NBA Playoff Predictions, Part II...