With the start of the regular season closing upon us, it’s high time to divulge some of my personal predictions. I put these together before the preseason schedule kicked off for Kevin Nesgoda of Sonics Rising, who is planning on releasing overall standings predictions from several SB Nation writers, as well as rankings of the NBA’s starting players, head coaches and benches, throughout the course of this week — so be sure to look for them!
My methodology isn’t some complicated formula — not yet anyways — but it did involve plenty of projections for both offenses and defenses of all 30 teams. I relied heavily on individual playtype data from NBA Stats and factored in other individual and team statistics from last season. Then my subjective analysis, or if you prefer, my gut instincts had the final say, factoring in the likelihood of injury, playing time estimations, etc.
For the first time in 21 years, the Lakers will not be dependent on Kobe Bryant so the team’s fate now entirely lies in their future core. That’s good from a developmental perspective, but they’ve got a long, long way to go and I’m far from sold on this currently constructed group. Like the masses, I trust Luke Walton more than Byron Scott, yet he will have his hands full with a roster that will only show sporadic instances of good basketball. Can they remain focused through the course of the year and not be tempted to spend more time in the bright lights of L.A.? One of the better case scenarios would include D’Angelo Russell maturing significantly, Timofey Mozgov not completely flopping and Julius Randle adding more dimensions to his game.
14. Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker will be an offensive juggernaut, perhaps even earn his first All-Star bid, but his teammates are huge question marks. Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender cannot be counted on for the foreseeable future and the threat of injury/underperformance from key players like Tyson Chandler, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight is high. There’s plenty of individual talent in Phoenix, but it’s hard to imagine it coming together this season.
13. Sacramento Kings
The Kings are this decade’s rinse and repeat team. In the last six seasons, they’ve finished with mediocre win totals and have failed keep the same head coach around for two full seasons. I’m a fan of Dave Joerger and think he is as likely as anyone not named Popovich to be able to change a culture, but then again I was high on Mike Malone and we all remember his fate. DeMarcus Cousins will play at an All-Star level, but the rest of the roster is as inspiring as the thought of eating stale leftovers for an entire week.
12. Dallas Mavericks
I feel the Mavericks are destined to be one of the biggest disappointments: Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut are as likely to be found in suits as uniforms, Dirk Nowitzki is several years removed from being able to carry a team, and Harrison Barnes will not change his spots. It also doesn’t help that Wesley Matthews has yet to prove he can return to pre-injury levels and the useful trio of Chandler Parsons, Zaza Pachulia and Raymond Felton have skipped town.
11. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have a superb collection of talent and a solid head coach/GM combination, but it’s not their time yet. The team needs a star to emerge, but I don’t like Emmanuel Mudiay’s odds of morphing into one anytime soon. However, Denver will give fans reasons for optimism with improvements on both sides of the ball that should result in a few more wins than last year’s total of 33.
10. Houston Rockets
For a team that struggled defensively last season, going all in on the offense this summer was akin to throwing gasoline on a fire. The hiring of Mike D’Antoni and the signings of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon will result in more points, but the defense should border the line of historically bad in franchise history. Also, I believe the move of James Harden to point guard is going to backfire — his scoring efficiency will dip from the additional load on his shoulders and the turnovers will eventually disillusion him. Many NBA teams are just too versatile, talented and capable of performing in today’s fast-paced landscape for Daryl Morey’s latest plan to enjoy large amounts of success.
I expect the Pelicans, Timberwolves and, yes, the Trail Blazers, to find themselves all vying for the final two playoff seeds in the Western Conference. However, the Pelicans will ultimately fall short with a record around .500 in large part because they fail to overcome the early season absences of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter. The good news is Anthony Davis reclaims the title of one of the best players in the NBA, the defense takes at least one step forward thanks to marked improvement in the intensity category, and Buddy Hield proves to be a more complete player than anyone imagined following a mixed summer league bag.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Back in 2011, Tom Thibodeau had just finished his rookie head coach campaign, helping the Chicago Bulls to 21 more wins than from the previous season. He will once again be considered an immediate difference maker; however, there are several important distinctions to note with the current group of Timberwolves that should cap expectations. One, Derrick Rose was a legitimate MVP candidate, and two, the Bulls were on the doorstep of becoming a top defensive unit. Karl-Anthony Towns likely needs another season before being mentioned in MVP talk, and the Wolves defense must first rise to a level of respectability from the depths of the cellar. Still, I like this team enough to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2003-04 season because the Western Conference will be filled with a lot of mediocrity.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
After losing 4/5ths of their starting lineup, many predicted a dismal 2015-16 season, yet the Blazers finished a surprising 5th in the standings. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have become one of the league’s best backcourts, but too many dismiss an enviable record of health while massive quantities of injury derailed teams around them. Regression in that department will offset the expected small individual improvements for a team laden with young role players. The result will be another fine campaign, but it won’t move the needle much, if at all, from last year’s 44-win total.
6. Utah Jazz
Many figured the Utah Jazz were going to find the postseason last April, but key injuries, a lack of depth and a miserable finish (losses in 4 of the final 5 games) prevented the much anticipated trip. With the additions of George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, the Jazz will make the jump and reach the promised land with relative ease. If the defense really locks things down, this team could legitimately wind up with home court advantage in the first round.
Kevin Durant may be gone but Russell Westbrook remains, and he’s good enough to propel a team on his own — provided the right supporting cast exists. By my projections, the Thunder will have enough weapons around the superstar to make a serious run at the 50-win plateau. Victor Oladipo is going to be in the running for the Most Improved award and Steven Adams is a very underrated center. Role players like Ersan Ilyasova, Andre Roberson and Enes Kanter will be important, but if they underperform, I suspect Sam Presti will make a very beneficial trade.
Like the Pelicans, the Grizzlies were demolished by injury in 2015-16. I expect that figure to regress back towards the mean considering they’ve usually experienced less annual injuries than the average team the past five seasons. A healthy Marc Gasol and Mike Conley tandem automatically sets a high floor, and the grit and grind approach has always worked well for this core; however, Chandler Parsons will be the key to the team finishing as high as fourth in the Western Conference. James Ennis is an adept backup, but the Grizzlies will need their big free agent signing to make a significant impact.
Kawhi Leonard is so good that I’d select him over both Kevin Durant and LeBron James at small forward if starting a team today. Unfortunately for the Spurs, Tim Duncan’s retirement, the loss of David West and Diaw, and another year tacked onto the ages of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, will reduce the team’s overall potential. Popovich will make LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol work, but does the head coach have enough depth and players he trusts behind the solid core? If significant problems develop, don’t be surprised if the Spurs wind up in the 4-6 range come the middle of April.
Once again, the Clippers will win 50-some games this year — the core is too talented not to — yet I feel this might be the group’s last hurrah. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul both have options to terminate their existing contracts at season’s end, so one may bolt if greener pastures beckon or they’ve simply tired from the constant lack of postseason success. The duo has been together for five seasons yet never managed to get past the second round of the playoffs. Also, the additions of Marresse Speights, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Alan Anderson will comprise Doc Rivers strongest bench since his tenure began.
Duh + (Kevin Durant - Harrison Barnes) = DUUUUUH
No, seriously, the Golden State Warriors might have to be considered locks for a 70+ win season. That’s ridiculous since it’s only been accomplished just twice in league history!
If you agree or disagree vehemently with any of my choices, please let me know in the comments below! (Also, be sure to leave your predicted finish in the Western Conference.)