26 October 2013

2013-14 NBA Predictions

The Miami Heat may not get to the seven titles that they were promising when the "Big Three" came together in Miami three and a half years ago, but after winning their second title in a row, it would appear that the championship road runs through South Beach. Can LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and friends become the first club to threepeat since Los Angeles in 2000-02? Will they be upset by an Eastern club? Or will a deep Western Conference have something to say about that? Here are my 2013-14 NBA predictions.

1. Miami Heat
I mean, let's be honest, the Heat are the team to beat in the East and across the board. After the insane run they made last year in the regular season, and with how they had to battle to win the title, and considering they return essentially everybody (but don't underestimate the loss of Juwan Howard), this is a team primed for a threepeat. I do wonder if Dwyane Wade takes another step back but I mean, they got LeBron James, enough said.

2. Indiana Pacers
In the place of the Bulls these past two years has risen the Pacers, who play tremendous defense and have given the Heat a run for their money in the postseason. Paul George stepped up big time late last year and he looks to be a star in the making at the three when Danny Granger was out. Lance Stephenson made some plays in the playoffs and George Hill is a pretty good point guard. The frontcourt is very strong with Roy Hibbert, who took his game to another level in the postseason, especially defensively, and David West, and their bench was upgraded by adding Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and my guy C.J. Watson. But now that Granger is back, what can we expect to see out of him? Could he be trade bait?

3. Chicago Bulls
Getting back a healthy Derrick Rose will be huge for this team and while we can't be sure if we are getting necessarily the same Rose as before his injury, we will be seeing an elite point guard make a big impact for a club that needs him to make a title run. They remain defensive fiends thanks to coach Tom Thibodeau, one of the best in the league, and they feature a pair of All-Star caliber guys beyond Rose in small forward Luol Deng and center Joakim Noah, and Jimmy Butler is a rising star and will make this team even more dangerous.

4. Brooklyn Nets
I think the potential for some strong basketball is high for the Nets this year, even with the insane amount that they will have to pay with the luxury tax. Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett have the makings of an excellent frontcourt pairing, you aren't asking that much from Garnett and Paul Pierce besides strong leadership and important contributions in the playoffs, and Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are a good backcourt combo. Plus, they have a strong bench with Andrei Kirilenko, who was an absurd steal, Jason Terry, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans and Shaun Livingston (legitimately). However, how will the notoriously moody Williams deal with such strong locker room guys in Pierce and Garnett? And how does a first-time coach Jason Kidd deal with it all.

5. New York Knicks
The Knicks really have not been title contenders but it looks clear as day that whatever window they had has closed. Carmelo Anthony is an elite scorer but can he be the guy that carries his team through the playoffs, particularly one that has thickened up like the East? J.R. Smith is explosive when he is on, but with a new contract, as well as desires to start, will we see the same Smith this year? Iman Shumpert is very talented and the sky appears to be the limit for him. However, Ray Felton was awful in the postseason at the point. The frontcourt besides Anthony has some major questions and they are can Tyson Chandler get back to the Chandler of two years ago, can Amar'e Stoudemire stay healthy (we all know the answer), what do they expect out of Andre Bargnani, and how much will Anthony play the four, where he excelled last year? It's never a good sign when you fire your general manager a month before the season and Mike Woodson is on the hot seat.

6. Detroit Pistons
We have been down this road of expensive free agent signings for Joe Dumars and the Pistons but spending money on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings is different than shelling out for Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. Smith was a great signing as he really is a very good all-around player that gets hate mostly for his shot selection, where he does take too many jumpers from the perimeter. His versatility makes a talented frontcourt even more dangerous as he will team up with Greg Monroe, who is really starting to come into his own at the four, and Andre Drummond, who may just be a dominant force in the making at center. Mo Cheeks was not an inspiring hire but he can get the job done and he should work well with Jennings at the point. Perimeter shooting and the shooting guard position will be issues but I like this team a lot.

7. Atlanta Hawks
Danny Ferry loves to acquire trade chips and make moves so this may just be a team that swings a big deal this season. This is now Al Horford's team, although could he be potentially moved if he is not happy and the team struggles out of the gate? He and Paul Millsap, who was an absolute steal for $19 million over two years. Jeff Teague is a solid point guard that the team is excited about. They do not have a lot of depth but they do have a bunch of shooters on the wing in Kyle Korver, John Jenkins and Lou Williams. The first round picks were both foreigners and while Lucas Noguirea will remain overseas, point guard Dorsey Schroeder could be a nice change-of-pace off the pine. I do also like new coach Mike Budenholzer.

8. Washington Wizards
I had one concern for the Wizards, even as I was thinking they would slide into the eighth seed. I love how they finished down the stretch when John Wall came back from injury, and Wall himself was tremendous down the stretch. I also love Brad Beal at shooting guard and therefore, Washington has themselves a very talented backcourt. The forward positions are not great, although Trevor Ariza is a solid trade chip due to his expiring contract and there are high hopes for Otto Porter, despite how awful he looked this summer. But the big concern was in the frontcourt as Emeka Okafor was out indefinetely due to a herniated disk in his neck a month ago and Nene is not reliable. But today, they swung a deal sending Okafor and a first-round pick (top 12 protected) to the Suns for talented center Marcin Gortat among others. While I don't love giving up first round picks, Gortat is a strong double-double guy that fills a big hole. So for the first time, Randy Wittman may actually oversee some competence.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers
I think that Ben Golliver hits the nail on the head here, the Cavs probably have the greatest disparity between the best and the worst case scenario. They certainly can be a playoff team and get as high as the sixth seed but they can also fall flat on their face and not make that much progress. To make a playoff spot, they are going to have to take a big step forward and a lot of that relies on (drumroll, please?) Andrew Bynum. Of all the guys I would want to place a lot of weight on, Bynum is nowhere near that. There is a reason why the Cavs have a number of outs in his contract. He has injury issues and what's worse is that he does not have the work ethic to overcome them, not even close. Kyrie Irving is excellent, I like Dion Waiters, when healthy, Anderson Varejao is a good center and even though he is changing free throw hands for some reason, and while he was a shocking first pick, I really like Anthony Bennett. But that question with Bynum is just too big.

10. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks had to replace their entire backcourt, and that is necessarily a bad thing as Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis were not a good pair and J.J. Redick was not happy. In their place are Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo, with the underrated Gary Neal off the pine. I like that backcourt, and their frontcourt has some good stuff with the defensive menace Larry Sanders, Ersan Illysova and John Henson. Caron Butler's expiring deal could be enticing trade bait and Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a must-watch just to see what he can do. A team many are sleeping on that I think could push a little action, and I like Larry Drew.

11. Toronto Raptors
This club is going to be interesting to watch solely because we do not know what new general manager Masai Ujiri is going to do. Dwane Casey is a good coach and has done fine work with the team's defense but he's probably gone at some point. They have some pieces with which to work with in regards to a trade, namely Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan. This season is probably going to be a wash but a lot of eyes are on their talented center Jonas Valanciunas, and he has the opportunity to put up some big numbers.

12. Boston Celtics
It made sense for Danny Ainge to commence the rebuilding process this year and they will do so under the stewardship of new coach Brad Stevens, whose hiring I loved. It comes with risk but it's the kind of bold move that Danny Ainge has never shied away from and unlike most college coaches, he will not have full control. Rajon Rondo will be shopped all season as will Jeff Green and Brandon Bass. I do like Kelly Olynyk and he should give them some pop in the frontcourt.

13. Orlando Magic
The Magic are still a ways from the postseason but this has the makings of an entertaining club. Nikola Vucevic is a talented big who will give you double-doubles every night. Tobias Harris looked really good down the stretch, and a brilliant move to get him in the J.J. Redick deal. Mo Harkless is talented and I really like Andrew Nicholson as well. Aaron Afflalo is a rock solid shooting guard. Plus, people really love Victor Oladipo and if the rumors of him playing point come about, that could get wild.

14. Charlotte Bobcats
You do always have to wonder what you will get from a guy that is clearly chasing the money like Al Jefferson did in the offseason, otherwise why would a guy like him sign with such an awful team? I did hate the Tyler Zeller pick at the draft but there is a chance that they could have a nice frontcourt combo under new coach Steve Clifford, who is known for his work with big men. And this team may actually be interesting to watch if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develops any kind of a jumper, and there are worries that he peaks out as a wing stopper similar to Tony Allen, and if Kemba Walker continues to develop at a scorer.

15. Philadelphia 76ers
I think it is a lock that the Sixers will be the worst team in the league and thus the real question is if they make a run at having the worst season ever in a full campaign either in wins (nine) or in winning percentage (.106). They're obviously in tank mode in the wake of the Jrue Holiday trade, they took forever to hire a coach (Brett Brown, formerly an assistant in Stan Antonio) and they drafted a pair of projects in Nerlens Noel, who is not going to play this year because they want to tank and take no risks, and Michael Carter-Williams. Their best player may be Evan Turner. In a year, could it be Andrew Wiggins?

1. San Antonio Spurs
All the pieces return for this club that came so close to winning the NBA Finals back in June and with that core, you know they will be in the hunt once again. The triumvirate of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan is still an elite one and they will be bringing in as always once the postseason arrives. What makes this team even more dangerous are the young and talented wings in Kawhi Leonard, who is a favorite of mine, and Danny Green. Tiago Splitter also gets the job done at center and Gregg Popovich knows what he is doing.

2. Los Angeles Clippers
I would like to say going from Vinny Del Negro to Doc Rivers represents a nice coaching upgrade, wouldn't you. Well it was not pretty how Rivers maneuvered his way to L.A. from Boston but he got there and now this team is thinking a title. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league, and he will love playing for Rivers, and the club upgraded a weakness on the wing by acquiring J.J. Redick and drafting Reggie Bullock, both of whom will provide some key shooting. Jamal Crawford is one of the top sixth men (but are those trade rumors real?) and Matt Barnes is a fine three. The key for Rivers will be to toughen up Blake Griffin and to get DeAndre Jordan from doing something more than underachieving.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder
So what did the Thunder end up getting for James Harden a year later? They've got Jeremy Lamb, a talented shooter who is still an unknown, and the 12th overall pick Steven Adams, a very raw center who has looked nice in the preseason but is not likely to be an immediate contributor. That is what they have for giving up an elite shooting guard, who was even better than I thought he was, as well as bring barely under the luxury tax. And if you are barely under the luxury tax after giving up a guy like Harden for ultimately little, what's the point? Now the bench sucks, and Russell Westbrook is out until December. Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the league and an elite player, but he is one guy. Serge Ibaka is a great shotblocker and has a very good high post game as well. So now the title window has gotten smaller, and Durant and Westbrook may just be gone in a couple years.

4. Houston Rockets
There are a lot of eyes on Houston for obvious reasons this year, after all, they brought a guy named Dwight Howard to town. He will team with a team that was very fun to watch last year, with a big reason being James Harden, who was tremendous last year. Houston did play very fast last year and the Howard of Los Angeles may not mesh well, but the Howard of Orlando would. It remains to see which Howard we will see but at least he is finally in a place where he wants to be of his own choosing. But he and Harden should make some pick-and-roll magic. Omer Asik is now a very valuable trade chip even with his contract, and he will be moved because he can't played with Howard. I love Chandler Parsons, I think Donatas Motiejunas is intriguing and I think Jeremy Lin is a fine point guard.

5. Golden State Warriors
It is a testament to how good the Western Conference will be this year when I have this team fifth, and I love this team. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the best shooting backcourt in the league, and it really is not close. You make a shrewd move for Andre Igoudala who gives them the slasher they lacked and the defensive stopper they really lacked. Harrison Barnes looked impressive at times and was quite good when he played the four in the postseason. You've got a legit 20-10 guy in David Lee and if (IF) he's healthy, Andrew Bogut is a banger. The one issue, that's six starting guys. Who rides the pine in crunch time? Plus, how are Curry's ankles?

6. Memphis Grizzlies
So the Grizzlies have a serious need for perimeter shooting in the offseason and the best they do is bringing back Mike Miller, who can't stay healthy, and draft my boy Jamaal Franklin, who is more of a jack-of-all-trades two-guard than a shooter. That is a flaw that is not going away unless Quincy Pondexter strings together a season worth of some of those playoff appearances. That said, Mike Conley is a fine point guard, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are an elite frontcourt duo and the defense is still fantastic, and helps to make Tony Allen's awful shot worthwhile to keep around.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves
It was just about the worst case scenario for the Wolves last year because when everyone was excited for this club, just about everyone suffered injuries. They get Kevin Love back, which is huge, they get Ricky Rubio back, they spent a lot of money upgrading the wing by signing Kevin Martin (albeit an overpay), the Corey Brewer, who is a strong wing defender and drafting Shabazz Muhammad, who somehow got kicked out of the rookie symposium. I don't think he gets it but he projects to be a quality wing scorer, which helps to fill that need. That said, Rick Adelman is a great coach, there is no more David Kahn, Love and Nikola Pekovic are a great tandem down low and I think if guys stay healthy (a big if), they will be a playoff club.

8. Denver Nuggets
You never see teams that won north of 50 games miss the playoffs the next year, but I am not that certain that Denver does not fall out of the postseason. Andre Igoudala was a key loss and while Brian Shaw should be a good coach, why did so many teams pass on him and he is not the guy that will keep up George Karl's schemes. Plus, when you lose a GM like Masai Ujiri, that's never great. Can JaVale McGee step it up and put it all together for once? I do really like Ty Lawson, I love Kenneth Faried (although those trade rumors are legit) but what will you get out of Danilo Gallinari when he comes back? What gives them the slight advantage to keep them in the postseason is their excellent homecourt advantage.

9. Dallas Mavericks
What has been Mark Cuban's plan after winning the NBA title a couple years back? Nobody knows and now the club is on the cusp of falling apart and missing the playoffs yet again, which I think they will. It's a shame that Dirk Nowitzki in the twilight of his career and coach Rick Carlisle are given a mediocre roster like this one, one that is quite thin in the frontcourt, as well as one that save for Shawn Marion will be a complete disaster defensively. I mean, Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis may just be the worst defending backcourt ever. The one saving grace for this club will be their offense which can be very good if Nowitzki is healthy and Ellis controls his shot selection. In a mediocre Western Conference playoff picture at the bottom, they could very well sneak into the playoffs.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

Portland is a club that, would you believe it or not, saw their enormous need (bench players, please!) and did a pretty good job filling that hole. I loved the selection of C.J. McCollum and it's more than just Patriot League love, he is the perfect sixth man. Allen Crabbe in the second was also a good move because you can get good shooting off the pine from him. They also pulled off a steal to bring in Thomas Robinson, a top five pick last year, and Robin Lopez. LaMarcus Aldridge is a very good four, Nicolas Batum is a good three when he is on and while Damian Lillard had an excellent rookie campaign, I do think he is overrated. However, this team is coached by Terry Stotts and will play no defense, but it would not surprise me if they made the playoffs at all.

11. Los Angeles Lakers
It is going to be a weird and fascinating year for the Lakers, who do not seem to have any semblance of a plan besides trying some quixotic effort for LeBron James (not happening) or Carmelo Anthony (don't rule it out) next summer. Pau Gasol will be on the trading block, Steve Nash will be 40 in February, and we are not sure when Kobe Bryant will be back, how good he will be when he gets back, how soon he murders Nick Young and how soon until he descends into 2005-06 Kobe when the team sucks and he's just putting up huge scoring numbers. There is no depth, the defense will be bad, their only hope is to put up a lot of points, which is feasible. At least they have a truck load of expiring deals save for Nash and who knows what they could do with Bryant, who is a free agent after the year. At least there is no more Dwight Howard nonsense and there is a chance Gasol has a great year. Don't rule out the playoffs.

12. New Orleans Pelicans
The Jrue Holiday was a pretty wild move and an extremely aggressive one for the Pelicans to give up two firsts for an All-Star point guard but is not going to lead a team to a title. Couple that with a move for Tyreke Evans and the holdover Eric Gordon, that's either going to be an excellent backcourt or a complete mess. I love Anthony Davis and Monty Williams is a good coach, but I think the Holiday trades will make for some problems and eventually I think Gordon is going to have to get moved. Who knows if my boy Ryan Anderson goes as well. And it may have been smarter if they kept Nerlens Noel and signed another guard in the offseason. Plus, if you are not making the playoffs, giving up a pick (top-five protected) is probably not a great move.

13. Utah Jazz
After the departure of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap comes the long-awaited opportunity for talented bigs Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, a pair of top five picks, to get extended minutes. Therefore, this is a rebuilding year and a smart one as the prior club's peak was the bottom of the playoffs in the West. Coach Tyrone Corbin is not likely to be coaching the club next year barring something miraculous, all the more proof this team is building for the future. The development of rookie point guard Trey Burke will be key as the team has struggled to fill that position since the Deron Williams trade and if he develops well, he could make for a fine backcourt with Gordon Hayward.

14. Sacramento Kings
What is important for the Kings is that they finally have stable ownership, Vivek Ranadive could end up being a legend, they may just have an arena deal to keep them in Sacramento and they've got a talented new coach in Michael Malone. Plus, they saw Ben McLemore fall into their laps with the seventh pick. And this is Boogie Cousins' team now, and that just may be the greatest thing ever. However this roster still needs a lot of work and while the future may be fruitful, the near-term will be a struggle.

15. Phoenix Suns
How good is Eric Bledsoe? After the three-way deal with the Clippers, Bledsoe finally get a shot at running an offense and he will have to be the man in all likelihood with how bad this roster looks right now. Marcin Gortat is an underrated center and a good double-double guy, but considering the club is rebuilding, and they just drafted Alex Len with the fifth pick, he'll be traded at some point for more assets. There are a lot of scraps and mediocre-to-average swingmen so it will be tough for this team to not be in the cellar in Jeff Hornacek's first year as their coach.

Eastern Quarterfinals
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Washington Wizards
Given their questions on the wing, this is not a good matchup at all for the Wizards. If they want any hope, they need John Wall to be in God mode and probably LeBron James to be incapacitated.
Miami in 4

(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) New York Knicks 
Paul Pierce may just be Carmelo Anthony's mortal enemy and he and Kevin Garnett will work to get in his head in this series. Brooklyn is more varied offensively and should be good enough on defense to overcome Anthony and J.R. Smith (if he's on).
Brooklyn in 6

(3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Detroit Pistons 
This classic rivalry gets rekindled in the playoffs, although it will be the Bulls that look more like the Bad Boys. There is a way for the Pistons to win this series if their frontcourt is dominant but they will struggle just enough with Chicago's physicality.
Chicago in 5

(2) Indiana Pacers vs. (7) Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are not strong enough on either side of the ball to go up and take out the Pacers and their offense could be easily shut down by the Pacers.
Indiana in 4

Western Quarterfinals
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Denver Nuggets
Now if this was Denver from a year ago, this would be fun. But with their weaker roster and their loss of much of their edge, they will struggle to pull off an upset here. I do think they can crank out a win however.
Spurs in 5

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
This should be a tremendous series that will probably be the best of the first round. I do think this may be a tough series for the Rockets to win because Andre Igoudala can slow down James Harden defensively, they do not have Golden State's shooters and Andrew Bogut can bang just enough with Dwight Howard.
Golden State in 7

(3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Memphis Grizzlies
We've got ourselves a rematch with the Thunder looking for some payback. A big reason why the Grizzlies were able to pull an upset was Russell Westbrook being out so I don't think they can pull a repeat, but their excellent defense will keep them in the mix.
Thunder in 6

(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Minnesota Timberwolves
Blake Griffin will have something to prove against Kevin Love this series in my opinion but the Wolves are nowhere near strong enough defensively to pull off an upset.
Los Angeles in 5

Eastern Semifinals
(1) Miami Heat vs. (4) Brooklyn Nets
The Nets made those aggressive moves in the offseason to get to this position but it really will take a whale of an effort to take out LeBron James and co. They do have the advantage of a big edge at center and a big edge at point guard so they will have to exploit them both, but I don't see the ability to slow down James.
Miami in 6

(2) Indiana Pacers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls
I hope you love defense because this will be a physical and nasty series between these divisional rivals. This is a pretty tight that I think every basketball fan would be excited for (although fake fans would dread them due to low scoring). I think the slight edge goes to the much-improved bench for the Pacers, but not by much.
Indiana in 7

Western Semifinals
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
I just may think that every series that features the Warriors would be groovy and I think they can pull off the upset against the top seed in San Antonio. Stephen Curry is going to take the next step and lead this team forward into the Western Conference finals.
Warriors in 6

(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (3) Oklahoma City Thunder
The Clippers with Doc Rivers running the show are going to be hungry to go deep in the playoffs, Rivers did not go to Los Angeles just for the sun and fun. And this will be a tough series for both but I think that the Clips' more varied offensive scheme will be just enough to get them past the Thunder, who will struggle to fill Kevin Martin's void.
Los Angeles in 6

Eastern Finals
(1) Miami Heat vs. (2) Indiana Pacers 
I really want to pick the Pacers in this series, and I really think they can do it. Paul George is probably the best guy to go up against Lebron James and make him work for his points. Roy Hibbert gives Miami fits and with how strong the Pacers play defense, this is a tough matchup and no vacation for the Heat. But I just cannot do it with Indiana's current roster, they need another playmaker in their backcourt on the wing.
Miami in 7

Western Finals
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
Remember when both of these California clubs were irrelevant? I mean, it wasn't that long ago after all. But with a pair of former NBA on ABC analysts running their respective clubs, both are charged up for deep runs in the West. I think that this series will turn into an offensive shootout, but I just do not see the Clippers putting up as much perimeter action as we will see from Curry and Klay Thompson. Give me the upset.
Golden State in 7

As you can tell, I am buying hard into the Warriors this year. I thought that the Andre Igoudala move was an excellent one, Stephen Curry is getting into the elite territory, and Mark Jackson has shown himself to be a pretty darn good coach. And let's be honest, I think that Miami is more vulnerable this year than it has been, and it is always very tough to pull off a threepeat as the last two teams to do it had to fight hard in the postseason. But if LeBron James really wants to go back to Cleveland (and I said if for a reason), will he want to go out a loser in the Finals? And if he stays, wouldn't he want to be part of one of the top dynasties in the league? Give me the Heat.
Miami in 5

Awards Predictions
MVP: LeBron James, SF, Miami Heat
Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo, SG, Orlando Magic
Defensive Player of the Year: Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers
Most Improved Player: Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
Coach of the Year: Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers

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