26 October 2015

2015-16 NBA Predictions

The Golden State Warriors certainly were a great story last season as they won a league-high 65 games and their first championship in forty years in taking out the Cleveland Cavaliers despite a herculean effort from LeBron James. Doing that was impressive, but rolling it back and doing it again will be even more. Who will claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the season. It's time for my NBA predictions.

Coaching Carousel
Team Draft Grades
1. Cleveland Cavaliers 
The Cavs are clear and away the best team in the Eastern Conference to the point where it would be pretty surprising, at least in my eyes, for them not to be the top seed. The last time we saw LeBron James, he only put together the best Finals performance ever and yet he still got labeled a loser because the Cavs lost in the Finals (as if it was his fault he didn't get a whole lot from his supporting cast). The guy can't win. Anyways, now with a full season with Timofey Mosgov at center and hopefully healthy seasons from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, this team looks poised for the team to get their first championship this spring.

2. Chicago Bulls
Tom Thibodeau won a ton of games during his years with the Bulls but with bringing in Fred Hoiberg, the hope is that the team can both run a modern offense and get closer to a championship. The pieces are not all there to implement Hoiberg's offense fully just yet but look for guys that oddly struggled to get burn at times, like Nikola Mirotic and sophomore Doug McDermott, to help provide some spacing. Jimmy Butler has become the team's focal piece after passing Derrick Rose but Rose, provided he is healthy, still is very good but his jumpshooting has got to improve. How Hoiberg works out his frontcourt, including possibly separating Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, will be fascinating to watch.

3. Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta had themselves a terrific season a year ago but while much of their core returns intact, with the exception of DeMarre Carroll who signed with Toronto, it will be pretty difficult to pull off a repeat performance. Tiago Splitter was the team's top offseason acquisition and while he may seem like an interesting fit since he can't shoot, he will provide some much-needed size and interior defense while saving some wear and tear on Al Horford. Mike Budenholzer's system fits this team really well and while getting four All-Stars again probably is a stretch, this team will be an Eastern contender again.

4. Miami Heat
The Heat may just have one of the biggest disparities from their best and worst case scenarios this season. With what looks like a terrific starting five, boosted by the selection of Duke forward Justise Winslow, their best case scenario could see them developing as the second best team in the conference. On the other hand, if any of their starting five (Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside) has injury issues, a weak bench will be their undoing and could see them fighting just to make the playoffs. I think you will see more of the former than the latter but healthy will be something to watch out for.

5. Toronto Raptors
Toronto will probably see their win total inflated simply by being the best team in the worst division in basketball because the last time we saw them on the court, they were getting run out of the playoffs by Washington thanks to a miserable defense. That defense was an issue during the second half of the season and while bringing in three-and-D wing DeMarre Carroll should definitely help in that regard, does he help solve the defensive woes that hurt the team down low? Kyle Lowry also saw his production decline down the stretch so he has to get back to his normal level but what could be big for this team is if Jonas Valanciunas can finally take that next step.

6. Washington Wizards
It looks like the Wizards will make more of a commitment to play more uptempo and incorporate more small-ball elements, which only makes sense when you have a backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Otto Porter looks ready to take a bigger role but can he fill the Paul Pierce role of being a small power forward? Marcin Gortat should excel in the uptempo scheme but will Nene be able to stay healthy for the first time in several years (hasn't started more than 58 games in a season since 2010-11). There is a good amount to like with this team and while I have them a little lower in my conference standings, they could very well take a round.

7. Milwaukee Bucks
So has Jason Kidd turned into a pretty solid coach? He has done himself a pretty solid job with the Bucks thus far and he has got himself a lot of interesting pieces on this roster. They are young and athletic and they play some fun defense. What will determine how good Milwaukee is will be their offense as they lacked that go-to scorer last season. Free agent signing Greg Monroe will help their post scoring, a healthy Jabari Parker will be fun to watch and spending to keep Khris Middleton made a lot of sense since he provides some excellent perimeter shooting. What could make them even more fun is the continued development of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

8. Boston Celtics
The Celtics were unable to get that star to center their franchise around but I love Brad Stevens and he has got a roster with a funky collection of intriguing players. The team looked very good after trading for Isaiah Thomas as he excelled in the sixth man role and I think he should be kept there behind Marcus Smart, who I think showed some promise at the point. Their wing players are interesting with guys like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Evan Turner and rookie R.J. Hunter as are their bigs but even after bringing in David Lee and Amir Johnson this offseason, they still don't have much of a rim protector.

9. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are undergoing a pretty significant change stylistically from a grind-it-out with tough defense approach to a more wide open offensive approach. That kind of a transition will not be completed overnight and this roster has some question marks beyond Paul George, who will be interesting to watch if he really will play the four. They don't have much in terms of bigs with their two top ones being Ian Mahinmi and Jordan Hill. Monta Ellis is going to be one of their lead guys and he will be a nice fit in the scheme but the rest of the roster is rather unimpressive. But Frank Vogel is good enough of a coach that he could get this roster into the playoffs.

10. Detroit Pistons
I'm as big a fan of Stan Van Gundy as anybody else is, but it would be foolish to think that his rebuilding project is done. I think he made the right decision to build around Andre Drummond but he is still not quite a finish product, especially on offense. Reggie Jackson is running the show now but I'm not sure how good he really is and Brandon Jennings is still in that mix. Van Gundy loves to use stretch forward types and Marcus Morris and Ersan Illysova fit that mold, but neither are that great of players. A player I am a fan of is rookie Stanley Johnson.

11. Charlotte Hornets
A key reason why the Hornets dropped 10 games in the standings and fell out of the playoffs was largely due to an atrocious offense, and one that struggle to shoot from the outside. The team made a lot of moves in bringing in guys like Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb and rookie Frank Kaminsky and those guys, should they perform, should help create needed spacing for Al Jefferson inside. They will miss Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who will be out for much of the season thanks to a shoulder injury, but they still will play good defense and being without Lance Stephenson is certainly addition by subtraction. I'm not fully sold, but the playoffs aren't crazy.

12. Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn is in a bit of a funky position here and while they are not in a position to tank because they do not control their draft pick next year (via the really successful Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade), but they seem like good bet for a double-digit seed finish. The offensive focus will be towards feeding Brook Lopez early and often but if he is unable to stay healthy, it's over. Joe Johnson isn't getting any younger and does anybody really want to see Jarrett Jack run an offense? But hopes are high with shooting guard Bojan Bogdanovic and I like rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson but that said, their bench is dreadful. I do like Lionel Hollins as a coach but he's got little to work with and you may just see them try to trade their top guys to get some picks.

13. Orlando Magic
I wasn't totally in love with the Magic hiring Scott Skiles as he will eventually wear out his welcome but at least at the start, he will get the most out of his team and he does have some talent to work with. Victor Oladipo is showing some promising gains at the two, Tobias Harris is a nice player at the three and Nikola Vucevic is a consistent double-double guy. If Skiles can get more out of point guard Elfrid Payton and forward Aaron Gordon, and if rookie Mario Hezonja can add some much-needed offense, Orlando could be fun to watch.

14. New York Knicks
The good news for Knicks fans is that they will be better this season, but that's only because it absolutely cannot get any worse for them after a disastrous 17-65 season. Carmelo Anthony will return healthy but don't forget that they were only 10-30 with him in the lineup last season. The rest of the supporting cast leaves a lot to be desired as there wasn't a great deal of upgrading going on in the offseason after the team overpayed for guys like Robin Lopez and Aaron Afflalo. What will be fun to watch, perhaps, will be the development of top-five pick Kristaps Porzingis, and also if we see some serious Anthony trade action.

15. Philadelphia 76ers
I've defended "the process" more than most have but as we enter a third-straight season where the 76ers really aren't trying to do anything, I think it is fair to start to ask question as to whenever the process will actually start (this damning report of the organization probably doesn't help matters). They used their third straight first pick on a center and while Jahlil Okafor should be a serious Rookie of the Year contender simply because he'll put up stats due to this roster, will Nerlens Noel, who can't shoot at all, be able to play next to him? Robert Covington has turned into a nice player but there is absolutely nothing in that backcourt. Expect a win total in the teens yet again.
1. Golden State Warriors
Are the Warriors going to have another 65 win season and a championship this season? They are definitely a title contender but that kind of win total will probably be tough to duplicate. What doesn't hurt is that their entire corps returns intact from league MVP Stephen Curry, his backcourt mate Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut to the bench guys Andre Igoudala, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa. Maybe Steve Kerr will have some sort of a sophomore slump coaching-wise but the W's look loaded once again.

2. Los Angeles Clippers
The downfall of the Clippers last season was their lack of a depth and it was something that Doc Rivers attempted to address by taking shots on guys like Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson. Both are risks as Smith is a bad shooter, and Detroit only paid $26 million to make him go away a year ago, and Stephenson was really dreadful last season and is well known to be combustible. But if Rivers can get them to perform, they will be steals. A strong starting lineup returns with DeAndre Jordan nearly leaving town and now the cagey vet Paul Pierce will play the three but Jordan was upset about not getting enough touches offensively, and now he may get less than he did before. It could be something to watch.

3. Houston Rockets
James Harden was spectacular this past season for the Rockets in helping to lead the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals. Harden should be terrific once again and his game may be boosting with the team having acquired a solid point guard for practically nothing in Ty Lawson to help spell Patrick Beverley. Their defense may go backwards if Lawson and Harden are playing together but getting a healthier Dwight Howard will also help matters. Houston has built further depth in the wing by bringing back K.J. McDaniels and drafting Sam Dekker out of Wisconsin.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder
This is probably lower than other folks will have the Thunder in their preseason predictions but I'll defend it a couple of ways. First off, the top of the West is really tough and probably only a couple of games will separate the top four or five teams. Also, Kevin Durant's injury situation may need monitoring as he was felled for some games last season with foot injuries and those are known for being recurring. One would hope not because when he and Russell Westbrook play together, it is beautiful basketball. Serge Ibaka has become a nice secondary scoring weapon but he can get a little focused on hitting threes. A championship contender no doubt, and especially so if new coach Billy Donovan gells with the team quickly.

5. San Antonio Spurs
LaMarcus Aldridge may not be the typical Spurs player, and certainly signing a big free agent is an atypical Spurs move, but I have the confidence that Gregg Popovich will be able to fit him in right next to Tim Duncan. That's not what I am worried about but what I am worried about is the continuing decline of point guard Tony Parker. You will probably see his minutes get cut this season but will we then see Patty Mills take on a bigger piece on the pie or will Pop cook something else up. All in all, this may take a little bit to piece it all together but by the end of the season, they should be cooking.

6. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies will continue to be a playoff team in the West and certainly a tough playoff out with how they play defense but I think their window to be a champion may have passed. Their frontcourt is intact from last season but while both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are still very good, they are also not getting any younger. What will be key for them was the shrewd signing of Brendan Wright who will be able to spell both of them. Mike Conley is still one of the more underrated point guards in the league but what concerns me will be if they can get more shooting from the perimeter this season.

7. New Orleans Pelicans
While some wanted the Pelicans to bring in Tom Thibodeau to replace Monty Williams as the head coach, I loved the Alvin Gentry hire and I think he is the best fit for Anthony Davis and the best fit for this team. His uptempo scheme will help Davis put up some major numbers and could help him potentially win the MVP. The games of Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday should make for a nice fit as well and what will be key for them is if they can get strong shooting from Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. This offense should be fun.

8. Phoenix Suns
There is a nice drop-off from the seven seed to the teams contending for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. I like the Suns to beat out Utah to get this final spot. So much discussion has been if Eric Bledsoe and if Brandon Knight can play together but I like coach Jeff Hornacek and I think he can make it work. Tyson Chandler was brought in to try and help lure LaMarcus Aldridge to the desert but while that didn't happen, Chandler will help this team is taking pressure off the developing Alex Len and will bring some much-needed rim protection. This team does have some flaws but I do think there is enough to get into the postseason.

9. Utah Jazz
Utah is one of the chic teams of the NBA this season and is the team that many are thinking will make a breakthrough, and these kinds of teams will disappoint now and again. I don't think they will get to the playoffs, particularly as point guard Dante Exum will be out for the season, leaving the team forced to start Trey Burke. But there is still a lot to like with this Utah club as Derrick Favors has started to looked like a very good power forward, Rudy Gobert is a defensive force in the point and Gordon Hayward is a very good two way small forward. Their ball movement is very good offensively and there is enough there to get that eighth seed.

10. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas surely had themselves an interesting offseason with the successful then failed pursuit of DeAndre Jordan. Now, the Mavericks are starting the great Zaza Pachulia at the center which isn't exactly a good thing. Dallas is in the position of where they can either slide into the playoffs or considering actually tanking considering their first round pick is going to Boston with top-seven protection. Dirk Nowitzki can still score but the remaining three starters, Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons, all have notable injury issues. Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league but this team is on the way down.

11. Sacramento Kings
George Karl is a very good NBA coach and so having him for the full season will help the Kings, but there is still a pretty nice mess with this franchise. DeMarcus Cousins is a legitimate star but he may not make for a pretty fit with Karl. It looks like the team wants to move Cousins to the four after drafting Willie Cauley-Stein and signing Kosta Koufos, which makes sense but not as much if they are going to try and run a lot. Rajon Rondo was a bet by the front office but is he really better than Darren Collison? They should win more than the 29 they had a year ago, but there still is a ways to go to the playoffs.

12. Portland Trail Blazers
Only one starter remains for the Trail Blazers from last season, but at least it is Damian Lillard. This is now clearly his team and he is good enough to lead a team in the playoffs, but not this roster which doesn't give him a lot of help. That said, there are some interesting pieces with guys like center Mason Plumlee and shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who has been underrated and could be decent in a new environment. I also like them grabbing sophomore forward Noah Vonleh from Charlotte, who seemed to give up on him too early.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves
First off, we would be remiss to not say that our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Flip Saunders, who passed away on Sunday from cancer. Saunders was a respected NBA man but nowhere more so than in the Twin Cities as he is the only coach to take the Wolves to the playoffs. His death at the onset of a new NBA season will and should overshadow what should be a promising duo of Andrew Wiggins and rookie Karl-Anthony Towns. The rest of the team is defined by some raw youngsters and some aging players, most notably Kevin Garnett. Ricky Rubio is always a question mark and while we all know that Zach LaVine has got plenty of talent but when will he become more than just a dunker?

14. Los Angeles Lakers
Byron Scott has the decision between playing their veterans and trying to add some wins to their record, or do the smart thing and give playing time to the young guys that need it. I'm not convinced that Scott will make the right decision. They need to start to wind down Kobe Bryant's usage but will he be on board with that? D'Angelo Russell is a very talented guard but can he be a point man at this level? Julius Randle's rookie season is a wash so he has to prove something this season.

15. Denver Nuggets
Looking at this roster and you see why this season will be a mess. I mean, J.J. Hickson is one of their top guys off the bench and that is never a good sign. Randy Foye is their starting two guard. I think they have an interesting frontcourt but Kenneth Faried still is not that much of an offensive threat and Jusuf Nurkic's focus can be spotty at times. There is a lot of pressure on Emmanuel Mudiay and I am just not that convinced that he will be very good right away considering he has only played a handful of games since high school.

Eastern Quarterfinals
1 Cavaliers vs. 8 Celtics
The Cavaliers were able to sweep the Celtics out a season ago and while the Celtics have gotten a little better than they were a season ago, a healthy Cleveland team will easily dispatch them again.
Cavaliers, 4

2 Bulls vs. 7 Bucks
Milwaukee is still a young team and they, at least as I can see right now, don't have that one go-to option offensively that can get them out of a jam. It is part of what sank them a year ago against the Bulls and we will see it again.
Bulls, 5

3 Hawks vs. 6 Wizards
Atlanta may not be as flashy or as exciting as they were a season ago but I think bringing in a player like Tiago Splitter will make them more dangerous come playoff time so they can go big and physical. That will help them here against the Wizards.
Hawks, 6

4 Heat vs. 5 Raptors
Toronto sought to improve their defense in the offseason and to that end, they spent some coin to DeMarre Carroll. He will certainly help but I don't think this team is good enough to advance a round against the superior starting five of Miami.
Heat, 5

Western Quarterfinals
1 Warriors vs. 8 Suns
There will probably be something like a 15-game win difference between these two teams and it will show in this series.
Warriors, 4

2 Clippers vs. 7 Pelicans
Anthony Davis is due for a big season, we all know that. But would he be able to power an inferior team like this one against a superior and deeper club like that of the Clippers? I'm not certain of that, just yet.
Clippers, 6

3 Rockets vs. 6 Grizzlies
The defense of the Grizzlies will always make them a tough team to play come postseason time but nowadays, not being able to spread the floor out and shoot the threeball now can be a killer. Houston's superior offense will prove to be too much.
Rockets, 5

4 Thunder vs. 5 Spurs
This will probably be the toughest and the best matchup of the postseason in either conference. The Spurs have the experience edge not just over the Thunder but over anybody but I think that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have got a chip on their shoulder after their disappointing 2015 finish.
Thunder, 7

Eastern Semifinals
1 Cavaliers vs. 4 Heat
I do think that if their starting five is intact and healthy, the Heat may just be able to give the Cavaliers their toughest test in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. And even then, you don't think that LeBron James may have some motivation against his former club?
Cavaliers, 6

2 Bulls vs. 3 Hawks
Fred Hoiberg's coaching style may help the Bulls go deeper in the postseason as he won't grind guys down like Tom Thibodeau did at times, but would less of a focus on a defense make them not as tough of an out? That may not be the case but I think he may get outcoached by Mike Budenholzer here.
Hawks, 7

Western Semifinals
1 Warriors vs. 4 Thunder
If Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are clicking and playing like they can, I think they could take out the deeper and more balanced Warriors. And in fact, I think we will see that.
Thunder, 7

2 Clippers vs. 3 Rockets 
I don't think we will see a series between these two in the semis like what happened last year where the Clippers raced out to a 3-1 series lead and then get thoroughly outclassed by Houston the rest of the way. However, the superior depth and versatility of the Rockets will ultimately be the difference once again.
Rockets, 6

Eastern Finals 
1 Cavaliers vs. 3 Hawks
The Hawks have such a system that could allow them to steal a game from a superior team like the Cavaliers are but the disparities in talent will be the difference.
Cavaliers, 5

Western Finals
3 Rockets vs. 4 Thunder
I'm not going to lie, I have got a funny little feeling that before what will be an interesting offseason with Kevin Durant being a free agent, this Thunder team is poised to get to the Finals for the first time since 2012. Billy Donovan is going to leave a positive mark on this team and it will show in the WCF.
Thunder, 6

Cleveland Cavaliers (2011 - Pres)Oklahoma City Thunder (2009 - Pres)
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are still the 1-2 players in this league so it always is fun when these two go at it, and of course both sides have plenty of help. But if the Cavaliers are healthy, unlike they were a year ago in the Finals, I don't see anybody stopping them this year. James won a title in his second season in Miami (over the Thunder) and he will do the same in the second year of the Cleveland reunion.
Cavaliers, 6