Yesterday we looked at the main questions facing each team heading into the 2013-14 season. With those questions out of the way, we can now get to the timeless art of predicting the outcome of an eight-month season before a single game has been played.
What can possibly go wrong?
First, my projected division standings (Asterisks denote playoff teams)...
|1. Thunder**||1. Clippers**||1. Spurs**|
|2. Trail Blazers**||2. Warriors**||2. Rockets**|
|3. Nuggets||3. Lakers||3. Grizzlies**|
|4. Timberwolves||4. Kings||4. Pelicans**|
|5. Jazz||5. Suns||5. Mavericks|
On the playoff bubble: Mavs, Nuggets
Western Conference Final: Spurs over Clippers
|1. Nets**||1. Bulls**||1. Heat***|
|2. Knicks**||2. Pacers**||2. Hawks**|
|3. Raptors**||3. Pistons**||3. Wizards|
|4. Celtics||4. Cavaliers||4. Magic|
|5. 76ers||5. Bucks||5. Bobcats|
On the playoff bubble: Cavs, Wizards
Eastern Conference Final: Heat over Pacers
NBA Finals: Heat over Spurs
The Pacers, Bulls and even the Nets will continue to test the Heat in the East, with one or more of those teams likely pushing Miami to seven games in the conference playoffs. But pushing the champs and actually taking them down are two completely different tasks.
Out West, the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Rockets (the Grizzlies and Warriors are long shots) all have realistic chances of emerging conference champions, but a bounce back from Manu Ginobili and a breakout season from Kawhi Leonard will propel San Antonio to a Finals rematch, where they will once again fail painfully short of LeBron James and the Heat.
Here are my three frontrunners for each end of season award...
MVP: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant
Defensive Player of the Year: Roy Hibbert, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard
Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Steven Adams (Good God this year's crop of rookies is underwhelming)
Sixth Man of the Year: Tyreke Evans, Jamal Crawford, Harrison Barnes
Most Improved Player: Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond
Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers, Kevin McHale, Erik Spoelstra
Executive of the Year: Daryl Morey (Rockets), Gary Sacks (Clippers), Billy King (Nets)
All-NBA First Team: Chris Paul (G), Stephen Curry (G), LeBron James (F), Kevin Durant (F), Dwight Howard (C)
All-NBA Second Team: Derrick Rose (G), James Harden (G), Kevin Love (F), Blake Griffin (F), Marc Gasol (C)
All-NBA Third Team: Tony Parker (G), Russell Westbrook (G), Paul George (F), Carmelo Anthony (F), Tim Duncan (C)
Just missing the cut: Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Roy Hibbert
Five additional random predictions...
LeBron James will not MVP
Barring an injury or an unrealistic dip in his production, LeBron James should win the league's Most Valuable Player award again this season. He should become just the fourth player ever (joining Bird, Wilt and Russell) to win the award in three straight seasons and the first player to do it since Larry Legend did it from 1984-1986, but despite James' likely deserving of the award, I'm going to predict that he won't.
When a player has dominated and proven to be the most valuable in a league full of stars for as long as James has, the voting media can sometimes get cute with their award balloting, handing it off to other supreme talents who they feel deserve to have at least one to their name before their time is up. Sometimes perhaps they worry about what kind of a statement they're making by doing something like giving LeBron a third straight (Well Michael never won three straight MVP's and LeBron's not Michael so we can't do that, can we?) instead of simply worrying about voting on which player is the most valuable to his team in the given season.
In any event, I feel that 2013-14 will be one of these 'cute' voting years, and that an entirely worthy superstar (yet one less worthy than James) like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul or a returning Derrick Rose will snag the honor.
Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks will regress
I've already gone into great detail about all of the things standing between this Knicks team and a repeat of last season's success, and I think it all translates into a quick first round exit come April. New York should finish in the No. 5 spot out East, but I'm going to predict that one of the up and coming Eastern Conference teams knocks the Knicks out of the top-5.
As for Anthony, you'll see above that I still project him as an All-NBA player this season (just barely over Anthony Davis), so it's not like I'm predicting a total fall from grace for 'Melo. Just a noticeable regression.
According to last season's Basketball Prospectus preview, players aged 28 or older who improve their PER by 3.0 points or more from one season to the next have a 90 per cent chance of regression the following year. Anthony's PER (according to ESPN) jumped by 3.68 points, from 21.15 in 2011-12 to 24.83 in 2012-13, his age 28 season. You do the math.
Anthony Davis will join the NBA's elite and lead New Orleans to the playoffs
The Pelicans have the talent to surprise folks this season between Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans, and if Eric Gordon can stay somewhat healthy (no easy task), they could be a lower playoff seed that gives higher seeds fits.
Davis is the main component though, and if he can creep towards 20-10 averages while leading New Orleans to the playoffs, he'll enter the All-NBA discussion this year.
The highly anticipated epic 'tankathon' will be overshadowed by one of the most competitive seasons we've ever seen
The wretchedness of a handful of teams more interested in draft lottery positioning than wins this season has dominated off-season storylines, and the tanking will be excessive at times, but what some people fail to see through the panic and worry of potentially awful basketball is that this season is actually shaping up to be pretty damn competitive.
If you include long shot contenders, 10 teams - TEN TEAMS - can probably be lumped into the championship discussion between the Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Nets, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies and Warriors. That's a third of the entire league.
On the other end, I only count seven teams (Magic, Bobcats, Celtics, Sixers, Kings, Jazz, Suns) that are out of playoff contention before tonight's opening tip, with 11-12 teams in each conference able to make a compelling playoff argument right now.
That is the story to me.
LeBron decides to stay in Miami after completing the three-peat
I've maintained throughout that I can only see James either staying put with the Heat or returning to the Cavs (sorry, Lakers fans). And if my predictions of a three-peat in sunny South Beach and another lottery-bound season in wintery Cleveland prove correct, which one would you say sounds more fit for a king?