NBA Season Preview
The NBA is finally back upon us! Let's go through some predictions for the upcoming season:
NBA Champion: Cleveland Cavaliers
It seems crazy that the defending champions to open at +300 and another team opens at -125, but that's where we are. This pick is largely just a bet on the Warriors not having every kink worked out in June, but it would be hard to build an argument for a Finals outside of Warriors/Cavs III. While the East has certainly improved over the past two seasons, there is no reason to think the Cavs won't get through to the Finals. On the other hand, I'm picking
Dumpster Fire Team of the Year: Sacramento Kings
With all due respect to the Brooklyn Nets, I think the Kings are headed towards a complete and total meltdown. The Nets may be worse, but everybody knows they suck and nobody is going to pay attention. The Kings, at the very least, have a star and some surrounding talent, and so there is reason to care about these guys. Unfortunately, things don't seem to be going so well. Rudy Gay admitted over the summer that he did not know who was even on the Kings and DeMarcus Cousins bashed the team for taking two players at his position when he is, in fact, the best player at his position in the league. Not exactly inspiring stuff from two guys are supposed to be leaders. Throw in the rotating cast of coaches and front office personnel, and the Kings appear to be moving towards an explosion.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
While the last 3 MVP's are still at the apex of their powers, I don't see Curry/Durant/LeBron winning this year. Some voters will be turned off by the loaded Warriors, believing that nobody on their team is the most valuable player, and those who decide somebody from Golden State is worthy will likely split their votes between Curry and Durant. I think LeBron continues to cruise throughout the regular season, not giving enough effort to convincingly win the award. Of the rest of the pack, Kawhi will emerge as the winner for a few reasons. I can't see a situation where the Spurs don't get the 2-seed, as Utah needs time to gel and is down Hayward to start the year, the Clippers inevitably self-destruct during too many games, and the addition of Pau Gasol should keep the Spurs offense humming, which is certainly enough to get back in the 56-59 win range. Given the consistent uptick in Leonard's scoring over the past (12.8 to 16.5 to 21.2), a small increase is certainly possible, which, when paired with his menacing defense, should be enough to propel him to the top of the MVP race.
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
I originally thought Embiid's teammate Ben Simmons would run away with this by just pure box score stuffing, but he's out for a long time. Embiid finally emerged this preseason and passed every single eye test: he looked massive yet moved very well, displayed strong footwork and a sweet shooting stroke, protected the rim, and generally made his presence felt whenever he was on the floor. Sure he turned it over too much and was foul prone, but as the season progresses he should clean those things up. There won't be a shortage of opportunities for Embiid, who I think will finally justify the decision to wait for him to play...
Speaking of which...
GM of the Year Award: Sam Hinkie, Philadelphia 76ers
Can a GM win the award even if he no longer works for the team? I don't even care and I don't even know, but this is finally the year which Hinkie looks like a total genius. In case you didn't know, Michael Carter-Williams just got traded for Tony Snell, which is certainly less compensation than the 76ers received when they were slammed for trading him after winning Rookie of the Year in 2014. People blasted Hinkie for the move but I'd bet my life that nobody could get a first rounder for Tony Snell, so it looks like he won that trade. Embiid has been flashing the star potential and the lottery balls gave them Ben Simmons, which have been the two things 76ers fans have been yearning for. Also, the 76ers are still owed the Lakers pick in the upcoming draft if it falls outside of the Top-3, which means there is a good chance the 76ers could either have two top 10 picks or put together a nice package to acquire a proven veteran. After all the complaining about Hinkie's strategy, it seems like we should all just trust the process.
Looking around the league, there seem to be too many players who appear to be readily available for trades not to occur at a high rate. Some guys who I think could definitely be moved (not necessarily likely, but for the right deal): Rudy Gay (wants out), DeMarcus Cousins (plays in Sacramento), Nerlens Noel/Jahlil Okafor (76ers' frontcourt logjam), Ricky Rubio (Minnesota backcourt logjam), Greg Monroe (rumors indicate Bucks want to move him), and Brandon Knight (Suns moving forward with Bledsoe/Booker) would all help teams out in the right situation. There are also other situations where trades could occur: contenders needing a boost, salary cap dumps, or Billy King getting a GM job and trading away his team's future for Paul Pierce. Another thing to keep an eye on is players on old contracts: almost every contract signed looks like a great deal now, so those guys now have a huge jump in value.
Knicks & Bulls Disappoint
Both of these teams made big moves, including one with each other, but I just don't see it working out. The Bulls are trying to counter the new, league wide emphasis on spacing the floor with shooters by playing new acquisitions Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade with resident All-Star Jimmy Butler, except none of them can shoot on their two best big men defensively are Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson, neither of whom can shoot 3's. I don't think you need to having the shooting ability of the Warriors, but those five guys are not a recipe for offensive firepower. Considering that Jimmy Butler was pretty open about his disdain for Coach Hoiberg and Rajon Rondo's notorious inability to get along with teammates and coaches, I see the Bulls staying in the lottery.
The same applies to the New York Knicks, who brought in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to aid Carmelo and Porzingis. Unfortunately, Derrick Rose has never recovered to his pre-injury form and Joakim Noah has had his own injury concerns, as both of these guys fell victim to former Coach Tom Thibodeau's insistence and playing his best players an exuberant amount of minutes.
Big Men Make Big Impact
Maybe this is me just hoping, but I feel that this year is the year that big men start making their presence felt again. As the league watched the Warriors and Cavs play in the Finals the past two years with little impact from the big guys, the league started in the general direction of playing a type of position-less basketball and simply playing their five best guys. However, I think the league sees big men making a bigger impact this year. Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin could return to form if they are able to stay healthy. Karl Towns looks ready to become a blossoming star in this league. Deandre Jordan and Andre Drummond continue to be rebounds machines and rim rattlers. Joel Embiid and Myles Turner show flashes of brilliance. DeMarcus Cousins continues to dominate nearly every game he plays in. Al Jefferson and Zach Randolph become key offensive anchors off the bench for the second unit. While some of these guys may not have totally traditional big men skill-sets, they can all certainly make their presence felt more dramatically than the past two years.
Utah gets Top 4 seed
A lot of people are high on Utah, and I am definitely one of them. This team is deep and has made a lot of improvements this year. The rotating cast of point guards the team cycled through last year make George Hill look like a All-Star. Dante Exum will be back into the fold after missing last year with injury. Joe Johnson's mini-resurgence in Miami indicates he could fill in for Hayward until he returns, and Boris Diaw adds a new flavor of versatility to this team. The team managed 40 wins last year despite a wide variety of injuries, and I think this team is right in the conversation with the Clippers for the 3 and 4 seeds.
I'm sure most of these predictions will make me look foolish, but I guess that's the fun it. Kick back and enjoy the season.