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SI.com's 2013-14 NBA Crystal Ball Picks

SI.com's 2013-14 NBA Crystal Ball
Six SI.com writers give their predictions for the 2013-14 NBA season. For more preview content, click here.
Kevin Durant | Photo: John W. McDonough/SI
Conference Champions & Finals Picks
 
Ian Thomsen
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   NBA FINALS  
  over   over   over  
  The Heat must brace for second and third rounds against a group of hungry rivals that include the Pacers, Nets and Bulls, all of whom possess the size to attack Miami’s weakness up front. LeBron James will lead the Heat past those challenges, but they’ll be as vulnerable as the 2003-04 Lakers by the time they reach the NBA Finals. Waiting for them there will be the young, deep and talented Thunder. OKC may be a surprise pick to some, but no rival in the West has a better 1-2 punch than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are peaking, experienced, hungry and surrounded by a deep front line and an athletic second unit. OKC’s biggest threats in the West will be the Clippers and Spurs, but the latter are on the wrong side of the curve and the former need a year to develop Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as future champions.  
 
Chris Mannix
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   NBA FINALS  
  over   over   over  
  The future is now in Indiana, which will be deeper with the returning Danny Granger and newcomer Luis Scola and better with the natural improvements of youngsters Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson. Granger (who could start) and Scola punch up a second unit that ranked 29th in scoring with 24.1 points last season, while C.J. Watson is a more effective backup point guard than D.J. Augustin. With their weaknesses shored up, the Pacers will muscle their way to a title.  
 
 
Rob Mahoney
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   NBA FINALS  
  over   over   over  
  I'd opt for the field over Miami in a heartbeat, but if forced to pick one team to win the title, I see no option better than the Heat. That said, Miami's tightrope through the playoffs will be brutal. The Heat will likely need to beat two of the Bulls, Pacers and Nets just to get to the Finals; all three could give the defending champs serious trouble. From there, any number of teams could come out of the West to offer a decent challenge, though I like the odds of a Heat-Spurs rematch yielding a similar result as last year's fascinating seven-game death match. One can only hope these two foils have a chance to pick up where they left off last June.  
 
 
Lee Jenkins
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   NBA FINALS  
  over   over   over  
  There’s a reason no team has made four straight Finals since the Celtics in the 1980s. Playing until the last week of June every year takes a toll. As impressive as the Heat have been in reeling off consecutive championships, they’ve also looked vulnerable at times in the playoffs against Indiana, whose size has given them trouble. The Pacers, with a fortified bench and a matured Paul George, are ready to take the next step. Meanwhile, in the West, you could make a strong case for six teams. Oklahoma City may start slowly, without the injured Russell Westbrook and the departed Kevin Martin, but Kevin Durant has appeared even more potent than usual this preseason. After Westbrook returns, and the Thunder figure out how to compensate for Martin’s loss with a committee that includes Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, Durant will be primed to capture his first title.  
 
 
Ben Golliver
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   NBA FINALS  
  over   over   over  
 

The upgraded Clippers and Nets are both formidable -- and tempting as picks here -- but Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Miami and Chicago all offer strong combinations of A-list talent and, importantly, continuity. Each team has an established identity and pecking order, at least when it is healthy, and the only meaningful players these four teams lost over the summer were Kevin Martin and Nate Robinson. Westbrook will again prove to be an unstoppable force against the Spurs, and LeBron James will prove to be too much for the Bulls for the third time in four years. I see both of those series as death matches that go seven games. In the Finals, the basketball world will be treated to a true James vs. Kevin Durant mano-a-mano showdown that didn't quite materialize two years ago, with the Heat ultimately prevailing by forcing Oklahoma City's less-tested pieces to take on more responsibility than they are ready to bear. 

 
 
 
Matt Dollinger
  WESTERN CONFERENCE   EASTERN CONFERENCE   NBA FINALS  
  over   over   over  
  Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will claim two crowns: 1) the hands-down best duo in the league, and 2) NBA champions. They'll be tested in the conference finals by the league's second-best duo, the Rockets' Dwight Howard and James Harden. But the quickness of Westbrook -- who will seize revenge and turn in a performance for the ages against Patrick Beverley -- will lift Oklahoma City, setting up a Finals showdown with Indiana, which gets over the hump thanks to its revamped bench after taking the Heat to a Game 7 last season. My Finals pick isn't meant as disrespect to LeBron and the Heat as much as it's acknowledging how many other really good teams there are.  
 
Most Valuable Player
 
LeBron James | Photo: John W. McDonough/SI
Thomsen
LeBron James. Chris Paul will test him, and Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant will make runs. But nobody can match the contributions of James, especially now that he’s had to take on more responsibilities to account for the diminished production of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Miami will be the team to beat all season and it will be because James impacts the game in more ways than anyone since Michael Jordan.

Mannix
LeBron James. Kevin Durant will put big numbers early and, if the preseason is any indication, Derrick Rose could quickly reclaim his 2011 MVP form. But this is still LeBron’s award to lose. The addition of a variety of post moves, improved perimeter shooting and a continued willingness to move the ball has made James peerless the last two seasons, a trend that should continue. 

Mahoney
LeBron James. There will be a time in the not-too-distant future when James passes the torch as the league's best player, be it to Kevin Durant or some other worthy successor. This is not that time.

Jenkins
Kevin Durant. He was otherworldly last year, even if he was overshadowed during the regular season by LeBron James and during the postseason by the Thunder’s loss to Memphis sans Westbrook. But Durant has become stronger, more selective and more versatile, beating defenders in the post as easily as on the perimeter. He has finished second in the MVP voting three times. It’s his turn to win one.

Golliver
LeBron James. Just as the Big Three-era Heat are facing their deepest crop of Eastern Conference challengers yet, so too is James when it comes to the MVP race, which will include strong bids from Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Chris Paul, with Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and Dwight Howard looming as longer shots. Narrative forces always factor into the voting: Durant can emerge as an early favorite during Russell Westbrook's absence; Rose has a very strong comeback storyline brewing already; and Paul can lay claim to single-handedly turning around a big-market franchise while playing a highlight-laden yet fundamentally sound brand of ball. James' narrative -- that he is running uphill to catch the game's all-time greats -- might just trump all of that.

Dollinger
Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook led the NBA in field-goal attempts last year, but with the Thunder guard expected to be sidelined for at least the first month of the season, Durant will claim that title this year -- along with his first MVP. As we know from Jenkins' brilliant profile, Durant is sick and tired of finishing second. This is the year he reaches the top.

 
Rookie of the Year
 
Victor Oladipo | Photo: Greg Nelson/SI
Thomsen
Victor Oladipo. Oladipo is ready to contribute in a big way to a team that will take all the help he can provide. He'll improve the Magic at both ends of the floor with his wealth of energy along with his nascent ability to score. Oladipo (the No. 2 pick) and his former Indiana teammate Cody Zeller (No. 4 of Charlotte) are the only picks among the top six who aren't coming off injuries in the last year.

Mannix
Victor Oladipo. What's that? I'm the guy who has consistently said that Ben McLemore will be a better player than Oladipo? Well, yeah. But while I think McLemore's ceiling is higher -- come on, have you seen that jump shot? -- Oladipo will have a better rookie season. The Magic will give Oladipo time at both backcourt spots and his aggression and athleticism will produce points. I still question whether Oladipo can develop into an NBA point guard, but I don't doubt that on a rebuilding Orlando team, Oladipo will put up some strong numbers.

Mahoney
Cody Zeller. With Utah's Trey Burke the victim of a preseason injury and Victor Oladipo playing behind Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo in Orlando, I like Zeller's chances. He should log big minutes for a Bobcats team in need of competent bigs and has the kind of natural athleticism to make an initial splash. With Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker attracting attention, Zeller could wind up having a quietly productive year.

Jenkins
Kelly Olynyk. It is very difficult for a big man to make an early impact, especially one drafted 13th, but Olynyk shone in summer league and will get to play major minutes for a rebuilding Celtics team. He will also have the luxury of partnering with a point guard, Rajon Rondo, who can find him for pick-and-pop jumpers once Rondo returns from knee surgery.

Golliver
Victor Oladipo. Talk about slim pickings. Various injuries (recent past or present) cast shadows over more than half of this year's top 10. Oladipo stands out from the remaining names (Cody Zeller, Ben McLemore and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) because he combines many key ingredients: a mature game, a ball-dominant role, a loose leash and a whole heap of minutes played. Outside the top 10, Sixers guard Michael Carter-Williams and Celtics center Kelly Olynyk are solid sleepers.

Dollinger
Victor Oladipo. Oladipo working tirelessly to improve his ball handling and perimeter shooting at Indiana last season. The result is the most NBA-ready player in his class (albeit a shallow one). His transcendent athleticism will help him make plays on both ends right away. He'll make his share of mistakes, especially if Orlando attempts to transition him to point guard, a position he never played for the Hoosiers, but the Magic's forward thinking will keep Oladipo on the floor 30 minutes a night, a privilege most rookies won't be fortunate enough to receive.
 
Breakout Player
 
Anthony Davis | Photo: Greg Nelson/SI
Thomsen
Bradley Beal. Beal is going to emerge as an All-Star contender as his shotmaking and scoring on the wing will help elevate the Wizards to their first playoff appearance in six years. Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond will emerge as challengers in this category, but Beal's impact on his team will separate him from the rest.

Mannix
Anthony Davis. So many candidates here, but Davis, who spent his second straight summer working with the U.S. national team, is the pick. Already a superior defender, Davis added a little hook shot and an improved 15-foot jumper to his arsenal this summer. With All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday running the show in New Orleans, Davis should get plenty of easy looks.

Mahoney
Gordon Hayward. Utah has three compelling breakout candidates, including Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, but I'm most excited to see what Hayward does in a different offensive system. In previous seasons, the Jazz funneled the ball through Al Jefferson in the post -- an approach that made for fairly efficient offense but relegated Hayward to a marginal role as a cutter (he has a great sense of when to dive to the rim) and spot-up shooter (career 40.1 percent three-point shooter). He should have more varied opportunities this season, particularly in generating offense for himself and others.

Jenkins
Chandler Parsons. Houston opponents will have no choice but to load up on James Harden and Dwight Howard, leaving Parsons to exploit weaker defenders. He is now the Rockets' third offensive option after Howard's arrival, but the front office still values the three-pointer, and Parsons is the most accurate long-range shooter in their starting five.

Golliver
Anthony Davis. After a rookie season in which he battled through injuries to post advanced stats that put him on par with the best teenagers in NBA history (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh), the 20-year-old Davis looks poised to explode. A strong run at USA Basketball's summer minicamp started to whet the appetite, but it's been Davis' productive preseason play (21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 54 percent shooting) that should really get the hype train going. A more diverse offensive repertoire added to his outstanding length and feel for the game -- not to mention a much better cast of teammates -- should put Davis in position to enter next summer as one of the NBA's top 20 or 25 players.

Dollinger
Enes Kanter. This is the year basketball fans finally get to know Enes Kanter, who was ruled ineligible for his one year at Kentucky and averaged only 14.4 minutes his first two NBA seasons while playing behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. But with Utah featuring its youngsters this season, Kanter is finally set for a full-time role. The big man showed glimpses of immense potential last season, averaging 16.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes.

 
Surprise Team
 
Thomsen
At last the Wizards will put the Gilbert Arenas years behind them. They showed their potential over the latter half of last season as John Wall recovered and coach Randy Wittman established their defense, and the finishing piece will be the emergence of Bradley Beal. Owner Ted Leonsis has demanded a playoff appearance and this team will deliver.
Mannix
If injuries limit Andrew Bynum again -- or worse, keep him out all season -- then this pick will blow up in my face. But if Bynum's balky knees hold up, this is a team that has depth, can play inside-out and boasts a rising superstar in Kyrie Irving. Betting on Bynum is like hitting on 17 in blackjack, but if he can find his way back onto the floor, look out.
Mahoney
I have the Hawks penciled in as a likely playoff team. Al Horford is that good, and Paul Millsap that steady. Alongside them, I like Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Lou Williams, Elton Brand and Dennis Schröder as a supporting cast. There's only enough in that group to field a decent team, but in the East that could be enough to wrap up the sixth seed.
Jenkins
They're not going to start 4-28 this year, that's for sure. After that woeful opening, the Wizards were actually a .500 team last season. John Wall and Bradley Beal, one of the NBA's most exciting backcourts, should at least lead the Wizards to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Golliver
Even though the Grizzlies are coming off their best season and first trip to the conference finals, they haven't been getting much love in the discussion of the West's top tier. Their defense is just so sound and reliable, and every important rotation player is back. They have a true star talent in reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and the pieces around him fit nicely. As a best-case scenario, I can envision the Grizzlies sneaking into a top-two seed. That would definitely qualify as a surprise, given the presence of two incumbent giants (Thunder, Spurs) and three sexy challengers (Clippers, Rockets, Warriors).
Dollinger
There's nothing glamorous about the Mavericks, but they'll be surprisingly solid. Dirk Nowitzki won't have to carry such a heavy load after the signings of Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, leading to one of his best seasons in years (think Tim Duncan in '12-13). The Mavs might not be able to beat the West's elite in a seven-game series, but their strong veteran core will make them a menace all year.
 
Flop Team
 
Thomsen
Memphis will have a strong year of 45 wins but miss the playoffs in the crowded West (the same thing happened to the talented 2000-01 Rockets). The Grizzlies won't be flops, but the absence of Lionel Hollins will turn the conference finalists into one of the most talented lottery teams of modern times. The Nuggets will also fall out of the playoffs despite a solid winning season as they reconfigure around new coach Brian Shaw.
Mannix
Death, taxes and the Knicks' winning 45-50 games and getting bounced in the first round seem like certainties this year -- a modest return on New York's $88 million payroll. The Knicks went all-in on Melo-ball, adding perimeter-shooting power forward Andrea Bargnani in the offseason. But what has Melo-ball ever accomplished, save for a pile of regular-season wins and early postseason exits? If Amar'e Stoudemire is healthy, J.R. Smith is consistent and the ball movement continues without Jason Kidd, the Knicks could surprise me. But those are a lot of ifs. And here's another: If Tyson Chandler gets hurt, the season could spiral, quickly.
Mahoney
George Karl, the primary advocate of the exceptionally committed transition game that drove Denver's success, is gone. That could leave the offense a bit exposed. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari (who will miss the start of the season with a knee injury) haven't fared too well as half-court creators and could struggle to sustain an offense. The defense should also take a huge step back with the departure of Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer, not to mention the arrival of J.J. Hickson. Denver should be decent, but I'm not optimistic about its chances to separate from the other teams on the Western Conference playoff bubble.
Jenkins
Despite salary-cap limitations, they made two creative and intriguing offseason acquisitions, adding Andrea Bargnani and Metta World Peace. But with Derrick Rose healthy and the Nets formidable, there's a good chance the Knicks won't even see the second round this season, leading to hard questions for Carmelo Anthony as he potentially enters free agency.
Golliver
I wasn't a fan of virtually any of their offseason moves: parting ways with George Karl, letting GM Masai Ujiri walk, getting outmaneuvered for Andre Iguodala, trading Kosta Koufos for no good reason and spending on the likes of J.J. Hickson while Corey Brewer left for Minnesota. Expectations for Denver seem to have tumbled, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that these guys won 57 games last season. By that standard, anything under 48 wins -- and I don't see them hitting that mark -- should be regarded as a total flop.
Dollinger
The Josh Smith-Greg Monroe-Andre Drummond trio presents plenty of mismatches and defensive potential, but it also means that Smith, unfortunately, will be playing the 3 on offense. Smith is an elite two-way player, but he shot just 30.7 percent on jump shots last season and was the only player to attempt 200 three-pointers and shoot under 31 percent. Add in a questionable Brandon Jennings acquisition and the Pistons might experience a serious case of buyer's remorse if they get off to a slow start.
 
Biggest Player Traded
 
Rajon Rondo | Photo: Damian Strohmeyer/SI
Thomsen
Rajon Rondo. When he's healthy, the Celtics will be open to offers as a market develops naturally for their point guard. Not only will a number of rebuilding teams view him as an upgrade (including the Suns, whose new GM, Ryan McDonough, helped the Celtics discover Rondo in the draft), but they'll also be emboldened to know that the Celtics are rebuilding around coach Brad Stevens.

Mannix
Omer Asik. Asik isn't a huge name, but centers who can produce double-doubles consistently and defend are valuable commodities. An Asik-Ryan Anderson swap between Houston and New Orleans makes too much sense for both sides for it not to be revisited. But either way don't bet on Asik -- who has little interest in backing up Dwight Howard and will have a hard time playing alongside him -- lasting the season in Houston.

Mahoney
Omer Asik. The Rockets' obvious need for a Dwight Howard complement in the frontcourt makes it seem likely that Asik will be dealt. Plus, with the Rockets' salary structure, GM Daryl Morey doesn't have many mid-level trade chips in play. Asik and Jeremy Lin are the only players making between $1.6 million and $13.6 million, with the former being far more attractive trade bait than the latter.

Jenkins
Pau Gasol. The Lakers will be an abomination on defense, their undoing in the Western Conference, but Gasol will build back his trade value running pick-and-rolls with Steve Nash. Gasol is a free agent after the season, and at the deadline, the Lakers could deal him to a contender for young talent or a draft choice.

Golliver
Rudy Gay. Picking trade candidates generally starts with an assessment of which teams have the worst cap situations. That discussion begins with the Raptors, whose payroll tops $70 million even though their talent base is mediocre at best. After dumping Andrea Bargnani, new GM Masai Ujiri should take the next step in his overhaul by shedding Gay or DeMar DeRozan -- or both -- as he retools around Jonas Valanciunas, a potential franchise center. The size of Gay's contract ($17.9 million) makes him difficult to move, but at least there's only one additional season, at most, for interested buyers to worry about. (Gay can opt out after this season.) Toronto found a way to talk itself into Gay last season and surely there's a fringe playoff team out there that's able to talk itself into taking the plunge at this year's deadline.

Dollinger
Rajon Rondo. Rondo is a top point guard in his prime, but there's no point in owning a beautiful piece of art if you have nowhere to put it. Keeping the 27-year-old just doesn't make sense for a rebuilding team. Rondo should yield a handsome bounty for Boston, which will benefit more from draft picks and cap space than his double-doubles in 20-point losses.

 
Coach of the Year
 
Erik Spoelstra | Photo: John W. McDonough/SI
Thomsen
Randy Wittman. Wittman has earned the chance to lead a promising team after experiencing miserable situations as a coach in Cleveland, Minnesota and even in Washington last year. He'll continue to establish the Wizards defensively as their young backcourt of Bradley Beal and John Wall emerges. Other candidates will include the Clippers' Doc Rivers, the Lakers' Mike D'Antoni, Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and Charlotte's Steve Clifford.

Mannix
Scott Brooks. The deck is stacked against the Thunder -- no Kevin Martin, Russell Westbrook down to start the season -- but expect Brooks to find a way to keep the wins coming by funneling the offense almost entirely through Kevin Durant and squeezing more out of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. Despite their issues, the Thunder have a legitimate chance to grab the West's top seed, which should benefit Brooks with voters.

Mahoney
Doc Rivers. This award typically goes to the coach of a team with a dramatically improved win total, but I think Rivers has the profile needed to win through alternative means. The Clippers had a shaky defense and rudimentary offense last season, both of which could be addressed to make for more plausible championship contention. Rivers should do well in addressing both fronts and, most important, will likely get credit for any substantial improvement. Such is the benefit of being held in high regard.

Jenkins
Frank Vogel. He received only three first-place votes last season despite taking a young team with no proven star and no depth to within one game of the Finals. Vogel has infused the Pacers with a hard-boiled defensive identity -- tough, rugged, bordering on violent -- and he will finally be recognized for it.

Golliver
Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra's list of credentials keeps growing and growing -- not that anyone would notice with LeBron James rightfully getting the lion's share of the credit. Still, Spoelstra has won 66 percent of his games in five seasons, and 74 percent during the Big Three era. This year, he has a chance to become just the sixth coach to win three titles, even though he is just 42. In the last three years, he's overseen a top-ranked offense, a No. 4 defense, a 27-game winning streak and a vast improvement in James' individual game. He's still yet to win a Coach of the Year award, and I think that changes this season.

Dollinger
Kevin McHale. Adding Dwight Howard doesn't guarantee wins, as we learned last season, but I'm betting that McHale gets the most out of his ridiculously talented center. As much as Howard and Mike D'Antoni clashed, Howard and McHale will get along (with an assist from Hakeem Olajuwon). McHale will get a lot of credit when Howard develops his post moves as part of a big year.
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Mike D'Antoni | Photo: John W. McDonough/SI
Thomsen
Mike Woodson. His boss Glen Grunwald was dismissed after leading the Knicks to their best season in 13 years. What is Woodson supposed to do? Carmelo Anthony is an impending free agent, Amar'e Stoudemire's availability is always uncertain, they'll be without the locker-room leadership of Jason Kidd and the Nets will be New York's more magnetic attraction.

Mannix
Dwane Casey. A coach feels pressure when a new GM is hired. Masai Ujiri has been publicly supportive of Casey, but the expectations will be to improve on a 34-win season. Casey will need to fortify a defense that tumbled from 12th to 22nd in efficiency last season and replace Andrea Bargnani's offense. Toronto has the talent to claim one of the last playoff spots in the top-heavy East. Casey might need that result to return next season.

Mahoney
Randy Wittman. To be frank, even Wittman's seat is only lukewarm. If the Wizards really wanted him gone, they could have dismissed him after a slow start last season. More generally, though, this seems to be a fairly low-pressure year for coaches, with most either new to their posts or entrenched in their positions. There's been so much turnover in the past few months (13 coaching changes in the offseason alone) that most of those who would be fired already have been. Many of the teams expected to lose big are doing so intentionally, and many of the teams stuck in the middle are in the midst of a transition. Some coach might eventually be fired, but the grounds for that dismissal aren't immediately apparent.

Jenkins
Mike D'Antoni. Because pretty much everybody was fired this offseason -- including Coach of the Year George Karl and conference finalist Lionel Hollins -- D'Antoni shoots to the top of the list. After losing Howard, the Lakers remade much of their roster to fit D'Antoni's system, and he will be on the hook if it doesn't work.

Golliver
Randy Wittman. Talk about a toxic cocktail: Wittman is in the final year of his contract, GM Ernie Grunfeld is also in the final year of his contract, owner Ted Leonsis is making tons of noise about winning now, his roster isn't particularly deep or talented and he's already down one key player (Emeka Okafor) because of injury. This just looks like a developing "stay in the playoff chase or you're gone" ultimatum.

Dollinger
Terry Stotts. With a slew of new additions fortifying Portland's second unit, the pressure is on Stotts to lead the Blazers to the playoffs in his second year. It doesn't help that All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge is growing tired of watching his peers contend for titles every spring. If Portland fails to live up to expectations -- which wouldn't be surprising, considering the West's depth -- this could be the third coaching job for which Stotts lasts only two years.
 

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