Predictions can often leave their authors looking pretty foolish. Take last season. As the brains behind Sports Illustrated’s predictions (pause for laughter), I penciled the Hawks in for ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta, of course, went on to win 60 games and the top seed in the East. Two years ago, SI splashed a photo of the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce infused Nets on the cover under my byline and the headline WHO WANTS A PIECE OF THEM? Turns out, everyone did. I’ve also projected Rick Adelman to win a Coach of the Year in Minnesota, ridden the Ricky Rubio bandwagon into the ground and once tabbed Rafael Araujo for Rookie of the Year. What ever happened to Hoffa anyway?
The point: Prognostication is an inexact science. And while I’ve hit on plenty of predictions—that LeBron guy has made me look good—it’s the whiffs that lead to the most head slaps. Many things can happen during an NBA season that can alter the landscape. With that being said, a few deeper thoughts on some of my preseason predictions:
The Raptors will finish second in the East
There is a prevailing pessimistic view on the Raps. Dwane Casey is on the hot seat. The defense is on the slide. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can only carry a team so far. I get all of that. But I also love the additions GM Masai Ujiri made to the roster. DeMarre Carroll’s skills are obvious, but Cory Joseph is an experienced backup and if the preseason is any indication defensive-minded center Bismack Biyombo is going to be a big part of the Raptors rotation.
There are two big variables here. First, defense. Toronto nose-dived defensively last season, dropping from a top-10 team in ’13-’14 to the bottom third in the league in defensive efficiency. Casey is among the better defensive minds in the NBA. Toronto added Andy Greer to his staff and gave him a legitimate perimeter defending weapon in Carroll, who thrived in that role with Atlanta last season. I’m betting they bounce back.
Second, ball movement. Toronto was an efficient offense last season but they played way too much iso-ball. A telling stat: The Raptors picked up assists on just 54.7% of their makes last season, third lowest in the NBA. In the preseason, that number dipped to 51.1%. The hope is that once Toronto fully integrates Carroll—who is coming from the Hawks share-the-wealth system--that number will improve. I think it will, and I think the Raps recent early playoff exits will fuel a resurgent season.
The Heat will finish seventh in the East
I love Miami’s starting lineup. Love it. My trepidation about ranking the Heat higher is that I just don’t know what they are going to get from the bench. Gerald Green had a fantastic preseason, looking more like the budding star from Phoenix in ‘13-’14 than the bricklayer he was with the Suns last season. And rookie Justise Winslow looks ready to play right away. From Chris Bosh’s lung, to Dwyane Wade’s knees to Luol Deng’s, well, everything, the Heat starters badly need the support of a strong second unit. If it gets help, Miami could blow away my expectations.
The Jazz will finish tenth in the West
Am I overrating the loss of Dante Exum? Several scouts think I am. Exum is a promising prospect and his length at the point guard gave the Jazz one of the longest lineups in the NBA. But there are many in the NBA who think the combination of Trey Burke/Alec Burks will capably fill the point guard spot and expectations are that the Jazz's second-half surge last season was no aberration. I’m buying big that Tyson Chandler’s presence will have a significant impact in Phoenix, where there are whispers that the Suns may be playing for Jeff Hornacek’s job this season. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Utah slides into that final playoff spot in the West.
Now, onto your Tweets...
Parker will be a player to watch this season. He didn’t look like himself for most of last season and scouts have remarked that they felt that quick first step looked a half a step slow. He’s 33 but has been playing pro ball since his mid teens and is entering his 15th NBA season. And that doesn’t include the two-plus seasons (203 games) he has played in the playoffs. Expect Parker to be a full fledged member of San Antonio regular season protection program this year. The Spurs are hoping that a healthy Patty Mills will be able to share the point guard duties and keep Parker fresh for the playoffs. I don’t think San Antonio should look to move Parker--nor do I think they will--but his minutes will need to be closely monitored.
No. Next question?
The Nuggets are headed in the right direction. Mike Malone was a good hire and Emmanuel Mudiay was a freaking steal. That said, getting anywhere near 40 wins in the West is going to be tough. Denver’s starting lineup is anchored by young players. Mudiay, who will start, is joined by Jusuf Nurkic, a vibrant defender/rebounder who is still recovering from a partially torn patella tendon. The Nuggets have played a slightly faster pace in the preseason and Kenneth Faried looks like someone breathed new life into him. I like Denver’s pool of young talent (including guard Gary Harris) and if that group matures faster than expected the Nuggets could be a .500 team. Realistically, though, I think anywhere between 30 and 34 wins sounds right.
If healthy? Yes, I would. Milwaukee oozes young talent and Greg Monroe--who was productive, albeit somewhat inefficient in the preseason--is the post presence the Bucks lacked last season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is another year older and Milwaukee will eventually get back Jabari Parker, who showed flashes of becoming a fine scorer before a knee injury ended his rookie season. Michael Carter-Williams is again a question mark; MCW will need to get his three-point percentage up and keep his turnovers down. In the West I might be a little worried. In the East, this team should absolutely be in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City is one of five teams in the West--along with the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers and Rockets--that I think can win a championship. But I picked the Thunder to come out of the conference because I watched a healthy Kevin Durant show no signs in the preseason of lingering effects from the foot injury that cut last season short. This team has been expertly built by GM Sam Presti. The Thunder has a true post presence for the first time in the Durant/Russell Westbrook in Enes Kanter and is two-deep at virtually every position. Billy Donovan has looked comfortable on the sideline in the preseason and Durant (for now) seems to be handling what will be season long speculation about his future pretty well. I don’t know if you can say this team is as talented as the ‘12 Finals team, but it is deeper and more experienced than that one, for sure.
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