20 predictions for the 2013-14 season
I've already made picks for the NBA Finals and several traditional awards as part of SI.com's Crystal Ball. Here are 20 more predictions for the 2013-14 season that run the gamut from micro to macro.
1. Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin will look like a different -- and better -- player.
Not to oversimplify things (or undersell Lin's offseason work), but playing with Dwight Howard tends to make a world of difference. With Howard as a pick-and-roll partner, the repercussions of Lin's more problematic instincts should be mitigated. He won't be bottled up as often after jumping into the air without immediate purpose and will often have relatively obvious passing and scoring angles as a result of Howard's athleticism. Plus, his spot-up attempts from three-point range should be cleaner because working through the post will enable Houston to create good, balanced opportunities for Lin and his teammates.
Not to oversimplify things (or undersell Gasol's decline), but not playing with Dwight Howard should make a world of difference. Gasol looks to be in better health and in better spirits now that he's returned to a more comfortable role, putting him in position to establish a better rhythm. It's challenging to thrive while fluttering in and out of the lineup with injury, being displaced from your natural position, picking up one offense (Mike Brown's Princeton-style scheme) only to drop it and learn a second (Mike D'Antoni's looser offense) and adapting to new teammates in Howard and Steve Nash as they, too, are injured. Removing some of those factors is a simple means of getting Gasol back on course.
3. The Bobcats will not have a bottom-10 offense for the first time in franchise history.
After nine years of scoring ineptitude, Charlotte will ride Al Jefferson's unorthodox game to sweet, sweet mediocrity.
I've already tackled this subject at length. I think many skeptics have conflated the fact that Smith isn't a great fit on the wing for the Pistons as evidence that he'll be terrible there. I just don't see that being the case. He's too good a passer and too varied an offensive player to be a wreck at that position, no matter his lack of long-range competence. Plus, the defensive value of having three functional big men -- Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond -- blocking off driving lanes and eating up space will be tremendous for a team that struggled in every phase of its defensive execution last season. Any approach that puts Smith at small forward is bound to have its limits, but for the time being it should be good enough to facilitate the Pistons' considerable improvement.
5. A regular-season injury will doom one of the Western Conference's potential contenders in the first round of the playoffs.
The West features six championship-viable teams -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio, the Clippers, Memphis, Golden State and Houston -- and only eight playoff spots up for grabs. That leaves four potential contenders -- likely in the 3-6 and 4-5 spots -- to fight for their playoff lives in brutal first-round series. Countless variables will go into deciding those matchups, but I have a sneaking suspicion that regular-season injury will play a major role -- if only in costing some team a few wins and dropping it out of a coveted top-two position. Look out, Thunder.
6. Evan Turner will rank in the top three in minutes played.
Buy your Sixers season tickets today!
7. Denver will be one of the 10 worst defensive teams based on points allowed per possession.
Consider the factors in play here:
• The Nuggets lost one of the league's best defensive players in Andre Iguodala during the offseason. The season before acquiring Iguodala, Denver ranked 19th by allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions. With Iguodala on the court last season, that number dropped to 100.5, a borderline top-five mark. (The Nuggets were 11th overall, at 102 points per 100 possessions.) Iguodala's presence put all Nuggets players in a better position to succeed, whether by reducing the strain on big men in rotation or shielding lesser defenders from unfavorable matchups. Losing him to the Warriors will cost the Nuggets more on defense than offense.
• To make matters worse, Denver's second-best perimeter defender has skipped town as well. Corey Brewer, who uses every bit of energy and every inch of length he has to pester opponents, was one of the Nuggets' best at challenging shots on the perimeter and forcing turnovers.
• Danilo Gallinari, Denver's third-best perimeter defender, will miss the start of the season with a knee injury. Beyond Wilson Chandler, the next in line to fill minutes on the wing are the defensively limited Randy Foye and the inexperienced Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton and Quincy Miller. Oy.
• Denver also signed J.J. Hickson after trading a better defender in center Kosta Koufos, creating a three-man rotation of big men with exceedingly little defensive hope. JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried haven't proved to be a capable defensive pairing yet. Denver allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions with that tandem on the floor last season, nearly four points worse than the team's average. Hickson will compound that problem with his consistently one-step-late rotations.
• Just to keep things fun, the Nuggets picked up the 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson to fill out the rotation for a team that played the 5-11 Ty Lawson and the 6-2 Andre Miller for a combined 60.3 minutes per game last season. Short stature alone doesn't preclude good defense, but neither Robinson nor Lawson has managed to make up for his lack of size much on that end, and Miller could face similar problems in guarding bigger opponents on the wing. Dual point guard lineups have their advantages, but I shudder at the defensive implications of stacking waterbug on waterbug with Lawson and Robinson sharing the floor.
• Left to deal with all of this is first-time coach Brian Shaw, who is being thrust into a new level of responsibility after serving as a quality assistant for a great defensive team in Indiana last season. Best of luck to him.
When desperate, NBA teams tend to grasp for the known. That should give hope to these four veterans, some more worthy of signing than others. Gooden, a cost-efficient source of scoring and rebounding, is one of the better players on the market. Collins -- through supposed media implications, barrier-breaking appeal and all -- will be of value come spring to some team eyeing a matchup with Howard, Indiana's Roy Hibbert or Brooklyn's Brook Lopez. Duhon has a gift for convincing general managers that he's a better player than he really is. And Thomas looks to be a classic reclamation project, talented enough to persuade some team to sweep aside his track record and give him a shot.
To put things in perspective, the Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire played 682 minutes in 29 games last season amid his knee injuries -- a standard that almost seems too lofty, given all that Bynum has gone through. I'd love to be proved wrong. The league is better off with a wide-ranging pool of quality big men, and a healthy Bynum would be an interesting counterpoint to the likes of Howard, Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol et al. But he's earned sweeping skepticism after loitering through his rehab last season, a troubling sign for a player whose knees are already working against him.
10. Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson's unprecedented decision to switch his shooting hand will help his percentages significantly.
I want to believe, and Thompson did his own story a solid by shooting so poorly from outside the paint (36 percent) and the free-throw line (60.8 percent) last season.
11. Toronto's starting lineup will play well enough to complicate decisions regarding the future of Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry.
In a general sense, Gay and DeMar DeRozan are troublingly similar players who are owed a combined $27.4 million this season. Both are most useful as scorers and better with the ball than without. But their limitations as creators are obvious. Because neither is effective from three-point range, able to draw fouls consistently or committed to attacking the basket, the two players' contributions tend to come and go with their mid-range jumpers. Beyond that, neither is much of a passer, a top-notch perimeter defender or a game-changing cutter. They are variations on the same theme, for better or worse.
One such player is manageable, if not common among NBA rotations. But with two acting as such central elements of Toronto's offense, the pairing of Gay and DeRozan would seem likely to strain the Raptors' spacing and flow in their efforts to score.
But that just hasn't been the case in the context of Toronto's starting lineup, composed of Gay, DeRozan, point guard Kyle Lowry, power forward Amir Johnson and center Jonas Valanciunas. In the 300-plus minutes that group logged after Gay's arrival last season, the Raptors scored 105.4 points per 100 possessions -- roughly on par with the output of the Spurs' high-functioning starting lineup. Better yet: Toronto's top five also managed to play startlingly effective defense, to the point that it ranked as one of the best lineups in the league by net rating.
The context changes now that the Raptors will be asked to sustain that kind of play for a full season, but I see that group playing well enough to complicate the team's course. Many consider it a foregone conclusion that newly hired (and analytically inclined) general manager Masai Ujiri will look to trade Gay (who has a $19.3 million player option for next season) at the earliest opportunity, but there's a point at which the Raptors' on-court effectiveness could make that decision more challenging. Plus, with Lowry set to be a free agent after the season, Ujiri faces a decision on his immediate future. If this group plays well again together, can Toronto -- which would have no room under the cap without shedding salary -- really afford to let Lowry go?
I doubt he'll take home any hardware, because the sixth man award traditionally goes to the most obviously productive (read: highest-scoring, or near enough) reserve. That isn't Kirilenko's style. Still, he could easily be the best -- and most important -- bench player by season's end, regardless of whether he nabs the hardware.
In Milwaukee, Ellis lacked a teammate as demanding of opposing defenses as Dirk Nowitzki, a coach as creative as Rick Carlisle and a fellow playmaker as dependable as Jose Calderon. Between those three, there's hope for Ellis yet. He'll force some shots and play generally terrible defense, but Dallas is equipped to enhance the things that Ellis does well (create off the dribble) to the point that he'll have a successful year.
Something has to give in Sacramento. The overqualified Fredette is buried on the depth chart in the backcourt and the Kings have too many decent power forwards. Consolidating would make sense for the Kings, who could do well in moving Fredette and a spare big man for a quality small forward, a player who could better round out their top lineups.
Fredette's improvement has helped make that course plausible. As a rookie, the revered college scorer struggled from the field (38.6 percent) and had trouble handling the ball. But last season Fredette revived his value by being more productive (he averaged a noteworthy 18.4 points per 36 minutes) and efficient. His ceiling might well be a Jason Terry type, but there's value in that for any team that can highlight Fredette's strengths while planning around his weaknesses. If the Kings had intended to do so, I very much doubt they would have selected Ben McLemore with the seventh pick. Some other team, then, might be excited for the opportunity.
I donned my haruspex cap, sought divine guidance through goat entrails and have seen what is to come on the trade market. A bigger deal could be in the works, but these were the names illuminated to me.
16. Kevin Durant will average more than six assists per game.
This is the culmination of a trend that goes well beyond Russell Westbrook's absence. Durant took a playmaking leap last season, a multifaceted evolution of his ball handling and court awareness that yielded a career-high 4.6 assists. In the postseason, he reached 6.3 assists with Westbrook sidelined, setting the bar for what we can expect this season. Even when Westbrook returns from knee surgery, Durant should remain a committed passer. Durant does well to push on the limits of his game every season, and this year he will have an obvious opportunity to do even more off-the-dribble creation than usual.
17. New York will play well against the top Eastern Conference teams in the regular season.
This is the way of the world. The Knicks play well in the regular season against quality teams, and observers choose to make of those wins what they will. So it is and shall be. A word of caution, though: The burden of proof for contention is a bit higher than some midseason win over the Bulls or Heat.
18. Michael Beasley will, at some point and perhaps briefly, play meaningful minutes for the Heat.
It should say plenty about Beasley's situation that my first instinct was to predict that he wouldn't finish the season with the Heat. Instead, I'll give Miami a little more credit for its diligence. The Heat have a contractual out in case anything goes wrong, but I think Erik Spoelstra and his staff will try their damnedest to make an honest contributor out of Beasley yet. Whether they'll succeed is another matter entirely, though I do see a world where Beasley steps in to fill minutes at some important juncture. It might be a bridge too far to assume any kind of postseason contribution, but in a regular-season game against a fellow contender with some stakes? Beasley could do well as a scorer and rebounder, if only for a spell.
19. DeMarcus Cousins will improve his shooting percentage for the third consecutive season.
He's inefficient, sure, but Cousins has gone from 43 percent shooting to 44.8 percent shooting to 46.5 percent shooting in his three seasons, all without much help. That should change in short order because new coach Mike Malone is poised to give the long-chaotic Kings offense some structure, which should help Cousins get better shots.
With Kobe Bryant a lock for the starting lineup through fan benefaction, Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki back in the mix and Stephen Curry likely poised to secure his first All-Star berth, I'm not sure there will be room on the West team for any of these three productive, qualified big men. Another All-Star regular could join them, too, if New Orleans' Anthony Davis makes enough of a leap. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.