Give and Go: Revisiting NBA predictions, no matter how painful the process might be
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Looking back at our 2013-14 preseason predictions to assess the hits and *ahem* misses. (All stats and records are through March 26.)
1. What was your most regrettable preseason prediction?
Golliver: The bigger the name, the greater the possible scope of the regret, right? If that's the case, my "bold prediction" that Heat forward LeBron James would take home both the Most Valuable Player and the Defensive Player of the Year award really has me tossing and turning at night. Given Thunder forward Kevin Durant's start-to-finish brilliance this season, James will almost certainly go 0-for-2 in this one. The good news is that I didn't also pick him to win Most Improved Player or Coach of the Year.
I will pass at least some of the buck on this one to James. I haven't often found myself disappointed with his work in recent years (duh) but I will admit to being a little bothered by his approach to the 2014 DPOY award. James surely knows how influential his voice is in NBA circles. Just this month, he let off some steam about the league's new sleeved jerseys and immediately NBA commissioner Adam Silver moved to set up an offseason discussion on the subject. That's real juice. James also isn't one to recklessly speak out of turn.
So when he expressed some frustration at finishing second in the 2013 DPOY race to Grizzlies center Marc Gasol -- saying that it "sucks" not to win and pointing out that he can guard all five positions -- he immediately got the attention of the basketball intelligentsia. Is the award biased against wings, when Metta World Peace and Gary Payton are the only non-centers to win it since 1989? Were we somehow completely overlooking half of what the game's greatest and most scrutinized player was bringing to the table on a night-to-night basis? These were fair and intriguing questions, at least until Miami came out this season and dropped to 12th in defensive efficiency, putting up worse numbers than Charlotte, who ranked dead last in defense in 2012-13. As observers, we want athletes who campaign for awards to go out and earn them, and it's frustrating that Miami's defense this season has been closer to mediocre than elite following James' statements last April. He wasn't wrong to express his frustration and I agree with his general premise, but I was just holding out hope that he would channel the perceived oversight by taking out his frustrations on the opposition. That hasn't really happened, although it was probably an unrealistic expectation given that James and the Heat's core players have logged thousands of minutes in their quest for a fourth straight Finals appearance.
That one aside, the pick that has really stuck in my craw all year might seem a bit mundane by comparison: I had Denver finishing second in the Northwest Division. This was a case of me choking, pure and simple. Think Charles Barkley on the tee box or Nick Anderson at the free-throw line. I torched the Nuggets in my offseason grades column and just about everything I agonized over in that piece -- losing coach George Karl, GM Masai Ujiri, Andre Iguodala and Kosta Koufos, dealing with a rehabilitating Danilo Gallinari, and only adding the likes of J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur and Randy Foye -- has come to ugly fruition this season. I flunked them for their summer and labeled them as my preseason "flop team" but, when it came time to predict the order of the standings, I opted against dropping them behind Portland and/or Minnesota. Part of that decision came about because I wasn't totally sold on either the Blazers or the Timberwolves, but a large part of it was simply looking at the Nuggets' 57-win total from 2012-13 and finding it hard to believe that any team would plummet 20+ games (!) in one year without losing an A-list superstar. One way or another, I should have dropped them and, as you can tell, I'm haunted by it to this day.
Mahoney: Back in October when I was young and impressionable, I predicted the Bucks would win more than 29 games this season. That might be a bit tough with Milwaukee now projected to meet just half that total.
In my defense, I saw the Bucks for their design. This was a team of stopgap veterans and interesting young players -- hardly the stuff of Heat-challenging contention, but perhaps enough to make a convincing run at the eighth seed. The playoff bubble looked to be rather deep with Washington, Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit all uncertain in their own way, leaving an opening for a team like Milwaukee to at least vie for that final playoff spot.
The thought was that the Bucks might accomplish that much through defense, which had been an improbable specialty the season prior. Giving heavy minutes to both Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings is a serious handicap in coverage; it sets up back-line defenders for night after night of scrambling, as cleaning up the blow-bys and gambles of that tandem is a full-time job in itself. Larry Sanders -- with a little help -- had generally been up to the task, and in just his third NBA season made a convincing case as an All-NBA defender.
With another year under Sanders' belt, Ellis and Jennings gone, and more capable veterans surrounding him, the logic followed that the Bucks might be able to improve on their above-average defensive standing. Their season didn't at all turn out that way. Sanders' contributions cratered through injury and idiocy, his season ultimately undone by a thumb injury sustained in a bar fight.
Of course by that point Sanders' injury was just one problem among many. Various ailments claimed Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Knight, Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia and Luke Ridnour for stretches to begin the year, during which the remaining Bucks failed to find footing. By the time any reasonably healthy lineup could be fielded Milwaukee was already steering into the skid and dropping veterans out of the rotation for the sake of younger prospects.
Further downward the spiral went, to the point that these woeful Bucks became one of the few teams to keep pace with the free-falling Sixers. That's incredible in its own way, no?
2. Which prediction are you feeling pretty good about with less than a month remaining in the regular season?
Mahoney: I'm glad that I singled out the Warriors, after an inconsistent season in 2012-13, as one of the teams poised for the greatest defensive improvement. The calculus there was simple: Andre Iguodala and a healty Andrew Bogut can work wonders, to say nothing of the way spot defenders like Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes would fill the gaps.
Golden State has followed through with steadier, stingier defense, in the process allowing fewer points per possession than all but the Bulls and Pacers. That's quite a leap for a team that ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency a year ago, though the improvement holds up for exactly the reasons provided.
That much was relatively easy to predict. I bring up the Warriors' defense, though, in part because of the many fans who still think Golden State is a team driven by run-and-gun scoring. That's true enough when the execution clicks just so, but for the most part the Warriors sustain on their stops and opportunistic scores follow. They've been far more dependable in their coverage and rotations than in their creation of quality shots on offense, especially when Iguodala and Bogut are both in the lineup.
Golliver: We really get a whole section to pat ourselves on the backs? I'm not a gambler but I look back at our preseason over/under predictions post from October thinking maybe I should have tried to sneak in a quick trip to Las Vegas during training camp. I thought the Heat would be able to coast through a weak East to get to 62 victories, which hasn't happened, but the rest of my predictions were on the money: Philadelphia under 17, New Orleans under 39, Cleveland way under 40, and Oklahoma City over 51.5. All four of those teams were the subject of much preseason talk -- given their new-look lineups and/or injury questions -- and all four picks have already paid or will pay very soon. (No, I don't see the Sixers winning twice before the season ends, although under-17 was looking mighty shaky when they were 15-31 in January.)
The prediction that I'm happiest about, though, concerns Kevin Durant's scoring numbers this season: "Picking up the slack while Russell Westbrook is sidelined, Kevin Durant will win the fourth scoring title of his career and become the first player to average 32+ points since Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson accomplished the feat in 2005-06." Durant is a shoo-in to win the scoring title and he's averaging 32.2 points per game, the highest mark of his career, entering Thursday's action. He's also sitting on a streak of 36 straight games with at least 25 points or more, he's the first player since 2008-09 to top 50 points twice in the same season, and he's shooting 51/41/87 on more than 20 field goal attempts per game. If his numbers stay as is, Durant will be the first player ever to average at least 30 points per game while shooting 50 percent overall and 40 percent from deep. We will be telling our grandchildren about Durant's scoring prowess this season, unless of course he tops it next year.
3. What was your Finals pick before the season? Would you change it now?
Golliver: Heat over Thunder. I made the most boring Finals pick during the preseason and, to make this even more boring, I'm sticking to my guns. What's the point in flip-flopping without a roster-shattering injury or some other indisputable reason for doing so? Entering Thursday, Miami and Oklahoma City were two of the league's top-six teams by record and point differential. They both are: experienced, athletic, balanced on both sides of the ball, and loaded with superstars. Both have endured adversity this season -- Miami has been inconsistent and has looked tired at times, while Oklahoma City has seen Russell Westbrook go in and out of the lineup while also dealing with injuries to Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins -- but neither has been knocked off course. Both have a shot at claiming the top seed in their respective conferences; even if they don't, they will enter the postseason as their conference's most feared team while also boasting their conference's best player.
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Mahoney: Heat over Spurs. I still think that's the most likely Finals matchup; at the moment I'd prefer Miami over Indiana in their inevitable showdown out East, and in the West -- supposing we don't know seeding particulars -- I'd pick San Antonio on its viability in so many different matchups. The Thunder would be an incredibly tough out should the West come down to those two, though I think the Spurs have evolved to the point where they could win a head-to-head series and are otherwise less likely to get hung up against one of the other credible challengers.
The bigger question is whether Miami deserves to be picked as the title favorite after a season of off-balanced defense and wavering focus. At this particular moment I'm a bit reluctant to give the Heat the full benefit of the doubt. They'll be a force in the playoffs, likely good enough to push through three opponents for their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. But if Miami has to work through Chicago and outlast the Pacers before taking on an improved San Antonio team out to finish what it couldn't last year, I'm not sure I like those odds. I'll keep my Finals participants but flip the winner: Spurs over Heat.
4. The two of you listed 68 reasons to watch the 2013-14 season back in October. Which entry now seems the most ridiculous in hindsight?
Mahoney: One particular swing-and-miss was our No. 27: "The nonstop madness of a 10-contender trade deadline." The initial thinking was that teams like the Bulls, Grizzlies, Nets, and Warriors would be more convincing in their title contention, fleshing out a field that also included the Spurs, Thunder, Heat, Rockets, Pacers, and Clippers. Between those 10 teams, at least one seemed likely to make a big move at the deadline -- whether out of desperation or a need to create separation.
That never really came to pass, unless you count Indiana's shrug in trading a seldom-contributing Danny Granger for the problematic Evan Turner. Otherwise there hasn't been anywhere near 10 title contenders at any point since the preseason, nor was the trade deadline all that mad. Some teams jockeyed to save on the tax. Others made minor tweaks to their benches. In all it was a fairly average deadline: Lacking in big-picture intrigue beyond the exchange of a few role players. Rats.
Golliver: The absolute most ridiculous one was: "The NBA debut of Luigi Datome, who is quite possibly the shooter Detroit so desperately needs." Well, let's see: Entering Thursday, the Italian forward has made a grand total of six three-pointers this season and is shooting 17.6 percent from beyond the arc, playing less than seven minutes per game in 29 appearances. Whoops. For context, there have been 136 instances of a player making six three-pointers in a single game this season. Stephen Curry has done it nine times, and Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson have done it five times each. The Pistons sure needed shooting, too, as they currently rank No. 29 in three-point percentage and have struggled constantly with spacing issues during a season in which coach Maurice Cheeks was let go just a few months after he was hired.
A few others stood out to me. Given New York's debacle, it's hard not to chuckle when reading: "Andrea Bargnani in New York, for better or worse. Probably worse. Almost definitely worse. One of the league’s most despised players in the country’s largest media market. Preseason stats: 3.3 rebounds per game, 38.1 percent shooting, one bout with pneumonia, one million questions about the Knicks’ lineups. Buckle up, or jump off this hurtling train, whichever you prefer."
Another one I enjoyed for completely non-ridiculous reasons: "Brad Stevens conjuring a win out of thin air with some late-game magic, allowing Celtics fans to daydream about better days ahead." I thought of this one when Jeff Green hit that absurd right corner three-pointer over LeBron James off of an inbounds set from the left sideline to beat the Heat at the buzzer in Miami. Now that was some serious late-game magic.
5. Which midseason awards pick do you feel the most iffy about?
Golliver: Portland's Terry Stotts for Coach of the Year. The Blazers' boss was my first-quarter and midseason Coach of the Year pick but there were hedges along the way, as Portland's easy early schedule, near-perfect health and defensive shortcomings seemed to set the table for a second-half slide. The predicted slide is now bordering on a collapse: since enjoying a 31-9 start, Portland is 14-18, and they are in a dogfight just to maintain a playoff spot, sitting just two games up on Dallas, the No. 9 seed, with 10 games to go. The Blazers offense that once led the league in points per possession has come back to earth and the team still isn't guarding anybody. It's hard to remember a squad going from the proverbial "team nobody wants to play" to the "team everyone is hoping for in the first round" faster than the Blazers, even if they are capable of surprising some people if they can get their three-point shooting machine rolling again.
Even still, Stotts' Coach of the Year case has taken a massive hit over the last two months. Jeff Hornacek's Suns have done more with less and Dwane Casey's Raptors have shown impressive staying power atop the weaker East. My second choice at the midway point -- Pacers coach Frank Vogel -- has also seen his team hit the skids in recent weeks, but they're still clinging to the No. 1 spot in the conference and still possess the league's best defense. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau (unbelievable resilience in the face of the Derrick Rose injury and the Luol Deng trade) and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (owners of the league's best record and tracking towards another 60+ win season) both deserve consideration, as does the Bobcats' Steve Clifford (orchestrating a lottery-to-playoffs turnaround in his first year). Long story short, the final few weeks of the season need to play out before I will be ready to settle on a single coach as the most deserving for this award, but it's basically impossible to envision a scenario where Stotts is still the pick.
Mahoney: Philadelphia's Michael Carter-Williams for Rookie of the Year. That would be a reasonable pick, still, though over the second half of the season I've come to prefer Orlando's Victor Oladipo. The margin between the two candidates is pretty thin; both are relatively inefficient, turnover-prone players with reasonable production and much left to learn. Oladipo, though, is a bit more dependable and accountable as a defender with slightly better shot selection. That might not be good enough to win him the Rookie of the Year award in any other season, but for this class I think it gives him the edge on Carter-Williams and Utah's Trey Burke.
The Sixers' style of play both helps and hurts Carter-Williams in this case, as we're forced to evaluate a prospect lodged in perpetual chaos. We can make some sense of what the pace and freedom in Philadelphia might do for Carter-Williams' offensive game, but what's far more challenging is separating his individual defensive tendencies from a wild, frenetic team defense without any kind of reliable support. The Magic aren't yet a good NBA team, though they at least have a roster of NBA players. That's more than we can say of the Sixers, who sought to stockpile resources without too much concern for fielding a respectable roster. That's a valid approach, and one that might help explain why Carter-Williams gambles and drifts the way he does. Yet in the final balance of an award like this one, vague justifiability doesn't override bottom-line performance. Carter-Williams hasn't made enough of a case offensively and overall has not been a good defender. Oladipo has been comparable offensively while playing legitimately good defense at times. That's a relatively simple dividing line, though one that leaves me bailing on my midseason pick.