Tuesday October 20th, 2015

By the time you read this, the start of the 2015–16 NBA season will be less than a week away. There’s no better way to celebrate such an auspicious occasion than making a bunch of wild, possibly insane predictions about the year to come. 

Some of these will be steeped in stats and logic and others will be wholly unhinged from reality. Some will be about awards or rankings while others will just be completely random. A few will make me look like a genius, but most will probably make me look incredibly silly.

All of them, though, are sure to spark debate. Let’s keep it civil. 

Without further ado. …

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1. The Philadelphia 76ers won’t finish with the league’s worst offense.

In each of the last three seasons, the 76ers have finished with an offensive efficiency below 100 points per 100 possessions. In both years of the Sam Hinkie era, they’ve wielded the worst offense in the NBA. Philly scored 96.8 points per 100 possessions in 2013–14, which was 2.5 points worse than the next closest team. Last year, they checked in at a horrifying 93.0 points per possession, a steep drop from the previous year’s embarrassment, and one that brought them to an efficiency 4.1 points behind the next worst team.

Here’s the thing: Based on their shot selection, one would expect the Sixers’ offense to be significantly better than it has been. Much like the Rockets, the Sixers stridently avoid midrange jumpers, preferring to take most of their shots at the basket and beyond the three-point line. Still, despite heeding a modern approach to offensive philosophy, Philly finished dead last in overall efficiency. 

The biggest reason why: Of the 12 players who attempted at least 200 shots last season, an appalling nine of them underperformed their expected effective field goal percentage (XeFG%), per Nylon Calculus. Of those nine, seven underperformed by at least 5%. Four of those seven players, meanwhile, are no longer with the team. 

The 76ers scored 592.7 fewer points than “expected” based on their shot selection last season, according to information provided by Nylon Calculus editor Seth Partnow (and the creator of XeFG%). That figure was the worst in the league. The next closest team was the Detroit Pistons, who finished 280.8 points lower than expected. In other words, the Sixers were more than twice as bad at shooting than the next-worst team. 

Thanks to an improved talent base and another year of seasoning for players like Nerlens Noel, Jerami Grant, JaKarr Sampson, and Hollis Thompson, it’s reasonable to expect fewer Sixers to underperform relative to their expected shooting percentages. It should further help Philly’s cause to have point guards capable of shooting (Isaiah Canaan, who actually shot better than Stephen Curry on pull-up jumpers last season) and passing (Kendall Marshall) than a player that didn’t do either particularly well a season ago (Michael Carter-Williams). 

For the first time in the Hinkie era, Philly also has the added option to throw the ball down to the post. As the owner of the most polished back-to-the-basket arsenal coming out of college since Tim Duncan, Jahlil Okafor presents a scoring avenue that simply hasn’t existed for these Sixers. Couple that with Okafor’s ability to read and react to double teams, a skill that will open up perimeter opportunities aplenty for shooters like Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas. 

Now, none of this is to say the Sixers will have a good offense, or even an average one. They do, however, have the talent to finally get out of the basement, which would be a step in the right direction. 

2. Stephen Curry leads the NBA in threes made and attempted for the fourth consecutive season.

Lenny Ignelzi / AP

Picking anyone to lead in either category other than the greatest shooter of all time—and yes, Steph already owns that title—is just silly. 

3. No team sees its win total decrease more than the Portland Trail Blazers, but the Dallas Mavericks will come close.

Portland lost four of its five starters from last season. LaMarcus Aldridge is now a Spur, Robin Lopez is a Knick, Wesley Matthews is a Maverick, and Nicolas Batum is a Hornet. Bench guys like Dorell Wright, Steve Blake, and Arron Afflalo are gone, too. Damian Lillard, marvelous as he is, can only do so much. 

There are a bunch of intriguing young players in Portland: C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, even Moe Harkless. But intriguing young players, while incredibly fun to watch and project one’s hopes onto, rarely lead to lots of victories. The Blazers won 51 games last season, and a win total in the 20s this year is not out of the question. 

Last year’s Mavs, meanwhile, won 50 games. They still have Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons, and added Wes Matthews, Deron Williams, and roughly 14 different centers. But Dirk might well be the healthiest guy on the team right now. That’s not good. 

Parsons is still recovering following a summer knee surgery. Matthews is still working his way back from a ruptured Achilles, an injury from which no player has ever come back the same. Unless and until they can prove they’re fully healthy, the Mavs remain one of the league’s bigger mysteries. Williams, meanwhile, has been dealing with a panoply of maladies and has yet to appear in a single preseason game. 

With so many important players hurt and Dirk no longer able to hoist an entire team on his back for 50 easy wins—terrific as he remains—it’s not all that difficult to see the Mavs taking a big step backward.

4. Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, and Goran Dragic each make their first All-Star team.

With the East remaining weak in the point guard department, the case for Dragic is a fairly easy one to make. If the Hawks aren’t as dominant as they were last season, voters won’t feel compelled to sneak as many of them as possible onto the team, putting Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague’s spots in jeopardy. If the Heat, as many expect, take a jump this season with their full core healthy, Dragic will presumably be right in the middle of that, allowing him to get the nod for the first time. 

Leonard, from the time he hit the floor following last year’s injury, was one of the 10 best players in the NBA. If you think otherwise, I’m honestly not sure what to tell you. He averaged 17.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game, on 49% shooting from the field and 37% from beyond the arc. He did that while playing good enough defense to win Defensive Player of the Year despite having missed 18 games at the start of the year. He’s an All-Star, whether he’s made the team yet or not. 

Hayward is a bit trickier to call. He did make a pretty good case a season ago, however, and the Jazz should be ascendant heading into the new slate. Utah’s baby-faced assassin averaged 19–5–4 on 45–36–81 shooting last season. With Alec Burks back, a full season of Rudy Gobert, and improvements up and down the rest of the roster, Hayward should have more help offensively, affording him more uncontested looks and lanes. Given the Jazz’s question marks at point guard, Hayward also figures to handle the ball even more often, which could nudge his scoring and assist numbers north a bit, too. All of that — bolstered by a resurgent season in Salt Lake City — should help put Hayward over the top. 

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5. Mike Conley once again narrowly misses out on making the All-Star team.

Brandon Dill / AP

And then there are many tears shed in the Dubin household. 

Honestly, there’s not much more this guy can do. Conley controls one of the best teams in the league, and has been playing excellent two-way ball for years now. He’s one of the few true plus-defenders at the point guard spot, and knows how to keep Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol involved. In fact, Conley told Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams he has an internal clock in his head, so he knows when Randolph might get anxious for touches. 

Wonderful, wonderful player. It’s a shame he hasn’t gotten the All-Star love he deserves. 

6. The Warriors lead the league in technical fouls.

It’s risky to take a team other than the Kings here. After all, when you have DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, and Rudy Gay, you need an entirely separate accounting wing to add up the fines. But the Dubs made it a point to run their mouths all last season, and that was before they became the most disrespected defending champs (by other teams, anyway) in recent memory. I’m thinking they double-down on the chirping, but the officials start to take notice more.

7. Tristan Thompson’s holdout ends inside the season’s first month.

Thompson’s one-year qualifying offer has now expired, so the option to accept it, play out the season, and become an unrestricted free agent next summer is officially off the table. If he sits out the entire year, he and his agent, Rich Paul, will just have to play the RFA game again—this time after having just sat out an entire year. Even in a wild marketplace of cash-flush teams and max cap space aplenty, that’s a big-time gamble. 

For their part, the Cavs have little incentive to give Thompson any deal shorter than five years, since they can simply match any offer again next summer. Besides, Cleveland presumably wants to lock him in long-term—and at their preferred price point—rather than let him hit the market again soon. 

Cleveland starts the season with a tough opening stretch (Bulls, Grizzlies, Heat), but the next six games are against the 76ers, Knicks, 76ers, Pacers, Jazz, and Knicks. They could easily be sitting at 7–2 or better after that stretch, whereby Thompson would lose what little leverage he has now (the “you can’t win without me” argument, basically). At that point, he’d be wise to just take Cleveland’s current five-year, $80 million offer and run with it. 

8. The Houston Rockets have the NBA’s most double-digit per game scorers AND the NBA’s most wins by 10-plus points.

James Harden, Dwight Howard, Ty Lawson, Trevor Ariza, Terrance Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and Patrick Beverley. That’s seven guys—really good ones, at that. Is it a definite they’ll all hit double figures in scoring? Of course not. But man, would that be fun. 

Harden, Dwight, and Lawson are all locks to notch 10-plus per. The Rockets also have the depth to keep Dwight’s minutes down so he stays healthy, and that means more minutes for Jones and Motiejunas, who can bump their scoring averages accordingly. Beverley, meanwhile, stands to take the most open shots of his life (Ariza, too). Come on, guys! We can do this! (I’m including myself because I’m the one making the predictions here. Deal with it.)

The Warriors led the league with 45 double-digit wins last season. Houston finished fourth (also behind the Spurs and Clippers) with 31. Given their depth and top-end talent, they could push 40 this year, which would give them as good a shot as anyone at the most in the league. 

9. People somehow hate the Clippers even more.

Jae C. Hong / AP

Doc Rivers yells at officials more than any coach in the league. DeAndre Jordan pulled that sports opera with the Mavs, which certainly did not gain him any fans. This is a franchise that, despite being among the more hated teams in the league already, went out and added Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, and Lance Stephenson. That’s three guys a whole lot of people love to hate. The Clippers seem to have an intense dislike for every other team in the West, and that feeling has become more than mutual. 

10. The Atlantic Division finishes with the worst combined record of the league’s six divisions.

There are three teams in this division that could finish with the worst record in basketball, or close: the 76ers, Nets, and Knicks. (If Philly stays Philly, Brook Lopez gets hurt and they trade Joe Johnson, or Melo gets hurt again). Whoever on this planet knows what to actually make of this Celtics team, please let me know. Even the Raptors are no lock to be an Eastern Conference contender. It’s entirely possible four of those teams finish below .500 again, which would essentially clinch this “award” for Worst Division in Basketball.

11. John Wall paces the league in both assists and SportVU’s distance traveled.

Here’s a fun one! Wall finished 46 assists behind Chris Paul for the league lead last season, despite playing three fewer games. If Wall had logged a full slate, he’d have finished around 16 back. With the Wiz pushing the pace, using small, fluid lineups, and playing more of a read-and-react system this season, it’s easy to see how Wall gets over the top. 

Consequently, that increase in pace means more running for Wall, who finished last year 16.6 miles behind Damian Lillard for the league lead. That number gets cut almost in half if Wall plays every game. Add a few possessions per game on both ends, the Wizards’ floor general easily makes the jump to the top of the list. 

12. Shabazz Muhammad leads the Minnesota backcourt in scoring.

For our purposes, we’re counting Andrew Wiggins as a small forward, since that’s where he’ll likely start (alongside Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine). Since arriving as a raw, athletic slasher in 2013, Bazzy has developed a solid outside stroke and a much-improved post-up game. Even if he comes off the bench, he should get a whole lot of touches and plenty of shots. If his finger injury is fully healed, he’ll make a bunch of them, too.

13. Marcelo Huertas takes over as the Internet’s favorite player, unless Mario Hezonja does it first.

John Raoux / AP

Giannis Antetokounmpo currently holds this title, because the Internet just loves it some young, uber-athletic, foreign players with through-the-roof potential and difficult names. But the backlash could be coming this season if he can’t manage to find a consistent jumper. Because if there’s one thing the Internet loves more than young, foreign players, it’s dudes who can shoot. 

Huertas, joining the Lakers this year from FC Barcelona, is a passing wizard who is already being fawned over during preseason games.

And you need to check out Hezonja against the Hornets:

14. The Celtics are the first team to make a trade.

This is such a weird roster. It really is. The Celtics boast no go-to scorers, they employ 137 power forwards, all of the point guards are shoot-first types, and Tyler Zeller might be the team’s best defensive big man.

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The only guy that seems guaranteed to stick around long-term is Marcus Smart. If they can parlay some of the young guys, a large-ish contract, and part of their gaggle of incoming picks into something bigger come December 15 (when players that signed as free agents this summer becoming eligible to be traded), it makes sense to check out the market.

15. The Cavaliers lead the NBA in isolation plays again.

And rightfully so. The Cavs finished 993 possessions with a shot, turnover, or foul drawn out of isolation plays last season, per Synergy Sports—72 more than the next closest team. 

When LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love are capable of taking their man one-on-one pretty much whenever they please, it’s not necessarily a bad strategy to just let them do it. It’s just probably not going to be the prettiest thing in the world.

16. The Spurs jump from 11th in the league in post-ups into the top 5.

Call it the LaMarcus Aldridge effect. Only Al Jefferson ended more plays with a post-up than LMA’s 618 last season. And that was nearly twice as many as the closest Spur (Tim Duncan’s 313). 

We know the Spurs will adjust their offense to help make Aldridge comfortable, even as he adjusts his own game to fit San Antonio’s famously free-flowing style. A hybrid approach, whereby the ball gets whipped around and eventually finds LMA anchored to his beloved block seems like it could become a common theme. As such, San Antonio may find itself using the league’s least efficient play more than they have since the David Robinson days.

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17. The Bucks drop out of the top five in defensive efficiency.

Aaron Gash / AP

Milwaukee had a surprising second-place finish in points allowed per 100 possessions a season ago, but the presence of Greg Monroe, Jabari Parker, and Greivis Vasquez—among others—will push them into the back half of the top 10 this season. There are still enough long limbs here to make things difficult for the opposition on a nightly basis, but you just can’t be quite as stingy when giving clear minus defenders (Monroe, while improved, is still a minus; so is Parker until he proves otherwise) such big minutes. 

Those guys will help boost the offense to respectability, but there’s bound to be a trade-off on the other.

18. The Magic infuriate everyone by playing at a criminally slow pace, but it results in a good enough defense to be in contention for a playoff spot during the season’s final month.

Scott Skiles, y’all! Historically, teams have improved their defensive efficiency ranking by an average of 12 spots during Skiles’s first year at the helm. That would bring the young Magic up from 25th to 13th this year. Considering he’s got Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, and Aaron Gordon to work with, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Skiles can get these guys there. 

Still, it’s going to be infuriating not seeing that trio push the pace and get out in transition. Orlando’s aforementioned trio, along with Hezonja, have the kind of physical gifts that should be on display for the whole world to marvel at—night after night. But free-flowing, open-court basketball has never been how Skiles rolls, and there’s little evidence to suggest that’s going to change any time soon. 

It’s all worth the sacrifice if it means seeing the Magic play real, meaningful basketball for the first time since Dwight Howard’s departure. My sense is they narrowly miss out on a playoff spot, but it’ll be good for the kids to get a taste of what the race is like.

19. Carmelo Anthony gets back over 37% from three-point range.

Melo hasn’t shot worse than 37.8 percent beyond the arc in any healthy season in New York. He dipped to 33.5 percent during the lockout-shortened 2011–12 season—a year in which he was dealing with various maladies—and fell to 34.1 percent last year, playing through a knee that everyone knew needed surgery from basically the second game of the season. 

During his other three years in New York, Melo’s connected from deep at 42.4, 37.9 and 40.2% clips, respectively. Looking healthy as ever so far during the preseason, expect Anthony to get back to sniping ways this season.

20. Andre Drummond leads the league in rebounding.

John Raoux / AP

Without Josh Smith and Greg Monroe around to fight for boards, Drummond will be counted on more than ever to snag everything in sight. 

If Stan Van Gundy gets him up into the 34–36 minutes per game range (rather than the 30 he logged last season), Drummond should push for 15 boards a night. He averaged 15.9 per 36 minutes last season, led the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage, finished third in defensive rebounding percentage, and second in overall. 

If the Clips get Jordan more directly involved in their offense (a reasonable bet, considering how his free agency played out), he won’t have quite as many chances to crash the offensive glass, thus bringing his average slightly down and opening up the opportunity for Drummond to step into the void. 

21. The Pelicans finish in the bottom half of the Western Conference, but Anthony Davis is still dominant enough to win the MVP.

Is there anyone on this team that’s healthy right now? Just look at this post from the Pelicans blog, The Bird Writes. Almost every rotation player except Davis is mentioned. Other Pelicans fans/bloggers are trying to figure out if the Pellies can snag an extra roster spot to begin the season through a hardship exception, simply because so many guys are hurt:

Eric Gordon, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Tyreke Evans, Norris Cole, and Quincy Pondexter are all dealing with injuries of varying severity. Jrue Holiday is on a minutes limit until January. Who knows how healthy Ryan Anderson’s back is? 

But honestly, none of this may matter in the end, because Davis is just that good. Considering he dragged this team to the playoffs last season, I think it’s safe to say he’s probably in that LeBron/Durant zone. Specifically, if he’s on your team, and he’s mostly healthy, you’re going to the playoffs. 

Davis averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.9 blocks last season. … and the bet here is that every single one of those numbers is going up, with Alvin Gentry super-charging New Orleans’s offense and the team gunning the pace more than ever. Something like 26–12–3–2–3 is not at all out of the question. Nobody’s ever done that, by the way—not Hakeem, not Shaq, not Wilt, not Russell, not Kareem. Nobody. If anyone’s going to become just the third player in the last 30 years to win MVP while playing for a team that doesn’t finish in the conference’s top three in wins, it’s this guy. 

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