2014-15 NBA Crystal Ball predictions
With the 2014-15 NBA season almost here, SI.com's hoop experts dished their predictions for the upcoming year, including their Finals picks, MVP selection, Rookie of the Year and more. As with all preseason predictions, you are legally obligated to forget we made these picks by December.
West Finals: Thunder over Clippers
Kevin Durant is likely out until December with a fracture in his right foot, an injury that could cost Oklahoma City home-court advantage in the Western Conference, but should suppress Durant’s minutes for the playoffs. Each of the past two years, Durant has been the best player in the West, but he’s appeared fried by the postseason. A refreshed Durant, spurred by the specter of free agency that threatens to dismantle the Thunder, may have to cede the regular-season MVP to LeBron James. But he is well positioned, as Oklahoma City's core reaches its prime, for Finals MVP.
West Finals: Spurs over Clippers
The Spurs will be chased by the usual questions this year -- can Manu Ginobili stay healthy, can 38-year old Tim Duncan piece together another productive season -- but it’s hard to bet against the defending champs that return 97.5 percent of their minutes from last season. The bench, the NBA’s top reserve unit a year ago, won’t be quite as strong with reserve guard Patty Mills out until at least January but when he returns the Spurs go two deep at virtually every position. They also have Kawhi Leonard, who shouldn’t be held to the standard he set in the last three games of the Finals but who should continue to develop this season. The West will be tough -- OKC’s offense historically gives the Spurs problems -- but this team still has at least one more run left in it.
West Finals: Spurs over Clippers
The 2014 offseason’s many twists and turns tested the basketball fanatic’s short-term memory: LeBron James single-handedly shifted a conference’s power balance by leaving the Heat for the Cavaliers, the Bulls stocked up their frontcourt to supplement Derrick Rose’s (latest) return, the Pacers fell apart, the Clippers filled a gaping frontcourt hole by adding Spencer Hawes, and the Thunder endured a serious setback in losing Kevin Durant to a foot injury. Even with all of those changes, nothing really changed: the defending champion Spurs remain the team to beat, and their dominating run through the 2014 playoffs was followed up by a clean sweep in the summer, returning all of their key contributors. Look for San Antonio to take a 3-1 lead over James in the career series as the Cavaliers get to the brink but fail to reach the summit.
West Finals: Spurs over Clippers
It’s hard to pick against the loaded Cavs in the East, but playoff newcomers Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love could have a tough time dealing with a Tom Thibodeau defense in a seven-game series. The Clippers could steal the second seed in the West, thanks partly to Kevin Durant’s injury, but the Spurs are still the Spurs – perfectly constructed and expertly coached. With Gregg Popovich continuing to keep his players well-rested for the postseason, particularly old-timers Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, there’s no reason to think the Spurs won’t be clicking on all cylinders when it matters most. Again.
West Finals: Thunder over Spurs
With Cleveland an unproven defensive outfit and Chicago burdened with questions, it seems safest to pick one of the West's finest as the eventual champions. But which? The Spurs make an outstanding case with depth and two-way play. The Clippers threaten to crash the Finals on the strength of Blake Griffin's all-around development and Chris Paul's continued excellence. I can't shake the feeling, though, that this is the year of the Thunder. OKC got the best of San Antonio in the Western Conference finals whenever Serge Ibaka was on the floor, and saw its run ended in part by Ibaka's two-game absence. A redraw would be tough on the defending champions, assuming Kevin Durant's full recovery from his foot fracture. If the Thunder go on to win the title, there will almost certainly be an arc to their season -- that of a team growing in tactics and skill development in the absence of its best player. From there, OKC would likely need to overcome unfavorable seeding and difficult road playoff games to push through to a championship. In that comes ample opportunity for failure or, with the right breaks, a glorious run to the pinnacle of the sport.
West Finals: Clippers over Thunder
While the Spurs return the exact same team that won the title four months ago, they won't return with the same edge. A brutal loss to the Heat in the 2013 Finals fueled San Antonio's title run last season. It's unlikely last spring's Finals romp will drum up the same emotions. Instead, another devastating defeat will catapult a new champion. The Clippers lost Game 5 in the West semifinals to the Thunder despite leading by seven points with 47 seconds left. Chris Paul (rightfully) took the blame for the loss that unwound the Clips' season. Now he'll take the reigns and lead the Clippers to redemption. With Donald Sterling mercifully exiled, Spencer Hawes bolstering the bench and Blake Griffin toeing an MVP campaign, this is the year the Clippers become L.A.'s team. Chris Paul was already the most competitive and chippy player in the league; imagine what he'll play like spurred by last year's debacle.
Next page: Most Valuable Player predictions...
Most Valuable Player
Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. Until a legitimate third candidate emerges, this is a two-man race, and Durant’s time away gives James a big head start. Back in Cleveland, with the world watching him and young teammates studying him, James won’t pace himself as he did at times last year in Miami. This is his first turn as the sole team leader. He will charge through the regular season, in part to please a home crowd that is hyped for his return, but also to show Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving the commitment necessary to seize a championship. James will do for the Cavs what he did for the Heat in 2011-12 and 2012-13, dominating on both ends while elevating others.
Mannix: LeBron James, Cavaliers. It’s James’ award to lose, as Kevin Durant’s foot injury effectively eliminates the top competition. Chris Paul could work his way into the mix and it’s only a matter of time before Anthony Davis becomes a legitimate candidate. But with another stellar supporting cast around him, James should continue to rack up impressive all-around numbers on a team that could win 60-plus games this season. LeBron has always been a sneaky threat to average a triple double; with so many weapons at his disposal, this could be the season he comes closest to accomplishing the feat.
Golliver: LeBron James, Cavaliers. The more you think about how great a season someone would need to have to top LeBron for MVP in 2015, the more impossible the task seems. Barring injury, James is set up to have a completely irresistible candidacy: fantastic stats, a big team win total, and a comeback story that just happens to be laced with a hometown hero angle. Jumping franchises happens to offer an easy method for judging value, too. In 2011, the Heat improved from 47 wins to 58 wins by adding James, while the Cavaliers dropped to 19 wins after winning 66 games in 2009 and 51 games in 2010. If Cleveland vaults from 33 wins last season to 55+ this season, and Miami takes a big step backwards from its 54 wins as expected, James’ transformational abilities will be easily comprehended simply by glancing at the standings. What represents “value” better than totally changing the fortunes of two franchises?
Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavaliers. Basketball proficiency meets narrative might. The NBA’s award voters are getting better when it comes to separating performance from story, yet in James’ candidacy there’s truly something for everyone. Playing alongside Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving should be terrific for LeBron’s box score stats. His play itself will reinforce his standing as the best in the game. And, for those looking for something more: James’ return to Cleveland is the biggest story in sports, and his coming MVP a natural plot point. Without Kevin Durant to provide a proper challenge, it seems safe to etch James’ name into the trophy’s base.
Taylor: LeBron James, Cavaliers. Come on. Who else would it be? James is almost certainly going to take a team that was 33-49 last season to a 50-plus win total and a high seed in the playoffs. He’s going to be invaluable to rookie coach David Blatt, who has no NBA coaching experience, and he’s going to tutor Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the ways of winning. James will score big some nights, allow Irving and Love to shine while he facilitates on others, defend from perimeter to post, and generally make the Cavs better in every area of the game. He’s the very definition of a Most Valuable Player.
Dollinger: LeBron James, Cavaliers. Don't overthink this one. The best player on the planet returns home to a team that won 33 games last season and hasn't been relevant since he left. Kevin Durant will miss a portion of the season with a foot injury and his candidacy is further jeopardized by teammate Russell Westbrook likely putting up MVP-esque numbers in his absence. Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis could challenge the throne with gaudy statistics, but LeBron's combination of dominance, winning and versatility makes him a prohibitive frontrunner. This will mark LeBron's fifth MVP in seven seasons. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.
Next page: Rookie of the Year predictions...
Rookie of the Year
Jenkins: Andrew Wiggins, Wolves. Jabari Parker is the favorite, and at the mid-season mark he’ll be the frontrunner. Only 19, Parker is more polished than Wiggins, and his point totals will be superior. But Wiggins will steadily grow into a two-way force who is unstoppable in the open court and capable of suffocating the league’s elite wings. Wiggins obviously won’t win in Minneapolis the way he would have in Cleveland, but like James and Durant before him, he’ll be able to start his career as a primary option. Unlike James and Durant, he’ll enjoy the benefit of Ricky Rubio creating easy shots for him.
Mannix: Jabari Parker, Bucks. Parker is the leading candidate, with offensively challenged Milwaukee expected to lean heavily on Parker to produce. Translation: A lot of minutes and a lot of points. Parker may not be the best player in this class -- he will need to settle into a position and prove he can defend it first -- but in terms of pure production, no rookie will put up the numbers Parker will.
Golliver: Jabari Parker, Bucks. Parker, the No. 2 pick in the draft, should have every opportunity – minutes, shots, and a manageable learning curve -- to win this award. Surveying the rest of the 2014 lottery, there just aren’t that many players who will be guaranteed a starting position and a leading role on offense, which are clearly the two most important criteria for this award. Not even No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins is assured of both, and Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Julius Randle, Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh and Doug McDemott are all likely looking at gradual ramp-ups. Parker’s preseason numbers (30.8 minutes, 16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 42.3 percent shooting), if maintained, should be plenty for him to win this going away.
Mahoney: Jabari Parker, Bucks. It all adds up. The shots will be there for Parker in an award race typically determined by statistical output. His skill set is more NBA-ready than that of his draft classmates, which bodes well for Parker sustaining impressive play over the course of the season. His contributions are more obvious (and more simply quantified) than Nerlens Noel’s and his minutes more certain than Andrew Wiggins’. There’s no compelling reason to steer around the simplest answer.
Taylor: Jabari Parker, Bucks. He has an NBA-ready game on a team that needs him to score, two key components to a Rookie of the Year campaign. Parker scored in double digits in every preseason game, including a 21-point, 11-rebound effort against Minnesota, and coach Jason Kidd is already drawing up plays for him in clutch situations. He sealed the win over the Timberwolves with a drive, spin and dunk with 40 seconds left. The Bucks might not have much to play for except Parker getting ROY. They’ll try their best to help him get it.
Dollinger: Nerlens Noel, 76ers. You think Jabari Parker is going to have a lot of opportunities on the Bucks? Imagine how many touches Nerlens Noel is going to get with the 76ers. Noel is the forgotten man in this year's Rookie of the Year race, having sat out all of last season due to a torn ACL. But it was just four years ago that a different high-flying forward won ROY a year late after suffering a season-ending injury: Blake Griffin. Noel doesn't have Griffin's game offensively, but he is ready to rebound and block shots at the NBA level. Add-in a fair amount of garbage points and Noel should be the cream of the rookie crop, giving Philly its second Rookie of the Year winner in as many years. Maybe Sam Hinkie knows what he's doing after all.
Next page: Most Improved Player predictions...
Most Improved Player
Jenkins: Harrison Barnes, Warriors. Usually, with this award, the player improves because the situation does. Barnes, a promising rookie two years ago when he started 81 games, stagnated last season under Mark Jackson and was marooned on the bench behind Andre Iguodala. But the Warriors replaced Jackson with Steve Kerr, who seems intent on reclaiming Barnes, inserting him back into the starting lineup for Iguodala through much of the preseason (although he's vowed to switch back once the season starts). With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, there aren’t many shots to go around, but Curry and Thompson create plenty of space for Barnes. In Year 3, he will re-emerge.
Mannix: Steven Adams, Thunder. Adams exceeded all expectations last year -- mine included -- by rising from a so-so freshman prospect at Pitt into a regular in the Thunder rotation. Adams has always had good physical tools; he’s strong, physical and has great hands. But he never seemed to be as good as the sum of his parts until last year. With Oklahoma City transitioning away from Kendrick Perkins, an improved Adams could thrive in an enhanced role.
Golliver: Andre Drummond, Pistons. Considering the circumstances, Andre Drummond’s sophomore production (13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals) was absolutely remarkable, especially for a player who didn’t turn 21 until August. Detroit’s frontcourt was a mess and an abrupt coaching change was ultimately followed up by a long-overdue management change. Stan Van Gundy’s arrival promises to bring a steadier hand and more savvy mind to the franchise, and Detroit’s young centerpiece should be a big beneficiary of both. If a developing Drummond can vault his way into the All-Star conversation and/or the rebounding title and if he can smooth out some of the rough edges in his game (limited offensive repertoire, inconsistent positioning on defense, foul issues), his Most Improved Player case will be very compelling.
Mahoney: Anthony Bennett, Wolves. The bar could hardly be lower. Last season, Bennett finished in the NBA’s bottom five in both PER and win shares among 337 qualified players. His conditioning was miserable and his confidence shot. Minnesota offers some semblance of a fresh start, along with the opportunity to play regular rotation minutes behind Thaddeus Young. The opportunity will be there. It’s on Bennett, though, to redeem his natural talent and shooting ability into viable NBA performance.
Taylor: Andre Drummond, Pistons. His averages of 7.9 points and 4.8 rebounds as a rookie were promising. His second year numbers, 13.5 and 7.8, were solid. In Year 3, Drummond, the Pistons’ 7-foot center, looks ready to jump all the way up to impressive, especially with a new coach, Stan Van Gundy, who knows how to get the best out of raw but insanely athletic big men from his days with Dwight Howard in Orlando. If Drummond can somehow improve his free throw shooting (40.2 percent career), he’ll have All-Star caliber numbers.
Dollinger: Ricky Rubio, Wolves. For the first time in Rubio's four-year career, the Wolves are all his. With Kevin Love gone, Rubio's days as just a primary facilitator are over. This season, Rubio will play the part of lead guard. The offense will run through him and he won't have to worry about getting other players their touches. Uninhibited, Rubio will play with the flare and charisma that made us all fall in love with him as a teenager. Surrounded by a cast of players his age, Rubio will go back to doing the thing he does best: having fun. The influx of happiness -- and departure of endless Love rumors -- will result in Rubio's best year yet. Rubio is already a better shooter than he's given credit for -- now it's time for him to show off the full arsenal. Oh, and just in time for free agency.
Next page: Coach of the Year predictions and coach on the hot seat...
Coach of the Year
Jenkins: Steve Clifford, Hornets. He could have won it last season, when Charlotte reached the playoffs, and now he is poised to guide the Hornets to a top-five seed. After two years of losing, Kemba Walker bought into Clifford’s system, significant because new backcourt mate Lance Stephenson must now do the same. Charlotte’s offense will be more potent with Stephenson’s arrival, but functions best when run through Big Al Jefferson. Clifford makes his real impact, though, on the other end. Under Clifford, Charlotte has become one of the more committed defensive teams in the league, and that won’t change.
Mannix: Steve Kerr, Warriors. As many weapons as the Warriors had last season, the offense was startlingly inefficient, ranking No. 12 in the NBA. Enter Kerr, a savvy basketball mind who will try to improve the offense by emphasizing ball movement. With David Lee and Andrew Bogut, Golden State has two solid offensive options in the paint, and the perimeter is an embarrassment of riches with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. If Kerr can maintain the Warriors top-five defense -- a healthy Bogut will be a big part of that -- while moving the offense into that territory, Golden State will be tough for anyone to beat in the playoffs.
Golliver: Doc Rivers, Clippers. It can be tricky for a coach with an established team and high expectations to win Coach of the Year, as he has to fight off the pleasant surprises and upstarts. Rivers knows that personally from both sides of the equation; he won the 2000 Coach of the Year award by leading an overachieving Magic team to 41 wins, but was beaten out in 2008 by Byron Scott (56 wins for the Hornets), even though he won 66 games and went on to win the title. Gregg Popovich has won the award twice in the last three years, though, so this proposition is merely tricky, not impossible. Rivers’ 2015 candidacy starts with belated recognition for his ability to hold the Clippers together during the Donald Sterling saga before engineering a strong offseason. His claim to the award will be made or broken by his ability to find a way to beat the prognosticators, who see L.A. claiming a third straight division title. If the Clippers can win 60 games for the first time in franchise history and/or claim the West’s No. 1 seed, Rivers will be a very worthy candidate.
Mahoney: Doc Rivers, Clippers. As usual, the candidates for this award will run deep: From best-in-the-game Gregg Popovich to a quartet of first-time head coaches. Rivers is as good of a candidate as any. The Clippers have a very real chance of posting the best record in the Western Conference this season, a mark that would make Rivers a favorite. Even if they fall short, Rivers’ second season at the helm in L.A. should bring about the kind of internal improvement prime for COY candidacy.
Taylor: Stan Van Gundy, Pistons. Detroit had enough talent to finish with better than the 29-53 record it accumulated last season. Van Gundy, replacing Maurice Cheeks and interim John Loyer, should be good for about 10 more wins, which would put the Pistons in contention for a playoff spot in the East. Talented but undisciplined players like Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings cry out for quality coaching. With Van Gundy, they’ll get it.
Dollinger: Steve Clifford, Hornets. The Hornets had a top-10 defense last season in Clifford's first season as a head coach, so imagine how good it will be with ballhawk Lance Stephenson inserted into the starting lineup. Charlotte improved by 22 wins in its first campaign under Clifford and could be among the Eastern Conference's elite this season if Stephenson's arrival pans out. It'll be up to Clifford to keep his talented but temper-prone guard in check, much like Frank Vogel did in Indiana. As we've seen, Stephenson can be an All-Star talent when utilized correctly. But as we also know, he can be a nightmare when he loses control.
Coach on the hot seat
Jenkins: Kevin McHale, Rockets. The Rockets have two of the 10 best players in the league and could not survive the first round of the playoffs last season. Their roster is worse than it was, considering the losses of Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, so some regression should come as no surprise. But expectations remain high for the Dwight Howard-James Harden partnership. The Rockets are indeed talented, but they lack veteran leadership, putting greater onus on McHale.
Mannix: Kevin McHale, Rockets. Yes, Chandler Parsons is gone and the dream lineup of Parsons, James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh is just a painful memory. But a team with two elite players will be expected to deliver more than just a first-round exit. That will be tough for McHale, who is in the last year of a four-year contract. Scouts agree: For the Rockets to improve, McHale will have to hold players more accountable defensively. That includes Harden, who can be a liability on that end of the floor.
Golliver: Kevin McHale, Rockets. As outlined earlier this month, McHale enters the season on the hottest seat for a number of reasons. First: Houston is coming off a season that ended in disappointment. Second: McHale didn’t receive a contract extension and is therefore entering a lame duck season. Third: the presence of two All-Stars in Dwight Howard and James Harden ensures that McHale will face high expectations in the league’s more difficult conference. Fourth: three key members of Houston rotation (Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin) departed this summer, forcing McHale to juggle his lineups once again.
Mahoney: Kevin McHale, Rockets. Houston waited quite some time to acquire a superstar and now, with two in hand, works under the pressure of a ticking clock. Dwight Howard and James Harden are ready to sustain an immediate championship push. Such aims naturally draw attention to McHale, who to this point hasn’t coached a top-10 defense nor fostered much offensive flow. Houston is a good team, but still very much in need of schematic help to fulfill its title ambitions.
Taylor: Kevin McHale, Rockets. The Rockets didn’t acquire Dwight Howard and James Harden over the last two seasons just to exit the playoffs in the first round, but that’s exactly what they’ve done. Even though GM Daryl Morey struck out on his bid to land a third star to join Howard and Harden, the feeling is that they have enough talent to make more postseason noise. Howard is saying he’s fully healthy again and Harden is promising to actually play defense this season, so expectations are once again high. Anything less than the conference finals could mean trouble for McHale.
Dollinger: Monty Williams, Pelicans. Firing your coach is a lot easier than finding a taker for Tyreke Evans of Eric Gordon. Williams is entering his fifth season with the Pelicans and has his best roster since Chris Paul was running the point. With a host of big-name players on big-money deals, New Orleans doesn't have much flexibility to shake things up should things go south. If the Pelicans decide change is in order, it could be Williams who takes the fall. Williams is regarded as a promising head coach and has gained valuable experience as an assistant on Team USA, but his potential might not be enough to keep him around if New Orleans fails to live up to its preseason hype.
Next page: Surprise and flop team predictions...
Jenkins: Jazz. The Jazz will be the Suns of a year ago. The Western Conference is too brutal for them to make the playoffs, but they are loaded with young players and top picks finally ready to make an impact. From Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors down low, to Trey Burke and Gordon Heyward on the perimeter, not to mention Alec Burks and Dante Exum, this is a gifted but inexperienced team that’s quietly getting closer.
Mannix: Hornets. Steve Clifford and Al Jefferson turned the Hornets from a punch line into a playoff team last season; this year they could be even more. The addition of Lance Stephenson makes sense on any level -- Stephenson is a wing defender (which the Hornets need) who can be a playmaker (ditto) and came at a reasonable price (three-years, $27 million, which is ridiculous). Stephenson’s presence should take pressure off of Jefferson and if the Hornets young core continues to mature, this team could win a playoff series.
Golliver: Pelicans. This isn’t exactly a risky pick. New Orleans offers promise for three obvious reasons: the Pelicans ridiculous run of bad injury last season is unlikely to repeat itself, Anthony Davis is poised to make a third-year leap into undisputed All-NBA status, and the arrival of Omer Asik should substantially boost the defensive efficiency. It should be noted that coach Monty Williams will need a full season (or close to it) of quality production from point guard Jrue Holiday to fully deliver on this team’s potential.
Mahoney: Bucks. They may not be terrible! Milwaukee ended up with the single worst record in the NBA last season, in part because the Bucks steered into the skid. Without the same early injuries and setbacks, though, Milwaukee could well be decent. Jabari Parker is the kind of rookie that can help immediately, especially on a team starved for competent scorers. A healthy, active Larry Sanders will help matters considerably as well, as should the internal improvement across a young roster.
Taylor: Hornets. Al Jefferson, a monster on the low block, is one of the most underrated players in the league and Kemba Walker is developing into one of the better scoring point guards in the East. The Hornets can defend – they had the fifth-best defensive rating in the league last season, thanks largely to coach Steve Clifford. As for their key free agent signing, if they get more of the tough-defending, demon-in-transition Lance Stephenson than the shot-happy, out-of-control Lance Stephenson, they could find themselves fighting for a three- or four-seed in the East.
Dollinger: Hornets. The Hornets have struggled to take advantage of their residency in the lottery over the last decade, but they've become unlikely major players in free agency over the last two years. After landing Al Jefferson, a culture-changing All-Star big man, last season, Charlotte turned around and reeled in Lance Stephenson this summer, stealing him from Indy's grasp and weakening a conference foe. The Hornets' all-New York backcourt of Stephenson and Kemba Walker will flourish and if any of the Hornets' recent lottery picks (Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Noah Vonleh) pan out early, which means Charlotte could be competing for home-court advantage in the first round.
Jenkins: Pacers. They are an easy target right now, after losing Paul George to injury and Stephenson to free agency, from an offense that sputtered throughout the second half of last season. The Pacers will still stifle opponents in the half-court, and Roy Hibbert will protect the rim, but gone are the only two players who could consistently create a shot. The Pacers could very well go from the Eastern Conference finals all the way to the lottery.
Mannix: Rockets. Signing Trevor Ariza salvaged a brutal offseason, and the Rockets still have plenty of offensive firepower. But Parsons was a key cog for this team and you have to wonder how deflated Houston will be after losing out on Chris Bosh and watching Parsons sign with a conference rival. Houston was the No. 4 seed last season -- but it was only six wins better than No. 9 Phoenix. In an ever improving West, the Rockets could slide out of the playoffs.
Golliver: Knicks. Granted, expectations aren’t exactly humongous in the Big Apple this year, but there’s still a warping effect when it comes to the hype found in huge markets. Look for New York to finish the season as victims of that hype. Whether it’s their first-time head coach, a new president who needs to shake up his roster, a rarely-used offense that will take some time to implement, or a group that is totally devoid of interior defensive talent, there are plenty of strong reasons to believe the Knicks will really, really struggle in 2014-15. Their only saving grace is that they play in the weaker Eastern Conference, where nearly one-third of the conference has no shot at making the postseason.
Mahoney: Heat. Most of those teams held in high preseason esteem are equipped to meet expectations. Miami could be the one exception. Dwyane Wade’s health is a factor that could potentially cripple the Heat by exposing a shallow wing rotation and dooming the Heat for shot creation. Beyond that lie only more unknowns: Wade’s efficiency dip without LeBron James, Chris Bosh’s return to a higher-usage style, increased reliance on shaky playmakers and layered concerns for Miami’s troubled team defense.
Taylor: Knicks. Granted, it’s hard for a team to flop when so little is expected of it, but the Knicks might pull it off. It’s not just that Carmelo Anthony is the only player who makes opponents at all worried, it’s that the Knicks only have two players, guard Iman Shumpert and center Samuel Dalembert who are even average defenders. Add that they’re still getting used to the Phil Jackson-mandated triangle offense, and things could get ugly early for New York, and the season could spiral down into the 50-loss area.
Dollinger: Nets. There's a reason Jason Kidd bolted for Milwaukee. Losing Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston decimates this team on both ends of the floor. While Lionel Hollins brings a steady hand, the Nets are plagued with uncertainty everywhere else. Kevin Garnett, 38, is masquerading as a starting power forward, Deron Williams is playing on two surgically-repaired ankles (I felt phantom pains just writing that), Brook Lopez has essentially missed two of the last three seasons and the bench is razor-thin. On paper, the Nets look like a respectable team, but in reality they will prove too fragile to live up to expectations.
Next page: Biggest player traded predictions...
Biggest player traded
Jenkins: Rajon Rondo, Celtics. The Celtics now have eight guards. They want to build around rookie Marcus Smart, and though they claim he can play alongside Rondo, it’s nearly impossible in today’s NBA to pair two guards who can’t reliably shoot from outside. Not many potential suitors need point guards, and of those who do, some will be scared off because Rondo’s contract expires after this season. But the Rockets believe deeply in their ability to lure and retain players. They are one logical destination.
Mannix: Marc Gasol, Grizzlies. The easy answer here is Boston’s Rajon Rondo, but the market for Rondo -- a free-agent-to-be who believes he is worth a max-level contract -- is a little murky. Gasol, 29, will also be a free agent next summer but any team with max cap space will likely line up to sign him. Memphis has thrived with the Gasol-Zach Randolph lineup, but the Grizzlies have an impulsive owner and a coach, Dave Joerger, who isn’t as committed to muscle-ball as former coach Lionel Hollins was. Don’t expect Memphis to sell Gasol off, but the right offer just might entice a team that badly needs perimeter help.
Mahoney: Rajon Rondo, Celtics. To hedge up front: The escalating salary cap and uncertain market dynamics to follow are sufficient grounds to make the NBA's risk-averse executives even more cautious than usual. Given that, it's most likely that the league's bigger names remain in their current jerseys. Should a high-profile player be moved, however, Rondo is the top candidate. Trading Rondo – who, while talented, is an awkward fit in a long-term rebuild -- would ultimately be in the franchise's best interests.
Taylor: Rajon Rondo, Celtics. Rondo leads the league in trade rumors, most of them nonsensical, but one of these days one will probably come true. The last man standing from the Doc Rivers/Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett era, the brooding Rondo doesn’t seem to be a personality fit with the rebuilding plan of these new, young Celtics and their coach, Brad Stevens. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him dealt around midseason.
Dollinger: David West, Pacers. The more attractive of the Pacers' two high-priced bigs (Roy Hibbert), West will be a wanted man come the trade deadline. The 34-year-old power forward is the perfect veteran complement on a playoff team and comes with the flexibility of an expiring contract, making him that much more desirable. West will likely put up big numbers with the depleted Pacers in the first half of the season, inflating his stock even further. The skilled bruiser doesn't have much use on lottery-bound Indy, but there are plenty of contenders who could use the big man's services.