NBA second-half forecast: Predicting the Finals, trades, hot seat and more
The first half of the 2015–16 NBA season was jam-packed with intrigue, ranging from the Warriors' historic 24–0 start to the rise of Kristaps Porzingis to the Cavaliers' coaching shakeup to Blake Griffin's ugly off-court incident.
What does the second half hold in store? With the season already hitting its midway point, SI.com paneled its NBA experts and asked for their bold predictions for the rest of the season.
Revised Finals prediction?
Lee Jenkins: Warriors over Cavaliers. I went with the Thunder and the Cavs. I always go with the Thunder. But how can anyone who watched the first half pick against the Warriors (or Spurs)? So I’ll go Warriors over Cavs, like everybody else. Which, of course, only ensures that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will all stay healthy for once, the Thunder will continue to improve on defense, Billy Donovan will convince them to share the ball, and they will pull off not one but two stunning upsets en route to the Finals. Even if that doesn’t happen, I stand by the prediction that three superpowers remain in the West, with the Dubs obviously ahead of the pack.
Ben Golliver: Spurs over Cavaliers. Philosophically, changing picks midseason should be an absolutely no-no, especially without an earth-shattering injury to use as an excuse. In this case, even though the Warriors have smashed any and all reasonable preseason expectations and smoked the Spurs on Monday, there are plenty of good reasons to stick with my guns in San Antonio and Cleveland. San Antonio possesses the West’s best point differential, second-best record, second-best offense, and best defense, while boasting a perfect home record. Cleveland, despite its coaching change and recent shakiness, owns the East’s best record, best point differential, best offense, and third-best defense.
What’s more, this season is lacking in dark horses: The three teams that entered the season as the consensus title favorites remain the same, having only strengthened their positions relative to the rest of their respective conferences. If Tim Duncan and LeBron James don’t meet in the Finals for the fourth time in their careers, it will almost certainly be because of the Warriors, and not some unexpected outsider.
Rob Mahoney: Warriors over Cavaliers. I went the boring route in my initial prediction, taking a repeat of last year’s Finals with the Warriors winning their second-straight title. I see no reason to change it. Cleveland, even with all the commotion from its coaching change, remains the best team in the East by a mile. Golden State showed on Monday that it deserves the benefit of the doubt even in a matchup with its fellow Western Conference juggernaut in San Antonio. The current Warriors are even better than the team that won the title seven months ago—more impossible offensively, more ruthless defensively, and even a touch deeper. Picking against them would come in defiance of that development and all that we’ve seen from them in high-profile matchups this season.
Matt Dollinger: Warriors over Cavaliers. This is a surprisingly difficult pick, but only because the ceilings of the Eastern Conference powers are so low. There isn't a single team in the East that represents a true threat to the Cavaliers if they are healthy. I don't care if David Blatt, Tyronn Lue, David Lue or Tyronn Blatt is coaching, Cleveland simply has too much talent and experience to be taken down in a seven-game series by its Eastern peers. When LeBron turns "it" on, we've seen he can pretty much overcome anything (except for the Warriors). The true championship match this year will be the Western Conference finals, which hopefully will pit the Warriors and Spurs against one another. If the postseason plays that way, we'll all be winners.
DeAntae Prince: Warriors over Cavaliers. Take a look back at SI.com’s original NBA Finals predictions and you’ll find only two staffers picked the Warriors to win the NBA Finals, and I was one of them. In fact, the Cavaliers were the overwhelming favorite. With half of the season behind us, a Cleveland title feels less likely than it did before the year started. From where we sit, the Warriors are fresh off their dismantling of the Spurs. They delivered similar fates to the Bulls and Cavaliers. Now, there is plenty of basketball to be played, but the Warriors will remain in the driver’s seat through June if things continue along this path.
Jeremy Woo: Warriors over Cavaliers. This is highly uncreative, but after watching the Warriors dominate the Spurs, it’s difficult to lean in any other direction. I still think San Antonio will have strong counterpunches should the teams meet in the playoffs, and I’m still hopeful we’ll get that series, but the way the matchups shake out favors Golden State. Stephen Curry remains the trump card. Despite the crisis in Cleveland, it’s still hard to bet against LeBron James coming out of the East. I’m not comfortable putting my chips on the Raptors, Bulls or Hawks, but whichever team wins out will be hard-pressed to do much against the West's champ.
Will the Warriors win 73 games?
Lee Jenkins: Those chumps will settle for 70, eventually succumbing to boredom and/or fatigue. Playing that fast, that flawlessly, for that long, must take a toll at some point. In the second half, they’ll face opponents who can accomplish nothing greater this season than stealing one meaningless game from vaunted Golden State, while the Warriors will finally let their eyes wander occasionally to spring. As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rests players, Steve Kerr or Luke Walton will follow suit to prepare for the postseason grind. Win 73 or not, set the record or not, the 2015-16 Warriors will go down as a forever team.
Ben Golliver: No. I make this prediction hesitantly and hoping to be proven wrong. Nothing would be better for the NBA, and fans of the league’s history, than seeing the Warriors break the 1996 Bulls’ 72-10 mark after years of it being viewed as more or less untouchable. The thrill of that chase has magnified the night-to-night excitement throughout Golden State’s season, propelling Stephen Curry and company into the headlines on a near daily basis.
With that said, their phenomenal 41-4 start has hardly changed the calculus. To get to 73, the Warriors must go 32-5 down the stretch, a .864 winning percentage which amounts to a 71-win pace for a full season. To get to 73, there still can be barely any let up from their torrid start. The possibility of dropping games any time Curry or Draymond Green rests is a real concern, but the biggest fear might be the unexpected off nights, such as Golden State’s recent 18-point loss to Detroit. It only takes a couple flukes like that, plus splitting games against the likes of San Antonio and Oklahoma City, to fall short of history.
Rob Mahoney: No. They certainly have the ability, though between Steve Kerr’s long-game thinking, a significantly harder schedule (including three games against the Spurs and Thunder along with two against the Clippers, many on the road), and the potential for injury, the safer bet seems to be against them making history in that particular way. I suppose they’ll have to settle for only being one of the most dominant regular season teams of all time.
Matt Dollinger: No. What's more impressive: a 73-win campaign or a second consecutive title? I'd argue the former, which makes me hope the Warriors go for history down the stretch and avoid sitting stars out for entire games. An NFL team seems to run into this every year, debating perfection versus postseason preparation. In the NBA, a run at the 72-win Bulls is as rare as they come. Can you tell me who won the NBA title in 2000? Or 1990? Or 1980? Maybe, maybe not. But you know when the Bulls won 72 games. I hope the Warriors chase the mark if they're still on pace, but I won't be surprised if they decide to focus on June instead of April.
DeAntae Prince: No. In order to surpass 72 wins, Golden State would need to win 32 of its next 37 games. That appears doable until you realize the schedule includes eight games against the Clippers, Spurs, and Thunder. And things stack up so the Warriors face the Clippers and Thunder during a seven-game run of road games that land on both sides of All-Star Weekend. Add in the likelihood of the Warriors resting players down the stretch and dropping more than six games over the next three months doesn’t sound so far fetched.
Jeremy Woo: No. Are they good enough to do it? Without a doubt. But it’ll be far from that. With difficult opponents and tough back-to-back games down the stretch, the schedule will prove challenging. If I’m Steve Kerr, I continue strategically resting guys, take my chances and play the long game, plus you have to think the Spurs will be doing the same. But still, another dominant, healthy month and Jordan and Pippen might start to sweat a little bit.
Biggest name traded before deadline?
Lee Jenkins: Ryan Anderson, Pelicans. Everybody wants a stretch four and few fit the profile better than Anderson, a 6’10” sniper who can rebound. The Pelicans power forward will be a free agent this summer and could help several contenders down the stretch, while fetching a healthy return for New Orleans. Of course, the Pelicans expected to be one of those teams in the playoff mix, but they should now look more seriously at the lottery. Subtracting Anderson, who scores nearly 17 points per game, will theoretically help the Pels reap a higher draft choice to help Anthony Davis in the future.
Ben Golliver: Jeff Green, Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are stuck: they’re clearly not contenders right now and there’s little reason to believe they will be able to make a move that bumps them up into that top tier come February. Usually, that puts a team into the seller category, but so many of Memphis’s parts are tough to move. Marc Gasol, re-signed last summer, and Mike Conley, a worthy max candidate this summer, can’t and shouldn’t go anywhere. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are declining, but there’s an understandable emotional attachment that makes it hard to part with them just for the sake of activity. Who’s left? How about Green, who arrived last year in a playoff run rental and stuck around to play out his player option. Memphis made a bet that Green could bring badly-needed doses of versatility and athleticism to its tough West matchups. Instead, he’s been a mild disappointment, unable to truly stretch the court or capture the level of consistency the Grizzlies need. Given that he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer, Memphis might view now as the time to pass along Green to the next playoff hopeful looking to add an extra dimension to its frontcourt.
Rob Mahoney: Markieff Morris, Suns. There are already bigger names floating around in trade rumors, but the odds of Morris being moved seem so much greater than any other single player that he has to be the pick here. In a vacuum, Morris is a solid player at a terrific contract value. To the Suns he’s worth far less—not all that expensive but also not all that useful. The move Morris asked for in the preseason seems inevitable, even as teams around the league lowball Phoenix in trade offers.
Matt Dollinger: Markieff Morris, Suns. For a player who desperately wants out of Phoenix, Markieff Morris hasn't helped his cause. The fifth-year forward is posting a career-low PER, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. He's averaging his fewest minutes since his rookie season and his fewest points since his second. Those aren't the type of stats you expect from a 26-year-old forward that is supposed to be hitting his prime and blossoming into a building block for your franchise. Instead, he's become an intolerable nuisance, both on and off the court. Combine his ugly on-court play with his even uglier off-court flare-ups and you have a player that is wildly difficult to trade. That said, stretch fours with Morris's skill set are hard to find, and his salary will look like a bargain when the new salary cap goes into effect. There might be a team that decides to roll the dice and trade for him. Unfortunately for Phoenix, it's unlikely to get much back in return.
DeAntae Prince: Kevin Love, Cavaliers. We often have a visceral reaction when NBA general managers deliver votes of confidence or declare players untouchable. Well, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told ESPN 850 AM in Cleveland that there are no plans to move Kevin Love. If you recall, Griffin also said David Blatt didn’t need a vote of confidence and would remain head coach last season. Blatt was recently fired after taking Cleveland to the Finals in and leading it to the best record in the East this season. Blatt was successful, but there were issues with the fit and he never quite bonded with LeBron James—a similar list of claims are clouding Kevin Love’s short tenure with the Cavaliers.
Jeremy Woo: Kevin Love, Cavaliers. Call this a hunch. Yes, David Griffin says Love won’t go anywhere. But the coaching change likely won’t be the last move we see for Cleveland. The rumors surrounding Love never quite seem to go away, and he’s the type of asset that could help the Cavs restructure their personnel in one swing. David Griffin’s had an itchy trigger finger in the past, there are teams with cap space that can offer some veteran depth. With Cleveland’s surplus of bigs and need on the wing and on the bench, I wouldn't be shocked if this happens anyway.
Coach on the hottest seat?
Lee Jenkins: Jeff Hornacek, Suns. Hornacek already had his staff overhauled, had a player throw a towel at him, had a 30-point loss to the Timberwolves, a 23-point loss to the Kings and a 20-point loss to the Lakers. The Suns, who have suddenly eclipsed those aforementioned organizations to become the most turbulent in the NBA, have won once since Dec. 18. They are a mess on the court and off, in need of multiple changes. Hornacek, a Coach of the Year candidate two seasons ago when the Suns improbably won 48 games, does not deserve all of the blame. But he can’t survive at this rate much longer.
Ben Golliver: Randy Wittman, Wizards. The easy answer is Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, as his team has been on life support for the last month with no signs of a turnaround. If Phoenix puts him out of his misery, like Brooklyn did with Lionel Hollins, no one will be surprised. Although Wittman might not be able to match Hornacek for pure heat, his seat is shaky nonetheless. The Wizards enter the second half of the season facing the expectations that go with matching their strong 2014-15 season, the uncertainty generated by Wittman’s decision to drastically alter the team’s style of play, and the urgency that comes with shaking off a slow start to make real progress up the standings. Wittman, who has coached through rumors about his job status before, is in the final guaranteed year of his contract. If the Wizards get stuck in a rut, pushing the button on Wittman could serve as a momentum-booster of the “Maybe it will give us a spark” variety.
Rob Mahoney: Jeff Hornacek, Suns. Gone are all playoff expectations in Phoenix, though Hornacek remains the captain of a sinking ship all the same. It wouldn’t be surprising if he were held accountable for that fact—no matter that the Suns’ implosion this season seemed to be well beyond his control. Good coaches have been fired over far less. Whether Hornacek stays will likely have more to do with the Suns of the future than the Suns of the present; all that matters for Phoenix is finding the right person to develop, lead, and utilize the team’s waves of young talent in the years to come. Hornacek could be a good fit, though few would blame the Suns if they opted instead to wipe the slate clean.
Matt Dollinger: Tyronn Lue, Cavaliers. Lue has almost zero chance of being fired in the second half, but there's no question his seat on the bench is hotter than anyone else's in the league. Every move, every decision and every non-decision will be scrutinized for the first-year head coach. His team's losses will be dissected on SportsCenter and his quotes to the press will be picked apart in search of secret meanings. His treatment of LeBron, his utilization of Kevin Love and his deployment of Kyrie Irving will all be examined under the magnifying glass... constantly. There's no honeymoon for Lue. You don't fire your head coach midseason—while the team is in first place and coming off a Finals run—if you have patience. Make no mistake, other coaches may lose their jobs, but Lue will face the harshest spotlight.
DeAntae Prince: Randy Wittman, Wizards. Paul Pierce’s decision to jettison the Wizards and join the Clippers created a host of questions for Washington. Entering the season, many remained unsure how they would manage without the savvy and late-game heroics he provided. The combination of John Wall and Bradley Beal appeared to be enough. Beal, who recently suffered a broken nose and concussion, has missed 20 games already and Washington now sits near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. None of this bodes well for Wittman, a perennial hot seat member who has managed to stick around after two second-round playoff exits.
Jeremy Woo: Randy Wittman, Wizards. The Wizards have certainly improved over the course of the season, but even sneaking into a final playoff spot may not be enough to save Wittman this time around. He’s seemingly mentioned every year as a guy who could lose his job, and after consecutive years losing in the East semis and a difficult, somewhat forced transition to smaller lineups, it would take a lot for Washington brass not to think hard about changing directions here. As they prepare to bid heavy on Kevin Durant, offering him the chance to pick his coach could sweeten the deal.
Most overlooked storyline of 2015-16?
Lee Jenkins: Grizzlies headed for shake-up? The Grizzlies are constantly overlooked, and they are nearing a crossroads, in terms of their roster and their style. For the past five years, Memphis bully ball has been one of the few constants in the Western Conference, and the Grizz were always very good but never quite good enough. Marc Gasol re-signed last summer, returning the Grizzlies to their usual place smack in the middle of the West playoff picture, and in six months Mike Conley will also become a free agent. At some point—and that point is rapidly approaching—players, fans, and executives demand more than respectability.
Ben Golliver: The West still trumps the East. There’s been lots and lots written about the East’s improvement this season, and for good reason: There has been substantial progress since last season. This year, eight East teams are currently above .500, up from five in 2014-15. This year, 12 East teams are playing reasonably respectable basketball, whereas only 10 fit that bill last year. This year, the East’s No. 8 seed is currently 2.5 games up on the West’s No. 8 seed, whereas the West’s No. 8 seed finished seven games better last year.
But the West’s supremacy clearly remains. The teams with the three best records are in the West. As are the teams with the three best point differentials. As are the four best offenses. And the two best defenses. Overall, the West is 341-325 (.512) overall through Sunday’s action, which easily tops the East’s 320-336 record (.488). The West has also surpassed the East to settle in at 133-117 (.532) in head-to-head games between the conferences. Nine of the top 11 players by Real Plus-Minus and eight of the top nine players by Player Efficiency play in the West. So while the East might deserve a blue ribbon for its progress, the trophy for conference supremacy isn’t going to change hands this year.
Rob Mahoney: Russell Westbrook at equilibrium. The fact that the Thunder are overshadowed by the Warriors and Spurs is a story in itself, which all but eliminates them from this question on the team level. That said, I haven’t encountered much response at all to the tremendous season Westbrook has put together. Playing with Kevin Durant will never allow for the same kind of full-tilt statistical brilliance that set Westbrook’s game ablaze last spring. Instead, he’s coming into his own as a more complex, sophisticated player—a dynamo not only able to exert influence on the game but take it fully under his control. The balance he’s struck has resulted in improved efficiency and Westbrook’s best playing season to date, all while remaining one of the league’s most dangerous scorers.
Matt Dollinger: Thunder and Clippers near ceilings. It just so happens that the NBA has two historically good teams in the same conference right now. Sometimes, them's the breaks. When Michael Jordan and the Bulls were dominating the '90s, there were plenty of championship-caliber teams (Jazz, Pacers, Knicks etc.) that weren't able to reach the mountain top because they were playing in an era with an all time great. The same could be true for the Thunder and Clippers. Each has two superstar talents and strong supporting casts, but neither has shown the cohesion, chemistry of capability displayed by the Warriors or Spurs. Oklahoma City and Los Angeles have built championship-caliber teams, but how much better can they get than their current product? What players can elevate their games to the next level? What trades can be made to topple conference rivals? The truth is, there might not be any answers. Both teams have been knocking at the door for years, but neither has been able to take the next step.
DeAntae Prince: Kyle Korver’s shooting slump. Last year we read lengthy features praising Kyle Korver’s underwater workouts and pregame routines. Such is the case when your team wins 60 games and reaches the Eastern Conference finals. The Hawks have not been nearly as successful this year, and Korver’s shot has unfortunately followed suit (49.2% from three last season, 36.9% this year). Despite the struggles, we've yet we to see critiques on Korver's disappointing scoring and shooting performances.
Jeremy Woo: No change in the West. We’ve talked a lot about the East’s improvement, and it’s certainly more competitive than in years past, but the West hasn't taken as big of a step backward as you've been led to believe. At the halfway point, six of last year’s eight playoff teams are sitting in playoff position. We know all about the Warriors and Spurs, but the overall league landscape has yet to fully shift its axis, and the West’s perennially-competitive teams are doing just fine.
Random second-half prediction?
Lee Jenkins: Kings will make the playoffs. With the NBA looking at times like a four-team league this season—Warriors, Spurs, Cavs, Thunder—the Kings will become the dysfunctional darlings of the second half as they move toward their first playoff berth in a decade. Yes, Sacramento is a tumultuous group, but the talent is undeniable. Rajon Rondo flourishes when the stakes rise, which they will, and we have never witnessed DeMarcus Cousins in meaningful games. They will bring out his best—despite a few bumps—and the Kings will send Sleep Train off in style, before the Warriors come calling.
Ben Golliver: The Rockets will claim the West’s No. 5 seed. To be clear, Houston has deserved all (or virtually all) of the criticism that has been sent its way over the last three or four months. That’s the past. Despite the firing of coach Kevin McHale, the persistent issues with focus, and the bouts of inattentive defense, the Rockets are just 1.5 games out of the No. 5 seed and a possible rematch with the Clippers. Houston boasts a more talented roster top to bottom than both Dallas and Memphis, the two teams directly above it in the standings, and the Rockets’ +2.7 point differential since Dec. 1 far exceeds the Mavericks (-0.6) and the Grizzlies (-1.8). James Harden has led the Rockets to a top-five defensive rating over the last seven weeks, a strong indicator that Houston will overpower enough of its opponents down the stretch to make up for its middling defense. If the Clippers do catch the Rockets in the first round, L.A. will be the only higher-seeded team in the West at serious risk of an upset.
Rob Mahoney: The Pelicans steal the eighth seed. At the moment, New Orleans sits at No. 12 in the West behind Portland, Sacramento, Utah, and Denver on the playoff bubble. It’s a crowded stretch in the standings, separated in all by a mere 3.5 games. Anthony Davis and Co., even after weathering that disastrous opening stretch, have it in them to leapfrog their fellow playoff contenders and land the final spot this season. Over the last 20 games, New Orleans has posted a top-10 net rating behind strong offense and passable (read: significantly improved) defense. Their performance over the last 15 games and 10 games is even more impressive. Plus, only two teams in the West have an easier remaining schedule in terms of opponent win percentage. There’s a real opportunity here, provided the Pelicans (now without Eric Gordon) can stay healthy enough to take advantage.
Matt Dollinger: Kobe Bryant will drop 40 in a game. It's a huge accomplishment in golf for a player to shoot his age, but in Kobe's case (he's 37) it would be a pretty remarkable feat in basketball, too. Kobe has hit 31 points twice this season, but he hasn't topped 20 in almost three weeks. Nonetheless, something tells me he has one more vintage performance in store. After all, it's not like Byron Scott isn't going to give him chances to shine. The Lakers have made it clear that this season is all about Kobe. I'm guessing he pulls through with one more superstar showing at home. Just for kicks, I'm going with March 13 against the Knicks.
DeAntae Prince: Kevin Durant's free agency will blow up. Again. The expectations for Kevin Durant’s contract year were high. Talk around the subject started to bubble before the season but quickly cooled once actual basketball was played. All it took for that dormant discussion to surface was a Thunder road trip to New York City. Expect that to change as winter gives way to spring and teams start to sharpen their summer pitches.
Jeremy Woo: Kings will make the playoffs. Alright, I said it. I believe in Boogie Cousins and I want to believe in his team. Are they capable of winning a playoff series? Doubtful. But can they nurse a one-game hold on the eight seed for a few more months? The Jazz are injured, the Kings boast more talent than the Blazers, and both the Nuggets and Pelicans would be better off long-term by picking in the lottery. If Sacramento’s pick falls outside the top 10, it goes to Chicago, but it’s visible how badly the franchise wants and needs a postseason berth to save face after years of disappointment. Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay and some not-so-bad role players should be enough to get it done. This will be captivating television in some form or another.