It’s that time of year again. The NBA season is in the midst of kicking off, and here I am, ready to give you a quick look into the future at how everything will shake down by April, and who will walk away as the 2013-2014 NBA Champions.
Who will grow up in the East to make the playoffs?
At the top, the Eastern Conference is as good as it’s been in a long time, with three teams having a very good chance at beating anyone in the West. Once you move past the top three however, it quickly blurs into a murky picture of potential up-and-comers and veteran teams without the talent to make a difference. Here are the playoff seeds, in descending order.
8. Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, or Toronto Raptors
This might look like a cheap pick, but hear me out. If all things remain equal, I would put the Raptors here. They have the best squad overall of these three teams, but it is a near certainty that they will end up trading Rudy Gay to a fringe contender. Once that happens all bets are off; they will not have a go to guy in crunch time and flatly will not have the talent needed to score on a consistent basis. The Hawks are in a similar situation; they have two very solid big men in Al Horford and Paul Milsap complimented with frisky outside shooters. The problem in Atlanta is that they don’t really possess a major upside that will vault them into the upper half of the East. With this in mind, they are in prime condition to trade away talent, acquire as many draft picks as they can, and merrily tank their season away. That leaves the Bucks, who my gut tells me will end up in the 8th spot. The moves they’ve made signal that they are actually trying to win, and when the trade winds blow players out of Atlanta and Toronto, they will be the last team standing.
7. Brooklyn Nets
Surprise! Not only am I putting the much ballyhooed Nets in the 7th slot, I believe they’ll struggle mightily to get there and finish no more than three games ahead of the 8th seed. Most NBA analysts have Brooklyn cemented into the 4th seed, but this team reminds me way too much of last season’s Lakers club, who many picked to at least make the NBA finals. That squad had an injured Dwight Howard, old Kobe Bryant, old Pau Gasol, and really old Steve Nash surrounded by a bunch of terrible role players. Here are some of the ages of players for Brooklyn: Kevin Garnett – 37, Paul Pierce – 36, Jason Terry – 36, Joe Johnson – 32, Andrei Kirilenko – 32. These are all players that Brooklyn is going to rely on. The other two will be Brook Lopez and Deron Williams. Brook Lopez should do fine offensively, but has never been a great defender or rebounder. At only 25 years old, I worry about his psyche after the 20th time KG berates him viciously for missing a defensive assignment. Deron Williams, enigmatic star of this group, is going to have to somehow get them to gel and keep himself positive, which he’s had trouble with in the past. Oh, and their coach is first-year man Jason Kidd, who I’m suddenly very worried for. If he’s unable to hold this team together through injuries and bad stretches of play, I see them having to fight hard for a playoff spot this year. Injured players and poor defense are just going to be too difficult for them to overcome and finish higher.
6. Washington Wizards
Seeds 4, 5, and 6 in the East will be clearly better than 7 and 8, but are also significantly worse than the top 3. Washington is at the bottom of this group, but they will be fun to watch. John Wall is going to be a man on a mission this year. When he was healthy, he tore it up last season and really deserves to be mentioned among the top guards in the league. He and Bradley Beal are going to be a dynamite backcourt tandem this year, and as long as their frontcourt holds together, they shouldn’t have any problem securing this spot.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Here is the middle team with by FAR the most upside. They have two players, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Bynum, that could vault them up to the 4 seed and maybe even help them challenge for number 3. In Irving’s case, I expect a monster scoring year for him; he will be battling Kevin Durant for the scoring title in the final days of the season. Quite simply, there is hardly anything he cannot make the basketball do on the offensive end. I can’t be sure if Bynum can stay healthy this year, but if he does, there are precious few centers in the entire league that can match him on either end of the court. The last few years have been tough on him, but I think the prospect of playing with a young star like Irving, plus the incentives built into his contract that reward him for staying on the court are going to motivate him to actually give a crap this season and produce. Bynum, Anderson Varejao, and Tristan Thompson form an imposing rotation of big men that are going to make Cleveland’s defense passable enough to climb this high in the East.
4. Detroit Pistons
Detroit is going to ride the frontcourt of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, and Josh Smith straight to the 4th seed in the East. Drummond and Monroe complement each other so well; Drummond lacking any offensive smoothness but is a defensive monster, and Monroe being a true post scorer who is often leaky on D. Josh Smith is a very nice 2-way player who is going to make a difference all over the court; offensive rebounds, wing and post defense, hustle plays, etc. I’m not a huge Brandon Jennings fan, but I’m fine with him jacking up 25 shots per game if Drummond, Monroe, and Smith are there to gobble up rebounds and scoring easy put backs. The bench is a little thin, but this group is young enough to not have to rely on it too much. The future is bright in Detroit.
3. Indiana Pacers
If you’re a Pacers fan, you’re elated to have risen to the NBA’s elite circle, yet also bummed because you might feel that you’ve reached your peak and it’s not good enough. Last season, Roy Hibbert and Paul George both established themselves as true difference makers on the court, but neither are at the super elite level of say…..Dwight Howard/Tim Duncan or Lebron James/Kevin Durant. I honestly don’t know what you do if you’re Indiana. They have a great coach in Frank Vogel, but Chicago and Miami have equal to or better coaches. They play outstanding defense, but so do the Heat and Chicago. They have a premier perimeter player in George, but Rose and LeBron are both better. I love Indiana, Hibbert is one of my favorite players in the NBA, but if Miami and Chicago make it to the playoffs healthy, I just can’t see the Pacers advancing past either of them. Worse, I don’t see any moves they can make for the future to raise their status.
2. Miami Heat
There’s not much to say here, they have LeBron, they have two titles, and they execute their blitzkrieg game plan extremely well. If they are healthy, it’s going to be nearly impossible to beat them. However, they have two enormous question marks and their names are Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. It makes less difference if Oden gets hurt because Miami never really has had a true big man to rely on. If Oden can produce, watch out, they’ll have a force inside that they haven’t had since LeBron’s arrival. Beasley absolutely HAS to produce for them. If he cannot give them quality minutes to spell Chris Bosh and LeBron during the season and playoffs, I believe the Heat will wear down and not have enough gas to make it through the Eastern Conference playoff grind. Judging on both of Oden and Beasley’s histories, I think this is the end of Miami’s title hopes.
1. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose. That should be all you need to know, but here’s a quick refresher. In the 2011 playoffs, Chicago took Miami to six games before bowing out. Derrick Rose hurts himself next year in the playoffs and then misses the following year entirely. With him back and Chicago having retained most of its gritty core, they are going to give the Heat all they can handle. It really bugged me last season to hear many analysts suggest that the Bulls blow up their roster. They are rugged as shit and Rose gives them a dynamic offensive creator and leader that they sorely missed during the last two playoffs. Had Rose been healthy then, it would not have surprised me at all if they had brought Miami down and maybe even won a title. Coach Thibodeau is going to have his defense firing on all cylinders this season, locking down teams night after night. This year, they’ll take down the Heat thanks to the NBA’s best record and home court advantage.
A Quick Note About the Knicks
Most people automatically penciled in New York as the 5 seed this year in the East. You know who this Knicks team reminds me of? The Kevin Garnett era Timberwolves. They have an elite player surrounded with NOTHING. Last year, New York opened up sizzling hot by putting on a two month 3-point shooting barrage that was an ANOMALY. JR Smith should never be a critical member of your team, Ray Felton should not be a starting NBA point guard, Tyson Chandler is 31 years old, and the only player who can play defense on the team is Iman Shumpert. The Knicks are heading for a huge implosion that’s going to end with Carmelo Anthony burying his team by taking 40 shots per game.
Who Will Survive the Bloodbath in the West?
In contrast to the East, the West is much deeper from seeds one through eight, though probably not quite as power-packed at the top. The first six seeds are all but locked in, with the final two spots being hotly contested between five teams. Again, playoff seeds are listed in descending order.
8. Denver Nuggets
Losing Andre Iguodala is going to absolutely kill them. He was a versatile wing defender who could also create some offense from time to time. If they want to climb higher than the 8th seed, JaVale McGee is going to have to take a major step forward and become a center who makes a consistent difference on both ends of the court. Kenneth Faried reminds me a lot of Serge Ibaka, lots of highlight blocks and ally-oops, but lacking a solid game all around. Ty Lawson is going to emerge as an upper echelon point guard, but he’s always going to be outclassed by the Chris Pauls, Tony Parkers, and Russell Westbrooks of the league. If Dano Gallinari was healthy out of the gates, I’d project them a little bit higher, but not enough to make a difference.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
Alright, my hometown squad! If you don’t think the Wolves can make the playoffs remember this; Kevin Love is a 25 point-14 rebound player who can shoot 3’s and pass very well. When he’s clicking, he’s arguably a top 10 player in the league and that should be enough on its own to carry this team to 40 wins. Ricky Rubio cannot shoot, but he could create offense for a blind man and has been a surprisingly good defender. Rubio is going to rack up assists to Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin all season. I’m bullish on Shabazz Muhammad. With Chase Budinger going down to injury, I think Shabazz has a very good shot at finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting; he can flat out score. People complain that he doesn’t accrue assists, but that’s Rubio’s job, Muhammad’s job is to get buckets. Corey Brewer will help some on defense, but the bottom line is that Minnesota is going to be terrible on that end. However, the Steve Nash Phoenix Suns played zero defense and I remember them making the Western Conference Finals. The Wolves aren’t there yet, but if they can keep Love and Rubio, they’re a team on the rise.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
Welcome to the Grind House! I love this team, but they are so completely devoid of shooters that it’s scary. Quincy Pondexter is a great off the bench scoring guard but he’s almost their number one wing scorer. That’s a problem. That being said, the trio of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley will be elite if Conley can take his game up one more level. Memphis is the first team on the playoff list that could go on a run and make (and possibly win) the Western Conference Finals.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
This team reminds me of a younger version of the Brooklyn Nets with one difference; none of their players outside of Chris Paul have proven themselves in the playoffs. Much has been made about Doc Rivers coming in the coach them, but I’ve never thought he was an elite coach. He was giftwrapped a Celtics squad of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett and came away with ONE title. I love CP3, but Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are a pair of twins who don’t bring it on defense and get schooled consistently by savvy big men in the playoffs. They are stacked with wing players who can shoot 3’s, but I fear that when the playoffs come, they’re going to get scouted and locked down. If Rivers can actually coach this team into something that can play defense and if he can transform the Griffin-Jordan tandem into something that won’t wilt in the playoffs, they’ll be very dangerous. I just don’t believe Doc can do it; they’ll be bounced in round one.
4. Golden State Warriors
Golden State’s entire season hinges on two things: Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut’s health. Curry is the Warriors’ rally point. When he’s playing well and lighting up the scoreboard, they are nearly uncontainable. If his ankle causes him to miss time though, suddenly the Warriors lack a reliable go-to scorer. Bogut provides the Warriors with a good rim protector and all around defensive presence. If he goes down, they’re in big trouble. They have Andre Iguodala to solidify the wing defensively, but if Bogut goes down, they won’t have any interior defense. If somehow Bogut and Curry stay healthy, the Warriors could run roughshod in the West and possibly claim the number three seed.
3. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs were the hardest team for me to project. You know they’re going to manage their older core’s minutes, and you would think that would hurt them significantly. However, they’ve been doing this for years now and consistently finishing in the upper reaches of the West. The difference for them this year will be a breakout season by Kawhi Leonard. He’s like a Paul George twin who doesn’t shoot quite as well, but defends and rebounds at a higher level. The formula for the Spurs has been to cruise effectively during the season, then have Coach Popovich run circles around every other team in the playoffs (which nearly won them the title last year). They won’t excite during the regular season, but watch out during the playoffs.
2. Houston Rockets
James Harden, Dwight Howard, and a solid supporting cast are going to carry Houston to the 2nd seed in the West. Dwight was hurt last year and I believe that he HATED playing with Kobe Bryant. Now in Houston, he’ll be facing less pressure and scrutiny. Healthy Dwight alone is a force of nature, and pairing him with Harden will only add on to that. During the season when the pressure is lessened, I think that this team is going to run and gun their way to a great record and then face a much more difficult challenge in the playoffs.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Most analysts are down on the Thunder due to the injury of Russell Westbrook and the loss of Kevin Martin. I feel like those analysts forget that Kevin Durant plays for this team and just how good he is. This is how I explain the NBA hierarchy of players: LeBron is the best player in the world. The gap between LeBron and Durant is very wide. The gap between Durant and the rest of the league is more of a chasm. Durant is a ridiculous 6’10” freak who can score from absolutely anywhere on the court at any time. I’ve seen Durant hit so many outrageous pull up jump shots from different locations that I’m convinced he’s going to shoot 100% percent in a playoff game this year with 50 points. We watched LeBron carry several Cleveland teams to excellent regular season records, and I fully expect Durant to do the same this year. He is going to go bananas for however long Westbrook is out, and when the Thunder are back at full strength, they will cruise to the number one seed as San Antonio will be in coasting most of the season.
One of my favorite NBA playoff traditions is watching the Spurs, who usually jog through the regular season, slice and dice nearly every playoff opponent with brilliant coaching and razor sharp execution. They will win an ugly series against Memphis and then run circles around a poorly coached Rockets squad to make the Western Finals. The Thunder will roll through Denver and outscore Golden State on their path to the Conference Finals, where they will sneak past an out-of-gas Spurs team.
Here is where the seeding becomes crucial. If the Bulls get the one seed, they will get to feast on far inferior Bucks and Pistons clubs during the first two rounds. The Heat, having the two seed, will face two grueling series’ against Brooklyn and Indiana, and then they’ll have to go up against Chicago. When I started formulating these playoff seeds, I guessed that whoever had homecourt in the Eastern Finals would win out in seven games just because Miami and Chicago match up so evenly. Chicago is going to end up with that 1 seed, and on the shoulders of Derrick Rose, advance to the NBA Finals.
As great as I think Kevin Durant is going to perform in the regular season and playoffs, the Bulls’ defense is just too crushing for him to get past. The Thunder lack a reliable big man who can post up and cause problems for Chicago’s front line. With Noah, Boozer, and Gibson freed up and able to clog the paint, the Thunder will have to make it rain from outside in order to stand a chance. I don’t think it can happen. Chicago cruises to their first post Michael Jordan title this year.