It's prediction time
The Celtics and Cavs will launch NBA 2017-18 tonight, so might as well try to get some of these in while I still can.
These are highly unscientific, and it's important to remember predicting things like awards and All-NBA teams is in some ways distinct from predicting who will totally deserve those recognitions.
But this kinda stuff is supposed to be breezy and, really, predictions are only fun anyway if they're full of holes and can be mercilessly picked apart for how bad they were at the end of the season. Here goes:
West Order of Finish:
1. Golden State Warriors: Here's the hottest take I can muster - I think it's distinctly possible they do finish lower than this. I think it's distinctly possible they turn on the LeBron Cruise Control Special and finish with a win total in the low 60s and someone finishes ahead of them. I think it's distinctly possible someone, say Steph, gets hurt for a bit too long and they slide a spot.
It's just that it's distinctly and obviously much more possible any of this could happen and they still finish atop the West. Trust me I wanted to get cute here though.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder: I think it all works, I think the offense fires hot and they have enough defensive cover for an absolutely killer 1-7 rotation. They're not very deep, but that's addressable.
3. Houston Rockets: Harden and Paul click and make points rain from the heavens. Only think they'll struggle some with finding rotations that make sense defensively.
4. San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard might still have a small leap forward inside of him, which is a scary thought, and there might be a breakout or two from their underrated stable of as-yet unrealized young dudes.
5. Denver Nuggets: I think this is my hottest take yet? Whatever, I love their collection of players, from their point-frontcourt combo of Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic to their hyper-dynamic collection of wing scorers. They're deep and young and fluid and I think they'll hit their highest gear.
6. LA Clippers: I love Blake Griffin, I do, and I love what Pat Beverley and Milos Teodosic bring and Danilo Gallinari's potential for fitting in and they've got surprisingly strong depth. But I just don't know if the health and the defense are quite there and it could be alarmingly difficult for them to score in ISO and they might not be that great from three... it's just, it could all click, it really could, but there's a few potential deficiencies here that Chris Paul used to go a long way in covering for.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: Genuine questions remain about defense, about three-point shooting, but look, let's be real here: They should just have way too much punch to miss the playoffs. Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are top-tier stars and Andrew Wiggins should get there with a little defensive improvement. If they smooth over some of their awkward spots they could finish higher.
8. Utah Jazz: Dante Exum going down really sucks, but the parts are still here for a very good and functional team, with more interesting wrinkles than you'd immediately think. I think Donovan Mitchell has it.
9. New Orleans Pelicans: I want the Boogie-Anthony Davis thing to work, and I do think it can, but team-wide they still have so many of the same issues they've always had. No depth scoring punch, probably very bad spacing, defensive holes. I just don't know.
10. Dallas Mavericks: Is this too feisty a spot for Dallas? Depends on how much Dirk can bring and how fast Dennis Smith breaks out, but this is a stronger and more well-rounded team, that happens to be excellently-coached, than I think many people are anticipating.
11. Sacramento Kings: Don't laugh! Look, hear me out: De'Aaron Fox is a star from Day 1, Buddy Hield takes a leap, Bogdan Bogdanovic proves a good NBA scorer, Willie Cauley-Stein owns the airspace around the rim, guys like Skal Labissiere, Frank Mason and Justin Jackson deliver some on their potential and the veteran dudes like Zach Randolph, George Hill, and Vince Carter bring it all together. I can see it happening for this team.
12. Portland Trail Blazers: I really truly love the Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic triangle, but after that it's just hard to see where they get meaningful production.
13. Memphis Grizzlies: Sorry, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. You're a year older, Zach Randolph is gone and I just don't know that they really have many legitimate rotation players.
14. LA Lakers: Could they be better than some teams? Sure. Kyle Kuzma looks marvelous, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope bring veteran credibility, Brandon Ingram could take a leap, Julius Randle is fleshing out his skills, and Lonzo Ball, despite some of my reservations, could do amazing things. But I don't think it's coming together just yet.
15. Phoenix Suns: Like with the Lakers, there's a path to something more here. I think Josh Jackson could be truly special. But that's down the road.
East Order of Finish:
1. Boston Celtics: They did it last year, and then they traded for their rival's second-best player. I think Kyrie Irving will realize his true potential here, Gordon Hayward will be a perfect fit, and their young guys step up across the board.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: They could snag the 1, but LeBron will manage his physical
expenditure and it'll be a bit before Isaiah Thomas kicks into gear. When he does, adding Jae Crowder makes them deeper than they've been any time the last few seasons, but I'm also not sold on Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade as plus additions.
3. Milwaukee Bucks: Why not? Giannis Antetokounmpo could genuinely find himself in the MVP discussion, Khris Middleton is healthy and guys like Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker may develop further. Jabari Parker will eventually be back, too, and I loved that they got DJ Wilson in the draft. Plus, it's not like any of the other East teams are sure things for this spot.
4. Toronto Raptors: In a perfect world they'd have kept PJ Tucker, he really brought a lot to them defensively, but they still have the makings of a strong team. Serge Ibaka has had a year to gel, Norm Powell seems to keep getting better and I think OG Anunoby will contribute.
5. Washington Wizards: Same ole Wizards. I dunno where you can see them juicing anymore out of their current roster, except maybe John Wall hitting yet another level. Otto Porter could take a leap, I suppose, but their bench is the usual hodge-podge and there's hard to see a lot of upside around this roster.
6. Philadelphia 76ers: Again, why not? I'm not the biggest Ben Simmons fan, but let's say he kills it, Joel Embiid is healthy, Markelle Fultz plays well. JJ Redick and Robert Covington are solid players. Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu and Richaun Holmes can keep improving. Heck maybe Jahlil Okafor even turns into something. In the East, anything is possible.
7. Miami Heat: This is a weird set of players in some ways. Justise Winslow isn't gonna learn to shoot. Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters and James Johnson have their warts. Even for stars, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside feel like a step below. But it's a deep-ish team and they should do fine.
8. Charlotte Hornets: If Dwight Howard doesn't manage to blow it all up, this is a good enough team. He can still be a strong defensive presence, Kemba Walker is a very good player, I really like Malik Monk here. There are enough professional players here to cobble together wins.
9. New York Knicks: The Knicks! Honestly you could talk me into them making the playoffs. They won't be a good defensive team by any stretch, but there are players who can score here, and we could see Kristaps Porzingis really tie his game together.
10. Detroit Pistons: Now this team you could talk me into dropping. I just don't think Andre Drummond is built for the NBA in 2017. But they did get Avery Bradley, and the rest of their wing rotation is capable.
11. Brooklyn Nets: I could see it working in a way for this team, I like the backcourt rotation, particularly D'Angelo Russell next to Jeremy Lin. Russell could really break out. They're undersized but I think they'll surprise a bit.
12. Indiana Pacers: Love Myles Turner, maybe Victor Oladipo finally shows something more, but there's just too much C-level talent without significant upside on this team.
13. Orlando Magic: Doesn't seem like we're ever going to get a leap out of guys like Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier or Mario Hezonja. They're varying degrees of fine, but it's a shame it's not coming together here, it could've been interesting. Like Jonathan Isaac a lot, but he's a ways away.
14. Chicago Bulls: This team is going to be really bad, and Lauri Markkanen might be interesting but I don't know that you can really even point to much young talent to hope on. Kris Dunn? Eh.
15. Atlanta Hawks: Man, this team is unrecognizable from the one that looked like Spurs East a couple years ago. They're going to lose a lot of games.
2017-18 NBA Playoffs
1 Warriors over 8 Jazz in 4 - Naw.
2 Thunder over 7 Timberwolves in 5 - TWolves take one, and only one.
3 Rockets 6 Clippers in 4 - Chris Paul shows no mercy.
5 Nuggets over 4 Spurs in 7 - Hey I said I loved the Nuggets. Their depth overwhelms Kawhi's excellence.
1 Celtics over 8 Hornets in 4 - Nope.
2 Cavs over 7 Heat in 4 - At least they get to see Dwyane Wade in Miami.
3 Bucks over 6 76ers in 7 - I promise you this would be the best.
5 Wizards over 4 Raptors in 7 - Playoff Wall goes nuts.
1 Warriors over 5 Nuggets in 5 - Jokic gives them some matchup troubles, but they figure it out.
2 Thunder over 3 Rockets in 7 - An amazing series decided by Melo going crazy in Game 7.
1 Celtics over 5 Wizards in 6 - Playoff Wall meets Playoff Kyrie, and Playoff Kyrie has more at his side.
2 Cavs over 3 Bucks in 6 - Giannis proves a weird matchup problem, but Cavs overcome.
1 Warriors over 2 Thunder in 6 - Russell Westbrook's almost-revenge, but GSWs steady the ship after 2-2 start.
2 Cavs over 1 Celtics in 7 - I'm not ready to pick against LeBron yet, but I'm almost ready.
2018 NBA Finals
Warriors over Cavs in 6 - More punch from the Cavs this year than last year, but whaddya want here? We all know how this is going down. Enjoy the other stuff that comes before.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs - MVP is usually a product of guy who does the most around the least, and Kawhi, a top-three two-way player, is the most "isolated" now that dudes like Russell Westbrook and James Harden have superteamed up. I think he could really leap individually, particularly with his playmaking, and be more of a triple-double guy more often.
Sneaky pick? Giannis.
Rookie of the Year: De'Aaron Fox, Kings - I love this dude's game, and I genuinely do think his shooting will come around. Sacramento will be feistier than you think, and I think Fox plays a primary role in why.
Fox is already a bit of a sneaky pick, but my other sneaky pick would be Donovan Mitchell.
Most Improved Player: Joel Embiid, 76ers. This is a weird award, but if Embiid stays healthy throughout the year I can see him getting it based on that.
If we're talking about a dude that just improves, though? I like Hield, I like Nurkic, I like D'Angelo Russell, but if you want a waaaaaay out of left field name I'd throw Davis Bertans in there.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Getting Utah into the playoffs while dominating the interior as usual gets Rudy his nod.
Sixth Man of the Year: Nick Young, Warriors. I don't like this award. I like the idea of it - reward, in theory, the best role player in the game. But we always wind up giving it to whichever dude scores off the bench for a good team. So ah, uh, whatever who cares let's say Swaggy P!
Coach of the Year: Brett Brown, 76ers. Cmon he got them into the playoffs.
C: Joel Embiid, 76ers.
F: Kevin Durant, Warriors.
F: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs.
G: Stephen Curry, Warriors.
G: Russell Westbrook, Thunder.
C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz.
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks.
F: LeBron James, Cavs.
G: Kyrie Irving, Celtics.
G: James Harden, Rockets.
C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets.
F: Draymond Green, Warriors.
F: Paul George, Thunder.
G: Chris Paul, Rockets.
G: John Wall, Wizards.