kevin durant

by Ben Osborne 

Not only did I want my 2013-14 SLAM season preview to be accurate—I wanted it to be fast. I set a goal of spending no more than 30 seconds on any team in guessing their record. I had one of our Editorial Assistants, Leo Sepkowitz, double check my W-L numbers so that they added up properly, but basically, it was simple: think about each team’s strengths and weaknesses and put a number down. No advanced stats. No number overloads. Those things absolutely have a place in the game and it’s coverage, but I felt like they had become dominant…I wanted to just go from the gut and see what would happen. 

How’d it go? In general I’m giving myself a little pat on the back, but there were certainly some bricks, too. How do my results compare to some of the “smarter” previews out there? I don’t know, ’cause I didn’t read them :).

(My preseason predictions are in italics, with what actually took place beneath them.)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Pacers, 58-24. It seems like people forget how close the Pacers were to dethroning the Heat last year. And now they added Luis Scola, get Danny Granger back, and should see Lance Stephenson and stud Paul George get even better. My only question with Indy is at point guard, where neither George Hill nor CJ Watson do much for me.

>>What happened? Pacers went 56-26. They were almost too good before the All-Star Break and then a malaise settled in during March. Great season, though, and great prediction by me.

2. Heat, 56-26. I really hope this is not interpreted as a slight of LeBron. He is easily the game’s best player, and I say he’s fully on track to be in the best-ever convos. But how much does DWade have left? Will Miami’s bench do anything? We’ve seen what happens when LeBron has to do it all on his own: His team loses in the Conference Finals.

>>What happened? The Heat went 54-28. Wade missed a ton of games and motivation was occasionally a question. LeBron is still best player on earth and no one will be surprised if they win it all, but Miami showed pretty much the exact flaws I expected, and the Heat are certainly beatable.

3. Bulls, 54-28. There should be zero questions about this team’s motivation (high) or coaching (the best), and by the time you read this, any D Rose doubts will probably have been assuaged. A title by the Bulls seems only slightly less likely than the preceding two teams; Indy and Miami just happen to be a smidge better.

>>What happened? Derrick Rose went down, Luol Deng got dumped and the Bulls STILL won 48 games. I knew Thibs was incredible; now I know Joakim Noah is, too. In fact, I respect each of them even more because I know their personalities are not a natural fit and that they have worked hard to make each other better. Much respect.

4. Knicks, 52-30. Something tells me this might be the most-beefed-with prediction. Yes, the griminess of the Knicks’ front office may portend a return to lower-division status as soon as next season, but this season’s games will be won and lost on the court. And, frankly, I like the players the Knicks will be trotting out there. Melo is still in his prime, and players two-eight all strike me as above average. I think this team will score, be fun to watch and be a very tough out in the Playoffs.

>>What happened? Absolute trainwreck of a prediction by me and trainwreck of a season by the Knicks, who finished 37-45. The team where my lack of statistical analysis hurt me the most; Andrea Bargnani was an awful fit for this team, and I missed that fact.

5. Nets, 43-39. Another pick that may go against conventional wisdom. If BK gets off to a 20-6 start and smells the chance to win a title, I will sing a whole different tune. But if they take time to gel and are clearly not in the upper echelon of the League, what will KG and Paul Pierce be playing for, exactly? And who’s the leader of this team? The old Celtics? The young coach? The occasionally passive-aggressive Deron Williams? The six-time All-Star Joe Johnson? That’s a lot of questions…

>>What happened? Pretty much nailed this one, as the Nets finished 44-38. Got a lot of buzz for playing well in March, but the one-game tank to end season was pretty shameful and I still don’t think they get out of first round. At least they’re built for the future.

6. Hawks, 42-40. Sadly for Lang Whitaker, the OG of SLAM pre-season previews, “#ATLshawty” has come to mean “boring franchise” in NBA speak. Signing Paul Millsap and re-signing Jeff Teague keep the Hawks firmly in the Playoff mix, but it’s hard to see them doing much once they get there.

>>What happened? A late-season swoon knocked the Hawks record down to 38-44, but otherwise my prediction was spot on. They were solid, boring and made the Playoffs, and they won’t do much now that they got there. Lang’s #Barves look good though.

 7. Pistons, 42-40. Accuse me of having no respect for proper shot selection if you must, but I will be watching a LOT more of the Pistons’ 42-40 campaign than I will be of the Hawks’. Look, I like watching Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith play. And if that’s a guilty pleasure with little upside beyond entertainment value, well, the Andre Drummond-Greg Monroe duo is one that has real-life upside. I think in 12 months we’ll be projecting these guys to finish a lot higher.

>>What happened? Yuck. 29-53, and the coach and GM lost their jobs. Josh Smith is not fun at all anymore. Terrible coaching, terrible shooting, and a frontcourt that needs a better backcourt to thrive. I still think they can be good next season but they need a lobotomy of sorts. 

8. Cavaliers, 40-42. Yes, the city seems cursed and the last couple of seasons have been dreadful, but this is a franchise back on the right track. New coach Mike Brown should straighten out some of the defensive issues while Kyrie Irving and the young talent around him will take care of the O. A Playoff berth would be a nice accomplishment for this group.

>>What happened? The Cavs went 33-49. Kyrie misses too many games and there are some serious personality conflicts out there. A better No. 1 pick might have helped, too. 

9. Bucks, 37-45. Oh, Milwaukee. The BJ Era came and went without a whole lot happening, and the Monta Era won’t even be remembered. Now OJ Mayo is in town to help deliver more mediocrity. Larry Sanders is fun to watch but this is just a team in purgatory. Meanwhile, Tobias Harris—oh, nevermind.

>>What happened? I way underestimated how bad this team would be. 15-67, yikes! Alphabet City is a good time, though.

10. Magic, 36-46. While I hope for their sake that Bucks’ fans don’t read this entry, supporters in O-Town are only too happy to study up on Tobias. The versatile forward from Long Island teams up with another versatile forward from Long Island (technically speaking), Maurice Harkless, to give the Magic one of the more intriguing young starting lineups in the L. Our Advertising Director, Dave Schnur, doubles as the president of the Tobias Fan Club and even thinks this will be a Playoff team.

>>What happened? Shows what I get for listening to Dave Schnur. This team went 23-59 and is not ready at all. 

11. Wizards, 34-48. I may be John Wall’s biggest supporter in the media. I love his speed and skill set, and I think 80 games and sick across-the-board numbers are in the offing this year. So he’s not the problem. It’s the rest of the roster that does little to inspire, hence, the 34 wins. How long does Ernie Grunfeld get to turn this thing around?

>>What happened? Oh, how people laughed when I said John Wall was better than Kyrie Irving. He actually played all 82 games, and at an elite level. Teamed with some solid role players and Randy Wittman at least staying out of the way, the Wiz won 44 games and were gifted the fifth seed by the Nets. 

12. Raptors, 33-49. I actually like Andrea Bargnani for the Knicks, but I’m sure the Raptors and their devoted fans are happy not to have the specter of “failed No. 1 pick” around any longer. A new foreign big man, Jonas Valanciunas, should ultimately be better than Bargnani was and, with promising GM Masai Ujiri on board, will get the Raps back in the Playoff picture before long.

>>What happened? Another team where I misunderstood the effect of Bargnani; in the Raptors’ case, losing him was great for the team. Bouncing Rudy Gay didn’t hurt either, as the Raps went 42-22 after trading him (h/t John Schuhmann) and finished with 48 wins overall. Kyle Lowry is tough as hell and Ujiri is looking like the best young GM in the game. 

13. Bobcats, 28-54. Defensive snobs can hate on Al Jefferson all they want. For an outside-in team like the Cats have been, getting one of the game’s best offensive low-post weapons was a no brainer. Kemba Walker, who went from most-known college player to little-known NBA player, is quietly becoming a top-shelf point guard, and MKG and Cody Zeller give Charlotte some nice young forwards. I wouldn’t be shocked if MJ cajoled 30 Ws out of this team.

>>What happened? I was on the money about Big Al’s effect and Kemba’s continued growth, but I underestimated what a difference new coach Steve Clifford would make. 43 wins and a 7th seed for the soon-to-be-Hornets. Well done, MJ.

14. Celtics, 27-55. No one knows if Brad Stevens will turn out to be a great NBA coach, but I absolutely loved the hire. This rebuilding team wasn’t going to the Playoffs if Red Auerbach was coaching them, so why not let the former Butler wunderkind see how his approach translates in the League? Jeff Green will provide steady numbers, Rajon will be Rajon once he’s healthy, and the rest of the squad will be on a year-long audition.

>>What happened? Celts went 25-57 and season went pretty much exactly as I projected.

15. 76ers, 16-66As a firm believer that Nerlens Noel should have been the first pick in the Draft, I have no choice but to give the Sixers some props for their long-term outlook. This season, however, will be for Fantasy NBA junkies only. Someone has to get stats, right? Fantasy and the Noel watch aside, the biggest thing to look for in Philly is how Michael Carter-Williams plays. If he proves to be a responsible enough ballhandler, the Sixers have a really nice weapon in their backcourt. If not, this team may be headed for less than 20 wins in 2014-15 as well.

>>What happened? Playing decent for the first two weeks of the season got the Sixers three more wins than I projected and cost them a few ping-pong balls, but in general, they tanked their asses off.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Clippers, 58-24. Totally bored by last season’s overhyped Clipper team that got stomped by the tougher Grizzlies in the first round of the Playoffs, I was slow to get on their ’13-14 bandwagon. But as Russell Westbrook got hurt again and I looked closer at the off-season moves they made, the more I realized that L.A.’s second team has never had a better chance to finish first. You know about Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and you know that new coach Doc Rivers won’t stand for any bullshit. That’s 50 wins right there. The extra eight dubs come from one of the L’s deepest rosters and a sense of urgency this franchise has rarely taken into a season.

>>What happened? The Clips went 57-25, were fun to watch, and have absolutely matured into title contenders. Nice pick by me.

2. Thunder, 56-26. If James Harden was still here (no, I’m not quite over that terrible trade) and Russell Westbrook was 100 percent, this team would have an outside shot at 70 wins. Instead, it has a roster as thin as its leader, the remarkable Kevin Durant. KD, Serge Ibaka and a rejuvenated Westbrook will still give the OKC faithful a good regular season and a deep Playoff run, but I feel like there will always be a sense of what might have been for this group.

>>What happened? The on-and-off health of Russell Westbrook meant the great Kevin Durant had to shoulder an even bigger load. And he did it, likely locking up his first MVP award. Fifty-nine wins in this conference is nothing to sneeze at.

3. Warriors, 55-27. These are heady times for the long-suffering fans in Oakland, who finally have a team worthy of all their sellouts. I think a top-six of Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes is the best  in the NBA, and if you know me at all, you know how I feel about their head coach. The problem is, that same top six is also the most injury-prone in the League. *Knocks on wood.*

>>What happened? Only psycho Warriors fans could view the 51 wins the team finished with a disappointment. My man Mark Jax has changed the culture in Oakland, and if the Clips aren’t careful, Golden State could knock them off in a tense first-round series.

4. Spurs, 51-31. I’m actually quite confident that San Antonio will be right in the mix of title contenders come Playoff time, getting through at least one round and threatening to go much further. What I don’t have any sense of is how they’ll approach the regular season. Sometimes Pop has gone all-out in the first 82, while other years he’s been all about resting his aging stars for the postseason. Assuming he goes with the latter, guessing a win total is no easy feat. The one guy who could make them a top team regardless of how many minutes Tim Duncan plays is Kawhi Leonard, who could be a future All-Star as easy as a future seventh-man.

>>What happened? Wow. Not that I’m shocked this team is still a contender, but I didn’t foresee 62 wins out of this group. Much respect, Pop.

5. Rockets, 49-33. I’m entirely over the off-court sagas of Dwight Howard and my hunch is that his best days on the floor are behind him, but I also think the Rockets were wise to spend their available free-agent kitty on him. What other route did they have out of the middle of the pack? Still, the Lin-Beverley situation at point guard is pretty dicey and question marks abound at forward, so it says here that 47-51 wins is their fate.

>>What happened? I pegged 51 wins as the Rockets high-water mark, and they blew past that by three. Not enough to eat my words about the team’s over-hyped General Manager, but if they reach the WC Finals I may have some apologizing to do.

6. Grizzlies, 48-34. The statheads got their wish when Rudy Gay was jettisoned to Canada last season, and I have a hunch that getting rid of Lionel Hollins was a dream fulfilled for them as well. Where will all this get the Grizz? The sublime abilities of Marc Gasol notwithstanding, not as far as last year. Incidentally, I was flabbergasted that anyone who gets paid to cover this industry would deem Memphis the “best franchise”  in North America.

>>What happened? Great play down the stretch got the Grizz to 50 wins, with my prediction generally proving spot on.

7. Nuggets, 45-37. From trendy status as a darkhorse title contender last spring to saying goodbye to their GM, head coach and highest-profile player, it’s not just the altitude that is making Denver fans dizzy. Confusion aside, there are still some really nice pieces here (Ty Lawson for All-Star, anyone?), and all indications are that Brian Shaw will be a solid coach.

>>What happened? I still like the pieces and coach Shaw, but this team never really clicked. Thirty-six wins and no real sniff of the Playoffs. Bad pick by me, pretty bad season by the Nuggs.

8. Lakers, 43-39. Just ’cause. Mike D’Antoni inspires zero confidence in this writer, and the roster is equal parts thin and bizarre, but is a team with accomplished warhorses Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash finishing under .500 and missing the Playoffs?

>>What happened? Age, injuries and my least favorite coach in the L added up to 27 wins and a real crisis of confidence for the Laker faithful. MASSIVE offseason coming for L.A.

9. Mavericks, 41-41. I’ve long felt Mark Cuban was good for the game because of how much he cared about his players and about keeping an authoritarian League office on its toes. But why don’t free agents want to sign there? The Mavs’ 2011 title remains on LeBron as much as anyone, and since that time, Dallas has seen talented players leave and more talented ones choose not to go there. Dirk deserves a better swan song than this.

>>What happened? Monta Ellis absolutely shattered my expectations this season, smartly teaming with the still-great Nowitzki to push the Mavs to 49 wins and the eighth-seed in the Playoffs. Kudos to coach Rick Carlisle and the crafty vets that populate his roster.

10. Timberwolves, 38-44. I’ll watch this team even more than I watch the Pistons, just because of Ricky Rubio. Literally, he plays the way I wish I could. But will there be one-handed, between-the-leg alley-oops delivered in the Playoffs? Not unless Kevin Martin reaches a level he has stubbornly been unable to so far in his career.

>>What happened? Pretty much nailed this prediction, as the Wolves put together a perfectly mediocre 40-42 season. I’m a little stumped by all the props Rick Adelman is getting on the way out of Minny; he literally accomplished nothing there!

11. Trail Blazers, 36-46. Spend a week in Blazer-mad PDX and you start thinking this team could go places. Get back to New York and reality sets in. Their coach has never accomplished much and we don’t even know if their “star,” LaMarcus Aldridge, wants to be there.

>>What happened? LaMarcus Aldridge quickly showed he did want to be there, and the mad bombers on the Portland perimeter hit threes all season long. The result was 54 wins that neither I nor anyone outside of PDX (that I know of) expected.

12. Jazz, 31-51. I will never understand Utah holding on to Jefferson and Millsap at the trade deadline, only to let them walk for nothing in free agency. Were the Jazz ever run well, or did they just get lucky to have Karl Malone and John Stockton all those years? Trey Burke will be nice, though.

>>What happened? Gordon Hayward is super-legit but otherwise this team, which finished 25-57, was about as Jazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzy as I expected. 

13. Pelicans, 31-51. The “Thin Towers” seemed like a good idea to me. Oh, well. Anthony Davis will still be an All-Star before long, and Jrue Holiday was one already (before Steph Curry somehow), but this team is going nowhere of consequence in 2014. At least they get to live in New Orleans. See you cats for ASW!

>>What happened? The Pels won 34 games. Weather kept me from All-Star Weekend. Next.

14. Kings, 29-53. Shoutout to whatever Twitter genius first called these guys the “NBA’s first AAU team,” or something to that effect. An entirely apt description for a team with this many gunners. Give Chris Mullin a couple years, though, and he and Boogie can turn this thing around.

>>What happened? On second thought, “Kings” even sounds like an AAU name. This squad won 28 games that unfolded just as I predicted.

15. Suns, 21-61. Remember when this franchise mattered? Yikes! It took 30 entries before I had to do this, but I literally just Googled ”Suns head coach.” Horny?! Fans that pay good money to see the likes of Gerald Green and the Morris twins play huge minutes sure won’t be.

>>What happened? Whoops! This team actually did arouse fans of fun basketball. They won 48 games and made me look dumb. No disrespect, guys!

My NBA title prediction is on page two…