We are fired up to watch both the race for the Championship, headlined by title-chasing vets like the Cavs, Spurs and Thunder, and the race for which mid-pack team can leap to the contender zone, which could feature a dope squad like the Hornets or Pelicans. We hate the race to the bottom, which will again feature the likes of the Sixers and the Kings. Well, two out of three (which also happens to be the ratio of compelling rosters this season) ain’t bad.
1. Cavaliers, 58-24
We know all about LeBron, and we’re pretty sure we know about Kyrie, Kevin Love and Coach Blatt, too. Even the bench is stocked with relatively known quantities from past Championship teams. Dion Waiters is a mega question mark at the 2, and how the whole franchise handles the attention/pressure surrounding LeBron’s return will be interesting to watch, but you can be sure this team catch a lot of Ws.
2. Bulls, 52-30
I loved the Pau pickup—he and Joakim could be the sweetest-passing big man duo ever. And I love Coach Thibs as much as ever. Jimmy Butler’s just gotta get back on track and obviously Derrick needs to stay healthy. All that happens, and Bulls fans will have the team they’ve been hoping for the last three seasons. It’s too bad they won’t have Aggrey Sam around to report on it for them.
3. Raptors, 48-34
DeMar DeRozan just keeps getting better and better and Kyle Lowry is easily the best point guard you’ve barely seen play. Throw in a solid coach, a tremendous GM and an excellent—if occasionally unrealistic—fan base, and this is a franchise heading in a very positive direction.
4. Wizards, 47-35
I’m as enamored with John Wall as I was when I righty predicted “80 games and sick across-the-board numbers” before last season, and Bradley Beal is legit, too, so all the props the DC backcourt is getting are warranted. Nice, big 4-5 combo, too. But depth is an issue unless you buy into Paul Pierce’s viability (I don’t), and I think their coach and GM stink. The whole package certainly adds up to a very solid Playoff team, but I don’t see the super-high ceiling for the Wiz that some do.
5. Hornets, 46-36
It would be awesome to see this super-fun roster go deep into the Playoffs, as such a run would vindicate the great Michael Jordan as an owner, mean Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had learned to shoot, put the spotlight on great coaches like Steves Clifford and Silas, and, best of all from the perspective of this New York City-based publication, let the performance by the Big Apple-bred backcourt of Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson serve as a middle finger to all those who have tried to write off basketball in this city.
6. Heat, 45-37
Coach Spo is going to do his thing on the sidelines, and Chris Bosh may well put up some turn-back-the-clock numbers, but how the hell do you replace the best player in the world? The Dwyane Wade of five years ago might have been able to, but he’s not that valuable anymore, especially because of his unwillingness to work on his three-point shot.
7. Hawks, 43-39
Sadly for Lang Whitaker, still the OG of SLAM pre-season previews, “#ATLshawty” has come to mean “boring franchise” in NBA speak. Or worse, “racist front office.” Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague are all nice players, but until the Hawks make a deep Playoff run or acquire a must-watch talent, they are destined to be known for off-court shenanigans, if anything.
8. Knicks, 41-41
Pretty much throwing a dart blindfolded with this prediction. In some circles, 41-41 is probably seen as generous, but it’s the true definition of uncertainty on the part of a prognosticator. I do think Phil has a little magic left in him, and I’m firmly in Melo’s camp as one of the five best players in the League. With some of the shitty teams in this conference, that, combined with a legit PG in Jose Calderon and the three-headed monster of JR Shumpaway, should be enough to eek into the postseason.
9. Pacers, 38-44
Anyone remember who I picked to win it all last year? It coulda’ happened, I promise, were it not for some meltdowns of the mental variety. The talent was there to win it all last season. This year, with Lance gone and Paul George hurt, it’s not. And I don’t see the Pacers’ mental toughness being any more pronounced in their absence, either.
10. Nets, 38-44
Hope the Nets’ unrealistic front office and all their hardcore “fans” enjoyed that one-year run at the title. *Snickers*.This group is one year older and even sure-to-be-solid coaching from Lionel Hollins can’t make them a factor again. On the other hand, and this is written in complete seriousness, the franchise’s value has ballooned, and Mikhail Prokhorov is going to make out like the business genius he is when he jumps off this sinking ship.
11. Pistons, 37-45
My vote for best coaching/front-office hire of the offseason goes to the Pistons, who brought in the bright, creative and tough Stan Van Gundy to clean things up. Guys like Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith will have the emotional SVG pulling his hair out at times, but there is some compelling talent here and he’ll get the most out of it at some point.
12. Magic, 32-50
The slow slog back to respectability continues for the Magic, who add young, exciting Elfrid Payton to young, exciting Victor Oladipo in their backcourt this year, but continue to lack the scorer or center to really be in the Playoff mix.
13. Bucks, 30-52
Jason Kidd has always been an impressive back-room schemer, so his sneaky diss of the Nets really wasn’t all that shocking. Especially because moving to the Bucks gives Kidd a pressure-free atmosphere and young, malleable players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker whom he can grow with. I see some fun-to-watch games from this bunch, and a future that will only get brighter from here.
14. Celtics, 29-53
The lack of talent on last year’s Celtics team means we don’t really know what type of NBA coach Brad Stevens will turn out to be. And honestly, we probably won’t learn much this year, either. The Celtics promised their fans a lengthy rebuild when they broke up their Big Three, and that’s exactly what they’re getting.
15. 76ers, 16-66
Meet the franchise that is single-handedly turning off an entire generation’s love of basketball in one of the nation’s greatest hoop cities! Look: the cold-blooded cynic in me understands what the Sixers are trying to do, but with so many question marks and a fan base that could afford to support less egregious tanking, I wish they’d put forth a better effort. Exhibit A why the NBA needs to overhaul its lottery system pronto.
(This preview was written before KD was declared out for at least six weeks with a broken foot. While the Thunder’s win-loss record might be a bit different, sticking behind my prediction that they’ll win the West.—Ed.)
1. Thunder, 61-21
It took a whole conference worth of teams for me before I mentioned fantasy basketball, but the truth is I’m a rabid player of it and I can’t ignore that when I get to this team. According to my beloved Yahoo! pre-Draft rankings, the Thunder have the 1st-, 9th- and 14th-best fantasy players in the League. Or, using the metric of the #SLAMTop50, the 2nd-, 6th- and 31st-best players in the League. In a game where winning is driven by talent, how can Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka not win it all one of these years? Just don’t make me discuss their coach for the time being.
2. Spurs, 57-25
Why not, right? The Spurs put on a clinic in last year’s Finals and all the key actors are back for another go-round, arguably even more motivated because they are chasing a repeat, which is about the only thing the Pop/Duncan/Tony/Manu crew hasn’t accomplished yet. That said, one of these years the teams’ collective age is going to catch up with them, and Kawhi Leonard will only be able to do so much to stop the slight slide.
3. Clippers, 56-26
Not sure what to say about this group. Blake Griffin keeps getting better and better, and the records of Doc Rivers and Chris Paul speak for themselves. Maybe the elimination of Donald Sterling from the picture will provide a little emotional boost, too. But when you really stack up rosters and matchups, do you see this team as better than the Thunder and/or Spurs? That makes one of us.
4. Mavericks, 50-32
The Mavs aren’t quite back to full title-contending status, but they have made a lot of savvy moves. Monta Ellis worked out better than I ever imagined and Tyson Chandler Parsons is a great off-season acquistion. As for Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki, well, these guys remain among the best in the biz.
5. Rockets, 47-35
Maybe I’ll be wrong about whom finishes ahead of whom in the Mavs-Rockets race, but don’t they have to end up as the 4-5 Playoff matchup? The talent levels are equal in my opinion, the regional beef is obvious, and the war of words between Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey insures that a best-of-seven between these two teams would be tremendous theater. In case you keeping score, by the way, we’re Team Cuban when forced to choose between these two blowhards.
6. Trail Blazers, 44-38
Wes Matthews’ health? Mo Williams’ departure? LaMarcus Aldridge’s unsigned contract extension? The delusional fans? Something makes me nervous about this team. Then again, the 54 wins they had last year bested my pre-season prediction by 18 games, so maybe I should just skip Portland. Or at least stop reading The Oregonian when I’m out there on business.
7. Warriors, 43-39
As the original Markjaxfan, I’m simply too biased to render a proper judgment on this team. I see basically the same roster as a year ago, with the transcendant Stephen Curry oddly being given less responsibility than last season and a coach who won’t connect as well to the players as Mark did. That said, if the perpetually injured Andrew Bogut plays a full season for the first time since his ’05-06 rookie campaign and is healthy for the Playoffs, I could coach the Warriors and we’d scare the heck out of most teams.
8. Pelicans, 42-40
This seemed high to me when I penciled these picks out, but I love love love Anthony Davis and I wanted to look cool by predicting the Playoffs for the Pels. Then my man Leo Sepkowitz (more from him below) chimes in and says I’m underestimating New Orleans. Bottom line: Whether you’re an opponent or a League Pass subscriber, you should not sleep on these guys.
9. Grizzlies, 41-41
Marc Gasol is the best (not literally, but he sure is good at both ends of the floor) and Z-Bo and Mike Conley are consumate pros, but the Grizz lack a scorer and eventually, #gritngrind is just gonna grind them down.
10. Suns, 40-42
While by no means trying to diminish Phoenix’ 48-win season a year ago, what, in the end, was it good for? Due to the brutal competition in the Western Conference last season, the Suns’ year ended when all the other non-Playoff teams’ did, and that was that. Their backcourt gets even more explosive with the addition of Isaiah Thomas, but the Suns are very small and they aren’t sneaking up on anybody this time around.
11. Lakers, 39-43
Kobe’s back! Kobe’s back? Kobe’s back. What exactly will a rehabbed, 36-year-old Kobe mean on the court? And while Jeremy Lin will sell lots of jerseys and be good for some scoring outbursts, he and Steve Nash aren’t stopping anyone on defense. I guess the variable that could make this team anywhere from 15 games below .500 to 5 games above .500 is their supremely talented rookie, Julius Randle. There was a time when he was in high school that some had him pegged as the better pro than Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. That time was less than two years ago.
12. Nuggets, 38-44
Is anyone still reading? Did anyone notice what I did with the records here? I PREDICTED TEAMS 6-12 TO BE WITHIN SIX GAMES OF EACH OTHER. Why? Because I think you could throw their names in a hat and pick their finish. Any of the six could make the Playoffs. Any of the six could miss ’em. With non-Title or last-place teams like these, small injuries or surprising roadtrips will make the difference. In Denver’s case, the roster is decent but don’t expect to see Kenneth Faried duplicate his FIBA World Cup beasting when he goes against NBA comp.
13. Kings, 26-56
Sac-Town is still home to a bunch of guys who like to launch jumpers—and hopefully can make a decent percentage of them. And Boogie just keeps on keeping on. But in this conference, that’s still not enough.
14. Jazz, 25-57
Where have you gone, Karl Malone and John Stockton? The Jazz have slid deep into irrelevance, and as intriguing as Gordon Hayward and even Alec Burks may be as talents, neither one of them are delivering the Jazz back to their glory days. Dante Exum? Just maybe.
15. Timberwolves, 21-61
The Ricky Rubio assists to Andrew Wiggins are going to be awesome, but we just can’t rock with this new era of all-powerful Flip Saunders.
After several years in which the Heat were the prohibitive favorites, the relatively wide-open nature of this year’s regular season should make it extremely fun to watch. Once the pretenders have been eliminated, I see LeBron and the Cavs outlasting their division-rival Bulls in a grueling Eastern Conference finals. Out west, I think the perfectly primed Thunder will hold off the Spurs to advance to Nike’s dream Finals. Cleveland vs Oklahoma City; LeBron vs Kevin. And, unlike 2012, I see Kevin’s team getting the upper hand this time.
Just like I did in this space a year ago, I picked every team’s record off the top of my head, then turned my guesses over to SLAM Editorial Assistant Leo Sepkowitz, who is much better at math than I am. Leo balanced out my wins and losses and chimes in with his own thoughts on how the season will play out below.
Leo Sepkowitz: I agree with the teams you pegged to make a leap in the East, but I think you underrated a few up-and-comers out West. If we’re picking teams with all O and no D, I like the Blazers and Dubs over the Mavs and Rockets. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is my sleeper for MVP as the star on a Pelicans squad ready to take off. On opening night, New Orleans will feature three stars that they didn’t have down the stretch last season—Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and newcomer Omer Asik. And let’s not forget about Tyreke Evans, who rediscovered himself to the tune of 17, 6.5 and 5.5 after the break last season. Don’t overlook the young and balanced Pelicans!
As for the top dogs, the Spurs were just so damn good in the Finals that it’s hard to bet against them (the average score in that series was 106-92!). Neither OKC nor the Clippers made a big improvement this summer, so I’ll keep taking San Antonio to come out of the West until I see it fail to do so. The Cavs, on the other hand…well, call me a believer that LeBron will bounce back for ring No. 3 in June.