NBA Predictions
Issue   |   Tue, 10/21/2014 - 23:20

The Clippers will have the best record in the NBA.

Admittedly, this one is a little less bold after the news that Kevin Durant will miss the first six weeks of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Los Angeles finished 57-25 last year, behind only the Thunder and the Spurs. Durant’s injury should knock the Thunder down a peg.

As for the Spurs, their 62 wins last year came despite limited minutes from Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan, who were rested by Greg Popovich to prepare for the playoffs. Popovich managed to wring productive minutes out of several less talented bench players, but I’m betting some of those guys will regress to the mean.

The Clippers have the combination of star-power and depth needed to sustain great performance throughout the year. Their roster hasn’t changed much from last year, but they did add center Spencer Hawes. Hawes won’t light the world on fire, but, as a competent backup big man, he does fill a need for the Clippers, who struggled when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan sat last year.

The Raptors will have the best record in the East at the beginning of 2015.

LeBron’s Cavs are undoubtedly the most talented team in the conference, but continuity is important in basketball. Cleveland may very well experience an adjustment period while their stars get used to playing with each other, and the Raptors, who won 48 games last year, have a good young core that is basically unchanged from last year. Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan had breakout years last year, and Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are poised to join them this year.

As for the other Eastern Conference contenders, the Raptors are deeper than the Wizards, and better offensively than the Bulls. Even if Cleveland catches them eventually, the Raptors will be a first half surprise.

Russell Westbrook will finish in the top three of MVP voting.

Thunder point guard Westbrook takes a lot of heat for his shot selection, but he is absolutely electric when he’s at his best. His 2013-2014 regular season was marred by injury, but he went to another level in the playoffs, playing as well or better than Kevin Durant. With Durant sidelined for the first six weeks, Westbrook will need to keep the Thunder afloat in a tough Western Conference.

Derek Fisher will struggle in his first year as Knicks head coach.

I’m not really convinced by the idea that players, even really smart players, can just start being head coaches right after they retire.

The Nets tried a similar experiment last year with Jason Kidd. It started off disastrously, with the Nets mired at the bottom of the East and Kidd intentionally spilling drinks on the court. Even though it got better, the Nets never materialized into the championship contender that they were supposed to be, and Kidd bolted at the end of the year for Milwaukee.

And if Fisher was really prepared to be a coach, he would have benched himself in the playoffs the last two or three years instead of letting Scott Brooks torpedo the Thunder’s seasons by playing a washed-up point guard. And that brings us to...

This will be Scott Brooks’ last year as head coach of the Thunder.

Brooks’ defenders will insist that his regular season records and Oklahoma City’s 2012 trip to the Finals speak for themselves, but really, how badly can a team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka do, regardless of who the coach is? Brooks has been terrible in the playoffs, consistently playing the wrong players and presiding over a directionless offense.

Besides the Fisher debacle, Brooks insists on playing Kendrick Perkins, a historically bad offensive player, significant minutes in both the regular season and the playoffs. The Thunder aren’t exactly a deep team, but the playoffs are the time for shorter rotations. In 2013, Perkins managed to post a -0.7 PER in the playoffs, the worst playoff PER ever by anyone who played more than 200 minutes. Last year, playing Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson 40 minutes a night would have been a better choice than letting Fisher and Perkins see the floor.

After another disappointing playoff exit and with Durant a free agent in 2016, the Thunder front office will see their window closing and finally ditch Brooks.

Since I’m criticizing coaches, maybe it’s only fair to give one a little credit:

Mike Budenholzer will win coach of the year, on his way to leading the Hawks to a top four seed in the East.

Budenholzer, a former Spurs assistant, is pushing the NBA’s three-point revolution to the limit in Atlanta. With the advent of more and more advanced statistics, teams are learning that it’s simply more efficient to shoot more threes, and every year, the league breaks the previous year’s record for most triples made and attempted. The Hawks shot more three-pointers than anyone besides Houston last year.

Despite Al Horford’s injury, the Hawks scraped into the playoffs last year, and gave the top-seeded Pacers everything they could handle in the first round. With Horford back this year and paired with Paul Millsap in the middle, the Hawks will have the East’s most talented big man combination. Budenholzer can surround Millsap and Horford with a steady point guard in Jeff Teague, and lights-out shooters like Kyle Korver, which should be enough to secure a home series in the weak East.

Anthony Davis will also finish in the top three of MVP voting.

In fact, by the numbers, Davis will be the best player in the league. He experienced big jumps in all the major statistical categories from his rookie to his sophomore year, and there’s no reason to think the trend won’t continue this year. Davis is already a great defensive player; no one can match his combination of quickness and shot-blocking ability. But the Pelicans will struggle to stay in the brutal Western conference playoff race, and voters will hesitate to give the award to a player on a mediocre team.

Ed Davis will have a breakout year for the Lakers.

Someone other than Kobe Bryant has to score some points for the Lakers, and fans of basketball everywhere hope that person isn’t Nick Young. Davis is projected to be the fourth big man in Coach Byron Scott’s rotation, but expect Scott to use any number of combinations to try and wring some productivity out of his squad.

Particularly, once Scott and Kobe Bryant give up any delusion they might have of making the playoffs, there will be no reason to keep throwing the veteran starters, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill, out there. Davis has put up good numbers in limited minutes in Toronto and Memphis, so he could put together a good season if he’s given the chance in Los Angeles.