by: Michael Shields
The NBA might not unleash its 2015-2016 season until late October, but now is as good of a time as any for some reckless predictions….
Although just a mere thirty-three days from liftoff1, the 2015-2016 NBA Season is barely a twinkle in the eyes of hoop junkies. The NFL and its mighty marketing machine maintains its stranglehold on all national sports attention at the moment, but before we know it that spotlight will have to be shared with those that go to work without pads or helmets. Following a brilliant 2014-2015 season, where a silky smooth squad rife with sharp-shooters that was committed to defense ran away with the title, the league feels as if it may be up for grabs this upcoming season. The list of contenders is ample, and with a tremendous influx of young talent and the shuffling about of true impact players, the NBA is once again poised for some hot action, and the drama will assuredly be infused with surprises. Brace yourself for a few examples.
10. The San Antonio Spurs will not win the NBA Championship
I have maintained for years now that counting the Spurs out is a fool’s errand. Their talent-base is astonishingly enduring, and with the addition of the most highly touted free agent amongst last year’s crop, Lamarcus Aldridge, many experts have them favored to win the NBA Championship. But, as usual, getting out of the West is going to be no easy task. The Golden State Warriors are returning with essentially the same lineup that they won the title with, paired now with that newfound championship swagger. And the Oklahoma City Thunder are looking to make a statement with a healthy Kevin Durant who is on the cusp of free agency (also – take moment to recollect just how nasty Russell Westbrook was last March amidst that streak of four triple doubles in a row!). The Mavericks and Houston will assuredly be in the mix in the West as well, and so will Billy Crystal’s favorite Los Angeles sports franchise (more on that later!). The Spurs are loaded, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kawhi Leonard (16.5 ppg and 7.2 rpg in a limited 2014-2015 season) lights the world on fire this year, proving the worth of the five year, 90 million dollar max contract he signed this summer. But alas, the Spurs will be outside looking in when the Finals commence, for the second year in a row.
9. Willie Cauley-Stein will win Rookie of the Year
It is probably a stretch to label this prediction as audacious, as Willie Cauley-Stein is a beast. He is 7.0’ tall with a 7.2’ wingspan. His athleticism and speed are just bananas for a man of his size and his showing in the NBA Summer League was outstanding. But Willie was drafted outside of the Top 5 in the 2015 NBA Draft, meaning that to be lauded by the NBA as the Rookie of the Year he will have to outperform those drafted ahead of him. Those such as his former teammate at Kentucky, the phenomenally gifted Karl-Anthony Towns. Or the man burdened with the responsibility of resurrecting Showtime in L.A., D’angelo Russell. Players such as Joel Embiid’s replacement (already?) in the Sixers frontcourt, Jahlil Okafor. Or the lengthy Latvian Kristaps Porzingis, and the wildly impressive Croatian wing, Mario Hezonja. But Willie Cauley-Stein will do just that! And to add to the boldness of this prediction, allow me to up the ante by proclaiming that Willie’s top competitors will not be any of those picked in the Top 5, but rather Myles Turner of The Indiana Pacers and Justise Winslow of the Miami Heat. Let’s get even crazier – go ahead and throw Willie in the mix as an authentic contender for Defensive Player of the Year as well. Why not?
8. The Bucks make the Eastern Conference Finals – The Heat make the Eastern Conference Finals
I am hedging my bets here, but I find myself enamored with both the “Mill-e-wah-que” Bucks (41-41 last year) and the Miami Heat (37-45). The Bucks benefit from the return of Jabari Parker, but the real story here is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis’ athletic ability is already well-known, but this off season he added a good fifteen to twenty pounds of muscle and is ready to make that leap towards All-Star consideration. Retaining Khris Middleton was costly, but crafty, and Greg Monroe shores up an already stout frontcourt. As for the Heat, their starting lineup is, on paper, one of the best in the league with Wade, Bosh, Dragic, Whiteside (All-Star in the making!), and Deng. And I have a feeling that Justise Winslow will forever be known in New York as “the one that got away.” One of these two teams, not the Bulls or the Hawks or the Wizards, will be matching up against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Book it.
7. The Orlando Magic will make the Playoffs
Initially, this prediction was poised to be about the Philadelphia 76ers. Nik Stauskas intrigues me, Wroten and Covington (and his 17.4 ppg average) impressed me some last year, and undoubtedly Noel and Okafor are truly impressive “assets.” I got to thinking that maybe, just maybe, they could win some games. But then I came to my senses, realizing that general manager Sam Hinkie just won’t let that happen. There are losses to be had. But, when it comes to rebuilding, in my estimation few are doing it as well as the Orlando Magic, and this season that meticulous craftsmanship pays off with a spot in the Playoffs (the 8th seed, but still…). Scott Skiles has returned home to steer the ship, and gone are the twenty-something-win seasons of the past three years. The Magic are the proud owners of the fastest backcourt in the league (I can’t prove that) with Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo (and now complemented by Shabazz Napier!), and Nikola Vucevic isn’t just a double-double machine, but one of the best centers in the East. Look for Aaron Gordon to have a strong sophomore season now that he is healthy, and NBA fans should start learning how to pronounce Mario Hezonja immediately. He-Zooon-ya!!
6. The Sacramento Kings make the Playoffs
To compliment my surprise Playoff pick in the East being the Orlando Magic, I would like to take a moment to throw the Sacramento Kings’ hat in the ring as contenders for that 8 seed in the West. To make the Playoffs in the East, a sub .500 record will do. Not the case in the West, where you have to come with it in order to compete in the post-season. And come with it the Kings will! Don’t believe the hype, or any of the “snake in the grass” talk, Boogie (DeMarcus Cousins’s nickname, for those asleep behind the wheel) and George Karl are boys. And the Kings are just stacked with veterans ready for one final crack at a Playoff run. Players like Rudy Gay, Tough Juice (Caron Butler), and Rajon Rondo. They also tout some pedigree with a Curry (Stephen’s brother Seth), a Stockton (John’s son David) and don’t forget they are the proud possessor of the 2015-2016 Rookie of the Year (see prediction #9), so the sky, or the 8 seed, is the limit for the Kings this season.
5. The Lakers will not be awful
Sure, the Lakers have no chance of making the Playoffs. They have no shot what-so-ever of embarking upon one final title run with Kobe Bryant at the helm. But this doesn’t mean it is going to be all bad. Of course we are on the verge of another season where fans are privy to Kobe breathing down the neck of – and barking orders at – a bunch of twenty year old kids. But some of those twenty year olds sure can ball. D’Angelo Russell’s court vision and basketball I.Q. is just astounding for a kid his age, and Julius Randle is now healthy and ready to take a mulligan on his rookie season. If Kobe has anything left in the tank, the Lakers could save some face this season. And if not, I am sure – according to Kobe – it’s Roy Hibbert and the young kids’ fault.
4. The Memphis Grizzlies fall apart
The last thing I want to do is sound the alarm on the end of the Grizzlies. I have enjoyed the brand of ball coming out of the Barbecue Pork Capital of the World for some time now. Michael Conley is easily the most underrated point guard in the league, and at 30, Marc Gasol is smack-dab in the middle of the prime of his career. But the other part of “The Big Three,” Zach Randolph, is 34 and it is easy to surmise that his most productive days are behind him. If I am not wrong, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This is what the Grizz are attempting to do, trotting out (essentially) the same roster year after year and hoping for it to all come together. With young gunners like the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Orleans Hornets looking to make waves in the West, a few of the perennial contenders are bound to end up on shore. And unfortunately for the Memphis Grizzlies, their persistent excellence becomes muted in the 2014-2015 season.
3. Damian Lillard leads the league in scoring
My affinity for Damian Lillard is well-documented. I love his game. Everything about it. And thus, it saddens me that he has been marooned on a sinking ship. Gone are LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum, replaced pitifully with names like Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee, and Ed Davis. But the question remains, does this mass exodus mark the end of Portland’s enthralling Playoff runs? Absolutely. It sure does. But this is decidedly not the end to Damian Lillard’s accession to the head of the point guard class. With no one left to turn to, Lillard is positioned to run roughshod throughout the Rose Garden. Essentially home alone, he is about to go Allen Iverson circa the early 2000s. Westbrook, Harden, and even Lebron will be left in his wake as he surges towards that scoring title. And if perchance I am wrong, and things truly go awry, Damian Lillard will always have options. As nobody in the NBA can spit like he can2.
2. The Los Angeles Clippers will represent the Western Conference in the Finals
It will all have been all worth it. The wrath that has come down upon the Clippers organization, from bitter fans and from Mark Cuban, following their (mis)dealings with DeAndre Jordan will be viewed, in hindsight, simply as collateral damage, the cost of doing business. Because the re-courting and seduction of DeAndre Jordan by the Los Angeles Clippers will pay off, and the Clippers and Chris Paul will finally make that run deep into the Playoffs that they have building towards for years now. The Clippers aren’t just talented, but with the additions of Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, and Josh Smith they are Mariana Trench deep. History tells us that Chris Paul just can’t get it done in the Playoffs. Enter The Truth, who history tells us just the opposite. With Paul Pearce providing the motivation, DeAndre back in town, and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as motivated as ever, prepare for the Clippers to steamroll their way through a tough Western Conference en route to the Finals.
1. Carmelo Anthony finishes the season with the Dallas Mavericks
You heard it here first. Money will have to be moved around, in spades (although I have yet to run all the numbers), to create the cap room, as prior to the trade deadline Mark Cuban is going to get desperate. In an effort to equip the greatest Maverick of all time, Dirk Nowitzki (sorry Mark Aguirre!), with the tools he needs for one last Playoff run, Cuban lunges for the low hanging fruit that is Carmelo Anthony. With Melo, inarguably still one of the most gifted scorers in the league, Dirk is paired with an aging sharp-shooter to take some of the heat off of him. And if Deron Williams remains healthy, Chandler Parsons has the type of season his contract requires of him, and Wesley Matthews does what he does and shoots the lights out, maybe Mark Cuban’s preposterous gamble pays off. Unlikely though….about as unlikely as this prediction. But if this, or any other of these reckless predictions holds true, brace yourself for the mother of all “told you so’s!”