NBA Standings and Award Predictions

Posted: 10/29/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

It’s snuck up on me and probably a lot of other people, but the NBA season started last night. It’s a really hectic part of the sports year, with the NFL, World Series, NHL, and NBA all happening, so I haven’t really been paying much attention to basketball. That’s why I was surprised to see a marquee matchup last night between the Mavericks and Spurs (the Spurs won by a point) that actually mattered. So with the season starting, I’ll mix in some basketball posts, with power rankings and stuff like that. I would do awards predictions, but they really aren’t all that intriguing; LeBron James is probably going to win the MVP, one of three or four (Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka) PF/centers will win DPOY, Jabari Parker will likely win ROY, and someone who is young and super talented will win Most Improved Player. For the record, here are my picks for a few award races:
MVP:
1. LeBron James- Duh. But actually, with KD injured, this is LeBron’s award to lose. He’s probably going to have his minutes restricted throughout the season, but as long as he stays healthy and plays 35 minutes per game, this award should be his.

2. Stephen Curry- As you’ll see later, I have the Warriors taking a huge step forward this year. Curry’s the team’s star, and he’s the one who will be heaped with the most praise. I think he’ll have a similar season to the one he had last year, but with a slight uptick in three point efficiency. I think he’ll average 25 and nine assists, which should be good for second.

3. Anthony Davis- He had an amazing opening game, and could win this award if the Pelicans take the step forward some are predicting. I still think they finish just outside the playoffs, so he’ll have to be happy with third.

4. Blake Griffin- I have the Clippers as the #1 seed in the West, and with Chris Paul likely to deal with injury issues throughout the season again, Griffin’s going to be the star on this team.

5. John Wall- There’s a dropoff after #4, with Wall and Russell Westbrook as the two players I considered. While Westbrook is sure to shoulder a heavier load with Durant out, I think Wall is going to explode this year as the Wizards improve.

DPOY:
1. Joakim Noah (anchor of a stingy Bulls’ D)
2. Marc Gasol
3. Serge Ibaka
4. Anthony Davis
5. Omer Asik (made a move to New Orleans, where he will combine with Davis to form a fierce defensive frontcourt)

ROY:
1. Jabari Parker (could average 20 points in his rookie year, but he’ll have more valleys and fewer peaks than some are predicting)
2. Nerlens Noel (has the advantage of playing on the awful 76ers ala Michael Carter-Williams in 2013 and also has had a year to get acclimated to the NBA. He could post a double-double with a few blocks per game and take the award)
3. Elfrid Payton (arguably the top rookie point guard, he should rack up minutes and assists on a young Orlando team. Don’t think he’ll score enough to win this award, though)
4. Marcus Smart (this is contingent on the Celtics’ trading Rajon Rondo. I think a trade will happen, and Smart will get big minutes at point guard when it does. He’s also more NBA-ready than some of his colleagues, given that he spent more than one season in college)
5. Andrew Wiggins (should play a lot on Minnesota and is a good defender, but his offense is still developing)

Sixth Man:
1. Taj Gibson
2. Greg Monroe (if the Pistons move him to the bench, which they should)
3. Isaiah Thomas (now a bench player on Phoenix, but he’ll still get plenty of minutes and score more than any other sixth man. This is a guy who averaged more than 20 points per game last year)
4. Jamal Crawford (last year’s winner, Crawford just keeps putting up numbers even as he gets deeper into his 30s)

Most Improved:
1. Reggie Jackson (will get more minutes with Durant injured, and quickly developed into a quality player last season. Is now the best player on the Thunder behind the big three)
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (we all know about the Greek Freak. He’s a beast)
3. Kawhi Leonard (this could be his breakout season. 2013 Anthony Davis-esque)
4. Tony Wroten (think he has a big year on a Philadelphia team that really really needs help)

1st team All-NBA:
G Stephen Curry
G John Wall
F LeBron James
F Anthony Davis
C Marc Gasol

2nd team:
G Russell Westbrook
G James Harden
F Kawhi Leonard
F Blake Griffin
C Joakim Noah

3rd team:
G Derrick Rose
G Dwyane Wade
F Carmelo Anthony
F LaMarcus Aldridge
C Al Jefferson

Consider that my awards post, because I’m not writing another one. I just don’t find picking them that enthralling, with the possible exception of the All-NBA teams, which require a bit more thought. I had to leave Chris Bosh and Kevin Love off, but don’t think I didn’t think about including them. Same goes for Chris Paul (again, I think injuries cost him a bunch of games this year), Goran Dragic, and Tony Parker. The moral of the story: there are a lot of very good NBA players.

Anyway, now it’s time to get to the stuff that really matters: standings predictions. I’ll start with the Eastern conference and then move out West to the conference that features more than five or six teams that actually want to and can win this year.

Eastern Conference:

1. Chicago Bulls (61-21): Surprise! I’m bullish on Chicago this year for a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, Derrick Rose is back, and this time I think he’s back for good. I don’t think he’ll be the same as he was in his MVP year, but he’ll be good enough. The Bulls also swap Carlos Boozer for Pau Gasol and add Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic to last year’s team. They are a great defensive team and very deep in the frontcourt, and I think they’ll pummel a defensively poor Cleveland team who will take a little while to gel.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (59-23): I think this will be nearly identical to the 2010-11 season (the first in the Big 3 era), when the Miami Heat struggled at first and ended up at 58-24, four games behind the 62-20 Bulls. This Cleveland team is arguably better than that Heat team was, though, which makes me less confident in my pick of 23 losses. My best guess is that either Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving misses some time due to injury and the Cavs end with 59 wins. The lack of big man depth is disconcerting, with brittle Anderson Varejao starting and nobody backing him up.

3. Washington Wizards (50-32): The Wizards look really good all around this season, to the extent that I’d peg them at 52 wins if not for Bradley Beal’s injury, which could keep him out months. The starting lineup of Wall, Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene, and Marcin Gortat is a perfect blend, while Otto Porter could provide a boost off the bench in his second season. This is a team that has potential to make the East a three team race and not a two team race.

4. Charlotte Hornets (47-35): I can’t believe I have Charlotte in the top four, but here we are. I really like this team, both because they have a very strong defense and because I like what they did in the offseason. They lost Josh McRoberts, an underrated playmaker at power forward, but they can replace him with Marvin Williams at the beginning of the season and then whichever of Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh realizes his potential first. I have high hopes for Zeller, a 2013 top-five pick. They also added Lance Stephenson and have the high-scoring combination of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson returning alongside defensive stopper Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and playmaker Gerald Henderson. This is a team with a lot of talent, and I think they get homecourt advantage in the first round.

5. Toronto Raptors (45-37): In this scenario, the Raptors would actually move into the top four by virtue of an Atlantic division championship, but I’m ranking the teams based on wins. This would be considered a step back for Toronto, and while I want them to improve on last year’s surprising season, I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Kyle Lowry will replicate the year he had last season and DeMar DeRozan also seems to have maxed out as a great scorer who gets to the line a lot but doesn’t really stretch the court. Jonas Valanciunas should have a big season, but I don’t think it’ll be enough for a 50-win season.

6. Atlanta Hawks (44-38): The Hawks are going to be better than people think this year. Remember, this is a team that made the playoffs last year even without star Al Horford, who was injured. When Horford was healthy, this team was the third best in the East behind just Miami and Indiana. Now, I’m not predicting more than 44 wins because I think trades could be forthcoming, but I really like the starting lineup of Jeff Teague (slasher), Kyle Korver (shooter), DeMarre Carroll (scrapper), Paul Millsap (averaged 18 and nine boards last year), and Horford (19 and eight). If they don’t make any moves, this Hawks team could be pretty good and might even make the second round of the playoffs.

7. Miami Heat (42-40): The Heat will obviously take a big step back following the departure of LeBron James, but I’m not sure many people have them falling as far as I do. That’s because I think people are looking at the “Big three” of Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, and Chris Bosh, and they like what they’re seeing. In theory, I agree; those three are very talented and should be able to lead a team to the playoffs. But Wade and Deng are quickly becoming injury-prone, and Bosh hasn’t had a dominant season in the past five years. People are expecting him to return to his Raptors’ form, but he’s not in his mid-2os anymore. I’m skeptical that the three can stay healthy, and this season could easily turn sour if they don’t.

8. New York Knicks (39-43): The Knicks will somehow (somehow!) find their way into the playoffs this year. This isn’t a vote of confidence for Derek Fisher or the Knicks, but it is a vote of confidence for Carmelo Anthony. When I stacked the Knicks up with Brooklyn and Detroit, who I think will be the other two contenders for the eighth seed, I saw something in New York that I didn’t see in the others: a superstar. The Knicks also have enough expiring contracts to be a player in the trade market this winter. This is a possible location for Rondo, who would easily transform the Knicks into a top-six team in the East.

9. Detroit Pistons (37-45): This would constitute a big improvement on last season’s 29-win team, and I think they could improve even more if they make the right trade. It’s clear that Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond can’t play together. It’s still not clear why the Pistons signed Smith before last season, but that’s beside the point. Those three are all good players, and either Smith or Monroe should get traded. If the Pistons can get a guy like Rondo back, they’ll probably make the playoffs. If they end up keeping all three and starting Brandon Jennings at point guard, they’ll be the same dysfunctional mess they were last year. This team does have talent, though.

10. Brooklyn Nets (36-46): Meh. I don’t really see much in this Nets team, which is perhaps the reason I’m sticking them at 10th. Sure, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez is theoretically a good 1-2 punch, but Williams was bad last year and Lopez can’t stay healthy. I think this is also the year Joe Johnson takes a step back. I don’t really see a way this ends well.

11. Orlando Magic (28-54): After Brooklyn, there’s a group of five teams that simply doesn’t want to win yet. Orlando has some good young talent, but they don’t have a team identity and are thus basically left with a bunch of players that look good on their own but don’t mesh with their teammates. A 28-win season would actually be a five win improvement over last year, so I think this is a perfectly reasonable prediction.

12. Milwaukee Bucks (26-56): The Bucks could end up being slightly more watchable than people think. They have Jabari Parker and also should get bounce-back years from Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, OJ Mayo, and John Henson. Brandon Knight also returns with more help, and who could forget the Greek Freak, who can play all five positions and will be in the Most Improved conversation. They also have a new coach in Jason Kidd who likely has a chip on his shoulder. I almost talked myself into predicting more than 30 wins, but this is a team that won just 15 last year. I’m not going overboard.

13. Boston Celtics (23-59): If Rondo stays, this could be a 30-win team. I don’t think he stays, though, which means Boston is in all-out tank mode.

14. Indiana Pacers (19-63): This team just won’t be able to score. It’s that simple. I know Frank Vogel is a good coach, and I know they can probably have a half-decent defense, but they have no scorers. Last year’s team was pretty stagnant offensively, and that was a team with Paul George and Lance Stephenson. This year’s biggest playmakers are Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. Wouldn’t be suprised to see David West get traded, either.

15. Philadelphia 76ers (12-70): This is a team that started Hollis Thompson, Tony Wroten, Chris Johnson, Nerlens Noel, and Henry Sims in their season opener. Their bench tonight consists of Malcolm Thomas, Brandon Davies, JaKarr Sampson, Alexey Shved, K.J. McDaniels, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Not good, and 12 wins might be a stretch.

Western Conference:

1. Los Angeles Clippers (58-24): It’s unlikely that it will take just 58 wins to win the West, but the Kevin Durant injury made it a lot more likely. I acknowledge that it’ll probably take at least 60 wins, but either way I think the Clippers are going to end on top. With Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and improved depth behind them, this to me is the best team in the conference talent wise. The wing defense is suspect, but that’s a position that’s easily addressable via trade. Expect the Clippers to be active in the trade market and get a guy that can help them in their push for first.

2. San Antonio Spurs (57-25): I’m nervous to push the Spurs’ win total this far down from last season’s 62, because all the arguments against the Spurs are the same ones that were used last season. The star players will get rested, but they were last season, too. Everyone’s back from the championship team, with the Spurs counting on a breakout season from Kawhi Leonard that I think is coming (see above). I’m confident that the Spurs can win at least 57.

3. Golden State Warriors (56-26): I said it earlier in this post, and I’ll say it again: I think the Warriors are going to take a big step forward this year. Going from 51 to 56 wins is pretty big, but moving from sixth to third in the conference is even bigger. The defense has already proven that it’s pretty darn good, and new coach Steve Kerr should help the Splash Bros led offense improve on last year’s relatively disappointing numbers.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder (54-28): If Kevin Durant hadn’t gotten injured, I would have had the Thunder finishing with 59 wins, as many games as they won last season. The KD injury obviously hurts, though, and in an unforgiving conference I fear it could cost them homecourt advantage. I have enough faith in Russell Westbrook to give the Thunder 54 wins, but they certainly didn’t help themselves this offseason when their biggest addition was Anthony Morrow. They are a Westbrook or Serge Ibaka injury away from the lottery.

5. Dallas Mavericks (54-28): I really like the Mavs’ roster. Think of it this way: it’s a 49-33 team with Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons added to the lineup and a revamped point-guard rotation of Raymond Felton, Jameer Nelson, and Devon Harris. Parsons himself is probably worth three wins, so 54 might even be conservative. The Mavericks look like a force to be reckoned with, which is incredible given that we thought the era was over after the Mavs failed to sign or trade for either Deron Williams or Dwight Howard before the 2012 or 2013 seasons.

6. Houston Rockets (52-30): The Rockets were all set to sign Chris Bosh this offseason. In fact, they were so sure they’d get Bosh that they let Chandler Parsons walk- to their Texas rivals, no less. But Bosh chose to stay with Miami and the Rockets took their consolation prize… Trevor Ariza. Ariza’s not bad, but he’s a step down from Parsons and certainly from Bosh. Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are also gone, so this team is clearly worse than last season’s. This team should still be fine with James Harden and Dwight Howard healthy, but an injury to either would be devastating.

7. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32): It won’t be pretty, but the Grizzlies are likely going to win 50 games and make the playoffs again. They have a defense that is neck and neck with Chicago’s for the best in basketball. They have a frontcourt duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol that perfectly complements the defense-first styles of Mike Conley and Tony Allen. A little more scoring would be nice, but it’s not Memphis’s style.

8. Portland Trailblazers (48-34): The Trailblazers should make it back to the playoffs, but barely. They rely more heavily on their starting lineup than any other team, so you should expect Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez to play just as much as they did last year. And those five are unlikely to be as healthy as they were last year. Unless we see another huge step up from one of the starters, and that’s probably too much to ask for, regression is probably likely.

9. New Orleans Pelicans (45-37): This is the next step for NoLa. I don’t think they make the playoffs this year, but they are well on their way to becoming a consistent playoff team. A winning season must come first.

10. Phoenix Suns (43-39): I don’t see a repeat season for the Suns, who came shockingly close to a playoff spot last season. They are still a good team, but there are just too many good teams in this conference. Why can’t we move some of these teams into the Eastern conference so we can see them in the playoffs instead of teams like the Knicks, Hawks, and Heat?

11. Denver Nuggets (41-41): The Nuggets should be frisky this season, which would be a huge improvement over last year’s injury prone 36-46 team that was a major disappointment. They could even be a darkhorse playoff pick, but they don’t have the star power to make it in this conference. They’re always a tough team to beat in Denver, and I think they could win 28 home games. It’ll be tougher to find wins on the road, though.

12. Sacramento Kings (30-52): The Kings have some pieces, but I didn’t like what they did in the offseason. Instead of keeping Isaiah Thomas, they signed Darren Collison, who’s been on five teams in his young career. Instead of drafting Elfrid Payton, they went with Nik Stauskas just a year after they drafted another two-guard, Ben McLemore. DeMarcus Cousins is a beast, but he’s not exactly the ideal team leader. It’s a talented team, but one with too many question marks.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves (26-56): Even if they haven’t realized it yet, the Timberwolves are tanking this season. Yes, they have some solid veteran players, led by Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic. In the East, they might even challenge for a playoff spot. They aren’t in the East, though, and they are going to need more than Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to kick-start their rebuild. A top-five pick would help.

14. Los Angeles Lakers (25-57): The Julius Randle injury (he broke his leg in the season opener and is out for the season) is a killer. Randle wouldn’t have helped the Lakers make the playoffs this year, but he was their bright young talent. Now, his flame is extinguished for this season, and all that’s left is Kobe Bryant and a bunch of stat-chasers who can’t play defense for their lives. This isn’t the way Kobe saw himself ending his career.

15. Utah Jazz (23-59): Sort of like the Magic, this team has a bunch of young players but isn’t there yet. Another top pick is forthcoming.

 

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