The return of corny Jamie Foxx-narrated commercials can only mean one thing: the NBA season is nigh. And, as always, there are questions galore. Will the Warriors — led by the increasingly dynamic Splash Brothers — keep the Larry O’Brien trophy, or will it find a new home next summer? Can the retooled and revamped San Antonio Spurs add a sixth title to Tim Duncan’s already illustrious career, or will Lebron finally get his revenge against those dogged Spurs to ascend to his Cleveland throne? Will Kevin Durant reestablish his dominance as the NBA’s most deadly weapon, or is the age of “the Brow” upon us? The NBA season is set to be as competitive as ever and, courtesy of staff writers Christian May-Suzuki and Myles Andrews-Duve, we kick it off with predictions of the top eight seeds in the respective conferences come season’s end.
Top Eight (Western Conference):
1. San Antonio Spurs (64-18)
- Myles: As a lifelong Lakers fan I hate to admit it, but the San Antonio Spurs look incredibly well-bred for another astounding season. The summer acquisitions of LaMarcus Aldridge and David West have been covered to exhaustion, so if you follow the NBA to any capacity, you do not need me to tell that they should have an incredible impact on this team. Where my confidence lies most with this newly-formed super squad is in the main man commanding the sidelines: head coach Gregg Popovich. I have had my doubts with such gaudy amounts of star power in the past, but the level-headedness that exists within this organization is unparalleled throughout the league. Combine this with the great veteran experience and their flat out ability to play the game of basketball and I have little qualms about this seemingly lofty projection.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (58-24)
- Christian: Kevin Durant still believes he is the best in the game and his numbers certainly solidify his argument. Despite undergoing three foot surgeries in a little over six-month span, Durant has still proven as effective as he has ever been, averaging 25.4 points on 51 percent shooting. The decrease in pure volume is in part due to his 33.8 minutes per game and his 29 percent usage rate, both the lowest they have been since the franchise’s move to the Midwest. Meanwhile, point guard Russell Westbrook continues to be nothing short of spectacular and this should allow Durant to readjust as needed, to the rigor of the NBA season.Not to mention, new head coach Billy Donovan has two NCAA championships under his belt from his tenure at Florida and has the chance to reinvigorate this team that was in desperate need of a new voice. Count on the Thunder to remain as dangerous as ever.
3. Golden State Warriors (56-26)
- Myles: Before you grab your pitchforks, I must note that Christian (an avid Warriors fan) was also in agreement with this projection. Golden State is highly talented, but a 67-win championship-winning season is difficult for any team to match the following year. The West’s other top dogs (OKC, Houston and San Antonio) have seemingly gotten a lot stronger while Golden State made little personnel moves over the offseason. Granted, the need to do so wasn’t urgent as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson still make for one of the most dynamic offensive duos in the league and there is a legitimate opportunity for an improving talent such as Harrison Barnes to emerge from the fold. Nevertheless, the rest of their peers undeniably look undeniably stronger, making the Warriors’ road significantly tougher this season.
4. Houston Rockets (55-27)
- Christian: Thanks to Lamar Odom’s latest escapade in Vegas, associating with a Kardashian is one curse Houston Rockets all-star guard James Harden is officially free of. As for what will take place on the basketball court, Harden should also find himself free from dominant-ball handling duties as the MVP runner-up got a new running mate in the form of point guard Ty Lawson, spurned from his longtime NBA home in Denver due to alcoholism. Center Dwight Howard is starting the year suspended, but should quickly re-establish himself as one of the premier big men in the league, giving Houston arguably the best (and definitely the floppiest, just watch Harden flap his arms like a flightless bird on every drive) guard-big tandems in the league.
5. Los Angeles Clippers (53-29)
- Myles: Am I too low on them? We all know their ever-delusional head coach Doc Rivers would scream such. The Clippers undoubtedly have more talent than they did last season after taking the summer to bolster the frontcourt with veterans Paul Pierce and Josh Smith and trading for the mercurial Lance Stephenson. Yet, the lack of depth behind a 30-year-old Chris Paul and a glaring question at the wing position (I will believe in Stephenson returning to form when I see it) give me pause. Color me a nonbeliever.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
- Christian: Ah, the ever-present Grizzlies. No matter how inferior their talent seems to be on paper, they always find a way to compete in the West. Another year, another 90 or so games under the legs of power forward Zach Randolph and All-Star C Marc Gasol and another year together under quietly-talented third-year head coach Dave Joerger. It’s hard to suggest that the Grizz will improve this year, but I can’t say they’ll fall too far in the West either.
7. New Orleans Pelicans (46-36)
- Myles: The Pelicans’ outlook for this season is equally as unsettling as their mascot choices. I give them the benefit of the doubt here seeing as Anthony Davis is the best player in the world (yeah, I said it.) and new head coach Alvin Gentry is an offensive mastermind with talented pieces such as Davis, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to work with. However, as talented as these aforementioned players are, they all have rabid injury histories and pose a possible clash of playing styles in the half court; which is why the Pelicans are one of the more volatile teams to predict in the Western Conference.
8. Phoenix Suns (44-38)
- Christian: The Suns’ transition from the Steve Nash era continues, with point guard Goran Dragic leaving due to unhappiness with his role and being quickly replaced by a young and talented guard in Brandon Knight. Meanwhile, lead point guard Eric Bledsoe has proven that he can be the offensive star that Phoenix needs to begin their ascent back to Western Conference dominance. Not to mention the fact that this summer’s key addition of center Tyson Chandler to man the frontcourt alongside big men Markieff Morris and Alex Len should pay dividends in helping accelerate Phoenix’s progressive rise in the West.
Honorable Mention: Utah Jazz
Myles: I will put my Lakers fandom aside for the sake of this section’s credibility. While there are a fair amount of teams in the West that have an opportunity to take a significant jump from last season, to me, no team stands out more glaringly than the Utah Jazz. Aside from the fact that this team is flat-out fun to watch, last season’s 19-10 record post-All Star break, a young stud in swingman Gordon Hayward and an emerging Rudy Gobert — all of which is led by my personal coach of the year favorite, Quin Snyder — help validate my love affair with this budding team.
Top Eight (Eastern Conference):
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (60-22)
- Christian: What is there to say about the Cavs? The second incarnation of the “Big 3” is back, immediately making the Cavs the best team in the East. There simply isn’t enough talent in the Eastern Conference to deal with the star power of Cleveland. A healthy Cavs team can be considered an early favorite for the title.
2. Atlanta Hawks (54-28)
- Myles: I would literally rather see any other team slotted here than Atlanta. But with the Eastern Conference being the continual berth of perilous mediocrity that it is, they serve as the most logical choice. This by no means implies that their projection as the second best team in the East is secure, but with last year’s (should’ve been) coach of the year in Mike Budenholzer at the helm, an age-defying Paul Millsap and a continually-improving lead guard in Jeff Teague, they can once again be among the top in the East. For whatever that may be worth.
3. Chicago Bulls (49-33)
- Christian: Chicago has kept the same formula going for the better part of the decade, with strong team defense and a dynamic, wing-lead offense. Despite losing head coach Tom Thibodeau after some tension in the front office and subsequently replacing him with former Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls should continue to remain strong with Jimmy Butler proving himself as one of the best two way players in the NBA. The validity of Hoiberg as an NBA head coach, the continuation of Pau Gasol’s discovery of the fountain of youth and the ever-present possibility of Derrick Rose’s contribution makes Chicago a strong, but volatile contender to finish top-three in the East this season…
4. Toronto Raptors (49-33)
- Myles: This is another case of “who else could we possibly put here?” as, quite honestly, projecting the East gets quite hazy after the top spot. Nevertheless, in being lead by 2015 All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, newly-acquired swingman DeMarre Carroll and former All-Star shooting guard DeMar Derozan, the Toronto Raptors seem like the most logical choice here. Nevertheless, my concerns with the Raptors this season are three-fold: their head coach, Dwane Casey, has a tendency to make multiple head-scratching decisions during the course of a game; their offense is reliant on a terribly inefficient player in Derozan; and they have an alarming lack of experience and leadership on their roster. In saying that, I do expect this team to start off the season hot given the talent, but they simply do not have the makings of a team that can sustain any such run. Let alone one that can legitimately compete for a conference title come June.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (45-37)
- Christian: If you are looking to hop onto a young team’s bandwagon, look no further than … Milwaukee? As unbelievable as it sounds, the Bucks executed the perfect rebuild most teams can only dream of (looking at you Sam Hinkie), revamping their roster from a ball-dominant, no defense guards to a young, balanced and dangerous team. Swingman Khris Middleton proved to be a legitimate stud last season, averaging 16 points per game on 40 percent shooting from the three on one end and contributing solid defense on the other side. Milwaukee only allowed 96 points per 100 possessions with Middleton on the floor. That would have finished first in the NBA last year and his development — along with the growth of forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and newly-acquired big man Greg Monroe — should lead to a prosperous future for this Bucks squad.
6. Miami Heat (44-38)
- Myles: I must admit, among the many teams I appear to be highly skeptical of this season, Miami is the skeptical-est. Okay, I get it. The starting five looks great … on paper. Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade man the backcourt, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside hone the front and a bench mob consisting of a hopefully-healthy Josh McRoberts, rookie stud Justise Winslow and the high-flying Gerald Green. Looks great. I admit it. But, what that paper doesn’t account for is the now inevitable injury-plagued season that can be expected from Wade, Deng’s rapid decline since his arrival in South Beach and the still highly-relevant question of if Hassan Whiteside is merely last season’s greatest half-year wonder. These are legitimate questions and it is why I am very down on Miami and expect them to once again be fighting for a playoff spot this season. In honesty, even this projection feels a bit too high.
7. Washington Wizards (42-40)
- Christian: John Wall has developed into a top five point guard in the league, giving this Wizards team a great deal of potential. However, the loss of Paul Pierce without much compensation will make the question marks surrounding the viability of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter seem even more glaring. Both Nene and Marcin Gortat are also a year older, making it difficult for the Wizards to do little more than compete for a playoff spot in the East.
8. Boston Celtics (40- 42)
- Myles: I must say, I was — and still am — quite bullish on the Detroit Pistons earning this spot next year. But, given the well-established pedigree of Celtics head coach Brad Stevens as one of the best in the league, I give Boston the edge. Not to mention, newly-acquired power forward David Lee has a lot to prove and potentially an extra year left in the tank after essentially taking a season off with the Warriors last season. Couple this with the development of point guard Marcus Smart and the fiery scoring of sixth man Isaiah Thomas and this has the makings of a playoff team in the Eastern conference.
Honorable Mention: Indiana Pacers
Christian: The return of Paul George to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse along with a new running mate in wing Monta Ellis bodes well for a Pacer offense that only managed 97.3 points per game last season. However, losing both David West and Roy Hibbert to the Spurs and Lakers, respectively, will prove to be too much to overcome. Jordan Hill was a good acquisition, but rookie Myles Turner will need some time to adjust in order to be truly effective. The Pacers just don’t have that time.
And the award goes to…
Myles: Anthony Davis, F, New Orleans Pelicans. I do make this prediction with hesitance given my questions about this Pelicans team as stated above. But, for all their uncertainties, one thing is for sure: Anthony Davis is an unruly force in this league. An already prolific shot-blocker when entering the league, Davis has continually expanded his game on both ends over the span of his three-year career. Now, entering his fourth season, under the reigns of a coach in Gentry who has a proficiency for maximizing a player’s offensive talents. There are very little arrows pointing away from Davis as this season’s MVP.
Christian: LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers. The voter’s fatigue is gone after Stephen Curry won the award last season, and James has more than enough reasons to be motivated. In addition to losing in the Finals in his first year back in Cleveland, James went mostly unconsidered for the MVP last year. Combined with the fact that his two running mates are incredibly injury prone, it seems time for another historic season from one of the game’s most versatile players ever.
Rookie of the Year:
Christian: Jahlil Okafor, C, Philadelphia. I can’t help but compare Okafor’s silky smooth post game to Al Jefferson, with immaculate footwork and a soft touch well advanced for his age. In a time where natural back-to-the-basket post players are seemingly being replaced by the dominant athletes like Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis, it will be refreshing to watch the emergence of the league’s next purely fundamental big.
Myles: Karl-Anthony Towns, PF/C, Minnesota Timberwolves. For the sake of being a contrarian, I will give Towns the nod over Okafor here. And, frankly, the two aren’t as far apart in the ROY race as we are led to believe. Okafor is surely talented but in my book, Towns is the better overall player by far. His deft passing touch, outside shooting ability, defensive proficiency and developing ability to score in the low post make Towns an ideal prospect for the modern NBA. If given the opportunity to see time in Minnesota — which I expect he will — he should be the clear favorite for the ROY award come season’s end.
- Most Improved Player:
Christian: Mason Plumlee, PF/C, Portland Trail Blazers. The Duke product showed excellent skill and surprising athleticism on both sides of the court filling in for the Brooklyn Nets last season, putting up 14.8 points and 10.6 boards per 36 minutes last season. Now, he lands on a Blazers team that lost four of their five starters from last year’s playoff run, putting other role players into more demanding roles. I think Mason will establish himself as the second option on offense on his way to a solid season.
Myles: Victor Oladipo, PG/SG, Orlando Magic. Don’t let a rough preseason fool you, Victor Oladipo is a stud. And this is the season I expect him to put the rest of the league on notice. In increased minutes over his two seasons with the Magic, Oladipo has seen improved both his points and efficiency from the field whilst lowering his turnovers per game from 3.2 to 2.8. I expect this trend to continue for the ‘15-’16 season where he is surrounded by better talent and has a new head coach in Scott Skiles to help maximize his already-established talents as a defensive hound.
Coach of the Year:
Myles: Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder. Another rookie head coach walking away with coach of the year award? I think so. Much like last year’s winner in Golden State Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, Donovan takes on a team ripe with talent and primed for a deep postseason run. The question with OKC, as always, will be health, but barring any major injuries, I expect Donovan to be exactly what this team needs to get them over the proverbial hump.
Christian: Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks. As the catalyst of the Bucks turnaround, the former Net has shown excellent preparation and poise when coaching this young team leading them to a 9.6 defensive rating improvement from the 2013-14 season to the 2014-2015 season (per Basketball-Reference), the best defensive improvement a team has made since the 97-98 Spurs. That season, David Robinson returned from multiple injuries and a stud power forward out of Wake Forest was drafted with the first pick by the Spurs that year. Believe it or not, Milwaukee’s roster was not nearly as talented last season as it is now, and that will translate to accolades for Kidd and the young Bucks.
- 2015-16 NBA Champions
Christian: San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs pulled off one of the biggest free agency coups I have ever witnessed, signing power forward David West to a veteran’s minimum contract after signing prized big man LaMarcus Aldridge. This not only gives the Spurs superstar power outside of Tim Duncan — something coach Pop hasn’t had since the Admiral’s last season — but they now hone eight legitimate starters on the same roster, along with a myriad of solid role players. That kind of immense depth and star power led by the greatest X and O coach of all time seems too good to be true, and will certainly prove too good for the rest of the NBA.
Myles: Oklahoma City Thunder. Admittedly, I am a stubborn human being. I picked OKC to win it all after the end of last season (so, before the summer of sovereignty from San Antonio as is mentioned above) and am riding with it. Although, it is indeed for good reason. In case you forgot, Kevin Durant is the most dominant scorer in the NBA and his running mate, Russell Westbrook is by far the most dynamic. Among the many super teams throughout the league, no team hones the two-player firepower that this team puts on the floor on a game-by-game basis. Consider last season’s additions of solid-to-great contributors in Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler as well as the fit of newly-named head coach Billy Donovan and this team is poised to have a dominant season. Oh yeah, and Serge Ibaka still exists, guys. Perhaps OKC has the most question marks of any perennial contender, but I will continue to tout their chances all year. Of this I am certain.