Viewer's Guide to the 2016-17 NBA season

Sam Smith makes his predictions for the NBA season

By Sam Smith

The 2016-17 NBA season officially begins Tuesday, and so is it time to begin looking to June?

Of course not, but this is one of those really not so rare seasons where the view is it’s going to be difficult to find anyone other than the champion Cleveland Cavaliers and 2015 champion Golden State Warriors meeting again in the Finals. They are clearly the favorites, as the NBA signaled by having the Cavs open the season hosting the Knicks followed by the Spurs in Golden State. The Tuesday schedule, as usual, includes some other game, this time Utah at Portland. Two interesting teams that I don’t have too much to say about. The Bulls have an unusual late start, not until Thursday hosting the Boston Celtics.

Seemingly having a predestined Finals is nothing new in the NBA, and it has produced some of the greatest seasons. After all, leagues generally prosper with super teams, and Golden State looks as super as you can get with the addition of Kevin Durant. They now have the last three MVPs and four all-NBA players in the starting lineup. Can a team that set the all time regular season wins record with 73 improve? Counting the Cavs, that’s seven of the last eight MVPs on those two teams, only Derrick Rose interrupting their decade domination.

We’ve seen this before in the NBA, most notably in the 1960s when the Lakers and Celtics met in the Finals six times in eight years and in the 1980s Bird/Magic era when the Lakers and Celtics—yes, them again--played three times in four years, though at least one was in the Finals every year in the 1980s.

So, yes, someone can pull an upset; someone can get hurt and things change. But great teams are always great for a league.

The NBA prospered with the dynasty Bulls of the 1990s. Fans want to see excellence; parity is cute to keep everyone involved, but sport also is about witnessing the best. And trying to defeat the favorites. Football was great with the Dallas Cowboys and baseball with the champion New York Yankees. Villains inspire passion. And should provoke greater competition. Bring ‘em on!

Here’s a viewers guide to the 2016-17 season:

Who’s Missing?

Before looking forward, it’s time for one last farewell—as if we didn’t have enough last season with Kobe Bryant—for Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. In some respects, it is the end of an era. The next time we’ll see them is at one of the great Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. But they also represent perhaps the NBA transition from big man dominant to perimeter. Kobe, of course, was an outside player, though with Michael Jordan’s postup abilities. But he mostly played through Shaq to succeed. And then with Pau Gasol. Now there’s so much move and space and shoot.

Duncan and David Robinson, and then Duncan with a new crew, was the primary player in San Antonio and Garnett a positional rival of Duncan’s. The NBA has in their wake evolved to a league of smaller players, spacing the floor and shooting three pointers, the rules changes to limit perimeter contact freeing up the small man to roam without limitations. You can make a case for both Duncan and Kobe being in the top 10 alltime among NBA players. They, in looking back, provided the bridge that many believed would not be strong enough with the end of the Jordan era. Kobe with Jordanesque moments and Duncan with dignified greatness and Garnett with trash talking, in your face emotion combined to extend the Jordan effect and grow the NBA and invite even more fans in to witness the great events in the sport.

But it was time to go. Kobe had his grand tour, Garnett rarely played and Duncan slowly faded away, as we expected would eventually occur. Their departures weren’t shocking like those of Jordan and Magic. But in leaving at the same time they clear the grand NBA stage for the game to move on. Not so called first balloters, but also retiring were Amar’e Stoudemire and Elton Brand. Stoudemire was a comet streaking toward the sun in Phoenix until knee problems. Brand carried teams with great dignity. Paul Pierce said this will be his last season and there shouldn’t be any tributes except in Boston. Dirk Nowitzki starts his 19th season; Kobe’s 20 with the Lakers was most with one team.

Who’s Moved and Where are they now?

Obviously, Durant signing with the 73-win Warriors was the stunner. Durant has been widely criticized for so called can’t-beat-em-join-em lack of competitiveness. I don’t see it that way. It was his chance to be in perhaps the best combined working and living environment in the league. Plus, he’d clearly tired of playing my turn, your turn with Russell Westbrook. Though the Thunder will step back some, the Warriors/Thunder games should be prime viewing given the emotional temperaments of Westbrook and Draymond Green.

Perhaps most surprising was Dwyane Wade leaving Miami for the Bulls after 13 years despite substantial game left. Wade joins Rajon Rondo, a longtime foe. Some of the other big changes were Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut to Dallas, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo to Orlando, Boris Diaw, George Hill and Joe Johnson to Utah, Pau Gasol and David Lee to San Antonio, Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah to the Knicks, Jeremy Lin to Brooklyn, Chandler Parsons to Memphis, Dwight Howard to Atlanta, Victor Oladipo to Oklahoma City, Al Horford to Boston, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to Houston, Evan Turner to Portland, Luol Deng to the Lakers and Jeff Teague to Indiana. Rose and Noah with the big “if healthy” perhaps substantially improve New York while Gasol takes on big responsibility following Duncan. To produce a potentially serious contender, the Horford signing holds the best possibility with Boston.

Who’s Coaching Where?

Coaching changes often don’t change much, but they are the most popular personnel moves in sport. This season the new directions come in Sacramento with Dave Joerger from Memphis, Memphis with David Fizdale from Miami’s staff, Orlando with Frank Vogel from Indiana, Indiana with Nate McMillan, Washington with Scott Brooks, Minnesota with Tom Thibodeau, Brooklyn with Kenny Atkinson, Phoenix with former interim Earl Watson, the Lakers with Luke Walton, Houston with Mike D’Antoni and New York with Jeff Hornacek. Tyronn Lue makes a 12th who didn’t start last season with the same team. But he got a pretty good team. The only ones for sure to be in the playoffs figures to be McMillan. Coaches usually get teams in trouble. Though D’Antoni, Thibodeau, Hornacek, Brooks and perhaps Fizdale should be in competition to get in.

Who’s being traded?

There was preseason trade speculation about the Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge and Goran Dragic of Miami. Both really were less talks that possibilities: If Aldridge cannot mesh with Pau Gasol and the Spurs begin to fade and if Miami decides to unpack with Chris Bosh likely unable to play because of blood clots. The Bucks traded Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe has been part of their entry of players they seemed to want to move after last season. The Nuggets continue to push Kenneth Faried. With Nerlens Noel having injury issues and the team not really going anywhere there’s no rush to move a big man, namely Jahlil Okafor. If Joel Embiid holds up, then perhaps a deal before the draft.

Orlando desperately needs perimeter scoring and will offer up a big man, perhaps Nikola Vucevic or Aaron Gordon after adding Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. The Kings are in constant turnover with Rudy Gay all but making up his own trade suggestions. The Kings’ Ben McLemore also should end up somewhere else. They’ll keep DeMarcus Cousins in their new arena and no idea what else to do. The Suns aren’t going to get all those guards to fit and Brandon Knight could be available. Would Detroit cash in Marcus Morris for a point guard with Reggie Jackson hurt? Nothing likely will occur as the Raptors still can return to the conference finals. But they seem to have maxed out and then do they want to pay a 31-year-old, six-foot Kyle Lowry $100 million after paying DeRozan about $135 million? They have Cory Joseph and Lowry’s playoff statistics usually were lower than regular season. Ricky Rubio’s name keeps coming up with the prospect of prize rookie Kris Dunn. Though Rubio runs the team well, is as close they have to a veteran presence and was one of the few Timberwolves last season who had a positive plus/minus, Tom Thibodeau’s favorite statistic. More likely Tyus Jones. The Bulls moved on from Rose and Noah; Butler is staying. Draymond Green? That’s pure, pure speculation. But he may eventually not mesh as a fourth option with three guys who can advance the ball and shoot while Durant also can rebound. Green’s value never will be as high. I’d probably keep him to see how it works, but sometimes teams get tired of some people, and Green always has sounded like someone who could wear on you.

Who’s breaking out?

Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota’s second year player can’t be Most Improved as a No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year. But he looks headed to being an All-Star and one of the best big men.

The Suns Devin Booker looks like he’s blown past two pretty good guards they have. Jabari Parker looks recovered from his ACL and ready for a big season. Watch out for big men Myles Turner in Indiana and Clint Capella in Houston. Steven Adams already showed plenty in the playoffs and will play a larger role without Kevin Durant. Enes Kanter, also. D’Angelo Russell looks like he’s going to score (and shoot) a lot. Dennis Schroder gets his chance in Atlanta. You’d mention Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he seemed to already have broken out. Doug McDermott has a shot with perhaps Harrison Barnes in a larger role, though he has been a starter on two Finals teams.

What teams are going to be hot?

Five teams who may make a move upward? Houston, Boston, Minnesota, Phoenix and New York. Philadelphia was on the list given they’d won 10 games—how could they not double that—until No. 1 pick Ben Simmons was hurt. Injuries, by the way, already are changing status with Chris Bosh, Khris Midddleton, Reggie Jackson, Gordon Hayward and Ian Mahanmi out. Houston could be the surprise of the season. D’Antoni’s system works. That’s why everyone has stolen it. With James Harden and actual shooters they have the pieces now, and they blew themselves up last season with the ridiculous firing of Kevin McHale. They could go back to 55 wins. The Celtics with Al Horford are in position to make their move. Can they?

The Suns are going back to Suns and fun and watch out for the Timberwolves with all that young talent. The Knicks will be better. Maybe they don’t make the playoffs, but a lot better than that 32 wins with actual players (if healthy, as we’ll say all season). Only because they also were so low, the Pelicans can sneak into the five, but already they’re stricken with bad luck injuries.

Which teams are not going to be so hot?

Five teams that could fade? Toronto, San Antonio, Miami, Atlanta and Charlotte. Some will make the playoffs, like the Spurs, but they seem at a transition even after the most overlooked 67-win season in history. It’s probably why all that speculation has come about regarding LaMarcus Aldridge. They’ll still be a 50-win type team, which would be a record and amazing 18th straight season, but no longer a true title contender. Of course, one might say that about everyone in the West but the Warriors. Pau isn’t Duncan and they haven’t replaced Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Hawks could still win a quirky Southeast Division falling back to .500. Miami’s in there and without Bosh and Dwyane Wade it’s tough not to see a big slide. Boston looks ready to blow by the Raptors, who lost Biyombo (who did nothing until the playoffs) and remain unsure how much DeMarre Carroll can play with health issues. Then there are the Hornets without Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin. Not great, but great contributors. They could slide. Even with losing Durant, the Thunder still has a lot and shouldn’t fall under 50 wins. Hey, the Bulls lost Jordan in 1993 and won two fewer games the next season. It’s not automatic.

MVP: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

He supposedly doesn’t care about this award anymore, which I doubt. Though Stephen Curry thrilled the league the last few seasons and won the last two, James declared himself going for basketball immortality. MVPs add up with championships to separate you. It’s where Kobe doesn’t measure up. LeBron also moves into the top 10 alltime in NBA scoring this season. Russell Westbrook is a popular choice with Durant gone, and Harden didn’t lose out to Curry by much two years ago. In fact, the players’ union vote had him. Could Damien Lillard be MVP and not get picked as an All-Star again? If Houston does improve, Harden could get it. Maybe Paul George if the Pacers make a big jump toward the top.

Coach of the Year: Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets

Yes, we’ll hear plenty of worst defensive team ever and can’t win that way. But the Suns were about to win until David Stern took their chance away in 2007 when they were about to beat the Spurs before Robert Horry’s assault on Steve Nash. When D’Antoni had that system working in Phoenix they used to roll through teams. And Nash didn’t score like Harden will. D’Antoni didn’t have his players in L.A. and New York. He does again. Tom Thibodeau, Brad Stevens and Quin Snyder should be in there for consideration.

Sixth Man: Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies

He’s going to the bench and seems to be embracing the Jamal Crawford award. Yes, he’ll be up there again along with Crawford, of course, Al Jefferson, Brandon Jennings and perhaps Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter.

Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

There’s always sentiment for the Big guys and Rudy Gobert was heading there until being hurt last season. DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside will get mentioned. Perhaps some Boston defenders, but they’ll divide votes. I prefer the perimeter guys, especially in this era of perimeter player dominance.

Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

It has to be some 76er. It would have been Simmons, but he will miss at least half the season injured. This award depends mostly on playing time and the 76ers only have young guys. Not sure the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram will get enough time with Luol Deng there. Buddy Hield is most everyone’s favorite because some one has to shoot—and play—with the Pelicans. Marquese Chriss has been good for the Suns, but who knows who they’ll play. Perhaps Kris Dunn if Ricky Rubio gets traded.

East playoffs:

  1. Cleveland
  2. Boston
  3. Indiana
  4. Toronto
  5. Detroit
  6. Chicago
  7. New York
  8. Atlanta

West playoffs:

  1. Golden State
  2. Houston
  3. Clippers
  4. San Antonio
  5. Oklahoma City
  6. Minnesota
  7. Utah
  8. Portland

Finals: Warriors over Cavaliers

Perhaps all we can count on is most of this will change. That’s why they play the games. Let’s go.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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