The Justice League? The Golden Great?
What cheesy nickname can we bestow upon the Golden State Warriors this season?
The NBA circus has set up shop in the Bay Area, to witness the latest iteration of SuperTeam. The Warriors have gotten almost all the attention, for good reasons and bad, all summer, after Kevin Durant shocked just about everyone paying attention and decided he’d relocate, taking advantage of a perfect financial storm to sign with Golden State. They are the story of the year, more than the defending champions who finally slayed the Drought Dragon in Cleveland, more than Dwyane Wade leaving the Miami Heat after 13 seasons, more than the incredible spike in player salaries this past summer.
But nothing is assured in sports. The NBA is no different. Twenty-nine other teams, all a little hot at all the pixels and clicks the Warriors are getting, will be gunning for them from opening night, when Golden State hosts the Tim Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs on TNT (10:30 p.m. ET). It may not matter, for the Warriors remain prohibitive favorites to win it all again, their offensive potential incapable of calculating.
But, we don’t know. That’s why people make ridiculous predictions before every season, guesses that will almost certainly be wrong and make the author look like an idiot.
Eh, what can you do? This is the business I’ve chosen.
So, as always, in honor of the late Danny Biasone -- whose simple idea in 1954 of putting in a 24-second shot clock for NBA play to make the games go faster and not degenerate into small ball saved the league -- here are 24 completely fact-lite predictions for the 2016-17 season.
1. LeBron James will win his fifth league Most Valuable Player award
Hard to see how Golden State’s superstars won’t split MVP votes, which will allow James to consolidate support and take a plurality of first- and second-place votes. Add that Cleveland is poised for another 60-plus win regular season and an unfettered run to the top of the Eastern Conference, and James’ candidacy gains even more steam.
2. Chris Bosh won’t play in the NBA this season
Currently in limbo after the Miami Heat announced he’d failed his physical, Bosh won’t be able to get a team to clear him. The fear of financial ruin if something tragic were to happen to Bosh on the court or on a plane or in any situation under a team’s employ will just be too great. (Not to mention, it will be extremely difficult to get him insured.) After some acrimony, the league will step in, give Miami some kind of special dispensation cap-wise so that Bosh’s salary can’t catapult back onto the Heat’s cap if he plays 25 games this season for next for another team, and his limbo will be punted to 2017-18 so teams can get another year to think about it.
3. Cleveland will be in the Eastern Conference finals (no surprise there). The Cavs will play the Pacers (big surprise there)
I’m so in the tank for the Indiana Pacers this year I’m getting the bends. But there’s so much to like: Paul George and Myles Turner, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young, C.J. Miles (once his knee stops barking), Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Al Jefferson and Kevin Seraphin. There’s nothing to keep Indiana from being fast and lethal on offense while not faltering on defense. The Young-George combo makes for eminent switch-ability. Teague was criminally underrated in Atlanta, and Turner will battle Steven Adams all year for the title of Best Young Big in the game. I will spend a lot of time at Nicky Blaine’s in May.
4. Utah will be a top-four team in the Western Conference
The Jazz is everyone’s sexy pick this season, and with good reason: great coaching/player development, a core entering its third season together, versatility at multiple positions and an infusion of vets (Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson) with vast postseason experience. Utah will break the 50-win plateau and finish second to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Northwest Division.
5. Oklahoma City will make the playoffs
Last I checked, good teams -- at every level -- start with a good point guard and center. The Thunder still have a great point guard/center combo in Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams. That will be enough to get 44 wins and a postseason berth. It would be too much to ask for OKC to finish eighth in the West and play Golden State in the first round, right?
6. Nerlens Noel will be dealt ... to the New Orleans Pelicans
Noel wants out and the Philadelphia 76ers have indicated they’ll ultimately thin their frontcourt herd. Sending Noel to the Pelicans would be an easy move for both teams. The Pelicans need a more agile, mobile center to defend today’s stretch fives and such than Omer Asik (remember when he was the darling of the advanced stats folk?), and Noel is still on his rookie deal. Philly isn’t anywhere near the cap and could take an expiring contract back (is that you, Tyreke Evans?) or a two-way guard like Langston Galloway with no difficulty. Of course, Noel was originally picked by New Orleans in the 2013 Draft, and traded to Philly for Jrue Holiday and a 2014 first-rounder. It was Sam Hinkie’s first big deal in Philly.
7. Speaking of whom, Sam Hinkie will be back in an NBA front office next year
The former 76ers’ GM, at once ridiculed and celebrated for “The Process,” will get another shot for two reasons: a) the 76ers will look a lot more promising at the end of this season after a year of Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons, and b) there are many teams who remain shell-shocked by this past summer’s league-wide spending spree, and want to pump the financial brakes. Enter Hinkie, who is spending the year recharging his batteries in California with his family, and has shown he’s more than willing to exchange short-term pain for long-term gain, and won’t spend money on mediocre free agents just to win a news cycle.
8. James Harden will finish in the top three in MVP voting
The Houston Rockets’ All-Star is as polarizing a player as there is in the Association, and Houston’s fall from grace the last couple of seasons synchs with Harden’s drop from second in the 2014 Kia MVP vote. But with the ball in his hands all the time in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, Harden’s assist totals will go up with no discernable impact on his scoring average. And a guy that goes for, say, 26 points and nine assists a night for a playoff team is going to get strong MVP consideration.
9. The LA Clippers will make the Western Conference finals
Wanted to write “the Blazers will make the Western Conference finals,” but chickened out. Just don’t believe in Portland’s frontcourt enough, though Festus Ezeli will help. So the pick here is L.A., which will finish third in the west this season by record -- and thus avoid the top-seeded Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals -- and ride a monster season from Blake Griffin to a conference showdown with the Warriors.
10. Which they will lose
11. Brett Brown will ride sympathetic media voting to a second-place finish for Coach of the Year to Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau
It’s been hard going up to Philly the last four years and seeing Brown, a smart guy and a good coach, take L after L because he didn’t have NBA-caliber talent on his roster. Now, he does. The Sixers will make a big leap in wins -- from 10 last season to, probably, more than 30 this season -- and many scribes will reward Brown, one of the more honest coaches and great quotes, with their votes. I may well be one of them.
12. Devin Booker will average 19 points per game this season and win the Three-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans
13. Devin Booker will win Kia Most Improved Player
14. Sacramento will win 27 games this year ... at home
With the newest of digs at their disposal, their beautiful new Golden 1 Center, the Kings will again become formidable in the 916 like they were in the glory days. Unfortunately, they’ll still have to play 41 on the road. But you have to start somewhere.
15. Atlanta will take a step back. It won’t be Dwight Howard’s fault
The Hawks have been so locked in under coach Mike Budenholzer the last couple of years, it sounds like a criticism to say they won’t be a contender in the east this year. It isn’t. Howard is still very good defensively and can be good for stretches in the post, and he will put up good numbers and provide some leadership. But every entry pass into him is one fewer 3-pointer for Kyle Korver or Kent Bazemore or Paul Millsap. They’re also going to miss Jeff Teague more than they think.
16. Milwaukee will have to move some of its young talent to get more shooting into the lineup
The Bucks finished last in the league last season in 3-pointers made (440, a scant 637 fewer than first-place Golden State) and were tied with Detroit for 21st in the league in 3-point percentage (.345). With their best shooter, Khris Middleton, likely to miss most of the season after hamstring surgery, Milwaukee doesn’t have a single player from last season’s roster that averaged even one 3-pointer per game last year. (Matthew Dellavedova, acquired from Cleveland, shot 41 percent on 3-pointers last season, and free-agent pickup Jason Terry is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter.) Yes, the Bucks will be able to create good looks out of their defense and in transition, but eventually, you have to make a few jumpers, unless they’re planning to play Dellavedova and/or Terry 25-plus minutes per game. (Wouldn’t it make sense to toss a future second Boston’s way for R.J. Hunter? Just askin’.)
17. Orlando will have a top-10 defense
All the ingredients are there: two of the league’s top 13 shot blockers in Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo; a strong on-ball point guard in Elfrid Payton and a coach in Frank Vogel whose Indiana Pacers teams were ninth, first, first, eighth and third in the league in defensive rating the last five seasons.
18. The Wizards will not be as bad as you think
They’re by no means a title contender, but the John Wall-Bradley Beal duo has always played best with a chip on its shoulder. The rock currently astride their collective supraspinatus is the size of Richmond. With Wall finally healthy and turbo-powered again after offseason surgery on both knees, and Beal doing work this summer on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and finishing at the rim, all Washington needs to make a playoff push is above-replacement level play from either Otto Porter or Kelly Oubre.
19. Neither will Dallas
Can’t get Harrison Barnes, as a rookie, giving it to San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals of the 2013 playoffs. Yes, Barnes was dreadful in The 2016 Finals. But there is a big-time scorer in there somewhere, and coach Rick Carlisle will find it. That would give the Mavs three legit scorers -- Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews -- to pair with Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut. With no expectations from the outside, the Mavs can play free and loose this season, have fun, and win 45-50 games.
20. Brandon Ingram will be Rookie of the Year
The Lakers’ first-round pick will be greenlighted early and often by coach Luke Walton to fire away, and he’ll put up numbers.
21. The Knicks will disappoint*
Just too many questions and/or what-ifs for New York this season, starting with Derrick Rose, to feel confident about the Knicks’ pursuits this season. How long can Joakim Noah stay healthy? Who will impact off the bench? Is there enough shooting? The Knicks will probably improve upon their 32-50 mark from last season, and could make the playoffs in the East, but when has that ever been good enough for *the world’s most delusional fanbase?
22. The NBA will put the 2019 All-Star Game back in Charlotte -- if Pat McCrory loses re-election
Polls indicate a tight race between incumbent North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and challenger Roy Cooper. McCrory has been one of the chief supporters of the so-called “bathroom bill” that prohibited local jurisdictions from enacting non-discriminatory laws, including those that would allow transgender people to use the public restroom with which they identify, and was the catalyst for the NBA moving the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans. Other sports leagues and entities have also moved playoffs and/or championships out of North Carolina. But if Cooper beats McCrory, expect the league to ultimately restore Charlotte for 2018.
23. Golden State will beat Cleveland in seven games to take back the NBA championship
But Klay Thompson, not Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, will be Finals MVP after averaging 24 a game in the series, including six threes in an incredible Game 7 win at the Q.
24. 1.5 to 2 of these predictions will actually happen
I will conveniently develop amnesia about the others.
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