An early look at the NBA's regular season races
"They’re everyone’s pick for the conference finals with the Cavs as it was last season with the Heat and Pacers," writes Smith of Rose and the Bulls. "It almost didn’t happen, but it did. So should this."
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An early look at the NBA's regular season races

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.

By Sam Smith | 10.27.2014 | 9:26 a.m. CT | | @SamSmithHoops

In this very impatient sports world these days, the NBA regular season opens Tuesday with the San Antonio Spurs celebrating another NBA title hosting their state rival, the Dallas Mavericks.

Sure it’s nice for the Spurs winning their fifth championship since 1999, but who’s going to win this season?

There’s been a seismic shift in the NBA, especially in the Eastern Conference where last season’s conference finalists, the Heat and Pacers, both could miss the playoffs. Obviously, that is because LeBron James returned to Cleveland, while the Pacers lost Paul George to injury and Lance Stephenson to free agency and Charlotte.

It thus makes the Cavaliers the Eastern favorite with the addition of Kevin Love from Minnesota as well. The Bulls become a potential close contender with the return of Derrick Rose and addition of Pau Gasol.

Then comes the biggest questions this season: Which Eastern team will make the playoffs and which Western team won’t make the playoffs?

Well, we know a few Western teams for sure. But this season perhaps more than any previous, there are at least 10 playoff teams in the Western Conference. They’ve yet to expand the field, so only eight will make the playoffs. Every list is going to have two teams on the outside that remain surprising.

It’s contrary in the Eastern Conference, where you can reach to find an eighth team that deserves to make the playoffs based on its talent.

There’ll be plenty of intriguing storylines this season.

There’s Kobe Bryant and the potential bottom dwelling Lakers with Kobe already under attack from media for being highly paid. There’s the Kevin Durant injury that raises the question about how many wins for Oklahoma City and how unfair its playoff opponent may have it with the Thunder a potential low seed healthy by April.

Can the Spurs repeat for the first time? Can LeBron really get Cleveland a title? Will the Heat go from perennial contenders to missing the playoffs?

There are teams on the rise, mostly in the West, like the Pelicans, Nuggets and Jazz. There are special rookies to watch in Milwaukee and Minnesota, eight new coaches including first timers for the NBA like Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher and David Blatt, and Jason Kidd working on his annual coaching change. There’s Phil Jackson’s first full season running the Knicks and no more from Donald Sterling. Michael Jordan appears to have his best ever team as an executive and the Buss family their worst. Derrick Rose is back again. But there may be nothing quite like the amazing race in the west.

The champion?  I’ve got 10 possible contenders, including the Cavs, Bulls, Spurs, Rockets, Mavs, Trail Blazers, Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies and Warriors. Yet, I can also see the Grizzlies missing the playoffs with the potential rise of teams like the Pelicans and Mavericks.

The winner? Let’s wait until next spring to discuss that. Here’s a look at how the Eastern Conference and Western Conference regular season races might look.

Eastern Conference 

1. Cleveland Cavaliers. They should be really good. Yes, it’s LeBron. Sure, they have adjustment questions, though looking at the roster it appears stronger than the 2010 Heat, who were supposed to be so invincible. Yet, no one but the top three averaged more than eight points per game on that team. The Cavs have more depth and size than that Heat team and a better LeBron. And as inexperienced as David Blatt may be in the NBA, he’s more experienced than Erik Spolestra then.

2. Bulls. They’re everyone’s pick for the conference finals with the Cavs as it was last season with the Heat and Pacers. It almost didn’t happen, but it did. So should this. But the Bulls have plenty of adjustment issues of their own with several new players, a pair of rookies, working in All-Star centers and the regular concern about Derrick Rose. They also could be digging themselves out of a tough start with a heavy road schedule.

3. Toronto Raptors. Not exactly a classic top four team, but there appears to be a large drop off from the top two. They were the surprise team from last season pretty much taking the division wire to wire. Kyle Lowry had his career year on his contract year, but he’s not a slacker. Again, the issue will be who’s inside and if someone is there will anyone pass the ball to them. They added another of those kinds of guards with Lou Williams. But they’re a pretty tough group.

4.Charlotte Hornets. Michael Jordan for executive of the year? He’s the owner, but they’ve continued to add good pieces with the signing of the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson (Yes, Charlotte with Al Jefferson last year has become one of the top free agent destinations). They have an intriguing perimeter with Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with a better shot. Or a shot. If their draft pick Noah Vonleh could help, they make a nice move.

5. Washington Wizards. They’ve been everyone’s potential breakthrough team, though that seemed like last season. Paul Pierce is a step back from Trevor Ariza at Pierce’s age and poor Bradley Beal keeps getting hurt. They should be in the mix, but haven’t done quite enough yet to break their canvas ceiling.

6. Atlanta Hawks. It’s difficult to remember they are there, just like the local community. They’re coming off the minor league version of the Clippers controversy. So we’ll see if there’s any blowback. They get Al Horford back to a team around .500 most of last season without him. Thabo Sefolosha is a quietly nice pickup and unlike with Oklahoma, he’ll be allowed to shoot and even look at the ball on occasion.

7. New York Knicks. Phil probably would love to be seventh. Different goals. It’s the toughest team to figure as last season was the everything that could go wrong did season with everyone pretty much giving up on one another. Jackson brings what the coaches like to term organization, even if not coaching. There’s the rookie coach and sophisticated offense and not exactly a roster of thinking man’s players. But there’s much more talent than last season’s disaster, which still made a late charge at .500.

8. Miami Heat. Well, they do have three All-Stars. Of course, we doubt Dwyane Wade is anymore, wonder whether Chris Bosh would be without LeBron and Luol Deng is in an offense with no point guard. Could they fall completely out of the playoffs? It’s certainly possible the way LeBron covered up so much. But the East is weak and opponents stay up late the night before when they are there.

9. Detroit Pistons. They’re a team that could move into one of the last spots. Basically six through 10 will be for their last three playoff spots. The coaching is much better, though it would have to be after near mutiny last season. Stan Van Gundy will come as close to you can to explaining to Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings why the home fans boo them. Greg Monroe is playing his way out, so there could be change to come. But they’ve got front court strength and some shooting, a Van Gundy formula.

10. Brooklyn Nets. No, not because Jason Kidd had his moving van come in at night. Actually, the coaching improves with Lionel Hollins. But it’s a broken team with Brook Lopez going out early, Kevin Garnett hanging on and who knows what with Deron Williams. Time for Joe Johnson to start dribbling.

11. Orlando Magic. I know, the Pacers, but would you rather have Indiana’s roster or the Magic’s? The Magic is getting close to when they have to begin to make a move with all those draft picks. That’s the danger of loading up on No. 1s. You better be in the right draft. They’ve got some good talent, sort of the Eastern version of the Jazz: A lot of B players. No As. You need an A to get somewhere.

12. Indiana Pacers. Paul George should be back next season, so you don’t necessarily break it up. Though David West may have seen his best times by then and whoever knows anymore with Roy Hibbert, the paradox of the most mysterious person who tells you what he’s thinking all the time. They’ll miss George’s and Lance Stephenson’s scoring but more so their ball handling and play making.

13. Milwaukee Bucks. The wholesome state has the unholy coach. This should be interesting. They’ve got a player in Jabari Parker, who is just good and not quite highlight worthy. Giannis Antetokoumpo is something, though I’m fairly sure not a point guard. To quote my mother regarding Larry Sanders, “What’s next with you?”

14. Boston Celtics. Rajon Rondo appears to be coming back sooner than expected, which means probably leaving sooner than anticipated. They’re about trying to fit the pieces back together, but at least give them credit for trying to compete and remaining professional through the hard times.

15. Philadelphia 76ers. And then there’s them.  The community would be served much better if Mo’Ne Davis and the Taney Dragons performed since at least they’d be about competition and respect for the game.

Western Conference

1.  Golden State Warriors. Some of this is who’s not with Kevin Durant hurt, the Clippers incomplete and the Spurs not likely to have that same desire. Plus, the Warriors are loaded. Their backcourt starters are the best in the league and they’ve finally got size and depth up front, even Andre Iguodala off the bench. Could be Steve Kerr gets that coach of the year because few are making this pick. But perhaps they have good reason.

2.  Dallas Mavericks. It’s going to be a wild, wild, wild west this season with teams in second and two weeks later in ninth. As quietly as you can do things with Mark Cuban, there’s no one running away with it and they’ve added some of the right pieces with Tyson Chandler (forget giving him away for no reason like they did with Steve Nash), Chandler Parsons and about eight point guards, but at least NBA veterans. They came the closest to taking out the Spurs as well and Dirk is healthier this season.

3. Portland Trail Blazers. Assuming they make the playoffs. That’s the story of the west.  Two today; gone tomorrow. They’ve got perhaps the most versatile starting five, but four starters played 82 games last season and it’s tough to see that occurring again. Or that it’s ever happened in this NBA. But they make good, quiet additions each season and C.J. McCollum was a hot prospect last season before he was hurt and out all year.

4.  San Antonio Spurs. How dare I? No, they’re not done, but again, there could be a game or two between one and two and seven and eight this season. It’s understandable the edge they had the way they lost in the Finals in 2013. A mission and all that. It’s tough to sustain, and remember Popovich doesn’t take the regular season too seriously. So why is it they are supposed to be a top four team?

5. Los Angeles Clippers. There’s something missing again, and it’s that same wing spot where they are relatively unathletic for a contending team. They’ve got the stars and made a nice addition in Spencer Hawes, so they don’t have to watch DeAndre Jordan shoot 13 foot free throws in the last two minutes. Everyone likes Chris (Paul). But he’s got to be in a conference finals game. Even Steve Nash was.

6.  New Orleans Pelicans. They are one of the teams along with Denver with the most prospects for breaking into the playoff group with everyone’s new star, Anthony Davis, and dozens of their players returning from injuries, or so it seems. They look to have a loaded starting lineup with Omer Asik the perfect complement to Davis, and Ryan Anderson a strong sixth man candidate. The problem when you’ve been bad so long is persuading the players they are not any longer. If the coach cannot it might be a shorter stay.

7.  Oklahoma City Thunder. They were everyone’s one/two until Kevin Durant went ouchie. A great player props up a spotty lineup, and suddenly it doesn’t look so good without him. After all, if your two-man offense becomes a one-man offense, that’s a team half as good. Durant could be back in December. Or maybe not. Someone will be screaming foul—and demanding replay—come April and May when Durant’s back, they’re whole and these are the guys you get in the first round?

8.  Houston Rockets. Again, there’ll be a half dozen teams in the last few weeks who could fall out or have home court. It’s not that the next few aren’t worthy, but who do you leave out? They’ve got two potential first team all-NBA players. So despite all the failed home run moves this summer that went afoul, they should be somewhere in there.

9.  Denver Nuggets. They’re a team many believe will make a move as well. But the way could be blocked. They get a bunch of guys back, like Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee and added Arron Afflalo. They look like a playoff team with a tough front court, but no one’s taking transfers to the east.

10. Memphis Grizzlies. Another difficult one to leave out the way they defend and no surprise if they get well into the top eight. They go down here less because of how well they played last season after Marc Gasol’s return than the impending free agency of Gasol and you sense they’re closer to the close of the run. But as tough as they play you can’t be surprised if they’re much better than this with their all-underrated, like Zach Randolph and Mike Conley.

11. Phoenix Suns. And then there’s these guys, who get Eric Bledsoe back, though they did lose Channing Frye. They’ve got enough guards to get into a tournament with the Nuggets. Maybe do that for All Star weekend. Probably not quite enough size and taking no one by surprise this time.

12. Utah Jazz. Much better coaching and a roster filling out, albeit with babies. They’ve got big men and point guards and no one’s confusing them for a playoff team. But they’re ready to start showing off some of that talent they’ve been collecting in Trey Burke, Alex Burks, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. A lot of Bs. But you can still get into a good college.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves. Like the famous story when home run champ Ralph Kiner wanted a raise from his last place team. We can finish last without you as well. They’ll miss the playoffs without Kevin Love as they did with him, but they’re building, they’ve got a potential young star to watch in Andrew Wiggins, who’ll eventually be better than Love, and a much happier group not standing around watching Love chase stats.

14. Sacramento Kings. They keep making pretty decent moves, but still have DeMarcus Cousins. Though Cousins played the proverbial right way with USA Basketball, Mike Krzyzewski probably won’t coach the Kings. So again it will go back to Cousins dribbling full court into a fadeaway jumper with everyone shaking their heads.

15. Los Angeles Lakers. It’s not Kobe’s fault. It’s management’s. Have you seen that roster? I’d put them higher but whose roster is worse? Certainly not the Jazz or Timberwolves. Maybe they pass the Kings if Cousins goes into full meltdown. But have you seen that Lakers’ roster? And Nick Young when he returns should be a perfect complement to Kobe assuming they don’t literally starting wrestling to get the ball. Boozer’s yelling should at least wake up Jack Nicholson. 

NBA news and notes 

-- No secret of their priority in Philadelphia. When NBA owners voted last week to retain the current lottery system, Philadelphia media headlined, “Sixers win lottery vote.” Everyone seems on board with dumping.  The system isn’t so much broken as there’s one miscreant. It’s like the tax code or airport security. There was one exception after another, all well meaning, generally to stop someone who valued self-interest over the greater good. Every team wants to win in sports and it’s a competition. Every citizen wants to be a success, but most appreciate the greater good of the nation and don’t feel the nation’s values should be sacrificed for their own greed. When someone slips through, the rules tend to change. That’s what the NBA is dealing with now with the lottery and the spiritless 76ers. There is no perfect system; just as there’s no perfect tax law or complete safety assurance. You hope there are enough citizens with the right values. The NBA has 29; then there are the 76ers, the exception who’d sink the league to have personal success. Perhaps their fans agree, though the great irony is it’s in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the nation that was more about the general welfare than any nation in world history. That it’s the consent of the governed that assures the happiness. Sports leagues essentially are partnerships because you cannot compete against no one. It’s unfortunate for the other 29 they have one who is making it more difficult on everyone else because the one cares little for the essence of the sport, which is competition.  

-- Jabari Parker has predictably been the highest scoring rookie in preseason. Some curiosities: Three of the top five rookie scorers play for Miami, not a good sign for this season. Surprise will be Denver’s Jusuf Nurkic, who led in rebounding and seemed to have Blake Griffin wanting no part of him when they met. … Impressive preseason for Utah’s Trey Burke, averaging almost 18 points, 47 percent on threes and three to one assist/turnover. … Cavs coach David Blatt told Cleveland media he needs to keep LeBron James under 40 minutes per game: “I don't have a number but I am cognizant of the fact and we are conscious of the fact that, certainly early, on 39 minutes a game is a lot. We gotta keep our wits about us in terms of thinking long term with LeBron."… Former Bulls preseasons: Luol Deng 9.2 points in 25.7 minutes per game and 27 percent on threes; Carlos Boozer 12.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in 25 minutes; Ben Gordon 10.2 points and 31 percent on threes in 18 minutes; Jimmer Fredette 10.1 points and 50 percent on threes (12-for-24) in 18.4 minutes; D.J. Augustin 10.6 points and 39 percent on threes in 25.3 minutes; Omer Asik 4.6 points and 7.9 rebounds in 19.6 minutes; Marco Belinelli 10 points on 30 percent three point shooting in 28 minutes; Kyle Korver 13.3 points and 43 percent on threes in 26.8 minutes; Nate Robinson five points and 18 percent three-point shooting in 12 minutes. … The Mavs are getting about 13 minutes and five points and three rebounds from Greg Smith, whom the Bulls tried to rehabilitate last season.

-- Another side of domestic violence issues is the case of former Timberwolves forward Dante Cunningham, accused of domestic violence last season and since without a contract after averaging about seven points the last two seasons in about 20 minutes off the bench and missing three games in two years. The Associated Press last week reported his situation of the charges being dropped and police saying some of the accusations against him were fabricated. But in the NFL climate of domestic abuse attention, Cunningham told the AP that NBA teams have been hesitant to make an offer as a result even with the charges dropped, fabrication evidence and police suggestion to prosecutors the accuser be charged with filing a false report. The prosecutor declined for fear of a “chilling effect” on abuse victims, which is understandable. It is a very complicated, sensitive and important issue. Players' union executive director Michele Roberts suggested teams’ hesitance was unfair. Said Cunningham: "They think I'm a bad person. C'mon. I'm a great person. Give me that chance. I've been stripped of that. You have to understand that. That's terrible. Awful. And if I don't have my name, what do I have?" … Another surprise could be Festus Ezeli of the Warriors. Back healthy he could be vital protection and an underrated Joakim Noah-esque center for the regular Andrew Bogut injuries. Ezeli’s been out 18 months. … Jameer Nelson looks like he’ll be Mavs starting point guard. … So much for Showtime? Kobe Bryant on the Lakers: “We’re going to be smashmouth basketball. That’s how we’re going to play. We’re going to be nasty. We’re going to be physical.” 

There is no Next, a book by Sam Smith


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