The NBA season tips off in one week. One week! How did this happen? I feel like I was just in San Antonio, curled up in the fetal position on my hotel bed, suffering from the meat sweats after an ill-fated Finals off-day tour of the region’s best barbecue joints. It’s time for the second-annual installment of season predictions, focusing on off-beat stuff, statistics, trade possibilities, and larger trends. Last year’s version had some hits (Miami leading the league in points per possession, Kevin Durant joining the fabled 50-40-90 club) and some very bad misses (the Thunder agreeing to an extension with James Harden, Gerald Green being a pleasant surprise for the Pacers). These predictions run the gamut from crazy wishes to semi-educated guesses to out-and-out long shots. Please do not bookmark this page! Once more unto the breach.
1. The Clippers Will Lead the League in Points Per Possession
There are reasons to be skeptical of the Clippers. Doc Rivers’s offenses in Boston were below-average to awful in every season after 2009. The Clips have zero quality big men behind DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, and the team has no record of playing contention-worthy defense with those two on the floor. No one has anointed them as “favorites” for anything, and nobody should.
But holy hell will this team be able to score the ball. The Clips have ranked fourth in points per possession in each of the past two seasons, despite running a vanilla offense; suffering through Jordan’s (prolonged) growing pains and horrible foul shooting; dealing with occasional spacing issues on the wing; and enduring generally blah coaching. Rivers presents a coaching upgrade and Alvin Gentry, his top bench assistant, ran some cool stuff in Phoenix over the last couple of years. Most importantly, they’ve got killer shooting in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to dot the floor around Chris Paul–Griffin pick-and-rolls, and above Griffin post-ups. Redick’s off-ball movement and ability to work as a secondary ball handler will help broaden Rivers’s playbook, and Matt Barnes leads a brigade of useful bench guys. The three teams above them from last season — Miami, Oklahoma City, and New York — are all due for some regression. Enter the Clips.
2. Trade Season Will Be Much Hotter
Last year’s trade deadline was a dull affair, with only a half-dozen deals and a single first-round pick changing hands. The heavy business got done early in the James Harden and Rudy Gay deals, but the cool deadline left folks wondering if the restrictive new CBA had introduced a panic-based hoarding mentality that would forever depress trade activity. There’s something to that. Teams are clinging to their own first-round picks as essential sources of cheap labor. Teams with expiring contracts are more willing to simply let those players walk into free agency and enjoy the resulting cap space rather than deal them for guys on multiyear deals — especially if said long-term contracts come without a first-round pick attached.
That said, this year should be livelier. Miami is vulnerable, and as many as eight teams could talk themselves into the idea that they are a move away from the throne. A handful of teams that are not trying to win games — Boston, Phoenix, Utah, Philadelphia, Orlando — have nearly a dozen solid and tradable veterans between them. On the one hand, that pile of Jameer Nelsons and Marcin Gortats and Brandon Basses will generate a lot of phone calls and activity. On the other hand, it also creates a glut of assets, meaning the teams holding those assets may not be able to get what they want — a first-round pick — in a buyer’s market. Will they settle for second-rounders and cash? Or will teams instead choose to hang on to the expiring contracts in this group (Gortat, Evan Turner, et al.) to ensure they maintain future cap space?
The abundance of such players might depress this market, but at least a few of these guys figure to move regardless. Four other midrung teams are under pressure to win now, creating the possibility of a midseason-panic asset grab: Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, and New Orleans. And we haven’t even addressed the Raptors or the inevitable noise around Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and even Zach Randolph if their teams underperform. It should be a fun year.
3. One of the Following Four Teams Will Trade a Future Asset for a Present One: Washington, New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland
In fact, let’s make this one of the official predictions. Cleveland has the most assets on hand, in terms of young players and first-round picks, but it’s saving cap space for LeBron James. (It also has, let’s say, an “aggressive” owner prone to bouts of fist-on-table evangelism.) Joe Dumars needs a big year in Detroit, he’s staring at some future cap flexibility, and there’s almost zero chance (bonus prediction) Greg Monroe is getting an extension before the October 31 deadline — making him an interesting potential trade piece. But the Pistons owe a protected first-round pick to Charlotte, making it tricky (but not impossible) for them to deal a future pick. New Orleans has tried to jump some steps in the rebuild process, with a weird (but intriguing!) roster of interesting pieces. And Washington …
4. Washington Will Trade for a Big Man in the Next Month — If Emeka Okafor’s Prognosis Is Bad
General manager Ernie Grunfeld is in the last year of his contract, and owner Ted Leonsis, not the shy sort, has made it clear he expects the Wiz to make the playoffs. Washington was over .500 last season when Bradley Beal and John Wall were both available, and lineups featuring combinations of its core six or seven guys generally did quite well. But Okafor was one of those core guys, and the gap between Okafor and his backups — Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely — is a freaking chasm. Al Harrington can soak up some minutes as a small-ball power forward, a role he played brilliantly for Denver two seasons ago, but he’s aging and coming off major knee issues.
The Wiz need a big man, unless they get good news soon on Okafor. Alternatively, if Okafor is healthy, Washington could continue its history of flipping mega-expiring contracts (and the cap space they promise) into players on longer-term deals; that’s how it got Okafor. Stay tuned either way on the Wiz. Speaking of which …
5. Denver Will Trade Kenneth Faried
Call this a semi-educated guess. Multiple sources around the league have reported in the last month that Denver has put out targeted feelers on Faried, gauging his value and demanding very good return. The Nuggets, for their part, deny they’ve put Faried’s name out there at all. Faried is entering the third season of his four-year rookie deal, and given his per-game numbers, he figures to get paid on his next contract. If the Nuggets believe Faried has hit his ceiling, and that his game lacks the all-around polish Brian Shaw has said he wants from his big men, it would make sense for Denver to see what it can get. Let’s be clear: Faried has a lot of value, and no trade is ever “likely”; there are just too many roadblocks to go that far.
But I’m smelling something here.
6. Roy Hibbert Will Win Defensive Player of the Year
Two years ago, it looked as if Dwight Howard would win this award every season. But trade-related inanity and injuries have blown the race wide open; could you have even imagined 24 months ago that Marc Gasol might win Defensive Player of the Year one day? Tyson Chandler won it two years ago, and he’ll remain a good candidate. Erik Spoelstra has already started the campaign for LeBron, but wings have a tough time winning this one, even if LeBron is unique as an all-court destructive force. Lots of other candidates will make noise given good health, but Hibbert’s astonishing play in the postseason — free of fouls, full of perfect “verticality” — will have everyone watching him early.
7. Denver Will Miss the Playoffs; Minnesota and Dallas Will Claim the Final Two Western Conference Spots
As I’ve written before, only seven teams over the past 20 years have won at least 55 games in one season and missed the playoffs the next. Consider this a long shot, then, especially since the Nuggies typically walk into 30 home wins every season. Manage just a 14-27 road record and, bam, you’re in the playoff race.
But there are just too many scary variables here, starting with the coaching change from George Karl to Shaw. The latter is well-respected and ready for the job, but he’s foisting a traditionalist makeover upon perhaps the league’s most idiosyncratic offense. Andre Iguodala is gone, Danilo Gallinari won’t be back for several weeks, and the front line is a giant ball of uncertainty — on both ends. Denver is also on pace to be at or near the tax threshold next season, meaning a cost-cutting move is possible.
The race for these last two spots in the Western Conference will be brutal, and will probably come down to health and which teams play best in close games. But I’m taking Dallas and Minnesota, by a hair. The Wolves have projected as a clear playoff team in each of the last two seasons, only to see a wave of injuries, historically rare in its teamwide devastation, sabotage them. The Mavs won 41 games last season despite playing in a state of near constant chaos that drained Rick Carlisle and his staff. It was a disappointment, but it was also a reminder that Carlisle + healthy Dirk Nowitzki + competent roster = a win total in the mid-40s. These guys won’t be able to defend, but they’ll score like hell, and that should be enough to squeeze out a playoff berth.
8. John Wall, Stephen Curry, and Anthony Davis Will All Make Their First All-Star Teams
Rajon Rondo’s injury and the loaded Brooklyn roster around Deron Williams and Joe Johnson leave just three All-Star locks among the Eastern Conference guards: Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, and Dwyane Wade. Wall will snag one of the remaining spots if he continues to torch the league as he did in March and April last season, when he ripped off a 23-8 line over 26 games on 47 percent shooting and with a giant pile of free throws. He’s in.
The Western Conference is more competitive, but with both Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook dealing with early-season injuries, the door is open for Curry to earn a guard or wild-card spot. He’s a sensation now, and his omission from the All-Star Game last season looks even sillier now than it did then. Bryant might win the fan vote despite his health issues, but Curry should make the team one way or the other.
The case for Davis is more difficult. The Western Conference has six huge names among potential All-Star “frontcourt” players: Durant, Nowitzki, Love, Tim Duncan, Griffin (automatic starter), and Howard. Toss in four guards (Curry, Harden, Tony Parker, Paul), and we’re down to two spots — and we haven’t even mentioned Aldridge, Randolph, or the Gasols.
So, how’s Davis getting in? The league is bracing for a breakout year — a potential 20-and-10 campaign filled with joyful highlights, improving defense, and a ton of Brow buzz. At least one of those six aforementioned big-name bigs might stay home, either because of a minutes restriction, recovery from past injuries, some unlucky health break, or just by choice. And New Orleans is hosting the game. I’m betting on the Brow being in it.
9. Houston Will Drop at Least Three Spots in the Pace Rankings, But Not Much More
Houston played at the league’s fastest pace last season, averaging about 99 possessions per game, according to NBA.com. Integrating a back-to-the-basket post player, as Howard fancies himself, slows down any team, and how dramatically Houston alters its very effective offensive attack to accommodate him is one of the biggest stories in the league.
Some slowdown is inevitable, but the coaching staff should be able to keep things humming. Howard is a fast runner when he wants to be, and Kevin McHale, though he has agitated for an inside-out attack, will work to make Howard’s post-ups quick-hitting affairs — early in the shot clock, and with minimal Charles Barkley–style load-up time. The Rockets will play small, they’ll run a lot, and Harden and Howard should work a mean pick-and-roll in semi-transition. The Lakers ranked fifth last season in pace with Howard and Pau Gasol sharing the floor a ton, and though Mike D’Antoni’s offense is built upon such speed, there’s no reason Houston should become a slowpoke this season.
10. Houston Will Trade (at Least) Omer Asik
Asik is just too valuable a trade chip to keep given his overlapping skill set with Howard. Asik’s contract calls for an onerous $15 million salary in 2014-15,1 but that’s the last year of his deal, and he’s a very valuable player — more valuable to another team than he’ll be to Houston now.
11. Brook Lopez Will Shoot 55 Percent From the Field
Only 28 players have hit this number over the past three seasons. Many of them are bigs that are basically dunkers only — Chandler, Jordan, JaVale McGee, Andre Drummond, et al. Others are role players who rarely shoot, like Nick Collison, Ryan Hollins, Greg Smith, Ronny Turiaf, and Kosta Koufos. One is LeBron, which is ridiculous and should make the other 29 teams crap their pants.
A few low-post guys have pulled this with more varied games, including Howard, Gortat, and Andrew Bynum. Lopez would not appear a great bet to join them. He’s a career 51 percent shooter who flicks up about three midrange jumpers per game, shots that go in only about 40 percent of the time.
But I’m feeling a huge season from Brookie Monster. He has put on noticeable muscle and he’s just bullying the hell out of guys for little hooks on the block. He’ll still take a lot of midrangers, but they’ll be better looks now given the surrounding talent and breathable spacing, and all the great passing in Brooklyn will get Lopez more easy dunks on tic-tac-toe cuts. Watch out.
12. Boston Will Trade Itself Down the Standings
Reality has set in for Boston fans after Gerald Wallace’s rant about effort over the weekend and a listless preseason overall. This is what an NBA offense looks like when every player on a team (save Rondo) tops out as “third option on a contender.”
But Boston will defend, despite a glaring lack of rim protection, and it will scrap its way to enough wins that eighth-seed dreams might seem plausible after 20 games. The Celtics wouldn’t mind their young guys getting to experience meaningful late-season games, but the guess here is that the front office would rather have at least one very nice first-round pick in a loaded draft. In other words, look for everyone to be on the table. Bass might be the most tradable guy, since he’s a solid player with just one year left on his contract after this season. But bigger names will come up. Jeff Green has fans around the league, and Rondo’s contract expires after next season. He has to prove his health again, but I’ve never gotten the impression Boston would be stoked to pay Rondo a max (or near-max) deal after 2015.
13.Toronto Will Shop, and Perhaps Trade, DeMar DeRozan
Anything is possible with the Raptors. They have the talent to win one of the last two or three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, and they have the flexibility to blow the whole thing up if Masai Ujiri determines that is the best course. The “blow-it-up” talk will focus on Gay and Kyle Lowry; Gay’s contract is enormous, with only a player option after this season, and Lowry’s is an affordable expiring deal.
But don’t overlook DeRozan. He has four seasons left on his contract, at $9.5 million a pop, and he has never put up a league-average player efficiency rating (though he was within half a point last season). He’s just 24 and he’s getting better; teams are curious, and his contract isn’t big enough to be a deal-killer. Keep an eye on DeRozan.
14. New York Will Rank 13th or Worse in Points Allowed Per Possession
Covered here. New York ranked 17th in points allowed per possession last season, and it’s unclear if it has the pieces to improve much despite Mike Woodson’s resolve to do so. The ceiling on this prediction jumps to only no. 13 because a few teams that ranked above New York last season — Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver — figure to drop off.
15. Paul George Will Not Make an All-NBA Team
This is a tricky case, and one that matters very much to the Pacers going forward. George made third-team All-NBA last season as a forward, and there are only nine frontcourt spots maximum on the three All-NBA teams.2 George is fantastic, one of my favorite players in the league, but there are just a ton of huge frontcourt names. Here are eight: LeBron, Durant, Dirk, Love, Griffin, Howard, Duncan, Melo. Injuries basically disqualified Love and Nowitzki last season, but they’re back now.
If Danny Granger supplants Lance Stephenson in Indiana’s starting rotation, might the voters be able to shift George into one of the six total guard slots? Maybe. But here is a list of seven guards that does not include the injured Bryant and Westbrook: Wade, Paul, Harden, Curry, Parker, Rose, Irving.
The odds are against George making another All-NBA team. The best possible outcome for Indiana is for George to get better and still get snubbed. George’s max-level extension qualifies him for the Derrick Rose Rule, under which a player can earn a rare super-max contract should he meet one of three benchmarks over his first four seasons. The only benchmark still applicable to George: making two All-NBA teams.3 The difference will amount to about $3 million per season, or $15 million over the length of George’s deal. That’s a huge number for a Pacers team already inching toward the 2014-15 tax line even before accounting a single dollar to two outgoing free agents: Stephenson and Granger.
16. DeJuan Blair Will Have a High-Profile Stint in the Mavs Rotation
Brandan Wright is dealing with a shoulder injury, Samuel Dalembert hasn’t been good for much more than half a game (if that) since 2008, and Bernard James is inexperienced. Blair should get some early-season run, and history suggests he’ll put up very good per-minute numbers — probably becoming a feel-good story in the process. But will Carlisle trust Blair’s defense enough to keep the good times rolling?
17. Oklahoma City Will Make an Unexpected Trade
The Thunder’s window is open, but Sam Presti must be scanning the roster and worrying that it’s not open nearly as wide as it was a year ago. Opportunities to win the ring are rare, and I’d expect Presti to spend this season chasing an upgrade. Here’s the predicted procession of events:
1. The Thunder put out feelers on Kendrick Perkins, hoping to dump him for a slightly more useful player, using their first-round pick as bait. If the Thunder could dump Perkins to a team with lots of cap room — Phoenix or Philly, basically — that might unlock the midsize trade exception the Thunder received in the Kevin Martin sign-and-trade.4
2. Finding no takers, the Thunder add Jeremy Lamb or some other young asset to the Perk platter.
3. Finding no takers, the Thunder switch gears, come to grips with the fact that Perkins is theirs for the long haul, and try to cobble together enough salary to snag a midlevel wing type such as Lou Williams.
If that doesn’t prove enough, the Thunder will face two very interesting questions:
At what point will they include the Mavericks’ first-round pick they got from Houston in the Harden deal? The protections on that pick are such that it may well become a juicy unprotected pick in 2018. Those are gold.
And: Would they ever consider dealing Serge Ibaka for a starry upgrade? As a reminder: A deal centered on an Ibaka-for-Aldridge swap is one of my favorite theoretical fake trades in the league.
18. Atlanta Will Be Involved in at Least One Huge Trade Rumor
This roster is built to trade. Every single player is movable. Danny Ferry likes making trades, and he has shown already — via the Joe Johnson deal and his pursuits of Howard and Paul — that he has no interest in endless Hawksian above-averageness. Paul Millsap, on a paltry two-year deal, will instantly become one of the league’s most tradable players on December 15, when most free agents who signed over the summer become trade-eligible again.
Sources all over the league say Ferry has so far rebuffed, and rather emphatically, any inquiries into Al Horford’s availability. Good on Ferry. But the Hawks will stick their beaks into something big at some point.
19. Someone Will Sign Jason Collins in January
Early January brings 10-day contracts and the drop-dead date (January 10) after which all partially guaranteed contracts become fully guaranteed for the season. Teams will cut players ahead of January 10 for some cap savings, opening up roster spots and generating some churn. A bunch of team executives have earmarked this period as the time at which one team will sign Collins for his veteran leadership, screening, and post defense — and to make sure Collins’s brave statement gets its due attention.
20. The Inflatable Mascot Routine Will Be the Highlight of All-Star Weekend
I mean, duh:
21. The Clippers Will Trade Out of the Luxury Tax
The Clips are about $2 million over the tax line, and when you’re that close, you might as well get under the thing and reap the benefits — your share of the tax revenue distribution, ducking the tax itself, and avoiding Year 1 of the repeater clock.5 This is especially true when you are paying your head coach $7 million. The Clips could limbo under the tax by waiving Maalik Wayns and tossing out Willie Green in a salary dump (likely paying for the privilege), but Wayns’s recent knee injury may result in his deal becoming fully guaranteed under the terms of a quirk in the CBA that protects injured players. Salary-dumping Green alone would cut the team’s tax bill, but it would still be over the line.
However, the Clips are already slated to be right at next year’s projected tax line, which means the team might think bigger. A name to watch: Jamal Crawford. He was essential last season, and Paul loves him. But he makes $5.225 million this season, and only $1.5 million of his slated salary for both 2014-15 and 2015-16 is guaranteed — meaning he’s easily tradable. And with the wing so loaded — Redick, Dudley, and Barnes will get heavy run, and Reggie Bullock might earn some scraps — it’s unclear how much the Clips really need Crawford. Rivers isn’t exactly fond of defensive sieves, either, though Crawford is the best ball handler among those wing players.
The Clips might just swallow the tax, but that seems unlikely. The other team to watch here is Chicago. The Bulls have paid the tax just once under Jerry Reinsdorf’s stewardship, and that was last season, when they paid a $4 million bill that brought their total payroll costs to about $78 million. The bill on this season’s team, as is, including projected tax: about $91 million, unprecedented for Reinsdorf. Is he really paying that much? It would seem obvious that the Bulls will dump at least one salary, but they held on to Richard Hamilton last season rather than give up a first-round pick to dump his contract, and they are putting on a brave face now. The easiest move would be to jettison Kirk Hinrich, but the Bulls might not be deep enough to get away with any slicing of the bench. The Bulls may really pay up this season for their best chance yet at a post-Jordan ring.
22. J.R. Smith Will Start at Least 20 Games
His agency, CAA, plays a huge role in running the team. Smith has indicated he’d like to start, and Woodson almost preemptively sounded the alarm on this issue when training camp opened. The Knicks are weird.
23. If Eric Gordon Stays Healthy and Plays Well, the Pelicans Will Look to Trade Him
New Orleans has said all the right things about Gordon: He loves it here! He’s a nice guy! He doesn’t really pout that much! He shows new players around the city! We totally believe Tyreke Evans can play a ton of minutes at small forward! I’m not quite buying it, given the Evans signing, and the fact that the Gordon-Davis-Evans–Jrue Holiday–Ryan Anderson core has these guys basically capped out through 2015-16.
Gordon’s deal is toxic now, but it doesn’t have to be if he’s healthy. He has only two seasons left after this one, and the final year on the contract is Gordon’s option. And max deals for guys coming off rookie contracts aren’t as damaging as a $20 million cap-clogger gone bad.
Gordon inspires a ton of curious talk in rival front offices. He’s not yet 25, with an impressive skill set and a disastrously bad health history. If he plays well and stays in the lineup, the Pellies might get someone to bite.
24. Golden State Will Play Less Small Ball Than Expected, and Less Zone Than Last Season
The world is assuming Golden State will play a ton of small ball after catching fire in the playoffs using Harrison Barnes at power forward. But it caught a lot of that fire against a smallish Denver team, and Mark Jackson’s track record suggests he prefers keeping two big men on the floor — whether or not that is the best strategy. I’m betting that’s the case again this year, and that small ball is a low-minutes change-of-pace thing and nothing close to a majority-minutes foundation. Also: Golden State’s zone defense was a catastrophe last season. Jackson shouldn’t need it nearly as much with Iguodala on board and Andrew Bogut (presumably) healthy.
25. The Age Limit, the D-League, and the Draft Will Enter the Spotlight
Adam Silver will take over as commissioner in February, ending a long period of transition. The union might be on course for a new executive director by then. The D-League continues to grow toward a place where each NBA team will have its own minor league club. It will be time to renew serious discussion about the age limit, hybrid roster spots that would allow for more end-of-bench shuffling between the NBA and the D-League, and even the possible addition down the line of a third round to the NBA draft.
26. The Sixers Will Win More Than Nine Games
There are just too many bad teams. The Sixers get four games apiece against Charlotte, Orlando, and Boston, plus two games each against the dregs of the Western Conference. The tank express should be able to avoid infamy and kill this story early. Then again, Brett Brown announced Monday that Nerlens Noel might not play this season. Don’t let me down, Sixers! Get to 10 wins!
27. Amar’e Stoudemire Will Log Less Than 1,000 Minutes
Like Melo, I’m just sad at this point. I’ve lost count of Stoudemire’s knee operations, and you know things are bad if Woodson is publicly discussing playing-time limits as low as 10 or 15 minutes per game. I hope this one is wrong.
28. The League As a Whole Will Break the Record, Again, for Most 3-Point Attempts
The average team jacked 1,636 triples last season, the highest number in league history. This train ain’t stopping. The record will go down again this season.
29. The Derrick Rose–Jimmy Butler–Luol Deng–Taj Gibson–Joakim Noah Lineup Will Hold Teams Below 90 Points Per 100 Possessions
I got the shakes just typing those names together. Perspective: The Pacers had the stingiest defense in the league last season, allowing 96.6 points per 100 possessions. The 6.6-point gap between Indy and the magical 90 mark is the equivalent to the space between Indy’s no. 1–ranked outfit and Philly’s 15th-ranked defense, per NBA.com.
Only eight lineups leaguewide last season logged at least 100 minutes and yielded fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions. Only three such lineups cracked 200 minutes: the Clippers’ best bench group, the Spurs’ starting lineup (how freaking scary is that!?), and the Memphis starters after the Gay trade. This Chicago group — so long, springy, and downright mean — has a great shot to slip under the 90 mark, even though it figures to see a lot of crunch-time action against opposing starters. I was tempted to call for a sub-85 figure, but that basically doesn’t happen.
30. Portland Will Finish 15th or Worse in Points Allowed Per Possession
Mostly covered here. Robin Lopez will help, Damian Lillard will get better, and Nic Batum is healthy after playing through a bunch of nagging injuries last season. Aldridge can play harder and risk foul trouble now that the Blazers have a real bench, and Terry Stotts is rejiggering the team’s pick-and-roll coverages in a smart way. But the new bench players are mostly minuses on defense, and you have to really squint to see a league-average defense here.
31. Andris Biedrins Will Make More Than Four Free Throws
I predicted last season that Biedrins would make more than one foul shot — his grand total in 2011-12 — and he came through, so I’m sticking by him to exceed his bountiful total of four from last season. Utah is thin up front behind the Derrick Favors–Enes Kanter duo, and it will give Biedrins a chance, just in case he improbably emerges as a trade candidate who might net a second-round pick. Biedrins hasn’t attempted even one preseason free throw despite getting decent run in all five of Utah’s games, but he’s saving himself for the regular season.
32. This Season Is Going to Be a Ton of Fun
I went into last season absolutely sure Miami would win the title, and I felt even more strongly when the playoffs opened. This season? I’ve no clue. It feels like the first time since the start of 2011-12 that I might take the field over the Heat. The Eastern Conference is better at the top, and whichever team survives the Western Conference — the equivalent to beating four video-game bosses in a row — will be a powerhouse. And we’ve no clue which team that will be. You could select any of San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Houston, and the Clippers and I wouldn’t object. Heck, you could predict another mega-leap for Golden State and I wouldn’t think you were nuts.
The title feels more truly in play than it has been in a while. That unpredictability, plus what should be a fun trade market, will make this season a doozy. One more week …