We’re just a week away from the season — it’s prediction time. Don’t bother bookmarking this page, because I’m deleting it as soon as one of these babies goes horribly wrong. The idea here is to try a bit of a different direction, moving away from predictions for exact records, playoff seeds (many of which you can ferret out here), and individual awards. Here goes:
Miami Will Lead the League in Points Per Possession
The crazy lockout-shortened schedule is over, and some of the league’s very best teams are carrying over most of their rotations from last year’s compressed season. The result: We could have a half-dozen truly great offensive teams among Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Lakers, the Clippers, and Denver. The Heat have ranked third and eighth in points per possession during LeBron’s first two years in Miami, and periods of sluggish, uncommitted offense have been the team’s weak spot over those years — especially in the regular season. But the Heat are poised to develop into a frightening offensive juggernaut this season after realizing midway through the playoffs that LeBron should be something like a full-time power forward. Sticking him on the low block and waiting for help serves as the perfect, simple antidote to the inevitable periods of stagnation that cripple a motion-based offense during the doldrums of the season and within individual games.
Miami has now armed James with perhaps the very best 3-point shooter ever in Ray Allen, who figures to get more chances with his feet set instead of having to stop on a dime after running around a series of picks. Toss in LeBron’s unburdening and an extra year of seasoning, and this team could be terrifying.
Obstacles abound. Allen is old, Mike Miller is always hurt, Rashard Lewis may be finished as a productive NBA player, and Shane Battier was ice-cold all of last season ? right up until he caught fire. Dwyane Wade’s knee might act up again, and the Eastern Conference in recent seasons has been the stingier defensive conference, skewing the points scored and allowed ratings a bit. But if enough of these variables flip Miami’s way, they have a shot to lead a very competitive field atop the league’s team-scoring race.
The Thunder Will Re-sign James Harden Before October 31 for Less Than the Max and Keep Their Options Open
I’ve been surprised by the number of people around the league who think there is a better-than-zero chance Oklahoma City deals Harden at some point during the season, but this remains the most likely outcome. Inking Harden to something a hair below the post-rookie max would leave the Thunder with about $78 million committed to half a roster in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, not including salaries for the other half or (alternatively) small charges for empty roster spots. That means full payrolls in the neighborhood of $85 million. Even assuming a faster-than-expected jump in the tax line, currently at $70.3 million, the Thunder would still be at an additional tax bill of between $16 million and $24 million for two straight years under the harsh new rates that kick in next season.
Are they willing to spend $100 million on payroll, even with rumblings the Thunder might pay into the league’s new revenue-sharing system rather than receive aid from it? Slicing Kendrick Perkins’s salary ($9 million in 2013-14 and $9.65 million the next season) via amnesty would ease things so dramatically the Thunder have no choice but to consider it — especially if Kevin Durant looks more comfortable playing power forward this season and Perry Jones enables that sort of lineup versatility down the road. For instance: Just removing Perkins would leave Oklahoma City with about $68 million committed to seven players in 2014-15. Add in some cheap first-round picks and smart minimum-salary deals, and the Thunder could wiggle down to a manageable tax bill — the kind of bill lots of small-market teams have paid when presented with a window of title contention. Given that Harden has talked publicly about sacrificing for the team, as Russell Westbrook and Ibaka did before him, striking an extension soon would seem the safest bet on the board here.
With the amnesty option in the bag, and no tax money due this season, re-signing Harden now makes the most sense — and doesn’t prevent Oklahoma City from exploring future trades. Dealing Harden for a wing shooter who can play defense and handle a bit, plus draft picks, makes some sense in theory; Harden’s best skill is his ballhandling and pick-and-roll creativity, and he doesn’t get to use it to the optimal degree playing alongside two ball dominators. There’s a reason Harden comes off the bench despite quite obviously being one of his team’s three best players. Making that kind of deal while on the precipice of a title would be almost unprecedented, but the “Thunder model” itself is basically unprecedented. The odds are always against a trade like this, especially during the season, but you can bet the Thunder will kick it around.
Denver’s Defense Will Rank 13th or Worse in Points Allowed Per Possession
The Nuggets were 21st last season, and they figure to jump, with Andre Iguodala aboard and at least a couple of teams who finished above them (Orlando, Atlanta) set for some slippage. But I don’t yet trust this front line enough to project a leap into the top 10, where any team really needs to be if it wants to seriously contend for a title. Kenneth Faried is undersized and (understandably) learning the subtleties of NBA big-man defense. He’s learning them alongside an unproven (but promising) crew of centers, the most promising of whom, JaVale McGee, also happens to be the most unproven. Iguodala is one of the league’s great lockdown defenders, and Denver’s abundance of rangy wings will allow George Karl to play small a ton when matchups allow — and, knowing Karl, even when they don’t.
But they’ll still be switch-happy and small when Andre Miller (a favorite around these parts) is in the game, and the front line — the most important ingredient in any defense — needs more time.1
The Market for Big Expiring Contracts Will Be Disappointing
It always is. Remember when Hornets fans speculated feverishly about what Peja Stojakovic’s expiring contract might bring, only to find out in November 2010 that it brought only Jarrett Jack and two journeymen — and cost them Jerryd Bayless as bait for the Raptors?
There are at least 15 expiring contracts worth $8.5 million or more, and you might be able to add a couple of other guys with player options or early termination clauses related to next season (Monta Ellis and Andrei Kirilenko). Utah alone has three such contracts tied to Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Mo Williams. Those are all core players on a team with semi-serious ambitions this season, though one that also has some potential crowding issues in the frontcourt. Likewise, three expiring deals are tied to max-level players their incumbent teams want to keep and re-sign (Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, and Dwight Howard). Several others — David West, Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson, Lamar Odom — are key players on teams that fancy themselves contenders or on the verge of becoming contenders.
That leaves only a few big expiring contracts that might be truly in play: Chris Kaman ($8 million), Jose Calderon (about $10.6 million), Josh Smith ($12.5 million), Corey Maggette ($10.9 million), Devin Harris ($8.5 million), and the most intriguing one of all, Kevin Martin ($12.4 million) of the wheeling-and-dealing Rockets.
Some of these might get moved, but don’t expect a massive return — especially as teams outside the small field of would-be contenders cling faster to their future first-round picks as precious means of acquiring cheap talent under a new collective bargaining deal. Most of those contenders have dealt away enough future firsts already and/or spent so much on payroll this season that they’d need to send a boatload of salary to take on a sizable contract. The Nuggets have a $13 million trade exception left over from the Nene deal, but filling even half of it would take them over the tax line, something they want to avoid. Extending Ty Lawson will take them close to next season’s projected tax, meaning the addition of any long-term salary might be a no-no. (Masai Ujiri, their GM, told me at summer league in Las Vegas that their current payroll level is just about what their ownership has budgeted.)2
And finding rebuilding teams ready to take on long-term salary is going to be very difficult, unless the player involved is just perfect. The Cavs and Suns have the cap room to work as third-team facilitators, but they’ll demand a price — probably a first-round pick. There are some deals out there that make sense, especially if particular teams go south (i.e., Dallas, with a boatload of expiring assets), but finding the right match is going to be tough.
This Will Be It for Memphis
This hurts. I love this team. Marc Gasol is one of the world’s great all-around big men, picking out cutters, moving his feet on defense, and nailing those 17-foot non-jumpers (standers?). Tony Allen is an all-time NBA character, a jarringly aggressive perimeter defender whose bench antics alone are worth the price of a ticket (or League Pass). They are physical bullies who have somehow thrived despite ignoring the 3-point line as if they played in Utah.
But if we get to midseason and it appears the Thunder and Lakers have passed them by, look for Memphis to start trying to find a taker for Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph. It won’t be easy, especially in-season, for all the reasons outlined above. But flipping one of those guys for payroll relief would set up Memphis to be under the tax line next season and potentially under the cap the summer after that. A deal that sends one of these guys to Utah for Jefferson’s expiring deal remains one of the intriguing fake trades out there, with the Jazz, holding essentially no long-term veteran salary, getting a foundational piece at a position of need and (if it’s Randolph) ensuring one top-shelf veteran big remains on the roster going forward.
Randolph just turned 31, by the way. It feels like he should be older. And that’s the intriguing thing about Memphis. Gasol is only 27, and both Mike Conley and Gay are in their mid-20s. This is not an aging core, yet. There’s an argument to be made for keeping this group together, seeing if the Lakers get old fast and/or the Thunder deal an All-Star, and seizing a chance to step into the void. But with tax concerns and a potentially crippling lack of reliable outside shooting, I’m worried about the permanence of this Grizz core. It’s no accident Memphis had its best postseason run with two legit wing floor-spacers in the rotation (O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier). They’ll need to find that kind of spacing this year, and, in a connected issue, have Gay advance as a creator and defender who guards with consistent urgency. The pending sale of the team to Robert Pera and a star-studded group of minority owners is a bit of wild card, since we’ve yet to learn how willing Pera is to pay a stiff tax bill.
And now, some quick-hitters:
Omer Asik and Andrei Kirilenko Will Play Up to Their Contracts
They were mocked by the insta-pundits on Twitter, but don’t be shocked if we look at both these contracts as fair deals within a matter of weeks. The Rockets paying $8.3 million per season to a guy who has never averaged even 15 minutes per game seems absurd, but Asik looks to be one of the half-dozen or so best defenders in the league. Chicago’s defense reached borderline unprecedented levels of stinginess whenever Asik played over the past two seasons, and though some of that had to do with Taj Gibson and facing opposing benches with regularity, Asik was a giant factor. He’s huge, mobile, and smart, capable of defending at an A-plus level from above the foul line all the way to the rim. He’s also a legitimate candidate to lead the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, and has looked in the preseason like a shockingly confident offensive player — including as a passer on the move in pick-and-rolls.
Kirilenko’s game was slipping when he left the NBA in 2011, but even that version of Kirilenko was a solid two-way player designed for a motion-based system like Rick Adelman’s. A year in Russia appears to have rejuvenated him. Kevin Love’s early-season absence offers both an opportunity — for numbers and power forward minutes — and the potential for a very slow start, since the Wolves may have to rely too heavily on Kirilenko for offense. But this guy can do everything, and even if he isn’t quite worth $10 million, he’ll play closely enough to that level to make the contract a non-issue — at least for this season. If he opts out and re-signs at that number, sopping up some long-term cap space, we’ll talk.
The Hawks Will Be Playing in the No. 4–vs.–No. 5 Playoff Series
I’ve expounded enough on the Hawks already, so I’ll go easy here. The Eastern Conference has a clear top three in Miami, Boston, and Indiana, so this prediction assumes that the forgotten Hawks outperform two among the intriguing New York–Brooklyn–Philadelphia crew. They’ve got the goods to do it, with two All-Star–caliber big men who do just about everything, an army of shooters, and three creative pick-and-roll ball handlers (Devin Harris, Lou Williams, and Jeff Teague) with distinct individual styles.
Steve Nash and Kevin Durant Will Join the 50-40-90 Club
A grand total of seven players have pulled this off3 in a minimum of 1,000 minutes played, and it has happened in the same season just once before — in 2007-08, when both Nash and Jose Calderon made the cut. Nash has done this four times, twice as often as Larry Bird, the only other player to pull it off more than once. Nash should get a ton of open shots in Los Angeles, and he’ll be able to ration his attempts even more wisely given the ridiculous supporting talent around him. I’m almost giddy enough to predict a 55-45-90 season, even though that’s basically impossible, and Nash figures to spend the early part of the season finding the right balance in his game.
The Durant prediction is based on nothing, really, other than the fact that the guy just keeps getting better along with the rest of his young teammates. He’s hit all the 40 and 90 marks separately in individual seasons, and he barely missed the 50 percent mark last season, when he shot 49.6 percent. The odds of anyone doing this are slim, but Durant seems bound to push for it at least once or twice in his career. He shot well last season even while taking a much larger share of Oklahoma City’s pick-and-roll attack. With a full training camp and a better grasp on that off-the-dribble game, he could easily be in the 50-40-90 ballpark.
Bonus Lakers prediction: Metta World Peace, in fantastic shape, will shoot at least 38 percent on corner 3-pointers. He hit 39 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in 2009-10 and 2010-11 before falling off horribly last season, per NBA.com.
Gerald Green Will Average in Double Figures and Emerge As One of the Season’s Feel-good Stories
If he were a power forward, the Pacers would be set. Alas, he’s a wing player on a team with two entrenched wing starters in Danny Granger and Paul George, meaning it’ll be hard for Green to get the crunch-time reps that generate Sixth Man of the Year votes. Harden and Ginobili are going to monopolize the top two spots on that ballot, anyway.
But Green can score, and with Indiana having taken a slight step down at backup point guard, with D.J. Augustin in Darren Collison’s spot, the Pacers will need Green to score in bulk on bench units. He’ll take some bad shots and get lost on defense here and there, but the good should outweigh the bad.
A word on the Pacers: Fans love to toss Danny Granger’s name into trade talks, with a Granger-Millsap swap perhaps the most popular proposed fake trade in the entire league in various two-, three-, and four-team forms. The idea would be to move George to small forward, wipe away Granger’s salary ($13 million this season, $14 million next), upgrade the big-man rotation (a huge weak spot last season after Roy Hibbert and David West), and send Granger to a team that needs scoring.
I’m not betting on anything like this happening. Granger is in that sweet spot where his contract is short enough for Indiana to hold it without regret, but also large enough for rebuilding teams to blanch — especially since Granger is 29 and clearly not a no. 1 option on a good team. This kind of deal also puts enormous pressure on George, who has major potential but also spends entire halves as a pretty passive offensive player. He’s ready for more, but is he ready to be the no. 1 perimeter option on a team that wants to contend, fill its arena, and avoid regressing even a little bit?
The one caveat: Teams that didn’t think they could make any noise this summer may eventually shrug and look at deals that expire after next season — like Granger’s — as a sort of pre-expiring contract they’d be willing to take on, provided they don’t have to surrender much value. After all, teams starting next season must spend at least 90 percent of the increased cap figure on players, up from 85 percent now. Indiana would obviously want something of value, so any trade like that would require at least three teams.
Nikola Pekovic Will Put Up All-Star Numbers, Become a Borderline Household Name
He won’t make the team, not with all the starry big men in the Western Conference, and he’ll never be able to protect the rim at an All-Star level. He also won’t shoot 56 percent with both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio out with injuries. But Pekovic scored as efficiently, and as often, with Rubio on the bench last season as he did with Rubio on the court (the same was true of Love), and he figures to work long stretches as Minnesota’s top offensive option to start the season. He averaged about 17 points and nine rebounds per game once he started getting heavy minutes last season, and he led the league in offensive rebounding rate. Pekovic looks to be in great shape, and he’s going to put up huge numbers.
The Bobcats Will Become League Pass Darlings
They are going to be bad, obviously. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is going to play his ass off, and Mike Dunlap, their new head coach, has a history of using innovative and semi-gimmicky defenses — and having his teams execute them fiercely, or else. They’ve been pressing here and there in the preseason, and playing ultra-small, with Kidd-Gilchrist at power forward. Bismack Biyombo has the potential to be one of those rare players who reach must-watch status because of defensive highlights (remember this game-saving block?), and Byron Mullens might set the record for most 3s per minute from a big man.
Jared Sullinger Will Cement His Hall of Fame Case
Wait that feels premature.
Jonas Jerebko Will Be Detroit’s Best Small Forward
Jerebko played mostly power forward this season, and he may well work best as a stretch 4 who hits enough 3s, cuts hard, and defends well enough. He’ll get time there, too, with Detroit working in two project centers beside budding All-Star Greg Monroe. But Jerebko may well be the best small forward on a roster of oddly fitting parts. Tayshaun Prince is in decline, and last season worked too often as if he were a legit no. 1 option. Maggette is Maggette — a free throw machine who does little else, on either end. Detroit fans openly hate Charlie Villanueva, and it’s unclear if he can even get on the floor in the NBA now. The Pistons have no clue what position Austin Daye plays anymore.
Andris Biedrins Will Make More Than One Foul Shot
Seems like a safe bet right?
Rajon Rondo Will Set Career Highs in Scoring and Free Throw Attempts
Rondo earned 3.3 free throws per 36 minutes last season, still a low number for a starting point guard of his caliber, but much higher than the troubling 1.9-per-36 from the season before. Rondo is a pass-first guy at heart, and the Celtics’ collective (and appropriate) tendency to pace themselves might work against Rondo making this prediction come true.
But Rondo seems to understand that Boston’s offense, its undoing for three years running now, needs more consistent scoring from him. The easiest way for that to come, night-to-night, is from the foul line. Boston is never going to be an elite scoring team, but Rondo and the newcomers are going to have to drag this team’s offense back onto the right side of “league average” in order to give its defense — a good bet to lead the league in points allowed per possession in any season — a real chance at playing for the title. He’s ready for the challenge, and though getting hyped up about preseason play is usually a fool’s errand, there’s no denying that the presence of Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, and Jason Terry has at least given Boston a startling jump in dynamism and speed.
The Magic Will Trade J.J. Redick
He’s too good and on an expiring midsize contract that too easily fits into trade scenarios to waste away on a lottery-bound Orlando team. Arron Afflalo is the shooting guard of the present and future, and though Orlando need all the help on the wing they can get, the team should be able to flip Redick for an asset before the trade deadline. Memphis and Denver would seem like workable trade destinations, though the precise cap mechanics are tricky for the Grizzlies. Redick would work as a complementary piece almost anywhere; finding the right asset for Orlando is the only trick.
The Spurs, Bucks, and Raptors Will All Make at Least One Minor Deal
All three are overcrowded on the front line, with players both young and cheap that could become expendable if teammates around them develop at a certain rate. DeJuan Blair, Ed Davis, and someone from among Milwaukee’s front-line crew of youngsters should be movable in exchange for some minor savings or a future draft pick. The Spurs also have an abundance of backup guards, with Patty Mills, Gary Neal, Cory Joseph, and Nando De Colo all showing early flashes of minutes-worthy play. (Neal, of course, has been a mainstay of Gregg Popovich’s rotation for two seasons.) San Antonio is about $1 million under the tax line, so they don’t absolutely have to move any of these guys. But if they get something, even a second-rounder, it’s worth exploring.
The Cavaliers Will Stand Pat
The Cavs spent last season debating whether to maintain a clean cap sheet and hoard lottery picks, or use all that cap flexibility to nab a major player. They dabbled in the Andrew Bynum/Dwight Howard trade market, with the idea of working as a third-team facilitator and snagging Bynum as a long-term partner for Kyrie Irving. Bynum is off the table now, and it’s hard to identify another true centerpiece that might hit the trade market and knock Cleveland off the patient path.
There will always be a market for Anderson Varejao — he only just turned 30, he’s on an affordable contract that expires after 2013-14 (and is only partially guaranteed for that season), and he’s exactly the kind of guy any team should want mentoring young players. Deal him if the bounty is right, sure, but even that likely won’t damage the Cavs’ long-term flexibility.
Bonus Cavs prediction: Irving will make the All-Star team and emerge this season as one of the 15-20 best players in the NBA, with almost no debate.
Phoenix Will Be the League’s Most Disappointing Team
I’m with Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus on this one: A team that looks bad defensively on paper and lacks a top-25 (and perhaps even top-50) player is going to struggle. There are some good pieces here, and the Goran Dragic–Marcin Gortat combination is decent down the middle on defense. But Gortat is a step below the league’s top defensive big men, and Phoenix is going to give huge minutes to at least two major defensive liabilities in Michael Beasley and the wily but declining Luis Scola. On the other end, it’s hard to see anything better than a league-average offense here.
No one is expecting Phoenix to make the playoffs, but the notion that they’ve rebuilt on the fly with a solid post–Steve Nash foundation is a bit overblown. The bigger picture is fine, though. The cap sheet is clean enough to chase a max-level deal as soon as this summer, and the training staff is as good as advertised (with more innovations coming this season).
Bonus disappointment prediction: I am gravely worried about the Kings, even though they’ve upgraded the personnel with a usable combo forward (James Johnson, taken off Toronto’s hands in a nice little trade), a high-volume/low-efficiency scoring guard (Aaron Brooks), and an athletic addition to the big rotation in Thomas Robinson. The Kings have some pretty big names for a lottery team, and I’m a fan of Keith Smart’s general principles and work ethic as a coach. But I have never gotten the sense that these guys are ready to play anything approximating disciplined, on-a-string NBA defense.
Earl Clark Will Have a Cup of Coffee in the Lakers’ Rotation
He’s out indefinitely with a groin strain, so file this as “unlikely” in the short term. But the Lakers’ shallow bench will be a story all season, and Clark, when healthy, is an active and interesting piece on defense — a sort of counterweight to Antawn Jamison. Clark has contributed essentially nothing on offense in his very brief NBA career, but he has a chance to make the kind of noisy and temporary splash in Laker Land with a couple of unexpected defensive performances.
The Thunder Will Shop Eric Maynor if Reggie Jackson Plays Well
Maynor, a restricted free agent in the offseason, is a near-inevitable casualty of the Harden luxury tax outlined above. He’s a valuable piece in a league always scrounging for backup point guards, and if Jackson looks ready for minutes, the Thunder will put out feelers.
No One Will Get Suspended for Flopping
The NBA does not want things to get to this level, even for a potential individual scapegoat, and so they probably won’t follow through on this promise. It takes at least six offenses for anyone to face a floppage suspension, and even the most egregious offenders should be able to dial it back after the league publicly calls them out for five overacting performances.
The Eight Eastern Conference Playoff Teams Will Be
In no particular order: Miami, Boston, Indiana, Atlanta, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Toronto and Milwaukee will push hard for the no. 8 seed but fall short.
Bonus Raptors prediction: The Raptors will make a push for a top-10 ranking in points allowed per possession, a remarkable potential turnaround for a team that was an embarrassing dead last — with a bullet — just two seasons ago. Dwane Casey got this crew up to no. 14 last season, and with Kyle Lowry onboard to hound opposing point guards as the young bigs get more experience under Casey, another jump is possible. Integrating Jonas Valanciunas and reintegrating Andrea Bargnani will present some early challenges, and the Raptors might give up some more easy points if they remain committed to pushing the pace and shooting 3s. But this is a team to watch.
The Eight Western Conference Playoff Teams Will Be
San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver, Utah, and I’m copping out on the last one until we learn more about recovery times for Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, and Andrew Bogut. If Nowitzki were healthy, I’d have Dallas as a solid no. 7 in the Western Conference, with Utah battling the Warriors and Timberwolves in a fun race for no. 8. Instead, I’m upgrading the Jazz, downgrading the Mavs, and leaving the last spot up for grabs.
Chicago Will Extend Taj Gibson Before October 31
A no-brainer the moment they let Asik walk to Houston. The more interesting dilemma comes later. Giving Gibson a market-value deal will leave Chicago capped out through 2014-15, even factoring in the expiration of Luol Deng’s mega-deal after next season — and Deng, of course, is a solid player and beloved Tom Thibodeau favorite. Gibson would get serious Defensive Player of the Year consideration were he a starter, and he may butt his way into both that conversation and the Sixth Man of the Year debate this season. If he develops enough on offense — doubtful, perhaps, since he’s already 27 — will that lead Chicago to dangle Carlos Boozer, or even consider using the amnesty provision on Boozer, when doing so has more of a chance to affect the team’s cap flexibility?
Thaddeus Young Will Play the Most Power Forward Minutes in Philadelphia
For now, this is a wish more than a hope. Doug Collins seems intent on going super-big, with Spencer Hawes as the starting power forward alongside Andrew Bynum. And if Hawes plays like he did at the start of last season, he could provide the floor spacing and dynamic passing that might fit better with Bynum’s deep post game. But I can’t shake the feeling that Young remains the best power forward on the roster, despite the team’s concerns about his rebounding and size, and Young’s own stated desire to play some small forward if doing so earns him more minutes. Young hasn’t yet developed a reliable jumper or off-the-bounce game, but he nonetheless remains an effective offensive player who should step up his off-ball cutting with Bynum in the low block. And he’s a terror on defense, blowing up pick-and-rolls out toward mid-court without running himself out of position or going off-balance.
The competition will be tough, but Young stands out amid a group of close-to-the-rim bigs in Bynum, Hawes, Kwame Brown, and the very solid Lavoy Allen.
The 2012-13 NBA Champion Will Be
Check back next week.