Tuesday, December 18, 2012

5 Bold Predictions for the NBA Season

As a huge NBA fan, I was happy to see the 2012-2013 iteration of the NBA season get under way a few months ago without the lockout-related shenanigans of last year. While its debatable whether the labor compromise actually solved the fundamental areas of concern for owners (namely, letting small markets keep star players and keeping their own GMs from doing anything too stupid), the sensible return to basketball last year and subsequent thrilling playoffs built up interest for this NBA season to its highest level in my lifetime.

(Note: this is in stark contrast to the NHL labor dispute where, despite an entire missed season just 8 years ago, somehow Gary Bettman wasn't smart enough to outlaw 17 YEAR CONTRACTS worth over $100 million dollars; meaning, BECAUSE hockey stupidly locked everybody out 8 years ago and the general population [such as myself] stopped caring, thus steadily decreasing fan interest and team revenues, team general managers [who pretty much universally can't be trusted at this point] could continue to torpedo the league with, once again, 17 YEAR CONTRACTS, bankrupt the teams, and cause a lockout. Hockey lost enough fans in 2004 and they sure aren't getting them back any time soon - other American leagues which will soon pass the NHL in interest level include the MLS, the UFC, the PGA Tour, the WTA, the WWE, Arena Football, the Dew Tour, the PBA, Bassmasters, horse racing, the ESPN Timbersports Series, college hockey, college volleyball, college curling, club ultimate frisbee, college ultimate frisbee, and watching President Obama eat sandwiches in slow motion. Just further proof that David Stern placed Bettman in power to secure his legacy as the best current commissioner [almost by default at this point considering the strong PR work Roger Goodell has done recently, and of course the fact that Bud Selig is a large, floppy hand puppet]. But I digress.)

In the first quarter of the season there have been some pleasant surprises (the Warriors, the Magic, the Clippers, Charlotte's first 12 games, Damian Lillard, Anderson Varejao) and some unpleasant surprises (the Sixers, the Celtics, the Pacers, Charlotte's last 12 games, anything involving the Wizards, key injuries to a bevy of all-stars, Andre Igoudala, Dwight Howard). It is clearly too early for mere mortals to discern anything meaningful about the season, but because I am no mere mortal, I can already see these five (unlikely) events coming true as the season wears on:

1. Memphis will NOT finish as a top-4 seed in the Western Conference.

I wish I had written this article three weeks ago when the Grizz had rolled to a 12-2 start, had handily beaten Miami, OKC and the Knicks in three straight games, and had everybody thinking they would sprint to the #1 seed, roll straight to the conference finals, and have a real shot at knocking off the Heat (if they make it that far...but more on this later) and winning the title. Since then, they have cooled off a bit to 16-6, but still sit comfortably in the top 4 seeds in the West. Yes, Memphis has played good basketball lately, and yes, they just hired John Hollinger, who will probably tell coach Hollins that playing Wayne Ellington extended minutes has rarely worked out for teams in the past. Memphis also plays good defense (#1 in scoring defense allowing a mere 90.0 PPG), which is generally a recipe for playoff success.

However, in my mind, there are two problems with Memphis which will prevent them from getting a top-4 seed when its all said and done. First of all, their offense (despite lip service to "improved three-point shooting") is still very one-dimensional: they rank 29th in the league in three-point attempts, and while they are making those at a strong 36.6% clip, much of that was buoyed by some strong early games, notably Ellington's 9-three explosion at Miami. While it can be effective to bang it down low with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, eventually teams will realize what is going on and cram the paint so tightly Memphis will have to make threes to win. Just ask Denver, who by the way is 2-0 against Memphis this year, how a 100% paint offense is working out for them so far. Even if they do keep banging away down low, let's play a brief player comparison game and see if a dominant post player is really an indicator of success this year:

Player A: 17.2 PPG, .498 FG%, 12.7 RPG (4.9 ORB), 1.2 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 20.2 PER
Player B: 18.2 PPG, .579 FG%, 11.9 RPG (3.7 ORB), 2.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.6 BPG, 20.7 PER

Both players are putting up all-star numbers, with a moderate edge to player A on the glass, a moderate edge to player B in effeciency, and a strong edge in paint protection to player B who is averaging nearly 4 times as many blocks. But player A, as you may have guessed, is Randolph, who people claim is "back to his 2011 form" and is having an amazing year. Player B, on the other hand, is Dwight Howard, who despite superior numbers is taking all kinds of criticism for his poor play to this point. Howard admittedly has a higher standard than Randolph to live up to, but the point is, Randolph scoring 18 a night will not be enough to carry the Grizz unless his teammates step up to the plate.

The second factor working against Memphis is the super-stacked Western elite. You can already put San Antonio and OKC into the top 4 in permanent marker, and you can probably put the Clippers in with at least a pretty dark pencil. Memphis is in the 4 spot right now, but they are being pursued hotly by Golden State (showing dramatic improvement with Curry finally healthy), Minnesota (doing just fine and just now getting two all-star caliber players healthy), Denver (overcoming a brutal early schedule with the worst home-road split since the '85-'86 Bulls)...and oh yeah, the Lakers! Anybody who thinks LA won't end up as a strong-to-possibly-elite team in the West is kidding themselves. The hole is deep right now but Nash and Gasol won't be out forever. Memphis will be hard-pressed to maintain their footing, and if they are unable to do so, many worthy contenders are ready to take their place.

2. At least 9 Western Conference Teams will win 47 or more games; at least 11 Western Conference Teams will win 42 or more games.

One of the semi-hidden storylines from the season so far is the total destruction of the Eastern Conference by the Western Conference (although Jon Schumann covers it nicely in his weekly power rankings column for NBA.com). This continues a trend from seasons past, but many pundits believed this to be the year when the East would have a number of contending teams and maybe, just maybe, wouldn't get squished quite as badly as in prior years. Well, to quote Kunu from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, "That's not it at all." The West is continuing to dominate this year, meaning that once again, a quality Western squad will miss out on the playoffs while an undeserving Eastern team will probably squeak in and get their clocks cleaned by New York or Miami in the first round (last year Philadelphia did win as a #8 seed, but that was definitely the exception to the rule; you may remember Chicago had a pretty decent player go out in game 1, and even including that series, there have been a grand total of 2 first-round upsets in the East in the last 5 years, with the other one being a 4-5 series in 2010).

However, even given the recent history of Western dominance, only once from 2003-2011 (excluding last year due to a shortened season) did a team win at least 47 games and miss the playoffs. So why do I think it will happen again this year? Basically you can classify teams into 5 categories (or 4, or 7, or however the hell many you want, but I am going with 5 and I don't care what you think): Elite/Title Contenders, Tough Outs, Fringe Playoff Squads, Teams that don't Completely Suck, and Teams that do Completely Suck. There is room for fluctuation between now and the end of the year, but for now, the breakdown by conference looks like this:

Elite/Title Contenders
West: San Antonio, OKC, LA Clippers
East: Miami, NY Knicks

Tough Outs
West: Memphis, Golden State, Minnesota, Denver, LA Lakers (it pains me, but it is true), Utah, possibly Dallas
East: Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn (you aren't talking me into the Pacers here)

Fringe Playoff Squads
West: Possibly Dallas (too early to tell if OJ Mayo is legit), Houston, possibly Portland...ok probably not Portland
East: Indiana, Philly, possibly Milwaukee (easy schedule and negative point differential so far, and lets be honest, they have Monta Ellis AND Brandon Jennings)

Teams that don't Completely Suck
West: Portland....[crickets]......
East: Possibly Milwaukee, Orlando, Cleveland (Irving is the truth)

Teams that do Completely Suck
West: Phoenix, New Orleans, Sacramento
East: Charlotte, Washington, Toronto, Detroit

Looking at the landscape above, a few trends stand out. First, the West has a whole lot of teams that in any normal alignment should make the playoffs - 9.5 by my count. Typically, Solid Playoff Squads win 48-53 games, easily make the playoffs, and give the top seeds a run for their money whenever they meet in a series. This year, however, that would not appear to be the case in the West: there are a lot of these teams, so it will be tough for all of them to win 50 games (notably in the Northwest Division, with one Elite team, three Tough Outs, and the surprisingly frisky Trail Blazers), and impossible for all of them to get in, because again, there are 9 of them. Ordinarily you would expect one or two of these teams to drop to the 44-45 win level, but a second trend from this year is the West also has some complete garb teams in Phoenix, the New Orleans Pelicans (sans Anthony Davis), and Sacramento. Beating up on these teams will be good for a few extra wins for everybody else in the West, pushing the ninth seed up to about 47 wins.

On a related note, Houston is at best the 11th best team in the conference! This is preposterous considering they have a top-15 player, two other plus starters, Chandler Parsons (in my view highly underrated), and a whole host of role-players who play hard and do the little things that often lead to victory. This team has a positive differential so far, but realistically has no shot at the playoffs unless Asik miraculously grows 6 inches and develops a 18-foot jumper (or really even a 10-foot jumper) in the next 2 months. The 10 teams above them should all easily be over .500 (barring injuries to Nowitzki and Mayo/Curry and Lee/Al Jefferson or a major, major shake-up with the Lakers), and Houston has a strong chance to do so as well. They already beat the Knicks twice for goodness sake. In the Western war zone, at least 3 teams that could have made the Eastern playoff bracket will be on the outside looking in come April. Speaking of the East...

3. Neither Boston nor Indiana will advance past the first round of the playoffs.

"Wait, I thought you just spent 700 words breaking down how badly the East was doing this year?" Well, you would be right, but a big reason for that is the poor performance of teams that everybody expected to do extremely well, namely Philly, Boston, and Indiana. This is probably the boldest of my 5 predictions, especially because both of these teams are missing key contributors from their 2012 teams (Avery Bradley for Boston and Danny Granger for Indiana) who should be back come playoff time. But in each case, the problems seem to go deeper than just one player: Boston has a below-average offense despite Rondo's incredible creation skills (although he frequently seems more interesting in getting the flashy assist than the open layup or jumper) with a solid defense but one nowhere near the level from last year, and Indiana defends well but has an offense far worse than Boston's so far.

In both cases, the return of the injured players should help each team out a little bit. Boston could certainly use Bradley, who is a decent outside shooter, to avoid playing Courtney Lee in any situation, and Granger obviously is one of the best Pacers and should provide a significant boost on the offensive end. Additionally, as mentioned above, there is a lot of flotsam in the East this year, so simply by virtue of being not Charlotte, Washington, Toronto or Detroit, these teams should have zero problem finishing above .500, which (again, since the East is garb) will be more than enough to make the playoffs.

But there is where the problems come in. Even though the bottom of the East is looking terrible, the upper crust is actually not bad at all. Miami is obviously elite, New York (with Carmelobot now fully equipped with the "Defense" software upgrade) is in the same league, Chicago is once again over .500 WITHOUT the fourth best player on the planet, Brooklyn has spent their way to the top, and Atlanta has somehow built a completely cohesive roster while attempting to do the opposite (save their way to the bottom and a high draft choice). At least 4 of these 5 teams are clearly better than Boston and Indiana right now; the fifth is Chicago, who will almost certainly be better come playoff time. More remarkably (and perhaps more importantly), each of these teams has a distinct style they want to play: Miami will overpower you with LeBron, the artist formerly known as Dwayne Wade, and floor spacing; New York will do the same but with more running, shooting and arthritic knees; Chicago uses suffocating defense and ball movement on offense; Brooklyn runs a steady diet of pick-and-roll sets, rebounds extremely well, and has 3 isolation scorers when the offense breaks down, and Atlanta has two of the best passing big men in the game running a pseudo-triangle in the half-court, though they prefer the fast break. Boston does this to an extent (really running a very similar offense to Brooklyn with a PG who shoots less), but so far they have been unable to keep up with the elite teams. Watching Indiana, you really have no idea what they are trying to do.

In any case, no matter how it plays out (unless these teams end up in the 4-5 matchup, in which case I am claiming victory anyways), both Boston and Indiana should be road underdogs in the first round. If either of them end up in the 7 or 8 slot, I'd say they have almost no chance against NY or Miami. Even if they avoid them, they could still run into Chicago or Brooklyn, who will both be pretty fearsome come playoff time themselves. It won't be an easy road for these two teams no matter the matchup.

4. Chicago will win at least 2 games in the Conference Finals.

Now that we have summarily dismissed two supposed Eastern Conference "challengers," the logical next step is to predict who will actually win the conference. Sadly, because I am not actually Nostradamus, I can't quite go out on that sort of limb in the East (and I won't even make an attempt at doing so in the West, which is packed tighter than my man-berries in my 31-waist designer jeans, although I would lean towards a Spurs/Clippers Conference Finals at the moment). What I can do, however, is make a list of things we know to be true:

1. Right now, the two best teams in the conference are Miami and New York in some order (Miami seems better but New York has beaten them twice, and once without Melobot v. 3.0).

2. It seems likely that Miami will get better as the season continues - I initially had them winning 67 games, although when you lose to Washington, that can be difficult - whereas it seems likely that something will disrupt New York's flow and they will have a cold streak at some point.

3. Miami won the title last year and ADDED the best three-point shooter ever (not to mention Rashard Lewis who, despite being comically overpaid, is also a solid player), making them a fairly indestructible force for all but elite competition. If you think they are losing in the first two rounds, you are sorely mistaken.

4. New York shoots a ridiculous number of threes (707 in 24 games). To my knowledge, teams constructed in this manner which don't feature an all-time great player (LeBron) running the show have never won a title. The Orlando team from 2009 with Howard as the centerpiece came sort-of close, but they played an equally three-heavy team (LeBron's Cavs) on their way to the finals, made it by default and folded like a house of cards once they got there.

(Another quick side note: that Magic-Cavs series features an absolutely incredible collection of box scores from LeBron. Any argument that his non-clutchness was the reason they didn't win a title is 100% ludicrous. Take a quick look at these numbers - Game 1 [Cleveland Loss]: 49-6-8-2 steals-3 blocks on 67% shooting, Game 2 [Win and his second-worst game of the series] 35-4-5 and the huge game-winning shot, Game 3 [Loss] 41-7-9-2 steals and only 2 TOs, Game 4 [Loss] 44-12-7, lost because Rafer Freakin' Alston hit 6 threes, Game 5 [Win] an absolutely enormous 37-14-12 with a steal and a block. Those Cavs had a lot of problems, but LeBron's "clutch gene" definitely was not one of them.)

5. Carmelobot v. 3.0 is not an all-time great player. He may be closer than v. 1.0 (cornrows and chucking a crapload of threes) and v. 2.0 (abusing smaller players on a series of isolations, no defense), but he is still not that close.

6. Among the other teams in the conference, Chicago, Atlanta and Brooklyn are the only three teams with the possibility to do any playoff damage. Two of these three teams were just constructed this year, which again is not a recipe for success for teams which don't feature an all-time great player or three ('08 Celtics).

7. Deron Williams and Al Horford are also not all-time great players.

8. If the Knicks get the 2 seed in the East, assuming Rose returns sometime before mid-February and the Bulls keep playing decently in his absence, a Knicks-Bulls Conference Semis matchup is probably the most likely outcome of any outstanding playoff scenario.

9. The Bulls match up very, very well with the Knicks. Deng is an elite defender who can shut down Carmelo, Noah is one of the few Eastern post players who is both mobile and strong enough to deal with Chandler, and they have allowed the third lowest three-point percentage in the league thus far. Plus, if the Knicks keep Carmelo at the 4 spot, the Bulls may have to bench Carlos Boozer, leading to an extreme case of addition by subtraction for the defense. On Offense, Felton isn't quick enough to deal with Rose on the ball or chasing a 2-guard (one of Hamilton, Hinrich or Bellinelli) around screens all night. And he will have to do one of those things, because Jason Kidd is even slower than Felton and is probably less capable at either task. The only possible change to this setup is if Shumpert gets healthy before the playoffs, but starting him means sacrificing a lot of the shooting which has been the key to their success so far. Throw in the slower tempo of the playoffs and the inevitable virus to Carmelobot which will prevent him from playing any defense in important games, and I'd say the Knicks are a pretty excellent matchup for this Chicago team.

10. I can't quite go out on a limb and say Chicago will beat Miami in a seven game series, especially since they lost in 2011 with a full-strength Rose (and a living version of Boozer), but it would be an interesting contrast of styles. Miami will likely just put LeBron on Rose, Battier on Deng, and let the other three players fly around and create havoc because the Bulls don't have much shooting or many creators. But I think Chicago wins at least two games and could pull off a pretty monumental upset. If Rose isn't back until April or something, all bets are unfortunately off - unless Chicago ends up as the 6 seed, in which case this could all still happen.

And finally, one individual prediction to close out this mammoth column:

5. Kyrie Irving will lead the league in scoring average per game.

When I mentioned above that my Boston-Indiana prediction was probably my boldest play, I hadn't really settled on a fifth prediction and didn't think I would say anything that was more contentious than that. Oops. To be completely fair, I don't actually expect that this will happen, but if you had to make one Vegas bet on anybody outside the scoring Mount Rushmore of Kobe, Carmelo, Durant and Reggie Evans (jk, LeBron), Irving should definitely be the guy. He currently sits in 6th place with 23.8 PPG, but has been battling injuries causing him to miss 10 games and was most recently seen sporting a dark knight-style mask while dropping 41 on the Knicks at MSG (further evidence the Knicks cannot handle shifty guards and would get toasted by Rose in a playoff series).

Admittedly, he has a long way to go to make it to the top. Kobe is the current leader at 29.5 PPG, and seems to have settled into "I get mine" mode while his team remains hilariously in 12th place in the conference. Between him and Irving are the other three members of the above quartet, as well as James Harden, freed from the shackles of the OKC bench and generally destroying any defenders in his way at the moment. Three of those five guys have won scoring titles before, and Carmelobot and Harden are having breakout years and appear poised to challenge for the throne this year.

Looking at the list, however, one can envision a scenario where all of those scorers see their averages dip slightly or significantly, depending on the situation. Once Nash and Pau get healthy, Kobe won't be afraid that Darius Morris will start shooting, and he will back off the pace a little bit (leading the league with an astonishing 515 shots so far, with Westbrook having taken 87 fewer in second place). Carmelo's average seems more a product of playing the 4 on offense and an unsustainable 45.5% clip from beyond the arc; with Stoudemire's return there will be fewer shots to go around and fewer threes will find the basket. LeBron may save his energy for the playoffs, focusing instead on integrating Allen and Lewis into the offense, and only scoring when the moment is right. Once Kevin McHale realizes that Jeremy Lin needs the ball in his hands, he may cut down Harden's minutes to make Lin the centerpiece of the offense for 15 minutes a game, keeping Harden fresh but also limiting his scoring output. I would rate the above scenarios as extremely likely, fairly likely, also fairly likely (although it might not matter), and not completely out of the question. If all four occur, and Irving's production in fact goes up as he gets healthy and the Cavs possibly trade Varejao (realistically the only other Cavalier who should be starting in the NBA), it is not impossible to imagine Irving finishing at 27-27.5 PPG with the other guys strewn in the 24-26 PPG range.

The only guy he seems truly unlikely to pass is Durant, getting 27 points a night on only 17 shots, with ridiculous 51%/43%/90% splits from the field. If those seem unsustainable, they shouldn't, as Durant clearly worked on his game this summer and is also averaging career highs in assists, rebounds, blocks and steals. In the end we may have Durant and Irving battling for the scoring title in the last few weeks. But saying "Kevin Durant will win the scoring title" is like predicting the world won't in fact end on December 21 - you could be wrong, but it would be a surprise. For my money, and to make Cavs games a lot more interesting between now and April, I am going with Irving. Stranger predictions have certainly come true.

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