Alright, NBA training camps are underway and the preseason begins Saturday, which means it’s time to fire away all those crazy hot takes that you’ve kept in hiding all offseason.
Every year, fans try to predict the season before it happens, and every year, there are major surprises. Some of those takes you called ridiculous during the summer may actually come true, and the ones you’re confident in might go totally wrong.
I’ve come up with 10 bold predictions for the 2016-17 NBA season. Full disclosure, I myself don’t believe any of them are necessarily the most likely scenario. But they’re probably a lot more likely than they seem on the surface.
1. Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight DON’T get traded, both contend for Sixth Man of the Year award
There has been a lot of trade speculation around both Monroe and Knight since around the trade deadline. Monroe’s back-to-the-basket game and defensive struggles haven’t fit well with a long, formerly defensive-oriented Bucks squad. The Suns’ Knight doesn’t have the scoring potential of 19-year-old Devin Booker and doesn’t pack the two-way punch of Eric Bledsoe.
That said, if both are willing to reinvent themselves as dynamite sixth men, they could find their niche and end up helping their teams and their own reputations around the league.
Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has already decided to bring Monroe off the bench. We’ll see if Suns head man Earl Watson does the same with Knight, and if he’s willing to embrace it.
2. James Harden averages nearly nine assists per game
New Rockets head coach announced at the team’s media day Monday that James Harden would be the team’s point guard. I don’t know exactly what that means for the rest of the starting lineup (maybe Eric Gordon instead of Patrick Beverley?), but it means something for Harden.
Harden will have the ball in his hands A LOT, probably even more than he did last season. He’s also a more skilled passer than most realize, with his 7.5 assists per game leading all non-point guards last season. With Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Nene in tow, his offensive help is better this year.
D’Antoni is probably going to give Harden a steady diet of pick-and-rolls, a la Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin circa 2012, which should mean assists (and points) galore for “The Beard.”
3. The Washington Wizards fall to 12th in the Eastern Conference
Forget the John Wall-Bradley Beal drama. This Wizards team just doesn’t have much talent. Wall is very good, but he needs to be more efficient on offense and has hardly improved in the past few years. Beal is a consistent breakout candidate who has consistently failed to live up to expectations, and now he’s a constant injury risk with his problematic right leg.
After that, it’s Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Otto Porter rounding out the starting lineup. You can’t call any of them above-average starters, and Morris, in particular, has a history of being a toxic influence in the locker room.
The bench is a hodge-podge of veterans and unproven youngsters. Ian Mahinmi is solid, but that should be an underwhelming reserve unit as a whole.
We’ll see what new head coach Scott Brooks can do with this bunch. It’s his first head job that isn’t with two perennial MVP candidates, and there may be some challenges for him in Year 1.
4. Only three Golden State Warriors make the Western Conference All-Star team
The West is stacked. Last season, there were so many quality players that Damian Lillard, a guy who was basically dragging his squad to a .500-ish record with great per-game stats, didn’t get an All-Star nod.
For that reason, I don’t think the star-studded Warriors will get all four of their big guns in the game. Klay Thompson is probably the one who’ll get knocked out, too. I can see his points per game average dropping down to around 18, and his other per-game stats will stay pretty modest.
There have been several teams in NBA history to put four players in the All-Star Game, but they’ve mostly been teams with a lot of really good players and no superstars (the 2006 Pistons and 2014 Hawks come to mind).
Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green will make too big of an impact for Klay to prove himself worthy of a third straight All-Star appearance.
5. Buddy Hield wins Rookie of the Year
Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans will both be out to start the season. Without them, Hield immediately becomes the Pelicans’ best perimeter player and will get a whole lot of minutes and scoring opportunities.
Anthony Davis is still the franchise cornerstone, but he and Hield will mutually benefit from the presence of each other — Hield’s excellent shooting will give much-needed space for Davis to score inside, and Davis being the No. 1 option will help Hield settle in as a complementary player, where he’s best-suited in the short term.
With Ben Simmons set to miss about three months due to a broken foot, this opens the door in the Rookie of the Year race for Hield, who could average something like 16-4-3 with decent efficiency for the Pellies.
6. The New York Knicks finish the season on a tear, but just miss the playoffs
There’s a big difference between what Knicks fans are expecting for their team this year and what everybody else thinks. New York fans seem to believe that Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah will be able to turn their careers around and fit well with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Most others are less bullish on those things happening.
Talent-wise, New York is definitely one of the better teams in the league. But talented squads whose primary offensive options (Rose and Anthony) aren’t an obvious fit, and also have a young stud that needs touches to develop (Porzingis), are naturally going to take longer to jell.
Throw in the fact that the health histories of Rose, Noah and Brandon Jennings makes this a high-variance team, and I think it’s reasonable to see some streakiness from this bunch.
7. The Utah Jazz push the Golden State Warriors to six games in the Western Conference Semifinals
A lot of people (including me) are already high on the Jazz. I’m going to take it a step further and say that they’re the Western Conference team best equipped to upset the Warriors in a playoff series.
Utah has the defenders at point guard in George Hill and Dante Exum to keep Stephen Curry somewhat at bay for all 48 minutes. Gordon Hayward is also a solid option to put on Kevin Durant.
Utah also has big, versatile players inside, such as Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Boris Diaw, which can help them dominate the boards against a Warriors team that lost some frontcourt depth. Plus, the Jazz’s depth is better overall and will help keep the starters fresh down the stretch of games and as a hypothetical playoff series progresses.
8. Chris Paul wins the MVP award, finally leads the Los Angeles Clippers to the Western Conference Finals
Durant all but squandered away his chances at winning an MVP in 2016-17 by signing with the Warriors. Curry’s odds also plummeted with the move.
What we’re left with is pretty much LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Paul in the MVP discussion. James routinely takes the regular season easy, Leonard’s per-game stats aren’t super gaudy and Westbrook probably won’t win enough games to impress voters.
None of the candidates look terribly imposing this year. Because of that, it could be Paul’s year to finally swoop in and grab the MVP. The veteran point guard does a lot on both ends and is a lock for 19 and 10 with great efficiency.
As for his team, there’s a lot of potential if Blake Griffin stays healthy, and I think they’ll grab the No. 2 or 3 seed. The Spurs’ frontcourt defense could be toast in Round 2 if CP3, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan get their pick-and-roll chemistry down.
9. The Atlanta Hawks make the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three years
Atlanta is looking at Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard to help flank Paul Millsap as the Hawks’ star power this season. That’s a scary proposition, considering both Schroder and Howard are unpredictable players and are joining new situations this season.
If all goes well, though, Schroder becomes a fringe All-Star point guard and Howard buys into Atlanta’s system and instantly fits in as a dominant rebounder and uber-efficient pick-and-roll finisher.
The Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers may be the trendier picks to be the Cavaliers’ sacrificial lamb in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Atlanta could be there, too. All four of those teams have significant flaws that could doom them in the first two rounds of the postseason.
10. The Golden State Warriors win the NBA Finals in seven games, and one of their non-All-Stars wins Finals MVP
It’s not a bold prediction to say that the Warriors will win the Finals. I do, however, think the next two portions of the predictions are somewhat bold.
LeBron showed us in June’s Finals that he’s still the league’s best player when fully engaged, and it was the main reason Cleveland pulled off the comeback upset over a team that was considerably better on paper. There’s still room for improvement with integrating the skills of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and I think the Cavs could actually be better in 2016-17 than they were last season and can put forth a huge challenge against the Warriors in the Finals.
However, adding Durant is just too big of a move for me to pick against Golden State, even though the team sacrificed some depth to acquire him.
In the Finals, the Warriors will key in on Curry and Durant big-time. I picked Green above to be an All-Star, also, but I think Klay could nab Finals MVP honors. Now the fourth-best player on the Warriors (which is ridiculous, by the way), he’ll have enough attention diverted away from him that he could catch fire and have a huge Finals series.