The 2015-16 NBA season is almost upon us, with the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers tipping off the campaign next Tuesday. With the year on the verge of starting up, we here at Today’s Fastbreak did a roundtable to make some team predictions for the upcoming season.
Who will be the most surprising team this season?
Kelly Scaletta: I think here we have to distinguish between most surprising and most improved. For instance, if the Orlando Magic or Utah Jazz press for a playoff spot, I don’t think that would be considered a “surprise” so much because that improvement is expected. A team that may legitimately “surprise” though and could contend for a playoff spot is the New York Knicks. They didn’t add any superstars, but they added solid players and solid is all you need to make the postseason in the East. Throw in Jerian Grant as a sleeper for ROY and you have the most surprising team.
Ethan Norof: Sacramento Kings. After an offseason where the team was nothing but criticized for the blueprint it utilized in order to reconstruct the roster, the Kings will be a much better product than most anticipate watching.
Jared Johnson: Minnesota Timberwolves. I don’t have any team that I think will blow away expectations, but the Wolves seem the closest to qualifying. I don’t think they’ll be a playoff team in 2015-16, but they seem like a solid bet to double the 16 wins they had last season. Andrew Wiggins showed some serious flashes in the second half of the season, and this squad is super deep if they stay healthy, as they didn’t last season. A bench of Andre Miller, Tyus Jones, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Tayshaun Prince, Nemanja Bjelica, Adreian Payne, Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic will ensure the Wolves keep NBA-caliber talent on the floor at all times. Heck, if things break their way, maybe they can knock on that postseason door.
Adam Lukach: Simply because most people seem to be down on their transition, I’ll go with the Indiana Pacers. It’s just preseason, but Paul George has looked extremely good during his action at the power-forward spot so far, and the rest of the team is moving the ball effectively around him on offense. Monta Ellis gives them a necessary lead scorer, and George Hill gives them a nice combo guard to fill the gaps around Ellis and Rodney Stuckey. Defense could still be a problem, although coach Frank Vogel is defensive minded, and Ian Mahinmi and rookie Myles Turner have impressed so far protecting the rim. If Indiana can work out a nice two-way situation for George, this new arrangement could pay the kind of dividends Larry Bird imagined surprisingly shortly.
Daniel O’Brien: Most prognosticators project the Miami Heat to move up in the standings from last year, but they’re still going to surprise people by making an even bigger leap. With Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside together for the whole season, they can legitimately contend in the East and possibly crack the top three seeds. Miami’s offensive rating should jump from 103.9 in 2014-15 to the 107-108 range, and that’ll enable them to flirt with 50 wins. If Wade stays healthy and the swingman trio of Luol Deng, Gerald Green and Justise Winslow produces, the Heat will be a tough matchup for anyone.
Who will be the most disappointing team?
Kelly: Again, I’m reading this as against expectations, and I don’t think the Los Angeles Clippers will be as good as they were last year. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors, who were already better, stayed better. The Houston Rockets, who actually did finish with the No. 2 seed and beat the Clippers in the playoffs added Ty Lawson. And the San Antonio Spurs, who the Clippers barely beat by the hair of Chris Paul’s chinny-chin-chin, picked up LaMarcus Aldridge. What makes people think that adding bad outside shooting makes Clippers suddenly deep? Yeah, I get they weren’t deep last year, either. But they aren’t this year and the fact they’ve been one of the worst benches in the NBA, getting outworked by 6.9 points a game in the preseason doesn’t help. And it is just preseason. But it’s a continuation of the same players missing the same shots they did last season, they’re just missing them in different unis. I don’t see the Clippers beating Houston, San Antonio or Golden State in a series with that bench, and anything short of the Western Conference Finals is a disappointment for them. Ergo, most disappointing.
Ethan: Utah Jazz. It’s not that I don’t like the future Utah is building — it’s extremely bright — but those using last season’s post-All-Star numbers to project an 82-game sample are going down the wrong road. The Jazz enter this year with a target on their back from Day 1 as the club attempts to join a playoff party that already has a crowded field of entrants.
Jared: Milwaukee Bucks. It seems like a lot of people are simplifying the argument for the Bucks to make a charge up the Eastern Conference; yes, they went from 16 to 41 wins last year, are a promising young team and got Greg Monroe, but there are other factors to consider. From Feb. 6 to the end of the season, Milwaukee went 14-19. In that span, the Bucks were 2-12 against teams above .500. That extended slump almost directly coincided with the acquisition of Michael Carter-Williams as the team’s point guard. Was the team just catching its opponents off guard in the first half of the season? Maybe. Spacing issues and a relative lack of collective playoff experience makes me think the upstart Bucks have another year as first-round playoff fodder before becoming a legitimate threat in the East.
Adam: The Toronto Raptors had a really splashy offseason led by the DeMarre Carroll signing, but I’m just not sure how he’ll fare under an increased offensive workload outside on a new team that doesn’t move the ball as well as the one he left in Atlanta. Luis Scola doesn’t add much at this point in his career, and when Bismack Biyombo is the only member of your frontcourt who plays defense, that could be a problem. Kyle Lowry lost a bunch of weight and looks good, but we’ve seen that one-man show before. It’ll also be interesting to see how DeMar DeRozan plays in a contract year with all that money looming next summer, especially now that he seems to have abandoned the three-pointer.
Daniel: Byron Scott’s Los Angeles Lakers have some promising young talent and mostly-healthy Kobe Bryant, so there’s a renewed sense of excitement about this squad among many fans. Unfortunately, they’re still going to lose a boatload of games in the Western Conference, thanks to the learning curve of the youngsters and short supply of defense. Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and an aging Bryant will surrender a ton of slashing penetration, and no one other than Roy Hibbert can consistently make stops in the frontcourt. Expect them to give up 105-110 points per game on a regular basis.
Who will win the Western Conference?
Kelly: This is the toughest one, but I’m gong to have to tap Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. Now, I’m giving them a 34 percent chance and Houston and Golden State each a 33 percent chance. They were the champs two years ago, and Duncan is defying age. But adding LMA is a plus that has been almost glossed over to the point of being trivialized. The Spurs are going to be incredibly tough to beat in a series. And that’s what matters.
Ethan: Golden State Warriors. The Splash Brothers, the top-rated defense, the continuity, the 67 wins last season. What isn’t there to like from Steve Kerr’s club? On a mission to prove everyone wrong after almost unanimously being overlooked in preseason polls and projections following the Spurs landing Lamarcus Aldridge, the Warriors won’t win the No. 1 seed (that’ll be the Clippers) for the second straight season, but they will emerge as the class of the Western Conference.
Jared: Warriors. Let me preface this pick by saying any of the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder could win the West and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest. The Warriors just seem like the team with the fewest red flags at the moment, which is why I give them the slightest of nods. Here are my worries about each team: The Spurs have to integrate LaMarcus Aldridge and face significant problems of the decline of Tony Parker and their second-unit defense. The Clippers don’t have a credible wing stopper against the Durants, Hardens, Leonards and Thompsons of the West and their bench will be very unpredictable. The Thunder are integrating a new coach, the Durant-Westbrook dynamic is always a wild card and I don’t love their bench. The Rockets should be better, as Ty Lawson is probably a net positive wherever he fits in the rotation. But Golden State demolished Houston in the conference inals last year, and a lot of improvement will be needed to win three playoff rounds in the West. And the Warriors? Championship hangover may be the biggest issue, and the likelihood that they don’t stay as healthy as they did last season. But this team is still young, well-coached and deep.
Adam: The West is such a tight call, but with Kevin Durant healthy, and after bearing witness to Russell Westbrook’s rampage last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem like a real bounce-back threat in their first year under Billy Donovan. Anthony Morrow, Andre Roberson, Cameron Payne and, in an ideal world, Dion Waiters give them depth on the wing with a variety of skills. The same is true in the frontcourt, where OKC goes five rotation-caliber players deep, each with their own mix-and-match talents to complement the others. Dovovan’s best college-to-NBA players have been big men, so that could be a key boost in getting their frontcourt to the championship level.
Daniel: If Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook stay healthy — and that’s a big if — I’m picking the Thunder to will their way to the top. They may not earn the No. 1 seed, but the talent and defense are there for a successful postseason run. OKC upgraded its bench at the trade deadline last season, and it upgraded its tactician over the summer by dropping Scott Brooks in favor of Billy Donovan. KD and Russ not only give the Thunder high-octane shot-creating talent, they bring the tenacity and edge required to knock off balanced teams like the Warriors and Spurs.
Who will win the Eastern Conference?
Kelly: The Cleveland Cavaliers are the easy prediction here with one huge caveat: health. They’re already starting the season with issues. Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert won’t be playing. LeBron James is sitting out half the preseason, and that’s fine. It’s just preseason. But what happens if his back issues linger or recur, and you’re playing with a team where Kevin Love, Tristian Thompson and Mo Williams are the Big Three? James has played 18,135 minutes in the last six years, combining regular and postseason minutes. That’s an average of over 3,600 minutes per season, and it’s cumulative effect is that he’s essentially played an “extra season” of basketball in those five years. Only Kevin Durant and James Harden are within 3,000 minutes of him, and both are well over 2,000. So it’s not impossible that all those minutes start catching up with the King, and if he goes down the East becomes a free for all with the Bulls having the edge.
Ethan: Cavaliers. This really comes down to LeBron James. It’s hard to see any Eastern Conference team beating LeBron’s crew four out of seven times, and barring something unexpected, that’s going to remain a theme for the next several seasons. This will be arguably the most talented team LeBron has ever played on, and now with a 2-4 Finals record, James has plenty of motivation.
Jared: The Cavaliers may not start the season the best due to injuries, but they’ll probably cap it off with a playoff run that lasts four rounds. Fully healthy, Cleveland is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. But as they showed last May and June, they’re pretty dang tough even at partial health because of LeBron James, the ultimate trump card. If James randomly stops being a cyborg during the playoffs and can’t play (or other significant injuries ravage the team), then I believe Atlanta, Chicago and Miami can all take the East, in that order of likelihood.
Adam: It’s just hard to bet against the Cavaliers, although they still look as beat up as they did in June, when LeBron staggered through the Finals as virtually a one-man show. As long as James stays healthy and effective, however, there’s no reason to believe that this talented team won’t get healthy and cohere by the end of the season, especially since David Blatt will now be in his second year there. With Tristan Thompson finally reporting, everyone is on the same page now, and this team is far more ready than last year, when they still nearly took a 3-0 Finals lead while missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It’s hard to imagine them falling back.
Daniel: It won’t be easy, but the Cavaliers will emerge from the East again. The conference is still weak enough for LeBron James to orchestrate a title march and return to the Finals. The biggest question mark is how the backcourt will fare while Kyrie Irving recovers, but once his knee mends, the Cavs’ inside-out attack will be lethal come playoff time. Blatt and LeBron will likely collaborate better, and the chemistry throughout the rotation will improve this season. There’s a chance they could falter, as clubs like Atlanta, Miami and Washington could give them trouble. But Cleveland’s “A” game is still better than anyone else’s best effort.
Who will win the NBA title?
Kelly: The Spurs. It’s a surprisingly surprising pick, but with the continued rise of Kawhi Leonard, the leadership of Duncan and Popovich, and the addition of Aldridge, this team has too many of the right components to not win.
Ethan: Warriors. LeBron is going to be motivated to exact revenge, and it should be a different matchup than it was in 2015 if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love remain healthy. But it’s still unlikely to matter considering the opponent on the other side of half court. The Warriors are that good and getting better. With the roster remaining almost identical, an ability to force the opposition to play to their style and the team’s key pieces in place to take another step forward under Steve Kerr, it’s very hard to bet against a team that’s clearly the class of the NBA.
Jared: Warriors. A Warriors vs. Cavaliers Finals rematch is a boring pick, but I want the best odds of being right. Now that Golden State has plenty of deep playoff experience and Steve Kerr isn’t a rookie head coach anymore, I think they’ll be that much more prepared for whatever their opponents throw at them in the postseason. Of course, if an injury takes out one of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes or Shaun Livingston, I reserve the right to change my mind.
Adam: It seems like a good year for LeBron to bring back Cleveland’s first title in millennia, and while it’s hard to pick them against a team as talented as the Thunder, the Cavaliers still seem to have the edge in terms of depth of quality, Finals-ready talent. As long as they stay healthy, LeBron’s squad has a good chance to justify every dime of their huge payroll.
Daniel: As LeBron and KD rekindle their 2012 Finals rivalry, the X-factor in this series is big-man production. These teams are structured fairly similarly, so the frontcourt that can protect the rim and generate creative offense more consistently has the edge. I’m betting Cleveland will accomplish both of those tasks really well, with Timofey Mozgov clogging the paint plus Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson supplying outside-inside buckets. Meanwhile, James will work his usual masterpiece by making all the right reads for himself and his comrades. This is the year he finally brings the Cavaliers to the top of the mountain.