When Sam "The Reverend Kirby Samperman 64" Hurt asked me to do my annual NBA preview for Zeitgeeks this year, I was hesitant. Not because the ZG office smells suspiciously of gym socks and tears (but also that), but because this is a ludicrously difficult NBA season to predict.
Of the sixteen playoff teams from last year, two have lost their best player (Indiana, Miami), four have lost one of their best second or third best players (Houston, Washington, Brooklyn, Indiana again), six made major free agent acquisitions (Miami, Washington, Charlotte, Chicago, Houston, Dallas), almost all of them made at least one meaningful secondary addition or subtraction (basically everyone except San Antonio), three teams regained an injured star who was absent from last year's playoffs (Chicago, Brooklyn, Golden State), three at least got a hobbled star back to semi-full health (Memphis, Charlotte, Brooklyn), one made a cosmetic name change to get the loser stink off them (Charlotte), and twenty-nine shit themselves when all that sweet sweet Derrick Rose buzz came out of the FIBA pre-camp and then breathed a collective sigh of relief when he played like Sebastian Telfair (everybody but Chicago). Oh, and two have already seen month+ long injuries to one of their top players, including the reigning MVP (Oklahoma and Washington).
Plus, I think something happened involving Cleveland, but I can't recall for sure.
My point is that, unlike last season where no real contenders did much beyond shuffling deck chairs, this year only one team is really coming back in the same shape they left (San Antonio, and even they're going to be missing valuable backup Patty Mills to start the season). By my reckoning, this year we have five real championship contenders, four or five dark horse contenders (everybody who's excited to watch Nick lose money overestimating Memphis for the third year in a row raise your hands!), and at least one playoff team that's going to lose over twenty more games than they did last season, and probably two.
Put simply, it's abject chaos. Lebron James is playing for some mysterious Euro-Coach for a team that seems to believe they'll be allowed to play with three basketballs at a time this year, Tim Duncan- despite being surrounded by Nazis, and worse, Manu Ginobili- continues to quietly make his case for both NBA GOAT and the world's first confirmed Highlander (if I had a video clip of Kobe Bryant angrily sharpening a katana, I'd link it here, but sadly no such clip exits on YouTube), and Russell Westbrook continues to irrationally believe he's the best player on his team… only, for the first month of the season (and for the first time in his life), he's actually going to be right.
Still, it's my job to try and make some sense out of all this, so let's get down to it. For those who are curious, last preseason I correctly predicted 12 out of 16 playoff teams (but man, the ones I was wrong about I was WRONG about), 3 first round match ups, 1 Finals participant, and 0 actual seedings. It's, er, not an exact science. Without further ado, my predictions for the Eastern Conference:
1) Cleveland Cavaliers
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Easily the strongest offensive team in the NBA- on paper- the Cavaliers sport both a star-studded starting lineup and a bench full of savvy veterans. They're better prepared to whether an injury than any other team in the league (especially if they end up signing Ray Allen), and they can score in every way teams need to be able to score.
Why they're gonna me look dumb: Because the only reason I put them up here is because I couldn't convince myself Derrick Rose isn't going to get hurt again? Because they have only two above average defensive players in their starting lineup, one of whom is extremely injury prone and the other of whom will also be carrying a tremendous load on offense? Because literally anyone with two legs and a basketball can drive past Irving and Love? Because their coach has no NBA experience? Because their bench has a combined age of approximately 3x that of the sun? Because every team in the league is going to be gunning for them? Because most of their team wasn't here last year and- 2008 Celtics aside- it takes time for players to mesh? Because all three of their starting perimeter players need the ball to be effective on offense? There are reasons.
2) Chicago Bulls
Why they're gonna make me look smart: This team was good enough for a four seed last year despite fielding a team that seemed to have some sort of collective allergy to making shots. To that core- still intact- they've added a very effective low post scorer (Pau Gasol), one of the best European shooters of the last ten years (Nikola Mirotic), and a promising rookie (Doug McDermott). They've also brought back Derrick Rose, and despite his middling returns in FIBA, I'm quite confident 82 games will be long enough for him to figure out how to shoot again, and even if it doesn't, he's still an oversized hyper-athlete with more passing skill than anyone they had on the roster last year. They've also got one of the two best defensive coaches in the game right now, and the deepest pool of big men I can remember seeing on an NBA since that Sacramento team with Divac/Miller/Webber in the middle 2000s.
Why they're gonna me look dumb: The best three players on the roster- Rose, Noah, and Gasol- are all extremely injury prone, and the coach went to the Mike D'Antoni School for Playing Your Starters Way Too Fucking Much. I'd take the over on the three of them missing at least 40 combined games to injury this season. Rose is going to take time to re-acclimate, even if he stays healthy, and players like Mirotic generally take a full season of adjustment to the NBA game before they become effective (see Teletovic, Mirza). Plus, Taj Gibson is already whining about a reduced role, and the team has no true two-way small forward on the roster unless McDermott is way better than advertised. On top of that, Jimmy Butler's in a contract year and likely to shoot too much. This is a problem, because Jimmy has thus far been unable to grasp the value of making shots versus simply shooting them.
3) Washington Wizards
Why they're gonna make me look smart: I don't really think they are. The 3-7 teams are more or less interchangeable in terms of predicted seeding, to be honest. That said, when healthy, Washington boasts a devastating starting five, albeit one that will struggle to defend crafty offensive teams on the perimeter. Another year of John Wall and Bradley Beal developing is all good news, and Paul Pierce's value to a locker room is arguably greater than many player's value on the court. Additionally, Pierce gives them a true late-game closer and secondary facilitator, which should translate to a few more wins in tight games.
Why they're gonna make me look dumb: Paul Pierce is old as balls (and, like, leathery old-man balls at that), Bradley Beal's missing the first few weeks of the season, their bench is completely unremarkable, John Wall's about eighty percent as good as people think he is, Nene's going to find some way to get himself injured, and Gortat's wacky enough that there's a chance he's gonna get suspended for the entire season for, like, piledriving Dwyane Wade after a flop or shotgunning a beer mid-game to celebrate a dunk. This is a really strong looking team when healthy, rested, and sane… but how often can they be healthy, rested, and sane?
4) Charlotte Hornets
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Defense. Even with the mostly-stationary Big Al manning the middle, playing Stephenson and Kidd-Gilchrist together on the perimeter is going to be a nightmare for opposing offenses. Stephenson, when lucid, will also give them a second legitimate creator of the dribble and take defensive attention off of Kemba Walker (look for a career year for Kemba this season). Also, defensive turnstile or no, Big Al is maybe the deadliest back-to-basket scorer playing right now, and a legitimate beast in terms of physicality.
Why they're gonna me look stupid: Lance is in the Artest Zone. Everything I said above about Gortat? Mix that up with Gary Payton's trolliest moments and JR Smith's inexplicable confidence and you've got some idea of what Lance is capable of in a worst case scenario. He could get himself suspended, ruin team chemistry, or knife a man at mid court; he's a total wildcard. On top of that, their owner is still Michael Jordan, and Michael Joran is to NBA owners what Michael Jordan was to baseball players.
5) Miami Heat
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Chris Bosh is so much better than anybody remembers, and he's the centerpiece now. He's one of the only legitimately two-way bigs in the league (along with Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, and maybe David West), and he's an above average shooter, passer, and defender. His biggest weakness is that he's somewhat physically weak for a big guy, but in the current NBA, there are only like five or six legit big guys who can actually make him pay for that. Wade is likely to be in Screw Lebron mode whenever he plays, and Deng and McRoberts are both really, really good NBA players who play extremely smart basketball. Erik Spoelstra is a very solid coach, no matter how much he looks like Dramatic Chipmunk.
Why they're gonna me look stupid: Wade might be hurt all year, Granger likely will, and they don't have the depth to survive it. While Mario Chalmers isn't as bad as people like to pretend, anytime Wade sits the team is hurting for a perimeter creator, and while they'll be very good defensively they're basically going to live and die by Bosh and Wade on the other end; if Wade misses half the season, or plays poorly, that turns them into Bosh's mid 2000s Toronto team that occasionally slipped into the playoffs in a weaker version of the Eastern Conference. They also might just be really depressed if the season gets off to a bad start, especially with Bosh locked in for five years and no reinforcements anywhere on the horizon.
6) Toronto Raptors
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Should have super-high morale after last year's storybook season, and all of their most important players figure to be better this year than they were last year. They have one of the sneaky-great home court advantages in the league, they play up-tempo (always great for inflating regular season win totals), and their two best players aren't afraid of anyone else in the league. Lowry and DeRozan both think they're superstars, and they're both wrong, but there's something to be said for that kind of confidence.
Why they're gonna me dumb: There's such a thing as too much confidence, too. DeRozan especially needs to improve his shot selection before we start referring to him alongside Rudy Gay and JR Smith. Jonas Valunciuniaiananaunsisistasus needs to continue to improve and control the paint for a team that's otherwise very thin up front, and his name remains a giant problem for play-by-play announcers everywhere, which is bad for morale. They might not have enough shooting around Lowry and DeRozan to really embrace their "Suns East" identity, especially after shipping off Steve Novak.
7) Atlanta Hawks
Why they're gonna make me look smart: I'm predicting that a team that finished eight last year, and is adding one of the seven best centers in the league (Al Horford, fully recovered from a torn manboob) to that lineup (minus Lou Williams but plus Sefalosha and Bazemore), will move up one spot. If anything, I'm underselling them; if healthy, they could flirt with home court in at least the first round or two of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Also, Pero Antic is awesome; he's a legit NBA big who shoots threes, plays defense, and looks like a Bond villain. It's the trifecta!
Why me look gonna dumb: Horford's health is far from assured, and Millsap's fairly likely to be traded to either New York, Phoenix, or Houston, (or somebody else, or no one at all; I'm a columnist, not a reporter). On top of that, they still lack for real creativity on the perimeter, as Jeff Teague is one of the weaker starting point guards in the NBA… that's not a dig on Teague, PG is just the deepest position in the league right now, but they're are at least twenty guys who are better at it than he is. Additionally, there's all kinds of internal chaos in the fallout of the race scandal. We saw what that did to the Clippers last year in the playoffs (though granted that was way worse), and it could derail an otherwise promising Atlanta season.
8) Literally anyone except the 76ers. I mean, um, maybe Detroit?
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Stan Van Gundy. Andre Drummond. Pretty much my only justification. Well, that, and the rest of the East being really bad. But this could easily Brooklyn, New York, or even Milwaukee.
Why stupid me: Monroe's going to be pouting all season, and the Josh Smith/Brandon Jennings duo is basically guaranteed to clash with coach Stan. Brooklyn or New York could both have big years with new coaches and little bit of luck on the health front (New York would need Amare's red wine baths to turn him back into a legitimate star, but still). Milwaukee might be sneaky good, especially because they've got the perfect personnel for Kidd's mad-scientist lineup tinkering that nearly saved Brooklyn last year. There's not really an above-average perimeter player on the entire Detroit roster, and no matter how good Drummond gets, if he can't learn to make free throws, they'll lose every close game they play.
One Sentence For Everybody Else:
Really wanted to put them eighth, but Brook Lopez is already getting injured again, Joe Johnson might actually be a zombie, Kevin Garnett is too slow to be a zombie, and I've been hating on Deron Williams far too long to stop now; still, their new coach is a very good one, and they're dangerous when healthy.
Probably too high here, but I'm a Giannis believer, and both Ilyasova and Sanders figure to have bounce-back seasons; Jabari will probably suck, but he'll get important court time so he can not suck in a few years when they're actually relevant.
New York Knicks:
I just really want Amare to turn back into Sept 2009- February 2011 Amare so badly, and for Carmelo Anthony to maybe just go away for a while…. I'm likely to be disappointed on both counts, but watching Phil Jackson fail is always a blast.
They can't fucking score, and it turns out you kinda need to do that to win basketball games.
Rajon Rondo's getting traded to a team that'll make me look dumb by getting either way better or way worse after it happens; either way, the Celtics will suck.
Probably going to be the most fun bad team to watch, and they're going to beat teams they shouldn't more often than you'd think.
The 76ers may actually start intentionally injuring their own players in order to make sure they keep the worst record in the league and the (probably) better draft odds that come with it.
Nick Feldman has his own blog, in which he mostly just bitches about TV. Sometimes he writes books, or blogs about them. If any of that sounds good to you, you can check him out at www.nicksblogamericain.com