Look for the Bulls and Thunder to be the Last Teams Standing
The NBA season begins tonight when the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs tip off at 8:00 PM Eastern Time. Simultaneously the New Orleans Pelicans, starring Anthony Davis — the best young player in the game, and a potential MVP candidate — will take on the rookie-rich Orlando Magic.
Here's a guide to the best games of the week. Let’s take a look at how we see things unfolding from there.
Eastern Conference Predictions
1. Chicago Bulls, 61-21
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t take anything lightly. Whether the Bulls are title contenders might be up for debate, but there’s little question that Chicago will be disciplined, driven, studied-up and talented enough to collect tons of wins as a well-oiled machine in the regular season.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers, 60-24
The Cavs have plenty of questions to answer about experience, rim protection and rotation issues. But there’s arguably more offensive firepower on this squad than any other in league history. Most teams will watch Cleveland sprint past them.
3. Washington Wizards, 54-28
Paul Pierce joins the nasty young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal to make for a daunting Eastern foe, now as capable of breaking down your will with head games as they are with pure speed. Add in the biggest, meanest front court rotation in the conference, and you’ve got a team that nobody wants to deal with.
4. Toronto Raptors, 53-29
The Raptors, low key, have built perhaps the deepest rotation in basketball. Led by Kyle Lowry, and Team USA guard DeMar DeRozan, Toronto also has two youngsters — in big man Jonas Valanciunas and former Slam Dunk Contest champion Terrence Ross — who are both ready to take the jump.
5. Charlotte Hornets, 51-32
6. Atlanta Hawks, 43-41
7. Miami Heat, 39-43
8. New York Knicks, 39-43
The phrase “playoff team” is made somewhat misleading by the huge discrepancy in competitive quality between the Eastern and Western conferences. But the Knicks, who now have some much-longed-for direction under new executive Phil Jackson and coach Derek Fisher, will now technically fit that bill.
9. Brooklyn Nets, 38-44
10. Detroit Pistons, 36-46
11. Milwaukee Bucks, 28-54
12. Orlando Magic, 27-55
The crown for most watchable Eastern Conference losers goes to the Magic. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton is a visionary passer, while his first-year associate Aaron Gordon is a couple of months of development away from being one of the game’s most exciting aerial acrobats.
13. Indiana Pacers, 28-54
14. Boston Celtics, 21-60
15. Philadelphia 76ers, 14-68
Western Conference Predictions
1. San Antonio Spurs, 61-22
The Spurs, like the Bulls, are simply run too well not to gallop easily through the regular season. Don’t expect a motivational hangover after their triumphant, era-destroying championship takedown of the Miami Heat. Gregg Popovich and Co. simply don’t do “lowering the bar.”
2. Los Angeles Clippers, 59-25
In their second year under coach Doc Rivers, title expectations are an undeniable part of today’s Clippers. We know we’ll get MVP-worthy seasons from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but if DeAndre Jordan can make the jump offensively — in addition to his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy — it will make L.A. scary to everyone.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder, 55-28
The Thunder start the season with injuries to not only reigning MVP Kevin Durant, but also to guards Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow and Jeremy Lamb. They’ll hobble a bit at first, but there’s too much winning continuity (and too much Russell Westbrook) for them to ever fall too far in the standings.
4. Memphis Grizzlies, 53-29
The Grizzlies won 50 games last year, despite a 23-game absence from their best player Marc Gasol. Expect them to fight to a slightly better record as they rest Gasol and Zach Randolph more and face an improved conference.
5. Golden State Warriors, 52-30
New coach Steve Kerr is implementing smart new strategies in Oakland, including giving Andrew Bogut more range in the offense and turning Andre Iguodala into the indisputable best Sixth Man in the league — a move that also gets the most out of the shaky Harrison Barnes, who will start in Iggy’s place.
6. Houston Rockets, 51-31
The Rockets lost depth over the summer, but they also added some very needed defensive edge on the perimeter by acquiring Trevor Ariza from the Wizards. They should take only a small step back from last year’s 54-win run.
7. Dallas Mavericks, 49-34
8. Phoenix Suns, 48-35
9. New Orleans Pelicans, 44-38
10. Portland Trailblazers, 43-37
Portland was shockingly healthy last year, running out their integral starting five for all but 12 games of the season. They also won a number of coin-toss games, making clutch shots deep. Expect both patterns to slow a bit and for the Blazers to regress to the mean as they just miss the postseason.
11. Denver Nuggets, 38-44
12. Sacramento Kings, 37-46
13. Los Angeles Lakers 32-51
14. Minnesota Timberwolves 27-55
15. Utah Jazz 28-60
Most Improved Player: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Drummond showed good stuff with Team USA over the summer, and he’ll thrive to Dwight Howard-esque levels of paint-owning under the tutelage of new coach Stan Van Gundy.
Sixth Man of the Year: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
So long as coach Kerr sticks to his decision to bring Mr. Iguodala off the bench, he’s a lock for these honors. Many don’t know it — since Andre’s impact happens so much in the non-box-score margins — but this man is one of the best players in the league.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Dwight Howard’s been written off as a weak-willed, fart-loving nincompoop, and the basketball world is all the worse for it. Superman’s 2014-15 return to unspeakable dominance of the restricted area, however, will be undeniable.
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
Jabari Parker gets to the rim with the authority of a veteran, and easily finds space for his shots away from the basket too. He has that rare, hard-to-explain quality best dubbed as “getting a lot of buckets.” He’ll be ahead of his class for at least a season.
Coach of the Year: Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
Juggling the many members of the Raptors’ ensemble is tough, complex work, and Casey will get his respect this year creating the best possible monster out of Toronto’s diverse crew.
MVP: Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
With LeBron James set to coast on limited minutes in Cleveland and Kevin Durant out with a Jones fracture, this honor opens up for last year’s third-highest vote-getter to grab the cup.
Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions
Chicago Bulls vs. (8) New York Knicks
Bulls in five.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Miami Heat
This dramatically rich showdown will revolve around Cleveland’s inability to stop Chris Bosh on the block — assuming he gets back to his backdown ways in 2014-15. But even exploiting that hole won’t be enough for the Heat to take down this juggernaut.
Cavaliers in six.
(3) Washington Wizards vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks
Wizards in five.
(4) Toronto Raptors vs. (5) Charlotte Hornets
The Raptors have too many earholes for new Hornet Lance Stephenson to get his spittle into.
Raptors in six.
Chicago Bulls vs. (4) Toronto Raptors
Bulls in five.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Washington Wizards
The Wizards’ bruising big men will again bring the Cavs’ weak interior into question, but LeBron should be able to revive his inside game enough to push things Cleveland’s way.
Cavaliers in six.
Chicago Bulls vs. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
This could be the series of the year. But expect the Bulls to finally take LeBron’s cake as Derrick Rose has, in Pau Gasol, his first teammate who can bear more of the offensive burden and open up the floor for Chicago.
Bulls in seven.
Western Conference Playoff Predictions
San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Phoenix Suns
Spurs in five.
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Clippers in six.
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Houston Rockets
A healthy Thunder team will still struggle to get to Dwight Howard’s rim, but they ultimately have too much shooting and open-court brilliance for Houston to handle.
Rockets in six.
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
The Grizzlies are always the bridesmaids, never the brides. Were they the other conference, they might make the Finals. But here they’ll fall to one of the best teams in basketball.
Warriors in six.
San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors lost a frenzied, thrilling six-game series to the Spurs in 2013. The young, Ã¼ber-talented team won’t let it happen again, and will have enough to send the champs home packing.
Warriors in six
(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (3) Oklahoma City Thunder
Thunder in six.
(3) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Golden State Warriors
The Thunder aren’t letting their title window close like this. Westbrook and Durant will turn it up to an unmatchable level to make sure of it.
Thunder in six.
Chicago Bulls vs. (3) Oklahoma City Thunder
Peak Derrick Rose was never equalized by anyone as well as he was by Russell Westbrook. And as ferocious a defender as Jimmy Butler is, he can’t pack a punch tough enough to knock out Durant.
Thunder in six.
— John Wilmes