With real regular season hoops almost underway, here are a few bold predictions in categories both real and fictitious.
Photo via Brad Mills - USA TODAY Sports
Happy Holidays! After a June, July, August, and September that were as wild and unpredictable as any the league has ever seen, the 2017-18 NBA season is finally here! The excitement surrounding this particular campaign is undeniable, even though its end feels more foreseeable than a Seinfeld rerun.
If the Golden State Warriors were not so unfairly stacked, the amount of top-tier talent that was redistributed from one conference to another would be more significant than intriguing. But various predictions must still be made! Here they are, in all their subjectively erroneous glory.
Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers over Boston Celtics
Western Conference Finals: Houston Rockets over Golden State Warriors
NBA Champion: Houston Rockets over Cleveland Cavaliers
We begin by going against the grain. Yes, the Warriors are deservedly unprecedented favorites to win it all, armed with more depth, talent, cohesion, and experience than they've ever had. They're so good that it's tempting to scoff at anyone who chooses another team, but what make sports (including basketball!) so much fun is their inherent volatility.
We know Golden State is the best today. Does that mean they're a lock to stay healthy, survive a regular season plus three playoff rounds with a humongous target on their back, and qualify for their fourth straight NBA Finals despite several teams in the Western Conference building their own mini-juggernauts with the sole intention of taking them down?
The Houston Rockets are as well-equipped as any opponent Golden State has seen in the last three years. James Harden is magnificent. Chris Paul is historically brilliant. P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute unlock the kinds of talented, versatile five-man units few teams can legitimately cobble together to take on the Warriors' small ball lineups. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are two of the best three-point shooters at their position. Houston adopted a style that led them to become one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history last year, and their defense is now sturdy enough to crack the top 10. This team may not defeat Golden State, but they can certainly go punch for punch.
On the bracket's other side, Cleveland still has LeBron James, while the Boston Celtics, for the most part, are an unseasoned collection of super-talented individuals who need to prove they can unite as a balled fist. They have 82 games to discover a new identity, but in the end, their youth probably isn't enough to overcome one of the greatest players in basketball history.
Western Conference Standings
1. Golden State Warriors
2. Houston Rockets
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
6. Los Angeles Clippers
7. Utah Jazz
8. Denver Nuggets
The West is a bloodbath, and leaving the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, and Dallas Mavericks off this list was not easy. But I'll believe in Derrick Favors until the day he retires, think Blake Griffin is still All-NBA good, and know the Nuggets have enough young assets to improve at the trade deadline.
Eastern Conference Standings
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Washington Wizards
4. Toronto Raptors
5. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Miami Heat
7. Charlotte Hornets
8. Detroit Pistons
Nothing here should come as a surprise. The bottom of the Eastern Conference is trash, the middle is devoted to mediocrity, and the top is riveting yet flawed.
MVP: LeBron James
Thanks to Kawhi Leonard's lingering quadricep injury, if LeBron wants to be the MVP—meaning he logs 35 minutes a night, doesn't sit out, averages close to (or at least) a triple-double, and leads his team to a top seed in the Eastern Conference—he'll be the MVP.
Sleeper MVP: Jimmy Butler
Narrative is one of the most powerful tools used to construct a case for/against any serious MVP candidate. If the Minnesota Timberwolves finish with one of the Western Conference's four best records this year (not impossible), there's a good chance Butler—the only All-NBA player on his team—will duly receive quite a bit of credit.
Butler, 28, and still improving, is in the best situation of his basketball career: a primary option surrounded by two elite youngsters who already know how to hoard points, a decent score-first point guard, and a coach he adores.
If Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins make meaningful progress on the defensive end, Butler's influence will help explain why. Low expectations are a friend, and it isn't inconceivable that Butler thrusts himself into the conversation if his individual numbers grow and his team finds success.
Coach of the Year: Quin Snyder
Carrying over from the theme about Butler, Snyder's advantage over his colleagues is the ability to exceed low expectations. Dante Exum's shoulder injury was a mushed cherry on top of a basketball-tragic summer. The Jazz lost Gordon Hayward, their only All-Star, but they maintain a bullish identity that will keep them in most games on a nightly basis.
If Derrick Favors stays healthy, Donovan Mitchell contends for Rookie of the Year, Ricky Rubio proves to be all-around upgrade over George Hill, and Rudy Gobert continues to evolve on the offensive end, the Jazz should make the playoffs. Snyder will deserves acclaim for getting them there, but also for installing and contorting a system that best suites all his players.
Sleeper Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers
Ten years ago, Doc Rivers was universally considered one of the NBA's top three coaches. Today, after several disappointing seasons that were in large part due to his very own porous personnel decisions, the man's stock is printed on pink paper.
But this year he's no longer concerned with front office responsibilities, and isn't pressured to cater to Chris Paul's ball-dominant demands (which, by itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing). There's more versatility on Los Angeles' roster than before, and for the first time since he left the Boston Celtics, his team isn't widely considered a lock to make the playoffs.
If Rivers gets the best out of Blake Griffin, constructs an above-average defense, and circumvents the ostensible dilemma L.A. has with its gigantic frontcourt and thin backcourt, it'll be interesting to see how many people are willing to admit they were wrong by writing the former Coach of the Year off as quickly as they did.
Scoring Champion: Kyrie Irving
Irving is already one of the 10 most dynamic scorers in the NBA, and putting him in the same system that saw Isaiah Thomas average an efficient 28.9 points per game last season could create a nightly fireworks display. Irving is surrounded by Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, two of the sport's most selfless, talented players at their respective positions, and if his three-point attempts rise to seven or eight per game, there's a decent chance the 25-year-old will average 30 a night.
Sleeper Scoring Champion: DeMar DeRozan
Why the hell not? He's the league's most established bucket-getter who also possesses a clear avenue for improvement. If DeRozan shoots (not necessarily even makes!) threes this season, his scoring average will rise above the impressive 27.3 mark he tallied last year.
Most Improved Player: Rodney Hood
This award is fundamentally about points, and with Hayward gone Hood's opportunity to score will dramatically increase.
Sleeper Most Improved Player: Justise Winslow
Winslow went from a franchise star in waiting to a dime-a-dozen combo forward with a broken jumper. Is he Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Paul George? Make a few outside shots and suddenly it looks like the latter.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert
He probably should've won this award last year.
Sleeper Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Embiid
If healthy, he's more a favorite than a sleeper, but Embiid's body remains the most noteworthy variable in the league. He's already a premier rim protector, elite rebounder, and quick enough to shuffle out and defend guards on the perimeter. Everything about this man is a nightmare for the rest of basketball.
Sixth Man of the Year: Marcus Smart
This award almost always goes to someone who scores a lot of points off the bench, and that's very dumb. Smart is svelte and strong, able to impact final scores more than stat sheets. He's smooth enough to manage an offense and rugged enough to defend four positions. As the NBA-watching community increases its collective intelligence, it's high time to recognize an all-around contributor who will play over 30 minutes a night for one of the league's best teams even though his three-point shot isn't all the way there.
Sleeper Sixth Man of the Year: Patrick Patterson
Perpetually overlooked, if healthy, Patterson should be a member of Oklahoma City's most dangerous lineups. His two-way complementary impact will be critical for a roster that needs as much shooting as it can get.
Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons
The most talented player in last year's draft class is also the most talented player in this year's draft class. Simmons could've/should've been an NBA starter during the season he spent at LSU.
Sleeper Rookie of the Year: Malik Monk
The opportunity for big minutes will be there from the start, thanks to Nicolas Batum's unfortunate elbow injury. Monk averaged 15.6 points in five preseason games, can shoot threes, and is surrounded by competence. He won't be a net positive because very few rookies are, but numbers might be there to support a case for this award.
First Team All-NBA
Guard: Steph Curry
Guard: James Harden
Forward: Kevin Durant
Forward: LeBron James
Center: Anthony Davis
Second Team All-NBA
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: Kyrie Irving
Forward: Kawhi Leonard
Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns
Third Team All-NBA
Guard: John Wall
Guard: Chris Paul
Forward: Blake Griffin
Forward: Jimmy Butler
Center: Nikola Jokic
Apologies to Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, Gordon Hayward, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins and all the other very good players out there who didn't make the cut.