Saturday, October 26, 2013

NBA 2013 Predictions: The All Or Nothing Association

Simple Game, Really
Ever play poker for free, where you can't actually win or lose any money at all? It's a breathtakingly pointless exercise, even though you sometimes have to do it, say, if you want to teach the game to kids. (By the way, teach your kids how to play poker. Massive benefit in showing how math has real-world application, and why paying attention is important.) But if you are playing for no money with people who ostensibly know how to play, it quickly becomes unreality, because everyone just shoves their stack in the middle and hopes for the best.

That's kind of what is going to happen in the NBA this year.

There are teams that haven't been in the playoffs who desperately want to be back, even if it means just being a speed bump for a top seed. That would include Washington, Cleveland, Charlotte and Detroit in the East, and New Orleans, Sacramento, the Lakers and Minnesota in the West. There are teams that look like they are trying to lose so many games, they can just forfeit in March and April and save on travel costs. That would be Philadelphia, Boston, Orlando and Milwaukee in the East, and Phoenix and Utah in the West. There are mediocre squads that are loading up for a rent a pennant (Brooklyn and Dallas), and others that seem to have lost the fastball and are lining up for a controlled descent (Denver, Memphis, Portland). But when you close all the doors, bolt all the windows and look seriously, what's really going on is that the league is stratifying into a clear top tier, a much less settled second level of pretenders, and then over half the league wondering if it should start punting games as soon as possible to prevent the rush.

This, but the way, is A Big Problem. NBA fantasy honks are pretty rare, and attending a game is not a wonderful experience if you are not a swell; there are going to be untold number of franchises where the fan base will support the decision to tank, but not go to the games. And with Miami the clear favorite to win its third straight championship (and, um, go to the Finals for the fourth straight time), there's also going to be lots of folks just taking a miss on the year. It's the dark side of memorable dynasties; a rationing of interest for non-blessed teams.

But that's not to say the year isn't going to be a blast. For perhaps the first time in the history of the NBA, you can win a championship without a dominant big man, or even a generational talent at point guard. There are so many ways to build a contending franchise now, with talent coming in from all six continents that have people in them, that it's just fascinating to watch, especially when you get to the playoffs. But the playoffs are actually foretold, quite effectively actually, by the deeply slandered regular season. Which starts Tuesday. So let's get to some predictions.

Atlantic

Brooklyn 53-29
New York 48-34
Toronto 32-50
Boston 24-58
Philadelphia 12-70

Brooklyn becomes the new Boston -- slow, methodical, good on defense, with repugnant fans and just plain difficult to watch -- but with the effectiveness brought on by a bench and the idea that the fourth and fifth guys on the floor at any time are going to be quality. Rookie head coach Jason Kidd will have issues in the playoffs, but not now. New York will not react well to becoming the second-place team in town, nor to watching post-paid J.R. Smith go back to poor habits. The real issue with this team is the simple fact that until they amnesty Amar'e Stoudemire, they just don't fit. Toronto has athletes to spare, but no one plays defense, and there's no one on the rostet that can get Late and Close shots to go, or foul whistles to be blown. Boston has too much of a home-court and young talent to tank effectively, and will find someone from the Jared Sullinger / Kelly Olynyk combo to give them an effective scoring big. Philly is clearly the worst team in the league, but will still win more than the league record of games (9) because the East is loaded with other bad clubs, and the schedule has too many opportunities for a team that tries to sneak in a win or two every ten. Besides, I think they'll try on defense, and good things happen when you try.

Central

Chicago 60-22
Indiana 51-31
Cleveland 44-38
Detroit 41-41
Milwaukee 20-62

Meet the new best team in the East -- but only if they are healthy. When the Bulls run out Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, they may have the best 2-way 5-man lineup in the Association, and that goes with the second-best coach. Combine that with the bright and shining star that is an avenging Rose, and you get a team that is going to tear up the league, let alone the division. Indiana's time has come and gone, with last year's not good enough tight rotation becoming a hodge-podge of parts with Luis Scola and Danny Granger joining the band. Sometimes, more is less. Cleveland will run and fun their way into a low playoff seed (perhaps with LeBron and Co. coming to town to sweep them! wouldn't that be fun!), but the bigs aren't stable or experienced enough to go further in 2013. Detroit is better with Josh Smith and (shh!) Chauncey Billups, but not to the point of relevance, and between Josh Smith and Andre Drummond, you are going to see Hack A Piston at the end of any close game. Milwaukee lost their starting back court of talented but troubled ball hogs, and replaced it with a back court of less talented and less troubled ball hogs. Progress!

Southeast

Miami 56-26
Washington 48-34
Orlando 34-48
Charlotte 34-48
Atlanta 25-57

The seeds of the Miami playoff defeat will be sown in the regular season, where the combination of frontcourt issues (Chris Anderson is older than you think, and won't give them the same level they had last year), questionable depth (really, they are relying on Michael Beasley for anything, and won't miss Mike Miller?), age (Shane Battier and, shh, Dwyane Wade) and the lassitude brought on by multiple Game Seven suckouts will create strain and extra minutes for LeBron James and Chris Bosh. They'll still be hell on wheels on defense, and it's not as if James will stop being the best player in the world, but there are cracks here, and they are getting wider. Washington will actually give them trouble from time to time, especially now that Marcin Gortat has been emancipated from Phoenix, allowing Nene to move to power forward and some ungainly slob to go to ground. If Otto Porter can get over his health issues and give them the all-around player they need at the 3, the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal will do the rest. Fun times and  maybe even a home seed in the playoffs await. Orlando and Charlotte will both win more games than expected with their new additions (Victor Oladipo and Al Jefferson) providing value, while Atlanta will pull the chutes after a slow start and deal Al Horford for lottery balls.

Playoffs

First round: Chicago over Detroit, Miami over Cleveland, Brooklyn over New York, Washington over Indiana

Second round: Chicago over Washington, Miami over Brooklyn

Conference finals: Chicago over Miami

Northwest

Oklahoma City 54-28
Denver 45-37
Minnesota 44-36
Portland 35-47
Utah 22-62

OKC will struggle without Russell Westbrook at the start, but it's actually going to be the best thing for them in the long run, as it will force them to develop Reggie Jackson and rookie center Steven Adams, who will emerge over sluggish Kendrick Perkins to give the team their most effective frontcourt combination and third guard of the bench. Denver is nowhere near the threat they appeared to be last year, but so long as they have altitude, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, they are a playoff club, and if Danilo Gallinari can make it back in time, maybe even a little dangerous. Minnesota needs Ricky Rubio to shoot better and Kevin Love to stay healthy; they'll get the latter, but not the former, and be more fun to watch than actually good. Portland continues to exist as every NBA GM's object lesson of why tank or shove is the only way, and Utah will try to win games in front of the NBA's secretly meanest fan base without, well, front-line talent. With a point guard (rookie Trey Burke) who doesn't look ready for the Association, and no front-court depth. Good luck with all of that.

Pacific

LA Clippers 58-24
Golden State 56-26
LA Lakers 44-38
Sacramento 30-52
Phoenix 28-54

Ready to hear how good Doc Rivers is as a coach? You will, all year long, as he guides this loaded Clipper club to another good regular season that won't end well in the playoffs. As always with this team, it's all about how healthy (and for how long) Chris Paul is, and if they can get anything near to the rebounding and defense that they should out of freakishly overrated power forward Blake Griffin. Oh, and it would also be nice if center DeAndre Jordan got his free throws to be better than a coin flip. But on the plus side, JJ Redick is going to help them a lot, and so will Darren Collison at third guard and Antwan Jamison at bench PF. Yes, Jamison is all kinds of spent, but at least he's not Lamar Odom, and Rivers might also get something out of Byron Mullens, too. But it won't matter later. Nipping at their heels all year will be the Warriors, who need to go from darling to dominant without losing that Splash Brother identity. Kobe Bryant and a going out on his terms Steve Nash will force the Lakers back into the playoff picture for no good reason, while Sacramento will be a tough game with a lot of close losses from being too young to finish. Phoenix is tanking and should lose more than 54 games, but the backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, combined with a good home court and worse luck, will get them a few too many wins for prime lottery.

Southwest

San Antonio 55-27
Houston 48-34
Memphis 46-36
Dallas 45-37
New Orleans 38-44

The only division in basketball without a tanking team, and all kinds of meat grinder. San Antonio will rely more on Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter than last year, but this club still goes as far as Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will lead them, and that's a lot, really. If Danny Green can effectively supplant Manu Ginobili as the missing piece, a Finals return is not out of the question. Houston is going to be everyone's darling with Dwight Howard, but he's not that much better than Omer Asik. The real growth here is James Harden getting even better, and Patrick Beverly getting Jeremy Lin out of the starting lineup. Memphis could slide farther than third without HC Lionel Hollins, but the defensive ball pressure and unique big man rotation will keep them from going too far too quickly. Dallas has sneaky powers with Dirk Nowitzki looking back online, but the rent-a-roster routine that they do while trying to stay perpetually available to be spurned by A-list free agents isn't helping, and Monta Ellis has never been close to a playoff winning team for cause. New Orleans shoved to get Jrue Holiday to go with Anthony Davis, and maybe I'm giving them short shrift... but they are still relying on Eric Gordon's glass ankles and a front court with journeymen at center and power forward. Ryan Anderson is useful against some teams, and a defensive sieve against others. I just don't see it gelling here.

Playoffs

First round: LA Clippers over Denver, San Antonio over Dallas, Oklahoma City over Memphis, Golden State over Houston

Second round: LA Clippers over Golden State, Oklahoma City over San Antonio

Conference Finals: Oklahoma City over LA Clippers

Finals: Chicago over Oklahoma City

All NBA First Team: Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan

Second Team: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Blake Griffin, Paul George, Dirk Nowitzki

Third Team: John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kobe Bryant, Marc Gasol, Kevin Love

Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers

Most Improved: Eric Bledsoe

Sixth Man: Reggie Jackson

Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard

MVP: LeBron James

Season starts Tuesday. Let's get tanking!

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