Predictability seems to be the NBA's biggest shortcoming, at least amongst the non-NBA fans. "Why watch 82 games when only two or three teams could win the title?" is the ethos of their logic, and it's not necessarily wrong.
But as the NBA season comes back tonight, let's usher in the new year with some predictions that edge towards the side of boldness. Certainly, many of these will not bear fruit, but there is still value in being wrong. And just remember, the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, so nothing is totally out of the realm of possibility.
1) Golden State's "Mega-Death" lineup scores over 1.55 points per possession
Why not kick things off by giving the Warriors some more airtime? To make their 73 win season a reality last year, winning close games was a prerequisite. Golden State finished 30-4 in games that had a clutch situation (last five minutes, and the game within five points), spearheaded by the incomparable "Lineup of Death."
While record in close games is typically noisy –– small sample size places increased weight on unsustainable trends such as shot-making and unskilled actions like free throw defense -- Golden State's 30-4 mark was different. They had a bona fide cheat code in late game scenarios. The five-man unit of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green finished with outlandish numbers: they scored 142 points/100 possessions, while allowing just 95 points/100 possessions.
Now they're swapping Barnes for Durant, an upgrade that's almost impossible to conceptualize. Barnes was the man opponents typically switched away from to hedge the Steph/Draymond pick and roll; as a result 136 of his 214 3PA's last season were defined as "wide-open" (no defender within 6+ feet) per SportVU data. In scrambling to prevent a clear look for Steph and Klay, or an open lane for Draymond, teams were content to pay the concession of a Barnes corner three.
Even if he were identical to Barnes as a facilitator, KD would be an upgrade -- he's a far better catch-and-shoot specialist. And that doesn't account for his ability to reprise the Draymond role as a passer, his post-up game that Kerr so eagerly anticipates, or the fact that he's Kevin F**king Durant –– one of the most efficient high volume scorers in NBA history. This lineup may not play much, considering the toll on Draymond that comes with playing center. But when they do, their ruthless efficiency will amaze.
2) Houston finishes with a top-three offense (in points per possession)
After a disastrous 2016 season, Houston turned to Mike D'Antoni to revitalize the Rockets' offense. They doubled down on two elite one-way shooters, giving 4 year contracts to both Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Improved shooting will ease James Harden's transition to point guard, especially if Anderson regains his spot-up prowess from 2014-2015.
The removal of Dwight Howard should also grease the offensive wheels. His incessant need for post touches became a drag last season; only Andre Drummond was less efficient amongst players with over 280 post-ups, per Synergy Sports.
For all of his obvious faults, D'Antoni has proven that he can reliably improve regular season offense. Even the 2012-2013 Lakers, one of the most disappointing "superteams" in recent memory, finished 8th in points per possession. If Harden and the flanking shooters stay healthy, this team could displace top-5 offenses from 2016 (Toronto and Cleveland), at least in the regular season.
3) James Harden wins MVP
This functions as an addendum to prediction no. 2, given that Harden has virtually no chance of winning if Houston's offense crumbles. But if Harden and D'Antoni find a rhythm offensively, and Houston can avoid dropping into the bottom eight defensively, an MVP case starts to take form.
It's the latter half of that statement that worries me. Patrick Beverley, perhaps the only plus defender amongst Houston guards, is out for four-six weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. The Rockets are relying on Clint Capela to maintain his rim protection numbers against starting competition, over a full season. And who knows which version of Harden we will get this year? If he's semi-engaged and active in transition, as he was in 2014-2015, the Rockets could manage league-average defense. If he's lazy in the passing lanes, and unwilling to run in transition, Houston could repeat its abysmal 2015-2016 season, when they simultaneously allowed the most opposing transition baskets at the highest efficiency of any playoff team.
Harden's candidacy will ultimately hang on the Rockets' defense, and subsequent win total. It's hard to find MVP's from sub-50 win teams. Since media began voting in 1981, only Moses Malone (1982) has won an MVP from a sub-50 win team. Arbitrary as it is, Houston will need to get to 50, and possibly beat out San Antonio or the Clippers for Harden to have a chance with the media. But his numbers should be gaudy, in a season without another great candidate.
Steph and KD will hurt each others' candidacies, as Steve Kerr has mentioned, and no amount of Golden State success will be enough to impress the media. LeBron will likely be on cruise control –– though he is the obvious candidate if he eschews coasting the regular season. Kawhi will have to overcome San Antonio's win total declining, and it should not be assumed that his career-high efficiencies from last year will sustain. If both he and the Spurs regress, it will be tough for a pro-Kawhi narrative to take hold.
Guys like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Damian Lillard either have a lack of usage, or an impossible path to 50 wins impeding their chances. And for all the deserved Russell Westbrook hype, I think Houston is better suited to amass regular season wins, which historically is what voters value the most.
At 10-1 odds, this is one of the riskier predictions. But the Beard deserves a look.
4) Miami decides to tank
Miami's resignation on the Chris Bosh saga helped elucidate their long-term plans. Pat Riley wants a clear cap sheet this summer; both the Bosh injury designation and his refusal to give Dwyane Wade a long term deal affirm this. Since Miami owes Phoenix their 2018 and 2021 first round picks (the latter of which is completely unprotected), they have very little incentive to tank in the future.
That leaves 2016-2017 as the season to make the most of their scant draft capital, and the path to the top of the draft has never been easier. Outside of Brooklyn and Philly, every East team has the talent to win now, and financial incentive to do so.
When Miami struggles to win with Dion Waiters and James Johnson playing heavy minutes, Riley may understandably set his sights on the 2017 offseason. Which brings us to…
5) Goran Dragic is traded
Should Miami decide to tank, this is the easiest and most pragmatic route. Dragic is still owed $70 million over the next four seasons, but we live in a post-cap spike world now. That's a small price to pay for an above-average primary ball handler; Kent Bazemore is owed almost that exact amount over the next four years.
Sacramento and Miami have already engaged in trade talks, but the rumored package of Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore isn't going to move the needle for Miami. They need real pieces in a Dragic trade, whether that's in the form of athletic youngsters or draft capital.
The two firsts owed to Phoenix are already a sunk cost, but this shouldn't become a strict salary dump. Dragic is a talented guard; this even showed in Miami, where Wade dominated the ball and forced Dragic to concede a large chunk of playmaking duties. His three-point shooting has fallen considerably since reaching Miami –– from 38.8% in his last two Phoenix seasons (128 games) to 30.6% in 98 games with the Heat. That could be a symptom of decline or of an imperfect fit, and his play this season will guide other teams' thinking on this.
But the trade market inevitably heats up during the regular season, and a surprising team with a weakness at point guard may talk themselves into a win-now move for Dragic. If that happens, it would be prudent of Miami to ship Dragic for long-terms assets. It would clear the cap sheet for the 2017 summer and allow Miami to increase the value of their 2017 first-rounder.
6) Kelly Olynyk/Al Horford proves to be Boston's optimal big man combo
Put this prediction on ice for a bit, as Olynyk is still recovering from offseason surgery on his right shoulder. The team has tentatively said that a mid-November return is the goal, and Amir Johnson will serve as the starting big alongside Al Horford before and after Olynyk's return.
But Olynyk's game should mesh well with Horford's, whose mobility will help camouflage the former's defensive limitations. The Celtics sorely need plus shooters, and pairing these two enables Boston to play a non-shooter at the 3, whether it be Marcus Smart or rookie Jaylen Brown.
Boston's second-most played lineup last season was comprised of Avery Bradley, Smart, Evan Turner, Jonas Jerebko, and Olynyk. By virtue of having elite shooters at the big positions, the Celtics got away with playing Smart and Turner. That lineup eviscerated opponents, scoring over 118 points/100 possessions and finishing with a +22.5 net rating. A dearth of shooters prevents the Celtics from mustering an elite offense; playing Horford and Olynyk together remedies that.
7) Indiana underperforms their Over/Under
Per Bovada, their over/under as of October 25th is 44.5. This is obviously an arbitrary distinction; the broader idea is that Indiana regresses from their 2015-2016 season, when they won 44 games.
It's easy to see Larry Bird's logic in building this team, but I would dispute its soundness. It sounds great in theory to replace George Hill with Jeff Teague, but there's little evidence that Teague is a better point guard than Hill, let alone a better fit for a Pacers team that already has two ball-dominant starters in Monta Ellis and Paul George.
Firing Frank Vogel could also come back to haunt this team. Despite his unimiaginative offense, and adherence to a two-big system (Vogel stopped playing George at power forward last season almost entirely by the playoffs), Vogel's teams consistently rank at the top defensively. They were first in 2014, and third last season.
Even if Myles Turner can be a valuable rim protector against opposing starters (at 20 years old), Indiana may still struggle to defend. When Turner isn't at center it gets even more dire; 31 year old Al Jefferson is not the anchor bench units need. And while increased talent should improve their offense, at least marginally, their starters will be spacing-starved. Factor in their good health last season (Ellis and George played 81 games, Hill played 74), and an Indiana regression seems even more likely.
8) Monta Ellis is shifted to the bench
I advocated for this last season, and the principle behind it remains the same. Ellis, with his defensive deficiencies and iso-heavy, ball-dominant style of offense, is almost perfectly suited to a sixth man role. He fits that ilk of bench guard to a tee; an undersized 2 who is an unexceptional shooter, yet can carry an offense with a high volume of drives and midrange jumpers.
Removing him from the starting lineup would like thrust CJ Miles into the role. He's a far better shooter than Ellis, and wouldn't take dribbles or possessions away from George and Teague. It's a logical fit on both ends, and would allow Monta to finally play his ideal role, one where he's practically encouraged to shoot as much as possible.
9) Neither Monta Ellis nor Al Jefferson is a part of Indiana's best five-man unit
There's just too much ball-stopping offense here, and in Ellis' case, he has virtually no gravity as an off-ball shooter. Al's brutish post game doesn't mesh well with the starters, who rely on slashing more than shooting.
In Charlotte last season, lineups with Jefferson made hay when he was flanked by four shooters. The unit of Kemba Walker, Courtney Lee, Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, and Jefferson scored over 120 points/100 possessions.
They scorched opponents with an amalgam of post-ups from Al, and spot-up jumpers from the shooters flanking him. The personnel for such lineups just isn't there on the Pacers, where Al will be recast as an instant offense guy off the bench, a role which he should dominate.
10) Julius Randle becomes the odd man out in Luke Walton's rotation
Barring some development, I don't foresee Randle meshing well with players whom the organization has invested more heavily in. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov were both given long-term deals at exorbitant prices. For that pair to provide anything even resembling surplus value, they're going to have to play.
Positionally, there's little ambiguity in regards to Mozgov. He's a plodding 5, and will exclusively play there. The case of Deng is trickier, as he is still nominally a combo forward. I'm dubious of his ability to handle minutes at the 3; he played 73% of his minutes at power forward during his resurgent 2015-2016 season. And given the Lakers' incentive to up Brandon Ingram's minutes throughout the season -- presumably at small forward -- it stands to reason that Deng and Randle will cannibalize each other's minutes.
I envision Randle sliding to the bench, where his offense-centric game can be used to prop up less talented units. Despite his shortcomings as a rim protector, shooter, and passer, Randle is still a plus scorer and rebounder. Those strengths could be magnified sliding to the bench, while allowing for Luke Walton to play a more versatile frontcourt of Ingram - Deng - Mozgov.
11a) Phoenix settles on Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker as their backcourt
For the Suns, their surprise 48-win campaign in 2013-2014 continues to look like a curse. Their personnel moves since then have baffled most onlookers. They soured relations with Goran Dragic, shipped out Isaiah Thomas and a Lakers' first-round pick for Brandon Knight, and subsequently signed Knight to a 5 year, $70 million extension.
After striking gold with Booker in the 2015 draft, Phoenix once again faces an overcrowded backcourt. It's unreasonable to think Bledsoe, Knight and Booker can share the court together; Booker and Knight are both minus defenders at best, and Bledsoe's 6'1'' frame precludes him from sliding up multiple positions on defense.
Couple that with Knight's ball-dominant style, and he seems to fit the archetype of "bench gunner." As for the starters, Bledsoe helps compensate for Booker's defense, something Knight was incapable of. Their two-man lineup allowed over 111 points/100 possessions in 2015-2016, while scoring less efficiently than Phoenix's season-average.
11b) Alex Len fails to overtake Tyson Chandler
As teams start handing out extensions ahead of the October 31 deadline, Phoenix's commitment (or lack thereof) to Len will clarify their faith in the fourth-year big. I'm dubious that Len receives an extension, and the Suns are probably correct to hold out.
Despite his agile moves and lithe frame, Len has yet to translate his gifts into offensive production. He often flails in the paint, or uncorks ill-advised jumpers from midrange. He finished with the lowest eFG% amongst all qualified centers last season, despite a relatively high usage rate of 20.4%.
Len will certainly get minutes; there's no opportunity cost in taking them from Tyson Chandler, who does not fit Phoenix's timeline. But the Suns scored 101 points/100 possessions with Len off the court last season; that dropped to 97 points/100 possessions with Len. Unless the ethos of his offensive game shifts to that of a rim running, mobile, low-usage center, he will continue to be a drag on the Suns.