Sawley’s NBA season preview and predictions

The NBA starts today in a wonderful quintupleheader spanning three television networks. So join me as I unveil my predictions and gloss over some of the pertinent topics regarding the upcoming season. If you start before the first tip, you should finish by, oh say, halftime of the third game.

How do you top one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory? My guess is not by having an ugly labor dispute that almost cancelled the season, made Michael Jordan look like a huge tool and gave us way too much B-roll footage of players and owners walking into hotel lobbies.

We were this close to not having basketball this year. We would be spending the holidays this year wearing crappy Christmas sweaters, listening to Michael Buble sing Christmas songs and watching James Bond and a bizarrely attractive emo girl solve a murder and Tom Cruise do a Cirque du Soleil show outside of a skyscraper (both movies — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — are fantastic, by the way). But now that the NBA is back, we’ll get to spend the holidays enjoying NBA action, in addition to wearing crappy Christmas sweaters, listening to Michael Buble sing Christmas¬†songs and watching James Bond and a bizarrely attractive emo girl solve a murder and Tom Cruise do a Cirque du Soleil show outside of a skyscraper. Now there’s something in there for everyone. We all win!

While the NBA was gone, one of the ways I kept busy was by watching The Wonder Years, a show I watched a long time ago as a kid and recently became available on Netflix. I’m currently on season five, but thank God I can go watch basketball now. I forgot just how bad Kevin had it for Winnie and how she wasn’t as cute as I had previously remembered. I’m starting to get incredibly annoyed with how Kevin throws away all these wide-open chances with much cuter girls because he can’t bring himself to getting over hurt-ass Winnie Fucking Cooper.

Wow. Tangent. I better just get to my picks before this becomes a full thesis about Kevin Arnold’s lost childhood.

* denotes division winners

West:

1. Thunder*
2. Mavs*
3. Grizzlies
4. Lakers*
5. Spurs
6. Blazers
7. Clippers
8. Nuggets

East:

1. Heat*
2. Bulls*
3. Knicks*
4. Pacers
5. Magic
6. Celtics
7. Hawks
8. Bucks

MVP: Kevin Durant
Coach of the Year
: Frank Vogel (Pacers)
Rookie of the Year
: Kemba Walker

West champion: Thunder
East champion: Heat

NBA champion: Heat

Partay in South Beach.

And now a few talking points that I thought of as I calculated those predictions:


The courting of Dwight D. Howard

Once upon a time I was a young lad who attended a handful of the Golden State Warriors basketball camps held at their practice facility in Downtown Oakland. I seriously learned absolutely nothing from these camps. The counselors were usually scrubs from the college level who had no experience teaching the game to kids. (How hard is to to be a PE teacher? Well, evidently for these guys, really hard.) Yet I always convinced my parents to fork over hundreds of their money each summer just for the off-chance I can meet and see some of the Warriors players. I got Gilbert Arenas’ autograph at one camp. I have it around my place somewhere. I’m sure it was worth dozens during that whole bringing-guns-to-the-locker-room episode.

One of the camp’s directors was a former Warrior by the name of Otis Smith. You may now know Smith as the Orlando Magic’s GM. Yeah, the guy who was essentially running a basketball day care now looks over player personnel of the Magic. For a guy who was supposed to be one of the main counselors, he didn’t teach much of anything substantial. The one time I remember being “instructed” by him was when he turned off all the lights in the facility and made all the kids in the camp meditate for like 20 minutes. (Apparently somebody was reading Phil Jackson’s book.) I was 11, maybe 12-years-old, and I was being taught how to meditate at a basketball camp. Other than that, I never had any interaction with him. All the other times I saw him, he was playing one-on-one with the younger kids or elsewhere trying to make himself look important. It’s because of these reasons I expect the Orlando Magic to crash and burn in one way or another at the end of this Dwight Howard odyssey.

Do we really think Howard wants to stay in Orlando? He says he wouldn’t mind staying in O-Town (heh, remember the band O-Town?), so long as the Magic devote themselves to becoming a title contender. And honestly, I can see some degree of truth to that statement. But let’s not fool ourselves. I can say I don’t mind not having a million dollars, but that’s not to say I actually don’t want a million dollars. Howard wants to play in a big market. I know it. You know it. So let’s not try to fight it.

The above predictions for the standings are based on the assumption that Howard stays put. Even though I think he’ll be on the move by season’s end, I figured it pointless to base my predictions on where I think he would end up, when in theory the options are profound. But I do think the Magic will wise up and trade D12 elsewhere to see at least some return for his loss, very much similar to how the Nuggets handled the Carmelo scenario. And why wouldn’t you do that if Howard’s essentially just going through the motions in games? I’d be least surprised by Turkoglu’s lousy contract being shipped with Howard to LA for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum with extra pieces on both sides. After the Brook Lopez injury, Dwight’s essentially the Lakers’ player to lose. But I also don’t have a hard time seeing an outsider team swooping him up out of nowhere. Say, the Bulls or the Mavs, even if the latter doesn’t have the pieces to pull off such a deal by themselves and the former being a team I figure to already be at or near the top of the standings and too unwilling to pull the trigger on dramatically changing the team makeup and chemistry in the midst of a good season. But know this: Unless he goes to your team, no matter where he ends up, you will be disgusted.

 

The crowded West and the race for the last playoff spots

Bad news for fringe teams in the West: the conference is loaded. So even if you may be worthy of a playoff spot, you may also be out of luck. I was pretty confident as to who would comprise the top six teams (even though ordering them was an arduous task in its own right), but sorting the final two positions is where I probably spent a majority of my deliberation. Five teams were in the mix.

At the seven seed, I have the Clippers, who are a sexy team right now to pick to make the playoffs. No doubt they’re a better team with Chris Paul, but as I’ll explain further down below, I’m not completely buying into the hype.

The last team I have making it into the playoffs is the Nuggets. Re-signing Nene is a big help, as does re-upping Arron Afflalo, who a lot of experts seem to believe is capable of taking on a bigger role with the team. The progression of Ty Lawson makes him appear ready to be the team’s starting point guard. Danilo Gallinari continues to improve as well. But what hurts is China going all “real-life economy” on them, taking away jobs in the form of Kenyon Martin, JR Smith and Wilson Chandler. All three were unrestricted free agents who bolted for Chinese Basketball Association when the outlook for the lockout looked bleak. Who knows what their situations will be whenever they’re allowed return. The Nuggs tried to replenish their depth by bringing in guys such as Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez and rookies Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton. That doesn’t do it for me. Faried, I like. But Brewer has been a career underachiever. Rudy Fernandez is a great shooter but gets pushed around easily and just seems to me like he plays uninspired (probably because I’ve never seen him smile).

The first team I have on the outside looking in, at the nine spot, is, sadly, my Warriors. As much as I wanted to be a homer and put them in the playoffs, when stacked up against the other teams in the West, I just couldn’t objectively find a reason that would justify that. (For one, if it’s between them and the Nuggets, Denver has the coaching edge and a more balanced lineup.) As much as the Warriors want to let you know about the new ownership, new management, new coaching, this team is effectively the same. Mark Jackson can keep barking about how he believes he has a playoff team, but it’s a team that still doesn’t have a sound back-up point guard to Stephen Curry, there are still questions at the center position, and based on its two preseason games, the defense Jackson is preaching so hard still looks unimpressive.

At 10 is the Rockets. When I think of the Rockets, I think of a team that almost had Pau Gasol, which could have led to a possible signing Nene, constituting a pretty formidable frontcourt. But the kabash got put on that when David Stern looked at the Lakers and said “NO PAUL FOR YOU!” before they even had a chance to look in the bag to see if they got any bread. Instead the Rockets are stuck with Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, two good players, but two good players who probably unhappy and feel jilted for having been included in that now-infamous nixed trade.

And with the Suns, I just see a team doing nothing but getting older. Plug in here your gratuitous “the compressed season benefits the younger teams more” argument.

 

The battle of Los Angeles: An outlook of the Lakers and new-look Clippers

The season-long storyline I’m going to keep my eye closest on is how both LA teams do. Between the two, there are coaching changes, radically different rosters, with possibly more player movement to come. I still like the Lakers to win the Pacific Division because Bryant-Gasol-Bynum is still a pretty good core (as long as it stays healthy/in tact). But regardless, the Lakers have a lot of question marks, the most glaring of which for me is at the coaching position, which is now filled by Not Phil Jackson (aka Mike Brown). I’ve never been one to consider coaching an huge priority on a team that has a great core of players. For example, when you’ve got Kobe, Pau and Bynum, the X’s and O’s come a lot easier. You’ve got to be a real dope to mess a thing like that up. (Yes, Brown is more of a defensive-oriented guy anyway, but the Lakers already had some pretty good defensive pieces. Lamar Odom’s departure hurts in that regard, however.) But I do think Brown matters when it comes to handling Kobe. Jackson kept Kobe in check and in return had Kobe’s respect (despite some publicized transgressions in their relationship in the past, ie Phil saying his kidney stone was named “Kobe” because it “wasn’t passing”). Can Brown and Kobe work with each other? That’s a big question because, remember, Kobe lobbied for former assistant Brian Shaw (now an assistant in Indy) to succeed Jackson.

And believe it or not, I don’t think the Lakers did so bad in recreating their depth. Nobody’s name is Chris Paul, nor did the Lakers get a game-changing point guard, but I like Josh McRoberts, who is a very athletic forward and, if consistent, can be good on both ends, and Troy Murphy, if he can stay healthy, is solid on the boards. I like Jason Kapono spreading the defense out for Kobe and Devin Ebanks playing a more prominent role this season.

The Clippers, meanwhile, are more of a wild card. They win the Chris Paul sweepstakes but sacrifice their depth in doing so. They are extremely thin up front. After DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, there isn’t anybody substantial to fill in. They should try to move Mo Williams to acquire more size, but then they’re thinner at the point. Would Billups be willing to move out of the starting lineup as the two guard and move to the bench to spell Paul? Getting rid of Gordon is tough to swallow, but the Clippers are better off with Paul, and even with the rosters’ shortcomings they’re already better than they were last year. Need I even mention Blake Griffin? But let’s not forget this about the Clippers: Their coach is still Vinny Del Negro (the guy who, while coach in Chicago, thought the Bulls were better served by playing Derrick Rose off the ball) and their owner is still Donald Sterling (the guy who is the cheapest owner in sports, heckles his own players during games and insults Black History Month).

 

Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven, not eight, but one. Finally.

LeBron James is probably going win at least one title before his career is over and hairline completely disappears. But eclipsing Jordan’s six? Whoa, there. I think one or two is a little more realistic, and this year looks promising for that to finally come to fruition. LeBron says the “villain” label got to his head last season and it affected who he was. He says he won’t let that bother him this year. But the Heat’s success this year isn’t hinging on whether LeBron wants to embrace his inner Lex Luthor. I think the Shane Battier signing was the best thing that could have happened to Miami. He brings much needed intensity and versatility off the bench and adds to what’s already a defensive stalwart. Overall, the Heat’s bench, which was one of Miami’s weaknesses a year ago, is much improved from last year. Udonis Haslem, who missed almost all of last year with a foot injury (and now sans braids) says he’s fully healthy. If Mike Miller and Eddy Curry can stay healthy themselves, they’ll also figure prominently in the rotation. Most importantly, I think last year was a learning experience for the Heat. Everyone was gunning for them. It’s no different this year, but maybe they’ll know how to handle business now.

Yes, I was vehemently rooting against the Heat all last season. Yes, I still think LeBron is a douche for leaving Cleveland and the Cavs high and dry. He deserved all of the backlash and criticism he got last year and still gets today. Personally, I didn’t think it should have been that easy for LeBron to get a ring. I felt like he should have experienced some humility before he could win with the Heat, just to remind him that he isn’t entitled to everything he wants. He is not Oprah. So that’s why I was so unabashedly against LeBron and the Heat last year. And plus I didn’t want to see Erick Dampier get a ring, but that’s just the Warriors fan in me speaking.

Enjoy the season.

Photo via Getty

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