As much as we love our football-heavy coverage each fall, Matt and I decided to change it up and bring back the official DCIAB NBA preview. Just like every year in the bright lights league that is the modern NBA, the story lines don’t seem to end heading into tonight’s opening tip. Now that the annual Heat-in-the-Finals has been extinguished simply by the greatest player alive taking his talents back to Cleveland along with former MVP Derrick Rose making his second comeback, the reshuffled East should be a fantastic watch this year. Out West, the immortal Spurs try to hold off the surging Clippers and Durant-less (for a couple months) Thunder. A promising slate of rookies led by Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Nerlens Noel provides some excitement among the non-contenders.
In this preview, Matt and I will each lay out our playoff teams followed by awards predictions and, finally, our NBA playoff bracket.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Unoriginal pick here, but these guys are going to be really fucking good. A roster that already teemed with young talent was joined by LeBron James and Kevin Love. I don’t expect there to be quite the same growing pains and microscopic media pressure that we saw in Miami, and even then Miami won the East every single year. The Cavs are undoubtedly the most talented team in the East, and the only x-factor is how new head coach David Blatt will adjust to NBA ball, though the early reports on him have been overwhelmingly positive.
2. Chicago Bulls
We Bulls fans have waited seemingly forever for our city’s most beloved athlete to finally reach full health. Unfortunately, we found ourselves saying the very same thing last year, so I have to enter this season with cautious optimism. I continue to say that people forget just how freaking good Derrick Rose was (and hopefully is). Although he had an up and down campaign with Team USA in August and September, Coach K and Thibs have repeatedly asserted their confidence in him. In preseason, Rose has shown that he still has his quickness and hops. Since Rose was last healthy, Luol Deng has essentially been replaced by Jimmy Butler (better defender, worse scorer), Carlos Boozer by Pau Gasol (ditto, but more importantly is much cheaper), rookie sharpshooter Doug McDermott, and lauded prospect Nikola Mirotic. And oh yeah, Joakim Noah, who finished fourth in MVP voting last season, is still in town.
3. Atlanta Hawks
It looks to me like the Cavaliers and Bulls will most definitely be the top two teams in the East, and the next four could all finish anywhere from 3rd to 8th. This team proved to be pretty threatening in last year’s playoffs even without Al Horford, who is arguably their top player. Horford teamed up with Paul Millsap should be pretty killer offensively, and I am a big Jeff Teague fan.
4. Washington Wizards
Most people think these guys will finish third, but Bradley Beal’s broken hand and the loss of Trevor Ariza could give this poorly coached team some early trouble. Obviously, finishing fourth is not really a problem for a still-improving team with an attainable goal of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
5. Toronto Raptors
Breakout seasons from DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Drake propelled the Raptors to the three-spot in the East last season. This drop is less of a bet on regression than the rest of the East improving more than Toronto.
6. Charlotte Hornets
I’m a big fan of the newly rebranded Hornets and would not be surprised if they launch all the way up to the three spot. Although their playoff series against the Heat looked ugly results-wise, the games were surprisingly competitive for the most part. These guys are competitors. The additions of my boy Lance Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s alleged jump shot could do wonders for this rallying city.
7. Miami Heat
So much of the Heat’s success this year depends on what they get from the ailing and aging Dwyane Wade and Danny Granger. Unfortunately, I don’t think they will get too much. Chris Bosh’s experience will be much more like his Toronto years than his recent Miami ones, as he will have to carry a significant amount of the offensive load for Miami, which I believe he can do pretty well. It should be interesting to see how rookie Shabazz Napier fairs at the next level after his championship senior year at Connecticut.
8. Brooklyn Nets
This team has gotten boring, but they’re still pretty talented. Maybe they will get a healthy season from Brook Lopez, though I doubt it. If Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker can tear it up and Brandon Knight and Larry Sanders don’t play terribly, Milwaukee could be a fun team and fight for a playoff spot. Stan van Gundy could also propel a talented yet messy Detroit Pistons squad to the playoffs, but that will be difficult.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
This team has a shot, in the next 2-3 years, to have the best offense the NBA has ever seen. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were offensive powerhouses at their respective destinations before they had one of the three best playmakers in the league as their teammate (that’d be LeBron James). The only thing that could stop this team from rolling straight through the playoffs is their defense. David Blatt will need to do some work on that end to create a top-level unit.
2. Chicago Bulls
There’s no way around this team’s offensive struggles last year– Chicago was one of the worst three offenses in 2013-14. That said, a Tom Thibodeau defense could carry even that team to a nice seed in the playoffs. Now, they return Derrick Rose and add Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott. If Thibs is willing to give ample minutes to those last two, there are enough parts here to cobble together a top-ten offense, which is basically a necessity to be a title contender. If that happens, the Bulls will have as good a shot as the Cavaliers to come out of the East.
3. Toronto Raptors
The Raps came out of nowhere and were possibly the best team in the East in the second half of the 2014 season. This year they’ve added another nice bench piece in Louis Williams, who moved to Canada after an injury-riddled tenure with the Hawks. Kyle Lowry might regress a bit after last year, but this team has other parts that should improve, like young center Jonas Valanciunas and guard/forward Terrence Ross. Even DeMar DeRozan could take another small leap up from last season. This team has both the offensive and defensive talent to be a contender in the East.
4. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks were third in the East last year when Al Horford went down with his second random torn pectoral injury. If Horford sticks around this year, and he should, this team will get an interior defensive boost that was sorely needed last season. Pair that with a creative offensive coach like Mike Budenholzer and this team should be right in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
5. Washington Wizards
Last year, I awarded the five spot in my playoff race to the a team that I dreaded had a chance of falling out of the playoffs– the New York Knicks, who ended up doing just that. This year, I’ve already dropped the Wizards two spots down from my original projection for them (the three seed). Perhaps it’s merely over-analysis driven by my close following of the team, but I’m worried about this team. Trevor Ariza was the only elite perimeter defender on the squad last year and he’s gone– now defending wings could be a serious issue unless Brad Beal or Otto Porter step up their game. Paul Pierce will be a nice offensive addition, but he’s certainly not without his faults and is almost too slow at this point to guard the three. Combine those wing issues with injuries to Beal and inevitably Nene, and it’s tough for me to put the Wiz above the five-spot. Come playoff time though, I believe they can compete with almost any team from the East. If John Wall takes another leap, this team could rise as high as 2-3 in the standings.
6. Charlotte Hornets
There’s no real reason to think this team’s defense should regress from last year’s top-ten unit, but the offense could struggle a bit this season. The spacing and passing prowess brought on by Josh McRoberts is gone, replaced by Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh which… yikes. Lance Stephenson is a big addition, but this team already has Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson to create their own shots in a pinch. Stephenson will be good, but what this team really needed was a couple more three-and-D guys. MKG is the x-factor for this team; an offensive improvement on his end could be enough to earn a South-East division title for the
7. Miami Heat
LeBron is gone, Luol is in. This team’s starting five is good enough to contend with almost anyone, but the bench is a massive potential problem. There’s next-to-no scoring firepower on this second unit and it’ll take some creative lineup staggering by Eric Spoelstra to sort out viable combinations. He’s capable of that and this team should be good enough to make the playoffs, but I fear for their ability to hang with the other improved East teams. The glory days of the Heat are over, plain and simple.
8. Detroit Pistons
This is a tough choice between the Nets and Knicks and Pistons, so I went with the best coach available. Stan Van Gundy has an excellent history of putting together an elite offense centered around an emerging young big. Oh hey, Andre Drummond. With their newly added three-point shooting, this team may have been my seventh seed if not for Jodie Meeks’ injury for the first few months of the season. Trusting Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith to play more unselfish basketball is a tough decision to make, but this is a meaningless prediction anyway so who cares what you think, man.
1. San Antonio Spurs
I picked these guys to win the championship last year, and I’m not picking against them until Gregg Popovich retires or they prove otherwise.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
My evaluation on this team last year was pretty spot-on: “This current team will never make it to a Finals in my opinion. Too much going on with Lob City and all that, and Jordan and Griffin cannot be trusted to play consistently on either end and hit their foul shots. I like them as a great regular season team, especially with Rivers in town, but somebody will trip them up in the playoffs.” In the last year, Griffin has proven to be a top-five NBA player and a potentially strong playoff team. I think Chris Paul is fantastic, and if he enters the playoffs healthy, watch out for these guys.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last year, I said, “I can’t wait to see what Durant can do without Westbrook hijacking twenty shots a game.” Now, we face the opposite scenario, with Westbrook carrying the scoring load in Durant’s absence. After watching a ton of last year’s playoffs, I’m a converted Westbrook supporter. I also wrote a fifteen-page African Studies essay based loosely on Serge Ibaka’s upbringing in Congo, and he’s also ridiculously good. As obsessed as everyone is with the term “Big Three,” this trio could perhaps be the best in the league, but no one will call them the “Big Three” because they have been together for a few years and aren’t a shiny new object.
4. Golden State Warriors
So much of the discussion around Golden State this season will be predicated on Klay Thompson’s play after the team chose not to trade him in a package for Kevin Love. I like the idea of Steve Kerr as head coach, and Stephen Curry has blossomed into one of the NBA’s top stars. They could easily be a lower seed if Kerr and the team struggle, but a healthy Bogut could anchor a talented team and help it begin to fulfill its potential.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
These guys are back again. Marc Gasol has become one of the top NBA players who is not significant in popular culture, and Mike Conley is not too far behind.
6. Portland Trailblazers
After a surprising season from Portland’s lone major sports team brought them to the Western Conference Semifinals, Portland will be competitors again this season. A breakout season from LaMarcus Aldridge and a solid sophomore season from Damian Lillard should continue into this year and notch Portland a playoff spot in the crowded West.
7. Houston Rockets
Nasty splits with Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik coupled with growing distaste for the flop-loving, defense-hating James Harden as well as the detestable Dwight Howard, few fans really like these guys. Unfortunately, they remain pretty talented and should land a playoff spot.
8. Dallas Mavericks
Lots of people will pick the improving, exciting Suns to sneak into the West this year over the aging Dallas, but the addition of Chandler Parsons and a few pieces in the backcourt should keep Dallas in it. I got all eight West playoff teams correct last year, and I picked the same eight this year. Interesting.
1. San Antonio Spurs
This team will probably regress just a little bit from last year’s unit as everybody gets a year older, but they’ll still be the ridiculous powerhouse they’ve been for like ten years now. Spurs uber alles.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clips have the offensive chops to hang with anybody, but their defense will be the potential tipping point that turns them into the Western Conference favorite. Doc Rivers is still implementing the Thibodeau system that he used in Boston, so their D should improve from last year. The Clippers are overall a solid team that I don’t think I could ever pick to win the championship. Blake Griffin is also really, REALLY good.
3. Golden State Warriors
This is one of the few large leaps in my Western Conference predictions this year. I believe that Mark Jackson was heavily costing the Golden State offense with his insistence on an isolation-heavy system. Now, Steve Kerr is in command and will be all about ball movement (or at least, much more than Jackson). With talented passers like Steph Curry and Andre Igoudala and talented finishers (around the rim and otherwise) like Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, and Harrison Barnes, these guys are going to be excellent on the offensive end. Given their defensive prowess last year, this team is clearly among the most talented in the league and should play like it under a new, more innovative coach.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
If they weren’t without Kevin Durant for a while, this team would be in my number two spot. Instead, they fall to four, though I could still see them finishing first. There are questions at shooting guard (the Thunder will play a mix of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and eventually Anthony Morrow), but they’re finally starting a non-Kendrick Perkins entity at center and that’ll give a little boost to this team’s offensive capabilities. Praise the lawd.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies will just grind everybody to death on defense. They should be in the top-five in defensive points-per-possession this season and I’m hopeful their offense will continue to improve. Quincy Pondexter is one of my favorite players in the league that nobody ever talks about, and he returns from injury this season to provide spacing and competent defense. Vince Carter makes his arrival from Dallas and he’ll also give this team a shooting punch that has been sorely lacking in previous seasons. With new options for Marc Gasol to pass to and old mainstays like Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph to keep the defense rolling, it’s not hard to imagine Memphis making a small leap into contention this year.
6. Dallas Mavericks
I’m irrationally high on almost any Rick Carlisle-coached team, and this one falls under that category. Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, and Dirk Nowitzki are a truly formidable offensive trio operating in a fantastic system. This team will struggle to find defensively gifted options to plug holes on the other end, but Jae Crowder will provide hustle and wing D that could fix some of those issues. Add a hopefully rejuvenated Tyson Chandler into the mix and there could be a great team in Dallas this season.
7. Houston Rockets
Losing Lin and Asik will be more troubling for this team than many realize. There are truly no interior defenders behind Dwight Howard now and Lin was a better facilitator than new starting point guard Patrick Beverley. Still, the added wing defense of Trevor Ariza will certainly help cover the loss of Parsons, especially if his improved three-point shooting percentages are the real deal (I think they are). Expect this team to maintain a significant amount of their offensive efficiency, but the other teams in the West made significant upgrades– enough to push Houston down to the seventh seed.
8. Portland Trailblazers
Of all the playoff teams last year, the Trailblazers are the one I’d deem most likely to undergo some natural regression. The team was almost too hot from three for much of last year and is due for a bit of regression in their midrange shooting as well. LaMarcus Aldridge is fantastically talented but won’t artificially inflate this team like he did in the playoffs last year over a larger sample size. Dame Lillard is good, but might be too old to significantly improve upon his game. This team will be solid again, but not like they were last year.
Most Valuable Player
Bob: LeBron James
He really should win this award every year, but, as I predicted last year, Kevin Durant won due to voter fatigue and a national obsession with offense. Blake Griffin could step up and snatch this award, but he will split votes with Chris Paul. Durant’s injury will make it tough for him to win MVP, and hell will freeze over before enough people like Westbrook enough for him to be voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Matt: LeBron James
I’m with Bob on this one. I thought LeBron would take it again last year, but Durant was literally a living incarnation of the fire emoji for the entire season and took it away from James. I like Griffin as a sneaky contender for this award as well but the narrative in Cleveland is too good for LeBron. He’ll take this one going away. Other perceived contenders: Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Dirk Nowitzki
Rookie of the Year
Bob: Jabari Parker
People say he has fit in perfectly to Jason Kidd’s Bucks team, and I expect the other competitors – Andrew Wiggins, Nerlens Noel, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle – to take more time to adjust. My semi-sleeper pick here is Marcus Smart, which depends a lot on Rajon Rondo’s role with the Celtics going forward.
Matt: Jabari Parker
No other rookie is going to have the offensive responsibilities of Jabari Parker this year. I almost picked Smart for this award, but he’ll be sitting behind Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley while Jabari starts at many games as his body can manage in Milwaukee. RotY voters love points, and I expect Jabari to deliver those in a big way. I’m foreseeing a tough first year for Wiggins in Minnesota, but obviously he has the natural talent and physical abilities to steal this award. Randle is weirdly behind Carlos Boozer on the depth chart so I think he’ll have a hard time getting into the conversation. Other perceived contenders: Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Nerlens Noel, Andrew Wiggins
Defensive Player of the Year
Bob: Joakim Noah
He won it last year, so people realize how much he adds to the Chicago Bulls defense. One year of winning should not affect voter fatigue, and a hopefully strong Bulls season could further add to Noah’s resume. As I mentioned last year, LeBron James could easily win this award every year, but one man can only receive so many honors.
Matt: Serge Ibaka
Actually, I almost entirely disagree with Bob on this. I think it’s highly unlikely that Noah wins it a second year in a row, though I could see it if the Bulls finish first in the East. For this award, I like to look at the narratives around each contender. For Noah, he won it last year but the whole story of that team now is the arrival of D Rose 3.0 and Pau Gasol. Marc Gasol is a nice candidate given his return from injury and the team’s possible resurgence. However, I can’t get my mind off Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City. He and Westbrook will carry the team in Durant’s absence. I think an increase in his offensive workload will bring more of a spotlight to his defensive efforts. He was close to winning this award last year and I think the absence of Durant will give him the victory in 2014-15. Other perceived contenders: Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol
Coach of the Year
Bob: Gregg Popovich
Sort of a lifetime achievement award, but he also deserves it. David Blatt could also win this.
Matt: David Blatt
I have a good feeling about Blatt as a coach, mostly because everything I’ve read about him is highly encouraging. If the Cavs put together an elite defense and win the East by a few games, I think it’ll be hard to choose anybody else. Other perceived contenders: Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Dave Joerger
Most Improved Player
Bob: Giannis Antetokounmpo
This one is always pretty tough to predict. I like the chances of a member of USA’s FIBA World Cup roster to win this award, which could include DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, or Kenneth Faried. Problems: The media hates Cousins, Davis is already too good, Drummond is still a couple years away, and much of Faried’s success in Spain can be attributed to the lack of athletic big men in the tournament. Anyway, Antetokounmpo has made great strides since his NBA debut and looks to be a star in the making. A scary thought: The sophomore is still only nineteen and has recently been joined by Jabari Parker, my Rookie of the Year pick.
Matt: Klay Thompson
One player Bob forgot to mention who looked fantastic all offseason: Klay Thompson. I was not a huge Klay fan in the past, and still wonder how the Warriors avoided trading him for Kevin Love, but perhaps they knew he would make a huge jump and look like a star this summer. Klay is a good candidate– he’s on a rising team and has several areas in which he can expand his game, most notably in shot creation and passing. Other perceived contenders: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Jeremy Lamb, Patrick Beverley, and a ton of others.
Winner: San Antonio Spurs
Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers