By Tommy Rothman
The 2014-2015 NBA season is upon us, so it’s time for my annual New York Knicks Memes season preview! Read and enjoy! Feedback is appreciated, of course.
Section 1: Regular season. Section 2: Playoffs. Section 3: Awards & Accolades
*Division winners are guaranteed top-4 seeds
#1 Cleveland Cavaliers (55-27)
You can’t replace LeBron James, but you can always re-acquire him. The odds of the Cavs winning the lottery three times in the previous four years was 1 in 163, but Cleveland did just that, and after some nifty trades, they now boast a Big 3 of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, as well as recent top-5 picks Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. Anderson Varejao remains as the ultimate glue-guy, and LeBron groupies Mike Miller and James Jones also joined the King in his new (old?) city. Coach David Blatt comes over with high praise from Europe, and he’ll certainly have a lot of weapons at his disposal. Add Shawn Marion, factor in the Cavs’ 100% chance of winning the lottery next year whether they have a lottery pick or not, and things are looking up in Cleveland for the first time since, well, since LeBron left. Can the Cavs win a title this year? That remains to be seen. LeBron is the best player alive. If he stays healthy (and he has throughout his career), he’ll be transcendent once again. The other two stars are just that— stars— but they do come with question marks. Can Irving stay healthy? How will he adjust to being a playmaker instead of being the best (and only) legitimate scoring option on his team? Ditto for Love. He’s never been on a relevant team before, and he’s been able to pad his stats for years. What role will he have on his new, heavily-stacked team? And will he avoid the injury bug? Overall, the Cavs have the firepower to make things work on offense, and while the defense is less of a sure thing, it shouldn’t be a gaping weakness and it certainly won’t offset Cleveland’s scoring ability. But LeBron’s last superteam didn’t win a title in Year One, and Cleveland hasn’t won a major sports championship (any sport) in 50 years. The Cavs are contenders, but not a lock.
The Bulls struck out in free agency this summer, missing out on all of the big targets despite the fact that they offer potential signees a fantastic chance to win right away. They did, however, land Pau Gasol and finally brought Nikola Mirotic in from Europe. They got a polished college scorer in Doug McDermott on draft day. They are bringing back reigning DPOY Joakim Noah, Sixth Man of the Year candidate (and favorite, in my book) Taj Gibson, budding two-way wingman Jimmy Butler, and one of the league’s best coaches in Tom Thibodeau. And, of course, they are (allegedly) going to be getting Derrick Rose back, so there’s your superstar acquisition. But Rose, who has played just 10 games in the last 2 seasons and 49 in the last 3 since winning his MVP award, is also Chicago’s biggest question mark. He simply can’t be trusted, and even if he manages to stay on the court, his existing knee problems could create more quiet obstacles as he tries to go through the grind of an 82-game season. How fresh and effective will Chicago’s star player be when the playoffs roll around? With or without Rose, the Bulls will be a nightmare for opposing offenses, and Thibs isn’t going to sit there and let his squad give away games by messing up all the little things. Their floor is high, as we saw last season, but for them to have a shot at a championship or even a meaningful playoff run, the Bulls need Rose to return to his possibly unrecoverable MVP form. Defense can only get you so far.
#3 Miami Heat (46-36)
So yeah, that happened…
LeBron flipped the script on the Heat this summer, going back to the team he spurned to come to Miami four years (and four Finals trips, and two rings, and two MVPs) ago. It’s a good thing LeBron succeeded in his title quest, too, because Dan Gilbert’s “The Cavs will win before LeBron wins” promise would be pretty confusing now if LeBron’s fingers were still bare. But as we all know, LeBron didn’t do it all by himself in Miami. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still down in South Beach, after Wade signed an extension worth less than the contract he had opted out of (yeah, LeBron screwed him) and Bosh signed a max deal to stay in Miami when it appeared certain he would bolt for Houston. Mario Chalmers will have a chance to back up his claim that LeBron was “holding him back,” and if he doesn’t get it done, Shabazz Napier is there to back him up. By the way, if we are to believe LeBron’s claims that his heart was always leading him back to Cleveland, the whole forcing-Pat-Riley-to-trade-for-Shabazz thing was pretty poorly planned. Luol Deng has arrived to take over the vacant small forward position, and while he can’t come close to replacing James, he’s a pretty good Plan G (Plans A-through-F were keeping LeBron). Danny Granger was an interesting signing, but his body has betrayed him, so his upside seems limited. Josh McRoberts can do the dirty work, but not much else. So why do I have the Heat at #3? A few reasons. First of all, while the East will be stronger overall than last year, it’s not particularly deep at the very top, so a team won’t need to be elite to grab a top seed. Second of all, Wade and Bosh give Coach Spoelstra a pretty solid core even without the King. Wade is a bit of a question mark, and he almost certainly won’t put up the kind of numbers he did before LeBron came to the Heat, but he’s underrated these days after a (relatively) weak postseason erased the public’s memory of his strong regular season. Bosh will have a new role with LeBron gone, a role more similar to the one he used to have in Toronto. His usage and his stats should increase. One person to watch is Spoelstra. Was he a mediocre coach with great players, or a great coach who also happened to have great players? I think he’ll show this season that he can compete without LeBron, and he’ll be in line to get a lot of credit if the Heat can put up another strong season— although another trip to the Finals is almost certainly not in the cards.
#4 Toronto Raptors (44-38) *
The Raptors came out of nowhere and won the Atlantic last season, capitalizing on a weak East (and an especially weak Atlantic division), fantastic guard play, and the fact that teams always seem to get better when they get rid of Rudy Gay. But for the second summer in a row, the reigning Atlantic champions traded away Steve Novak, and the Raptors now must face the fact that they may have put a terrible curse upon their season. Voodoo aside, this team looks solid, with the re-signed Kyle Lowry running the point and fellow stud DeMar DeRozan alongside him in the backcourt (sometimes moving to the wing). Terrence Ross probably won’t have another 50-point game this season, but he’s very athletic and a pretty solid role player. Jonas Valanciunas took some encouraging steps last year, and he might be the X-factor for Toronto this season. If he can improve (which I think he will) and truly emerge as a high-level big man, the Raptors should have no problem fending off the competition and repeating as division champs. But with only 4 (and it might be 3 before long) teams in the division actually trying to win this year, they’ll have a solid chance either way.
#5 Washington Wizards (45-37)
The Wizards were a pleasant surprise last season, making the playoffs on the strength of a fun, exciting, impressive regular season before pulling off a first-round upset of the Bulls. John Wall is starting to emerge as a real star, and Marcin Gortat offers consistent production down low. Trevor Ariza departed for Houston, but veteran Paul Pierce should fill in just fine, if his body can hold off Father Time for another year. But injuries limit this team’s upside. Bradley Beal is already going to miss some pretty significant time with a wrist injury, and it remains to be seen how that will affect his shooting when he returns. Martell Webster is also banged up, and Nene can never stay healthy. If the Wizards can turn their medical fortunes around, they should compete for a division title and a top-four seed in the East. If not, things might not go so well, but their chances of making the playoffs look pretty good regardless.
#6 Charlotte Hornets (42-40)
Yeah, the Bobcats are the Hornets again. The old Hornets are the Pelicans, for now. I don’t know. It’s confusing. So is the fact that Charlotte is actually expected to be a pretty good team this year. The Hornets (at the time, Bobcats) surprised everybody last year by taking advantage of a weak East and getting themselves into the postseason. Al Jefferson proved to be a great signing, Kemba Walker raised his game, and, uh, did I mention the East was bad? Charlotte did nothing in the postseason, but for that organization, just getting there was an impressive feat. Their expectations are much higher this time around, and while the East has improved, Charlotte did its part to keep pace. Gordon Hayward’s offer sheet was matched by Utah, but Michael Jordan had more luck with his next RFA target, Lance Stephenson. Charlotte now has three solid players and a lot of younger guys with upside (including Noah Vonleh, and— if he can get his act together, PJ Hairston—). Gerald Henderson is solid off the bench, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a nice role player depsite the fact that he’ll never live up to his #2 selection in the draft a couple years back. The biggest question mark for Charlotte? Health. Al Jefferson has been battling a foot problem and we all know how pesky those can be for big men. If Big Al’s medical issues flare up during the season, Charlotte’s playoff hopes could go down the drain.
#7 New York Knicks (41-41)
The Knicks came into last season with a ton of positive momentum after getting the #2 seed in the East the year before, but everything fell apart pretty early on in the Knicks’ quest to defend their division title. A miserable start put New York in a hole that they could not dig themselves out of, even with a decent finish. Carmelo Anthony was phenomenal as usual, but JR Smith battled injury and suspension and didn’t get it going until the All-Star break, Raymond Felton regressed in spectacular fashion, and, most importantly, Tyson Chandler broke his leg in the opening week and was a shell of his usual self upon returning. The Knicks kept finding ways to lose close games, thanks in part to the mind-boggling game management of Mike Woodson, who was axed along with his entire coaching staff after the season. Derek Fisher, the league’s newest coach, is set to take his place, and the legendary Phil Jackson will now be pulling the strings. Melo re-signed after a nationwide tour of all the other huge markets, and a pre-draft trade saw Jackson ship out Felton and Chandler in order to bring in José Calderón to run the point, as well as a couple draft picks and additional players, including Samuel Dalembert. Dalembert should be able to replace (and exceed) what Tyson gave the Knicks last season, but will not provide what Chandler brought to the table at his peak. Having Smith healthy—and, you know, like, sane— for a whole season will be a big help on the offensive end, as will the expected improvement from Iman Shumpert (who Woodson tended to stash in the corner) on the offensive end. Tim Hardaway Junior is a serious weapon on offense and has the tools to improve on defense, and Quincy Acy will bring toughness and tenacity that the Knicks sorely lacked last season. Jason Smith was a sneaky-good add, and Cole Aldrich will provide some fantastic shot blocking and good rebounding if he is given enough minutes. Amar’e Stoudemire was very impressive after he found his rhythm last year and gives the Knicks a solid scoring option as well as some help on the boards. The Triangle offense should greatly improve the ball movement, as will the addition of a real point guard who is also an excellent shooter. But there’s one big issue: there are very few plus-defenders on the roster (they’ll regret not keeping Toure Murry), and a lot of Fisher’s best offensive combinations would be defensive abominations. The Knicks’ offense should be solid this season, especially once it hits its stride in the new system, but the defense could be bad, and possibly bad enough to sink the whole ship. I trust Phil Jackson, and the fact remains that the Knicks, despite the hilarity of their struggles last season, were not very far off at all from the playoffs despite nearly everything going wrong. The Knicks have a good chance of making the postseason this year, but, thanks in large part to the defense, there is serious downside. The Knicks surprised everybody 2 years ago and Melo & Co. could do it again—the division is there for the taking— but they’ll have to embrace Phil’s system to avoid another wasted campaign.
#8 Atlanta Hawks (40-42)
The Hawks tried frantically to choke away their spot in the postseason last year, but the Knicks would not oblige, and the Hawks actually gave the top-seeded Pacers a serious scare in the first round before falling short. Al Horford is, until further notice, healthy, which gives the Hawks a chance to hold steady in what must surely be a more competitive Eastern Conference, and Paul Millsap provides him with a strong frontcourt mate. Jeff Teague has his flaws, but is a capable point guard, and Atlanta got some unexpected production on the wing from DeMarre Carroll and Mike Scott(AKA Dunder Mifflin), both of whom are returning. Kyle Korver remains an automatic shooter from deep and keeps finding ways to get himself open, which stretches the floor for the rest of the guys out there. The Hawks aren’t a great team, they have very little upside, and there is a good chance they find themselves on the outside looking in when the postseason rolls around. But the Hawks have the longest current streak of playoff appearances in the Eastern Conference with 7, and their chances of making it 8 seem decent.
#9 Brooklyn Nets (39-43)
The Nets got off to a slow start and had everybody calling for the firing of Jason Kidd before he had even set up his new office, but Brooklyn turned it around and made the playoffs before triumphing in an exciting 7-game series with Toronto. Of course, Kidd ended up leaving anyway, as did Paul Pierce and the last vestiges of Kevin Garnett’s athleticism (the corpse still remains, and should provide solid defense and leadership, but nothing else). Joe Johnson returns, and should have finished the final rack from last year’s three-point contest by the time you get to, say, the Timberwolves’ section of this preview (where will that be? Read on!). Brook Lopez will try to get his career back on track after being sidelined by foot problems last year, but it seems that he is in great danger of becoming the next Yao Ming, and indeed, Lopez has already had some foot problems during the preseason. Deron Williams is also a major injury risk, as his ankle issues have seriously hampered what looked like it was going to be a fantastic career. These aren’t fluke injuries the Nets are dealing with. There is a strong chance the medical issues keep popping up. For this reason, new coach Lionel Hollins’ squad is a major candidate for decline this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Nets get themselves into the playoffs, but I’d be less surprised to see them on the golf course after 82 games. The Nets will be better than this ranking if they stay healthy all season. But that just doesn’t seem likely.
#10 Indiana Pacers (35-47)
These guys aren’t a candidate for serious decline, they are a guarantee. Indiana got off to an amazing start last season, giving themselves enough of a cushion to earn the #1 seed despite a poor second half in which Roy Hibbert (and to a lesser degree, Paul George) regressed badly. Indiana clawed its way back to the Eastern Conference Finals, but the Heat turned them aside without much trouble. While the Heat are no longer a terrifying obstacle, the Cavs may have taken their place, and regardless, Indy’s hopes of repeating as a #1 seed—or contending at all— were shattered along with Paul George’s leg. George will almost surely miss the entire season, and Lance Stephenson is out of the picture as well after signing with Charlotte. David West is solid, but is already a bit banged up and will miss the first few games of the season (at least). George Hill is out for at least 3 weeks. Chris Copeland will be a serious candidate for Most Improved Player assuming he takes George’s vacated minutes on the wing, but he only helps a team on one end of the floor, and unless Roy Hibbert can be consistently dominant on both ends, this team won’t be a factor in the East. Their hopes of sneaking in to the playoffs at all seem pretty low.
#11 Detroit Pistons (33-49)
The Pistons have some big names, such as Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, Andre Drummond, and Greg Monroe. But they haven’t been able to produce results, and while they should be a bit better than last year, the structure of their roster seems problematic. Monroe is being blocked by Drummond and Smith, and the Pistons have neither a true facilitator at the point (Jennings has solid assist numbers, but is a me-first type of player) nor a true scoring option in the post (Smith likes to stay on the perimeter for some reason, Drummond is raw offensively, and Monroe is underutilized). Jodie Meeks was brought in to provide some more scoring out of the backcourt, but it now appears that he’ll miss a couple months with a foot injury. If Detroit finds a way to make it work, they could sneak into the playoffs, but another season of serious mediocrity seems more likely.
#12 Boston Celtics (31-51)
The Celtics are a bit hard to forecast. Will they look to make some blockbuster moves to strengthen the roster and convince free-agent-to-be Rajon Rondo to stay, or will they try to minimize their losses (and start their tanking early) by shipping Rondo elsewhere in a trade? The Celtics have a few good young players and a strong stable of future draft picks, but Rondo— who struggles to score on his own— can’t really be the number one option on a team, and unless Jeff Green is ready to show some serious consistency and Jared Sullinger can make a big leap offensively, Boston might be better off cutting ties with Rondo and letting Marcus Smart run the show. The Celtics have a promising foundation for a much-needed rebuild (even their coach is young), and Rondo would probably fetch assets that would speed their return to prominence along. I expect the Celtics to be mediocre for a bit, then trade Rondo and embrace the rebuild (translation: tank).
#13 Milwaukee Bucks (27-55)
The Bucks are coming off of a championship in the Tank-For-Wiggins sweepstakes, but after the ping-pong balls once again went Cleveland’s way on lottery night, Milwaukee had to settle for the #2 pick. Jabari Parker isn’t a bad consolation prize, and the Bucks should improve if they can get anything out of their big-money guys after Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, and OJ Mayo were all no-shows last year. Brandon Knight is coming off of a pretty good year and is playing for a contract, so he could be productive as well. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the real wild card, and while I’m not buying that he’s an ultra-prospect who is about to emerge as a superstar, he certainly has potential. The Bucks have new owners, and they also have a new coach, as Jason Kidd moved from Brooklyn to Milwaukee in a very entertaining escape from his signature franchise (although it’s definitely only the second-most entertaining transportation-related Jason Kidd story). If everything goes right for the Bucks, they have some real upside and could crack the playoff picture, but that would be a bit of a stretch. While there is a more realistic chance they break 30 wins (which would double their total of 15 from last season), this team is probably still a couple years away from relevance, and might have to settle for “just” a 12-win improvement over the course of a season in which it might not even be in their best interests to win too many games.
#14 Orlando Magic (22-60)
The Magic are DEFINITELY in a situation where they shouldn’t be looking to “win-now,” and Victor Oladipo’s facial injury that will cost him at least month has quashed the pipe-dreams of all but the most delusional Magic fans (like, the ones preparing for Dwight Howard’s eventual return). Aaron Gordon was a bold pick at #4 but has potential, and Elfrid Payton could emerge as the ROY as he finds himself in a situation similar to the one Michael Carter-Williams inherited last year in Philadelphia. But this team bears no resemblance to the old, relevant Orlando squads. Heck, even Jameer Nelson is gone.
#15 Philadelphia 76ers (20-62)
*Camera pans to Philly’s Front Office applauding wildly and popping champagne*
The Sixers tried frantically to catch the Bucks for the atrocity crown last season, but fell short. They ended up drafting Joel Embiid, which was clever, since the injuries that knocked Embiid out of the running for the #1 overall pick will also help the 76ers lose more games this season. When was the last time a team did something like this? Actually, it was the Sixers, when they traded for Nerlens Noel on draft day last year despite his torn ACL. Noel is now ready, though, and if Michael-Carter Williams is healthy, they’re going to form a pretty entertaining PG-C combo. Embiid is also a center, so things might get a bit clustered NEXT season. But hey, the Sixers will probably be tanking then, too.
#1 San Antonio Spurs (60-22)
Every year, I declare the Spurs dynasty over, and they keep proving me wrong. I was set to knock them off the #1 spot on my preview again, but Kevin Durant’s injury changed things. The Spurs bring back all the key guys from their championship run, and as long as their older players (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) hold up, they should be primed for another big season. Of course, that’s where the risk lies. Ginobili is the most broken-down but the least important, Parker is the most vital but least ancient, and then Tim Duncan is, well, he’s Tim Duncan. But the Spurs are starting to rely less and less on these 3 guys. Kawhi Leonard emerged as a terrific two-way player last year and earned himself Finals MVP honors. Danny Green remains dangerous from beyond the arc, and Boris Diaw, who nearly everybody had written off, came up huge in the playoffs. Greg Popovich is a magician, and the chances of a Spurs collapse seem pretty low. They have a tough road ahead of them if they want to repeat, but I’ve finally learned not to count them out.
#2 Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25)
The Thunder had to deal with Russell Westbrook’s injury issues last year, but now face a much tougher challenge: surviving without Kevin Durant. The reigning MVP will miss about 6 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. While KD is out, Russell Westbrook will have to take a mind-numbing amount of shots. Of course, Russ always takes way too many shots, but now he might not be criticized for it. We’ll also see how much progress Serge Ibaka has really made on the offensive end. OKC should be able to survive with just one of their superstars for a month or two, but the Thunder better hope Durant comes back healthy & at the top of his game, and that Westbrook stays healthy until– and after– Durant returns. Durant’s injury is a huge blow to OKC’s quest for the #1 seed, but the biggest priority for the Thunder will be getting to the playoffs (they will) and having everybody ready for when the games really start to matter. For the Thunder to finally win a championship, Westbrook will probably have to learn to defer a bit more to Durant, and to hit the open man when KD is surrounded.
#3 Golden State Warriors (55-27)
After Phil Jackson made it public that he wanted Steve Kerr to coach the Knicks, Kerr decided to demand a huge financial commitment, at which point the Knicks decided to let Kerr, who had verbally committed to coach them, to sign with Golden State. Kerr’s change-of-heart puts him in a much better situation if he wants to win now: when they’re healthy, the Warriors are DEEP. They have a fantastic (albeit a BIT overrated) point guard in Stephen Curry, another backcourt marksman alongside him in Klay Thompson, a versatile, tenacious swingman in Andre Iguodala, a hard-working, unselfish power forward who can score and rebound in David Lee, and a defensive anchor in Andrew Bogut. They also have some forward depth with MIP candidate Draymond Green and the explosive and inconsistent Harrison Barnes, as well as a strong backup PG behind Curry in Shaun Livingston, who revived his career last year in Brooklyn. But WILL the Warriors be healthy? That’s the question, as Bogut goes down almost every season and Iggy has also battled injuries in recent years. And those two players happen to be the most crucial to Kerr’s defense, if they miss time, Klay Thompson will be the only remaining starter who has shown any sort of a consistent willingness and ability to play defense. This team will score a ton, probably enough to put them pretty high in the standings. But their opponents might find the basket quite frequently as well.
#4 Los Angeles Clippers (54-28)
What the heck is V Stiviano’s actual first name? I guess that’s not important anymore, now that the Clipper’s ownership fiasco is behind them with Donald Sterling gone. Chris Paul is still around, and he will execute Doc Rivers’ schemes perfectly with all of his shiny toys: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, JJ Reddick, Jamal Crawford, and Spencer Hawes. Oh yeah, CP3 can put it in the hoop himself, as well. But Paul has battled injuries in recent years, and if he misses time, the Clippers are in serious trouble unless Griffin can reproduce the superhuman effort he put forth in CP3’s absence last year to keep the Clippers afloat. Jordan did a fantastic job last season filling the classic “Tyson Chandler” role: Rebounds, Defense, and Dunks. But I’m not sure if he’s more likely to develop than regress from this point. I think Blake is a bit overrated, and I just don’t think the Clips have the depth that Golden State offers, so I have them slipping one spot to the fourth seed this year. And, oh yeah, Mike Woodson is one of their coaches. This is still a very good team though, one that nobody will want to face when the postseason arrives.
#5 Portland Trail Blazers (51-31)
Portland got off to a Blazing star–
*crumples up paper*
Portland came out guns Blazi– no, no, that’s no good either…
*tosses paper aside*
The Trail Blazers started out hot last year, and while they came back to earth a bit as the regular season wound down, they still finished with 54 wins and notched a thrilling first-round playoff victory over the Rockets, punctuated by Damian Lillard’s series-ending buzzer-beater. They’ll be hard-pressed to win that many games again, but with Lillard continuing to develop into a star and LaMarcus Aldridge having established himself as one of the game’s top big men, I think they have a pretty good shot at cracking 50 again. Portland has a nice supporting cast, with Robin Lopez anchoring the defense, Wesley Matthews spacing the floor, and Nicolas Batum providing a nice third option on offense. Thomas Robinson’s energy can cause problems for opponents on the boards, and CJ McCollum has potential as a scorer. It’s going to be tough for Portland to truly compete with the top dogs in this conference, but this young team has talent and youth, and is certainly on the right Trail. *Sends to presses*
#6 Houston Rockets (50-32)
The Rockets devised all of these evil schemes to bring in a couple superstars and have a Big Four. So they shipped out guys like Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, getting very little in return. They didn’t match Chandler Parsons’ offer sheet, letting him head to the Mavericks. They struck out on LeBron, Bosh, Melo… everybody, leaving them with just Trevor Ariza to replace Parsons, Lin, and Asik. Of course, Houston already has two stars, as they boast Dwight Howard and James Harden. Harden is overrated, and is truly a travesty on the defensive end, but he’s a dangerous scoring option to say the least. Howard, meanwhile, has fallen off a bit in recent years (both on the court and in the public eye) but put together a solid campaign last year and still remains the most physically dominant big man in the league by a wide margin. If Dwight stays healthy, happy, and focused, he has a good chance to rack up some awards and leave no question as to his status as the game’s top center. But the Rockets don’t have much depth, and their failed gambles this summer will come back to haunt them. I don’t see them being a true contender this season, although they certainly have star power, and therefore, upside.
#7 Dallas Mavericks (49-33).
The Mavericks could be a scary team this season after making a lot of moves this summer. Dirk Nowitzki is still nearly impossible to guard, Monta Ellis is a terrific scorer as well, and Chandler Parsons will make a fantastic third option and floor spacer. Jameer Nelson is past his prime, but he, Raymond Felton, JJ Barea, and Devin Harris provide nice depth at the PG position, if nothing else. If Dirk can continue to ignore his age, the Mavericks are going to be very solid on offense, although they could use a better facilitator to help run things. Bringing in Tyson Chandler might prove to be a terrific move, as he can anchor a defense when he is at his best. But Chandler looked thoroughly mediocre last season after returning from his leg injury, and unless the Mavericks are getting the 2012-2013 version of Tyson Chandler, that trade is going to hurt them. If Tyson is at the top of his game, the defense overall should be decent, which would be good enough for Dallas to be a threat. If he doesn’t prove last year was a fluke, things might get ugly, and the Mavericks could find themselves out of the playoffs.
#8 Memphis Grizzlies (47-35)
Unlike the East, the West is almost certainly going to feature eight very solid playoff teams. I think the Grizzlies have just enough to sneak in as the last member of that group. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol give Memphis one of the league’s best PF-C combos, and Mike Conley is one of the best PGs that people rarely talk about. Courtney Lee hasn’t become the player many of us thought he could be, but he’s decent, and still has some upside. Their other main SG, Tony Allen, remains one of the game’s best defensive players. At the SF position, veterans Vince Carter and Tayshaun Prince will be key off the bench. Vince is no longer a master dunker, but he’s become a better shooter, and a bit less stupid. Because the Grizzlies are not very deep, they’re going to need to stay healthy to fend off the other teams fighting for a playoff spot in the West. If Gasol gets hurt for the second year in a row, the Grizzlies might be out of luck.
#9 New Orleans Pelicans (44-38)
The Pelicans quietly have a lot of very solid players. I’m not buying that Anthony Davis is a top-3 player in the NBA, but he’s very, very good, and he might be deserving of such a high ranking before too long. For the Pelicans to make the playoffs in a crowded West, Davis will have to continue to improve at a rapid rate. They’ll also need health and focus from some of their more frustrating talents, such as Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon. PG Jrue Holiday battled injuries in his first year with the Pelicans, but was an All-Star the year before in Philadelphia. Ryan Andersen recovered from a scary injury last season, and gives NOLA one of the game’s best stretch fours. The Pelicans have a pair of big-name college guards who haven’t fully established themselves in the NBA yet (Jimmer Fredette and Austin Rivers) as well as rookie Russ Smith out of Louisville. This group can’t be relied upon to stay healthy, but if they do, the talent is there, and New Orleans could sneak up on the rest of the conference.
#10 Phoenix Suns (42-40)
The Suns didn’t exactly get worse after their surprisingly strong season last year, but I’m not sure how much room they have for further improvement, and they aren’t going to find as many easy wins in the West this year (or in the East, for that matter). Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe make a terrific duo in the backcourt, although it appeared for awhile that Bledsoe might bolt as a free agent (both parties finally came to their senses). Curiously, the Suns decided to spend their resources this summer on ANOTHER guard, the diminutive but effective Isaiah Thomas. It’ll be interesting to see what Jeff Hornacek does to get the most out of his oddly structured team. Another guard to watch? Zoran Dragic. No, I did not make that up. The Suns signed Goran’s brother over the summer, and got themselves a promising player with an awesome name. ZORAN! It’ll also help them soon at the negotiating table when they’re trying to sign Goran to an extension, so the move was kind of like what the Knicks did with Chris Smith, except for the fact that Zoran is actually talented. The Suns have a good amount of draft picks and cap space on the horizon, and the future might have been even brighter if they hadn’t (apparently) botched the Alex Len pick. This team could become a contender with the right moves, but I don’t see them really competing this year, not in this conference.
#11 Denver Nuggets (40-42)
The Nuggets were a huge disappointment last year (the argument for them having won the Melo Trade is losing steam). Danillo Gallinari missed the entire year with an ACL tear, Wilson Chandler, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson also missed time, and even Ty Lawson caught the injury bug. And, yeah, firing both the reigning Coach and Executive of the Year didn’t work too well for Denver, and the entire organization would probably like to forget that last season ever happened. The Nuggets should be better this time around, as they’ll (hopefully) be getting several key players back from injury. They also re-acquired Arron Afflalo; he and Randy Foye will give Denver a pair of marksmen at the SG position. If everybody stays healthy, the Nuggets could definitely compete for a playoff spot. But, while it’s unlikely that everything will go wrong again, there’s a good chance enough goes wrong to keep the Nuggets watching the playoffs from their living rooms, wishing they were in the East.
#12 Los Angeles Lakers (35-47)
The Lakers seemed convinced that they’d sign EVERY superstar known to man this summer, and top it off by winning the lottery and getting Andrew Wiggins. They ended up with Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer, while they lost Pau Gasol and Jodie Meeks. Steve Nash is out for the year (and probably for good), but Kobe Bryant is set to return after only playing six games last season. Julius Randle arrived via the draft, and he should be pretty good, but overall, it was a disappointing offseason for the Lakers, and it got worse when they learned that Nick Young would miss the first month of the season with a thumb injury. Still, whether he’s going to return to being a truly elite player or not, if Kobe is on the court (which isn’t guaranteed), he’s going to give the Lakers star power, something they had absolutely none of last season. Boozer is a bit underrated, thanks to his contract. Lin might never quite live up to Linsanity, but with a clear path to the starting PG role after Nash’s injury, he has a chance to produce in a big way. Mike D’Antoni is gone, which is a good thing, although it is a bit ironic that they fired him right before acquiring his former savior, Lin. Kobe, especially at this stage of his career, needs much more around him to compete for a title. But as long as they can avoid major injuries, the Lakers should avoid “laughingstock status,” at least until Kobe quits the first time Lin attempts the final shot. There’s a bit of a chance LA sneaks into the postseason, but it’s unlikely. Hey, no matter what happens, THEY’RE TOTALLY GONNA GET ALDRIDGE AND DRAGIC AND DURANT AND RONDO AFTER THE SEASON, RIGHT?
#13 Minnesota Timberwolves (29-53)
The Timberwolves finally admitted that they weren’t re-signing Kevin Love, and traded him away to Cleveland. They got a pretty good haul, landing Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, and Anthony Bennett (last year’s #1 pick, a huge bust but with SOME potential). Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Wiggins, Young, and Nikola Pekovic give them a passable starting five, although they don’t have any established scorers in that group. Bennett, Gorgui Dieng, and Shabazz Muhammad could be fun, young names to look out for off the bench. And Zach LaVine can jump out of the building, so, uh, LET ZACH DUNK! (Seriously, if he’s not in the dunk contest, they need to cancel it altogether.) In the East, this team would probably win at least 35 games. But, while Wiggins should certainly be thrilling to watch, this team’s chances of contending are slim to none. Actually, yeah, none.
#14 Sacramento Kings (25-57)
Sacramento has a franchise center in DeMarcus Cousins, but the Kings might have trouble getting him the ball, especially after losing Isaiah Thomas to the Suns. Rudy Gay played well after being traded to Sacramento early in the season, but he remains inefficient and inconsistent, and can’t really be relied upon as a “star.” After that, the cupboard is almost completely bare, with the only remaining upside coming from sophomore Ben McLemore. Cousins and Gay should make this team watchable, but just barely.
#15 Utah Jazz (24-58)
The Jazz have a ton of potential on their roster. Gordon Hayward (apparently now a max-salary player), Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood… if Utah can keep these guys together, they should be a very exciting team in a couple years. But, while they could climb a few spots if their young players develop quickly, they almost certainly won’t sniff the playoff picture. At the end of the day, they have Steve Novak, and that’s all that really matters.
East Round 1: #1 Cavaliers vs #8 Hawks
Will Kyrie, Love, Waiters, and Thompson crumble in their playoff debuts enough to stop LeBron from making it out of the first round? Of course not. But that would be quite entertaining. Carry on… Cavaliers in 4
East Round 1: #2 Bulls vs #7 Knicks
Assuming the Bulls defense is once again terrific (and we are making this assumption by giving the Bulls the #2 seed), and assuming the Knicks can establish them as a dangerous team offensively (again, this assumption is being made, since we have the Knicks in the playoffs to begin with), this will be an intriguing series. Thanks to Rose, the Bulls have a good chance of being strong on offense as well, and the Knicks aren’t as likely to have a strong defense to help them keep up. If they figure out their defense, the Knicks could steal the series, but that doesn’t seem likely, and neither does another first-round exit for Thibodeau’s Bulls. Bulls in 6
East Round 1: #3 Heat vs #6 Hornets
The Heat have regressed since these two teams met in the first round last season, and Charlotte has gotten better. Can Bosh avoid getting dominated physically by Jefferson? Will Kemba exploit Wade’s athletic decline? Maybe, but it probably won’t be enough for the Hornets to advance. It should be a much better series this time around, though. Heat in 6
East Round 1: #4 Raptors vs #5 Wizards
If both teams are healthy, the Wizards probably have more talent and depth. The Raptors, however, will have home-court advantage by virtue of winning their division. If Paul Pierce is still standing by the time the playoffs roll around, his playoff experience could be huge for Washington. And having the best player on the floor in John Wall won’t hurt them, either. I expect this series to be close, but the Wizards probably have the edge, even if they might have to close it out in Canada. Wizards in 7
West Round 1: #1 Spurs vs #8 Grizzlies
Popovich will almost certainly have his older players well-rested for the playoffs, and San Antonio is unlikely to have forgotten their stunning first-round loss to the Grizzlies a few years back. Expect another hard-fought series (the Spurs needed 7 games in round 1 last year, too), but don’t expect another miracle. Spurs in 6
West Round 1: #2 Thunder vs #7 Mavericks
This should be a very high-scoring series, and while the Thunder will be the heavy favorite, Dallas is a dangerous team that nobody wants to face in the postseason. However, I don’t think the Mavericks’ defense can hold up its end of the bargain, at least not to the extent necessary to send Durant and Westbrook home so early. Thunder in 5
West Round 1: #3 Warriors vs #6 Rockets
Dwight Howard is going to anchor Houston’s defense around the basket. Unfortunately for the Rockets, Golden State will be more than happy doing most of their damage from the outside. The Rockets are talented, dangerous, and they have star power, but this is a terrible matchup for them. Warriors in 5
West Round 1: #4 Clippers vs #5 Trail Blazers
Paul against Lillard. Griffin against Aldridge. This might be the most entertaining series of the first round. Los Angeles is a more experienced squad with a huge coaching advantage, and that might be enough to tip the scales in their favor. If another huge scandal hits the Clippers right before the series starts, all bets are off. Clippers in 7
East Round 2: #1 Cavaliers vs #5 Wizards
Kyrie and Wall going head-to-head in a battle between the East’s best young point guards would be extremely riveting and make for a great series… if the Cavs didn’t have LeBron James and Kevin Love. It’s hard to see a way the Wizards can win this series.
Bucks in 6 Cavaliers in 5
East Round 2: #2 Bulls vs #3 Heat
The Bulls have Rose back, and the Heat no longer have LeBron. The Bulls will have a big edge on defense and I’m not sure the Heat have much of an edge on offense, if any. If both teams are fully armed, Chicago should finally get its revenge. Bulls in 6
West Round 2: #1 Spurs vs #4 Clippers
If the Spurs’ age hasn’t gotten to them by this point, there’s no reason to think the Clippers will be able to capitalize on it here. It’s going to take a more proven team to send the Spurs packing, and even with Paul, Griffin, and Jordan, I don’t think Los Angeles is there just yet. Spurs in 7
West Round 2: #2 Thunder vs #3 Warriors
Both of these teams have plenty of athleticism and talent. But if the Thunder are healthy, I don’t see the Warriors pulling off the upset. Even if Curry matches Durant offensively, OKC still has Westbrook at their disposal. I’m not sure the Warriors can contain both players. Thunder in 6
Eastern Finals: #1 Cavaliers vs #2 Bulls
If Rose is playing at the level that earned him an MVP award a few years ago, the Bulls have a real chance here. Can Irving and Love handle the playoff pressure with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line? It’s no guarantee. At the end of the day, it’s tough to bet against LeBron making a 5th consecutive trip to the Finals, but this could go either way. Cavaliers in 7
Western Finals: #1 Spurs vs #2 Thunder
Will the Spurs meet LeBron in the Finals for the third year in a row? Maybe, but they’ll have to get by Durant first. Thanks in large part to Durant’s pre-season injury, the Spurs will have home-court advantage, but I think that, if KD is healthy in May, the rest of the team is ready to do its part to help him advance. If Westbrook refuses to defer to Durant, he’ll probably end up sinking the ship. If Russell accepts his role as Robin (but like, Robin on steroids), Ibaka continues to be a legitimate third scoring option, and Boris Diaw doesn’t turn into Superman again, my gut says the Thunder will knock off the defending champs. My gut has been wrong before, though. Thunder in 7
NBA Finals: #1 Cavaliers vs #2 Thunder
The two best players in the league, a couple fantastic supporting casts, and a pair of fan bases absolutely desperate for a championship. I’ve never been one to bet against the King, but LeBron lost in the Finals the last time he joined (or created) an instant contender, and, with a couple sidekicks who have never played beyond April in their lives, Cleveland might need to wait at least one more year. James may be the best player alive, but I think it’s time for Durant to get his first ring. Thunder in 7
NBA Champion: Thunder
NBA Finals MVP: Kevin Durant
AWARDS AND ACCOLADES:
MVP: LeBron James, CLE
DPOY: Dwight Howard, HOU
ROY: Andrew Wiggins, MIN
6MOTY: Taj Gibson, CHI
MIP: Jonas Valanciunas, TOR
COTY: Erik Spoelstra, MIA
EOTY: David Griffin, CLE
All-NBA First Team: Chris Paul (LAC), Russell Westbrook (OKC), LeBron James (CLE), Carmelo Anthony (NYK), Dwight Howard (HOU)
All-NBA Second Team: Stephen Curry (GSW), Damian Lillard (POR), Kevin Durant (OKC), Chris Bosh (MIA), Anthony Davis (NOLA)
All-NBA Third Team: John Wall (WAS), Derrick Rose (CHI), Kevin Love (CLE), LaMarcus Aldridge (POR), Joakim Noah (CHI)
All-Defensive First Team: Chris Paul (LAC), Tony Allen (MEM), LeBron James (CLE), Serge Ibaka (OKC), Dwight Howard (HOU)
All-Defensive Second Team: Avery Bradley (BOS), Jimmy Butler (CHI), Kawhi Leonard (SAS), Andre Iguodala (GSW), Anthony Davis (NOLA)
All-Rookie First Team: Elfrid Payton (ORL), Julius Randle (LAL), Andrew Wiggins (MIN), Jabari Parker (MIL), Nerlens Noel (PHI)
All-Rookie Second Team: Dante Exum (UTA), Doug McDermott (CHI), Marcus Smart (BOS), Noah Vonleh (CHA), Aaron Gordon (ORL)
Scoring Leader: Carmelo Anthony, NYK
Assists Leader: Chris Paul, LAC
Rebounding Leader: Dwight Howard, HOU
Steals Leader: Chris Paul, LAC
Blocks Leader: Serge Ibaka, OKC
3PT % Leader: Mike Miller, CLE
FG % Leader: Dwight Howard, HOU
FT % Leader: Dirk Nowitzki, DAL
So there you have it, my 2014-2015 NBA Season Preview. What do you think? What did I get wrong? What do you agree with? Leave your feedback in the comments! -Tommy Rothman