We’re a month removed from Cleveland’s epic Game 7 win over Golden State. The draft has occurred. A frantic free agency period is over. Yes, football season is approaching, but it’s no longer too early to start projecting the upcoming NBA season.
Let me address the elephant the room. What’s the point of making NBA predictions this year? We know that Golden State is going to win! Well sure, there’s a lot of truth to that sentiment.
However, in the NBA, it’s always easy to identify championship teams before the season starts. By analyzing the patterns of championship teams in the year before their title-winning season, I’ve identified three rather obvious trends. First, these teams almost always are coming off a deep playoff run. On average, championship teams typically build off a conference finals appearance, at a minimum. Moreover, six of the previous fourteen champions made it to the NBA Finals before they won the title the following season.
Second, if you exclude the 2008 Boston Celtics (who were a clear outlier because they were horrific before they acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen) and the 2013 Miami Heat (strike-shortened season in 2012), the average win total of champions before their title-winning season is 57. That’s typically good enough for a 2 or a 3 seed.
Lastly, nearly all of these teams return elite players. With the exception of the 2004 Pistons, every championship team dating back to 2003 had at least one player on their roster who ranked in the top ten in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) the year before. In short, cinderella stories don’t happen. Teams that win championships typically fit not just one of these qualifications, but all of them.
Obviously, Golden State checks off each of these boxes. They’re coming off a 73-win season, an NBA Finals appearance, and they will have the league’s two best players according to PER from last season on their team. But they aren’t the only team capable of winning a championship next year. Here are the other potential contenders:
- Cleveland: Coming off an NBA title and they return both LeBron James (t-4th in PER) and Kyrie Irving
- San Antonio: They fell short of the conference finals, but they still won 67 games and return two star players in Kawhi Leonard (7th in PER) and LaMarcus Aldridge (16th in PER)
- And, technically, Oklahoma City: Call this a flaw in logic and I’m not actually saying the Thunder are championship-contenders this year, but Oklahoma City does technically fit all of the qualifications I listed above (55 wins, conference finals appearance, top ten player in Westbrook)
So here’s the situation: Golden State is in a class of their own, but at least Cleveland and San Antonio have a chance to win the title next year. And compared to past years, instead of having around four or five potential championship-teams, we just have three this year. In the overall scheme of things, this isn’t a seismic shift.
Let’s get to my predictions. Very simple: I’m going to run through the eight playoff teams in each conference, make playoff picks, and close by crowning a champion.
As much as Golden State is the class of the West, the defending champs are head and shoulders above the rest of the East. Only an injury to LeBron James would change that.
Despite losing a couple of role players in free agency (Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola), the Raptors shouldn’t decline too much after a 56 win season.
Al Horford isn’t necessarily a star, but he is a big upgrade over Jared Sullinger in the post and should fit in well for the emerging Celtics. Three-point shooting should continue to be a weakness, though.
Paul George is arguably the second best player in the East, and I like the addition of Jeff Teague if he can stay healthy.
The Hawks made major changes to their roster this offseason, but I still trust the system Mike Budenholzer has in place to ensure Atlanta remains one of the better teams in the East.
Detroit is trending upwards. They’re terrific on the boards and have more depth than most other teams in the East, so I see them taking another step forward in 2016-17.
Adding Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah should be enough for the Knicks to make the jump from 32 wins to the playoffs. But who knows how those two will fit in alongside Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis?
The Hornets probably won’t reach the same heights as last year after losing a few key players this offseason, but I think Kemba Walker and company will still make the playoffs over the likes of Chicago, Washington, and Miami. It will help if Frank Kaminsky steps up.
Surprise! For the record, I think the new-look Warriors finish 74-8.
No more Duncan? No problem.
The Clippers just need to stay healthy. And given how unlucky they were last year, I find it hard to imagine the Clippers don’t receive some good fortune this year.
Houston’s fine now–they got rid of Dwight Howard!
The Grizzlies were ravaged by injuries last year. And they still made the playoffs! It’s inconceivable that they are as unlucky this year, which means they are certainly poised to have another good season.
I’m pretty confident in the Jazz being this year’s surprise team. They barely missed the playoffs last year, but they are very solid defensively and had an impactful offseason by signing the likes of Joe Johnson, George Hill, and Boris Diaw.
After a breakout season a year ago, I think the Trail Blazers might take a slight step back. They still certainly have enough talent to make the playoffs, though.
I bet Westbrook is traded midseason. He’ll be playing at an MVP-pace, but Oklahoma City can’t afford to let him walk in the offseason without getting anything in return. The Thunder will send him off to the Lakers in exchange for a plethora of assets.
I said this last year and I’ll say it again: it will be Cleveland over ______ in the Eastern Conference Finals. I just have a hunch with Boston because, well, they’re my favorite basketball team. What can I say? At least it’s plausible.
I wanted to see this matchup in last year’s Western Finals, but I have a feeling we’re going to get it this year. Do the Spurs have a chance against these Warriors? They would be heavy underdogs, but I do give them a small chance. San Antonio is deep and they play excellent defense. Plus, even with Durant, the Warriors will still live and die by the three. We saw it in the playoffs last year: If you make the Warriors take difficult shots, they are beatable–just like any other team in basketball. And yet, ultimately, the Spurs won’t have a definitive answer for Kevin Durant (shrugs shoulders).
What do you want me to say? With Durant, the Warriors are just going to be too difficult to match up with because even though I think Stephen Curry is a tad overrated, you can’t give him any space whatsoever. Same goes for Klay Thompson. Simply put, no team will have enough elite defenders to slow down Golden State for an entire series. With that said, I think Cleveland, on the backs of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, can at least make things interesting when these two teams meet for a third consecutive Finals.
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