There is a special excitement in the air as the NBA tips off its 72nd season on Tuesday night. The offseason was historic, as a number of marquee players switched teams, and those changes, combined with a deep draft class, have fans thinking that someone other than the Warriors and Cavaliers could be in the NBA Finals. Can Golden State be challenged? Is this the year that “The Process” finally pays off? Who will be the MVP and Rookie of the Year? And most importantly, as far as Hoops Prospects is concerned, who will have the top pick in the draft? I will try to answer these questions and more in our inaugural NBA Fearless Forecast.
Let’s dive right in by projecting each team’s number of wins.
Worst to First
- Atlanta Hawks (25) – 25 wins might be generous for a team that has so few bright spots. The Hawks not only look to be the frontrunners for the 2018 top overall pick but also own Minnesota’s and Houston’s first rounders. Look for undervalued rookie PF John Collins to become more involved as the season progresses, as he is one of those few aforementioned bright spots.
- Chicago Bulls (26) – No disrespect intended, but when Justin Holiday looks like your best player, you have a problem. On the upside, the Bulls do have some long-term potential, including two-time dunk champ Zach LaVine, rookie PF Lauri Markkanen, and last year’s fifth-overall pick, PG Kris Dunn. LaVine (knee) and Dunn (finger) will not be ready for the beginning of the season due to injuries. The former could easily average 20 or more per night when he returns, while the latter has a lot to prove after a disappointing rookie season. Holiday, meanwhile, flourished in the preseason, leading the team in a number of categories, including scoring (18.6 PPG) and PER (24.6).
- Brooklyn Nets (27) – A promising backcourt, which includes former Laker D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert, should lead to a handful of more wins than last season for the Nets. They will have no reason to tank since Cleveland owns their first-round pick, but a lack of height and talent upfront is going to severely hamper this team.
- New York Knicks (28) – The scoreboard at the Garden will be overheating – the Knicks have a number of players who can put the ball in the basket but hardly anyone who can play defense. Also, point guard is a glaring weakness on this squad. Rookie PG Frank Ntilikina, who just turned 19 and missed most of the summer and preseason due to injuries, will experience a lot of growing pains.
- Phoenix Suns (29) – The Suns are still waiting for their frontcourt lottery picks (Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and Alex Len) to emerge. The latest addition is rookie SF Josh Jackson (4th overall pick), who will likely prove to be the best of the bunch. The backcourt looks solid but thin, with both Brandon Knight and rookie Davon Reed sidelined with significant knee injuries.
- Sacramento Kings (30) – The Kings are headed in the right direction, but this club is too young to emerge this season. Point guard is one spot that should be in good hands for years to come, with veteran George Hill backed up by two impressive rookies, De-Aaron Fox and Frank Mason. Don’t expect to see fellow rookie Harry Giles until at least January, as the club is playing it safe with the oft-injured athletic big man.
- Detroit Pistons (35) – Not a lot has changed in Detroit, and that is not a good thing. Replacing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with Avery Bradley is not going to get it done. On the plus side, look for second-year PF Henry Ellenson to make significant strides this season, if he is given the opportunity.
- Los Angeles Lakers (35) – The Lakers should make a significant jump forward, but coming off a 26-win season, they have a long way to go. While the expectations are high for the team’s back-to-back No. 2 overall picks, PG Lonzo Ball (2017) and SF Brandon Ingram (2016), a trio of less heralded youngsters – PF Julius Randle, SG/PG Jordan Clarkson, and rookie SF/PF Kyle Kuzma – carried the team in the preseason. The versatile Kuzma led the club in scoring with 17.3 PPG, while Randle posted a team-high PER of 21.5. Ball, who has been surrounded by unprecedented hype, has been hampered by injuries since the summer and hardly played in the preseason. The rookie’s exceptional passing and open-court skills should be immediately evident, but his abilities to make plays in the half court and to defend are suspect.
- Orlando Magic (36) – The Magic appear to be stuck in neutral. They have some young talent, but they have not hit a homerun with any of their draft picks in quite some time. This year’s top pick, PF Jonathan Isaac, will likely have limited impact, playing behind Aaron Gordon, who has improved his outside shot and had an impressive preseason.
- Dallas Mavericks (37) – Mavs fans know their team is not a serious playoff contender this season, but they are buzzing about rookie PG Dennis Smith, one of the early frontrunners for ROY. Smith has elite athleticism, including a phenomenal 48-inch vertical leap, excellent ball skills, and a decent outside shot.
- Memphis Grizzlies (38) – After winning 55 games in the 2014-15 season, the Grizzlies have hovered just above the .500 mark for back-to-back years. As a result, the club is moving in a youthful direction, leaving C Marc Gasol and PG Mike Conley to carry a very heavy load.
- Indiana Pacers (38) – With the departure of Paul George, most are expecting the Pacers to fall into the lottery, but this group has the potential to sneak into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference. Center Miles Turner is on the verge of stardom, and he will be complemented by a solid core that includes SG Victor Oladipo and PF Thaddeus Young.
- New Orleans Pelicans (39) – The intimidating duo of PF Anthony Davis and C DeMarcus Cousins is not likely to be enough to earn the Pelicans a playoff spot in the loaded West. Veteran point guard Rajon Rondo (hernia) missing a month or so will not help matters.
- Miami Heat (39) – Thanks to a stingy defense, the Heat overachieved last year by winning 41 games and barely missing the playoffs. The hope is that a healthy Justise Winslow and the addition of Kelly Olynyk will be enough to get them over the hump, but a lack of depth and offensive firepower may prevent the club from taking the next step.
- Portland Trailblazers (40) – The Blazers feature the outstanding backcourt of Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum, but as is the case with the Pelicans, a pair of stars is not likely to be enough in the West. The club doesn’t lack in big bodies, with holdovers such as Jusuf Nurkic being joined by rookies Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins. In a brief trial period (20 games) with Blazers last season, Nurkic nearly doubled his career scoring average with 15.2 PPG.
- Charlotte Hornets (40) – Whether or not Dwight Howard plays at a high level, the Hornets have a solid all-around team, and they should land a playoff spot this season. Versatile wing Nicolas Batum (elbow) will miss at least the first two months of the season, opening the door for rookie Malik Monk to get quality minutes. In the preseason, Monk averaged a team-leading 15.6 PPG, but also had a poor defensive rating of 108.4.
- Utah Jazz (41) – Coming off a 51-win season, the Jazz will be hard pressed to equal that success without All-Star Gordon Hayward, who departed for Boston. Much of the team’s fate seems to rest in the hands of fourth-year wing Rodney Hood and rookie SG Donovan Mitchell, who might see some playing time at point guard. If this pair plays well, the Jazz should make the playoffs.
- Philadelphia 76ers (41) – This should be the year that “The Process” finally starts to pay off. How far the team goes, however, depends greatly on the health of gifted center Joel Embiid, who has played in just 37 games in his first three seasons. A full season from Embiid would likely give the Sixers their first All-Star in five years and their first playoff appearance in six. Embiid will be complemented by a deep, versatile, and talented roster. The trio of Embiid, SF/PF Ben Simmons, and PF Dario Saric will be a nightmare for opponents’ small-ball lineups, and players such as J. J. Redick and Jerryd Bayless will add needed outside scoring. Top-overall pick Markelle Fultz (shoulder) has been hampered by injuries since the summer, and he will begin the season coming off the bench.
- Milwaukee Bucks (44) – Not much has changed in Milwaukee. The Bucks remain tremendously long, tall, and athletic. All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo is a match-up nightmare, and 2nd-year pro Thon Maker has the potential to pose similar problems. This squad’s main weaknesses are defensive efficiency and a lack of quality depth in the backcourt.
- Denver Nuggets (44) – Veteran PF Paul Millsap brings much-needed toughness and defense to a squad that was among the best in terms of offensive efficiency and near the bottom in defensive efficiency last season. Millsap will start alongside center Nikola Jokic, who is on the verge of a being an All-Star. The team’s biggest question mark is at point guard, where the club has high hopes for second-year pro Jamal Murray.
- Los Angeles Clippers (45) – Losing Chris Paul was a huge blow, but the Clippers are well stocked with a combination of proven veterans, including two returning All-Stars, and a few promising youngsters. One of the players who will help replace Paul is Milos Teodosic, a 30-year-old rookie from Serbia. Milos, an All-EuroLeague point guard and pick-and-roll wizard, is coming off a season in which he averaged 6.8 assists and 16.1 points per game for CSKA Moscow.
- Toronto Raptors (47) – Not much has changed in Toronto, and the Raptors’ glaring lack of proven depth makes it unlikely that they will surpass last season’s total of 51 wins. The biggest change will be at the 3 spot – athletic third-year pro Norman Powell is expected to start, with sharpshooter C. J. Miles providing a spark off the bench.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (47) – The Timberwolves and the 76ers are the two favorites to be the most improved team this season, but the edge has to go to Minnesota based on added experienced. With C Karl-Anthony Towns and SF Andrew Wiggins, respective ROYs in 2016 and 2015, Minnesota has two budding All-Stars. That dynamic duo, combined with the addition of four proven veterans, including a reigning All-NBA selection (Jimmy Butler), a former All-Star (Jeff Teague), and a former 3-time Sixth Man of the Year (Jamal Crawford), transforms the T’wolves into an immediate playoff contender.
- Washington Wizards (48) – Basically, the same squad that won 49 games and lost in the conference semifinals to Boston last season will take the court this year in Washington. The Wizards’ biggest addition is veteran 3-point specialist Jodie Meeks, who had a nice preseason and could be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year if he stays healthy.
- San Antonio Spurs (51) – The aging Spurs are another year older, and do not appear to have their usual quality depth, especially upfront. Veteran SF Rudy Gay is the team’s most significant addition, and he is coming off a season-ending Achilles’ injury. All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard and PG Tony Parker are both recovering from quad injuries and will not be ready for the start of the season. Parker will be out until at least December, opening the door for Dejounte Murray, a 2016 first-round pick, to get significant playing time.
- Boston Celtics (52) – Despite finishing last season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics made more moves than any other team in the league, most notably adding PG Kyrie Irving and SF/SG Gordon Hayward. The price the team paid for acquiring that pair of All-Stars was sacrificing its proven depth, especially in the frontcourt. Look for rookie Jayson Tatum, an NBA-ready scorer, to see a lot of time at power forward, while last year’s top pick, Jaylen Brown, will likely start at one of the wing spots.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (53) – Trading a bunch of reserves for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was quite a coup for the Thunder. The All-Star duo joins the reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook, giving the team a trio that averaged a combined 77.7 PPG last season. That’s a lot of firepower. Given that all three players are used to being the “man” on their previous teams, there is concern about how well they will mesh. Bigger concerns might be the club’s lack of depth at the wing spots and an overall lack of consistent 3-point shooting.
- Houston Rockets (54) – The massive trade for PG Chris Paul left the Rockets’ bench pretty bare, especially in the backcourt. The backcourt trio of Paul, James Harden, and Eric Gordon is the best in the league, but there is zero depth behind them. However, the club was able to sign two veteran defensive specialists, P. J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, to solidify the 3 and 4 spots.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (56) – By adding the likes of PF/SF Jae Crowder, PF/SF Jeff Green, PG Derrick Rose, and SG Dwayne Wade, depth is not an issue in Cleveland; in fact, the team might have the opposite problem – not enough touches and minutes to keep everyone happy. However, the biggest concern for the club is the health of PG Isaiah Thomas (hip). The Cavs hope that he’ll return to action by January. They’ll need the former Celtic All-Star to return to form in order to have a shot at dethroning the Warriors.
- Golden State Warriors (65) – When the worst thing you can say about a team is that it lacks a true third-string point guard, you know the team is good. The Warriors truly have an embarrassment of riches, with four All-Stars and a versatile veteran bench to cover all positions. Additionally, they made one of the steals of the draft when taking PF/C Jordan Bell in the second round. In the preseason, Bell posted a league-high PER of 43.1.
Rookie of the Year
Mavs PG Dennis Smith gets the nod over the Sixers’ Ben Simmons and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. Smith has impressed out of the gate, tearing up the Summer League and then having a solid preseason. His per-36-minutes numbers in five preseason games were 19 points, 7.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.2 steals. Smith also made a very impressive 44.4% of his shots from behind the arc. Simmons, who had a PER of 20.1 in the preseason, should be an all-around stat sheet stuffer, but his lack of touch from the outside is going to hamper his scoring average. Mitchell, who averaged 14.8 PPG in the preseason, will begin the season coming off the bench.
Most Improved Player
This award doesn’t usually go to the player who makes the greatest strides statistically – sorry, Justin Holiday. Instead, it usually goes to a good player who vaults into All-Star territory. With that being said, Pacers’ big man Myles Turner gets the nod over Holiday, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, Utah’s Rodney Hood, and Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic. Last season, his second as a pro, Turner averaged a solid 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. In addition to the natural progression expected from a former lottery pick, the 21-year-old Turner should shoulder much more of the scoring load with Paul George and Jeff Teague no longer in Indiana.
Sixth Man of the Year
Last year’s winner, Houston’s Eric Gordon, is clearly the frontrunner to win this award. He figures to get more minutes this season, with both Lou Williams (last year’s runner-up) and Patrick Beverley in LA. However, this would not be a fearless forecast if I picked all of the frontrunners. New faces that should be in the running for this season’s award include Toronto’s C. J. Miles, Philly’s Dario Saric, and Denver’s Will Barton, but I am going to go with the Spurs’ Rudy Gay. Last year as a starter with the Kings, the 31-year-old Gay was averaging 18.7 PPG (slightly above his career average) before an Achilles’ injury ended his season. This year, he will be coming off the bench, but he should get starter-like minutes on a San Antonio squad that has a thin and aging frontcourt.
Defensive Player of the Year
It’s time to give Rudy Golbert some love. Last season, he didn’t make the All-Star team, and he finished second in the voting for this award, despite leading the league in blocks (2.6 per game) and having the best defensive rating (99.4) among full-time starters. He also finished second in the league with 14.2 win shares, but received zero consideration for MVP. This year, Golbert appears to be on a mission to keep the Jazz in contention despite losing star Gordon Hayward. In the preseason, Golbert’s per-36-minute averages were 21.7 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks, with a PER of 34.2 and a defensive rating of 86.1.
Being on a winning team and being the clear-cut star on that team are two of the primary factors that MVP voters consider. Interestingly, the advanced stat win shares (WS) tries to measure how much a player contributes to each win, and the league leader in WS has won the MVP award in six of the past eight seasons. Being on a “super team” would seemingly reduce one’s chances of winning the MVP award for the simple reason that each star player will cut into the others’ contributions. For example, when Kevin Durant joined the Warriors last season, both Durant and Stephen Curry saw their PPG, PER, and WS stats drop from the previous year. Assuming that the same will happen this season to Russell Westbrook and James Harden, we should have a wide-open race for MVP. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the aforementioned players top the list of leading candidates for MVP, but I will give the nod to a motivated Kyrie Irving, who will be out of the shadow of LeBron and carrying a fairly heavy load in Boston.
2017-18 NBA Champions — Golden State Warriors