In the post-Jordan Bulls NBA the East has been inferior to the West. That will continue this season and into the foreseeable future. The West is full of smart, creative GMs who can quickly make a bad team good. The East roster of GMs is full of guys in their 2nd or 3rd stints in the job. They are often ex-players who have experienced more failures than successes in their executive careers. They continue to draft and trade their teams into the lottery and hope for a big score there. They’re the old boys network. The gap between the two conferences will remain as long as all the smart GMs continue to reside in Western locales.
The East has 4 bad teams, 2 teams that could crash the playoffs should everything go right but are more likely to finish solidly in the lottery, 3 bubble playoff teams, 5 pretenders and the Heat who will almost certainly win the conference again.
Here are my projections. The records are calculated as the West records were. Basically math followed by tweaking. Records are listed in reverse order, with the top 8 teams hitting the playoffs.
15. Orlando Magic: 14-68: My guess is they’ll be the worst team in the league and that’s by design. The only explanation for the “haul” they received in exchange for the game’s best center is the rebuilding game plan is to get bad as quickly as possible so they can get good again as quickly as possible. They’ll load up on draft picks and hope for a big score in a future lottery. They’re skipping the part where there’s a futile attempt to stay competitive with the 60 cents on a dollar talent typically received for a superstar. This isn’t a terrible plan, but in the first year is always ugly. Any veteran of value will be on the block for draft picks. The best case scenario has the remaining players from the Howard era take a circle the wagons approach, and come out of the gate with a spirited run that carries them to 30+ wins. The problem with that is the veterans remaining on the rosters are a group of role players whose defensive weaknesses were covered by Howard’s presence. Without Howard the weak defense of the likes of Redick, Nelson and Turkoglu is going to become a much bigger issue. I see things in Orlando falling apart quickly.
14. Charlotte Bobcats: 16-66: They were bad last year and did little in the offseason to lift themselves up from the depths. The draft brought a player, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is better cast as a super role player than some sort of savior. He’ll help, but not enough to lift this bunch to 20+ wins. I do feel they’ll improve enough that they won’t threaten last year’s record bad winning percentage. There are a lot of young players on the roster and that always points the arrow up. The Bobcats remain at least a couple of drafts away from relevance.
13. Detroit Pistons: 20-62: This record is probably a little tough. I tried to tweak some of the records that just didn’t look right, but I can only do so much. To defend the projection, I’ll say that the Pistons have not done a good job drafting and acquiring free agents in their attempts to get back to the level they were in the mid-aughts. Other than Greg Monroe the talent here just isn’t that special. As they stand now, the roster has a promising young center, but a big hole at PF, not much on the wing and an unproven PG whose college numbers project him as a bust. This could well be the year poor personnel decisions of the past will come back to bite the Pistons.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers: 23-59: The Cavs picked a real bad time to get dumped by their superstar. The two drafts that should have served as a start of a rebuilding may have been the worst back-to-back drafts ever in terms of overall talent. While the Cavs have done a nice job with what was available and are forming a decent young core, they’re still at least a couple of more young studs away from looking like a team of the future. Kyrie Irving is definitely a top PG and he’s a good start on the rebuilding.
11. Toronto Raptors: 25-57: The big problem the Raptors have is the two leading scorers, Andrea Bargnini and Demar Derozan, are not only inefficient scorers, but add little in the way of rebounding, defense and passing. Both are the type of player who would might work in the role of 3rd option or as offense off the bench on a contender. Neither is talented enough to be one of the top options on a good team. The Raptors will not get out of the lottery as long as these two are the top offensive options on the team. What this year could become for the Raps is the start of the Valanciunas era. The center, drafted #5 overall in 2010, was impressive in Europe last year and should bring some hope in what looks like an otherwise bleak year.
10. Washington Wizards: 32-50: I don’t like the trades the Wizards made in the last year and over the summer in their quest to crash the playoffs. That’s reflected in this projection. I know they have designs on the playoffs and went all-in with trades of some youngsters for Okafor, Nene and Ariza. Honestly the players they brought in just aren’t all that good. Okafor has been in decline for years. Nene is 30, battling injuries and comes with a bad contract. Ariza just isn’t all that good. Their coach, Randy Wittman, brings a career .331 winning pct. into his 3rd NBA coaching stint, which is another reason to be pessimistic. They could hit the playoffs if everything goes right. The biggest development would be John Wall stepping up in his 3rd season as the all-star he was projected to become. If that doesn’t happen, the trades are more likely to send the team backwards to another rebuilding plan in a couple of years than turn them into a contender.
7. (tie) Milwaukee Bucks: 39-43: The Bucks, Nets and Hawks are all pretty close, so I’m going to bunch all 3 together in the final 2 playoff spots and let the tiebreaker sort things out at the end of the year. The Bucks remade themselves with the Bogut-Ellis trade last season. While the idea of dealing a borderline all-star center for a borderline all-star SG is usually a bad one, The Bucks could come out of this one OK. Ellis’s scoring prowess should allow PG Brandon Jennings to concentrate more on play-making, which is what he does best. Another thing to like about the Bucks is they’ve stockpiled some young, athletic size in players like Ekpe Udoh, John Henson and Larry Sanders. If one or more of these youngsters develops into a valuable energy player, that’s going to give the team quite a boost. The young bigs and Scott Skiles ability to get production out of them is a wild card that makes me think the Bucks have a slight edge on the Hawks and Nets when it comes to hitting the playoffs.
7. (tie) Brooklyn Nets: 39-43: The Nets have spared no expense to remake the team into a borderline playoff contender. The playoffs are damn near mandatory for this bunch, since they’re acting like one of the East’s elite. What the Nets have in their favor is the owner does appear willing to take on any contract he can to make this team competitive. That could be either a help or a hindrance, depending on the contracts they decide to take on. The long term problem is the Nets are locked into some really bad contracts for the next few years to a group that has very little upside. While I’m sure it is a fun thing to have a professional sports team back in Brooklyn, there’s a lot of work to be done here before they join the elite of the East. As it stands the team is too weak defensively to contend for anything but a lower seed. There are very few tradable assets on the roster, because the roster is full of overpaid players on long-term contracts. The fact that the brain trust seems ready to pull out all the stops to make this team great is a good thing. But they’re a long way from that point now. Going into the 2013 season this looks like a team that will struggle to make the playoffs.
7. (tie) Atlanta Hawks: 39-43: This projection kind of puzzled me. I think the system was kind of hard on Horford for his injury-hindered season in 2012. They’ll probably be better than this, but they’ve fallen behind the rest of East pretenders, so the 7 seed seems about right. Even if they finish better than this, there’s little about the Hawks to suggest they’re ready to make the leap from pretender to contender. There’s a new GM in town. As is the case with Eastern teams, he’s an ex-player coming off a stint that would have to be called a failure. He’s already dealt one of the main pieces, Joe Johnson, from the team’s recent playoff run and another piece, Josh Smith, seems to always be on the block. The Hawks look like a team that’s going to spend the year deciding on what direction the team will be taking now that the Johnson-Horford-Smith core has been broken up. There will be a lot of: “who stays and who goes” questions being asked and trade scenarios considered. That won’t help the win total and will keep the Hawks as a borderline playoff team.
6. Chicago Bulls: 49-33: If they get the top seed again this year, we can certify Tom Thibideau as a genius, at least during the regular season. The Bulls have a couple strikes against them. Derrick Rose is out until at least sometime in 2013. That will obviously hurt. What really hurts the team though is the gutting of the league’s best bench. Radmanovic, Belinelli and Mohammed are a pretty substantial downgrade from Brewer, Korver and Asik. The team is still good enough to win a lot of games though. Best case scenario for the Bulls seems to be Rose comes back in February as good as ever making them the lower-seed no one wants to face in the playoffs.
5. Boston Celtics: 50-32: I expect their 5-year stranglehold on the Atlantic to end this year. Garnett is 36, Pierce is 35 and Allen is gone. When superstars age, teams decline and that is what’s starting to happen in Boston. The Celtics have done some smart things to keep themselves competitive. Bringing in solid pros like Bass last year and Terry this year will help them stay in the upper echelon of the East. But the Heat knocked them down a peg last year and this is the year they fall behind the improved Sixers and Knicks.
4. Philadelphia 76ers: 52-30: The trade for Bynum and a couple of free agent signings have reorganized this team into what should be a much better functioning unit. This has been a team of slashers and defenders with little scoring punch. Bynum brings an inside game while Nick Young and Dorrell Wright add needed scoring punch from the outside. The presence of these three should make things easier for the likes of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Iguodala will be missed, but his exit and the remaking of the roster should help Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday to improve their games. Especially Turner, whose skills mirrored those of Iguodala’s. The Sixers have added an improved perimeter game and the league’s 2nd best center to what was already a decent young core. This team is young, talented and put together very smartly. They should finally make a splash this year.
3. Indiana Pacers: 53-29: The Pacers are the one team in the East that would qualify a one of the smarter guys in the room. They built a strong team through the draft and some smart trades. They hired a smart, young coach. They did it without a big lottery score or a superstar showing up at their doorstep. This is a team you should root for. They’re solid at every position and they have a promising young coach. Paul George is a potential star whose emergence should boost a solid roster even more. Granger, West and Hibbert are capable of playing at or at least close to an all-star level. What keeps the Pacers below the Heat and Knicks is there is no real superstar on the roster. That’s going to keep them at a win total in the mid-50s and a playoff ceiling of a conference champion runner-up.
2. New York Knicks: 56-26: The coaching change made a huge difference last year. The Knicks were 17-6 after Woodson took over in March, before losing to the eventual champ in the first round of the playoffs. I wasn’t impressed with Woodson in Atlanta and I have my doubts he’s the answer here. But it’s possible that he’s a good fit with these veterans. The main reason I like the Knicks to emerge as the top challenger to the Heat is the supporting cast they have around Carmelo Anthony. They have the conference’s top defensive presence in Chandler, a solid #2 in Stoudemire, good perimeter defenders in Shumpert and Brewer, a gunner in Novak and steady PG play. That’s pretty much everything a superstar could want. In other words, it’s all there for Carmelo Anthony, so it’s time for him to deliver. Carmelo is a very good player who really needs a “shut up and deliver” type of season after a couple seasons that involved too much drama. Even if things go as well as possible in NY, they’re still not on the level of the Heat and barring a Miami implosion they’ll come up short of a conference championship.
1.Miami Heat: 62-20: They’re the obvious top dog in the East and maybe the entire league. Now we’ll find out if they’re about to embark on a team of the teens dynasty run, or if this is the only title they win and they’re pushed back to mere contender status for a few years before splintering like the ’67 Sixers, ’83 Sixers or the ’08 Celtics. Or maybe it will be something in-between these two extremes. I’m skeptical of the narrative that LeBron James went through a big change and suddenly developed the same sort of psychotic championship drive possessed by Russell and Jordan. An all-time great like LeBron, playing with a supporting cast this good is going to win a championship or two regardless of his mentality. In 2012 the Rose injury, the Thunder’s inexperience and the lack of another great team paved an easy road for Heat. I believe these circumstances had more to do with LeBron’s first title than any sort of personal transformation he may have gone through. I mean they didn’t exactly charge through the playoffs taking no prisoners like the ’91 Bulls or the ’01 Lakers. The Heat really could go either way in 2013. I like that there’s talk of using a smaller lineup and running more. I don’t like that the interior defense still looks a little weak for a champion. In the final analysis I have to pick them as a repeat champ. The biggest reason is I don’t see a team like Russell’s Celtics ready to take back the league from the ’67 Sixers or a Lakers-Celtics rivalry that became the story of the league following the great one year run of the ’83 Sixers. In other words, I don’t see anyone who can challenge the Heat. I have questions about the chemistry of the Lakers and I think the Harden trade kills off the Thunder. I picked the Nuggets to emerge from the West and I doubt they’ll be much competition for the Heat in the finals. Look for Miami to repeat.
I had my Western Conference preview all set. Things were pretty simple and easy to predict. I had the Thunder winning the West and starting a dynasty. It made sense. They were a super-talented, well-coached team with smart management. Then the trade happened. Suddenly the West is wide open. More analysis on the trade in the Rockets and Thunders blurbs below.
As for the West, it’s incredibly competitive this year. The reason for this is all the smart, creative front offices are in the West. Just look at how quickly Denver and Utah were able to retool after dumping their pricey superstars. While the East has more glamour locations, the West will continue to dominate as long teams like Dallas, Denver, Houston, OKC and Utah continue to employ the smartest guys in the league.
My system for predicting records is as follows. I project each player’s numbers for the upcoming season. It’s basically an average of his two previous seasons, with adjustments done for age. Next I try to translate the numbers into a winning percentage. I then make adjustments for team age, chemistry and other things I feel need to be factored in. Historically some of these are pretty good, while others are wildly wrong. Records are listed in reverse order, so all the drama, excitement and anticipation builds as you scroll to the bottom.
15. Portland Trailblazers: 23-59: I have them last because they’re on the downswing while the other weak sisters of the West all seem to be improving. The problem with the Blazers is the roster is so thin. In Aldridge, Batum and Matthews a decent top 3 is in place. The supporting cast is where they come up short. I have doubts about Lillard as a starting PG, despite his impressive summer league and pre-season. He better be as good as he’s looked, because there’s little in the way of other PG options. Handing the starting center job to rookie Meyers Leonard, who was only mildly productive in the Big 10 last year, will be a disaster. Again, there are few viable alternatives. This team has a mediocre core, no depth, and a new coach with a .406 career winning percentage. In the super-competitive West, that puts the Blazers in the basement.
14. Sacramento Kings: 27-55: The Kings have been in the accumulating talent mode for a few years and have added some nice pieces. They’ll win a few more games, but remain a little too dysfunctional to think they’re ready to make a move toward the playoffs. The top two players, DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, have been up and down during their young careers. Cousins is a dominant rebounder and inside presence, but he can’t seem to hit more than 45% of his FG attempts. Because he takes so many shots, this makes the entire King’s offense inefficient. Evans has regressed since a promising rookie season, but is in a contract year and looks like he’s back to his old form. The overall team defense has been among the worst in the league and there’s little reason to think that will improve with the same cast returning. The Kings are a team in need of some serious tweaking before they’re ready to compete.
13. Phoenix Suns: 29-53: The Suns have been on a slow decline since the glory days of the mid-aughts. With the center piece of that era, Steve Nash, departed for LA, look for the team to hasten that decline into lottery land for a few seasons. They’ve retained and added enough in the way of talent that they should be semi-competitive. I even give them an outside shot at the playoffs. They PG-center combination of Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat should be effective. Luis Scola is a solid PF. On the wing is a pair of recent top 5 draft picks, Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley, who both busted in their first NBA stops. I have my doubts either one will live up to the lofty draft position, but if both do, this projection is way low. Bottom line for Phoenix is they just don’t have enough firepower to compete in the West.
12. New Orleans Hornets: 33-49: I like Anthony Davis enough that even as a young rookie, I feel he’ll lift this team above the 20something win crowd and to the point where we might start whispering about playoff chances should everything else fall into place. Ryan Anderson is a good fit in the PF spot next to Davis and Eric Gordon has the potential to be a top 10 scorer if he can ever stay healthy for a full season. The Hornets are still at least a couple of years and a few smart moves away from joining the league’s elite. With Davis in the fold, rebuilding is off to a great start.
11. Golden State Warriors: 35-47: Most of the arrows are pointing up for the Warriors, I’m just not sure how far up. The Ellis-Bogut trade could have a huge effect on the Warriors season and even get them back into the playoffs should everything fall right. The biggest piece is Bogut, a marginal all-star when healthy. Bogut has missed a lot of games during his career and suffered a decline in efficiency the past couple of seasons when he did get on the court. His impact remains questionable, but he’ll be a huge asset if he can get back to where he was 2 years ago. The other reason moving Ellis helps is the PG position now belongs to Stephen Curry who seems ready to bust out as a legitimate star. Curry has also been dealing with injuries, so health issues could decide the season for the 2013 Warriors. If Bogut and Curry are healthy and at the top of their games, this team could well crash the playoffs. It won’t be more than the 7th or 8th seed, but that would be a great finish for a team that has been struggling for a while.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves: 40-42: The Timberwolves are a tough team to project and should be an interesting team to watch, at least early in the season. They’re bringing in a couple of former all-stars who were both out of the league last year in Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy. Kirilenko played a season in Russia and Roy “retired” at age 26 because of bad knees. Kirilenko should be a solid addition and seems like a good fit pairing with superstar Kevin Love at forward. Roy is more of a question mark. If he can somehow come back as the 2009 version of Brandon Roy, which was one of the top guards in the league, the Timberwolves could win 50 games. If he plays closer to the 2011 version, they’ll eventually need to find another option at SG and will likely miss the playoffs again.
9. Dallas Mavericks: 42-40: The Mavericks are an old bunch. While I like logic of zigging against the current zag of the league and picking up cheap available talent like Elton Brand and OJ Mayo, I feel this team has lost too much and has gotten too old to compete with the best of the West any longer. Dirk Nowitzki is an all-timer, but is now 34 and had knee surgery recently. I expect some decline. Brand is 33 and Marion is 34. That means they’re both likely to decline. Kaman is 30, has been in decline for a few years and is injury-prone. In the backcourt, Collison and Mayo are both marginal starters at best. I just don’t see the 2011 Champs being able to compete with the best in the West and feel they’ll miss the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 47-35: While it isn’t time to write this team off just yet after their nice little run of the past few years, the Grizz roster has been somewhat static while the rest of the West has improved. Considering the ages of the core, there isn’t much in the way of improvement that could be expected, with the possible exception of until now unreliable youngsters Marreese Speights and Jarryd Bayless. On the other hand, this still is a good team and there’s no reason to think they’re in decline. If Zach Randolph brings his A-game to the playoffs they’re going to be a load to eliminate. But there’s also little reason to think they can improve on recent seasons when most of their competition has gotten better.
7. Los Angeles Clippers: 48-34: The West is tough at the top. That the Clippers finally have a strong team in place only to be buried by playing in what could be the most competitive conference ever, pretty much sums up the plight of this franchise. The Clippers have a great 1-2 punch in Paul and Griffin. Beyond that the team is a little soft in talent. While center DeAndre Jordan is a strong defender and finisher, the rest of the rotation is an aging group of former all-stars with a few overpaid, inefficient veterans thrown in. The Clippers would be better served if they surrounded their stars with some hungry defenders, rebounders and grinders.
6. Utah Jazz: 51-31: The Jazz are a good example of one of the West’s smart teams. When they needed to deal their superstar, it was done quickly and without drama. In return they received a haul that quickly made the team relevant again. One thing I really like about the Jazz is they have good potential for improvement via trade. In Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson they already have one of the best inside duos in the league. In reserve are a couple of promising youngsters in Derrick Favors and Enes Kantor. They have enough resources to make a deal to strengthen a weak perimeter without hurting themselves. With or without a deal this is a solid team. They’ll have a nice season, but will come up something short of elite.
5. Houston Rockets: 53-29: I actually liked the Rockets as a sleeper to crash the playoffs before the trade. The trade makes them damn near a playoff lock. The trade made two big improvements to the team. The upgrade of Harden over Martin is the big one. By adding Harden, who could well emerge as the league’s top SG now that he’s in a lead role, the Rockets now have one of the better young backcourts in the league. Harden can score and distribute, so he should be a great fit with Lin. They also upgraded the center position by adding Aldrich, a player who looks ready to contribute. With Asik and Aldrich in the middle, the Rockets should be one of the better defensive teams in the league. The forward positions would seem to be a weak link, but there’s enough depth, youth and diversity here that an effective forward rotation should emerge. I liked the direction they were headed before the trade and I like it even more after.
4. San Antonio Spurs: 56-26: It is tempting to put them at the top again. They’ve been the West’s top seed for 2 consecutive years now and have everyone back. They’ve filled in the roster around the aging big 3 brilliantly, whether through the draft or finding cheap, useful free agents like Gary Neal and Danny Green. The Spurs just haven’t been able to run with the talented young teams once the playoffs start and I see no reason to think that will change. Expect a slight tick downward in the record as the stars age and another disappointing playoffs.
1.(tie) Oklahoma City Thunder: 60-22: Being that I’m not an insider, I’ll mostly stay away from addressing the reasons Sam Presti saw fit to weaken what looked like a coming dynasty and deal Harden so quickly and for so little in return. Plenty of folks with inside knowledge will be breaking all that down better than I could. I’ll admit that predicting a 3-way tie atop the West after having my vision for the 2013 season jumbled by the trade is something of a copout. The Thunder looked to me like a clear favorite for both the conference and the NBA title before the trade. Now the situation is more muddled and I don’t see much that separates this team from the Lakers and Nuggets. They’re still very good and should be considered a threat to win it all. Durant and Westbrook are second only to LeBron and Wade as a top 2. The edge the Thunder duo has is they’re still improving. The supporting cast is group that’s strong defensively and is also young and improving. Kevin Martin should slide in as an effective bench scorer, despite being a downgrade from Harden. They’re still an elite team. They’re still one of 4 teams in the 2013 NBA with a legitimate shot at the championship. That’s good, but it could have been better.
1.(tie) LA Lakers: 60-22: I’m going to skip the gushing over how loaded this team is. That should be obvious to anyone who follows the sport. By adding Howard and Nash the Lakers have put themselves in position to add another trophy to their crowded mantle. I’m going to mention the concerns I have about whether the mix will work out. Concern #1: In the backcourt both Nash and Kobe are most effective with the ball in their hands and will have to learn to share. My thinking is that being two of the smarter players in the league they should be able to figure this out. Concenr#2: Kobe is 34 and Nash is 38. Both are likely to decline, possibly dramatically. Neither is likely to play at a level near their MVP peaks. But I suspect they’ll both be good enough to keep the Lakers elite. It might even serve as incentive to win the championship quickly before the window closes. Concern #3: The thing that worries me the most as far as the Lakers’ quest for a championship goes is Dwight Howard. He’s an all-time great defender, but he’s limited on offense. He doesn’t like to pass the ball. Centers who are poor passers have traditionally struggled to win a championship. That group includes Ewing, Mourning and Moses Malone (who got one, but only one). We’ll see how Howard adapts, but I feel this is a legitimate concern. Concern #4: That would be coach Mike Brown. He crapped out in the playoffs a couple times with LeBron when he went in as the top seed. These Lakers are a different group from those Cavs and could probably coach themselves. But if I were a Laker fan I’d feel a lot better if it were Phil Jackson back on the bench. With that in mind I see a 60-win regular season, but a team that comes up short in the playoffs.
1.(tie) Denver Nuggets: 60-22: This is a scary good team that should surprise the nation and run with the best in the West for most of the season. They added an all-star in Andre Iguodala to a roster full of talented, productive youngsters who seem ready to break out all at once. In addition to being young and talented, what I really like about this team is how well they fit together. There are two excellent PGs in Lawson and Miller. Iguodala is a great all-around player who should make everyone else better. Gallinari is the shooter. Faried is the rebounder and hustler. At center, JaVale McGee appears ready to bust out as one of the best in the league at his position. The roster has quality depth, so the team seems capable of weathering any injuries. The only reservation I have about this team is there is no superstar who produces at the level of a LeBron, Durant or Howard. Traditionally that has been a huge hurdle for a team to overcome in the quest for a championship. That makes the Nuggets a tough pick to win the conference. But the Western Conference suddenly looks as dysfunctional to me as it does talented. The Spurs have issues with age, the Lakers are going to have chemistry problems and the young Thunder might need a season to recover from the shock of learning the realities of life in small market NBA. That leaves an opening for a cagey, veteran coach like George Karl to lead a fun, talented group of youngsters like the 2013 Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Championship and into the NBA finals.
The MIP should be one of the more intriguing award competitions to watch in 2013. Before the talent drought that plagued the NBA drafts of 2011 and 2012, the drafts of 2009 and 2010 were both deep with solid NBA prospects. Those players are ready to make an impact in 2013. That should not only make for a very entertaining season, but a lot of good Most Improved Player candidates. The profile for the winner of the Most Improved Player award is as follows:
- A young player who playing is in his 3rd or 4th season. The only player over 30 to win the award was Darrell Armstrong in ’99, who was 30 at the time. Armstrong was a late bloomer who actually was in his 4th NBA season at the time and didn’t play over 1000 minutes until he was 28. Of the 27 winners, only 5 have been over 25. So think young.
- Forwards are hot. The positional breakdown of MIP winners is 12 forwards, 9 guards and 6 centers. Forwards seem to be trending recently, having won 7 of the last 9. The last center to win was Jermaine O’Neal in ’02. The voters are thinking forwards for the MIP. That would be one explanation for the puzzling choice of Ryan Anderson over Greg Monroe last year.
- Like most awards, the MIP is driven by PPG more than any other stat. Every winner has experienced a fairly dramatic increase in PPG. The winner typically sees a jump in PPG from the low teens to the high teens. The next most likely scenario is a player who goes from very little playing time to the rotation and a PPG in the low teens. Occasionally the award goes to a player who ups his game from good, to all-star level. Danny Granger in ’09 being the most recent example.
With those three things in mind here are the players I feel are the most likely MIP winners going into the 2013 season.
- Paul George, Indiana: George is my choice as the top candidate. He seems ready to step up as Granger’s #2. He’s had a couple of promising years with some flashes of great ability. He was at 12.1 PPG last year and a jump into at least the 17-18 range seems likely. I do have some reservations though. George has a solid all-around game and will get plenty of PT. His potential on offense is decent, but he hardly has the look of a 25 PPG guy as some others on this list do. It seems more likely his career best will top out short of 20 PPG as a scorer, but he’ll remain valuable because of his other skills. I’d also like him better if his scoring had improved over the course of last season, but that wasn’t the case. Those concerns aside, George is a talented young player who is going to get increased playing time on a very good team. His PPG last year was low enough that his ceiling isn’t going to be that high in order to get noticed. I see him as the slight early favorite over Hayward to win the 2013 MIP.
- Gordon Hayward, Utah: I’ll toss other Jazz players Marvin Williams and Jeremy Evans in mix here too. The fact is the Jazz need some offense from the wing and they have plenty of candidates to provide it. Hayward seems like the most likely player to do so. He’s just 22, in his 3rd season and is coming off a year where he showed decent improvement. He has shown flashes of greatness at both Butler and in his first couple of seasons at Utah. Williams is intriguing as a candidate, because he’s getting a change of scenery. He could blossom in a new environment. Evans is an interesting prospect. A slasher who has always hit well over 60% of his shots, it wouldn’t surprise me if he busted out. He’ll have to play his way onto the court though. But Hayward is the guy to watch here. He’s the high draft pick and the guy who has flashed the most ability early in his career. He scored only 11.8 PPG last year. Should he up that to the 15-20 range, he’ll be in contention. Because he did average 15.3 PPG over the final 25 games last year, such improvement is more than likely, it is almost certain.
- A Denver Nugget: The Nuggets roster looks like a MIP award waiting to happen. This is a team that’s likely to do a lot of running and score a lot of points, so the numbers will be there. The team is loaded with good candidates. Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee are all under 25, have been very productive players and appear ready to break out at some level. I would probably give Gallinari a slight edge over the other three. He’s the scorer and seems most likely to improve his PPG enough for consideration. Another reason to like the chances of a Denver player for the MIP is this team is going to be something of a media favorite. I see them running with the Thunder and Lakers for most of the year at the top of the West. Doing this with a roster void of a superstar and a likable coach will make the Nuggets one of the stories of the year. One result of that could be an edge with the voters when the hardware gets handed out.
- Stephen Curry, Golden State: Curry is the player most likely to win the MIP by going from good to all-star level, like Granger did a few years ago. Curry has been very good for 3 seasons now, averaging 17.5 PPG during that time. There’s a good chance he’ll really break out this year though. Monta Ellis is gone, so he’ll have the PG role to himself. I expect the APG to increase as a result of that. He’s a very capable scorer and could easily bust past 20 PPG. The Warrior roster has another interesting MIP candidate in Klay Thompson, but I don’t see him as player Curry is.
- Jeremy Lin, Houston: The notoriety Lin received last year might hurt his MIP chances. Even if he averages the 18 PPG and 10 APG he seems capable of, Lin’s season won’t have the “out of nowhere” feel that would help a player win the MIP. Lin’s situation says he’s a great candidate though. He’s a young player who played well in low minutes and now will be getting an opportunity as a starter.
- Evan Turner, Philadelphia: I guess it would be put up or shut up time for Turner. It’s time for the former #2 overall pick and college POY to take his career in the direction of impact player or bust. Iguodala’s exit should be a good thing for Turner. I could see him sliding right into that role, or at least starting out as a poor man’s Iguodala, as the skills are similar. The problem for Turner is he just hasn’t played that well so far. While he graded out as an excellent prospect coming in, he just hasn’t adjusted that well to the pro game. He isn’t a player like George or Hayward who just needs more minutes to produce. There are legitimate questions as to whether Turner can produce with extra minutes and scoring opportunities. His scoring has been inefficient, especially from behind the arc. Turner, who will be 24 this year, is older than a lot of 3rd year players. That would also seem to hurt his chances. What he has going for him is his PPG of 9.4 from last year should be easy to improve on because he’s going to get the opportunity. We’ll see which way he goes with it. This would be a good place to mention that Turner’s teammate Jrue Holiday is also a decent MIP candidate.
- James Harden, Oklahoma City: He is something of a star already thanks to playing on a conference champ and of course, the beard. But he’s also a young player capable of stepping up his game quite a bit. He’s definitely capable of scoring 20+ PPG. Last year he was at 16.8 and he’d need to kick it up over 20 to win MIP. His biggest problem is he’s on a roster that has Durant and Westbrook already combing for 50+PPG. He may not get enough opportunities to top 20 PPG. In the very unlikely event his contract situation forces a trade to a lottery team, Harden would become the favorite for the award in my book.
- John Wall, Washington: He’s been OK, but really hasn’t stepped up as the superstar he was projected to be. His PPG has been just over 16, with poor efficiency. Derrick Rose made the big jump his 3rd season, so it isn’t totally crazy to think Wall could do the same and post a 20-10 season in points and assists. While the idea of Wall winning an MVP, as Rose did, is crazy, he could challenge for MIP with such a season. The negative is his scoring has been so inefficient that it’s hard to see his numbers making such a jump.
- Jerryd Bayless, Memphis: Bayless quietly had his best year as a 3-point shooter last year, hitting .423 while increasing his attempts by quite a bit. This tells me the improvement is probably real. He’s the 3rd guard on the Memphis roster and should get a lot of minutes at both backcourt positions. He seems primed for a breakout season as a scorer off the bench and could even challenge for 6th man of the year.
- Cole Aldrich, Oklahoma City: Aldrich hasn’t seen much PT during his 2 seasons in OKC. That should change this year as he’s going to be the backup center. I can’t say what that will mean in terms of minutes. The man he’s replacing, Nazr Mohammed, played only 11 minutes per game last year. Should Aldrich post a similar total he would have no chance of winning. There are two reasons to think Aldrich is a dark horse to bust out in 2013 and win MIP. The first is he was a pretty solid prospect coming out of Kansas in 2010 and I would expect him to do well when his chances come. The other is Thunder starting center Kendrick Perkins has been in decline for a couple of seasons now. It isn’t crazy to think the Thunder will start to look at other options if this decline continues. So there could be big minutes for Cole Aldrich. I’ll add Hasheem Thabeet’s name here also. He’s in the Thunder training camp, could make the roster and finally blossom as a defensive presence. But I feel Aldrich is the guy to watch here.
The 2013 rookie class looks weak to me. Anthony Davis is the only sure thing in the group and that makes him an easy top choice. I mention other players as rookies to watch. Some will probably go on to have solid careers, but Anthony Davis is the story of the 2012 draft and the rookie class of 2013. I doubt many other 2013 rookies will make much of a ripple in the league.
Just because Davis is something close to a lock to win the ROY, doesn’t mean there aren’t several other intriguing rookies to watch. This list is based mostly on opportunity, but some on my feelings about each player’s potential. I don’t put much stock in slow or fast starts. These things even out when league play starts. The league will figure out the frauds and the truly talented players will eventually find their NBA legs. Sometimes that process takes as long as half a season. These players are listed in order of what I feel their chances are after Davis.
- Anthony Davis, New Orleans: When predicting awards and anything else for that matter, the predictor can get into problems overthinking things while overlooking the obvious. In the case of Davis, it would be correct to say that it’s possible he won’t be one of the top scorers on his team and scoring is usually the skill that lands a player the ROY. But Anthony Davis is clearly the best player coming into the league this year and has a good chance at becoming an all-time great. It’s rare that a player coming into the league ready to make an impact, like Davis appears to be, doesn’t win the ROY. The only scenario this doesn’t happen is the presence of another great player in the same rookie class, like Jordan and Olajuwon in ’85. Barring injury, Anthony Davis will win the 2013 ROY.
- Dion Waiters, Cleveland: Waiters by himself is a microcosm of the 2013 rookie class. I’m skeptical he’ll even make a ripple, but he does have some intriguing potential. He’s already getting some tough love from his coach and may struggle to get off the bench, at least in the first part of the season. He responded well to such treatment at Syracuse and we’ll see how he handles this. In general I prefer to bet on players with ability as opposed to fast starters. Waiters’ run at Syracuse was enigmatic, but included flashes of greatness. Cleveland is a good place for a rookie. They have a solid PG in place, some decent inside players and no real established scorer. Dion Waiters is a talented player in a good situation and my guess is he’ll figure things out soon enough to make an impact. That makes him the player most likely player to pull off a surprise and beat out Davis.
- Bradley Beal, Washington: Beal is similar to Waiters, in that both are young SGs with good ability who was taken high in the draft. That makes him a decent ROY candidate. He might be a better prospect long term prospect than Waiters, and certainly seems to be more mature, at least based on the reports I read as someone who isn’t an insider. The reason I have Waiters as more likely to win the ROY is his situation is better than Beal’s. Where Cleveland is stockpiling young talent and letting things sort out, Washington has cashed in some of that young talent for veterans who will be taking the lead and getting most of the shots. That situation could make opportunities harder to come by for Beal and suppress his scoring numbers until he establishes himself as a potent scorer at this level.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte: He is the 2nd pick in the draft going to a roster that is pretty much devoid of NBA quality starters. That alone puts him in the top 5 ROY candidates in a weak draft. The thing that will hurt him in the ROY sweepstakes is his lack of an offensive game. At Kentucky, MKG was neither a high-volume scorer (4th on his team in PPG) nor a particularly efficient scorer from inside or outside. His game was more of a super-supporting player. Winning the ROY is all about scoring and it’s hard to see MKG as a guy who’s going to come in and approach the 15-20 PPG ROY winners have traditionally posted. The lack of overall talent on the Bobcat roster and his status as the 2nd overall pick mean he will get the minutes though and that gives him an edge on most rookies.
- Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto: He looks like he has a good future, but he’s also young and raw. He’s coming to a roster where it seems more likely he’ll be eased in and won’t be a huge part of the offense. Considering he plays center, his long term prospects make him more valuable than any rookie other than Davis. I doubt we’ll see him make much of an impact for at least another year, but he is one to watch.
- Damian Lillard, Portland: I’m not a huge fan of Lillard. His college numbers suggest he’s a better fit as a scoring 3rd guard than a point guard. I’m particularly wary of his ability to put up numbers as the PG to an established, highly-paid trio. But he has the potential to be a pretty good NBA scorer and he’s been handed the starting PG job. That should put him in contention for the award. He had a good summer league and has played well so far in the preseason, so it’s possible I’ve underestimated him. But I’ve seen fast starters before who flamed out when the league caught up to their limited talent. A good recent example being Randy Foye. Lillard’s rookie teammate, center Meyers Leonard, is listed as the starting center on some depth charts. I doubt this will last long, as Leonard looks nowhere near ready to play at an NBA level. It does make him worth a mention here.
- Harrison Barnes, Golden State: Barnes is another player I’m a little cool on, but as a one-time top overall prospect going to a team looking to bust out, he deserves a mention. Here’s my take on Barnes going into the draft is you care to see the logic behind my opinions. As for Barnes’ ROY chances, I think they’re pretty miniscule. He appears to be the starting SF going in and that’s a good thing for him. But Golden State isn’t like Cleveland or Charlotte. The Warriors won’t be happy with another season out of the playoffs and adding another piece in the 2013 lottery. This is a team with designs on the playoffs. I doubt they’ll leave Barnes on the court if the team struggles out of the gate and there are better SF options out there. Fellow Warrior rookie Draymond Green could also make an impact, simply because this team lacks players with the all-around game Green flashed at Michigan State. He might even get more PT than Barnes by the time the season is done because he’s a better fit on what is a pretty soft team.
- Jeremy Lamb, Houston: The situation in Houston is good for a rookie. There should be a lot of minutes available at positions other than PG and Center. Lamb has some serious potential as a scorer and could light it up either as a starter at SG or off the bench. Lamb’s scoring prowess makes him the most likely rookie to make an impact in 2013. Houston’s roster situation means fellow rookies Terrence Jones, Royce White and Donatas Montejuanas will have opportunities and also merit a mention.
- Thomas Robinson, Sacramento: As a top 5 pick, Robinson gets a mention. He’s not in the best situation. His skills mirror those of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, so it’s likely Robinson will come off the bench. Sacramento is a hard team to get a read on, but there don’t appear to be many scoring opportunities available, so at best Robinson’s rookie role will be that of an energy player.
- Andre Drummond, Detroit: He’s put in some impressive minutes so far in the preseason. He was judged by experts to have a lot more talent than he showed during his only season at UConn. As a numbers guy, I would have to strain to find that potential. Considering all the drama that went on at UConn last year it’s possible his stats were suppressed a little. He is big and talented, so right now I’ll call him at best a lesser version of Valanciunas. As a rookie, he’s behind a good center in Monroe, so I don’t see him getting huge minutes nor do I see him piling up the numbers necessary to compete for the ROY.1
- The rest: There will be opportunity in Orlando. Probably not immediately as the likes of Jameer Nelson, JJ Redick, Glen Davis and Hedu Turkoglu will continue to carry the offensive load. But this is a team in transition and if a fire sale develops, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn and Moe Harkless could get serious PT. I like Nicholson the most of the trio and would even call him a sleeper for all-rookie honors should he work his way through a veteran logjam at PF on the Magic roster. Jared Sullinger should also have an impact. He’s in a great situation with Boston. Doc Rivers has a good history of working big rookies into useful rotation roles with veteran superstars. Finally I’ll mention a few more players in 3 groups. The first is players I feel have good potential, but are unlikely to break through as rookies because of a crowded roster. Those are Milwaukee’s John Henson, Denver’s Evan Fournier, Dallas’ Jae Crowder and Portland’s Will Barton. I do like the long term potential of all 4. Then there are the players who were drafted in round one and are in a good situation as far as opportunity goes, but come up short as prospects. That includes Cleveland’s Tyler Zeller, Toronto’s Terrence Ross, New Orleans’ Austin Rivers and Atlanta’s John Jenkins. The last group is OKC’s Perry Jones III, Chicago’s Marquis Teague and Denver’s Quincy Miller. Three players who were highly-touted coming out of high school who failed to live up to expectations. All 3 go into good situations. They’re going to great teams where they can sit and learn without the pressure of having to perform immediately. Finally the undrafted player to watch is John Shurna. He’s on the Knicks’ preseason roster, which is a good place since that’s where undrafted Jeremy Lin busted out last year. Shurna is a first round talent and could have a positive impact if he gets in the right situation.
The MVP award is as much about team success as it is about individual success. To win the award it is imperative that a candidate pile up impressive stats. But those stats mean little if his team is perceived to have underachieved by the voters. More often than not the MVP goes to a player whose team is a top seed or has experienced improvement.
In grading the MVP candidates for 2013, I look first for players who are the best of the best. I’m talking about the elite, the superstars, etc. Next I look at team situations. If a team doesn’t win the top seed or at last exceed expectations, none of the players on that team are likely to win the MVP.
Players are listed in order of what I feel their chances are going into the season. I mention a lot of players here. Just keep in mind that anyone listed below the top 3 should be considered a long shot. Below the top 7, a crazy long shot.
- Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City looks ready to emerge as the league’s best team. They won the West last year and are young enough that significant improvement can be expected. I feel this group, more than any other, has the potential to roll through the regular season with a win total in the high 60s. If that happens, Kevin Durant will walk away with his first MVP.
- LeBron James, Miami: Want to know how often a player on the reigning champion has won the MVP since Wilt did it 1968? Only 6 times in 44 seasons. The last one was Jordan in ’97. Jordan also accomplished this in ’92. The others were Magic ’89, Bird ’85, Walton ’78 and Kareem ’72. LeBron is the best player in the game at the zenith of his career. That’s usually an MVP favorite. I have him behind Durant because Miami has been a disappointing regular season team during the Superfriends era and because defending champs just haven’t won that often. For whatever reason LeBron’s Heat haven’t been the type of team that’s going to blow the drawers off the league and approach 70 wins. That could certainly change this year, with the pressure of winning a title gone. I just think it’s more likely they’re a mild disappointment and reach a win total around 60 again, while winning the East’s top seed. Combined with another typical LeBron season, that could be enough to get LeBron his 4th MVP.
- Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers: The 2013 season would seem to be Kobe’s last best chance at winning a 2nd MVP. He has a great supporting cast in place. There’s a smart veteran PG, the best center in the league and a strong #2. Mike Brown had a solid record of racking up high win totals and top seeds while coaching a talented roster in Cleveland. It isn’t a reach at all to think the Lakers will post the best record in the league. The thing with Kobe is even in his prime he was rarely considered the league’s best player. He’s 34 and his stats have slid a bit from his peak of a few years ago. It’s also possible that the Lakers’ statistical distribution will look something like that of the Spurs, where no one player has impressive enough stats to compete for the MVP despite being the top seed. He is in the best situation to win the MVP he’s seen in years. Added incentive will be that Shaq only won 1 MVP. Snagging another would give Kobe that much more ammunition in their personal feud.
- Carmelo Anthony, New York: After a year where he took some heat for his role in getting a coach fired and criticized the contract of a departing teammate, ‘Melo really needs a “shut up and deliver” type of season. He is a better player than most give him credit for, if something short of a superstar. What he has going for him is he’s in a great situation. The Knicks have enough talent that 60 wins and a top seed is possible if everything goes right. Like Kobe, Carmelo has a supporting cast that includes a smart veteran PG, a defensive monster in the middle and a strong #2. In addition the Knicks have a nice group of grinders and gunners who make things easier for a star. Playing in New York won’t hurt his cause either.
- Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia: The Sixers are another talented Eastern team that’s ready for big improvement and lurking should the Heat fade a little. Bynum is the new addition most likely to reap the credit should his team win a top seed. Bynum is still improving and only turns 25 at the start of the season. He would probably need to up his PPG to 20+, which is something he seems capable of doing.
- Dwight Howard, LA Lakers: Kobe is the leader of the Lakers and is likely to reap most of the hardware should the Lakers reach the top seed. If Kobe has some struggles, but the team keeps winning, the narrative could switch to Howard as the top Laker MVP candidate. One thing both Bynum and Howard are fighting is inside players rarely win the MVP any more. This is a seismic shift that began in 1984. Before that 25 of the 28 MVP awards went to centers. Beginning with Larry Bird’s first MVP in 1984, only 9 of the subsequent 29 MVPs have gone to inside players. Only 3 of those have gone to true centers, with David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal winning one apiece. While players like Bynum and Howard are extremely valuable, neither fits the mold of a typical MVP in the modern NBA.
- 7. Chris Paul, LA Clippers: Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson were the only 2 PGs to score an MVP before Magic won his 3. In the new millennium, PGs have won 4 MVPs, so we might be seeing something of a trend here. Paul is the best pure PG in the game. He’s leading a good young team that has championship aspirations. I have my doubts about the Clippers being much more than a lower seed, which is why Paul is down at #7. Should the Clippers challenge for a top seed, Paul has a chance to win his first MVP.
- 8. Kevin Love, Minnesota: Love is one of the most productive players in the league. He’ll be 24 this year, so he can be expected to improve. A couple of factors put Love up against it though. The Timberwolves remain a mess of a franchise that will struggle to make the playoffs and he’s out for the first month or so with a hand injury. Should Love return and lead Minnesota to 50 wins, while leading the league in both scoring and rebounding—he was top 5 in both last year—he’ll be in the discussion.
- 9. Andre Iguodala, Denver Nuggets: Now we’re getting into the longest shots. Why Iguodala? The biggest reason is I feel the Nuggets are a sleeper in the West. I love the talent on this team and feel they’ll be running out front with the Thunder and Lakers for most of the year. Iguodala is the new guy on the roster who seems likely to get any credit that would come with the Nuggets shocking the world and winning the West.
- The Field: A lot of scenarios to consider here. The first is a 2nd banana taking over when the star is injured or falters. I already mentioned Howard as such a candidate, but Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade and Blake Griffin come to mind as players who could move into the forefront should the star struggle. Then there are the real long shot candidates. Think Steve Nash going into the ’05 season. This would have to be a player who emerges as a difference maker on a team that shocks league by taking the top seed. Iguodala is the most obvious example as a candidate in such a scenario. Others include Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo. I also have to mention the Spurs. They have won consecutive top seeds, but their big 3 have been so even that none has stood out as a candidate. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginoboli all deserve a mention. San Antonio should be back as a regular season force again this year, so their stars have to be considered. Finally I’ll toss out the remote possibility that rookies Anthony Davis or Jonas Valanciunas step right in and impact the league in such a way that the voters will have no choice but to add one of the two to Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld’s exclusive club of rookie MVP winners. But I’m really reaching for candidates now. The 2013 MVP award is almost certainly going to come down to Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. The player with the edge will be the one with great stats and is on the team with the best record. Going in I give the edge to Durant.