NBA Preview 2017-18

We are a day late but let’s talk NBA preview…The primary story angle has been that the season doesn’t matter and that we likely are headed for a fourth straight series between the Warriors and Cavs in the Finals.   And that was before the most likely rival to the Cavs in the East lost one of its best players a few minutes into the season.  It does seem that the consensus is correct and we are most likely headed for an unprecedented re-re-re-rematch in the Finals between Golden State and Cleveland.    But this doesn’t mean we are left with nothing to discuss.  Let’s go through a few interesting issues/questions for 2017-18:

Is the inevitability of Warriors and Cavs (and a subsequent Warriors win) bad for the NBA?

As a big NBA fan, I definitely wouldn’t mind a new matchup in the Finals.  It’s clear, however, that most NBA fans would prefer a rematch.  Sports fans in general and NBA fans specifically, gravitate to extended greatness over parity.  Michael Jordan’s three-peats and the dominance of the Lakers/Celtics in the 1980s are considered great periods in the NBA, while the free-for-all late 1970s or a random Finals between the Pistons and Spurs is not quite as well-remembered.  Like the Warriors and Cleveland today, most of the NBA teams competing against MJ and the Magic Johnson Lakers were quite hopeless and the second level contenders didn’t take them to the brink often.  Moreover, no one really cared that no one could beat Jordan, Magic, or Larry.

Just by way of a brief of example, here’s how often the Bulls were tested during their two three-peats:

-1990-91:  The Bulls lost only two playoff games that season.  In the East, the Bulls played only one team in the playoffs with a positive SRS (the Pistons).

-1991-92: The Bulls went 67-15 and were sort of tested in the playoffs by some good teams (Cavs, Knicks, Blazers).  Only the Knicks took the Bulls to an elimination game, however, and the Bulls won that game handily.

-1992-93:  By this time, most NBA fans were ready for the Bulls to lose and the Cavs, Knicks, and Suns, in particular, were geared up to beat them.  In fact, Cleveland had a better SRS, the Knicks more wins (though a slightly lower SRS), and the Suns had more wins and a better SRS.  The Bulls still swept the Cavs, beat the Knicks in a tough series six game series (thanks, Charles Smith!), and the Suns in a somewhat tough six game series as well.  The only real complaint after the season related to Jordan’s abrupt retirement and not his prolonged dominance.

-1995-96:  MJ’s first full season after his retirement produced the arguable best team ever (72-10).  They trounced all comers in the playoffs (the Sonics forced a Game 6 but were down 3-0 initially).

-1996-97:  The Bulls were still the best team by a mile and lost only three games during the playoffs.  The Jazz tested them a bit in the Finals but didn’t really make them sweat.

-1997-98:  The Bulls still had the best SRS in the NBA and tied for best record but were no longer lapping the field (in fact, the Jazz had home court against them in the Finals).  The Bulls’ biggest test of Jordan’s entire run came in the Conference Finals against the Pacers.  The Bulls rallied from a late deficit to save that series (the first and only time MJ was actually faced with elimination during these runs).  The Jazz were tough in the Finals as well but, again, couldn’t quite force that elimination game.

The overarching theme of that stretch is that the fans wanted to see MJ do great things.  Most national fans didn’t want to see Patrick Ewing or Reggie Miller actually eliminate the Bulls.  It would’ve been great for these few stars but the Warriors’ and LeBron’s continued dominance are what people really want outside of a few cities.  Similarly, do most fans now really want to see the Spurs or Celtics in the Finals when the alternative is LeBron against KD and Curry again?

Okay.   But is there any way we don’t see the Warriors and Cavs again in the Finals?

The most likely way is if there are serious injuries to LeBron, Steph Curry and, Kevin Durant.  With the Warriors, they are probably the best team in the NBA even if they lose one of Curry and Durant.  Outside of injuries, any upset possibility lies in a singular talent dominating the Warriors or Cavs in a short playoff series.  There are few players  who are not on Golden State and Cleveland with that ability:  Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Giannis Antetkounmpo .   So, if Westbrook or Harden average 45 ppg or Giannis can shutdown LeBron and score, there is always a chance, albeit a small one.

Who will be MVP?

This is a pretty wide open field.  Usually, the voters like to give the award to the best player on the best team or someone who had a great stat year on a pretty good team (See Westbrook).  The voters also tend to get tired of giving the award to a repeat winner.  This makes it hard to give the award to Curry, Durant, or LeBron.  Westbrook and Harden are most likely to fall into the gaudy stats category but  both have added offensive weapons that might lower their raw offensive numbers (and Westbrook would be a repeat winner anyway).

Other potential candidates who aren’t perfect but have some possibility are Kawhi Leonard (starting the year injured), Anthony Davis (mediocre team at best), and Giannis (mediocre team).  If the Bucks surprise, Giannis becomes a very possible candidate.  Otherwise, expect the electorate to turn to Durant because he has won only one MVP and the Warriors should be great again.

Standings Predictions

Our informal predictions with some comments:

Eastern  Conference

15. Atlanta Hawks: They are clearly blowing things up.  Older fans will feel a flashback to the early 2000s and the Lon Kruger Era (where is Dion Glover these days?). 

14.  Chicago Bulls: This looked like an ugly tank job a few months ago and the Mirotic-Portis situation only makes it worse.

13.  New York Knicks: Hopefully, most of the stupid drama is over with Phil Jackson fired.  This team with no drama is just another shallow roster with terrible defenders and Kirstaps Porzingis.  The prime goal should be to develop Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina.

12.  Brooklyn Nets: They’ve done a nice job retooling but this will be another slow build.

11.  Indiana Pacers: The trade return for Paul George was not great and suggests a rebuild should be coming soon.  If they sell off their few vets, they could fall to deep lottery.

10.  Orlando Magic: There is talent here but unless some actual scorers are found, they can’t break through.

9.  Philadelphia 76ers: Like everyone else, I agree that a healthy Joel Embiid should put them in the playoffs.  Alas, I don’t think we can assume Embiid will be reasonably healthy.

8.  Miami Heat: Finishing 30-11 was impressive but this starting 11-30 was not.  The Heat will battle for the eight seed.

7.  Charlotte Hornets: Nic Batum’s injury will hurt but there is enough talent here to make the playoffs in the moribund East.

6.  Detroit Pistons: Detroit’s terrible offense has prevented any real traction.  Maybe a full season of Reggie Jackson and Avery Bradley will push them to the .500 mark?

5.  Milwaukee Bucks: The roster still lacks good guards and was weak overall defensively.  Giannis’ presence suggests a potential for improvement on defense for the team overall.   Eric Bledsoe would fit nicely here.

4.  Boston Celtics: The Hayward injury really sucks.  Still, Boston is characterized more by its depth than by any one star.  If Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can be more effective than younger players usually are, this team should still be good.

3.  Toronto Raptors: Toronto definitely feels like a team in decline.  The Raps’ chances at success depend on Kyle Lowry still being a great point guard and he is at an age (31) when shorter point guards tend to start declining.  He’ll be good but erosion is coming.

2.  Washington Wizards: Because of Boston’s injury and Toronto’s age issue, the Wiz get this slot by default.  The roster still has some weaknesses but the starting five is tough.  It’s fair to say that Washington is closer in talent to the Bucks than they are to Cleveland.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers: This James guy isn’t bad. Where he ends up after the season is the looming question.  There are reasons to stay but James may want a new venue and he apparently remembers that Dan Gilbert is not the easiest guy to deal with.

Western Conference

15.  Sacramento Kings: They seriously lack talent.  De’Aaron Fox may have potential but the rest of this roster is filler.  This franchise is a good reminder that teams can end up tanking by accident even when they think they are trying to win.

14.  Phoenix Suns: Unlike the Kings, the cupboard is not bare.  The hope is to develop Dragan Bender, Devin Booker, and Marquese Chriss and flip Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe for some value.

13.  Los Angeles Lakers: They are not a good team yet but they are not boring.  The key issues will be who they draft and sign next summer.

12.  Dallas Mavericks: They will continue to be middling but not terrible.  If Dennis Smith is the find he seems to be, they might be able to squeeze into the playoffs the coming season.

11.  Memphis Grizzlies: Do you realize that the Grizz have a seven year playoff streak on the line?  While Mike Conley and Marc Gasol still have value, they are getting older and the core has seriously declined around them.   It is time to rebuild by flipping the older assets before nature forces a rebuild from scratch.

10.  New Orleans Pelicans: Another team dying for some guards.  Rajon Rondo clearly will not resolve that issue, even without his current injury. 

9.  Portland Trailblazers: If Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum continue to shoot lights out, they could squeak into the playoffs.  They will need a bit of luck again though (they were outscored last year and still were .500 for the season).

8.  Denver Nuggets: Denver has amassed a pretty impressive roster and added Paul Millsap to the fold. 

7.  Utah Jazz: They still have Rudy Gobert but really haven’t replaced Hayward at small forward.

6.  Minnesota Timberwolves: The backcourt looks much better.  If Karl Anthony Towns improves, they could move up the ladder even higher.

5.  Los Angeles Clippers: Even without Chris Paul, the Clipps front court (Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan) is quite formidable.  They will need Milos Teodosic to be ready right away.  Any big injuries to Blake or Gallo, however, could sink them.

4.  Oklahoma City Thunder: Will be fun to watch.

3.  Houston Rockets: Ditto.

2.  San Antonio Spurs: Not quite as much fun to watch but they should continue to be a serious contender.       

  1.  Golden State Warriors: Champs!

Playoff Predictions

-Warriors over Rockets in Conference Finals, 4-1

-Cavaliers over Wizards in Conference Finals, 4-1

-Warriors over Cavaliers in NBA Finals, 4-2

MVP:  Kevin Durant

Rookie of the Year; Dennis Smith

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