By: Kenny Doyle
In the current craziness of the NBA, with superstars being traded left and right and so much drama that at times it feels like we may be stuck in a Real Housewives episode, it’s hard to predict what is going to happen for this upcoming season in the NBA. The Thunder, Celtics, Cavaliers, Rockets, and Timberwolves are all extremely different teams than they were last year, but there’s no time to build team chemistry and learn to play with each other. All 5 teams are expected to be good right away, and if they're not you better believe there will be people out there ready to say it’s a failure before we even get out of October. Some will struggle and disappoint, while others will rise to dominance and have people questioning whether or not they can be the ones to take down the mighty Warriors. In an environment like that, no one knows what’s going to happen. With that as a caveat, here are 5 bold predictions for the 2017-2018 NBA season.
1. The Nuggets Will be a Top 5 Seed in the West
The Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, and Thunder are consensus locks to make the playoffs in the West this season. That leaves 4 spots for the Nuggets, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Clippers, and Jazz. Predictions for who will make it out of these 7 teams are all over the map, but you better be sure to have the Nuggets on your list. The Nuggets missed the playoffs by only 1 game last season, but they still had the 4th best offensive rating in the league last year behind only the Warriors, Rockets, and Cavaliers. Their offense is incredible. As you might expect, their defense was there down fall.
The Nuggets had the 2nd worst defensive rating in the NBA last year. The only team that was worse as the Lakers. Getting rid of Gallinari and adding Paul Millsap will help that. Millsap was a big reason why the Atlanta Hawks had the 4th best defensive rating last year. He’s not a rim protector, but was 14th in individual player defensive rating and 13th in defensive win shares last season and was also 3rd among power forward in steals per game. The Nuggets knew what they were doing when they signed him to that massive contract.
Denver had a much better record once they began starting Jokic full time and if they had been doing that to start the season they probably would have made the playoffs. Harris shot 52% from the field and 40% percent from 3 and works perfectly alongside Jokic as both a cutter and a kick out option for Jokic, who has already cemented himself as one of the best passing big men we've ever seen in the NBA. With a 7 man rotation of Murray, Harris, Chandler, Millsap, Jokic, Barton, and Faried the Nuggets are primed to make a big jump in the standings in the West this year and they’re going to be one of the toughest teams to face for the upcoming season.
2. The Celtics Will Not be a Top 3 Seed in the East in December
The Celtics are one of those teams with a lot of roster turnover that’s expected to win right away. However, Boston won’t start out the season playing the way they will be come playoff time. The Celtics are going to need some time to gel and learn how to play together before they are firing on all cylinders. With only 4 players returning from last year and the player who is expected to be their starting power forward, Marcus Morris, missing the beginning of training camp with his trial, the Celtics are a far less cohesive group than some of the East’s other top teams like the Wizards, Raptors, and Bucks. Even the Cavaliers brought back more players from last year’s team than the Celtics and it should be no surprise if the Celtics are the new team that struggles a bit to start the season.
The Celtics are also one of the 5 youngest teams in the NBA. Their bench unit of Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Guershon Yabusele, and Aron Baynes has 2 rookies and 2 other players that are still on their rookie contracts. These are still players progressing and learning how to play in the NBA. These players are talented, but their youth will lead to them struggling at times and it will likely cost them some games early on as well as throughout the season. On top of that, 12 of the Celtics first 21 games are on the road. They only have stretches of consecutive home games twice in that stretch, one of 2 and one of 3. Other than that they will be traveling in between every game, which isn’t good for a new team either. The Celtics will be one of of top teams in the East by the end of the season, but they may struggle right out of the gate.
3. Dwight Howard Will Have his Best Season Since 2011
After being traded from the Hawks for Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli's horrible contracts and reports of Hawks players cheering with elation after hearing that Howard had been dealt, it appears Dwight has reached an all time low. Dwight was once regarded as the best center in the NBA and one of the best defenders in league history, and now it just feels like he’s been a nuisance to every team he’s been on since he left Orlando, but this could be the perfect situation for a Dwight comeback.
All Dwight has wanted to do is be a post up player and Charlotte is one of the only NBA teams that still wants one. Last season after losing Al Jefferson they took a huge step back. A lot of Charlotte’s offense was built around Al Jefferson’s post offense and ideally Dwight will be able to fill that void. Other teams Dwight has been on have reluctant to give him the ball in the post because it don’t fit the style they’ve wanted to play. In Charlotte, Dwight could fit perfectly into their style. Head coach Steve Clifford was with Dwight in Orlando back in his days as an assistant and he knows first hand how to get the most out of him.
Everywhere else Dwight has gone he’s been burdened with players that just don’t like him. From Kobe Bryant, to James Harden, to apparently everyone on the Hawks. Can that change in Charlotte? It has to. If it can’t, Dwight’s career in the NBA may be cut tragically short.
4. Giannis Will Win MVP
Doubters have already gotten out in front of the Giannis MVP talk before it even started because supposedly the Bucks won’t win enough games. They said the same thing about Russell Westbrook. In the NBA today, it’s harder to give the MVP to a player on one of the best teams than it’s ever been. In league history, only a handful of players have won the MVP award without their teams being a top 2 seed in their conference, but last year neither of the 2 leaders in MVP voting were on teams that were a #1 or #2 seed. It seems as though that ideology is changing.
It’s hard to vote for anyone on Golden State. With them building a super team it’s hard to differentiate one player on that team as “Most Valuable” in the NBA because they could probably still win 60 games even if they didn’t have Curry or Durant. Voters also appear to be tired of voting for LeBron and voting for a player on the other top 2 seed in the East that’s not LeBron’s team isn’t something voters want to do either since people consider the East to be so bad that getting a top 2 seed in the East isn’t considered a great accomplishment anymore.
For the past 3 seasons, the player who had the breakout year where his game went to another level has won the award. Curry’s first MVP was helped by the Warriors going from a 6 seed to a 1 seed and him being the best player on a breakout team. The very next year he went from that to 73 wins and 400 made 3 pointers. This past year Russell Westbrook went from being left at the altar by Kevin Durant to dominating the league and averaging a triple double. This year, George, Anthony, and Westbrook will steal the shine from each other. The same goes for Harden and Paul. The player who has a huge leap in stats and who’s team wins more games than expected is the favorite to win the MVP now and that could very well be Giannis and the Bucks.
Giannis has gotten better each and every year and he’s not going to stop this year. Giannis is a freak of nature. He can get to the rim from half court in 3 or 4 steps. The Bucks are going to give him more freedom than ever and are going to need him to do as much as he possibly can with Jabari out for at least the first half of the season. Giannis could very well be the one to lead the NBA in usage rate and his stats and team could benefit from that. If the Bucks can space the floor for Giannis and give him driving lanes and kick out options then there’s no reason Giannis can’t be the one to have crazy stats this year and take home the MVP.
Last season, Giannis averaged 1.6 steals, which was 11th in the league and 1.9 blocks, which was 6th in the league. No one else in the NBA was top 15 in both categories. His overall stat line was 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.9 blocks. Giannis can realistically up that to 26-9-7-2-2 (which sounds ridiculous, but is conceivable) and if he does that and the Bucks improve by at least 8 games, he’s going to win MVP.
5. The Warriors Will Not Make it Out of the West
Go big or go home. You wanted BOLD predictions, right? The West loaded up this offseason and has teams bursting at the seams with All-Star talents trying to be the ones to dethrone the Dubs. The Thunder, Rockets, Nuggets, and Timberwolves all added at least 1 NBA All-Star to their rosters that already had 1 or more star players. Even the Spurs added a dynamite scorer in Rudy Gay. One of these teams is going to be better than we expect and good enough to beat the Warriors.
The Warriors could also get pretty banged up. They just barely dodged a bullet last season when Kevin Durant’s injury ended up being less severe than they feared. If the Warriors have 1 injury in the playoffs like the Spurs had last year with Kawhi Leonard, it could doom them in a Western Conference that’s absolutely loaded. There’s an argument over whether what Zaza did to Kawhi in last year’s Western Conference Finals was intentional and a cheap shot or an accident, but regardless nobody in the NBA took to kindly to the Warriors doing that to Kawhi.
No one wants to beat the Warriors more than Russell Westbrook and the Warriors are already taking shots as him. ESPN’s Zach Lowe broke the news on his podcast that the Warriors said “Russ’s style of play is so easy to defend it’s like cake”. Publicly mocking a player like Russell Westbrook doesn’t seem like the best idea, especially now that he has 2 superstar running mates, but we’ll see how it works out for them. The Warriors are getting cocky. The last time they were this cocky, they almost lost to the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals and then blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Whether it’s the Thunder or the Rockets or whoever, someone will catch the Warriors by surprise and take them down. The Warriors have immense talent, but their arrogance will be their downfall.
Photo: (Sporting News)