By: Dan Grant and Russell Peddle
The NBA season kicks off tomorrow night with three games, as the new look New York Knicks visit the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the upstart Utah Jazz travel to Portland to face last years surprising Trail Blazers, and in a marquee match-up, the freshly ‘Duncanless’ San Antonio Spurs take on the big, bad Golden State Warriors, coming off (in case you hadn’t heard) a 73 win regular season and
another NBA title a crushing Finals collapse.
If you’re an NBA fan, by now you’ve probably read or heard the projections; to the surprise of nobody, most talking heads think we’re getting ‘Cavaliers-Warriors III: Deja Vu All Over Again’ when June rolls around. In fact, I can’t remember a season where the champions of each conference seemed like such a foregone conclusion before a single tip was offed. While that series itself would be a hell of a lot fun to watch, there seems to be an overwhelming feeling that the NBA’s current super-team system is becoming staid, that fans don’t like feeling like the results are pre-determined, and particularly don’t like relying on injuries as the only way something wild and unexpected could happen in the NBA.
Other sports don’t have this problem — the single elimination NFL, the variable-rich MLB and the wild and crazy NHL all have playoff systems that are exciting and invite chaos. Could the NBA, the fastest growing of the big four North American sports, have a predictability problem?
I honestly don’t think so, though I do understand why it seems that way at present. Let’s keep in mind the fact that we just saw a team break the Bulls untouchable 72 win mark, come back from being down 3-1 in the Conference Finals and then blow a 3-1 Finals lead just a couple weeks later. History was made all over the place last season. The NBA is plenty exciting. And while Kevin Durant going to the Warriors might feel like its sucked the air out of the room in the Western Conference, there are still plenty of things that could derail a third straight Warriors Finals appearance. More on that tomorrow.
For today, let’s focus on the East. I’ve enlisted Raptors HQ and numberFire contributor Russell Peddle (@rustypedalbike) to help — Russell, are LeBron and the Cavs really such an overwhelming favourite?
Russell: Uh, yeah, they are!
Dan: Oh. Well, crap. What should we talk about then?
Dan: Right, right, I’m the host, this is my thing. Breathe, Daniel, be professional. You can do this. You’re an adult man!
Russell: *twiddles his thumbs* (looking concerned/amused/annoyed/hungry)
Dan: OK, OK here we go. I’ve got it!
Since the Cavaliers are such a slam dunk (nailed it!) why don’t we talk about the things that we think will surprise us this year?
Russell, which team do you think is going to most out (or under) perform expectations this season?
Russell: Sounds good. I’m going with the Indiana Pacers–
Dan: Oh man, good one! Sweeping changes over there. New coach in Nate McMillan, designs on playing faster. I’ve seen some projections that have them making a play on the 2 seed.
Russell: Actually, the Pacers probably won’t be all that good. Big names like Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, and Al Jefferson make them look like a strong fantasy basketball team from a few years ago, but I’m not entirely sold on their being a top team in the East like some pundits are suggesting. They gave up a good deal of offensive efficiency and defensive toughness in losing guys like George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Solomon Hill, and Jordan Hill, and I think that will result in a significant step back for a team that hung its hat on being third in the Association in defensive efficiency last year.
Dan: I think that’s a fair point. Young is a solid defender, but both of the other guys they added — Teague and Jefferson– aren’t great on that end, and when you couple them with the undersized Monta Ellis, that could be a spotty defensive line-up, especially against bigger teams.
Russell: Paul George is certainly an MVP-type player and the continued development of Myles Turner will be worth watching, but I don’t see them as being in the same class as Cleveland, Toronto, or Boston, and they’ll probably just end up in that bottom tier of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket like they did last year.
Dan: When I look at their line-up on offense, I see a lot of athletes, but very little shooting. Jeff Teague had a career year from three last year (40%) and Paul George is decent from deep (36.4% last season) but the rest of their perimeter players are in the low 30’s (Ellis) or even below that (Young, Stuckey). Unless you think C.J. Miles is getting big minutes or Turner makes a huge leap with his range, this team is going to struggle to make outside shots.
Russell: So is Indiana the standout for you too, then?
Dan: No actually, the team I think might surprise people is the Atlanta Hawks– but they could go either way. On the positive side, while I know Dwight Howard’s cred is at an all-time low, I really think the construction of that Hawks team makes sense, and they play in a sneaky-weak division. The Magic are a mess that need to make at least one trade, the Hornets are going to miss Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson on their bench, the crumbling Heat are going to be on the outside of the playoffs and the Wizards, well, who the hell knows with the Wizards? There’s a real shot that the Coach Bud led Hawks could swoop in and steal that division title, if Dwight is healthy and happy.
Russell: Two big if’s.
Dan: I know, but think about it: having Howard in the middle, surrounded by defenders and shooters like Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver and Dennis Schroeder is something from a 2009 NBA fan-fiction piece. Rookies Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry are both 22 years old, and should be ready to contribute, while their bench is littered with serviceable veteran backups in Tiago Splitter, Kris Humphries, Kirk Hinrich and Thabo Sefolosha. This is a team that’s built to win now.
You know, or they could completely implode, trade Millsap mid-season and we’ll have another chapter in the Dwight-is-disappointing book. It could really go either way, which is why they’re my pick.
Russell, is there any specific player you’re excited to see this season?
Russell: The Hawks are all well and good, but this is definitely the year of Giannis.
Giannis Antetokounmpo already had his breakout last year, but his arrow is still pointing unequivocally upwards. His season-long averages — 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks in 35.3 minutes per contest, 50.6% shooting from the field — were plenty sexy, but they only scrape the surface of the sky-high potential he displayed late in the season. After the All-Star break, Giannis messed around and averaged 18.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.9 blocks in 36.5 minutes per contest, while shooting 51.0% from the field.
Those video game numbers are one thing, but the most impressive feature of the aptly named Greek Freak’s game is that he can essentially play and defend all five NBA positions. The Bucks recently traded Michael Carter-Williams, confirming once and for all that their proposed plan to use the 6’11” Antetokounmpo as their de facto point guard was no joke. Throw in the fact that Giannis is set to take on an even bigger load in Milwaukee this year with Khris Middleton out for basically the whole year, and you’ve got all the makings of a bona fide leap to superstardom for the 21-year-old. It’ll soon be time that even the most casual of basketball fan will have to learn how to pronounce and spell Antetokounmpo.
Dan: Giannis is an evolutionary human being and I look forward to him whipping cross-court passes over the heads of smaller defenders for the foreseeable future.
With that said, the player I think is going to finally put it all together is the Washington Wizards John Wall. You heard me. John Wall. The guy who’s averaged 18.0 points, 9.0 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals over six full seasons. That John Wall. He has another gear, and I think this is the year he gets there.
Wall has been good for some time, as the above video proves. However, it’s often overlooked that he’s one of the five most physically talented players in the NBA. His gifts are paralleled at the point guard position only by Russell Westbrook, and when his outside shot is falling, there might not be a more unguardable player in the league without the initials LBJ or SC. His speed is otherworldly, his court vision excellent and his ability to accelerate at the drop of a hat makes him nearly impossible to box in with a defensive scheme. He is a destructive disruptor of the finest sort.
He’s also had a bad tendency to disappear at times, to shoot the ball a little too much for someone as average as he is from deep and to mope when he grows discouraged by the lackadaisical play of the litany of teammates that have come and gone during his time in Chocolate City. The thing is, none of that is going to be a problem this season. Coach Randy Wittman is gone and the capable (if unspectacular) Scott Brooks is in. Nene’s laziness is gone, and Markieff Morris and Ian Mahinmi are in, a huge talent upgrade in the front court, where they’ll join Marcin Gortat. For the most part, the Wizards appear to be healthy — and hungry. Even if Bradley Beal spends his usual 20-40 games on the shelf, the development of the two Juniors — Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre — should mitigate his loss. Add newly inked stretch four Andrew Nicholson off the bench, and this Wizards team looks both athletic and deep.
Remember, this is a team that nearly made the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago, before Wall broke his hand. With an upgraded roster and that weak Southeast division I mentioned in the Hawks section, Washington is the team I think has the best shot to surprise everyone and grab the 2 seed in the East away from Toronto and Boston. They’ll be slugging it out against each other in the Atlantic, which could free up the 2 seed for the Wiz– but that’s only a real possibility if Wall can put it all together and lead them, finally harnessing his talents for a full year and making his first career All-NBA appearance.
Russell: Ok, so are we done here or…?
Dan: LIGHTNING ROUND!!!
Russell: OK, lightning round, I guess.
Dan: Just say the first thing that comes to your mind
and then I’ll mock you.
Russell: What was that last part?
Dan: Nothing, here we go!
Russell: Improves the Celtics, but doesn’t make them real contenders.
Dan: Agreed. The Celtics biggest problems last year were rebounding and crunch-time scoring. Horford solves neither of those things, though they are going to be frightening defensively.
Russell: Bounce back year, flirts with All-NBA.
Dan: Charlotte Hornets
Russell: Roy Hibbert is never the answer.
Dan: Ain’t that the truth.
Russell: The real deal and best player in New York.
Dan: I’ll go with: the real life wacky, waving arm inflatable tube man. Sticking with the Knicks for some reason.
Russell: Backup center for the Knicks, tall.
Dan: The correct answer was ‘Spanish Scalabrine’ but you were in the right neighbourhood.
Russell: Rookie of the Year.
Dan: Bold! He sure can dance though.
Stan Van Gundy.
Russell: He has made the Pistons the fourth-best team in the East.
Dan: Oh man, I couldn’t disagree more with that. Reggie Jackson out till Christmas, an island of misfit toys style roster, a real lack of shooting. I love SVG, but I think Detroit misses the playoffs. No, you don’t get a chance to defend yourself!
And finally, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Russell: I mean we’ve covered this, but first-time All-Star.
Dan: I’ll tell you what we’ve covered and what we haven’t!
LIGHTNING ROUND OVER.
OK folks, thanks for reading, and thanks to Russell Peddle. Remember, we’re just an incredibly unlikely LeBron injury away from having absolutely no idea who will win this conference.
Check back tomorrow for our Western Conference preview, featuring John Gaudes and Daniel Reynolds. It’s almost NBA time!