We've officially reached the wistful point of the NBA offseason. Nearly two months removed from the Spurs hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy and weeks departed from The Decision 2.0, everyone is starting to forget how all-consuming and crazy these past couple of months have been.
So it's only natural that the NBA decided to reignite intrigue by releasing its full 2014-15 season slate. In a special aired on NBATV, all 82 games for all 30 teams were made public. If you're not near a calculator, that's 1,230 games in all.
I hope your DVR is cleared up by October.
With the schedule release comes a necessary evil of trying to assess everything months in advance. Yes, that ominous music you hear in the background can only mean it's time to delve into the predictive waters.
One disclaimer so big that I will bold, italicize and underline it: These are by no means my final predictions. There are a few remaining dominoes left to fall, and I haven't done nearly the level of statistical analysis and critical thinking I will have by October. These are the prototype of the prototype. We're in the first Apple iPhone stages at this point.
All of this is to note that these predictions can and most certainly will change. When it comes to full preview time in a couple of months, there may be noticeable variations between what rests here and when I finally turn in my NBA SATs. We're all in the #hottakes business in sports, but this will not be a space where I'll wildly defend positions taken months ahead of time when there is evidence to the contrary.
Predictions are a fun, weird exercise and should be taken as such. Just know that any of us media types who actually put thought into what comes up on the page will alter our opinions between now and opening night. It's just natural.
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at an early outlook for the 2014-15 NBA regular season.
|2014-15 NBA Regular-Season Predictions: Eastern Conference|
|9||New York Knicks||39||43||50%|
|Tyler Conway's season predictions and odds projections|
How Far Does LeBron Vault the Cavs?
The obvious answer is "very far, you dolt." James' decision to re-thrust the entire city of Cleveland onto his back took the Cavaliers from a burgeoning future contender to a team that could challenge for the Eastern Conference crown. The somewhat-intended result of breaking up the Miami Big Three was creating an entire landscape where five or six teams could come out if things break right.
LeBron and Kevin Durant are the two players on the planet who all but guarantee your team 50 wins in a season. We're assuming full health here, but James is 11 years into his career without missing even 10 games in a single season. The assumption that he's a cyborg will stick in these parts until he proves otherwise.
The best part of James' game is how he makes everyone better. Kyrie Irving goes from being derided for his max contract extension one minute to a realistic All-NBA contender the next. It's going to be fascinating to see how Irving adjusts his game to playing with another ball-dominant player—and one who actually deserves the ball more often than he.
One area that will have to improve is Irving's catch-and-shoot ability. Last season, he shot just 32.2 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers against a 40.9 percent rate pulling up off the dribble. That's an atypical split even for a point guard. Most players are more comfortable having time to gather themselves and take a set shot. Irving has thrived in his first three seasons at creating a window for himself off the dribble, opportunities he'll have less of with LeBron around.
The Cavs also have sizable concerns about their rim protection. Anderson Varejao, their nominal defensive stopper in the middle, has started more than half a season's worth of games once in his entire career—six years ago, when he started 42 games. History says we can Sharpie him in for 20 absences, during which the Cavs will be relying on the rapidly decaying Brendan Haywood to supply rim protection.
Something tells me that will be a problem come playoff time.
In this Eastern Conference, it's unclear how much of a problem that would be. The Bulls and Pacers have a defensive edge, but neither Roy Hibbert nor Joakim Noah is equipped to take over an entire series offensively. Al Jefferson and Chris Bosh are going to be problems, but the Heat and Hornets have issues in their own right.
Even without a second of playoff experience with their main core, the LeBron Cavs 2.0 are more talented than any of his previous iterations.
Does Paul George's Injury Knock Indiana Out of the Playoffs?
As a basketball fan, Paul George's injury during Team USA's intrasquad scrimmage at the beginning of this month is among the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen. It goes on a list featuring Shaun Livingston, Kevin Ware and Andrew Bogut among those I've seen live.
Beyond obviously wishing George, among the most talented two-way players in the sport, a speedy recovery, we have to delve into what his loss means for the Pacers. Indiana was already prepared to come into next season a little worse than each of its back-to-back conference finalist teams. Lance Stephenson, for all of his foibles, cannot adequately be replaced by a minimum-salaried Rodney Stuckey.
Between Stephenson's exit for Charlotte and George's presumably season-ending injury, the Pacers lost their two best offensive players and perimeter defenders. That's not good. The Pacers under Frank Vogel have always vacillated between pure mediocrity and unwatchability offensively. They finished 22nd in offensive efficiency last season, which is something they will be striving toward in 2014-15.
David West, who enters his age-34 season, is suddenly the team's leading scorer. Stuckey will somehow hop from a lottery team to a playoff contender and wind up with $7 million less in annual salary and seven times the responsibility. George Hill will need to be more point guard than placeholder. And who knows what to make of Roy Hibbert, who will either thrive in an expanded role or forever become the scourge of the Internet.
I have no idea how this team is going to put the ball in the basket. Hibbert, West and George are good enough in Vogel's system for Indiana to still be a top-10 defense. The absolute best-case scenario seems to be the Bulls of last season, but no one on Indiana's roster can create from the high post like Joakim Noah. It's going to take a reimagining of the entire offensive system just to average a point per possession.
The Pacers have lost 18.2 win shares from last season with Stephenson and George, per Basketball-Reference. They also lost the two players on their roster young enough to take another semi-significant leap. It's all one disappointing situation.
|2014-15 NBA Regular-Season Predictions: Western Conference|
|1||San Antonio Spurs||59||23||100%|
|2||Oklahoma City Thunder||58||24||100%|
|3||Los Angeles Clippers||56||26||100%|
|4||Golden State Warriors||53||29||100%|
|7||Portland Trail Blazers||48||34||75%|
|10||New Orleans Pelicans||41||41||25%|
|13||Los Angeles Lakers||28||54||0%|
|Tyler Conway's season predictions and odds projections|
Did the Thunder Do Enough to Unseat the Spurs?
The Thunder have become downright Spursian in their regular-season excellence. They've won at least 67 percent of their games each of the past four seasons, been a top-two seed three straight years and come into each of those Aprils seemingly on the precipice of a formal overthrow.
The last two seasons have seen the foundation start to crack, though. First, Russell Westbrook's knee injury in the 2013 playoffs paved the way for San Antonio's relatively free ride to a Finals loss. Then Serge Ibaka's ill-timed injury cost him the first two games of the Thunder's six-game series loss to San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals.
Two full seasons removed from their lone Finals berth, the hand-wringing has fully commenced. The James Harden trade is on its way to becoming perhaps the worst deal of this generation. Clay Bennett's strident refusal to pay the luxury tax has come under fire—especially given the Thunder are among the league's most profitable teams, per Grantland's Zach Lowe. Kevin Durant can become a free agent in 2016, Russell Westbrook a year later.
The time is ticking on Sam Presti to make the moves necessary to bring Durant and Westbrook the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The jury is still out on whether he did enough. Oklahoma City added big man Mitch McGary and shocked the world by taking Josh Huestis in the first round. Presti used the month of July to fill out the margins with smaller moves, signing sharpshooter Anthony Morrow and giving Sebastian Telfair his eighth NBA home.
Morrow will slide into the role left by Thabo Sefolosha, and the Thunder hope he'll bring more floor spacing and consistency from outside. Given the ridiculous amount of cash being thrown at shooters this summer, Morrow's three-year, $10 million deal stands out as a bastion of sanity. Telfair joins a laundry list of former high draft picks Oklahoma City has brought in to wave towels on the bench.
McGary will bring toughness and rebounding down low. He and Steven Adams might challenge Blake Griffin for the league lead in near-fights next season. Huestis is spending next season in the D-League as part of Oklahoma City's groundbreaking deal with the Stanford product.
If you're noticing, none of these signings sound particularly transformative. Kendrick Perkins will still be around hogging up cap space and floor time. Presti is going to have a difficult decision to make regarding Reggie Jackson, who might price himself out of town if his ascent continues. The Thunder, for the third straight season, are largely hoping internal improvement will be enough to push them over the edge.
When the Harden trade was first announced, you could trust the process. Now? The pressure is starting to mount.
The Storyline Hanging Over Both Conferences
Kevin Love's Impact on the Championship Picture, Lottery
There are plenty of reasons these predictions remain wildly unfinished. George's injury creates a ripple effect that is still being sorted out, there will likely be at least one more semi-major injury by opening night, and, you know, seeing Derrick Rose play basketball will be helpful.
But I'm holding off mainly because a few notable players may change teams. Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe remain unsigned despite their young age and solid production. Even though they're expected to remain with their current franchises—though Monroe has denied reports he'll accept the Pistons' qualifying offer—it's possible a sign-and-trade suddenly gets thrown on the table. The Suns without Bledsoe are suddenly making a beeline for the lottery.
And then there's Kevin Love. You know, the guy everyone says is going to Cleveland but hasn't officially been sent there yet. As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier this month, the Cavs and Timberwolves are expected to complete a deal wherein Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick head to Minnesota.
This does many things, some of which we alluded to in the LeBron-centric section. The Cavs might break NBA.com's stats database with their scoring. Love, Irving and James comprise the best offensive trio in basketball, and adding the two veterans might finally unlock Waiters' potential. He was quietly an excellent catch-and-shoot player last season. Even Varejao is an underrated passer.
Love has been worth 10 win shares each of his last three healthy seasons, per Basketball-Reference. At the very least, he turns a low-50s win projection into a high-50s one and makes Cleveland the clear-cut top seed. The Bulls, meanwhile, go from a slight favorite to having a core that might only be good enough for the conference finals.
And then there's the poor, hapless Timberwolves. All they get out of the Love era is six years of playoff-less basketball and this T-shirt. Sure, they also wind up with the league's most exciting fast break with Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and Wiggins, but that's little solace when you're winning 25 or so games. The Wolves might even be making the mistake of trading Bennett to Philly, which I've covered in length already.
So...yeah. Stuff still has to be decided. We'll check back in a couple of months and reassess once it all goes down.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
All stats are via NBA.com.
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