NBA 2015: Warriors, Cavs to fend off pretenders
As the NBA embarks on its 2015-16 campaign, here are predicted NBA season standings, as prognosticated by SFBay Sports Director Jason Leskiw and sportswriter Kalama Hines.
15. (2014-15 finish: 14) Los Angeles Lakers
These Lakers are the real reason behind the few flicks coming out of Hollywood that are finally watchable. Even Jack Nicholson might start rooting for the Warriors if Los Angeles keeps playing this badly. What’s more, the Lakers offseason will culminate in an even worse roster than they had one season ago, an upgrade with Roy Hibbert at center that’s offset by the departure of Jordan Hill.
14. (11) Utah Jazz
The Jazz will never be a powerhouse in their current location, and it’s a miracle they’ve remained profitable there. No big free agents will want to move there, ever, and it shows. The Jazz lost forward Jeremy Evans in the offseason, though most won’t know the name. Worse than that, though they added two just like him: guard Raul Neto and center Tibor Pleiss.
That was the Utah offseason.
13. (4) Portland Trailblazers
How many forwards does it take to replace LaMarcus Aldridge? Portland doesn’t really know, so they brought in a whole lot of them. Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Mike Miller, Maurice Harkless and Pat Connaughton join Portland, though the team also replaced center Robin Lopez with Mason Plumlee, a large drop in productivity.
Portland was a real threat for all of two seasons, and now, are back in the league dumpster.
12. (13) Sacramento Kings
The Kings have brought in free agents who do alright as the sixth guy on bad teams over the last few seasons, and the result has been the same. They continue to suck, and they continue to draft poorly. There is no reason to believe they will be much better, even if coach George Karl has done more with the same once or twice.
The largest reason for optimism remains the same as it has been. DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most talented players in the NBA, and there’s always a chance when a team has a player like him.
11. (10) Phoenix Suns
With Tyson Chandler and Nerlens Noel, the Suns are at least interesting. They have some of the makings that Chicago has had over a few years, though the Bulls wouldn’t contend in the West. That’s where Phoenix is. An elite offensive weapon changes things, but the Suns are without anything close to that.
10. (7) Dallas Mavericks
As long as Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki, they’re going to be a competitive team. Add DeAndre Jordan, and that’s a fierce squad. But they lost out when Jordan reneged on his verbal agreement, leaving the Mavs without full-time talent in the paint. Wesley Matthews, though, gives them an experienced guard who can do a lot, and who is ready to spread his wings.
9. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis plays a different brand of ball than most in the West. It’s worked alright, but the conference has gotten even better, while Memphis did little to tinker with their roster. Don’t know how they can compete well enough to maintain their place from last season.
There shot at a deep run isn’t Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol, it relies on Courtney Lee taking his game to another notch as he enters his 30s. Matt Barnes should also add some toughness, but that was never an issue for Memphis.
8. (2) Houston Rockets
Certain teams in the West did a lot to improve. Houston traded for Ty Lawson, and while the 5-foot-11 shooting guard has been terrific given his physical limitations, there’s no handicap in the NBA. And considering the ridiculous statements coming from Houston’s locker room over the past year, who can think they’re mentally stable?
7. (12) Denver Nuggets
Denver got perhaps their largest addition with coach Mike Malone, a big part of Golden State’s resurgence in the NBA. But they also drafted Emmanuel Mudiay, who is already being touted as a candidate for rookie of the year. Their core, especially Jusuf Nurkic, Mudiay and Kenneth Faried, have nowhere to go but up, the young talent in Denver can go places, which they will in their first year under Malone.
6. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles got better at something they were already good at, scoring points by the truckload. But they lost a key part of their team, the only true tough guy that logs minutes, Matt Barnes. Blake Griffin is soft, and DeAndre Jordan has peaked. Barnes was the X-factor who possessed intangibles that helped the Clips in ways that numbers can’t measure. Los Angeles is still a legitimate contender, and a very good squad, but they took a step backward when they were on the cusp of being great.
5. (9) Oklahoma City Thunder
The perennial disappointments of the NBA, Oklahoma City has the same shot to win a title as they have had for the last five seasons. And that chance is still pretty good, relatively speaking. Enes Kanter is a an improvement from Kedrick Perkins at center, and health remains the Thunder’s only obstacle for a Finals appearance. Health, though, has been a mighty obstacle.
4. (8) New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans would have made it beyond the first round last year had they been matched up with any other team than the Warriors, including Cleveland. There’s a whole lot of things to be optimistic about down there on the bayou, and Anthony Davis will be at the center of it. Yes, New Orleans can even make bad puns enjoyable, especially if point guard Jrue Holiday takes a step forward, and shooting guard Eric Gordon improves his perimeter defense, the Pelicans could be take home the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.
3. (15) Minnesota Timberwolves
Minny has the most young talent of any NBA team, from rookie Karl Anthony Towns, to Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine and shooting guard Shabazz Napier. They have some veteran leadership in Kevin Garnett and Kevin Martin, which might be the difference between raw talent only, or the whole package coming together. Much like New Orleans, the Timberwolves are heading upwards at light speed.
2. (6) San Antonio Spurs
This section could be filled with one simple statement: Gregg Popovich. But when you add the names LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, it makes for a stronger argument. The Spurs will be very good, and it’s tough to not give them the top spot here. The only reason they don’t get there, nobody has seen what this new-look Spurs team will actually look like. We don’t know the role of Duncan, and how Aldridge will be used on this loaded roster.
We do know one thing: This is one scary team.
1. (1) Golden State Warriors
Golden State’s offseason went like this: bottle, bottle, new corkscrew, bottle, and then this thought: ‘We just won a title, why in the world would we try and fix something that clearly works well?’
And then they popped another bottle.
We know who Stephen Curry is, we know how great he is. We know this team has tremendous chemistry, they remain on the same page, and they now have another level of confidence in one another. The other thing, though, is that Klay Thompson is only getting better. Possibly much better. That goes for Draymond Green, and possibly Harrison Barnes. The group that is being touted as the second best starting unit in league history only getting better?
Let’s all pop one more bottle.
15. (2014-15 finish: 12) Detroit Pistons
It’s hard to believe that the Pistons could get any worse, but after finding only 32 wins a year ago they watched their top performer depart for greener pastures. Now, relying on guys like Danny Granger and Ersan Ilyasova, the Pistons have nowhere to go but backwards and will only be competing for the top spot in next year’s draft lottery. “Trader” Jack McCloskey would be ashamed.
14. (13) Orlando Magic
Maybe the most exciting 25-win team ever a season ago (thanks to Victor Oladipo), the Orlando Magic added high-scoring forward Croatian Mario Hezonja with the fifth pick in the 2015 draft despite availability of players appearing to be better fits for their needs. It’s going to be another long season in central Florida. Don’t fret, Orlando fans, just keep putting together Oladipo highlight reel. We’ll keep watching them.
13. (14) Philadelphia 76ers
Like the Magic, the 76ers had several glaring issues to be remedied in the draft. Unlike the Magic, though, they addressed one of them with the best player available. The addition of two-way seven-footer Jahlil Okafor has started Phila on the road back to the playoffs, but there are a few more curves and forks in that road. Expect to see a team led by Okafor, much in the mold of New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, in the playoffs as soon as next year.
12. (8) Brooklyn Nets
The Nets said goodbye to Deron Williams, making Jarrett Jack their starting point guard. The upgrade in likability (for Nets fans) does not equal an upgrade in ability. The Nets will take another step back en route to a top-three pick in just a year or two.
11. (10) Miami Heat
The Heat will welcome Chris Bosh back to the court after a significant health scare a year ago. But who knows how his health will hold up, and we all know Dwyane Wade’s health won’t. An improved supporting cast will not pave the way to a postseason return, especially in an improved Southeast Division.
10. (11) Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets added support for Kemba Walker, in D-and-three man Nicolas Batum, rookie big man Frank Kaminsky and Jeremy Lin’s crazy hair. With his new friends, Walker will lead his team back into the playoff hunt from which they are just one year removed. Recent emergences of divisional opponents Washington and Atlanta, however, will keep them just outside the bubble.
9. (4) Toronto Raptors
Of the top four teams in the East in the 2014-15 season, the Raptors saw the greatest turnover in their roster. Despite adding one of the key cogs in Atlanta’s success of a year ago, DeMarre Carroll, they waved goodbye to forward Amir Johnson and key bench scorer Lou Williams. Adding Cory Joseph and Luis Scola will not replace the losses, and they will watch the playoffs.
8. (7) Celtics
Toronto’s biggest loss is Boston’s biggest gain, as the Celtics signed Amir Johnson in the offseason. They’ve also added former Warrior All-Star David Lee to a much improved front court. Sprinkle in a more than capable backcourt and you get a Celtic team that will return to the playoffs for a few games.
7. (5) Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards will throw out much of the same talent that won 46 games last season, but this year they won’t have the late-game heroics of Paul Pierce. Though replacing Pierce’s 11.9 points per game won’t be difficult, the truth is his clutch shooting and veteran leadership will completely change the dynamics of a team underachieved a year ago.
6. (15) New York Knicks
The worst team in the East last season will not repeat that performance. With the return of Carmelo Anthony, along with the additions of Kyle O’Quinn and Robin Lopez, the New York Knicks will not only rebound, they will return to the playoffs. Sure, drafting Kristaps Porzingis, the latest jump shooting seven-foot European, was a mistake. But they still play in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
A healthy Jabari Parker, some nice late-season acquisitions from a year ago and the signing of Greg Monroe make the Bucks the east’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Now the Greek Freak will have sufficient talent around him on a roster that suddenly seems daunting in a deep (for the east) Central Division. As the Bulls come back to the group and Detroit falls further back, the moose will certainly be on the loose. Unfortunately though, they are still a member of the East’s only quality division and thus will lose a few wins and home-court advantage in the first round.
4. (3) Chicago Bulls
In a huge surprise (outside of Chicago), the Bulls retained free agent Jimmy Butler, which was bigger than any outside addition they could have made. They did however allow one of the most respected coaches in the association, 2010-11 coach of the year Tom Thibodeau, to walk and replaced him with former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg – who was not especially successful in college. Hoiberg will be bailed out by incredible talent in an incredibly weak East.
3. (9) Indiana Pacers
The Pacers signed elite scorer Monta Ellis, but that was nowhere near their biggest addition. The return to health of MVP candidate Paul George immediately returns Indiana to the cream of the East’s crop. Getting rid of troublesome Roy Hibbert was no small thing as well. Look for a Pacer return to the Eastern Conference Finals.
2. (1) Atlanta Hawks
Outside of DeMarre Carroll, the Hawks will feature a starting five similar to the one that recorded the second-best record in the 2014-15 season. They also added to their depth with offensive-minded wing man Tim Hardaway Jr., as well as big man defender Tiago Splitter and former-Warrior Justin Holiday – both of whom spent last season in the same system that the Hawks run. Another year under coach of the year Mike Budenholzer, and the new depth, will keep the Hawks among the East’s top teams, but opponents will now get up to play them.
1. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs are the trendy pick to win the NBA championship in 2016. With the addition of bench-scoring point guard Mo Williams and a healthy (for now at least) Anderson Varejao, Cleveland is certainly the team to beat in the woefully bad East. The trick will be to maintain some semblance of health and freshness into the playoffs. Oh, and not have LeBron James and coach David Blatt limit the scrapping.