2016-2017 NBA Season Preview: Part 2

Welcome back for Part Two of We Love Sportz’s NBA season preview! Yesterday I gave you my predictions for how the teams will finish in the standings, and today, I have seven bold predictions for the upcoming season, as well as who I expect to win the 2017 NBA Championship!

Bold Predictions

1 – Russell Westbrook wins the MVP Award

I know I’m not really going out on a limb with this one, but I think it’s pretty bold considering that most experts are picking either LeBron or Steph to take this award home. James Harden has been another popular pick, but I’m going with Westbrook. Like I said in yesterday’s post, the loss of Durant will take the shackles off of Westbrook, and for better or for worse, he’ll be forced most nights to take matters into his own hands. I expect him to average around 27 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game this season, and in leading the Thunder to a Top-4 seed in the West, his efforts will be recognized with his first career MVP award.

2 – Damian Lillard finishes 2nd in MVP Voting

I think this is more bold than Westbrook taking the MVP home, but I love Damian Lillard. I think he will cement himself as one of the Top-3 point guards in the league this year as he almost single-handedly takes the Blazers into the playoffs. It’s not a great team on paper outside of Lillard. C.J. McCollum had a huge year last season, and he is an above average shooting guard with the potential to become even better. They have some nice role players as well like Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu, but this is Lillard’s team, and he is definitely good enough to carry them to the playoffs, and be an MVP contender

3 – Anthony Davis leads the NBA in scoring heading into the All-Star Break

I’m not ready to say that Davis will lead the league in scoring for the season, because his health is always a question mark, but I believe that he will stay healthy enough to prove to everyone why he should be in consideration for the best player in the NBA. Without a doubt I believe he is Top-3 in the NBA, and if you put a gun to my head and asked me which player I would want to start an NBA team with, I’d choose Davis. He is the total package, and he’s just 23 years old. This guy has quite a career ahead of him, and I felt that he could be among the league’s leading scorers even before he put up 50 on opening night. If they Pelicans are going to have any success this year, they’ll need Davis to have the ball in his hands at all times. He can score in so many different ways, and I don’t think there’s a player in the league that can guard him. I see Davis averaging over 30 points a game to lead the league in the first half of the season.

4 – DeMarcus Cousins finally gets traded

I really feel bad for Cousins. He does have a bit of an attitude problem, I realize that, but there isn’t a worse situation for any player in the NBA right now. Playing in Sacramento is a nightmare right now, and I truly feel that the only reason he hasn’t been traded yet is because they are opening a new arena this season. After the Kings struggle through the first few months of the season, and Cousins continues to be disgruntled, I think the time will finally come when they trade him, and the team best suited to be a trade partner for the Kings is the Boston Celtics. The Celtics have long been enamored with Cousins, and they have the firepower to make a deal. I see the Celtics offering a package of Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson, the right to swap 1st Round picks with the Nets in 2017, the Nets 2018 1st Round pick and another future 1st Round pick, and the Kings will see that as a great way to jump start their rebuilding process, while the Celtics will jump at the opportunity to add a true superstar.

5 – Joel Embiid makes the All-Star Team

Trust the Process! 76ers fans have been waiting a long time for some excitement, and it looks like they’ll finally get some in the form of 2014 #3 overall pick Joel Embiid. After two seasons on the shelf, Embiid is finally healthy, and has looked like a star in the making. It’s a very small sample size, but Embiid is showing off skills that we just haven’t seen from a player of his size. In the opener last night, Embiid scored 20 points in just 22 minutes of action. Coach Brown is going to ease Embiid into it, as he should, but I think as the year goes on, Embiid will continue to prove how smart the Sixers were to wait it out, and he will join Blake Griffin and Yao Ming as the only rookies since 2000 to make an All-Star team.

6 – Patty Mills wins 6th Man of the Year

I am not a huge fan of this award because I think a lot of times, it goes to a player who is definitely good enough to be starting, and plays starter’s minutes, but just because he comes off the bench he gets an award. I understand the award, I just don’t like it. It’s those reasons that a certain player gets this award that have led me to pick the Spurs’ Patty Mills as my prediction for 6th Man of the Year. Tony Parker is not getting any younger, and Mills has proven to be a very good backup over the last few years. I think Parker’s minutes will continue to decline as Pop tries to keep him healthy for the playoffs, and Mills will be the beneficiary of that.

7 – We will not see another Warriors/Cavs Finals

It’s just way too easy to predict another Finals between Golden State and Cleveland. I mean, yeah, that’s probably the likely result, but I truly believe that it won’t happen. The odds of seeing the same matchup for the third straight year are slim, and both teams have issues that they’ll need to deal with. The Warriors have a lot of new parts, and in the recent past, these so-called “Superteams” have needed at least a year to figure everything out. The ‘08 Celtics were the only “Superteam” to win it all in their first year together. Golden State also has legitimate contenders that they have to fend off like San Antonio and the Clippers. On the other hand, while the Cavs are clearly the best team in the East, they are either one injury or one big Celtics trade (that I am predicting) away from having some trouble.

Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics over Cavaliers

Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Spurs

NBA Finals: Warriors over Celtics

If the Celtics are able to trade for a superstar at the trade deadline (like DeMarcus Cousins or Jimmy Butler), they will get themselves right there alongside the Cavs in the East, and I think they could knock them off in the East Finals. In the West, I think the Warriors just have way too much talent for them not to figure it out eventually. I could see them struggling a little during the regular season, even finishing 2nd or 3rd, but they will have it all clicking by the time the postseason rolls around.

A Warriors/Celtics matchup in the NBA Finals would be extremely intriguing. The Celtics have played the Warriors tougher than any team in the league over the last couple seasons. In the 2014-2015 season, the Celtics lost both games against the Warriors, but it was by just a combined eight points. Last season, the Celtics fell to the undefeated Warriors at home by three points in double overtime, and then in April, they handed Golden State their first home loss of the season, 109-106. I would expect this to be a long, exciting series, but I’d have the Warriors finding a way to get it done this year, erasing the hurt from losing a 3-1 advantage to the Cavs.

2016-2017 NBA Preview: Part 1

So we should just skip to the Warriors and Cavaliers meeting in the NBA Finals for the third straight season, right? Well, most people believe that’s where we’ll wind up, but we have an 82-game regular season and three rounds of playoffs before we get there.

Today is Part One of We Love Sportz’s NBA season preview, as I give you what I believe will be the standings at the end of the season, with a short little preview of what each team is looking at for this season. Tomorrow will be Part Two, where I will give my playoff predictions along with some bold predictions for the season.

I know the season technically started last night, but note that these previews were written, for the most part, prior to any games being played. Let’s get to it, here is Part One of my NBA season preview!

Eastern Conference

15 – Brooklyn Nets

It’s going to get worse before it gets better for the Nets, isn’t it? I really feel bad for Brook Lopez, because I think he is a very good player, and could be a star on another team or in a different situation. Unfortunately for him, he’s stuck wasting away his prime years in an organization that clearly has no idea how to put together a winning basketball team. They will need Linsanity II if they have any chance of winning more than 30 games. I think this is clearly the worst team in the NBA, and are on the fast track to earning the #1 overall pick in the 2017 Draft… for the Celtics, who have the right to swap 1st Round picks with the Nets next year. Yikes.

14 – Philadelphia 76ers

Stay patient 76ers fans. You’ve made it this far, no reason to hop off the wagon now. I mean, sure, it’s hard to have faith when things continually turn against your team. Finally, for the first time during “The Process,” you get the #1 overall pick, and you make a slam dunk selection in LSU PG/PF Ben Simmons (yes, I put point guard/power forward, because that’s literally somehow what he is), and then he goes and fractures a bone in his foot during Training Camp, because of course he does. They say he’ll be out until January, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he takes the advice of his agent and sits out this season. It’ll be better for his long-term future. Not all is bleak though! Joel Embiid finally appears to be 100 percent, and he has looked every part of what the Sixers expected to get when they took him 3rd overall two years ago. In addition, Dario Saric has decided to finally make the trip overseas to join the team that selected him in the lottery along with Embiid a couple years ago. So even though Simmons is out, it’s still like the Sixers got two lottery picks this season. The future is bright guys, you just have to “Trust The Process.”

13 – Miami Heat

My how the mighty have fallen, and how fast it has happened. It feels like just yesterday that LeBron, Dwyane and Chris were celebrating their second consecutive NBA Championship for the Miami Heat. Now, just three years later, LeBron is coming off of bringing a title to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, a disgruntled Dwyane decided to head home and play for the Chicago Bulls, and even though Chris really wants to play for the Heat, Pat Riley has all but rendered his Miami career over. It happened really quick, but the Heat are a shell of the team they were just three years ago. Hassan Whiteside is the new star of the team, but it remains to be seen if he can shoulder that type of load. He should have a little help from point guard Goran Dragic, but do you really think a Whiteside-Dragic led team can go to the NBA Playoffs? Me either.

12 – Orlando Magic

This team looks a whole lot different than it did last year, and while some would argue that they’ve taken a step backwards, I believe that they have turned this team into one that can possibly sneak into the playoffs way ahead of schedule. They traded their best player, former top-5 pick Victor Oladipo, to the Thunder in exchange for Serge Ibaka. I don’t love the move, but I don’t hate it either. They also added Jeff Green and Bismack Biyombo in free agency. Those moves I actually do like a lot. Green is a veteran wing who has been where the Magic want to go. He’ll be a great asset for this very young team. Biyombo had a coming out party in the playoffs last year for Toronto, and was handsomely rewarded with a nice contract from the Magic. He is a great rim protector, and will fit perfectly alongside Nik Vucevic. Frank Vogel also has playoff experience, and I think he could definitely turn this team into a contender sooner rather than later. A lot will hinge on the development of Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier, and maybe they’re still a few years away, but I could see these Magic giving some of the top teams in the East a run for their money.

11 – New York Knicks

They’re trying to get better. Maybe? I’m not sure, but what puzzles me is Phil Jackson’s insistence on the team running the Triangle offense. It worked when he coached in Chicago, but that’s because he had Michael Jordan. It worked when he coached in Los Angeles because he had Kobe Bryant and either Shaq or Pau Gasol. I’m sorry, but Carmelo Anthony is no Michael Jordan and he’s no Kobe Bryant. And Kristaps Porzingis is no Shaq, and he’s not Pau Gasol, at least yet. Jackson brought Derek Fisher in to coach this team and teach them the Triangle, and it just did not work. Now he’s brought in Jeff Hornacek, who will also have to teach the Triangle offense to this team, that I just don’t think is capable of making it work. Depth will be an issue for this team, as will health, as they added Derrick Rose via trade and Joakim Noah in free agency, two former Bulls who have had numerous injury issues over the last few seasons. It could be another long season in New York City.

10 – Washington Wizards

The Wizards had been preparing for the 2016 Kevin Durant Sweepstakes for a couple years, waiting for the day that they’d be able to bring Durant home to the D.C. area. They tried to increase their chances after last season concluded by hiring Durant’s former coach Scott Brooks as their new head coach, thinking that he, along with the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal could be enough to convince Durant to take his talents to the Wizards. I’m sure it was a shock to them when Durant declared that going home was not high on his priority list, and eliminated them from contention rather early in the process. Their backup plan ended up being Ian Mahinmi. He’s not exactly the consolation prize they were probably hoping for had they not landed Durant. Wall is one of the top PG’s in the league, but he and Beal have yet to develop great chemistry (possibly a product of Beal’s inability to even stay on the court), and I think they will regress this year, and are likely to miss the playoffs.

9 – Chicago Bulls

I wish I could explain what the Bulls tried to do this offseason. They finally moved on from Derrick Rose, shipping him to the Knicks in exchange for Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant. They also decided not to resign Joakim Noah, letting him sign with the Knicks to rejoin Rose. I am a fan of both of those moves, but it’s everything else they did that doesn’t make sense to me. Their star player, Jimmy Butler, is a slashing wing who’s biggest weakness is his perimeter shooting. That’s fine, but you’d think they would look to put some shooters around him. So they signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to two-year deals worth $47 million and $28 million respectively. There is one thing both of those players have in common, and it’s that they both struggle to shoot from the outside. To top it all off, just last week they traded Tony Snell, a 3-and-D type wing, to the Milwaukee Bucks for Michael Carter-Williams, who, you guessed it, is a terrible outside shooter. The construction of this team just doesn’t make sense, and I’m worried that when it starts to fail, Coach Hoiberg will wrongly be the one to take the fall. I do not view this team as a playoff team, and could easily see them trading Butler and/or Wade at the trade deadline.

8 – Detroit Pistons

The Pistons are a tough team to figure out. I think Stan Van Gundy is probably one of the more underrated head coaches in the NBA, and he did way more with them last year than most people expected. They were ousted rather quickly by the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, but to just make the playoffs was a big positive. Andre Drummond has continued his development into a star player, and the team got huge contributions from Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. For the Pistons to return to the playoffs this season, they’ll need wing Stanley Johnson to take a big step up in his sophomore season, and they’ll need production from rookie 1st Round pick Henry Ellenson. Ellenson’s game should compliment Drummond nicely.

7 – Milwaukee Bucks

By scouring NBA previews on a variety of sites from the likes of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, NBA.com, Yahoo and many others, I’ve discovered that I am much higher on the Bucks than most others. The majority of predictions have the Bucks finishing anywhere from just outside the playoffs to bottom three in the conference. The loss of Khris Middleton will hurt, but I think this is a team with enough talent to get to the playoffs in the East. The “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo is a budding superstar, and HC Jason Kidd should continue what he started after the All Star break last season by allowing him to be the primary ball-handler. The Bucks had one of the top offenses in the league in the second half of last season, and that came with the 6-11 Giannis playing point guard. It’s a scary proposition for a defense, but a winning proposition for the Bucks. Former #2 overall pick Jabari Parker showed flashes of greatness last season, and they’ll need more of those flashes this year. They added Matthew Dellavedova in free agency, and I’m not sold on him as a starting point guard in this league, but as a bench piece, he is a great addition. If they can get solid production from the frontcourt of Greg Monroe, John Henson and Miles Plumlee, this is a team that can reach the playoffs.

6 – Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks made a few curious decisions this offseason, and it will be interesting to see how they perform. Star center Al Horford left Atlanta to sign with the Boston Celtics, and to replace him, the Hawks signed Dwight Howard away from the Rockets. I still think Howard has something left in the tank, but he is a vastly different player from Horford, and I’m not sure how that will change the way the Hawks operate. They also traded away PG Jeff Teague, sending him to the Pacers, leaving their team in the hands of Dennis Schroder. Schroder was great last season as a backup to Teague, but it’s his show now. Of all the teams in the East, this was the toughest one for me to place in these predictions. Ultimately, I think they are still a playoff team. Paul Millsap is one of the most underrated players in the league, and they have experience on their side. If this team misses the playoffs though, it will be due to a lack of depth in the backcourt. Schroder is the only true point guard on the 15-man roster, and if he struggles, the Teague trade could come back to haunt them.

5 – Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets had a very good season last year, and will look to take that momentum into this campaign. Kemba Walker has the potential to be a scoring machine, and he could single-handedly win them some games. Al Jefferson is gone and Roy Hibbert has taken his place. Maybe a slight talent downgrade, but Hibbert plays a similar game to Jefferson, so he should integrate into the offense smoothly. The return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be a huge addition to this club, especially on the defensive end. Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the top wing defenders in the league. The Hornets will be looking for a big leap from Frank Kaminsky in his second season, as I’m not sure they can trust Hibbert to stay healthy, and the other options at center are Cody Zeller, who has been inconsistent in his short career, and Spencer Hawes, who isn’t a great interior force, but more a perimeter big man. As long as Kemba Walker is healthy though, the Hornets should make the playoffs.

4 – Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are the best team of the 3rd tier of teams in the Eastern Conference, but if I was a betting man, they would be my longshot pick to represent the East in the NBA Finals. They added two new starters in PG Jeff Teague and C Al Jefferson, two guys who have been there and done that. They are both very talented, and the experience is just a bonus. Paul George is a legitimate MVP candidate now that he appears to be fully recovered, physically and mentally, from the broken leg he suffered in 2014. I envision George having one of the best seasons of his career. The biggest X-factor for the Pacers this year could be Myles Turner. He was taken 11th overall in last season’s draft, and draft experts said that he could be a future all-star, but his development would be slow. He ended up starting 30 games for the Pacers, and finished the season averaging 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just over 22 minutes per game, not too shabby for a rookie. He averaged 12 and 6 during the preseason, and many are predicting a huge jump for him this season. If that happens, the Pacers could be very, very dangerous.

3 – Toronto Raptors

It was a really good season North of the border last year for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan turned into full-fledged superstars, leading Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell in six games to the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The framework of this team remains the same as they look to get back to the ECF this season. DeRozan decided against returning home to Los Angeles and instead re-signed with the Raptors. They lost Bismack Biyombo in free agency, but will look to replace him with Jakob Poeltl, who they selected in the First Round of the draft this year. They were also hoping that free agent signing Jared Sullinger could help bolster the frontcourt, but Sullinger just underwent foot surgery and will miss the beginning of the season. Despite that, led by Lowry, DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, this is easily one of the top-3 teams in the East, and a definite threat to the Cavaliers.

2 – Boston Celtics

Brad Stevens for President 2016. The job Stevens has done with this Celtics team since he took over is downright remarkable. He has done more with less better than any coach in the NBA. Last season, the Celtics were the 4-seed in the East led by 1st time All-Star, 5-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas. The production that Stevens has gotten from the likes of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner is incredible. Evan Turner is a perfect example of what Brad Stevens can do for a player. In 2013, Turner was traded from Philadelphia to Indiana, and wasted away on the Pacers’ bench. The Celtics took a shot on him the following year, and after two very successful seasons in Boston, Turner signed a 4-year, $70 million contract with Portland this offseason. In just two years under Stevens, Turner went from a benchwarmer to a 17-plus million dollar per year man. That is amazing. I feel totally comfortable saying the the Celtics are the biggest threat to the Cavs in the East, and I would not be shocked if they somehow finished the regular season with the best record in the East. They might still be a true superstar away from being a title contender, but the addition of Al Horford makes this a very dangerous team. The Cavaliers should not take the Celtics lightly.

1 – Cleveland Cavaliers

Even though I think they have teams chasing their tail a little more closely than most, the defending NBA Champions are clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference yet again this year. LeBron James just doesn’t age like a normal human being, and he doesn’t play basketball like one either. I heard an expert say the other day that they think LeBron might not have reached his ceiling yet. That is a scary thought. Another player that is still climbing towards his ceiling is Kyrie Irving, but the major difference is that Kyrie is just 24 years old. He’s already a star, and one of the top point guards in the league, but he can still get better, and that is crazy. Then you have Kevin Love, who just a few years ago was considered one of the best power forwards in the NBA. He still is, he just gets a little lost in the shuffle playing alongside James and Irving. Now, Love and Irving have both had injury issues over the last couple years, and that is probably the only thing that can hold this team back. They are not the deepest team in the league either, but they have a good mix of veteran experience with young talent. It’s going to be quite a task for another team in the East to keep the Cavs from going back to the NBA Finals.

Western Conference

15 – Phoenix Suns

The bottom of the Western Conference is tough to decipher. I have a hard time figuring out just which of these teams in the lower tier are going to actually be bad this year. They all have some good things going for them, but they’re definitely going to have some struggles. After a lot of thought, I’ve landed on the Suns as the team I think is the weakest in the conference. They should have a healthy Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe (at least for the start of the season), two guys that have been very good in the past, but have underwhelmed during their Phoenix tenures. The real star of this team though is second year sniper Devin Booker out of Kentucky. Booker shocked everybody with his quick development last year, and there are some predicting that he could be an All-Star as early as this season. I think that’s a little lofty, but the potential is there. If the Suns are going to avoid being the worst team in the West this year, it will be Booker’s doing. New coach Earl Watson has a tall task ahead of him (and no, that’s not a short joke) if he’s going to keep this team out of the basement.

14 – Los Angeles Lakers

Luke Walton’s head coaching tryout at the beginning of last season in Golden State definitely paid off, as he now takes over the team he has collected a couple NBA Championship rings for. Not only that, but the team he now leads might have the more young talent than any team in the league. Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and this year’s #2 overall pick Brandon Ingram will make this team one of the more fun ones to watch in the league this year. Lakers’ brass wanted to compete for a playoff berth this year, but they swung and missed on all of the big ticket free agents, settling for the additions of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. The inexperience of this team is what will keep them out of the mix this year, but with another loaded free agent pool next season, and another year of experience under the belt of these budding young stars, the future is once again bright for the Lakers.

13 – New Orleans Pelicans

I truly believe that when healthy, Anthony Davis is one of the Top-3 players in this league. He can do it all. He shoots it well from the perimeter, he is great in the pick-and-roll, he can explode at the rim, he collects rebounds at a massive clip, and he’s probably the most talented rim protector in the NBA. It was never a matter of if he would figure it out, it was a matter of when, and when has already happened. The problem is that even the best players in the league need some help. MJ had Pippen. Kobe had Shaq or Pau. LeBron had Dwyane and Chris, and then he had Kyrie and Kevin. Anthony has… Buddy Hield? A constantly banged-up Tyreke Evans? Until the Pelicans get Davis some help, they’ll continually end up towards the bottom of the Western Conference. Davis is good, in fact he’s great, but he’s not great enough to carry this dumpster fire of a roster into the playoffs. I’d love to see it happen, but I just don’t think it’s in the cards this year.

12 – Sacramento Kings

Speaking of dumpster fires, the Sacramento Kings ladies and gentlemen! What a disaster this organization is. I cannot be the only person that thinks Vlade Divac has proven himself completely unfit to run this basketball team. It just came out last week that when George Karl became the new head coach a couple years ago, Rudy Gay (who is still on the team right now), told him “Welcome to basketball hell.” What a ringing endorsement! I think DeMarcus Cousins is one of, if not the, best centers in the NBA, and Rudy Gay is a former star who I believe still has a lot left in the tank. They also brought in some quality players like Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, so they’re going to win some ballgames. But until the organization figures out what the F*&^ they’re doing, the Kings will continue to miss the playoffs, and will continue to be the laughing stock of the league.

11 – Memphis Grizzlies

I’ve felt for the last few years that the Grizzlies were major overachievers, and that eventually a day would come where their time as a Western Conference contender would end. I think this is finally the year. Where do I begin? Let’s start with the fact that this offseason, they signed Mike Conley to the biggest contract in the history of the National Basketball Association. Yes, you read that correctly. Conley signed a five year, $153 million contract. Don’t get me wrong, I think Mike Conley is a fine player, and could be the starting point guard on a championship team. But for him to be the highest paid player alongside guys like LeBron, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, etc, is just absolutely mind-boggling. Not off to a good start with me Memphis. Then you have Marc Gasol and his seemingly never-ending injury issues. When healthy, Gasol is one of the top centers in the league, but that whole “when healthy” thing seems to always be an issue. Their big free agent signing this year was Chandler Parsons, who they signed away from the Mavericks for a max contract. Two things here… one, I don’t think Parsons is a max player in this league, and two, the Mavs seemed perfectly happy to let Parsons walk, which raises quite the red flag. Oh, and he’s already hurt this season, and will miss the opener. If the core of Conley, Tony Allen, Parsons, Zach Randolph and Gasol can stay healthy all year, then I guess I could see this team making the playoffs. I just don’t think either of those things happen this year, and with the Conley and Parsons contracts virtually untradeable, the Grizzlies could be in for a rough next few seasons.

10 – Denver Nuggets

Out of all 30 teams in the NBA this season, the Nuggets were the team that I had the toughest time forming an opinion of. I don’t think there is anything that they do egregiously bad, but they also don’t have a true strength. They have solid veteran players like Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari, and they have some nice young pieces as well, like Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. I think they will be a fun team to watch this year, and could be capable of beating any team on any given night. At the same time, I fully expect them to continue their rebuild by shipping Faried and Gallinari to the highest bidders at the trade deadline, leaving this team without the veteran presence that their lineup would need to vault this team into the playoffs. I do think they’ll be better than most expect (Jokic is really good, and a lot of people don’t have a clue who he is), but at the end of the day, they’re still rebuilding and are a few years away from any real success.

9 – Dallas Mavericks

I have a lot of respect for Dirk Nowitzki. He became a free agent this offseason, and considered taking a paycut and heading elsewhere to try and win another championship. At the end of the day, he decided the money and his legacy in Dallas were more important, and he signed on for two more years. He could have gone to Golden State or San Antonio and joined a “Superteam,” but he decided to, likely, finish out his career right where it started in Dallas. It just seems right for him to spend his entire career with the Mavs, a la Tim Duncan in San Antonio or Kobe Bryant in LA. Unfortunately for Dirk, for this year at least, I see the Mavericks being on the outside looking in. They let Chandler Parsons walk, instead signing Harrison Barnes away from Golden State for a max deal. So far so bad for Barnes, as he has struggled mightily during the preseason. There’s still time for him to turn it around, but the Mavs are counting on him to be one of the leading scorers on this team, and I just don’t see it happening. Barnes was perfect as a complementary piece in Golden State, but I just don’t think he’s capable of being a primary scoring threat on a playoff team in the Western Conference.

8 – Minnesota Timberwolves

Is it too late to jump on the T’Wolves bandwagon? I mean, my Celtics are going to be great this year, but can I be a T’Wolves fan too? Holy smokes is this team going to be exciting! Karl-Anthony Towns, in just one season in the league, has vaulted himself into the Top-10 players in the league. Seriously, there are some that think that highly of him, as do I. He is an absolute stud, and should easily be an All-Star this year. Towns, along with Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng, make up without a doubt the most exciting young roster in the NBA. Last season this team was thrilling on the offensive end, but struggled on the defensive side of the ball. To combat that, they brought in Tom Thibodeau, one of the most revered defensive coaches in recent history. Thibodeau is a hard-nosed, no nonsense type of coach, but I think he’s capable of letting these young guys be who they want to be while still getting the best effort out of them night in and night out. A lack of experience is going to be the biggest thing that could hold them back, but I think the recipe is there for the Timberwolves to finally make their return to the playoffs (Sidenote: I am salivating at the thought of a Warriors-Timberwolves First Round playoff series! God, I need that to happen!)

7 – Houston Rockets

The Rockets are experimenting with playing James Harden at point guard. It’s interesting, and it’s not something I would have thought to do, but so far, they are happy with what they’re getting. The one positive is that the ball is always in his hands. He’s their best player, and you can argue that he’s the most talented offensive player in the league, so anything that gets the ball in his hands more has to be viewed as a positive. Dwight Howard is gone, so they’ll be featuring second year big man Clint Capela, which based on recent reports is what the front office wanted as early as last season. They also added some scoring help for Harden in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who were both with the Pelicans last season. If Gordon can stay healthy, he’ll be a great second scoring option for Houston. James Harden is in line for a huge season, and I believe that he has enough around him to get the Rockets back to the playoffs.

6 – Utah Jazz

The Jazz have been in rebuild mode for the last few seasons, and they are finally in a position to get back into the playoff picture this season. Gordon Hayward is still the star player for this team, but he is expected to miss the beginning of the season, so they’ll need other players to step up. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are two big bodies in the frontcourt, and they complement each other perfectly. Gobert was among the league leaders in blocks last season, while Favors has developed a great inside-out game for a big man. They added George Hill via trade to take over point guard duties, and they signed Joe Johnson to give the team a great veteran presence in the locker room. If they can get a breakout season from Rodney Hood, which is something many people are expecting, this team will finally make it back to the postseason, and could be a major threat to the big dogs.

5 – Portland Trail Blazers

Heading into last season, the Blazers were replacing four starters, and the general consensus was that would be too much for them to handle, and they would suffer a significant fall down the standings. Instead, Damian Lillard had a huge season, CJ McCollum emerged as a future star, and not only did they return to the playoffs, but they knocked off the Clippers in the First Round before losing to the Warriors. They’ll look to do even more this year, led by Lillard, who has become a legitimate MVP candidate. Many predict a massive season for Lillard, as do I. I could easily see him leading the league in scoring this season. The Blazers added Evan Turner in free agency, and his versatility will be a welcome addition to this lineup. They also signed Festus Ezeli away from the Warriors to bolster the frontcourt. He’s injured to start the year, but once he’s back healthy, I expect he’ll have a big impact on the Blazers’ success.

4 – Oklahoma City Thunder

So Kevin Durant is gone, it happened and it’s time for Thunder fans to just forget about it and move on to this year. I may sound crazy here, but honestly, I think the loss of Durant might be a positive. Okay, I definitely sound crazy, but I think no Durant means the shackles will come off of Russell Westbrook, and he will show everybody what he is truly capable of. I mean, it’s never great when you lose a player of Durant’s caliber for nothing. But they were able to add Victor Oladipo, who is a great two-way player, and Steven Adams and Enes Kanter should take on larger roles in the offensive gameplan. Westbrook has the potential to be the best player in the league. Yes, I truly believe that. I think he’s going to show that this year, and even though he won’t say it, I think he’s out to show everyone that he doesn’t need Durant.

3 – Los Angeles Clippers

This is probably the last chance for the Clippers to get to the NBA Finals with this core of players. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will both be free agents after this season, and both will get monster deals. If they don’t win the title this year, I think both players will look elsewhere in search of the championship that has eluded both of them to this point in their careers. This season is first though, and this is a team built to make a run at a title. DeAndre Jordan has become one of the top centers in the league (if only he could make free throws), Jamal Crawford is the best sixth man in the NBA, and provides a great spark off the bench night in and night out, and J.J. Redick is a flat out sharpshooter. This team has it all, it’s just a matter of them staying healthy and putting the whole package together. If they can do that, they can represent the West in the Finals.

2 – San Antonio Spurs

Let’s be honest here. As long as Gregg Popovich is on the sidelines, the Spurs will always be contenders. The one thing that this team will battle this year is health. Pop is one of the best in the league at managing his players throughout the regular season, but he’s got his hands full this year. The Big Fundamental retired, and his leadership will be missed, but they added Pau Gasol to replace him, and should get an increase in production at that position. Kawhi Leonard is quickly becoming one of the top players in the league, and he is capable of leading this team to great things. Leonard, Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and company easily make up one of the most talented rosters in the league. The Spurs will be a tougher test for the Warriors than many think they will be, as evidenced by the result of last night’s opening game.

1 – Golden State Warriors

I now present to you the 2017 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors! Nah, it’s not going to be that easy for them. Last season, I truly believe the Warriors put breaking the Bulls’ 72-10 regular season record above winning a second consecutive championship, and while most are giving them hell for that, I don’t blame them at all. They got the title two years ago, they got the record last year. Now there’s nothing else but another championship for them to play for. Kevin Durant became the ultimate NBA villain by joining the Warriors, bringing up the saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” I have absolutely no issue with Durant going to the Warriors. He has plenty of money, now it’s about cementing his legacy with a championship. He decided the best chance for him to do that came in Golden State. I don’t believe this team will win more than 65 games, for one because I think Steve Kerr will be smarter about resting his guys and making sure they’re ready for the postseason, and also because it will take some time for them to mesh and figure out how to play with each other. There will be growing pains, but at the end of the day, this is the best team in the NBA, and they should wind up your 2017 NBA Champions.