It’s never too early to take a look at next year. We don’t know what jersey the best player in the league will be wearing, where the biggest chucker will be ball-hogging, or what will happen in the most over-hyped draft ever, but we can still make some safe predictions, if we make a few assumptions that we shouldn’t. Let’s assume the Big 3 stay in Miami, Duncan and Co. play another season, Carmelo ends up in Chicago, and Cleveland remains the most cursed sports town ever (we can make that last assumption VERY safely). Let’s run down the title favorites.
Poorly Owned, Delusional Expectations
Not in 100 years.
Maybe if Pierce and Garnett were both 25 years old. Not anymore.
Longshots on the Rise
The Suns are a very good team, but no one would know that because they are in the West. They barely missed the playoffs last season, finishing 9th despite winning 48 games. That would’ve been good enough for the third spot in the East. No one had any idea the Suns were any good, but between the NBA’s Most Improved Player Goran Dragic and his backcourt counterpart Eric Bledsoe, the Suns have one of the best backcourts in the NBA. Dragic was 3rd Team All-NBA and Bledsoe had career highs all across the board. Beyond that, the Suns also got significant contributions and career years from Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee. The Suns will have some room to make some moves this summer and could easily find themselves in the playoffs next year. And any team that makes the playoffs in the West is a very, very good team.
The Wiz made their return to NBA relevance last season. Wait, were they actually ever relevant? Anyway, much depends on what the Wiz decide to do this offseason. Gortat and Ariza’s contracts are up, and both players will command substantial contracts after career years last year. Gortat could easily be worth around $40 million over the next four or five years due to the scarcity of effective centers, despite being 30 years old. And Ariza will probably get between $35-40 million as a wing player in the prime of his career, who plays good defense and is a great at the corner 3. If the Wiz sign both guys, they’ll stay somewhat relevant, probably end up anywhere with the third, fourth, or fifth seed in the East and be a second round team. The other option is to let those guys walk and make a run at Durant in two years, a D.C. native who would create a formidable trio with Wall and Beal. Most likely, Washington will keep Gortat, but not Ariza, and be a 45 win team that could make some noise in the playoffs, but most likely couldn’t beat the Heat or Pacers.
Coming off a very unexpected 48 win campaign, the Raptors also became relevant for the first time in over a decade. Their season will depend on whether they are able to re-sign Kyle Lowry, who’s been rumored to be a target of the Heat since they desperately lack of competent point guard. If Lowry stays put though, the Raptors could build on their surprising success, and depending on the improvements of All-Star Demar Derozan and Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors could win 50 games in the weak Eastern Conference. The Raptors could reach the Conference Finals, but anything beyond that might be a little unrealistic. But then again, maybe not in the East.
Good, but not Great Teams
Believe it or not, the Mavs gave the Spurs the closest call in this year’s playoffs, taking the Spurs to seven games. That shows us two things: how good Dirk still is, and how good of a coach Rick Carlisle is too. The Mavs seem to have drastically changed their roster every season since they won the Finals. Dirk could easily take a pay cut in order to make room for some more talent on the roster because the Mavs aren’t getting any younger. Shawn Marion is also up for free agency and could easily decide to bolt for the mid-level to a team like the Spurs or Heat. No matter who the Mavs roll out next year, they’ll still have Monta Ellis, who’s coming off a rejuvenated and career year, Dirk, and Carlisle. That’s enough to not count out the Mavs.
We’re assuming here that Carmelo signs with the Bulls. That is by no means a safe assumption, but the Bulls appear to be on the short list for Carmelo. The Bulls would feature a lineup surrounding Carmelo, Noah, and whatever Rose has left. In the West, that probably wouldn’t even be a lock for the playoffs, but in the East, it would be one of the top teams. Even if Carmelo didn’t sign with Bulls, they seem to win 45+ games every year on their defense alone.
Very Talented Teams that Don’t Play Defense
The Rockets could make a splash this offseason and are trying to add a third star. Right now, they’re a trendy pick to win 55+ games and go far, but they couldn’t even make it out of the first round in the West. Until proven otherwise, their Harden-Howard duo looks a lot like McGrady-Yao of the mid 2000’s. They have plenty of talent, but play no defense. Their all 3’s and layups strategy is interesting and might make analytical sense, but so far it hasn’t worked in the playoffs. It’s questionable that passing up a wide open foul-line (read: mid-range) jumper for a contested layup makes any sense at all, but that is what the Rockets do in their stats-driven approach on offense.
LaMarcus Aldridge was one of the five best players in the NBA last year, and Damian Lillard hits big shots, but the Blazers suffer from the same problem as the Rockets: they don’t play defense. Aldridge, Lillard, and Batum are the foundation of a very good nucleus, but the Blazers are a few pieces away from being real contenders in the West. Wes Matthews was very effective last year, averaging 16 points, and Robin Lopez was a solid defensive anchor, but something needs to be tweaked in Portland to take the next step.
Very Real Threats
The Grizzlies easily could’ve upset the Thunder in the post-season, if not for the poorly-issued suspension for Game 7. If not for Marc Gasol’s knee injury to begin the season last year, the Grizzlies easily could’ve been a three or four seed in the West. Gasol was the key for Memphis’ success. Despite the front office mess in Memphis, the Grizz have the talent to win 55 games and make a serious run at the title. They have the most bruising front line in the league between Gasol and Zach Randolph. And Mike Conley is the most underrated point guard in the league.
The Pacers were an absolute mess after the All-Star break. The end of their season, though, was not quite the nightmare that most people expected. No, they didn’t lose to the hapless Hawks in the first round. They didn’t lose to the upstart Wizards in the second round. And they took the Heat to six games. It’s unclear if the Pacers will keep Lance Stephenson, but Larry Bird and front office have claimed, at least publicly, that they want Stephenson back. The Pacers don’t need to completely blow things up. They still won 56 games and were two wins away from the Finals. The way the Heat, Wade and Bosh especially, looked against the Spurs, the Pacers may be able to finally get past the Heat next season. Whether they could beat the Spurs is an entirely different matter.
The Real Contenders
If not for the Andrew Bogut injury, the Warriors probably would have ‘upset’ the Clippers, even though it hardly would have been an upset. The Splash Brothers are the best shooting backcourt in the league by leaps and bounds, Iguodala does it all, and Bogut protects the rim. David Lee puts up good numbers, but the Warriors could use an upgrade down low. Lee is a jump shooting big man. The Warriors need a true down low scorer. Trading Lee and Harrison Barnes, along with a pick wouldn’t be a bad idea. Their window is now.
The Clippers have one of the most talented rosters in the league, from top to bottom. Chris Paul has only reached the Conference Finals once in his career, and he doesn’t get enough for criticism for that, but he’s still the best point guard in the league. Blake Griffin took a huge step last season and can officially say he’s the best player not named LeBron or Durant. It’ll be interesting to see if the Clippers make a run at LeBron this summer, but even if they don’t, they still have to be considered one of the best teams in league.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Just think if Ray Allen hadn’t hit that 3 against the Spurs in the 2013 Finals. We’d be talking about the Heat as 1-3 in the Finals and would have a much different outlook on their ability to win big games. On the verge of a threepeat, the Heat were embarrassed by the Spurs in the Finals, and this is a big summer for the Heat. Again, we’re assuming they keep LeBron, Wade, and Bosh, but even with those three guys, there are plenty of question marks. Who are the role players? Where do the other contributions come from? These are the questions the Heat have to answer, and until they do, they will be chasing the Spurs.
Maybe the Heat should be here, but the Thunder now boast a Big 3 better than the Heat’s. In fact, the Thunder might have the best Big 3 in the league with KD, Westbrook, and Ibaka. The problem is the rest of the team. Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams made nice contributions last season, as did Caron Butler, who is now a free agent, but the rest of the bench was nonexistent. It’s impossible to beat the Spurs with three players. Still, one more year of wear and tear on the Heat and Spurs, and one more year of improvement for Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka might be enough to push the Thunder through.
Who else? The Spurs just had one of the most impressive Finals ever. They dismantled the Heat, changed how we view basketball, and played the most selfless style of ball we’ve seen since Magic was running Showtime. They seem to only get better with age, and Kawhi Leonard is on the verge of being a superstar. Popovich is the best coach in the league, and it’s not even close. He may be the best coach in all of pro sports. The Spurs don’t need to win 60+ games, but they probably will anyway. They need to keep up their minute restrictions and re-sign Diaw and Mills. They should’ve won the 2013 Finals, they dominated the 2014 Finals, and there’s no reason to think they won’t take home the 2015 Finals.