Ah, the tricky balancing act between realistic predictions and sufficiently bold ones.
It's a tough line to walk, but it can be done.
I won't feed you inane predictions about Marc Gasol leading the league in scoring, LeBron James failing to make the All-Star team and Kevin Love winning MVP. Those would simply be too ridiculous, even for an article filled with bold predictions.
At the same time, you don't want to hear about James Harden averaging at least 20 points per game, Stephen Curry leading the league in three-pointers and Derrick Rose returning from injury to lead the Chicago Bulls into the postseason. Those fall on the opposite end of the spectrum and are way too obvious.
For these 18 players—the top stars in the league right now, with no disrespect meant to Andre Iguodala, Joakim Noah, Deron Williams, Al Horford and the rest of the players who fell just short of inclusion—the predictions are both bold enough to be intriguing and actually possible.
Let's hear some of your projections for the 2013-14 campaign.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.
'Melo led the NBA in points per game during the 2012-13 campaign, averaging 28.7. That number will seem remarkably low after he tops 30.
While Kevin Durant's scoring average could rise as well, that's more unlikely. The Oklahoma City Thunder have so many young players that one or more of them are bound to step up and help replace the newly departed Kevin Martin.
New York can't say the same, as the roster is rather old. Sure, the addition of Andrea Bargnani could eat into 'Melo's scoring average, but the reigning champion is still improving his outside shot and getting more efficient as a scorer.
That, more than anything else, is the key here.
Anthony's points skyrocketed thanks to his increased efficiency from the field, downtown and the charity stripe. As he continues to make his shots with higher frequency, he'll negate any decline in role.
And then some.
They say you should never doubt the heart of a champion. Well, what does that mean you should do with the heart of a five-time champion?
Kobe Bryant may have torn his Achilles tendon at the end of the last regular season, but he still managed to drain two free throws before limping back to the locker room. That right there says it all about his ability to fight through pain.
The Mamba has never let injuries slow him down, and this one will be no different.
Although everything seems to be working against him, it won't matter. 35-year-olds (he'll turn 35 before the season starts) are supposed to have slower recovery periods, and Achilles injuries are notoriously difficult to recover from.
So what? It's Kobe we're talking about.
Expect him out on the court and playing at a high level as he refuses to let his Los Angeles Lakers even consider tanking for Andrew Wiggins.
No player has made more three-point bombs in a single season than Stephen Curry, and his job is about to get even easier.
After draining 272 shots from behind the arc, expect the baby-faced assassin to break his own record by at least 10 triples. There are two primary factors going into this bold prediction, other than his ridiculously effective shot.
First, Curry has actually managed to stay healthy lately. His ankles still act up on occasion, but they've seemed a lot stronger. He played in 78 games last year, and we should be looking for just about the same in 2013-14.
If he manages to take the court 82 times in the regular season, this record is almost guaranteed to be broken.
Secondly, Curry's job got a lot easier after the acquisition of Andre Iguodala.
He had to create many of his own looks in 2012-13, but now he's playing alongside a great facilitator. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes have their strengths, but they aren't elite distributors like Iggy.
Can you imagine the damage Curry could do when he's spotting up?
Tim Duncan has had a marvelous career, one that's left him as a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. However, there are still things he hasn't accomplished.
One of them, surprisingly enough, is leading the league in blocks per game.
Duncan has come close, but he's never taken home the title. He was close in 2012-13, averaging 2.7 rejections per game, but it's in 2013-14 that he'll actually add that elusive accomplishment to his overflowing resume.
Of all the bold predictions, this may be the boldest. Given Duncan's advancing age and the presences of Serge Ibaka and Larry Sanders, it seems outlandish even.
However, Duncan is only improving as a shot-blocker. Now that he's spending even more time around the basket, he's using his incredibly honed instincts to wreak havoc. Last year, he posted a block percentage of 6.4, the highest mark of his career.
If that can rise any higher while he plays right around 30 minutes, he'll swat away anyone else's chances at winning the blocks title.
Only eight players in NBA history have joined the 50/40/90 club by making at least 50 percent of their shots from the field, 40 percent of their three-point tries and 90 percent of their attempts at the foul stripe.
Kevin Durant became one of the eight thanks to his legendary efficiency numbers in 2012-13, but he won't stop there.
He's after Larry Bird and Steve Nash.
Bird is a two-time member of the club, and his 1987-88 campaign saw him join the 51/41/91 one. That's occupied only by himself and Nash, who used the 2005-06 season to gain entry.
No one has every made it to 52/42/92, though.
Nash came closest, posting splits of 51.2/43.9/92.1, and Bird wasn't far behind with 52.7/41.4/91.6. However, neither made it in the end.
It's time for that to change, courtesy of the NBA's premier scoring threat. Durant is still only 24 years old, and he's clearly improving. His field-goal and three-point percentages have both improved each of the last three seasons, and there's no reason for that trend to stop.
Making 92 percent of his charity shots will be the toughest part, but if anyone can do it, it's Durant.
Only eight players in NBA history have won multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards, and Dwight Howard, Ben Wallace, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sidney Moncrief and Dennis Rodman all did so in back-to-back fashion.
In fact, Mark Eaton is the only winner of multiple awards who didn't do so in consecutive years.
It's time for Marc Gasol to join that exclusive group of players. And I'm not talking about the one featuring just Eaton.
Joakim Noah gave him a run for his money in 2012-13, but Gasol was rightfully awarded DPOY. He might not put up the most glamorous block and steal numbers. Instead, he just wins games with his defense.
Watching Gasol play defense is like peering into a textbook. His rotations are flawless, everything is calculated, and he has an uncanny ability to help his teammates out and still recover to his own man.
The scary part is that he's getting better.
Voter fatigue doesn't tend to exist when determining the best defensive player in basketball, so Gasol only has to worry about his own performance.
Right now, the enduring memory of Paul George's defense is rather unfortunate. We picture him over-pursuing LeBron James during the Eastern Conference Finals and allowing the MVP to hit a game-winning layup.
That should in no way represent this breakout superstar, though, and he'll prove it throughout 2013-14.
It's too difficult for a wing player to win Defensive Player of the Year—interior defenders simply have more impact—but George will beat out Andre Iguodala, Tony Allen and LeBron James in votes. He'll finish second, trailing only Marc Gasol.
George's defense really is that good.
In 2012-13, the stingy Indiana Pacers allowed 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when George played. That might not seem like a huge impact, but it is when it pushes the defensive output from 101.8 points allowed per 100 possession to just 99.3.
The most impressive thing about George's defense can't really be quantified. He consistently took on the hardest perimeter assignments, and whether he was guarding LeBron or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, he showed the same level of fear.
So in a way, I suppose that aspect can be quantified.
Let's stick with a defensive prediction for one more slide: James Harden will actually play defense in 2013-14.
While his body was present on the defensive end in 2012-13, his mind certainly wasn't. He's been an absolutely porous and putrid point-preventer for quite some time now, and that needs to change if he hopes to overtake Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant as the premier shooting guard in basketball.
This is the season where the narrative does shift.
Harden's lack of defensive focus was understandable during his first season with the Houston Rockets. He was dealing with a ridiculous offensive burden, the likes of which he hadn't seen while he was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Offense sapped all of his energy, and the Rockets were well aware of that.
Harden is used to being the No. 1 option, but now he has a new offensive stud to play with: Dwight Howard. Now, he can actually spend some of his energy on the less glamorous end of the court without it being detrimental to the team's offense.
I'm not predicting that Harden is a defensive stud, merely that he becomes an average player on that end.
And unfortunately for the bearded 2-guard, that's still bold.
It seems like Dwight Howard is public enemy No. 1 to NBA fans, but that will change by about the halfway point of his first season in a Houston Rockets jersey.
Howard no longer plays for a team that everyone loves to hate, and he should presumably be healthy enough to play like the Orlando Magic version of himself. That combination will do wonders for his public approval rating, especially if he goes to work quietly.
If you think back hard enough, it shouldn't be too hard to remember why everyone loved D12 in the first place.
He was an athletic specimen who dominated on both ends with thunderous Magic-al dunks and huge rejections, and a constant ear-to-ear grin was glued to his face. He was fun, he did imitations, and he seemed to be a good guy.
The last two summers have tainted perception of the big man, and it's admittedly his own fault. He had trouble making decisions and dragged them out incessantly.
But we have a way of forgiving star athletes, and playing in a situation tailor-made for his talents will promote that spirit of giving second chances.
Don't worry, Cleveland Cavaliers fans.
I'm not predicting that Kyrie Irving will get injured and spend more time in a facemask like the one you see you above. If anything, I'm feeling this season as one in which he stays healthy.
It's the rest of the NBA that I'm concerned for.
Irving has the best handles in basketball, bar none. He's going to break so many ankles in 2013-14 that he'll be sponsored by a hospital.
Don't believe me?
Just ask Brandon Knight.
Is predicting that LeBron James will win MVP and Finals MVP for the third season in a row bold enough?
Probably not, but what else can we say about this guy? He's head and shoulders above the rest of the league, and he's still getting better.
In fact, a negative prediction would be about the only way to be bold enough, but that would simply be too unrealistic. We're all about balancing boldness and realism here.
Only four players in NBA history have been named Finals MVP at least three times: Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Magic and Duncan had their awards spread out, but Shaq and Michael each three-peated. MJ even did so twice.
That would be some pretty exclusive company for LeBron, but we're getting bolder still.
In this scenario, he wins another regular-season MVP trophy as well, the fifth in the last six years. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, MJ and Bill Russell have won five.
It would also be James' third MVP victory in a row, a feat that has been matched only by Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Russell.
Sorry to the haters out there, but we've reached the point in LeBron's career where these are the type of names you're going to hear on a regular basis.
Injuries kept Kevin Love out for all but 18 games in 2012-13, and he still managed to average 14 rebounds per contest. This would have beaten out Dwight Howard's 12.4 boards each outing, but Love didn't play enough to qualify for the leaderboard.
A healthy Love will dethrone Howard, who has spent each of the past two seasons crashing the glass more effectively than any other player. Before that, though, Love averaged 15.2 rebounds per game to lead the Association.
The Minnesota Timberwolves superstar has some of the best lower-body strength in basketball, and he's an immovable object when he positions himself for a rebound. He may not have elite athleticism, but he's a solid jumper and understands placement and how to track the ball better than anyone else.
Love's last few seasons have been derailed by that pesky little injury imp, but it's time for him to remind everyone what he can do when everything is working properly.
Chris Paul's reputation as a playoff underachiever baffles me.
Sure, the league's best point guard has never had too much success in the postseason, but it's not his fault. You can cue Robin Williams here if you want.
There's only so much a short floor general can do when dealt a roster that isn't particularly potent (New Orleans) or a group of players who underachieves (Los Angeles).
In fact, CP3 elevated his play during the 2013 postseason, leading all players in PER while playing remarkably efficient basketball. He was a dominant force, even if Blake Griffin and the rest of his teammates completely failed to show up.
Well, success will change that unfortunately inaccurate reputation in 2014.
The Clippers won't win a title, but Paul will get a shot to play for one when he leads his squad out of the Western Conference for a chance at dethroning the Miami Heat.
After dealing Eric Bledsoe for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, drafting Reggie Bullock and signing Darren Collison and Byron Mullens, this beleaguered organization is ready to make some serious noise.
And, as it has for the last few years, everything revolves around Paul.
During the 2009-10 season, Tony Parker made only 75.6 percent of his shots from the free-throw line. That was the low point for him during his NBA prime, and the percentage has steadily climbed ever since then.
He made 76.9 percent of his attempts in 2010-11, then 79.9 percent in 2011-12.
Last season, Parker shot a career-high from the charity stripe, draining 84.5 percent of his freebies.
Interestingly enough, those numbers follow an almost perfect quadratic regression: Free-throw percentage = 0.825*(year)^2 - 1.155*(year) + 75.925 where a value of one for "year" corresponds to the 2009-10 season.
Seriously, look how well that regression predicts his free-throw numbers for the seasons that have come to pass:
- 2009-10: 75.595 (actual: 75.610)
- 2010-11: 76.915 (actual: 76.898)
- 2011-12: 79.885 (actual: 79.930)
- 2012-13: 84.505 (actual: 84.545)
It's almost like Parker is teasing us math people.
Well, the regression predicts that the French point guard will shoot 90.775 percent from the charity stripe in 2013-14.
We do have to hold our horses before predicting any further, though. According to the regression, he'll beat Jose Calderon's single-season record by shooting 98.695 percent in 2014-15.
You know what doesn't mix together well?
A ridiculously talented but sometimes infuriating point guard who doesn't always listen to authority and a first-year head coach making his NBA debut during a rebuilding process.
Rajon Rondo and Brad Stevens could very well coexist, but it's by no means out of the realm of possibilities that the point guard could be on his way out of Boston. The C's would be able to get a nice return for him and further jumpstart that aforementioned rebuilding process.
It's important to note that this is not meant to be a negative prediction, just a situational one.
At the end of the 2013-14 campaign, Chicago Bulls fans will hear about Derrick Rose's torn ACL and have to think for a second to remember that he was ever injured in the first place.
He's going to be that good after returning to the lineup.
ACL tears typically lead to a long recovery period, and Rose has certainly had one of those after sitting out an entire season of his promising career. Now it's time for him to become a superstar once more and start carrying the Bulls to greatness.
As we've seen, athletic marvels like Adrian Peterson can recover from this injury and come back even better than before, losing absolutely no explosiveness or power. Peterson is an exception to the rule, but Rose's style of play and remarkable athleticism mean that he could be another one.
Even if he doesn't play quite at an MVP level, Rose will still make the All-Star team and perform like he never missed any time.
As LeBron James continues to take over the Miami Heat offense, Dwyane Wade's scoring role has declined. He's afforded fewer opportunities, so he has to make the most of them.
One way he's done so is to almost completely cut the three-point shot out of his arsenal. In 2012-13, he fired away from downtown only 66 times in the 69 games he played.
As a result, Wade has become incredibly efficient shooting the rock. He posted a career-high field-goal percentage of 52.1—the second time he'd broken 50 percent in his career—and he's poised to let that climb even higher.
Wade's mid-range game is still fantastic, and he's learning by the day how to pick and choose his spots better. Plus, an offseason of rest will allow him to get his knees back into playing shape.
Everything points toward the most efficient season of Wade's career happening in 2013-14, and it'll begin with 55 percent shooting or better from the field.
One often understated aspect of Russell Westbrook's career is that he's gotten better as a facilitator each and every year he's spent with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even for a player who had to transition from shooting guard to point guard after he left UCLA, that's not entirely natural.
The trend continues in 2013-14 as Westbrook depresses his turnover figures even more, this time until they dip below three cough-ups per game.
Westbrook averaged a career-high 3.9 turnovers each contest in 2010-11, but he's hacked off 0.3 each year since. If that development remains constant, he'll be right at 3.0 in 2013-14.
I could also predict that the dynamic floor general would start displaying great shot selection, but let's not get silly now.
Even if Westbrook continues his shot-happy ways, the increased care for the ball will only result in positives for the Thunder.