B/R Staff Predictions for the 2017-18 NBA Regular Season
The 2017-18 NBA season is nearly upon us, but with one more dog day still in our way, it's a different kind of season we're focused on.
#NBAPredictionSZN has arrived!
Will this be the year Kristaps Porzingis officially joins the superstar elites? Can The Process find the playoffs?
Can anybody—and we mean anybody!—stop the Golden State Warriors from hoisting their third Larry O'Brien Trophy in four years?
Bleacher Report rallied some of its top basketball minds to answer these questions and more.
Sixers Sneak into the Playoffs
Maybe it only takes 24 wins—kidding, it'll be more like 30—but some team will sneak into the woeful Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 8 seed. And no one in that conversation has more upside than the Philadelphia 76ers.
Yes, young teams typically don't win a lot of games. Yes, we're dealing with major injury concerns for Joel Embiid and—to a lesser extent—Ben Simmons, who missed all of what would've been his rookie season with a foot fracture last year. Yes, turnovers are going to be a problem for Markelle Fultz and the other youngsters.
But just look back at those names. Fultz, Embiid and Simmons are as promising a core as you'll find in the NBA, and the Sixers already played like a 49.7-win team when its star center was on the floor last year, per NBA Math's FATS calculator.
That isn't where the talent stops, either.
JJ Redick could be a game-changing piece for this team, spacing out the floor with his sharpshooting prowess and serving as a sorely needed veteran presence. Robert Covington is one of the league's most underrated players, capable of thriving as a three-and-D guy who should've received some All-Defense consideration in 2016-17. We haven't even mentioned Dario Saric, Amir Johnson, Richaun Holmes, Justin Anderson or T.J. McConnell, all of whom are at least capable backups.
Talent can win games, and there's no talent deficit in Philadelphia.
—Adam Fromal, national analyst
Paul George Earns More MVP Votes Than Russell Westbrook
Paul George has his sights set on winning this year's MVP award. He won't, of course, because this season will be his first with the Thunder. Early-year learning curves don't help MVP resumes, and Russell Westbrook and himself will steal votes from one another under the best circumstances.
Still, George won't struggle long to adapt alongside Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. His blend of one-on-one scoring, spot-up shooting and secondary playmaking off the dribble should shorten the grace period, while his defense allows the team to run out lineups with Anthony at the 4 that don't hemorrhage points.
Predicting that George will get more recognition for the Thunder's rise than Westbrook feels disingenuous on some level. The reigning MVP will have the ball in his hands more by default and has never been one to take a back seat—not even during his days with Kevin Durant.
But George is the more balanced player, and his defense specifically molds an identity that could end up creating at least a minor headache for the Warriors. If the Thunder are going to contend for a top-two playoff seed while giving both their new stars a reason to stick around long term, they'll need contract-year George (player option) to make good on his MVP promise.
—Dan Favale, national analyst
Porzingis Won't Make the Leap
This isn't intentionally hyperbolic. It doesn't feel good to say at all. Kristaps Porzingis is one of the Association's premier young talents—a genuine building block.
But let's be real: The Knicks aren't set up to help him succeed right away. Never mind his various injuries or the fact he may be an unsettlingly 7'5" now. He's playing out of position not because it's best for him, as some maintain, but because New York has a jillion other bigs.
Positions are increasingly meaningless, and the Knicks are sparing Porzingis from the grueling grind associated with pestering de facto 5s. But they're also forcing him to cover more ground. So many power forwards are basically wings now, and chasing them around takes more energy and pulls him away from his rim-protecting sweet spots. Some teams have the surrounding defensive versatility to neutralize these adverse effects. The Knicks do not.
On top of all this, Porzingis is now The Guy for the first time in his career...without actually being The Guy. Carmelo Anthony is gone, but playing beside Michael Beasley, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter won't result in what should be a substantive uptick in usage.
And finally, it seems the Knicks have committed themselves to upping Porzingis' looks in the post, even though he's at his best popping out of pick-and-rolls, spotting up around drives and using his gait and handle to attack off the dribble on face-ups.
Maybe Porzingis' regression is barely noticeable. Maybe he doesn't technically decline at all. But the Knicks are in no way built to incite the breakout that Melo's exit has left many expecting. That leap will have to wait at least another year.
Cavs' Most Important Addition Won't Be Dwyane Wade or IT
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who've represented the Eastern Conference in each of the past three NBA Finals, will enter the 2017-18 season with only LeBron James playing the same position within the team's starting five.
In prior years, JR Smith started next to James to help provide floor spacing, hit catch-and-shoot threes and guard the opposition's most dynamic offensive threat each night. With Smith relegated to the bench after the addition of Dwyane Wade, that role—the two-way safety net of a player—will belong to Jae Crowder.
Isaiah Thomas pulled all of the headlines upon his arrival to Cleveland, which comes with the territory of being an All-NBA talent. Wade is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who is reuniting with his best friend in James. Derrick Rose will have to shoulder point guard duties until Thomas returns and should have a usage rate north of 30. This could all leave Crowder as the forgotten man, but it's his addition—not Thomas nor Rose nor Wade—who allows head coach Ty Lue to move Kevin Love to the center spot, potentially giving the Cavaliers their own Death Lineup while taking a ton of pressure off of James.
"He's a guy who can shoot it and somehow guard every position," Love recently told Bleacher Report about Crowder. "He's going to be a safety net for all of us, being able to switch 1 through 5. He's a guy I'm going to enjoy going to war with."
And he's a guy who quietly will be the Cavs' most crucial addition throughout their whirlwind of an offseason.
—Scott Sargent, Cavs analyst
Alvin Gentry Sits On the Hottest Hot Seat
When an organization feels the need to issue a public statement that the general manager and head coach aren't being fired...well, that isn't a good sign. Such is the predicament for Pelicans general manager Dell Demps and head coach Alvin Gentry, who each got the dreaded vote of confidence from executive vice president of basketball operations Mickey Loomis in May.
With tempestuous duo DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo reunited and newly hired assistant coach Chris Finch waiting in the wings, Gentry could be in trouble if the Pelicans get off to a slow start.
If you have one of the best offensive coaches in the NBA, why do you need to add an offensive coach to your staff? Finch, who worked wonders with Denver's offense last season, was seemingly brought on board in New Orleans to pivot away from Gentry's uptempo style to more of a deliberate approach, with high-low threats Cousins and Anthony Davis. But the Pelicans don't have enough shooting to make this approach viable, and some in the coaching business believe New Orleans hired Finch to replace Gentry if the team didn't show signs of making the jump from the lottery to a playoff team.
Heading into the season, Gentry's seat is about as hot as it gets.
—Ken Berger, B/R national writer
Rockets Get to the Western Conference Finals
A fierce competitor, ferocious leader and excellent defender, Paul will help The Beard orchestrate Mike D'Antoni's spread floor offense. Having shot 41 percent from behind the arc last season, he adds yet another deep threat to the team.
With the way they shoot the ball, the Rockets will have no problem running up the scoreboard like they did last year at 115.3 points per game (second in the league). After the under-the-radar additions of defensive stoppers PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, Houston will finally be able to stop the other team from doing the same as well.
Although there will be a learning curve to acclimate Paul, it won't take long for the Rockets to find their stride. Look for Harden to be in the top four in the MVP race, while Houston will move up one spot and finish second in the Western Conference after landing at around 57 or 58 wins.
The Rockets will make it to the Western Conference Finals, but they unfortunately won't be at the big dance.
—Maurice Bobb, Rockets correspondent
One More Tank? Sign Up the Suns
The Phoenix Suns have to be the pick here. They're finally committed to rebuilding, a stance they reiterated by shutting down Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe at the end of 2016-17—and then again, over the summer, when they steered clear of expensive free agents.
This year, they won't do anything other than double down. They're dangling Chandler and Jared Dudley in trade talks, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, and Bledsoe will amble in and out of the rumor mill as well. None of their contracts span past 2019, which allows the Suns to take their time, but their core is about to get more expensive when factoring in an assumed extension for Devin Booker next summer.
Perpetuating this awkward balancing act beyond that deal doesn't make any sense. Once you re-invest centerpiece money into a rookie-scale player, you're obligated to push forward. Dealing vets for cheap prospects, picks and cap space is the invariably smart play, especially because it drums up the value of the Suns' draft choice in June. And with the NBA short on blatant tank jobs, they have the opportunity to get out in front of prospective bottom-feeders and assure themselves one final top-five selection before the lottery protocol shifts and, more notably, their core gets put on the clock.
—Dan Favale, national analyst
Blazers Sneak into the Playoffs in Loaded Western Conference
Last year, the Portland Trail Blazers produced an 11.6 net rating in the 419 minutes Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic shared the floor. That may be a small sample size, but it's still notable they fared so well that only the season-long mark of the Golden State Warriors (11.7) proved superior.
At this point, we know Lillard and McCollum make for a dynamite duo out of the backcourt. But the addition of Nurkic is a franchise-altering one if he's as good as he was following last year's midseason move away from the Denver Nuggets.
And he is.
With him protecting the interior of the defense, rebounding with aplomb and showing distributing chops that remained dormant in Denver, everything becomes easier. The guards can focus on scoring. Maurice Harkless can step into the role previously filled by Allen Crabbe. Caleb Swanigan can give Rip City an immediate double-double threat at power forward, whether he's starting or coming off the bench.
The West is brutal. Golden State is obviously a postseason lock, and the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves and maaaaaybe the Denver Nuggets should fall into the same category. That leaves the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Blazers competing for the last two spots, with the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans right behind them.
Among that first crop of contenders, give me the bunch that didn't lose a centerpiece, has the luxury of almost-across-the-board continuity and is working in my pick for Most Improved Player.
—Adam Fromal, national analyst
Eric Blesdoe Will Be the First Big Name Traded
Young, fresh off mailing in the final two months of the 2016-17 season and seemingly committed to yet another lottery visit, the rebuilding Suns have little use for Bledsoe. That's been true for a while, which makes it surprising they haven't traded him yet. He'll be the biggest name to move this season. Or, at the very least, the first big name; in a league where Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Chris Paul all get swapped within a matter of weeks, who knows what's possible anymore?
Bledsoe posted career-high averages of 21.1 points and 6.3 assists in 66 games last year. At 28, he's playing the best ball of his career and is under contract for a total of $29.5 million over the next two seasons. That last number makes Bledsoe eminently movable, and you'd have to think the Suns could wrangle a mid-tier first-round pick for him at minimum.
Keep an eye on Kenneth Faried and Jahlil Okafor, but bank on Bledsoe as the most notable mover this year.
—Grant Hughes, national analyst
Joel Embiid Plays 60-Plus Games, Flirts with All-NBA First Team
Even if Joel Embiid plays only 50 or so games this season, he'll have a big enough impact to help the precocious Sixers finish as one of the top eight teams in the East. They'll struggle early, perhaps sometimes embarrassingly so, but things should begin to balance out once guys settle into their roles.
Even though most of the attention will center on giant point guard Ben Simmons' no-look passes, Markelle Fultz's shooting motion and Embiid's Twitter account, the real story for the Sixers will be their defense. Between Embiid's stifling rim protection and the underrated Robert Covington's elite ability to shut down wings, the foundation of the Sixers' step forward in 2017-18 will be on D.
Fultz will shoot better than expected and Simmons will contend heavily for Rookie of the Year, but neither of those should come as a huge shock. The shock will come if Embiid is healthy enough to play 65-plus games. Because if that happens, The Process may find himself going from a 31-game season to a first-team All-NBA nod.
TRUST THE PROCESS!
—Maurice Peebles, B/R Trending Editor
Lonzo Ball Does Not Win Rookie of the Year...
Am I a fool to bet against LaVar Ball? Yes, probably. After all, this is the man who willed a world-beating Lakers phenom into existence. Who am I to bet against the Big Baller Brand?
I've never provided the genetic material to create an NBA player, so my expertise in this field is limited. But this was a loaded draft class with multiple potential Rookie of the Year candidates—Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr., De'Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, etc.
Let's also not discount Ball's fellow rookie teammate, Kyle Kuzma, who went off for 17.3 points a game during the preseason and is making a strong case to be the starting power forward over Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle. Why can't Kuzma be Rookie of the Year? Right now, it's a legitimate possibility.
With all of the talent in the 2017 rookie class, you're better off taking the field than putting all your money on Lonzo.
Just please don't tell LaVar I said that.
—Dave Schilling, B/r writer-at-large
...Because Dennis Smith Jr. Wins Rookie of the Year
Four point guards were taken before Dennis Smith Jr., who's going to win Rookie of the Year.
Teams that passed on him will look foolish, specifically the Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. They must have docked him for inefficiency, which was overstated given how weak his supporting cast was at North Carolina State.
With more space and better teammates, Smith may have it easier at the pro level. Plus, he's already one of the most athletic guards in the league. The transition should be quicker for Smith than most rookie point guards. Markelle Fultz isn't as explosive and suddenly has issues with his shoulder and shooting form. Lonzo Ball was never going to outscore Smith. De'Aaron Fox, a weak shooter to begin with, will have to compete for touches with George Hill and Buddy Hield.
Smith will start right away and log full-time minutes in Dallas, where he'll have the freedom to play through mistakes and still produce. It gives him an early jump to strengthen his decision-making and three-point stroke. In the meantime, he'll go to work with his drives, pull-up jumper, floater and playmaking skills, which could lead to averages of 15 points and five assists. In turn, he'll take home the award for top 2018 rookie.
—Jonathan Wasserman, B/R NBA Draft writer
Worst New Contract Belongs to Tim Hardaway Jr.
It's vital for rebuilding teams to avoid clogging up their books with long, expensive contracts on unproven players, yet the New York Knicks did just that by investing $71 million in Tim Hardaway Jr.
That isn't to say Hardaway isn't a nice player. He'll be a productive scorer through his deal, but does he help the Knicks win games? Should New York even be trying to win?
Last year with the Atlanta Hawks, Hardaway averaged a career-best 14.5 points a game on 45.5 percent shooting, including 35.7 percent from three-point range. New York will pay nearly $18 million a year for a player better suited to be a sixth man on a playoff team rather than a starter putting up numbers on a team in limbo.
The Knicks still have too much invested in players like Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and the recently acquired Enes Kanter. The goal should be tearing down the roster and shedding contracts. Why tie up even more long-term money instead?
Several teams made questionable investments this offseason—specifically the Los Angeles Clippers if Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari can't stay healthy—but Hardaway's contract jumped out as a mistake the moment it was agreed upon.
—Eric Pincus, Lakers analyst
Joel Embiid Wins NBA Twitter, Instagram
Joel Embiid is winning NBA Twitter and Instagram this season. There's no doubt about it.
Between his Twitter beef with Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, telling opposing players they can't guard him or him yelling "I'm the GOAT" before draining shots in practice, Embiid has already made a case for himself as the league's social media MVP for 2017-18. And it isn't going to slow down.
After he missed most of his first three seasons due to foot and knee injuries, this will be the year Embiid remains healthy. As a result, expect fire tweets aplenty.
He'll be sure to go after at critics of his new five-year, $146.5 million max extension, too. So if your Twitter fingers get the best of you and Embiid fires back, don't say we didn't warn you.
—Omar Raja, House of Highlights
Warriors Are Your Champions, Curry Is Your Finals MVP
I'd love to go bold and contrarian here, to tell you that the Thunder/Celtics/Rockets/Cavs/Team of Your Choice will cradle the Larry O'Brien trophy next June. I would love to tell you that the NBA championship is up for grabs this season. I would love to write that. I really would.
But that bleep ain't the truth, as a certain scripture-quoting gangster once said.
The Golden State Warriors are going to win the title again. And though that might be a boring prediction (and outcome), it's also the only realistic one.
The Rockets will be potent with CP3 and the Beard. The Thunder's new Big Three of Russ-Melo-PG will be intriguing, as will the Celts' new Big Three of Kyrie-Gordon-Horford. The Cavs are still the Cavs, if a slightly older, weirder version.
But there isn't a single rational case to be made for any of them winning the title, unless that case involves the Warriors' team bus driving into a ditch, injuring Steph, KD, Klay and Dray. No team can match the Warriors' brilliant talent and chemistry.
So count on another confetti storm in Oakland—the third in four years—and a long-awaited Finals MVP trophy for Steph Curry. Why Curry, instead of a repeat by KD? I have no rational reason. I just wanted at least one piece of this prediction to be different.
—Howard Beck, senior writer