30 Bold Predictions for the Final Month of the 2015-16 NBA Season

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 12, 2016

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Crystal balls are hard to come by these days, what with Miss Cleo being off the air and all. Where else are NBA fans supposed to go for their late-season prognostications?

Well, right here, for one. There's plenty to forecast over the final month of the 2015-16 season. Playoff spots, league records and lottery balls are all up for grabs as the Association heads toward an exciting spring.

So rather than root around for hotline psychics to tell you what's in store for this year's photo finish, take a look at what we've picked out as strong probabilities for each of the NBA's 30 teams.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks Will Finish Stronger Than They Did Last Season

Mar 10, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Atlanta Hawks forward Al Horford (15) goes to the basket against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Hawks 104-96. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

What made the Hawks' 2014-15 campaign so remarkable wasn't just that they won 60 games but also how quickly they sprinted out ahead of the Eastern Conference. They had all but locked up the top seed with a month to go and finished seven games clear of the second-place Cleveland Cavaliers.

So, like any team in such a sturdy position, Atlanta opted to rest its star players liberally down the stretch. The result? A less than stellar 7-8 finish over the squad's final 15 games.

That may not seem like much of a mark for today's Hawks, at 38-29 after 67 games, to topple...until you consider that their remaining schedule is the toughest in the East by opponent winning percentage.

Still, the Hawks have the goods to be better than last year's group in at least one way, courtesy of another clear improvement: defense. As NumberFire's Russell Peddle pointed out, Atlanta, with the NBA's second-most efficient defense, has been particularly stingy whenever head coach Mike Budenholzer has called on his reserves:

When reigning Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer has gone to his bench, though, that's when the Hawks have been an elite defensive team. Every single other lineup that has gotten more than 20 minutes of floor time together over that 24-game span (10 iterations) has a Defensive Rating under 100.0.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics Will Scratch 50 Wins for the First Time in Five Years

Like the Denver Nuggets circa 2012-13, the Celtics are turning into the rare superstar-less squad that's capable of winning 50 games or more.

That's not meant as any disrespect toward Isaiah Thomas. The All-Star guard has risen through the game's ranks since arriving in Boston last season and has been on a tear since he returned from Toronto in mid-February (23.9 points, 6.2 assists).

But these C's are special because they lack a singularly dominant force, despite Danny Ainge's best efforts to bring one aboard. They've turned the TD Garden into as tough a place to play as anywhere outside of Oakland or San Antonio, with 14 straight wins on their home floor prior to Friday's loss against Houston.

Getting to 50 wins will be no cakewalk for Boston. But if the Celtics can win at least three of the five legs of their West Coast swing in late March and hold the fort at home, they should be able to secure the 11-5 finish they need to hit that mark. 


Brooklyn Nets

The Nets Will Make Danny Ainge a Saaaad Panda

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Every win for Brooklyn is a loss for the Boston Celtics—which means there could be some disappointment in Beantown during the coming weeks.

Thanks to the 2013 trade that sent Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Big Apple, the C's own the Nets' first-round pick in this year's draft...and next year's (via a pick swap)...and the year after that. For a while, it appeared as though Boston might luck its way into a shot at LSU's Ben Simmons, the presumed top prospect, by way of Brooklyn's futility.

And the Celtics still might by way of the draft lottery. But the Nets, a relatively robust 6-10 since Feb. 5, aren't making that prospect any more likely.

Nor do they figure to from here on out. Upcoming games against the Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans could yield a few wins.

If the Nets win enough of those games, they could fall behind (ahead?) of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the overall standings and leave the Celtics shy of a truly plum pick in what's expected to be a weak draft.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets Will Snag a Top-Four Seed

It's been 14 years since Charlotte had home-court advantage in the playoffs. That Hornets team, led by Eddie Jones and Derrick Coleman, won 49 games under head coach Paul Silas before losing to Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. 

This year's Charlotte squad would have to win 12 of its final 17 games to match that team's regular-season success. Such a pace isn't unheard of for these Hornets, who've won seven straight and posted an 18-5 record since Jan. 22.

There are enough cupcakes left on the schedule to help the Hornets sniff 50 wins and a position for the No. 4 seed in the East. Among Charlotte's remaining contests, 10 will come against those currently destined for the lottery, including two apiece against Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

As for the team currently ahead of the Hornets, the Miami Heat have eight games remaining against sub-.500 squads. With only a game-and-a-half separating Charlotte and Miami in the standings, that may be all the daylight the Hornets need to buzz up another spot.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls Will Miss the Playoffs for the First Time Since 2008

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 11:  Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat fights for position against Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls and Mike Dunleavy #34 of the Chicago Bulls on March 11, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expre
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Luck can be a fickle thing in basketball, and the Bulls haven't had much of it. They lost Joakim Noah to season-ending shoulder surgery back in January and have since battled through injuries to Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, among others.

Even without those absences, Chicago has suffered through enough issues to throw its playoff prospects into peril. The offense under new head coach Fred Hoiberg has been abysmal (26th in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com) while the defense, once the Bulls' calling card under Tom Thibodeau, has slipped to the fringe of the league's top 10.

In most years, merely finishing at or above .500 would be enough to snag a playoff spot in the East. But the conference's improvement in the middle has changed the calculus, with at least one team (which we'll discuss later) ready to pounce.

On the bright side, the last time Chicago missed the playoffs, it landed the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Channing Frye Will Be Cleveland's Most Effective Stretch-4

It's not that Channing Frye is a better basketball player than Kevin Love; he's nowhere near the same stratosphere as a rebounder, low-post operator and passer.

However, the role to which Love has long been relegated in Cleveland, as a tall guy who can spread the floor with his shooting and play pick-and-pop, is strikingly similar to the one Frye thrived in with the Suns.

He made serious hay in that spot during the Cavaliers' 120-108 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. With Love sidelined by a sore knee, Frye drained eight of 10 shots overall, including going 5-of-7 from three, on the way to a 21-point night.

The last time Love hit that many threes? Jan. 29 in an eight-point win against the Detroit Pistons.

As Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor noted, Frye's rise and Love's decline have been all too evident for the Cavs: "It's that shooting stroke that general manager David Griffin pointed out when acquiring the versatile big man; it's that stroke that has vanished from Love's repertoire recently."

Love may find his form again. Until he does, Frye may be a more effective option to play alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

Dallas Mavericks

Chandler Parsons, Not Dirk Nowitzki, Will Be Dallas' Biggest Catalyst

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 26: Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks gets a hand slap from teammate Chandler Parsons #25 during the NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The Mavericks
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Kudos to Dirk Nowitzki for all he's done to keep the Dallas Mavericks relevant and in the playoff picture this season. The giant German has averaged a sturdy 18.2 points per game while knocking down 38.8 percent of his threes—a notch above his career mark of 38.3 percent.

But Dallas' elder statesman needn't be Dallas' end-all, be-all, nor will he. Chandler Parsons is already doing his part to make sure the Mavs have no less than a dynamic duo to prop up their postseason prospects.

Since mid-January, Parsons has poured in 19.5 points on 52 percent shooting (48.1 percent from three) while racking up 5.9 rebounds and three assists per game. Clearly, the Florida product has recovered from offseason knee surgery. Otherwise, he wouldn't be playing the best ball of his NBA career.

The Mavericks will need plenty more of that from Parsons come playoff time to give one of the West's best a run for its money. 

Denver Nuggets

The World Will Realize That Nikola Jokic Is Denver's Best Prospect

Emmanuel Mudiay has been on a tear in March, averaging 19.7 points on 45.7 percent shooting (40.7 percent from three) with 3.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists. But he's done that work largely against lower-tier point guards—which, as yours truly recently noted, has been the rookie's bread and butter.

Nikola Jokic, on the other hand, has been schooling all comers for the Denver Nuggets this season. The 21-year-old Serbian rookie has been particularly prolific this month, with 13.3 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 combined blocks and steals per game in March.

The Nuggets were buzzing about Jokic's all-around skills well before he stepped into head coach Michael Malone's starting lineup. Now that Danilo Gallinari is done for the year with an ankle injury, Jokic's abilities will truly shine through in the Mile High City.

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons Will End Their Postseason Drought

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Can a prediction be bold if it reflects a present reality?

The Motor City hasn't seen playoff basketball since LeBron James' Cavaliers swept the Pistons out of the first round in 2009. Ending a drought that long requires a lot of luck and even more hard work.

The same is true for Detroit. The Bulls and Washington Wizards are both more experienced than these Pistons in the ways of postseason competition and won't go down without a fight.

But Detroit has the talent to get back to the promised land, with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond running pick-and-roll and Tobias Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope serving as scorers on the perimeter. With Stan Van Gundy's guiding hand and a home-centric schedule, including a nine-game stand at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pistons should have just enough to get across the finish line and into a seven-game series come mid-April.

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors Won't Top 72 Wins

In a roundabout way, Bleacher Report's Howard Beck and Ric Bucher agreed that the Warriors should try to claim the NBA's record for regular-season wins from the 1995-96 Bulls, who finished with a 72-10 mark behind Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

As of March 14, three games separated Golden State and San Antonio in the standings. Should any more daylight emerge between now and the final week or two of the season, don't be surprised if Steve Kerr starts resting his guys and the Warriors suffer on the court because of it.

"Resting, that will take precedence," Kerr told Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. "We will rest guys if they need it before we will go for any kind of streak or record, that's for sure."

Added Stephen Curry: "Honestly, if we are a 70-win team and champions versus a 73-win team and depleted energy and banged up going into the playoffs, we're trying to avoid that. But at the same token, it's a tough balance. How many times are you going to have this opportunity?"

That opportunity might show itself out, whether or not the Warriors start sitting their guys. They still have two games to play against the Blazers, three against the Spurs (including two in San Antonio), two against the Grizzlies, two with the Mavericks and one opposite the Clippers.

Avoiding more than three losses amid that gauntlet may be Golden State's tallest order to date.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets Will Climb into Sixth Place

For all their internal turmoil this season, the Houston Rockets are still replete with the sort of talent and experience that tends to show itself once winter thaws into spring.

James Harden and Dwight Howard may not be best buds, but the former remains a devastatingly skilled offensive operator and the latter is a force of nature on the glass and at the rim. Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Jason Terry aren't any less savvy. Clint Capela and Patrick Beverley haven't lost anything in terms of athleticism and defensive tenacity.

The pieces are all there for Houston to catch lightning in a bottle again. The remaining schedule, while no walk in the park, is both home-heavy (10 of 16 at the Toyota Center) and softer than those that the Mavericks and Blazers will be up against.

Indiana Pacers

Ty Lawson Will Be a Non-Factor for the Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 7: Ty Lawson #10 of the Indiana Pacers is seen during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on March 7, 2016 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
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How exactly would Ty Lawson leave his mark in Indianapolis?

The Pacers already have three productive, playmaking guards ahead of Lawson on the depth chart: George Hill, Monta Ellis and the recently returned Rodney Stuckey. He's ahead of Joe Young, who's probably a more promising part of Indy's future than Lawson will prove to be. To make matters worse, Lawson sprained his left ankle just five minutes into his first game as a Pacer.

In Houston, where the Rockets could have used Lawson's speed and on-ball abilities to lighten James Harden's load, the former Tar Heel barely registered a blip on the radar.

So, again, how exactly would Lawson make a dent in what the Pacers are doing?

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers Will Get Tired of Jeff Green, Too

Jeff Green is to the NBA what Russia once was to Winston Churchill: a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside a different jersey every year or so. Wherever he winds up, concerns about consistency are sure to follow, as they have now that Green is in L.A.

"We'd love for him to be more consistent," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, per the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner. "He will be. I'm confident in that. It's not like we eased him in. We grabbed him and threw him in."

Some of Green's inconsistency, while maddening, can be chalked up to his journeyman status. He's been party to three midseason trades since 2011, including each of the last two February deadlines. It's one thing to join a new team of one's own free will over the summer and go through a full training camp in the fall. It's another to get thrown into a brand-new mix, in the heat of a playoff race, with great expectations and even greater stakes.

That being said, Green's playing pattern has been as prevalent as ever with the Clippers. He hadn't scored in double figures in back-to-back games until putting up 23 points in Oklahoma City and 17 at home against the New York Knicks this past week.

The Clippers will need more from Green on both ends of the floor if they're to overtake the Thunder for No. 3 in the West and challenge the conference's top dogs come playoff time. If Green doesn't deliver, he'll probably have to pack his bags again in free agency this summer, despite his deep ties with Rivers dating back to their time together in Boston.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers' Young Nucleus Will Average Most of the Team's Points

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20:  Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers and D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the game against the Toronto Raptors on November 20, 2015 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER:
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Lakers' future is coming into focus, and it's looking brighter than it has in a long time.

Since March 1, D'Angelo Russell has averaged 20.9 points on 44.4 percent shooting (42.3 percent from three).

"Offensively he's playing at a very high level right now," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said of Russell, per Lakers Nation's Serena Winters.

Jordan Clarkson has chipped in 15.8 points, and Julius Randle has contributed 14.9 points. For those without a calculator handy, that's 51.6 points combined for Russell, Clarkson and Randle out of the 100.7 per game that L.A. has posted this month, albeit with Clarkson sitting out against Atlanta on March 4.

Still, it's no coincidence that those three are scoring in bunches for the Purple and Gold these days. They've all come a long way as NBA players on their own but have found more shots with Kobe Bryant trying to preserve his body for the stretch run.

That pattern figures to hold, much to the dismay of fans shelling out top dollar for seats at Staples Center. Of the 11 games Bryant has missed since announcing his retirement in late November, 10 have come at home, where the Lakers will play nine of their final 15 contests.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies Will Hang Onto the West's Fifth Seed

The Memphis Grizzlies are more M.A.S.H. unit than basketball team these days.

They recently cut Mario Chalmers after he tore his Achilles and are now pressing forward while Mike Conley Jr. recovers from tendonitis in his Achilles. Chris Andersen, acquired at the trade deadline, is out indefinitely after injuring his shoulder.

Meanwhile, Marc Gasol has been out since mid-February with a broken foot and his front-court buddy, Zach Randolph, has been battling a bum knee of late.

The scheduling gods haven't done the Grizzlies any favors, either. Before the season is through, they'll play twice more against the San Antonio Spurs, Clippers and Warriors.

All of which means Memphis must be dead in the water...right?

Maybe not. The Grizzlies won nine of their first 13 games sans Gasol to move five-and-a-half games clear of the sixth-place Portland Trail Blazers. Memphis may have a tough time closing the three-and-a-half-game between it and L.A. at No. 4, but even if the Grizzlies stumble down the stretch, they should fall face-first into an opening-round matchup with the Clips.

Hopefully, just in time for Z-Bo and Blake Griffin to renew their playoff niceties.

Miami Heat

The Heat Will Emerge as Cleveland's Stiffest Conference Competition

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Miami's season-long struggle to find a good fit among all its disparate parts may finally have reached a resolution. The Heat have pivoted toward a more uptempo style of play, one that's right up Goran Dragic's alley, and have started ripping off victories accordingly.

Erik Spoelstra's squad has won 15 of 22 games since Jan. 22 while racking up the league's 15th-most possessions per game, per NBA.com. That's still miles away from Warriors territory, but it represents a significant jump from 29th up until that point in the calendar.

Better yet, the Heat have managed to push the pace while continuing to clamp down defensively.

"It's the expectations on defense, too," Spoelstra told the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Dave Hyde."We're not just running up and down. We're not just trying to run a shootout. We still expect to defend at a high level, defensively. And that requires a lot of effort."

That effort could pay off in a big way against a plodding, isolation-oriented Cavaliers team come playoff time.

With Chris Bosh on the mend and the institutional knowledge the Heat have on LeBron James, Miami might soon have enough of its top players healthy to push the East's presumptive champion. 

Milwaukee Bucks

The Greek Freak Will (Almost) Average a Triple-Double

Two years ago at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Jason Kidd suggested that Giannis Antetokounmpo might one day run the point for the Milwaukee Bucks.

"We’ve seen it in practice, and so when you see a player’s comfort level with the ball no matter what size, we want to see it in game action and we slowly have started letting him have the ball and running the offense," Kidd said, per NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper.

Apparently, Antetokounmpo has come far enough since then to earn that job full time in Milwaukee. He's seized that role by the horns since Michael Carter-Williams succumbed to a season-ending hip injury in late February.

During his first eight games in MCW's stead, the Greek Freak averaged 21.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists, with three triple-doubles to boot. As ESPN's Zach Lowe noted, Point Giannis can create all kinds of nightmares for the Bucks' opponents:

He already knows basic point guard reads, and when Jason Kidd wants to keep things simple, he can have Antetokounmpo attack one-on-one. Is a smaller guy on you? Post up! Is the opposing power forward on you, as often happens when Kidd removes Parker and pairs Antetokounmpo with just one big man? Then catch the ball at the elbow and blow by that sucker!

With O.J. Mayo now done for the year as well, the Bucks figure to shift even more perimeter responsibilities—and, thus, more opportunities to stuff the stat sheet—Antetokounmpo's way.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Kevin Garnett Will Retire at Season's End

Paul Battaglia/Associated Press

This isn't based on any inside information. Consider this more of a semi-educated guess.

You don't need to know what's going on inside Kevin Garnett's head to see where things are headed. He hasn't played since late January due to a nagging leg injury and played a mere 14.6 minutes per game as a token starter at power forward before then.

Garnett's absence has cleared the way for Gorgui Dieng to put his stamp on a frontcourt spot next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Since returning to the starting lineup in late January, Dieng has averaged 13.8 points on 58.2 percent shooting with 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.6 combined steals and blocks.

KG has never been the sort to go quietly and may not do the same with $8 million left on his contract for next season. But with his own health clearly in decline and the Minnesota Timberwolves finding their way without him, Garnett may have a difficult time ignoring the writing on the wall.

New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis Won't Rest Much

Alvin Gentry recently admitted publicly what everyone already knew—that the New Orleans Pelicans aren't making the playoffs—before apologizing for speaking out of frustration, however truthfully.

The point remains the same: The Pelicans would be hard-pressed to leapfrog the Rockets, Utah Jazz, Nuggets and Sacramento Kings, especially with Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans both done for the reason.

Normally, it would only be a matter of time until Anthony Davis started racking up DNPs, hopefully by choice. The newly turned 23-year-old has a history of fragility, and with the season already too far gone, the Pelicans may not want to risk subjecting their young star to another setback.

Then again, The Brow will probably push to play, in part to improve his slim prospects of nabbing the All-NBA nod he needs to bump up his five-year, $125 million extension another notch. With an extra $19 million at stake, you can bet Davis won't take any rest days sitting down.


New York Knicks

Kurt Rambis Won't Help His Cause on the Court

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The New York Knicks have won just five games out of their first 14 with Kurt Rambis as interim coach. They'll be lucky to win more than that over their final 14 outings.

Their current six-game road trip will conclude with stops in Oakland and Washington, with dates against the Bulls (twice), Cavaliers, Mavericks, Pacers (twice) and Raptors still to come. With any luck, the Knicks will hold their own against the Lakers, Kings, Pelicans, Nets and 76ers, though even those could be iffy given how the team has performed.

Fortunately for Rambis, he may have Phil Jackson's support no matter how the rest of the campaign unfolds. As Jackson explained, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola:

I think he’s perfectly capable of [coaching the Knicks]. We’ve talked many times over the past four or five years about the obvious record that is created behind his coaching in Minnesota and that puts a black mark on his coaching ability at first glance.

But he has a way of handling players. He’s relaxed, yet he has the ability to keep them focused on the important parts of it. He’s a defensive-oriented guy. I had him as my defensive coordinator for my teams in 2007, '08 and '09. And I think he has a real good handle on that part. So we’ll see how they go


Oklahoma City Thunder

Enes Kanter Will Be the Favorite for Sixth Man of the Year

In truth, this is more of a season-long outcome than a final-month prediction. Enes Kanter has been a productive force off the bench for the Oklahoma City Thunder throughout 2015-16. He's averaged 12 points and 7.7 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per contest.

To put that in perspective, he'd be pouring in 21.1 points and 13.6 rebounds each night if he were a 36-minute-per-game guy. Instead, he's taken a back seat to Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams in OKC—and to Will Barton and Andre Iguodala in the Sixth Man of the Year race, at least until now.

Russell Westbrook recently proclaimed without prompting, per the Oklahoman's Anthony Slater

In my opinion, Enes is probably the Sixth Man of the year. I think he gets overlooked, man, and to me it doesn’t make any sense. The things he does on a night in, night out basis at his position, coming off the bench, shooting top-five field goal percentage, man, damn near averaging a double-double off the bench. To me, ain’t nobody off the bench that plays better than him.

Kanter will have every opportunity to show as much to those who vote on the award (i.e. the media) with three games against the size-centric San Antonio Spurs still to come.


Orlando Magic

Aaron Gordon Will Establish Himself as Orlando's Centerpiece

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 7: Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic shoots against the Golden State Warriors during the game on March 7, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier have each made strides, however incremental, for the Orlando Magic this season. Nikola Vucevic has produced like an All-Star for the last two seasons or so. 

None of those guys can hold a candle to the prodigious potential that Aaron Gordon brings to the table—and not just because he can pull off windmill dunks in actual NBA games.

Since barging into Scott Skiles' starting lineup in late January, the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft, has averaged 11.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists with nine double-doubles. The same ability that helped him push Zach LaVine in the dunk contest has allowed Gordon to become an all-court contributor and, in the process, turn ESPN's Zach Lowe into a fan:

On the right nights, Gordon is the most electric nonsuperstar in the NBA—an unmatched brew of bouncy athleticism and earnest, gleeful effort. Those dunk-contest hops translate into noisy putback crams and flying ninja closeouts where Gordon emerges from off camera to swat a jump-shooter who had no idea Gordon was even nearby.

The more Air Gordon learns to harness his jaw-dropping gifts, the more clearly he'll separate himself from the rest of Orlando's young whippersnappers.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers Will Suffer Their Worst Finish Yet of the Sam Hinkie Era

The Philadelphia 76ers have all but wrapped up their worst showing since the Sam Hinkie regime took over. They'd need to win nine of their final 16 games to match last season's 18 victories, which fell one shy of the 19 they tallied in year one under Hinkie and head coach Brett Brown.

Last season, Philly finished 3-13 down the stretch. The year before, the team went 4-12 over that same span.

How the Sixers will equal even that meager mark is a mystery. They'll spend the rest of the season without Jahlil Okafor, who's due to have arthroscopic surgery on his knee, and have just six games remaining against sub-.500 competition.

Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker Will Be Phoenix's Cornerstone, Both Now and Moving Forward

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In terms of pound-for-pound ability, nobody can quite hold a candle to Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix. When healthy, the 26-year-old Kentucky product is a marvel of strength and athleticism who can scour the entire court, get to the hoop at will and lock down opponents of all shapes and sizes.

But health has been fleeting for Bledsoe. His 2015-16 season ended in December when he tore the same meniscus that had sidelined him previously.

The silver lining is that Devin Booker, the youngest player in the NBA, has played like a budding stud in Bledsoe's stead. In March alone, he's averaged 24.7 points and 5.3 assists, including three games of 32 points or more and a 27-point, nine-assist showing in Miami.

"I was impressed with him the first time we played him, and I'm very impressed tonight," Dwyane Wade said after that game, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. "When you've got a young guy going through a tough season like that, he's just out there having fun. He's out there getting better, and he's one of the future [top] 2-guards in this league."

So long as Booker continues to produce and injuries remain the defining features of Bledsoe and Brandon Knight as Suns, the 19-year-old rookie will look every bit the future of the franchise in Phoenix.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers Will Hang on as the West's No. 8 Seed

The Portland Trail Blazers have come back to earth after their rocket ride up the Western Conference standings. They lost three straight to likely Eastern playoff teams to end a six-game road swing.

This, after racking up an 18-4 mark against a fairly soft schedule.

The trips down Easy Street will be few and far between from here on out for the Blazers. After a back-to-back in Oakland and at home against Orlando, Portland will head back on the road to Oklahoma City, San Antonio, New Orleans and Dallas before welcoming the Mavericks to Rip City and taking on the Clippers in L.A. the very next night.

That brutal schedule, along with the heavy loads lifted by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum thus far, figure to drag Portland down from its previous high in the West's No. 6 spot.

Not that anyone would argue with watching the Blazers' backcourt go toe-to-toe with the Splash Brothers in Round 1.


Sacramento Kings

DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl Will Get into It

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 23:  Head coach George Karl of the Sacramento Kings talks to DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings as they face the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on February 23, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Kings defeated the Nuggets 114-11
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

OK, so maybe this isn't such a bold prediction. After all, the Sacramento Kings just suspended DeMarcus Cousins one game for unloading on George Karl during and after a 120-11 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, per The Vertical's Chris Mannix.

This, after Boogie verbally abused his head coach following a defeat in San Antonio in late November.

To be sure, Karl isn't blameless in all this. Nor is Cousins the only player who may have beef with him. Just ask rookie center Willie Cauley-Stein.

Still, you'd think that after all the mudslinging and financial penalties that have incurred, Cousins and Karl would come to some sort of ceasefire, at least until the season is over. Then again, the only constant in Sacramento these days is chaos, and the team's two biggest personalities have added plenty of volatility to the mix.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs' Home Winning Streak Will End

San Antonio has ripped off 41 straight home wins—by an average of more than 16 points per game—since succumbing to the Cavaliers in overtime last March, 128-125. At some point, Gregg Popovich will leave the AT&T Center in a surly mood—and not just because of some sideline interview through which he's had to suffer.

Of the Spurs' nine remaining home games, only one (vs. the Pelicans on March 30) will feature a lottery-bound opponent. They'll host the Warriors twice while welcoming the Clippers, Blazers, Heat, Grizzlies, Raptors and Thunder.

This San Antonio team may be good enough to sweep through those contests to keep pace with Golden State's record-setting home success. But between the quality of competition and rest days for stars, the Spurs figure to lose at least once in the Alamo City before beginning their playoff push. 

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors Will Steal the No. 1 Seed in the East

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 06:  DeMar DeRozan #10 and Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors look on during the second half of an NBA game against the Houston Rockets at the Air Canada Centre on March 06, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expre
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The Toronto Raptors have every reason to go full-bore after the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

They've yet to win a playoff series with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the way. Moving up a spot would, in theory, match them up with the East's weakest playoff competition in the first round rather than leave them to face a threat like the Indiana Pacers early on.

Should they advance, the Raptors could count on using their raucous home court at the Air Canada Centre to their advantage, be it against the Heat or Hornets in Round 2 or opposite the Cavaliers in the conference finals.

Cleveland, on the other hand, seems to be battling discord and boredom at every turn. In all likelihood, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue will take liberties to rest his stars down the stretch, knowing full well that having his guys healthy and refreshed heading into another championship chase far outweighs any seeding concerns.

Toronto, meanwhile, could get another boost of its own. According to TSN's Josh Lewenberg, DeMarre Carroll is close to returning from knee surgery. He should help the Raptors close the two-and-a-half-game gap between them and the Cavaliers.

And if the two teams end the season with identical records, Toronto will get the edge by way of 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker with Cleveland.

Utah Jazz

Utah Will Wish It Had Done Better Than Shelvin Mack at the Deadline

The Utah Jazz have been plagued by problems at the point all season. Some of that was to be expected with Dante Exum going down via knee injury before 2015-16 tipped off.

The Jazz hoped to solve some of that with Shelvin Mack's arrival in Salt Lake City at the deadline. Instead, Utah dropped eight of its first 12 games with Mack, the last 11 of which featured him in the starting lineup.

The Salt Lake Tribune's Gordon Monson wrote that the Jazz's issues aren't all Mack's doing:

By the numbers alone, Burke should be the starter at point. There are whispers, though, that there are reasons beyond what happens on the court that Burke is not the starter.

Blaming Mack for the Jazz's bump and skid would be unfair and erroneous, but it causes one to wonder if the very thing that Dennis Lindsey has tried to run away from — a disruption of chemistry — has stirred into the club's mix. Maybe the disruption was already there.

Still, some folks in Utah will be left kicking themselves at season's end, wondering what could have been had the front office done a better job of handling the Jazz's hole at the point. 

Washington Wizards

Bradley Beal Will Get Paid the Same, No Matter How Much (or Little) He Plays

WASHINGTON, DC -  MARCH 5: Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards shoots the ball against the Indiana Pacers on March 5, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using th
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Injuries continue to define Bradley Beal's snakebitten NBA career thus far. He missed a month of action between December and January with another fracture in his leg and has sat out the Washington Wizards' last three games with a hip pointer.

To keep the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft out of harms way, head coach Randy Wittman moved Beal to the bench, where he averaged 15.8 points in 25.7 minutes per game.

Yet, for all the concerns about Beal's physical viability as a bona fide star, he still figures to cash in this summer, per the New Orleans Times-Picayune's John Reid:

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, but it is a good probability the Washington Wizards are going to match any offer Beal receives this summer as a restricted free agent.

How could that be? For one, Beal won't turn 23 until late June. He still has time to strengthen his body and improve his game.

That game has already proven to be promising when he's healthy enough to show it off. Beal's three-point percentage has dipped a bit this season, but his uptick on shots inside the arc—where the game's superstars still reign supreme—portends an All-Star caliber future for the Wizards' young sharpshooter.

In today's three-point obsessed league, shooters of Beal's caliber—especially ones who can put the ball on the deck and run pick-and-roll like he can—are more valuable than ever. With the salary cap set to spike this summer, Beal figures to bite off a substantial chunk of Washington's apple, even if he's only intermittently able to suit up during the Wizards' final 17 games of 2015-16.

All stats accurate entering games on March 14, 2016.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter(@JoshMartinNBA), Instagram and Facebook.


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