17 Bold Predictions for the 2016-17 NBA Season
If you have any predictions about the upcoming NBA season, you’d better lay them down now. Once the Cleveland Cavaliers tip off their title defense against the New York Knicks next Tuesday, the 2016-17 campaign will officially be underway.
In many ways, it could turn out to be the most predictable season in a long time. The Golden State Warriors look like prohibitive favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy now that Kevin Durant is in their employ. At the very least, they should see the Cleveland Cavaliers in a third straight Finals, lest anyone rises up to rival LeBron James in the Eastern Conference. Forecasting any other outcome might as well be a fool’s errand.
But picking between only those two heavyweights, while it's totally logical and completely defensible, can also be boring. Why not be bold in the face of inevitability? And why not be similarly bold when considering a whole host of questions that aren’t tied to another Dubs-Cavs sequel?
In anticipation of what’s to come in 2016-17, let’s boldly go where just about everyone has gone before (i.e. guessing how an NBA season will turn out) and see if we can come up with more interesting answers.
LeBron James Will Have Plenty of MVP Competition...on His Own Team
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant won’t be the only superstar teammates to split MVP votes this season.
LeBron James is the odds-on favorite to take home his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy, at least according to the latest general manager survey from NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. But with Kyrie Irving on the cusp of greatness, James' place in the race might not even be unanimous within his own locker room.
Irving, whose star has been on the rise since he landed in Cleveland as 2011's No. 1 pick, has recently kicked his ascent into high gear. He was vital to the Cavs' slaying of the city’s long-standing championship drought, averaging 25.2 points during the 2016 playoffs and hitting the shot over Curry that gave Cleveland a victory in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. Irving scored a more modest 11.4 points per game for Team USA this past summer but led the squad in assists (4.9 per game) en route to Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro.
James, on the other hand, took the summer off from USA Basketball. And while his latest Finals performance will go down as one of the greatest of all time, the 31-year-old will need all the rest he can rustle up during the regular season to make sure he’s fresh and ready to go come April, May and June.
It’s possible, then, that Irving will spend more nights on center stage in Cleveland, with James slipping into something of a supporting role. James has played a part in preparing Irving for that shift and may be complicit in his struggle within the MVP race.
"LeBron has showed him the right way—and he has the respect of being a champion before and being the best player in the league for several years, carrying the league," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue told Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding. "What better mentor could you have?"
Should Irving’s excellence cost James an MVP, it would be more a feather in the latter’s cap than a thorn in his award-seeking side.
These Cavs Will Be the Best Team LeBron James Has Ever Played on
While Kyrie Irving’s maturation into a superstar might hurt LeBron’s chances at individual glory, it should only help to keep him in the championship chase for the duration of his NBA career. That includes this season, with the Cavaliers fielding what could be the best team on which James has yet played.
The best one to date would be the 2012-13 Miami Heat. That team, with a prime James flanked by three future Hall of Famers (Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen), won 66 regular-season games, including 27 straight, and upended the San Antonio Spurs during an epic seven-game Finals.
This year’s Cavs, while not as top-heavy on talent as those Heat, will be plenty deep. Beyond stars such as Irving and Kevin Love, Cleveland will bring back key contributors in Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Channing Frye while adding a veteran sharpshooter (Mike Dunleavy Jr.) and another LeBron confidant (Chris Andersen) to the mix.
Like that Miami squad, this Cleveland group will be coming off back-to-back Finals appearances, capped off by a successful title run. The Cavs should be just as confident and come equipped with even more upside now that Tyronn Lue, who took over after David Blatt’s midseason ouster, has had a whole offseason and training camp to put his stamp on things. Lue told NBA.com’s David Aldridge:
"With us, I just think we have a lot of time to work and focus on execution. Last year, we executed, but I think now we can even execute at a higher level. We know exactly what we’re looking for when we run plays, the first, second, third, fourth option. Guys are picking that up. Just talking to our video guys, they’re like, "We look like we’re running things a lot better this year."
That doesn’t mean this team will afford James his best shot ever at a title, not with the star-studded Warriors looming over the league. But in terms of regular-season wins and collective ability across the board, these Cavs could challenge any previous James-led club on the court.
Warriors Will Challenge for Title of Most Efficient Offensive Team Ever
The Warriors will be chasing the greatest teams of all time, especially when it comes to stomping on opponents.
According to Basketball Reference, the 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers averaged a best-ever 115.6 points per 100 possessions. Last year’s Warriors round out the top 10 at 114.5 points per 100 possessions. That was with Harrison Barnes starting at small forward and Festus Ezeli as the first big off the bench.
Swap those two out for Kevin Durant and David West, respectively, and Golden State should do more than sniff the Showtime Lakers’ record for offensive efficiency.
Durant’s playmaking prowess will add yet another poison for the Warriors' opponents to choose. So, too, will the combined shooting ability of Durant (out to three-point range) and West (to 20 feet).
And where Golden State’s foes once hoped to gum up the offense by slowing things down, the Warriors can now thrive under all circumstances by dumping the ball to their two biggest acquisitions in the low post—largely uncharted territory for Steve Kerr’s squad.
With so many ways to slice and dice through defenses, the Dubs should have the goods to get buckets wherever, whenever and however they please.
Rockets and Warriors Will Both Top Their Own Three-Point Records
The Warriors won’t have the only record-setting offense around: The Houston Rockets could enter the history books as well.
The James Harden-era Rockets can already claim the most three-point attempts (2,680) and second-most makes (933) ever registered in a single season. That was back in 2014-15, when Dwight Howard was still on the team and before Mike D’Antoni brought his spread pick-and-roll offense to Space City. With Howard gone and D’Antoni at the controls, the Rockets can comfortably eschew any pretense of playing through the low post.
They’ll have the personnel to make it work too. With snipers such as Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon joining Harden and Trevor Ariza on the roster, and with Clint Capela and Nene now diving to the rim, Houston should launch long-range looks as early and as often as any team yet has.
The Warriors have the goods to be just as prolific, if not more so.
Last season, they became the first team to make 1,000 threes in a single season when they finished with 1,077. This year, they’ll have arguably the three best shooters in basketball (i.e. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson) on one squad. Assuming the offense is firing on all cylinders, at least one of those trio figures to find a wide-open look from three on just about every possession.
In other words, the Warriors and Rockets will have plenty of competition when it comes to smashing three-point attempts and makes.
Kevin Durant Will Come Off Better, Not Worse, for Having Joined the Warriors
Winning solves everything in sports, including unpopular choices. For Kevin Durant, on-court success will be just the beginning of his redemption. A championship would do plenty to validate his decision to leave Oklahoma City and chase a title in the Bay Area.
It would also reinforce the argument among detractors that KD took the easy way out by stacking the deck in Golden State’s favor.
Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and their cohort might still lament what Durant’s legacy could have been had he led a small-market team to the top of the basketball world. But what if KD’s time with the Warriors strengthens his legacy? Winning a title or two (or more) would invariably do that.
LeBron James’ standing within the sport wasn’t at all tarnished by his time in Miami. Sure, his public image took a hit when he initially took his talents to South Beach, but after four years with the Heat, he had not only won two titles but done so after entrenching himself ahead of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami’s pecking order.
Durant may have an even greater opportunity to cement his place within his own generation.
Curry is a two-time MVP and a scoring champion and might already be the greatest shooter in NBA history. Klay Thompson is a two-time All-Star and All-NBA performer who could wind up as the second-best shooter ever. Draymond Green became an All-Star and an All-NBA selection last season. This trio got a title together, won 73 games and built a budding dynasty.
And yet, Durant might be the most talented player in Golden State’s employ. His 7-foot frame and guard-like ability to shoot, pass and dribble attest to that. So do his six All-NBA selections, seven All-Star teams, four scoring titles and 2014 MVP award.
Rare is the player who could force such a historic team to reconfigure its hierarchy on his account. Durant is one such rarity, and while he may be reluctant to rise to that level right away, once he does, his greatness among his peers and within the annals of NBA lore will shine through more clearly than ever.
Oklahoma City Thunder Will Miss the Playoffs
Kevin Durant may not want his old teammates to suffer in his wake, but the Oklahoma City Thunder falling from within reach of the Finals last year to the brink of the lottery this year would add an even finer point to the notion that his legacy isn’t any worse off in Golden State.
The Thunder have already been banged up during the preseason: Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson are all back after missing time, but Cameron Payne and rookie Alex Abrines remain on the shelf with injuries of their own.
Even at full strength, OKC will have plenty of weaknesses for opponents to pick apart. There’s rookie Domantas Sabonis’ inexperience at power forward, Andre Roberson’s subpar offensive acumen at small forward and the unreadiness of the Thunder’s other guards to generate offense when Russell Westbrook sits.
And that’s to say nothing of how Durant’s absence will affect Westbrook. No longer will he have as much space to drive the ball or shoot without KD around to occupy defenders, be it as an active pick-and-roll partner or a passive perimeter shooter. Instead, he’ll have to work harder to create inferior scoring chances for lesser offensive weapons.
We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the Russell Westbrook Solo Experience before. After Durant went down during the 2014-15 season, Westbrook averaged 31.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 9.9 assists and 2.0 steals but shot just 41.7 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from three. The Thunder went 15-12 in those 27 games—a respectable mark but not good enough to crack the top eight out West.
That OKC team had to adapt to life without Durant on the fly. This year’s squad has had some time to do so, but it failed to find even a half-hearted small forward replacement in free agency and gave up another member of its core (Serge Ibaka) before KD took his show on the road.
All the while, the retooling Thunder will have to contend with a handful of teams in the West (i.e., the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves) that are looking to crack a crowded playoff picture. OKC will need all the luck it can muster from its pared-down roster to avoid spending a second spring without postseason basketball in the last three.
James Harden, Russell Westbrook Will Challenge for Scoring and Assist Titles
Playoffs or no, the Durant-less Thunder should be a boon to Russell Westbrook’s production.
He averaged nearly a triple-double with more than 30 points per game sans KD two seasons ago. If Westbrook scores at or near that clip and logs double-digit assists, he should find himself in the thick of both the scoring and assist races.
Who might he find there? His old teammate, James Harden. Under Mike D’Antoni’s tutelage in Houston, Harden will have ample opportunity to score for himself and set up teammates for buckets.
"With James you make a joke he's a 'points guard' because he's going to score some points," D'Antoni said, per ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins.
Harden is already well-versed in that regard: He’s finished among the league’s top five scorers every year since OKC traded him to the Rockets.
He’s also paced Houston in assists during each of the last three seasons, topping out at 7.5 per game in 2015-16. As the tip of D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll spear, Harden should see a significant jump in successful dimes.
That could put Harden in the running for the league lead in points and assists, along with Westbrook. Nobody has pulled off that feat since 1972-73, when Tiny Archibald did it with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings.
This season could see two superstars gun for it at the same time.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Will Lead the League in Triple-Doubles
James Harden and Russell Westbrook will rack up plenty of triple-doubles during their respective rampages. Last season, Westbrook led the league with 18 of them. Harden logged three of his own.
By the end of 2016-17, both will be looking up at Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Like those two, The Greek Freak will be running point. But Harden and Westbrook aren’t 7-footers. Antetokounmpo is.
His size and length, when combined with his athleticism and ball skills, make Antetokounmpo a potential triple-double machine. From the time he took over as the Milwaukee Bucks' top floor general after the 2016 All-Star break, he averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists, posting five triple-doubles over his final 28 games.
And that was just his audition for the position.
With Michael Carter-Williams now in Chicago and Khris Middleton potentially done for the year, Milwaukee will need Antetokounmpo to be its offense often enough for him to hit double-digit points and assists plenty. He should snatch his fair share of rebounds as well just by being a big guy who spends a lot of time around the rim.
There will be growing pains, but that would be the case for most 21-year-olds in the NBA. The payoff could come in the form of stuffed stat sheets after wins.
There Will Be at Least One New International All-Star
The NBA is dire need of another international revolution. With Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker on the decline and Marc Gasol coming off a major injury, the league has seen its store of foreign All-Stars shrink from a pool of talent into a puddle.
Fortunately for the Association, help is on the way.
Andrew Wiggins (Canada) is already a 20-point-per-game scorer. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) will have the ball in his hands aplenty as Milwaukee's point man. Steven Adams (New Zealand), Rudy Gobert (France) and Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania) will all play vital roles as starting centers on playoff-caliber clubs. Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia) brought the buzz back to Madison Square Garden last season, and Dennis Schroder (Germany) could do the same in Atlanta as Jeff Teague’s replacement and Dwight Howard’s biggest benefactor.
Goran Dragic (Slovenia) has been around the Association a while longer than those guys but might finally be on the cusp of an All-Star-caliber role this season, be it without Dwyane Wade in Miami or as the lead guard elsewhere. Nicolas Batum (France) and Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro) could both produce enough for improving teams to garner consideration.
Someone—anyone—from that group should sneak into the All-Star Game come February. ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe found room for Antetokounmpo in the East:
The path isn't easy for the Greek Freak, even though he might come closer than Russell Westbrook to averaging a triple-double. Fans will probably vote LeBron, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony into the three starting Eastern Conference "frontcourt" spots, leaving Antetokounmpo to battle Paul Millsap, Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Nicolas Batum, Nikola Vucevic and a bunch of others for one of five backup slots.
Perhaps Adams’ starring role next to Russell Westbrook in OKC will net him the numbers he needs to get to New Orleans. Or Porzingis will overtake Anthony’s popularity in New York.
Either way, look for a wider variety of flags to fly at the All-Star Game in the near future.
Joel Embiid Will Be Rookie of the Year
As for the next, next wave of basketball imports, the Philadelphia 76ers have cornered the market. Ben Simmons (Australia) could be the NBA’s next great star, regardless of nationality, once he gets healthy. Dario Saric (Croatia) has shown a solid feel for the game in the preseason, despite his shot coming and going.
For now, Philly’s best bet to break out early—and take home Rookie of the Year honors—is Joel Embiid. The 7'2" center out of Cameroon has made the most of limited exhibition time, averaging 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 14.2 minutes per game. After watching Embiid work his way back from a foot injury over consecutive seasons, the Sixers eased him into game action: 12-14 minutes apiece in his first five outings, nearly 20 during his sixth.
"I think he’s really trying to push himself," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said, per CSN Philly’s Jessica Camerato. "I feel like he is on track to arrive to opening night in a really good place."
That could mean as many as 24 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Oct. 26, per CSN Philly.
Embiid will need to increase his stamina considerably if he’s going to compete for rookie honors. But the ability is there, as is the path to a trophy.
The incoming rookies appear to comprise one of the weaker classes in recent memory, with the top prospects either injured (Simmons) or coming off the bench (Brandon Ingram, Kris Dunn). Combine that with the Sixers’ vacuum of production, and Embiid could wind up as the last man standing in the Rookie of the Year race.
Tom Thibodeau Will Win Coach of the Year
Among members of the Timberwolves organization, Tom Thibodeau looks like the odds-on favorite to bring home hardware of some sort.
Thibs has all the ingredients needed to nab his second Coach of the Year award. His acumen is already highly respected around the league, with 60 percent of general managers singling him out as the best defensive schemer in basketball.
It helps that the T-Wolves team he’s taking over is loaded with young talent. A 15-to-20-win improvement over last season’s 29 could be well within reach if Minnesota’s core stays healthy to improve on its own and adapt to Thibodeau’s defensive dictates.
An end to the Wolves’ 12-year playoff drought would do no worse than thrust Thibs into the awards discussion. Doing so as a top-five seed in the West might make him the prohibitive favorite for Coach of the Year.
Even if Thibs doesn’t come away with another hunk of metal for his mantel, he’ll be revered around the Land of 10,000 Lakes if he can bring playoff basketball back to Minneapolis.
DeAndre Jordan Will Be Defensive Player of the Year
DeAndre Jordan has ranked among the league leaders in blocks and rebounds for the last three seasons. At the end of the last two, he’s finished among the top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
This year, Jordan might finally break through after all his knocking at the door.
The 28-year-old has settled nicely into his role as a terror around the rim for the Los Angeles Clippers. He comes into 2016-17 equipped with all kinds of confidence, courtesy of consecutive All-NBA and All-Defensive selections and Olympic gold with Team USA this past summer.
Jordan, whose Iron Man streak came to an end on account of illness last season, will put up the numbers necessary to nab some DPOY votes. The rest of the Clippers will have to hold up their end of the bargain by playing elite defense around him.
That shouldn’t be an issue for this squad.
L.A. finished fifth in defensive efficiency last season following a slow start. The Clippers should start the coming campaign on a much stronger foot defensively, giving Jordan the foundation he needs to seize the same hardware that Kawhi Leonard has had in his clutches for two seasons.
The San Antonio Spurs Will Struggle to Keep Their 50-Win Streak Alive
Every year, the San Antonio Spurs look to be nearing their expiration date. And every year, they come back as strong as ever, if not stronger. So long as Tim Duncan was the Spurs’ backstop, that proved to be true.
But Duncan is retired now. Soon enough, San Antonio’s streak of 50-win seasons might be, too.
The Spurs won at least that many games during each of Duncan’s non-lockout campaigns. They even managed to win 50 in 2011-12, when a locked sliced 16 contests off the usual schedule.
Last season, San Antonio won a franchise-record 67 before bowing out of the second round of the playoffs against the Thunder. During that series, OKC exposed the Spurs for what they are: an aging juggernaut in need of some youth and athleticism.
They won’t get much of either from Pau Gasol and David Lee, who project as defensive downgrades from Duncan and David West. Rookie Dejounte Murray could be the future floor general in San Antonio, but he will need a few years to find his footing before he’s ready to replace the 34-year-old Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili is back for another go-round at age 39, with the Spurs auditioning other Argentinians during the preseason.
Kawhi Leonard, a potential MVP candidate, might be the only source of strength for San Antonio by season’s end. According to ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan on CSNNE.com's Early Edition (h/t News4SanAntonio.com), LaMarcus Aldridge could even be on the move at some point.
That all would mark more turmoil than the Spurs have seen in some time. The league isn’t teeming with top-notch teams, but with so many on the come-up, there might not be many walkover wins for San Antonio to sweep up during its season of transition.
Big Trades Are on the Horizon
LaMarcus Aldridge could have plenty of company on the trading block by the time the February deadline rolls around.
The Denver Nuggets have a host of more mature talent, highlighted by Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried, that doesn’t fit the developmental timelines of their young prospects and who might not want to wait for the wins to come back.
The Phoenix Suns like Tyson Chandler’s cultural fit in their locker room but might find it more fruitful to clear space for Alex Len at center once that rebuilding feeling sets in. They also likely can't keep both high-priced point guards—Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight—if it means the latter is always having to play behind the former.
The Sacramento Kings will open the Golden 1 Center with DeMarcus Cousins in the middle but might have to face facts and move him if yet another season goes by the wayside early. That’s not counting Rudy Gay’s desire to leave Sacramento, be it as a free agent next summer or via trade before then.
The NBA’s trade market has already been abuzz during the preseason, with Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Snell swapping spots between Milwaukee and Chicago. Now that teams have seen what the new TV deal hath wrought on their balance sheets as far as new contracts are concerned, there could be more of a push to acquire talent that’s still tethered to older, cheaper pacts.
The Atlanta Hawks’ Playoff Streak Will Come to an End
The Atlanta Hawks lost a franchise stalwart of their own when Al Horford signed with the Boston Celtics. Unlike the Thunder sans Kevin Durant, the Hawks didn’t walk out of the summer empty-handed, with Dwight Howard coming home to take over at center.
Howard’s arrival isn’t the only major change. The team will start the 2016-17 season with Dennis Schroder as its starting point guard after trading away Jeff Teague for the rights to rookie Taurean Prince. Finding a new identity, fashioned in part around Howard and Schroder, will take the Hawks some time.
“I don’t know,” Paul Millsap said when asked what the Hawks will look like, per USA Today’s Ray Glier. “It’s going to be interesting.”
Even more so if Kyle Korver, at 35, continues to slip like he did last season.
As ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz noted, a slow start could compel Atlanta to consider a more complete roster reset during the season:
At some point, the Hawks will have to weigh moving Millsap, whom they considered trading last summer. Millsap is entering the final year of his contract (he will almost certainly exercise his opt-out clause), he will be 32 before the All-Star break and he will demand a hefty raise next summer. If the Hawks aren’t contending, it might be wise to get value for a guy they’re unlikely to retain long-term.
Without Millsap, the Hawks would be hard-pressed to extend their current postseason streak to a full decade, even in the unsettled East.
The Field for Sixth Man of the Year Will Be Crowded
Last season’s Sixth Man of the Year field was as jam-packed with worthy contenders as it’s been in some time. Jamal Crawford emerged from the fray with his record-setting third award after outlasting the likes of Andre Iguodala, Enes Kanter and Will Barton.
That group should be back in the mix en masse during the 2016-17 campaign. But even they might have to scratch and claw for whatever ballots they can retain.
This season will see a slew of solid starters shifting into key bench roles.
Brandon Knight is slated to be the Phoenix Suns’ third guard after losing his starting spot to Devin Booker. Al Jefferson could be an effective change of pace in the post to counter the Indiana Pacers’ speedy starting lineup. The Memphis Grizzlies intend for Zach Randolph to come off the bench, ahead of what could be the 35-year-old’s final foray into free agency.
"We're going to go after Sixth Man of the Year," new head coach David Fizdale said, per ESPN.com’s Tim McMahon. "I want to highlight the hell out of him in that second unit. I need him to be a leader in that second unit, and he's really embraced that."
With so many productive players now operating as reserves, the sixth-man race could be determined by who stays healthy and who stays tethered to the bench.
The Los Angeles Lakers Won’t Be the Worst Team in the West
These are strange days, indeed, for the Purple and Gold.
During 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Lakers finished next-to-last in the Western Conference. Last season, they slipped into the cellar by way of a franchise-worst 17 wins.
This year, the Lakers should bounce back—if not into the playoffs, then out of the basement.
D’Angelo Russell is primed to break out in 2016-17. Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are both poised to advance their games as well. Veterans such as Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and Jose Calderon should lend calm and control to a situation that has seen little more than chaos of late.
With Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant both gone, L.A. figures to play far more freely and effectively under new head coach Luke Walton.
“I’ve talked to most of the guys over there,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said after Golden State’s 112-107 preseason win over the Lakers, per ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes. “They all love him and his approach to coaching their team. That says a lot about who he is and how he’s going to try to change their culture.”
The change Walton seeks will take time for the Lakers to realize, along with the team’s return to prominence. For now, L.A. can say it’s in a better immediate spot than the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets and should find some space in the standings ahead of the Phoenix Suns and (maybe?) even the Denver Nuggets out West.
Not that a higher rung in the standings will do the Lakers much good. If their pick lands outside of the top three in next year’s lottery, it’ll go to the Sixers.