10 Preseason NBA Predictions We Got Way Wrong
Predictions can be and often are tricky things. Just ask the meteorologists who anticipated a historic blizzard would strike New York City in mid-March, only to see Winter Storm Stella drop a sane seven inches of powder on Central Park.
Bleacher Report doesn't ask its NBA experts to forecast the weather, though preseason prognostications are well within their purview. But even B/R's brightest basketball minds couldn't come up with perfect prognoses for the 2016-17 season, no matter how many tea leaves they read or stat sheets they pored over.
And, really, what good are these kinds of educated guesses without some measure of scorekeeping after the fact. The current campaign hasn't wrapped just yet, but it seems safe to deem these 10 prophecies to have been less than prescient.
Kevin Ding Picks Kevin Durant for NBA MVP
Senior Writer Kevin Ding liked Kevin Durant as the NBA's Most Valuable Player, and not just because they share initials.
Durant had been a transcendent talent with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite taking a backseat to Russell Westbrook more and more as their partnership wore on, Durant managed to tally 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists while challenging for his second 50-40-90 season in 2015-16.
If scoring were ever a struggle for KD in OKC, it figured to come naturally with the Golden State Warriors. Playing with historic shooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and an unselfish creator like Draymond Green would (and did) open up opportunities like never before for the former MVP. Through 59 games, he shot a career-high 53.7 percent from the field.
And by making the game easier for Durant on the offensive end, the Dubs afforded him more energy to wreak havoc on defense. He responded with personal bests in defensive rebounds (7.6) and blocks (1.6) to boot.
At times, Durant looked like the best player on the best team in basketball—a surefire formula for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. His candidacy all but ended in Washington, D.C., at the end of February, when Wizards center Marcin Gortat knocked Warriors big Zaza Pachulia into Durant's left knee. The result? A sprained MCL and a bone bruise that would keep him out indefinitely.
According to ESPN's Chris Haynes and Marc Stein, Golden State has "cautious optimism" that Durant will be back before the end of the regular season. Even if he returns ahead of schedule, Durant will have too much ground to make up on James Harden and Russell Westbrook (among others) in the MVP race.
Not to mention, the narratives that usually dictate votes don't tend to favor a free agent whose new team wins fewer games after his arrival.
Darn Near Everyone Underestimates the Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets were not a favorite among B/R's NBA experts, to say the least.
National NBA Featured Columnist Adam Fromal had Mike D'Antoni's latest experiment topping out at 38 wins—good enough for 11th place in the West:
Houston will remain in the playoff race for much of the year, especially with James Harden running the show and looking to another MVP bid. But after an offseason in which plenty of Western Conference teams made substantial strides—whether through summer additions or expected internal improvement—the Rockets didn't do quite enough to avoid a lottery finish.
Senior Writer Ric Bucher saw too many flaws in Houston's extreme Daryl Morey-fication to envision success in Space City:
I didn't think the Rockets would be this good. How could a team with three subpar defenders in James Harden, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon compete in the West? Who was going to rebound and score inside? I didn't expect James Harden to become a triple-double machine. Or their perimeter starters to average 19 boards a game. Or Nene to be so efficient off the bench in limited minutes. Kudos to Mike D'Antoni for handling his rotation as deftly as he has.
The Rockets are hardly world-beaters defensively, but they've been good enough (15th in defensive efficiency) to support an unprecedented three-ball attack that's produced one of the two best offenses in basketball.
Harden has done his part, piling up 19 triple-doubles (second-most in the league) and pushing to become the first player in 44 years to lead the Association in points (second at 29.4) and assists (first at 11.2).
Beck and Bucher (and Others) Peg New York Knicks for the Playoffs
On the flip side, Ric Bucher liked what he saw from the New York Knicks during the offseason. Between Kristaps Porzingis' maturation, Carmelo Anthony's return to health and the arrivals of decorated veterans like Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, he saw plenty of potential at Madison Square Garden...until it all went awry:
I thought the New York Knicks would be in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Through the first five weeks of the season, I was feeling good—as of Dec. 11, they had the fourth-best record. Then Phil Jackson criticized Carmelo Anthony, trade rumors followed, Kristaps Porzingis got hurt, Derrick Rose went missing for 12 hours and the team hasn't been the same since.
Bucher wasn't alone in his praise of the Knickerbockers. Fellow Senior Writer Howard Beck saw playoff contention for New York. So did National NBA Featured Columnist Grant Hughes, who was enchanted by one of the Knicks' additions in particular:
I also thought there was a way for this Knicks team to be pretty good and maybe even make the playoffs. But that was a bet on Joakim Noah's contract not becoming the worst in the league until at least 2018. Oops.
Oops, indeed. Throw in the cacophony of confusion over tactics amid the ongoing tug-of-war between Jackson and head coach Jeff Hornacek, and the Knicks' fourth straight spring without playoff basketball looks far more predictable than it did last fall.
Josh Martin Crowns Giannis Antetokounmpo Triple-Double King
Despite his ties to Russell Westbrook's alma mater, NBA Lead Writer Josh Martin didn't foresee the Oklahoma City Thunder's lone remaining superstar leading the league in triple-doubles. Instead, he pegged Milwaukee Bucks big man Giannis Antetokounmpo to pace the Association in stat-sheet stuffing:
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.
Antetokounmpo has logged two triple-doubles to go with career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (5.4). And though the Bucks rank among the NBA's top seven in assist percentage and effective field-goal percentage, that sharing and shooting hasn't stemmed quite so singularly from the Greek Freak's excellence. He's gotten plenty of help moving the ball, from Matthew Dellavedova (4.9 assists) and dark-horse Rookie of the Year contender Malcolm Brogdon (4.1 assists).
Westbrook, meanwhile, is not only on track to average a triple-double, but he also already racked up the second-most ever in a single season (34). If the UCLA product piles up eight more over OKC's last 12 games, he'll surpass Oscar Robertson's all-time record of 41 triple-doubles.
And it's not as though Westbrook is the only one putting up big numbers with more consistency than Antetokounmpo has. Six other players have thus far logged three or more triple-doubles, including James Harden (19), LeBron James (10), Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic (five) and Draymond Green (four).
Grant Hughes Gives Brooklyn Nets a Chance to Not Be the Worst
Grant Hughes had no illusions about the Brooklyn Nets being a bad team. However high he or anyone might've been on Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin as an established tandem, young guns like Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, Sean Kilpatrick and rookie Caris LeVert, or Kenny Atkinson's future as an NBA head coach, there was no mistaking the Nets' lack of talent.
I thought Brooklyn would win 20 games and at least not finish with the worst record. The thinking was that tanking had no appeal to a team that didn't control its pick, and that the Lopez-Lin combo would be halfway decent.Turns out I should have factored in how vulnerable a team with roughly three NBA-level talents would be to injury.
Lin, for one, featured in just 25 of Brooklyn's first 70 games this season. Luis Scola, a veteran power forward, appeared in 36 games before the Nets waived him in late February.
All told, the Nets' futility has them ticketed for the NBA's worst record by a mile—and the Celtics, perhaps, for the No. 1 pick in a loaded 2017 draft.
Michael Pina Picks Boston Celtics as NBA's Best Defense
The Boston Celtics aren't a bad defensive team by any stretch. In terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, Boston is one of the 10 stingiest squads in basketball.
That still leaves the C's well short of Featured Columnist Michael Pina's expectations. He thought Beantown's defense would be the NBA's best, and not without good reason:
They were top five in defensive rating last season and replaced Jared Sullinger with Al Horford. I figured Jaylen Brown might provide some athleticism on the wing (which he has) and that Marcus Smart would continue to improve on that end (same), but they really missed Evan Turner's versatility and struggled for much of the year to balance size and speed.
The Celtics came in with one of the smaller frontcourt rotations around. Horford, listed at 6'10", would be a fine fit at power forward but has spent the vast majority of his minutes at center. Kelly Olynyk, while a legit 7-footer, focuses more on finesse than physicality. Tyler Zeller, the team's third-string center, plays only sparingly.
It's a testament, then, to the work of perimeter stoppers like Smart, Brown and Avery Bradley within head coach Brad Stevens' defensive schemes that the C's rank as well as they do by the numbers without the benefit of an imposing big man.
Dan Favale Favors Chris Paul to Finish Top 3 in MVP Voting
Chris Paul has never been the NBA's MVP, but he's been in plenty of those races throughout his career. He's finished seventh or better in balloting seven times, including four top-five efforts.
Don't rule out Paul collecting 20 points per game for the first time since 2008-09 as he pursues a 50/40/90 shooting benchmark and separates himself from whatever MVP case is made by Griffin. Heck, if not for the storyline boon Westbrook is bound to receive, Paul would be a reasonable top-two choice.
Paul hasn't approached that sort of scoring output. Nor are his shooting splits going to put him in such elite company. But his 17.6 points and 9.2 assists—with career highs in three-point makes (2.1), attempts (5.0) and percentage (41.8 percent)—as the captain of a playoff-bound Clippers squad would be good enough to put him in the MVP conversation.
Except, Paul's 21 games missed to injury and L.A.'s good-but-not-great record don't help his candidacy, per Favale:
Injuries haven't helped this prediction, but who'd have thought the Clippers, by historical standards, might not be good enough for him to get in the conversation. They're on pace to win fewer than 60 percent of their games; only one MVP in the three-point era has played for a team that won fewer than 60 percent of its tilts. Again, injuries. But the situation coupled with the rises of so many other stars rendered this way off.
Kevin Ding Tabs Buddy Hield for Rookie of the Year
Kevin Ding was hardly the only person in or around the NBA to pick Buddy Hield for Rookie of the Year. A share of the league's general managers—13.3 percent, to be exact—thought the reigning collegiate player of the year would shine for the New Orleans Pelicans.
As it happens, Hield's fellow first-years had a slightly better feel for the field; not one of them thought the Oklahoma product would come out on top.
Perhaps they knew that Hield, a sharpshooter in college, would be slow to find the range in the pros. Or maybe they weren't so sanguine about how he'd fit next to Anthony Davis in the Big Easy.
For what it's worth, nobody seemed to think Philadelphia's Dario Saric and Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon would become the Rookie of the Year front-runners.
The former, a European import drafted in 2014, seized pole position once Sixers teammate Joel Embiid was ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, making his post-All-Star stats (19.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists) pop even more. The latter, a second-round pick in 2016, has been a steady contributor for the Bucks from training camp onward, chipping in 10.0 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 40.3 percent from three.
In truth, Hield isn't entirely out of the running. He's played well since the Pelicans dealt him to the Sacramento Kings in the DeMarcus Cousins trade, pouring in 13.7 points and draining 46.0 percent of his 4.8 threes per game.
At this point, though, Hield's uptick may be too little, too late for this award.
Josh Martin Casts Doubt on the San Antonio Spurs
There are three certainties in this world: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs cranking out 50 wins.
Josh Martin, though, wasn't convinced, not after watching the Oklahoma City Thunder make the Spurs look like they needed an infusion of energy and fresh legs in last year's playoffs:
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.
Leonard alone might've been enough to put Gregg Popovich's squad back over its typical threshold for wins. His growth into a volume scorer (26.0 points per game) and secondary creator (3.4 assists) have put the 25-year-old on a parallel plane with the best players on the planet.
Leonard isn't alone among San Antonio 20-somethings, either. Patty Mills (28) has been indispensable as Parker's backup at the point. Jonathon Simmons (27) continues to be a live body off the bench. Dewayne Dedmon (27) has supplanted Gasol as the Spurs' starting center, courtesy of his superior length and rim protection. Rookie Davis Bertans (24) and Kyle Anderson (23) have become valuable contributors among the team's reserves.
That mix of youthful exuberance and veteran experience has already pushed San Antonio well past the 50-win mark with 12 games to play, putting a 60-win start to the post-Tim Duncan era well within reach.
Kevin Ding and Adam Fromal Give the Detroit Pistons High Marks
Kevin Ding and Adam Fromal liked what they saw from the Detroit Pistons coming off the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2009. Ding ranked Detroit as the NBA's seventh-best squad coming into the 2016-17 season. Fromal saw room for improvement, despite Reggie Jackson's early-season absence:
It's hard to see this team getting any worse, which means its 44-38 record in 2015-16 should serve as the baseline. The loss of Jackson for the season's opening salvo could curtail positive momentum, but these Pistons should be second-half stalwarts who push higher up the Eastern Conference hierarchy.
At this point, Detroit would be lucky to finish in the East's top eight, let alone the top seven league-wide. The Pistons, as it happens, were a respectable 11-10 with Ish Smith as their starting point guard. Once Jackson returned, Detroit went into a tailspin, losing 10 of its first 14 games with him in the lineup.
The Pistons have since recovered some semblance of the pick-and-roll machine they were supposed to be, with Jackson navigating the floor and finding Andre Drummond at the rack. But they may have to wait until next season, when they move from Auburn Hills back to the Motor City, to take that all-important step forward.