The Los Angeles Clippers have lots of talent even after losing Chris Paul this summer — just not enough to make the playoffs in a loaded conference. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
Bold predictions ahead of an NBA season are a crapshoot. Last year, we gave it a shot and some of them came true, like the Houston Rockets finishing with the league’s second best offense and Nerlens Noel being traded. There were also some memorable whiffs, like the Minnesota Timberwolves finishing with 50 wins (whoops, 31!) or the Oklahoma City Thunder missing the playoffs (six seed).
But that’s kind of the point. These are bold predictions for a reason. If they come true, bragging rights are earned. If they don’t, well, I deserve your shaming.
So, with that in mind, here are 10 bold predictions for the 2017-18 NBA season:
1. The Los Angeles Clippers will miss the playoffs
The Clippers don’t have Chris Paul any longer, but they still have Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and quality additions Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Serbian passing sensation Milos Teodosic, the most fun player you might not have heard of.
So why will the Clippers miss the playoffs? For starters, it’s hard to expect the injury-prone Griffin and Gallinari to play more than 125 games combined — and when they do play together, it looks to be an awkward fit defensively. The rest of the roster is made up of players with specific skill sets, but ones that would appear to be difficult to mesh together. With six teams realistically fighting for the final three playoff spots in the West, there will be at least one surprising miss.
The guess here is that team is the Clippers.
2. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves each will have three players in the top 25 in scoring
The consensus in basketball is that if a team has more than two primary scoring options, it is difficult to make everyone happy. The Golden State Warriors began to erase that conventional wisdom last year when Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson all finished in the top 25 in the NBA in points per game — just as they had the year before, when Durant was still in Oklahoma City.
This year, not only is that trio still together, but two more teams have tried to duplicate that success, at least from an individual production standpoint, as Carmelo Anthony and Paul George have joined Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder and Jimmy Butler has teamed up with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
All nine of them will do what they did last year: finish among the top 25 scorers in the league.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be in the top 10 in the NBA in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks
Each year, The Greek Freak takes another massive leap forward. Now, entering his age 23 season, he’s going to do it again. Last year, he finished 21st in scoring, tied for 17th in rebounding, 27th in assists, tied for 11th in steals and eighth in blocks.
To finish in the top 10 last year, he’d have had to score an extra 2.5 points, grab 2.3 additional rebounds, dish out 1.6 more assists and get just 0.1 more steals. Will making all of those improvements be easy? No. But if there’s anyone capable of making them, it’s Antetokounmpo.
4. The Brooklyn Nets will finish outside the bottom five in the Eastern Conference
The Nets have combined to win 41 games the past two seasons, and traded away their best and most productive player, Brook Lopez, in the offseason. So how are they going to make enough improvement to leapfrog several teams?
For starters, they added a lot of depth. They don’t have any star-level talent (unless D’Angelo Russell has a massive breakout campaign), but they now have a rotation largely stocked with quality role players. And having traded away their draft pick, they have no incentive to stop trying to win. That isn’t the same for the rest of the dregs of the East, with teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers all better served by tanking and getting the best pick possible. The Philadelphia 76ers, meanwhile, have several massive injury concerns.
Several Nets players have made proclamations about making the playoffs; that, however, is too bold a prediction for even a bold predictions column. But just being a run-of-the mill team, instead of one of the league’s worst, is bold enough to serve its purpose here.
5. The San Antonio Spurs will finish outside the top four in the Western Conference
Betting against the Spurs is never a good idea. After all, this is a franchise that has made the playoffs in 27 of the past 28 years — and, in the one year they didn’t, they won the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan.
But if any other team had the summer the Spurs did — re-signing Pau Gasol to a three-year deal at age 37, entering the season with an unproven option at point guard in Dejounte Murray and relying on Rudy Gay recovering from an Achilles’ tear — they would’ve received a lot of grief. All of that was before Kawhi Leonard was ruled out for the entire preseason with tendinopathy in his right quad, with no timeline given for his return.
Perhaps the Spurs will continue to be a team of robots that methodically wins 55-plus games. But it seems more likely, at least from here, that they finish outside the top four teams in the West and begin the playoffs on the road. That would make them favored to go home in the first round.
6. The Chicago Bulls will lose at least 70 games
It’s going to be a rough year in the Windy City. Having moved on from Jimmy Butler in the offseason, the Chicago Bulls arrived at training camp with a roster full of young players and question marks. They may have the league’s worst point guard rotation with Jerian Grant, Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne. Zach LaVine, the team’s most talented player, is out for months recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The two proven veterans on the roster, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez, could both be dealt at the trade deadline to teams trying to win now.
All of that together adds up to a truly terrible season for the Bulls — one bad enough that, if our prediction comes true, they’ll become the seventh team in NBA history to have lost 70 or more games.
7. The Golden State Warriors will win at least 70 games
This isn’t that bold of a prediction. The Warriors won 67 games last season with Durant missing six weeks with a leg injury, and then cruised through the playoffs to win the title. They now bring back 12 of their 15 players from last season, and improved on all three positions they turned over from last year’s roster.
So why are we considering this bold? Well, only two teams in NBA history have won at least 70 games — the Warriors from two years ago, and the 1996 Chicago Bulls. On top of that, the Warriors are expected to make their fourth straight NBA Finals trip, and that’s incredibly taxing on any team to play 100 games a season year after year. Still, there’s so much talent that this year’s Warriors will become the third team to win 70 or more in a single season.
8. DeMarcus Cousins will be traded this season
New Orleans has a combustible mix. Not only is Cousins in a contract year, but Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry enters the season on the hottest of seats — as does, theoretically, General Manager Dell Demps. Because of that, the Pelicans are clearly in win-or-bust mode.
And the odds of busting are high. Yes, Cousins and Davis are arguably the two most talented bigs in the league. But they have a patchwork roster around them outside of Jrue Holiday — and one of those other pieces, Rajon Rondo, just underwent sports hernia surgery.
If everything works out, perhaps the Pelicans push for 50 wins and make the playoffs in the West. If things go south, though, they should try to get something for Cousins — and here’s thinking that they will.
9. At least four coaches will be fired during this season
Last year was remarkable from a coaching standpoint. For the first time in a half-century no coaches were fired during or after the season. That means all 30 coaches that began last season will also start this one.
That also means that there is no chance that will be the case by the end of this season. As mentioned, Gentry is on the hot seat in New Orleans, but he’s certainly not the only guy feeling the heat right now. The result should be a season full of hiring and firing, and at least four coaches will be shown the door between now and April 15.
10. The Boston Celtics will finish outside the top two in the Eastern Conference
Boston had the NBA’s most eventful offseason, trading away the No. 1 overall pick to move down two spots and take Jayson Tatum (while picking up a future pick), swapping Isaiah Thomas and others for Kyrie Irving and signing all-star Gordon Hayward as a free agent.
That has Boston positioned to be better in the future than it was going to be entering the offseason. But it also has the Celtics poised to deal with a lot of growing pains this season. Boston has four new starters. That kind of integration doesn’t happen overnight.
So yes, the Celtics’ future is bright. But their present isn’t as bright as the 55 wins that have been projected for their over/under — and will leave them short of the automatically assumed top-two spot in the East that they are projected to claim.
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