20 predictions for the 2013-14 season
I’ve already made picks for the NBA Finals and several traditional awards as part of SI.com’s Crystal Ball. Here are 20 more predictions for the 2013-14 season that run the gamut from micro to macro.
1. Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin will look like a different — and better — player.
Not to oversimplify things (or undersell Lin’s offseason work), but playing with Dwight Howard tends to make a world of difference. With Howard as a pick-and-roll partner, the repercussions of Lin’s more problematic instincts should be mitigated. He won’t be bottled up as often after jumping into the air without immediate purpose and will often have relatively obvious passing and scoring angles as a result of Howard’s athleticism. Plus, his spot-up attempts from three-point range should be cleaner because working through the post will enable Houston to create good, balanced opportunities for Lin and his teammates.
2. Lakers big man Pau Gasol will have a bounce-back year.
Not to oversimplify things (or undersell Gasol’s decline), but not playing with Dwight Howard should make a world of difference. Gasol looks to be in better health and in better spirits now that he’s returned to a more comfortable role, putting him in position to establish a better rhythm. It’s challenging to thrive while fluttering in and out of the lineup with injury, being displaced from your natural position, picking up one offense (Mike Brown’s Princeton-style scheme) only to drop it and learn a second (Mike D’Antoni’s looser offense) and adapting to new teammates in Howard and Steve Nash as they, too, are injured. Removing some of those factors is a simple means of getting Gasol back on course.
3. The Bobcats will not have a bottom-10 offense for the first time in franchise history.
After nine years of scoring ineptitude, Charlotte will ride Al Jefferson’s unorthodox game to sweet, sweet mediocrity.
4. The Pistons’ Josh Smith will not be a disaster at small forward.
I’ve already tackled this subject at length. I think many skeptics have conflated the fact that Smith isn’t a great fit on the wing for the Pistons as evidence that he’ll be terrible there. I just don’t see that being the case. He’s too good a passer and too varied an offensive player to be a wreck at that position, no matter his lack of long-range competence. Plus, the defensive value of having three functional big men — Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond — blocking off driving lanes and eating up space will be tremendous for a team that struggled in every phase of its defensive execution last season. Any approach that puts Smith at small forward is bound to have its limits, but for the time being it should be good enough to facilitate the Pistons’ considerable improvement.
5. A regular-season injury will doom one of the Western Conference’s potential contenders in the first round of the playoffs.
The West features six championship-viable teams — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, the Clippers, Memphis, Golden State and Houston — and only eight playoff spots up for grabs. That leaves four potential contenders — likely in the 3-6 and 4-5 spots — to fight for their playoff lives in brutal first-round series. Countless variables will go into deciding those matchups, but I have a sneaking suspicion that regular-season injury will play a major role — if only in costing some team a few wins and dropping it out of a coveted top-two position. Look out, Thunder.
6. Evan Turner will rank in the top three in minutes played.
Buy your Sixers season tickets today!
7. Denver will be one of the 10 worst defensive teams based on points allowed per possession.
Consider the factors in play here:
• The Nuggets lost one of the league’s best defensive players in Andre Iguodala during the offseason. The season before acquiring Iguodala, Denver ranked 19th by allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions. With Iguodala on the court last season, that number dropped to 100.5, a borderline top-five mark. (The Nuggets were 11th overall, at 102 points per 100 possessions.) Iguodala’s presence put all Nuggets players in a better position to succeed, whether by reducing the strain on big men in rotation or shielding lesser defenders from unfavorable matchups. Losing him to the Warriors will cost the Nuggets more on defense than offense.
• To make matters worse, Denver’s second-best perimeter defender has skipped town as well. Corey Brewer, who uses every bit of energy and every inch of length he has to pester opponents, was one of the Nuggets’ best at challenging shots on the perimeter and forcing turnovers.
• Danilo Gallinari, Denver’s third-best perimeter defender, will miss the start of the season with a knee injury. Beyond Wilson Chandler, the next in line to fill minutes on the wing are the defensively limited Randy Foye and the inexperienced Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton and Quincy Miller. Oy.
• Denver also signed J.J. Hickson after trading a better defender in center Kosta Koufos, creating a three-man rotation of big men with exceedingly little defensive hope. JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried haven’t proved to be a capable defensive pairing yet. Denver allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions with that tandem on the floor last season, nearly four points worse than the team’s average. Hickson will compound that problem with his consistently one-step-late rotations.
• Just to keep things fun, the Nuggets picked up the 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson to fill out the rotation for a team that played the 5-11 Ty Lawson and the 6-2 Andre Miller for a combined 60.3 minutes per game last season. Short stature alone doesn’t preclude good defense, but neither Robinson nor Lawson has managed to make up for his lack of size much on that end, and Miller could face similar problems in guarding bigger opponents on the wing. Dual point guard lineups have their advantages, but I shudder at the defensive implications of stacking waterbug on waterbug with Lawson and Robinson sharing the floor.
• Left to deal with all of this is first-time coach Brian Shaw, who is being thrust into a new level of responsibility after serving as a quality assistant for a great defensive team in Indiana last season. Best of luck to him.
8. Current free agents who will be signed at some point this season: Drew Gooden, Jason Collins, Chris Duhon and Tyrus Thomas.
When desperate, NBA teams tend to grasp for the known. That should give hope to these four veterans, some more worthy of signing than others. Gooden, a cost-efficient source of scoring and rebounding, is one of the better players on the market. Collins — through supposed media implications, barrier-breaking appeal and all — will be of value come spring to some team eyeing a matchup with Howard, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert or Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez. Duhon has a gift for convincing general managers that he’s a better player than he really is. And Thomas looks to be a classic reclamation project, talented enough to persuade some team to sweep aside his track record and give him a shot.
9. Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum will play fewer than 600 minutes.
To put things in perspective, the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire played 682 minutes in 29 games last season amid his knee injuries — a standard that almost seems too lofty, given all that Bynum has gone through. I’d love to be proved wrong. The league is better off with a wide-ranging pool of quality big men, and a healthy Bynum would be an interesting counterpoint to the likes of Howard, Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol et al. But he’s earned sweeping skepticism after loitering through his rehab last season, a troubling sign for a player whose knees are already working against him.
10. Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson’s unprecedented decision to switch his shooting hand will help his percentages significantly.
I want to believe, and Thompson did his own story a solid by shooting so poorly from outside the paint (36 percent) and the free-throw line (60.8 percent) last season.