Based on what I’ve seen from Twitter and from comments on basketball-related articles, the 2015-16 NBA season is going to be a mere formality.
Every fan thinks he or she has the playoff seeding, end-of-season awards and playoff results totally pegged, it seems. If you challenge them on their selections, they’ll put you down for thinking anything other than their opinion is even within the realm of possibility.
The truth is, no one knows what’s coming, which is what makes the NBA so fun.
Very few had the Golden State Warriors winning the 2015 NBA championship. It happened. Not even the biggest of Atlanta Hawks homers thought that team would win 60 games. It happened. And if you predicted that Hassan Whiteside would return to the NBA and play like one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference, well…you’re lying. Guess what? It happened.
My task today is to come up with 10 predictions that may seem out there right now, but aren’t totally out of the realm of possibility. Of course, most of them will turn out wrong, but predictions are just for fun, aren’t they?
1. Teams attempt an all-time high of 25 three-pointers per game, but shoot just 33 percent on them
Newsflash: the three-point shot’s stock is soaring. In the past four seasons, the average team has attempted 18.4, 19.9, 21.5 and 22.4 long-range heaves per game, respectively, as the league starts to realize how efficient those shots are.
In 2015-16, NBA teams will become even more cognizant of the benefits of threes.
The last five teams remaining in this spring’s playoffs (the Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Hawks and the Los Angeles Clippers) were the top five squads in three-point attempts during the regular season. That’s ATTEMPTS, not makes, mind you. Clearly, the shot helps.
If that weren’t enough, the effective field-goal percentage of threes across the league last season was 52.5, compared to just 48.5 on attempts inside the arc. I’m sure analytics departments across the league are all over that stat.
But as teams shoot more and more from the outside, their opponents will also catch on and try to keep that arc well-defended better than ever before. The league-wide three-point percentage could plummet a couple points from the 35.0 it was last year.
2. Victor Oladipo and Andrew Wiggins make their first All-Star Game appearances
If you read my article a week ago about possible Most Improved Player candidates, this prediction shouldn’t be surprising.
Oladipo of the Orlando Magic and Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves are electrifying young athletes who have shown remarkable improvement throughout their two and one seasons in the league, respectively. Both have a great shot at eclipsing 20 points per game in the 2015-16 season.
The obvious roadblock here is that Oladipo’s and Wiggins’ teams combined to win just 41 games last year, and neither squad is likely ready to make a playoff leap. It’s not easy to make the All-Star team when your team is on the playoff bubble or even further down the standings.
But don’t be too shocked if this pair of two-way youngsters set themselves apart enough to earn reserve spots.
3. The Dallas Mavericks win just 30 games
The Mavericks have a San Antonio Spurs-ian streak of 15 consecutive seasons winning at least half of their games, but I don’t see it continuing this year.
Dallas is old, slow, injury-prone and below-average defensively–a terrible combination in what should be a killer Western Conference. They’ll play 16 divisional games against the Spurs, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. They could legitimately go 3-13 or even 2-14 in those contests.
They lost their leading scorer, Monta Ellis, who was inconsistent but mostly good. Departed center Tyson Chandler had a huge impact on the team’s defense and was great in the pick-and-roll. Playoff hero Al-Farouq Aminu provided great athleticism and defensive effort in significant reserve minutes but is now a Portland Trail Blazer. Rajon Rondo left, but that may actually help the team, admittedly.
The Mavericks added three-and-D specialist Wesley Matthews, but he’s coming off a torn Achilles and may not make much of an impact early on in the season. Zaza Pachulia and Deron Williams are, once again, old, slow and injury-prone. Williams is not a good defender, either.
There are too many question marks and lucky breaks that would need to happen for Dallas to make the Western Conference playoffs. 30 wins could be a little bit low, but it’s possible.
4. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook each score fewer than 25 points per game
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Durant and Westbrook have combined to win five of the last six NBA scoring titles, but neither will take the crown in 2015-16.
Assuming both stay somewhat healthy, which wasn’t the case last season, they’ll cut significantly into each other’s shot attempts. They also might have the deepest group of scorers they’ve ever had around them—Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, and even rookie Cameron Payne can light up the scoreboard when given the opportunity to do so.
With all that talent on the Oklahoma City roster, this team will get into several blowouts during the regular season. There’s no reason to play Durant and Westbrook late into the fourth quarter just to chase huge scoring totals. With Durant’s foot concerns, his minutes totals won’t get too crazy in close games, either.
5. The Denver Nuggets finish with the NBA’s worst record
The Philadelphia 76ers are the favorite for the worst record, as they’re still in year four of a seven-year rebuilding plan, but don’t discount the Denver Nuggets. They play in the much tougher conference, will start a rookie at point guard (Emmanuel Mudiay) and have either Kenneth Faried, Danilo Galinari or Wilson Chandler as their best player. Whoever it is, it’s not good.
Now, Mudiay shouldn’t be terrible in Year 1, and Mike Malone has proven to be a solid coach in his short career. But this team really doesn’t have much talent overall, and the temptation to tank in order to draft another franchise building block will be strong.
6. Myles Turner wins the Rookie of the Year award
Lots of playing time has been the common denominator for Rookie of the Year winners throughout the award’s history. Not since the 2000-01 season has someone won the award playing fewer than 30 minutes per game (Mike Miller, at 29.1).
So when you look at this year’s rookies, you have to take that into account. Who is going to get enough minutes to win the award? There a few guys with inside tracks to huge roles right away, including Jahlil Okafor, Mudiay and Jerian Grant, but I like Turner’s situation with the Indiana Pacers a lot. He’s on a solid team, which will help his efficiency and advanced statistics.
The No. 11 overall pick from Texas has the versatility to play both big-man slots, and the Pacers need anyone to eat up minutes at either of those spots that they can (when they aren’t playing small-ball with Paul George at power forward). Longtime starters David West and Roy Hibbert are gone, which means Jordan Hill, Ian Mahimni and Lavoy Allen represent the rookie’s biggest obstacles to big minutes.
Turner has range on his jumper and protects the rim well, a combination that will be irresistible for the big-man starved Pacers.
7. Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard get dark-horse MVP consideration, Anthony Davis wins the award
It’s a rarity to have players who are excellent on offense and defense. The Chicago Bulls’ Butler and the San Antonio Spurs’ Leonard are two of those guys and will play for teams in the upper half of their conference’s playoff bracket. Also, they’re young and took big leaps last year, so another push up the superstar ranks is definitely inevitable for both guys. I’m not saying they’ll be the No. 2 and 3 in the MVP voting, but they could both be in the top five or six candidates if things go their way.
Of course, Davis is the man, and assuming he’s healthy (fingers crossed) and his New Orleans Pelicans make the playoffs again this year with a slightly higher seed, his eye-popping stats and painfully obvious value on both ends of the court will get the 22-year-old the first of several MVP awards.
8. The Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns nab the last playoff spots in their respective conferences
What about the Detroit Pistons’ roster on paper makes you think the team can’t nab a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference? They went 28-28 over their last 56 games last season, and Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Jennings, Stanley Johnson, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope make up a decent young core.
Of course, the whole Jackson-Jennings point guard conundrum could mess things up, but if things work out, Detroit won’t be done after 82 games.
The Suns have one of the more underrated guard duos in the NBA in Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe, plus newly-acquired Tyson Chandler gives the team a dependable post presence it was badly needing. The forward spots are a weakness, especially with Marcus Morris gone and his brother all but out the door, but T.J. Warren flashed serious potential last season. Who knows?
9. The Western Conference Semifinals include one team not in “The Big Five”
Ever since the Houston Rockets acquired Ty Lawson in August, it’s been clear what fans’ consensus top five teams in the Western Conference has been: the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, in some order. Surely, four of those five will be in the penultimate round of the Western Conference playoffs, most people would say.
However, as the Warriors showed us last year, weird things can happen in the West.
The Memphis Grizzlies always seem to have a trick up their sleeve. They’ve overachieved in the playoffs before with their old-school grit-n-grind style, and can do it again, especially if they acquire some more outside shooting before the playoffs start.
The Pelicans have one of the three best players in the world in The Brow, plus a better-than-advertised supporting cast and a new coach. They could surprise and make it past the first round.
Outside of those two squads, the upstart, defensive-minded Utah Jazz probably have the best shot to crash the second-round party, and could do so in a best-case scenario of a season.
Basically, keep your mind open on the Western Conference. Injuries and a plethora of other factors can affect standings and playoff results.
10. The Los Angeles Clippers win the NBA Finals
Shocked? Don’t be. The Clippers have the league’s most talented starting five on paper. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Paul Pierce, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will absolutely wreck teams on offense. I am extremely worried about the team’s defense, especially on the perimeter with a possible Finals matchup against LeBron James’ Cavaliers, but new reserve wings Lance Stephenson and Wesley Johnson can help there when necessary.
Free-agent signee Josh Smith is also a wild card. If he can pull this sort of play out of his butt a few times during the playoffs, Los Angeles’ less-heralded franchise can get its first ‘chip.
Note: All stats are from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.