The NBA season couldn’t return quick enough, and with official tip off already underway, it’s time for ChiSide’s annual NBA season outlook. This year I’ll be posting my thoughts on the unexpected. Last season brought us the unforgettable “Linsanity”, the emergence of the Denver Nuggets and the various trades that put the league on its head the league. With a full 82-game season slated, expect more of the same; expect the unexpected.
1. Kyrie Irving vaults himself into a top 15 player in the league
The 2011 number one overall selection had a rookie season better than superstar point guards Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook had. The next step for him is to become the players both are. While Irving does not have another Kevin Durant-type on his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a solid foundation that could make huge strides if Irving steps his game up significantly, which transitions into my next surprise…
2. The Cleveland Cavaliers will be a lot better than you think
Head coach Byron Scott has ironed out the kinks in his first two seasons managing the club. After a 19-win first year, Scott got the Cavs to 21 wins in 66 games (equivalent to 26 wins in 82 games), a seven game improvement. If all goes according to plan (barring key injuries), Cleveland can crack 40 wins. If Irving becomes transcendent, power forward Anderson Varejao stays healthy and second-year center Tristan Thompson makes a jump, the Cavs can win a lot of close contests in a weakened Eastern Conference that has lost superstars Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard.
The X-factor for Cleveland will be none other than Varejao. The crafty Brazilian, in my opinion, is as good as Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah. Varejao is one of the league’s best floppers (yes, this is a good thing) and draws offensive fouls at an astounding rate. He averaged 11 points and 11.5 rebounds in 31 minutes of play through 25 games last year. Noah averaged 10 and 10 last year in 30 minutes throughout a whole season. There’s no doubt that Varejao’s presence is vital to this team’s success.
3. The Los Angeles Lakers will not lead the league in wins
The Western Conference is tough and the Lakers have the oldest starting five in the league with an average age of 32. In addition to a full 82-game schedule, head coach Mike Brown will be preserving the legs of his older starters for a late playoff run. It would not be far-fetched if the Denver Nuggets were able to finish the regular season off with two-to-five more wins than the Lakers.
4. Rajon Rondo will be a legitimate MVP contender
Even though Lebron James will likely have the best season of anyone this year, the writers in charge of voting for MVP likely won’t give Lebron his fourth in five seasons. It’s not fair, but the system will open the door for favorite Kevin Durant and Celtics distributor Rajon Rondo.
The MVP is largely determined by team success (for reasons I still do not know) and the Celtics will be the East’s second best team. With the loss of sharpshooter Ray Allen and the inevitable decline of aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Rondo will have to shoulder the bulk of the team’s offense. During the preseason, Rondo shot 77.3 percent from the foul stripe, a huge improvement over his career percentage of 61.9. I believe Rondo will average a career high in points and assists, which could be enough to take the award. Rondo averaged about 12 points and 12 assists and two steals per game last year. Steve Nash won the award back-to-back averaging 19 points and 11 assists. Who’s to say Rondo can’t win it averaging 15 and 15?
5. Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard will win NBA Rookie of the Year
Although Summer League and preseason stats are meaningless, Lillard has been, by-far, the most impressive rookie thus far. Lillard has been doing it all, putting up points, rebounds and assists in high volume in the preseason. I liken his game to Kyrie Irving: he’s a dominant ball-scorer and will get sufficient minutes to put him in contention as a top rookie. The Trailblazers have no threat on the roster to vulture minutes away from the rookie. The only thing that worries me is that he’s a Blazer, which increases his chances of blowing out his knee tenfold.
How will he beat out number one pick Anthony Davis, you ask? Davis lacks one thing voters love: scoring ability. Davis will be a monster defender from the get-go, but his wiry frame will make it tough for him to position himself where he wants under the basket during offensive possessions. The last five rookie of the year winners were, in order: Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant. Sixteen points, six assists and four-and-a-half rebounds would be sufficient to get the job done for Lillard, and he’s capable of doing that.
6. The Brooklyn Nets will barely make the playoffs
Other than the Lakers, the Brooklyn Nets were the other team to spend a boatload of cash in the offseason “rebuilding”. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has a money machine somewhere in Russia, enabling him to take in the gargantuan contract of Joe Johnson (somewhere in the range of 6 years and half of Apple’s net worth) and resign center Brook Lopez to a $60 million dollar deal. This leaves Brooklyn with a strong starting five consisting of: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez and a bench consisting of, well, Marshon Brooks.
Do any of those names scream “daunting defender” to you? Me neither. This will be the Nets downfall, as they will be similar to the Golden State Warriors of recent past: score 100, give up 110. Being in the Eastern Conference will be the only reason the Nets will make the playoffs. I see them as a five-seed at best and a seven-seed at worst.
7. The Atlanta Hawks will be a lot better than you think
After dumping two of its top six players in Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, the Hawks are in position to sign pretty much any marquee free agent in the next year. Usually, teams built like this aren’t in contention for a playoff spot, but the Hawks have enough pieces to build around after making a few smart deals. Accompanying veterans Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague are newcomers Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, Lou Williams and Devin Harris. The Hawks seem to have a perfect combination of defensive players, offensive players, depth and shooters to stretch the floor. I see no reason this team couldn’t crack the top eight in the East.
8. Chicago Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer will be the team’s MVP
Without Derrick Rose, the Bulls will look to Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng to provide the bulk of the team’s points per game. Bulls fans have been less than excited about Boozer’s stay this thus far, but I without Rose fans will appreciate what he brings to the table as a power forward who can stretch the floor as well as rebound at a high volume. Boozer might even be able to play himself into trade talks, which would be a huge sigh of relief as the Bulls would be able to get rid of his massive contract AND get something in return. I can see Boozer averaging 20 and 10.
9. Milwaukee Bucks forward Tobias Harris is the best player you’ve never heard of
Seriously. His only downfall is defense. I honestly believe Harris can be close to what Carmelo Anthony is at some point in his career. Not only his he pudgy like Melo, but he plays a similar game: Harris can shoot it or back you down and beat you with his explosive first step. As a 19-year-old rookie last year, Harris was able to average five points per game in only 11 minutes. As of today, he’s slated to start for the Bucks. If he isn’t a huge defensive liability, expect huge offensive output from him this year.
10. This is the year Stephen Curry plays 70+ games
I have absolutely no logical explanation for this, but I think Curry will be this year’s Matthew Stafford of 2011. Stafford, a great quarterback, finally stayed healthy and finished in the top five. Curry will do similar on the court.