NBA season predictions: Who wins East? West? NBA Finals?

4 Comments

Tuesday the NBA marathon begins, and it will run until June with 1,230 regular season games and what the league hopes are a more intense, contested playoffs than last season.

Which will probably all end with the Warriors and the Cavaliers in the Finals. Again. For the fourth year in a row.

We’ve already given you our awards predictions for the coming season, now here are the NBC Sports NBA staff’s picks for the NBA standings and playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Bucks
5. Raptors
6. Heat
7. Hornets
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

It is possible Boston (or even Washington, if their starting five stays healthy and you like longshots) outpace Cleveland in the regular season, but come the playoffs a healthy Cleveland team will be the clear best team. I think the Raptors take a step back due to lost depth (and the Bucks are improving). I have the Sixers slipping into the playoffs but if Reggie Jackson returns to form Detroit could nab that spot.

Dan Feldman:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Hornets
7. Heat
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

The Cavaliers and Celtics are in one tier, Wizards and Raptors in another and Bucks, Hornets and Heat in a third. The 76ers share the fourth tier with the Pistons, and I’m predicting Joel Embiid will be just healthy enough to get Philadelphia into the playoffs — but that’s a huge unknown.

Dane Carbaugh:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Heat
7. Pacers
8. Pistons
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Wizards

Even though the Celtics added Irving to their roster they still have a lack of depth after trading both Crowder and Bradley. They will be relying on their young players to come through in playoff time, and it’s more reasonable to think that will happen in the coming seasons. The Cavaliers are still the team to beat and it doesn’t feel like the Wizards will have enough to get past them.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Clippers
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Thunder

Is Golden State going to win more than 70 games? The Warriors are at the top, then you can put the Rockets/Thunder/Spurs in any order and I would buy it (although the Kawhi Leonard injury to start the season leads to San Antonio questions). The final three spots will come down to the Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, and Jazz and the teams that get the slots will be the ones that stay healthy.

Dan Feldman:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Jazz
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

It’s obviously the Warriors then everyone else. The Rockets, Thunder, and Spurs are the most serious challengers. The Timberwolves and Nuggets are up-and-comers. The next tier — which also includes the Clippers and maybe Pelicans — could see an incredibly competitive race just to make the playoffs.

Dane Carbaugh:
1.Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Spurs
4. Thunder
5. Wolves
6. Clippers
7. Blazers
8. Jazz
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

I think we all want this series to happen if only because it will give us an inclination of what it’s like to watch a Mike D’Antoni team adapt on offense to an opponent he has all year to scout. Still, the question for most teams out West will be whether they can match the Warriors on both sides of the ball. People somehow forget that Golden State is typically a Top 5 defensive team. I’m not sure anybody can really match that.

NBA FINALS

KURT: Warriors over Cavaliers
DAN: Warriors over Cavaliers
DANE: Warriors over Cavaliers

It’s boring, we know. All three of us — and most of the rest of the NBA universe — picking a fourth straight meeting between the Golden State and Cleveland. But how do you not? If they are both healthy this seems inevitable. No team in the NBA is on the Warriors level. Boston doesn’t have the defense, Washington doesn’t have the depth to challenge the Cavaliers in the East. Things happen, the NBA rarely follows the script, but it’s hard not to envision this outcome.

Did Suns deserve all 35 of their assists? (video)

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Suns had 35 assists in their season-opening win over the Mavericks last night.

That’s their most assists since… their final game last season, when they also dished 35 assists against Dallas. But the Mavericks were tanking hard. Before that, Phoenix last had 35 assists with Steve Nash at point guard.

How did they Suns do it?

They moved the ball well and knocked down shots.

They also appeared be quite generous in scorekeeping.

The NBA defines an assist as a “pass that directly leads to a basket. … An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.”

Would you say all four of these assists led directly to a basket?

Many scorekeepers systematically award assists if the shooter took two or fewer or dribbles after receiving the pass. Those above plays are not egregious in league-wide context, though maybe a couple of them should be.

But this Deandre Ayton pass really stretches the limit (hat tip: Carter Rodriguez of Fear The Sword):

Again, maybe we just have to live with a hard-and-fast two-dribble rule. Even though Josh Jackson turned and hesitated a couple times while using both dribbles, this technically falls under the threshold.

But then explain this Trevor Ariza assist to Jackson, who took three dribbles:

That looks like more of an assist than some of the two-dribble plays above. So, maybe the standard is fitting the spirit of the definition OR a player shooting within two dribbles. That casts quite a wide net.

But remember, don’t cast stones at the Suns from inside a glass house. They’re not alone in their loose assist-granting.

LeBron James set to make debut for Lakers at Trail Blazers tonight

Getty Images
2 Comments

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — It’s not going to be just a game when the Los Angeles Lakers invade Moda Center Thursday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular-season opener for both teams.

It will be a happening.

It’s the first game in the splendid 16-year NBA career of LeBron James that the future Hall of Famer will be wearing the uniform of a Western Conference club — the Lakers, with whom he signed a free-agent contract during the offseason.

Members of the national media and a TNT audience will be watching along with a full house at the 20,000-seat Moda Center. And James has caught the fever.

“The season is here,” James told reporters after a recent practice. “First of 82 (regular-season games). It will be fun.”

The basketball world is intrigued to find out how well the 33-year-old James will mesh with his mostly younger teammates, and how much he can help them improve on their 35-47 record of a year ago. Thursday at Moda Center is the first step, but Lakers coach Luke Walton isn’t taking it as a giant leap for mankind all in one swoop.

“We’ve got four years,” said Walton, referring to James’ contract, which calls for three years guaranteed and a player option for a fourth. “We want to make sure we’re not only playing our best come the end of the season, but that he is fresh. It’s a goal for us, and it’s not a one-year journey.”

James, who led the NBA with 36.9 minutes played per game in 2017-18, likely won’t match that average this season. Even so, he figures to be on the court a lot Thursday night.

“If my body is feeling good, then I’m out there,” James said. “If my body is not able to perform at the level I would like to play for my teammates, then I won’t.”

The Lakers could have drawn an easier first opponent that the Trail Blazers, against whom the Lakers have had no success in recent years. Portland holds a 15-game win streak in the series dating to March 2014, and has won seven in a row at Moda Center.

The Blazers mostly stood pat after going 49-33 and earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago, then getting swept in four games by New Orleans in the first round. Portland added a pair of low-cost free agent guards, Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, to bolster its perimeter shooting game. The Blazers may also have a more significant role available now for 7-1 stretch forward Meyers Leonard, who shot .783 from the field and .727 from 3-point range in the preseason.

“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot in the preseason,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “We brought in guys who could have more of an impact at the offensive end.”

The Blazers may be without their starting small forward, Moe Harkless, who missed the entire preseason while rehabbing from knee surgery. His place will likely be taken Thursday night by third-year pro Jake Layman, who averaged 12.0 points and shot .512 from the field and .500 on 3-point attempts through the preseason.

“We’re pleased with the way Jake has seamlessly stepped into that role,” Olshey said.

Report: Clippers “have a better than not chance of getting” Kawhi Leonard next summer

Getty Images
1 Comment

This line of thinking has gone from a quiet buzz around league circles to a rumor to the point where the game’s top news breaker — Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN — is reporting it as 50/50 or better:

Kawhi Leonard could be coming to the Clippers next summer as a free agent.

Here is what Wojnarowski said on a podcast with Zach Lowe:

“What the Clippers are doing right now is very below the radar. What they’ve done to put themselves in position. They didn’t gut themselves and they’re not tanking. They’re putting a competitive team on the floor. I think, right now, with Kawhi Leonard, they have a better than not chance of getting him. We know things will change. He could love Toronto…

“The Clippers are in great position with him. They have two max slots. They will be heard from again, I think, in these Jimmy Butler trade talks.”

The Clippers name came up in the Butler trade talks early, but Minnesota (read: Tom Thibodeau) reportedly asked for Tobias Harris and the Clippers shot that down cold. The talks have gained no traction after that, according to sources. The Clippers like Harris (who is a free agent this July and wants to get paid) and ideally want to keep him, but there will be serious roster overhaul in Los Angeles this summer and what happens to Harris will depend on a lot of other variables. Leonard included.

What Wojnarowski is reporting here is along the lines of what a lot of people around the league are talking about. This isn’t out of left field.

I can hear Lakers fans now: He is coming to us. (Knicks fans may be thinking that too, unless they are busy dreaming about Kevin Durant.) But there are a couple of reasons the Clippers make sense over those other markets.

First is the shadow of LeBron James. Not everybody wants to play in it. If Leonard — or, more accurately, the people around Leonard — want to build his brand and have him become the center of a marketing machine, being in that shadow could be seen as stunting his growth.

Them there is just fit with an organization. By his nature, Leonard does not seek out the brightest lights, he is not on social media, he does not dream of being part of the celebrity culture, and Leonard does not like a lot of drama in and around the locker room. All of those things come with signing a Lakers’ contract, and the same thing with the Knicks. While the Clippers are in Los Angeles and players there can seek out all those distractions if they want, the Clipper brand isn’t doesn’t bring the same intensity of spotlight that the Lakers with LeBron would.

All of those reasons — plus one extra guaranteed year at north of $40 million — could keep Leonard in Toronto if the team does well this season. However, if next July he’s looking to move on, the Clippers really could be his new home.

Paul George: I would have signed with Lakers if Pacers didn’t trade me to Thunder

Harry How/Getty Images
3 Comments

Paul George didn’t request a trade from the Pacers. He merely informed them he’d leave in free agency and told people he’d sign with the Lakers, leaving it up to Indiana what to do about it.

The Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City, where George found a long-term home. He re-signed with the Thunder this summer.

Marc J. Spears of ESPN:

Paul George revealed to ESPN’s The Undefeated that he “would have been in a Lakers uniform” if he had never been traded from the Indiana Pacers. But after the Pacers dealt the five-time All-Star to the Oklahoma City Thunder instead last year, he fell in love with his new team and playing with Russell Westbrook before eventually agreeing to a four-year, $137 million contract extension this past offseason.

“It was 50-50 on deciding whether I wanted to come back home or if it was smarter to be in the situation I am in now,” George told The Undefeated. “But it wasn’t overstated. I wanted to play in L.A. That is where I wanted to go. Had that trade never went down, had I played one more year in Indy, I would have been in a Lakers uniform.”

Even while with the Thunder, George spoke openly about the appeal of Los Angeles. Despite not meeting with the Lakers in free agency, he still called them tempting. He’s mostly just confirming what we already believed.

Remember, the Lakers could have traded for George last year. Instead, they banked on getting him without surrendering assets, and that gambit failed. Importantly, they still lured LeBron James, but they’re still searching for a second star.

This ought to reopen questions about whether the Lakers erred by not trading for Kawhi Leonard. Leonard reportedly has interest in Los Angeles (though maybe more in the Clippers), but the Lakers watched the Spurs trade him to the Raptors. Will Leonard similarly fall for Toronto and spurn his hometown team?

It’d be a mistake to assume Leonard will follow the path of George, who’s a completely different person. But it’d also be a mistake not to evaluate the precedent set by George and learn from it.