The sports calendar always wraps around on itself, like Ouroboros eating its own tail, but this year it feels particularly interminable for me. Baseball is still going, as the Giants attempt to clinch their third World Series championship in five years tonight (please please please please please Baseball Gods, let the Giants win tonight); and the Niners are smack in the middle of a mediocre season that’s driving me freaking crazy. And if that’s not enough, tonight basketball returns, with a season full of questions and intrigue.
Can the San Antonio Spurs continue to be a mechanical, ageless wonder? Can the Clippers reach their potential and make a run for the title? Will a new coach push Steph “Ghost Pepper” Curry and my beloved Dubs to new heights? What will Russell Westbrook do with Kevin Durant hurt, and does that foot injury mean OKC’s window is getting even more perliously close to shutting? Can Derrick Rose stay healthy? Can Phil Jackson bring the Knicks back to respectability? And … there’s something else I’m forgetting … what could it be?
Oh yeah, can LeBron James, with Kevin Love in tow, bring a championship back to his hometown? I took a glance into my admittedly cloudy and unreliably magic (not magic) 8-ball, and here’s what it told me.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 63-19
LeBron and the Cavs are doing their best to manage expectations, and this team has some pretty major questions on defense, to go with a first-time NBA coach. And who knows how all the pieces are going to jell. But let’s be serious: This team has LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. They’re going to be a freaking juggernaut.
2. Chicago Bulls: 59-23
Maybe it’s not realistic to expect Derrick Rose to stay healthy, but goddammit, I’m not going to predict he’s going to get hurt in this column. I want to watch D-Rose and Noah and Pau battle the Cavs come playoff time, and I think we will.
3. Washington Wizards: 51-31
Love John Wall. Love Bradley Beal. Love Nene. Love The Truth. Love the Polish Hammer. Love this team.
4. Charlotte Hornets: 49-33
I joked to a buddy during the offseason that the Lance Stephenson signing could end up screwing up both his old AND new teams. As Jalen Rose said on a Grantland podcast about Evan Turner punching Lance last season, “when the other guys on your team let the new guy punch you, it means they all want to, too.” But as much as I’m saying all that, Lance is pretty good at basketball; add him to Kemba Walker and Big Al Jefferson, and I think this Hornets team could be pretty good. Also, the HORNETS are back! Where’s Grandmama?
5. Toronto Raptors: 48-34
Team looks about the same to me as last year, so I’m predicting the exact same record for them. I don’t have a lot else to say about the T-Dot.
6. Miami Heat: 45-37
Yeah, there’s no LeBron, but Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are both still pretty good.
7. Atlanta Hawks: 44-38
People forget how good Al Horford is. If he stays healthy, this team has potential: I like Jeff Teague, and the Hawks have a really good coach. They also have one of the most depressing ownership/fanbase situations in the league. You can’t win ’em all, I guess.
8. New York Knicks: 42-40
I have no idea if Derek Fisher is going to be a good coach. I have no idea if Carmelo will take to the triangle. I have no idea why I’m picking this team to make the playoffs.
Interesting Non-Playoff Teams: I just don’t see it with Brooklyn this year: Deron Williams has been mediocre for years, Kevin Garnett is older than time itself, they lost Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, and yeah, they get Brook Lopez back this year, but they didn’t start playing well last year until after Lopez got hurt. So I’m not a believer. I am a believer in Stan Van Gundy—but I think he needs a year to sift through his roster and make some moves before Detroit gets back in the playoffs. Indiana makes me sad. And … I have nothing else to say about the Eastern Conference.
1. San Antonio Spurs: 61-21
At this point, I’m writing the Spurs into this slot until Duncan and Popovich are gone.
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 58-24
It’s all set up for the Clips. This is the year they have to make it happen. We know they’ll be a top regular season team, but that doesn’t even matter. It’s NBA Finals or bust for this team.
3. Golden State Warriors: 56-26
It’s going to be a little hard for me to watch this team at first, just because every time I look at Klay Thompson, I’m going to see Kevin Love, and then I’m going to start bleeding from my eyeballs. But with that said, I think this team underachieved last year, and I think that was largely because Mark Jackson wasn’t a very good coach. We don’t know about Steve Kerr yet, but I have faith that he’s going to put in an offense that will make the best use of his weapons and use a rotation that gives his players their best chance to succeed. And I love the Shaun Livingston signing—I think he’s the third guard they were missing last year. The three seed may seem a bit high for this team, but that’s largely because…
4. Oklahoma City Thunder: 55-27
The Durant injury isn’t going to sink this team, but it will bump them far enough down in the standings to make their road tougher come playoff time. In some ways, though, it might help them: Durant played an insane amount of minutes last year, so if he misses 20 games, it might help him be fresher in May and June. Also, it’ll be fun to see Westbrook be the lead dog for a couple of months (Grantland’s Zach Lowe predicted Russ will be leading the league in scoring when Durant comes back). But god help the Thunder if he gets hurt too (remember, he had three knee surgeries last year).
5. Memphis Grizzlies: 54-28
This team won 50 games last year even though their best player, Marc Gasol, missed a big chunk of the season. They’re gonna be really good again. Besides, aren’t the Grizz and the Thunder destined to play a brutal seven-game series in the playoffs every year?
6. Dallas Mavericks: 53-29
Love Dirk. Love Monta. Love Tyson Chandler. Love Carlisle. This was one of the funnest teams in the league to watch last year, and they were the team that came the closest to beating the Spurs in the playoffs last year.
7. Houston Rockets: 51-31
It’s weird, I think Chandler Parsons is really overrated, but I also think the Rockets are gonna miss him. They let him and Jeremy Lin walk because they thought they were getting Bosh, only to have Bosh stay in Miami, and then their big addition was Trevor Ariza, who is, um, not that good. I don’t blame Houston for taking their shot at Bosh, but they kinda fucked themselves to do it. Also, I will always pick against Dwight Howard, the most obnoxious superstar (other than Kobe) in the NBA.
8. Portland Trail Blazers: 50-32
I love Rip City, and Oakland’s own Damian Lillard is my favorite non-Steph Curry player in the league.
I think they’re still a playoff team, but everything went right for them last year, and I think that they’ll have a little bit of regression this season.
Interesting Non-Playoff Teams: If Anthony Davis makes the true superstar leap (and I think he’s going to), you could talk me into New Orleans sneaking into the playoffs. Phoenix is so entertaining, but I still think they’re gonna be stuck in the lottery in the brutal Western Conference. And to Lakers fans, I’ll repeat what I said last year: HAHAHAHAHAAHAHA! FUCK YOU! I’m the guy eating cotton candy and wearing a party hat at your fucking funeral.
Of course, most of what I just wrote doesn’t really matter, because NBA legacies are decided in The Playoffs:
Eastern Conference First Round:
Cavs vs. Knicks: Cavs in 5. Knicks get the one game where Melo scores 45, but otherwise this series is a massacre.
Bulls vs. Hawks: Bulls in 6, in a series that I actually think would be pretty competitive (if a defensive slugfest).
Wizards vs. Heat: Miami’s got the experience, but Washington’s got the depth and athleticism to take down the Heat. Wizards in 5.
Hornets vs. Raptors: This one would be pretty good. Toronto narrowly lost to Brooklyn when Paul Pierce blocked a Kyle Lowry shot at the buzzer in game 7 in Toronto. This year, I think the Drakes are able to close out a series in front of their crazed fans. Raptors in 6.
Eastern Conference Second Round:
Cavs vs. Raptors: Cavs in 4, in a bloodletting
Bulls vs. Wizards: The Wiz took down Chicago in the first round last year, but that’s because the Bulls didn’t have anyone who could score. This year? They’ll have Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. Bulls in 6.
Eastern Conference Finals:
Cavs vs. Bulls: Please, please, please Basketball Gods, allow this to happen. A series between these two teams, if fully healthy, would be incredible. So who would take it? I think back to the last time Rose was 100 percent for a playoff series, and how LeBron locked him down on defense, and I have to pick the Cavs in 7.
Western Conference First Round:
Spurs vs. Blazers: This one should look a lot like their second-round series last year. Spurs in 5.
Clippers vs. Rockets: LA has way more horses than Houston does. Clips in 5.
Dubs vs. Mavs: Oh, this would be so delightful. Two likable, entertaining teams with playoff history.
You know Monta would win Dallas one game by himself, but the combo of Ghost Pepper Curry and homecourt advantage means Dubs in 7.
Thunder vs. Grizzlies: It’s always so fun when these two teams play. OKC narrowly survived Memphis last year, and I think, assuming they’ve got everyone healthy, it’ll probably be about the same this year. Thunder in 7.
Western Conference Second Round:
Spurs vs. Thunder: As great as the Spurs are, they also got all the breaks last year. OKC is still the team that matches up with them the best, and with Durant hopefully fresher and Ibaka and Westbrook healthy, I think we’ll see Thunder in 6.
Clippers vs. Dubs: I’ll always believe the Dubs would have beaten the Clippers in the first round last year if Bogut hadn’t been hurt. I know Bogut tends to get hurt often, but I’m gonna go ahead and cross my fingers and believe they’ll have him for the playoffs this year. Dubs in 6.
Western Conference Finals:
Dubs vs. Thunder: I just … if this happens … I’ll lose my mind. It would be incredible. I don’t even have any analysis. This would be a two-week basketball orgasm. Unfortunately for me and all the Dubs fans out there, Durant’s the guy who’ll have the money shot. Thunder in 6.
LeBron vs. Durant in the finals, as it should be. I know it’s insane to pick Cleveland to win the title this year, but if my predictions come through, they’ll have homecourt in game 7, and that will be enough for LeBron to bring it on home.