The NBA is back and ready to dominate our lives for the next eight months. Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller get you ready for the season with storylines, award races, and go out of their way to not make predictions. Who can tell the future anyway? It’s Flanns and Zillz:
ZILLER: Hey Paul. Happy opening day! The 2016-17 NBA season is finally here, and by "finally" I mean, "oh god, it's starting already?!" Happens every Olympic year.
I know you hate predictions with the heat of a thousand suns. That said, how do you think this season plays out? We're almost assuredly destined for a Warriors-Cavaliers rubber match, right?
FLANNERY: I don't see any way around it, and yes, I truly loathe predictions. I'm glad we're not doing them this year. What is there to predict? Only a contrarian of the highest order would pick against a Cleveland-Golden State matchup. The only legit rationale is forecasting injuries, which is an absurd proposition and will only bring bad karma upon your being. So, let's not do that.
Beyond the favorites, I think we've got a pretty good notion of the tiers. Tell me where I'm wrong.
Tier I (Legit contenders)
West: Golden State
Tier II (Conference finalists, top 3 seed)
West: San Antonio/Clippers
Tier III (Playoff contender)
Everybody else except ...
Tier IV (Lottery)
I’m inclined to throw the Kings into that bottom tier as well, but I'm feeling generous. We usually have a good idea of the handful of teams that can win championships, but this year feel particularly fragmented.
ZILLER: Your tiers certainly look spot on to me. I want to see the Spurs against Golden State before I completely write them out of the top tier because damn, they won 67 games last year. I think the Clippers have a shot if everything goes right, which never happens for the Clippers. But I don't remember a Finals matchup this predestined since, well, last year?
Parity is weird. The NBA has little championship parity historically or now. But almost every team has a legit shot at the playoffs. I actually don't think the four teams you have in the lottery for sure are total lost causes. There's a ton of intrigue from Team No. 3 to Team No. 30 in my book.
Isn't that pretty awesome?
FLANNERY: Even last year there was some variance at the top, but this feels as close to Celtics-Lakers in the 80s as we've come. I'm cool with that, by the way. They were clearly the two best teams and their rosters are stocked with the league's best players. Who could want anything more out of a Finals matchup?
That's an interesting point about parity. It is weird. I think there are two things going on. Despite the concentration of star talent in Oakland and Cleveland, there are a number of star players spread around the league. Those teams will always be competitive. And then, coaching and front office infrastructure have improved dramatically. There are fewer secrets and fewer dumb teams, for lack of a better phrase.
The Warriors and Cavs are the outliers here. Cleveland hit the lottery twice and had a homegrown star return of his own volition. Where else does that happen? Golden State struck gold in unusual spots in the draft and managed to time everything just right to entice Kevin Durant. Even if you tried to plan for that, it'd probably backfire.
I'm interested to see which teams emerge from those lower tiers, because every run ends eventually. Who's next and how will they position themselves for the next opportunity?
ZILLER: Boston, Toronto, and San Antonio should all be good for the rest of the decade. The Clippers will be right there until they blow up this core. Detroit is on an upward swing.
I can see any of those teams capitalizing on the favorites' misfortune. It's all about finding opportunities in the trade market and free agency to improve weaknesses. A shooter for Boston, Detroit, and Toronto, a shot creator for the Spurs, a 3-and-D small forward for the Clippers.
For teams lower on the ladder, this means nailing a call on a younger player or buying on an old target with the right complementary skill set.
I'm most excited, though, to look for the next generation of stars. You visited Karl-Anthony Towns. I can't wait to see he, Andrew Wiggins and Tom Thibodeau build something. This has a definite Oklahoma City 2009 feel. I'm actually quite excited to watch D'Angelo Russell, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, and Anthony Davis reach higher levels.
This is the best part of having superstars (those realized and prospective) spread around the league: There's someone to watch every night.
FLANNERY: Yeah, I'm in for that and that's what will appeal to the League Pass crew, of which we are both members. We're going to need something fun to get us through the winter months, because there will be a hipster backlash to the popular backlash against the Warriors that’ll lead to a counter backlash, and we will all be sick of them by February.
The MVP race should be fascinating. You wrote on it in more depth and tabbed Kawhi Leonard as your favorite. That's a phenomenal choice. I think Bron will be motivated enough to put up his usual quality numbers and voters will remember what he did during the Finals. That would be his fifth MVP and complete his narrative arc in many respects. He’s my choice.
That's the most interesting award race by far. Any other you plan to watch with interest this season?
ZILLER: As you know, I'm increasingly obsessed with Embiid. As such, I'll be keeping close tabs on Rookie of the Year. Otherwise, none of the other awards races strike me much. We know the contenders for Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man, and Coach of the Year are a mix of random with perennial stalwarts. Most Improved is a sham. Give me rookies, stars, and maybe a rookie star.
I see myself watching 50 Warriors games just for the thrill. Any teams you see yourself binging on? I think the Lakers and Suns will be surprisingly watchable, and I'm eager to see how different Miami and Memphis look. I want to see how different Atlanta looks too, but I don't actually want to watch a Hawks game, if that makes sense.
FLANNERY: I can't get too excited about DPOY or Sixth Man until we hit March at the earliest. I like that COY has embraced the idea that it should reward the best coach, and not the guy who exceeded our own expectations. ROY is Embiid's to lose at this point, which says a lot about this rookie class.
I'll watch the Warriors, of course. I'll see a lot of the Celtics live, obviously. I'm curious about Indiana, Orlando, and Denver. I like watching Charlotte play and I love watching the Blazers. Going to binge on Minnesota and Utah to see if they're for real. Westbrook's going to be must-watch every night and AD is always like that for me.
We should probably talk about the CBA. I'm cautiously optimistic that they're going to not only get the big stuff done and avoid a lockout, but also address a bunch of these side issues that have been neglected for so long. The D-League stuff sounds promising, as does the upgraded rookie scale. Any issues in particular you're watching?
ZILLER: The D-League is right in my wheelhouse, for sure. I'm curious as to whether the hardness of the salary cap and the individual players' cap will be tweaked. I can't believe we'll have a new CBA without some structural changes to the way teams do business. I'm also morbidly curious about another amnesty clause. In any case, kudos to Adam Silver, Michele Roberts, Chris Paul, and the lawyers. I'm legitimately stunned how smooth this has seemingly been.
Alright, let's wrap this up with a bold prediction from each of us. I think the Warriors are going to win at least 70 games while resting guys like they're starting pitchers. Too much talent. Give us yours.
FLANNERY: My boldest prediction is that everyone's bold predictions will look silly by summer. (I like yours, though. Not totally buying it, but it's a fun premise). This is a chalk season. We all may as well expect that and accept it.
To that end, I think we'll see more in-season trades as teams give up the ghost on whatever plan they put in place and start looking toward the future. We have arguably 25 playoff-caliber teams on paper and only 16 spots, so the teams that are proactive will find a deeper trade market.
For the record I've got the Warriors over the Cavs and Bron winning his fifth MVP. There, we said we weren't doing predictions and I just gave the only two that matter. Any final thoughts?
ZILLER: Just one. Let's basketball.