clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

99 NBA predictions for the inevitable, incredible 2017-2018 season

New, comments

Yes, the Warriors are going to win it all. No, you don’t know what else will happen. Yet.

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 2017-18 NBA season tips off on Tuesday. After a completely wild offseason that saw several All-Stars change teams via trade and free agency, and coming off a thoroughly dominant revenge season for the Golden State Warriors, everyone is excited to see what’s going to happen.

So allow me to spoil it all for you by telling you exactly what’s going to happen this season. From the All-Star Game to the broader league narratives to the playoff races, I’ve spelled out 99 big predictions for you.

The predictions are organized into 11 topics, with nine predictions in each. These range from the silly to the serious, from the no-brainer to the completely unbelievable. Don’t hold the crazier ones against me if they fail to materialize, please.

Without further ado ...

The Warriors

Golden State Warriors Media Day Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Warriors will win the championship. Sorry, I should have stuck a spoiler alert on this one.

The Warriors will go 16-0 in the playoffs. We’ve seen this team set impossible goals and achieve them. We saw this team go 12-0 through the Western Conference. We’ve heard Draymond Green declare how mad he was the Warriors didn’t sweep the Cavaliers in the 2017 Finals. It’s happening. 16-0 is happening.

The Warriors will accidentally win 73 games. It would actually be difficult for this team to lose, especially with new rules limiting the number of starters who can legitimately rest in road games. (I won’t put it past Steve Kerr to make up fake ailments to get his guys some rest, of course.)

Steph Curry will have a 60-point game. His current career high is 54. That’s a very soft career high!

Kevin Durant will have a 60-point game, too. Durant’s career high is also 54. This is also very soft!

Klay Thompson will live the best life.

The Nick Young-JaVale McGee friendship will be one of the most lovely stories of the season. The last time this duo was together had darker overtones as the Wizards foundered. They were goofs helping to hold an immature team back. No longer. Now they are the goofs helping a bored hegemon have fun.

The Warriors will drop regular season-games to the Thunder, Spurs, and Rockets. These results will give those teams and their fans false hope.

Steve Kerr will pen op-eds in The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. He will also publish an essay on democratic norms in the New Yorker, do an interview with the Paris Review, write a first-person essay for Vox.com, and endorse quite early in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

The Narratives

Prepare for the G League to become a big deal. We’re nearing the point where every NBA team has a G League team. The NBA is debuting two-way contracts this season. We’re closer than ever to true farm league status. Pay attention. The teams that have embraced the G League are getting great value from it.

The age minimum will finally get solved. In 2011, the NBA and players’ union vowed to fix the age minimum outside of collective bargaining. Then the union leadership imploded and took forever to hire a new executive director, David Stern retired, and the Donald Sterling saga happened. Before we knew it, it was time to negotiate a new labor deal. But this time, I believe the NBA and players’ union are sincere in wanting to change the age rules in some way. Adam Silver has even admitted publicly that it’s not working.

Franchise owners, writers, and fans will continue to complain about superteams. Water is wet.

The Last Tank will be a massive story all year, thanks to a dope draft class. You’re going to have the Knicks and Bulls — two of the league’s most famous franchises -- chasing lottery balls all year. You have at least three potential franchise cornerstones in Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley, and Michael Porter. You have lottery reform. It’s a stew of weird attention.

LeBron’s offseason plans will be a constant source of delight and frustration. Seriously, are you ready for it?

LaVar Ball actually has a son in the NBA now. All of that attention the sports media complex (myself included) lavished on him came before his kid even debuted in the league. FML.

2017 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

All-Star Weekend will be a wonderful league showcase, belying the controversy over 2019 in Charlotte. Last season’s All-Star move from Charlotte to New Orleans over an anti-LGBTQ law in North Carolina showed the league making a political stand for decency. The NBA has already agreed to return to Charlotte in 2019 after what many consider a weak reform to that anti-LGBTQ law passed. No one will talk about that this year. That’s good in the short-term for the NBA ... but it’s a ticking controversy bomb.

NBA stars will not protest during the national anthem ... but at least one player will test the league’s willingness to punish those who do. LeBron has repeatedly indicated that he will not kneel during the anthem, and the Warriors are unlikely to do so, either. But some player out there will sit or kneel in solidarity with NFL players who have done so this season and last. And we’ll all look askance at Adam Silver to see if he’s serious about enforcing the NBA’s rule on standing during the anthem. (Meanwhile, in the midst of all that, we aren’t talking about the reasons NFL players are protesting.)

Chicago Bulls v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

NBA players and coaches will continue to speak out about the President’s policies and tone. This is the important piece: the league’s faces will assuredly continue to use their outsized voices to raise objections to what is happening at the head of the federal government. It remains to be seen whether this translates into direct support for efforts to limit the impacts of the administration’s action. Speaking in generalities about decency and democracy in media availability is one thing. Raising money and awareness of actual organizations doing the heavy lifting on this issue is another.

What about LeBron?

LeBron is going to drive us crazy this season. I mean, this has already begun with his visit to a private school in Los Angeles over the summer with his wife. He explained it away as needing a place to work out after a long commercial shoot, but no one buys it. There will be more little flirtatious nuggets of news throughout the season that will point toward a Los Angeles sojourn for LeBron this summer. It’s going to drive us crazy.

Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

LeBron isn’t going to try to score 50 on the Celtics. That isn’t LeBron’s style. He wants to beat teams he’s mad about, and he knows he can do that most effectively by using the full breadth of his talents. So opening night when the Cavaliers face the Celtics, expect fireworks ... but not a scoring explosion.

LeBron will continue to pick his spots to get political. James isn’t the most political NBA star, but he understands his power and has a clear point of view about human decency. That’s what led to “U Bum” and it’s what will lead to the next conflagration. But don’t expect him to get political every week. That’s not him.

LeBron will become the seventh player in NBA history with 30,000 career points. He’ll do it around All-Star weekend, joining Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Dirk Nowitzki. He won’t catch anyone yet, though.

The G.O.A.T. debate will get louder. If LeBron wins another MVP and leads the Cavaliers to yet another NBA Finals — even if he can’t beat the Warriors as presently constructed — the calls to compare him favorably to Michael Jordan will get only louder. You’re beginning to see more converts in the media willing to say it out loud.

LeBron will hype up Isaiah Thomas more than he ever did Kyrie. This isn’t so much a once-bitten, twice-shy scenario, but there’s something most NBA players seem to admire in Isaiah that makes him easy to embrace. LeBron will do so after having a long “work relationship” with Kyrie.

The LeBron-Dwyane Wade friendship will be hilarious and sweet. We lost the Road Trippin’ tag team when Richard Jefferson got traded for luxury tax relief, but at least we have Peanut Butter and Jelly.

LeBron will be the dean of All-Star weekend. James’ pride in his own career and his status within the league is more important than his desire to lay low at this point. Plus, All-Star is in Los Angeles, which will make it even more of a circus than usual.

LeBron will remain in Cleveland, but somehow assemble the Banana Boat. This prediction extends beyond the season, of course. I think his desire to be “home” and help the children of Akron exceeds his desire to spend half the regular season in Southern California, especially when that means dealing with the stacked Western Conference, risking his Finals streak, and potentially dealing with LaVar Ball every day. But another defeat at the hands of the Warriors will sting, leading him to convince the front office to bring in Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, even if it costs those two, LeBron, and Wade lots of cash, the Nets pick, and/or Kevin Love.

The Transactions

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Expect more Klay Thompson rumors. There’s like no chance the Warriors trade him this season, but he’s a free agent in 2019 and no one expects him to take less money to help out Joe Lacob. Thompson really does not seem like a guy who takes less money ever. He doesn’t have Nike or Under Armour money (no shots at Anta) and he has not seemed to embrace opportunity in Silicon Valley like Kevin Durant or Andre Iguodala. If Lacob gets antsy about an even bigger tax bill in 2019-20 as salary cap growth stagnates, he might direct the front office to look for a younger, cheaper replacement for Thompson on the market.

Isaiah Thomas vs. The Max. When Isaiah gets back on the court, you know he’s going to get questions about his offseason contract expectations. Isaiah has been underpaid his entire career. He wants to get paid, and he should get paid ... if his hip checks out. That could cause some friction as Isaiah speaks up and the Cavaliers (smartly) demure.

That Nets pick is getting traded. The Cavaliers, as presently constructed, are not going to beat the Warriors as presently constructed. Cleveland has the Nets’ unprotected pick thanks to the Kyrie deal. It has been presented as an insurance policy in the event LeBron leaves. Forget that. Use it while you have LeBron to boost your chances of winning another title. What is more likely to persuade LeBron to stay in Cleveland: a very competitive Finals against an unbeatable opponent that may or may not result in a title, or the promise of a good rookie next season? Come on. Trade the pick for an All-Star.

DeMarcus Cousins is not getting traded. There have been suggestions that if the Pelicans come out flat, New Orleans could flip Boogie (possibly for that Nets pick). For one, I think the Pels will be pretty good, and there’s no way New Orleans sacrifices a playoff run with Anthony Davis for a future asset. But here’s the flip side to that: if the Pelicans are bad, Cousins will invariably take the blame, tanking his already low trade value. Plus he’s going into free agency in 2018. No way.

New Orleans Pelicans v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Jahlil Okafor will be traded, and will thrive for a while. It’s been a long time coming. How hard must it be to give it your all in a situation where you know you aren’t wanted, especially as a relatively young person who is accustomed to massive success.

Nerlens Noel will get traded. Noel’s restricted free agency was completely bizarre, and his decision to sign the qualifying offer clearly angered the Mavericks. Dallas didn’t give up much to land Noel a year ago, and so it can justify flipping him for a low first if it determines in January it doesn’t plan on paying what it requires to keep him in the summer.

Eric Bledsoe will be traded. Bledsoe is on an old cap deal, due less than $30 million over two seasons. Phoenix is still not ready to win, and the Suns can’t believe Bledsoe will re-sign in 2019. Bledsoe would have been a more likely option for the Cavaliers before Dwyane Wade signed on. He’d be a brilliant fit for the Jazz or Bucks if they have the pieces to make it work.

Andre Drummond will again be in the rumor mill, and it will again amount to nothing. Drummond is a player whose potential still far outshines the reality. It’s really hard to trade those players because defining what good value looks like is really difficult. It’s clear he doesn’t mesh with Stan Van Gundy at all. Even with Van Gundy pulling the strings in Detroit, finding a taker who will offer the goods is a problem.

The Nuggets will be active. No team looks more thirsty for a playoff bid than Denver — remember the Dwyane Wade chase a year ago, and the Paul Millsap victory this summer, plus that awful Mason Plumlee-Jusuf Nurkic trade at the last deadline. That roster is still wildly unbalanced with youth and potential in the backcourt and veterans (plus Nikola Jokic) up front. Expect attempts to balance it all into a cohesive collection of talent. (The defensive upside still remains wholly questionable.)

The All-Star Game

Joel Embiid will be an All-Star starter. He came awful close a year ago as he expanded his fan base beyond the borders of Philadelphia and, uh, actually played NBA basketball. His fan voting campaign is likely to take on a life of its own, and he may even get a boost from media or player voters if he plays enough games and minutes. We know he’ll put up numbers if he can get out there.

Stephen Curry and LeBron James will be your captains. Remember, the leading vote-getter in each of the Eastern and Western conferences will pick rosters based off the All-Stars chosen through traditional methods. LeBron is almost a lock in the East, barring injury. Curry could definitely be beaten by Kevin Durant, James Harden, or Russell Westbrook for top billing out West, but he has won the honor last year, and I’m betting that holds.

Given the chance, LeBron will steal a Warrior. As I understand it, the captains will pick the other eight starters first (to ensure each team has five) and then start picking from the reserves. Assuming LeBron and either Curry or Durant are captains, and assuming LeBron is the overall leading vote-getter, and assuming the NBA determines that gives him first pick among the other starters ... LeBron would probably pick the available player out of Curry and Durant, just to break up the Warriors and add some intrigue. Don’t count out LeBron drafting his frenemy Draymond Green, too.

Neither Kevin Durant nor Russell Westbrook will draft each other. The prospect of either one being the West captain and passing up on the best All-Star style player on the board should LeBron go first and pick Curry is magical. It’s too bad LeBron would definitely want both of them on his team.

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Joel Embiid will be the last starter picked, and will savage the other team for it. It appears that the draft will happen in advance of actual All-Star weekend: I bet they’ll roll it into the getaway TNT game before the break so Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley can chuckle about it. So whoever is the last starter picked will have time to stew before arriving in Los Angeles. Unless a goofy fan vote like Zaza Pachulia makes it as a starter, or a low-glamour wing like Gordon Hayward is named a starter, Embiid might be the last dude picked. Anyone think Embiid would take that in stride with his Twitter Army at his back?

LeBron is going to snub the hell out of Kyrie Irving. The one conditional exception to the above: if the West captain starts taking other players over Kyrie for various reasons, there’s no way LeBron is going to take him. Imagine the nation of Georgia and country singers and Warriors Nation all conspire to make Zaza an All-Star starter over Kawhi Leonard. Imagine LeBron and Curry are the captains. LeBron took Durant, Westbrook, and Embiid. Curry takes Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and DeMar DeRozan. LeBron’s up and the choices are Kyrie Irving and Zaza Pachulia. You don’t get an opportunity like that every day.

James Harden will not be a starter. He narrowly edged Westbrook last season. The Thunderian’s MVP and boosted team, in concert with Chris Paul shaving down Harden’s gaudy stats a little, should get Westbrook there.

Goran Dragic will be an All-Star. No offense to the Slovenian, but this says as much about the East as it does Goran Dragic. (He’s really good, though.)

The game will still be mostly non-competitive. The NBA and players’ union — led by Michael Jordan and Chris Paul respectively on this topic — think they found a way to turn the All-Star Game from a playful, non-competitive exhibition into an actual game by revising the team make-up and putting charity money on the line. Wrong. No one’s playing real defense here.

The MVP Race

LeBron will be the NBA MVP. It isn’t as if LeBron lacks help with Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, and (eventually) Isaiah Thomas. But this is a perception thing, and Cleveland should be out in front in the East. LeBron is by far the best player in his conference, and he’s led teams to the Finals every year since 2011. He’s in the driver’s seat.

Kawhi Leonard will be No. 2, and has the best shot to beat LeBron. Leonard finished second when Steph Curry won it unanimously, and third last season behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The issue here is that he’s starting the season injured, and he’s likely to rest frequently throughout the season. There’s also a non-zero chance that the Spurs aren’t quite up to their elite standard this season given some player personnel losses.

San Antonio Spurs v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Paul George will hurt Westbrook’s case. Let’s just say that Westbrook is unlikely to average a triple-double again. Westbrook will still be a top-flight scorer, but holding the ball less should reduce his assist numbers, and he has a solid rebounding team around him.

Chris Paul will hurt James Harden’s case. Harden’s problem with MVP hasn’t been a lack of stats or wins. It’s been timing. He ran into Curry and Westbrook buzzsaws at the wrong time. But CP3 will have the ball a whole lot more than Patrick Beverley ever did, which should reduce Harden’s gaudy numbers and hurt his MVP shot.

Stephen Curry is never winning another MVP. This is not because he did not deserve the prior two MVP awards. It’s mostly because his team lost the NBA Finals to a LeBron-led team in 2016, and then grabbed another top-5 player to strike back. Honestly, this also means that ...

Kevin Durant has an added difficulty level in winning MVP. Remember how some voters kept LeBron off their 2011 MVP ballot, despite him being clearly no worse than the No. 3 player in the league that season? (I think he was No. 1 or 2.) People hold decisions they don’t like against the protagonists. LeBron eventually won two more MVPs, but Durant has a lower margin for error with such great co-stars and such heavy competition. That voter melt matters more.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is not there yet. Almost. The Bucks need to be better.

Jimmy Butler will get some push. If the Timberwolves are as good as many expect them to be, Butler will definitely get a push for ballot inclusion. You know, the old “Chris Paul belongs in the MVP conversation!” that gets a player a bunch of fifth-place votes. Get ready for it.

Ultra dark horse contender: Anthony Davis. If the Pelicans finally put it together and win close to 50 games — we can dream, right? -- The Brow needs to be in the conversation. You might think he gets dinged for having All-Star help in DeMarcus Cousins. Narratives can be framed that he’s the guy who finally took Cousins to the playoffs, though.

The Other Awards

A Timberwolf will win Most Improved Player. I once renounced this award as illegitimate because it only ever rewarded the player who got the biggest minutes played jump. But voters have seen the light and begun awarding it more appropriately -- Giannis was an inspired choice last year — and so Most Improved is back in my good graces. That said, I think team influence will matter a lot, and Minnesota’s expected improvement should help Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins get the nod.

Jusuf Nurkic is the dark horse Most Improved Player. This is tough, because a lot of people already consider Nurkic a basketball god. To get Nurkic MIP, we have to convince everyone he’s not actually already perfect. We have our work cut out for us. One more dark horse while we’re here: Justin Holiday. Okay, one more: literally any Charlotte Hornet other than Dwight Howard, Kemba Walker, and Nicolas Batum.

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Three Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

If Norm Powell comes off the bench, he’s my Sixth Man of the Year favorite. As of press time, it’s not clear whether Powell or C.J. Miles will be the full-time starter at small forward in Toronto. I would encourage Dwane Casey to choose Miles, both for basketball reasons and to help make this prediction come true. Powell is a dynamo scorer ready to break out into the continental consciousness.

The Clippers have intriguing Sixth Man options in a post-Crawford world. Jamal Crawford, eternal Sixth Man candidate, went to Minnesota. But the Clippers still have two intriguing options for Sixth Man of the Year. The first happens if Milos Teodosic comes off the bench behind Patrick Beverley. Milos will be on “SportsCenter” every night due to his brash passing, so he’ll get juice off just that. Milos, however, might end up a starter alongside Beverley — especially if Austin Rivers is playing more small forward. That opens up the award contention for Sweet Lou Williams, a perennial contender.

Draymond Green will be the Defensive Player of the Year. There’s nothing more to say. Apologies to Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard. Green is at that status where he should automatically win it as long as he plays 70 games.

Tom Thibodeau will be the Coach of the Year. Ending Minnesota’s long playoff drought will have been the work of Towns, Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler, primarily. But Thibodeau is the front office boss, as well, and he’s so damn respected among the media that he’ll get the nod as long as Minnesota is a comfortable playoff team.

Rookie of the Year is going to be a wonderful race I am not going to handicap. Last season’s ROY race was impossible because of a dearth of good candidates. This season’s ROY race is going to be overloaded with worthy contenders. I refuse to pick just one right now. Not even Milos.

It will not be Markelle Fultz, though. It’s pretty clear that Ben Simmons will be more productive than Fultz this season, and that Joel Embiid will soak up attention and credit for any success Philadelphia has. Fultz’s narrative this season is not off to a great success with his jumper weirdness. Sorry, Markelle.

Here are your 2017-18 All-NBA teams. On the first team we have Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Karl-Anthony Towns. On the second team we have James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and Rudy Gobert. On the third team, we have John Wall, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. The biggest snubs include DeMar DeRozan (an outrage!), Damian Lillard (unconscionable!), Draymond Green (disrespectful!), and DeMarcus Cousins (no comment). UPDATE: Leaving off Giannis Antetokounmpo was an inadvertent mistake. Of course he belongs on the team! Please scratch out Jimmy Butler on the versios of this article you printed for posterity and write in Giannis. Thank you!

Welcome To Tankville

The last real year of tanking will be a barn-burner. Beginning with the 2018-19 season, the worst three teams will have identical draft lottery odds of winning a top pick, and the odds won’t be much worse for the fourth- and fifth-worst teams. But this year, the old rules remain in place: bad teams have significant incentives to be worse than other bad teams. The bad teams that own their own draft picks won’t ignore that. Get ready for the tank.

The Knicks are going to be the worst team in the NBA. This isn’t totally all about trading Carmelo Anthony. This is about committing to the future fully. Scott Perry, the team’s new front office leader, won’t ignore that it behooves the team to bottom out right now. That will inform the moves he makes. Jeff Hornacek is probably sick of losing, but his roster doesn’t have many winning pieces. Kristaps Porzingis will likely be an All-Star, but this team is going to be really bad. The good news is that a good shot at Luka Doncic awaits!

Miami Heat v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Pacers will be close. Losing Paul George, C.J. Miles, and Jeff Teague is such a drain on this team’s passing ability and versatility. It’s going to be a long season for Nate McMillan and the few veterans (like Al Jefferson) on the squad. But hey, Lance Stephenson is around! [hits face on desk]

The Nets will also be bad. Brooklyn again has no reason to tank: its pick will go to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unfortunately, as Kenny Atkinson and the crew learned last season, a lack of incentive to lose doesn’t mean you won’t lose lots of games. Trading away Brook Lopez was smart for the long-term — D’Angelo Russell has promise — but it doesn’t help win right now. Allen Crabbe is gonna score a bunch, though.

The Kings are the worst in the West. Unless Phoenix trades Eric Bledsoe, the Suns have a blue-chip top-50 player. The Kings ... do not. What’s more, Sacramento owes its 2019 pick, so time is of the essence to bottom out completely. The Kings are one George Hill injury from winning 20 games.

The Lakers will ascend to mediocrity. Lonzo Ball will make L.A. so fun to watch, and Brook Lopez will give them a blue-chip player to orbit around. But the depth is disastrous and I am deeply concerned about the shooting. Thirty wins seems right.

The Hawks won’t be hideous. The Bulls will. Atlanta has a bad roster, don’t get me wrong. But the system abides and the Hawks should be able to pull some improbable wins out of their hats. Chicago, though? Unless Zach LaVine comes back early, Justin Holiday chases Most Improved Player, and Kris Dunn develops quickly, this season is one long search for Doncic.

The Process is over. No NBA draft lottery party in Philadelphia this year. It’s the end of an era!

There will be a surprise tank team. I’m not saying it’s definitely going to be the Mavericks, but ... it’s probably going to be the Mavericks.

The West

The Rockets will be a clear No. 2 seed in the West. The Thunder added a bunch of firepower and retained the most important pieces of their core, but I question their depth, especially at the point. Houston is built to survive road trips, long stretches, and injuries.

The Thunder and Spurs will battle for the No. 3 seed, which means avoiding the Warriors in Round 2. San Antonio has to be concerned about Kawhi Leonard’s preseason injury and the age of the frontcourt. But the Spurs just win games. The Thunder should be improved enough to make a run at No. 3 with 55 or so wins.

The drop-off between No. 4 and No. 5 will be enormous. There are really four tiers in the West: the Warriors, the three teams chasing them, the eight other teams who are realistically aiming for a playoff spot, and the cellar dwellers. Four of those eight playoff chasers will make the postseason, but my prediction is that six or seven of the team will fall within six wins. Forty-five wins might get you the No. 5 seed, and 41 means you’re out.

The Timberwolves will end their playoff drought. Hallelujah! The curse of Kahn is over! But I don’t expect many more than 44 or 45 wins. Even that is asking a lot, despite the arrival of Jimmy Butler.

The Clippers are in. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan remain a deadly combo, and the depth is not as bad as you might think.

The Blazers are in. Last season was a disappointment that narrowly resulted in a playoff berth thanks to an inspired February trade for Jusuf Nurkic. I’d expect Portland to come off the starting line hotter and get a few extra wins.

The Pelicans win the last playoff spot on the final day of the season. I have New Orleans sneaking in past the Jazz, Grizzlies, Nuggets, and Mavericks. Utah has an elite defense but too little offense. Denver has an elite offense but too little defense. Dallas is in transition and may be closer to the No. 15 team than the No. 8. The Grizzlies are depending too heavily on magic and Chandler Parsons. Anthony Davis is too damn good to keep missing the playoffs, no matter what misfortune begets his team.

The Lakers will look frisky early and fade away as defenses figure out Lonzo Ball. The team’s defense is also going to be a real disaster. Again.

The Suns might be one of the most fun terrible teams ever. Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe (so long as he’s around), Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss — dunks and jumpers all day.

The East

The Cavaliers will not be the No. 1 seed. Over the course of LeBron’s seven straight Eastern Conference titles, his team has been the No. 1 seed only twice. With Isaiah Thomas unavailable for a bit and lots of new players to incorporate, expecting Cleveland to run away with the No. 1 seed is asking too much.

The Celtics will be the No. 1 seed. Boston, of course, is also incorporating a bunch of new faces. But everyone save for Marcus Morris begins the season healthy, and the offensive brilliance of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward should carry the Celtics through the growing pains.

The Raptors and Wizards are going to be pretty good again. Toronto lost Patrick Patterson and traded DeMarre Carroll, but so long as the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan combo is running the squad, the team will be solid. C.J. Miles is a good addition. O.G. Anunoby is on track to be a sleeper hit as a rookie. Meanwhile, the Wizards still have no depth, but that John Wall-Bradley Beal-Otto Porter core is too good to fail.

The Miami Heat are joining the playoff party. Miami has two potential All-Stars in the starting five with Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. How many East teams can say that? Plus Dion Waiters and Justise Winslow are back, James Johnson stuck around, Kelly Olynyk joined the party, and Bam Adebayo looked useful in the preseason. Strong depth, good top-end talent. Playoffs! Dalé!

The Charlotte Hornets are your surprisingly good team. 2016-17 was a down season for Charlotte after a strong 2015-16 campaign. Blame injuries, ennui, fate. But the Dwight Howard acquisition should actually help (I know, I know) and the conference is exceptionally soft beyond the top nine teams.

The Bucks will be quite solid, too. I know it’s weird to talk about the soft East but bring up decent teams; this is all relative. Milwaukee would probably be the No. 11 team out West. That’s likely good enough for No. 7 in the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is ridiculously good, Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton are valuable, and I will ride with Jabari Parker until he can no longer run and jump (which might be sooner than we think).

The Sixers are going to be in a pitched battle for the last playoff spot ... with the Pistons. Detroit was a massive disappointment last season, but the addition of Avery Bradley should steady things somewhat. Meanwhile, Markelle Fultz is going to be a real rookie (in other words, don’t expect much) and there is so much learning to do in Philadelphia, even if Joel Embiid stays on the court. (Please recall that the Sixers went 13-18 in games Embiid played last season. They were much, much better when he was around ... but not playoff-worthy.) I think the Sixers will end up with the No. 8 seed solely due to cosmic penance over us missing the Heat last season.

Seriously, don’t watch the Knicks or Pacers. Have I mentioned that I think they will be quite terrible?

The Aaron Gordon saga continues. He’ll be a full-time power forward (finally) and we still aren’t going to see what he’s truly capable of doing. There’s always the dunk contest, though!

The Playoffs

A Celtics-Sixers first-round series will break the Insufferability Scale either way. If Fultz has figured it out and abuses the Celtics, Philadelphia fans will be impossible to deal with, even in defeat. If Fultz struggles, Boston will be so condescending. If this series happens, I’m climbing into a bunker.

Boston’s going down in the second round. Either the Raptors or Wizards (or even the Heat) should be able to abuse what may be an uneven Boston defense. Al Horford is a high-end defender, and Jaylen Brown has enormous potential. But all those potential second-round foes have excellent point guards and shooting guards, making it tough to hide Kyrie. I like the Raps or Wiz to make the conference finals in place for the C’s. (I do think Boston eventually wins a title with this core, though.) This turn of events would also deny us a Boston-Cleveland playoff series, which is deeply upsetting to the point I would like to revise this prediction.

The Cavaliers have another cakewalk. Cleveland went 12-1 in the East last spring. That included a sweep of Toronto and a 4-1 win over Boston. The Wizards might be able to peel two off Cleveland, if Isaiah isn’t ISAIAH when he comes back.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The inevitability of the Cavaliers both will and will not overshadow fun series. As a fandom, we are learning again how to stay engaged despite inevitability. The Warriors teach us this. This is also writ small in the East as it concerns LeBron’s much longer hegemony. At times, the journey will seem so picayune given the high odds Cleveland advances to the Finals. But hopefully together we can find joy in the ultimately meaningless twists along the way.

The Spurs are the looming hulk out West. San Antonio got swept by the Warriors last season. But there’s a big ol’ asterisk on it: the Spurs were crushing the Warriors in Game 1 until Zaza Pachulia stuck a foot under Kawhi Leonard, ending The Claw’s season and the series. We can still make ourselves believe the Spurs have a real shot to dethrone the Warriors because of that.

Rockets vs. Thunder is the series we all want. It will pay off. James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Paul George ... plus Carmelo Anthony. Pinch me. Houston vs. Oklahoma City bogged down last season because Westbrook had little offensive help. That’s no longer a problem.

The Timberwolves are getting swept. This isn’t quite the 2010 Thunder, who won 50 games and took the defending champion Lakers to six. Minnesota’s learning curve is just a bit longer. And the top four teams in the West are buzzsaws.

DeMarcus Cousins is definitely getting ejected from one of his first playoff games. I’ll never forget when Boogie was ejected from the season finale of his rookie season. Some things are just perfect.

The Warriors will sweep the Cavaliers. Golden State is just too good, no matter how amazing LeBron is and what Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, and Kevin Love do. I wish it weren’t so, because the 2016 Finals were simply incredible. But this is what happens when a 73-win team adds a top-3 player. This is what happens.

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the ride!


Recapping the wild NBA offseason