Category Archives: National Basketball Association

2017-2018 NBA Playoff Projections

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Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

2. Washington Wizards

3. Boston Celtics

4. Toronto Raptors

5. Detroit Pistons

6. Milwaukee Bucks

7. Miami Heat

8. Charlotte Hornets

First Round

Charlotte Hornets vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs win series 4-1)

The road to a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Championship continues for the Cavaliers.

Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards (Wizards win series 4-2)

The size and defensive ability of the Heat will frustrate the Wizards, but not enough to eliminate them.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics (Celtics win series 4-3)

It will be a fierce battle between Bucks small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving.

Detroit Pistons vs. Toronto Raptors (Raptors win series 4-3)

The Pistons are a go-to player away from being a consistent force in the Eastern Conference.

Conference Semifinals

Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs win series 4-1)

It’s the same old song for the Raptors as they’ll once again come up short versus the Cavaliers in the playoffs.

Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards (Celtics win series 4-2)

The Wizards have the talent, but they lack the mental makeup to that the next step.

Conference Finals Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs win series 4-2)

The Cavs will advance to the NBA Finals, but not without getting a fight from  the Celtics.

 

Western Conference

1. Golden State Warriors

2. San Antonio Spurs

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

5. Los Angeles Clippers

6. Houston Rockets

7. Denver Nuggets

8. Portland Trail Blazers

First Round

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-1)

The Trail Blazers will only be a speed bump for the Warriors in their quest to win another NBA Championship.

Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs (Spurs win series 4-0)

There is something about the Spurs excelling in the spring.

Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (Thunder win series 4-2)

This will mark the second consecutive year in which these two teams met in the first round, but things have changed as Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook now has reinforcements.

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (Timberwolves win series 4-2)

The Timberwolves could be one of the most dangerous teams in the postseason due to the mismatches that they can create.

Conference Semifinals

Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-2)

The Timberwolves are closing the gap, but they are still not in the class of the Warriors.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs (Spurs win series 4-3)

This could be one of the greatest playoff series’ in NBA history.

Conference Finals

San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-2)

The Spurs will put up a valiant fight, but it won’t be enough to get the best of the Warriors.

NBA Finals

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-1)

It’s time to look at this Warriors team as one of the best to have ever done it.

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2017-2018 Southeast Division Projections

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X-Washington Wizards 50-32 (2)

Three of the last four NBA seasons have seen the Washington Wizards reach the playoffs, but they have been unable to advance past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Last season the Wizards won 49 games for their highest win total since the 1979 which was their last trip to the NBA Finals. The Wizards would give the Boston Celtics all that they could handle before they bowed out in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And although that we’ve heard this tune before, will the Wizards be able to take the next step in order to become a title contender?

Scott Brooks has one year under his belt as the head coach of the Wizards. And like any good coach, Brooks has been known to get most out of his players and then some. That was evident last season as under Brooks, Wizards point guard John Wall was able to take his game to the next level. Wall is a perennial All-Star point guard, but he became more of a scoring threat last season for Washington as he averaged a career-high 23.1 points to go along with 10.7 assists which was second in the NBA. Wall was also second in the NBA in steals as he averaged 2 per game and in the process he has become the complete point guard. At 27-years of age, Wall is in the prime of his career, and after he signed a contract extension with the Wizards over the summer, the future is bright for him in D.C.

Bradley Beal, John Wall

Wall’s tag-team partner in the Wizards back court is shooting guard Bradley Beal. But since the Wizards drafted Beal in 2012, the injury bug has gotten the best of him. Beal appeared in a career-high 77 games last season, and like Wall, he enjoyed the best campaign of his professional career. Beal is the perfect complimentary player to Wall as they give the Wizards one of the fastest back courts in the Eastern Conference. Both Beal and Wall have tremendous explosiveness in order to get to the basket which will once again make the Wizards a force.

In the Wizards front court they have some players that play with a bit of an edge. Center Marcin Gortat averaged a double-double for Washington last season, while at 6’11”, his size can be a menace at each end of the floor for opponents. Power forward Markieff Morris has always played with a chip on his shoulder throughout his six-year NBA career, while he provides the Wizards with a solid scorer in their front court that can knock down the mid-range shot as well as get physical on the boards. The Wizards will miss Morris’ production to begin the season as recovers from hernia surgery, but when he does return to the lineup the intensity for this team will increase.

Washington also has a pair of emerging players in their front court in the form of small forward Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre. The Wizards selected Porter with the third overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft and he is maturing into the player that he was expected to be when he entered the league. Porter’s numbers have increased in each of his seasons in the NBA. Porter is a slasher at the small forward position, and his versatility at each end of the court make him the poor man’s Paul George as it would not surprise me to see him in the mix to earn his first All-Star Game selection this season.

Oubre is set to begin his third NBA season. It was Oubre’s athleticism that got him to the NBA, but now he is developing the skill needed for him to be a consistent factor. Like Porter, Oubre is a slasher who should see more minutes playing alongside Wall and Beal in order to run the floor and be another threat in transition.

Last season the Wizards had what it took to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference, but will they be able to seize the moment in order to get past these clubs in the postseason?

Y-Miami Heat 42-40 (7)

The Miami Heat are coming off of a 41-41 season while they also failed to earn a playoff appearance for the second time in the last three years. However the Heat still have to be given credit for having a successful season. Miami began last season with a record of 11-30 as they were rapidly barreling to one of their worst campaigns in franchise history. But the Heat would rebound by winning 30 of their final 41 games to finish at .500, while missing out on the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot due to losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. And as the Heat finished the 2016-2017 NBA season as one of the hottest teams in the league, will they be able to carry it over to the new campaign?

Heat team president Pat Riley is beginning his 22nd season with the franchise, and his time in South Beach has seen a commitment to winning. After the Heat lost small forward LeBron James in free agency in 2014, he nor anyone within the organization took the time to feel sorry for themselves, and instead have attempted to get this team back to being a championship contender. Miami attempted to expedite that process over the summer when they attempted to recruit small forward Gordon Hayward to South Beach. Hayward would ultimately opt to join the Boston Celtics which hindered Miami’s chances of being a title contender, but not their opportunity to make the playoffs.

Hassan Whiteside

For Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he has one of the better centers in the NBA in Hassan Whiteside. Since joining the Heat in 2014, Whiteside has emerged into one of the better big men in the NBA. At 7’0″, 265 lbs., Whiteside has tremendous athleticism which led to him leading the NBA in rebounds last season at 14.1 per contest. Whiteside was not the force at the defensive end of the floor like he was during the 2015-2016 NBA season when he led the league in blocks with 3.7 per game, but his length can once again be a factor as long as he is able to remain out of foul trouble. Whiteside is still unpolished on offense, but he is developing into a decent perimeter scorer, while being a terror in the paint. Whiteside’s ability to rebound allows him to score consistently off of put backs, while he continues to develop his offensive repertoire in the post.

Goran Dragic

Point guard Goran Dragic is coming off of a season where he was able to tie a career-high by averaging 20.3 points. Dragic has always been an underrated player throughout his NBA career, but will he be able to become the leader that the Heat will need him to be in order to become a playoff team this season?

The Heat came out smelling like a rose when they signed guard Dion Waiters in the summer of 2016. Waiters earned less than $3 million last season, but he averaged 15.8 points per game and became a difference maker during the second half of the season. The Heat would re-sign Waiters this past summer and he’ll once again be an impact player in Miami. Waiters is a classic “tweener” as he is too big to be a point guard, and too small to be a shooting guard. But what Waiters brings to the table is that he is a gritty player that will do whatever it takes at end of the floor.

Small forward Justise Winslow was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Heat in 2015. Winslow is an emerging player for Miami, but his progression was derailed last season after he missed the majority of the campaign due to a torn labrum. Aside from Winslow, the Heat also have several other young players who they are high on in shooting guard Tyler Johnson and small forward Josh Richardson. The Heat shocked most basketball observers during the summer of 2016 when they gave Johnson a four-year deal for $50 million. But Johnson began to emerge for the Heat last season as he averaged 13.7 points per contest, while also being one of the team’s better perimeter shooters. Like Winslow, the Heat will need Richardson’s length and ability at each end of the floor on the perimeter as they look to make the playoffs.

Erik Spoelstra

Defense is always the name of the game for Spoelstra as Miami was fifth in the NBA in points allowed last season, while being 15th in rebounds. Miami should once again to difficult to score on this season; especially after they were able to sign center Kelly Olynk.

Collegiately for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Olynk was known more for his offensive game which led to him being the West Coast Conference’s Player of the Year in 2013. But since Olynk came to the NBA, he has developed a reputation as the defensive end of the floor. Olynk gives the Heat size coming off of the bench, and for a big man, he knows how to move up and down the floor.

The Heat will be a tough matchup for their opponents this season due to their size and athleticism. Dragic is a good point guard in transition and I can see Spoelstra opening up the offense more this season which should help Miami’s chances of making the playoffs.

Y-Charlotte Hornets 39-43 (8)

The best way to sum up the Charlotte Hornets is that they are consistently inconsistent. The Hornets made the NBA Playoffs in both 2014 and 2016, while missing out on the postseason in 2015 and 2017. Steve Clifford has been the head coach who has overseen the Hornets for the last four seasons, while general manager Rich Cho has been with the club since 2011. The combination of Cho and Clifford have been working to improve the Hornets roster in order to make them a consistent playoff team. And with the Eastern Conference not expected to be super competitive this season, will the Hornets be able to advantage of that in order to qualify to the playoffs?

Kemba Walker

Any potential success for the Hornets this season begins with point guard Kemba Walker. Walker has been with Charlotte since 2011, and in each NBA season his productivity has increased. Walker is an improving scorer and the same can be said about his court vision. To me Walker is the poor man’s Steph Curry as it does not take that much for him to get going in regards to being a dangerous scorer. Walker is coming off of the first All-Star Game selection of his NBA career, and his ability to be a long rage shooter as well as getting to the basket will once again make him a candidate to receive the honor once again this season.

During the off-season the Hornets were able to beef up their front court when they acquired center Dwight Howard from the Atlanta Hawks. During Howard’s 14-year NBA career, he has led the league in rebounds on five separate occasions, while also being a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Howard is 31-years of age, and although that he still has plenty left in the tank, what has plagued him throughout his career is the fact that he not been consistent at the offensive end of the floor. At this point it is what it is for Howard on offense, but if he can find a way to be a force at the defensive end of the floor, while also being able clean up on the boards, and playing off of Walker through pick and rolls as well as put backs, it’ll be a positive for the Hornets; especially since they were tied at 15th with the Miami Heat last season in rebounding.

Center Frank Kaminsky continues to be an improving bench player, while the return of small forward Nicolas Batum will be a welcome addition for the Hornets as he provides them with another quality facilitator.

The Hornets should be a competitive team all season long which will keep them in contention for a postseason berth.

Orlando Magic 35-47

The Orlando Magic have been swimming upstream in the Eastern Conference for far too long. The Magic have not made the NBA Playoffs since 2012, while they have not advanced past the first round since 2010. The Magic have been plagued for far too long by bad front office decisions which has included them missing on their first-round picks consistently. But as Frank Vogel is set to begin his second season as the head coach of the Magic, does he possess the necessary formula to get things turned around in Orlando?

Aaron Gordon

In 2014, the Magic used a first-round pick on power forward Aaron Gordon. Gordon quickly developed a reputation as far as being a dunker. But dunking the basketball alone won’t keep a player in the NBA for long and Gordon falls under that umbrella. However in each of Gordon’s three years in the NBA, his production has improved and he has the potential to be a breakout player for the Magic. Gordon is only 22-years of age and now he is beginning to add finesse to his athleticism.

Aside from Gordon, three more emerging players for the Magic are small forward Evan Fournier, center Nikola Vucevic and point guard Elfrid Payton. Fournier led the Magic in scoring last season at 17.2 per contest and he figures to be one of their better scoring options during this campaign. During the seven-year NBA career of Vucevic he has averaged just a shade under 10 rebounds per game at 9.9 per contest. Vucevic should once again be one of the better rebounders in the Eastern Conference which will benefit the Magic. Payton was selected in the first round by the Magic in 2014 and like Fournier, his production continues to increase. But in order for the Magic to cast their reputation of being an afterthought in the Eastern Conference Playoff race, Payton must become more assertive in regards to being a floor general. Payton was able to average 6.5 assists last season, but for the Magic to push for a postseason spot this time around, that number must improve to at least 8 per contest.

Frank Vogel

Throughout Vogel’s coaching career in the NBA, his teams have been solid at the defensive end of the floor. However Orlando was 22nd in the NBA last season in points allowed which is something that must changed if they are going to be a playoff team.

The Magic are still a young team and hopefully for their sake they will be able to take advantage of a weak Eastern Conference in order to qualify for the playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks 34-48

Very quietly each of the last 10 NBA seasons have seen the Atlanta Hawks reach the playoffs. But a big reason why the Hawks success has gone unnoticed is that they have never won a championship, more less a trip to the NBA Finals. Mike Budenholzer has four years under his belt as the head coach of the Hawks, and after he spent nearly two decades with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach, he has brought some of those successful philosophies with him to Atlanta. The Spurs believe in ball movement as it more about the team than the individual, and as the Hawks have embraced this philosophy under Bundenholzer, it has led to plenty of regular season success. But the 2017-2018 NBA season will prove to be the toughest that Budenholzer has had to endure so far with the Hawks.

Three of the Hawks top scorers from last season are no longer with the team which includes power forward Paul Millsap who was the team’s leading scorer and center Dwight Howard who led the club in rebounds. And with the departure of so many key players, the keys to the Hawks franchise have now been handed over to point guard Dennis Schroder.

Dennis Schroder

Schroder was the Hawks first round pick in 2013, and it is now his time to be the guy. Schroder has always possessed explosiveness at the point guard position and now it is time for him to develop some leadership. Schroder has the ability to penetrate a defense in order to get to the basket, but it is up to him to now improve the players around him on the Hawks better by becoming a better facilitator.

But unfortunately for the Hawks, the talent pool around Schroder is not that deep. Schroder should enjoy a career year, but the lack of talent in Atlanta will more than likely result in this team missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2007.

X-Division Winner

Y-Playoff Berth

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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2017-2018 Central Division Projections

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X-Cleveland Cavaliers 55-27 (1)

The last three NBA seasons have seen the Cleveland Cavaliers re-emerge as one of the better teams in the NBA. The Cavaliers have made three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, but they have only been able to claim one championship. The Cavs have met the Golden State Warriors in three consecutive NBA Finals series with the Warriors getting the best of them twice. And as the Cavaliers are looking to get back to the NBA Championship after the Warriors got the best of them in five games this past June, will they be able to win it all in what is more than likely a make or break season?

The off-season got off on the wrong foot for the Cavaliers when general manager David Griffin was let go by the organization. Griffin was tasked with making the necessary moves to make the Cavs a title contender. But when it came time for Griffin to receive a contract extension and be paid like the other top general managers in the NBA, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert opted not to pay him. Griffin’s departure has paved the way for Koby Altman to be promoted to post of general manager for the Cavs as he will now be tasked with keeping the machine going.

LeBron James

Small forward LeBron James is still the epicenter of what the Cavaliers are doing, but the team around him will look different heading into the new NBA season. On the surface it appears that things were fine between James and point guard Kyrie Irving. When James returned to Cleveland in 2014, Irving was able to elevate his game and become key to the success of the Cavs. However with growing tension between James and Irving behind the scenes, Irving requested a trade over the summer. The Cavaliers obliged Irving’s request and sent him to the Boston Celtics in exchange for point guard Isaiah Thomas, small forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and a pair of draft picks. The move shocked the basketball world as most people expected cooler heads to prevail at some point. However Irving was an unhappy camper and it was a smart move by the Cavs not to disrupt their team chemistry.

Kevin Love

Even without Irving, the Cavaliers are still a loaded team around James. Since power forward Kevin Love joined the Cavs in 2014, he has been a forgotten man. Love has still been one of the top rebounders in the NBA, while his scoring numbers have dipped playing alongside James and Irving. But with Irving now with the Celtics, Love should see his offensive touches increase in order to shoulder more of the scoring load with James.

After agreeing to a buyout with the Chicago Bulls, shooting guard Dwyane Wade has joined the Cavs. The friendship that James has with Wade goes back to 2003 when they came into the NBA together. This friendship would see James and Wade team up together as members of the Miami Heat which led to a pair of NBA Championships. At the age of 35, Wade is not the all-around player that he was six or seven years ago, but he is still a quality scorer.

The Cavs will have depth behind James at the small forward position with Jeff Green and Jae Crowder. Green has been an underrated small forward throughout his NBA career, while Cleveland is receiving an angry Crowder. Crowder spent the last three NBA seasons with the Celtics where he was a key contributor for their turnaround. However Crowder spent last season listening to rumors about the Celtics potentially pursuing small forward Gordon Hayward in free agency. Those rumors would become a reality as the Celtics did go after Hayward and ultimately sign him which made Crowder expendable.

Crowder has always played with a chip on his shoulder, and I expect him to be a solid bench players for the Cavaliers due to his ability to do all of the dirty work.

Isaiah Thomas

Along with Crowder, the Cavs also received Thomas from the Celtics. In three seasons with the Celtics, Thomas became a star. Last season Thomas was able to average 28.9 points per contest which included him becoming one of the better players in the fourth quarter. However when the Cavs put Irving on the trade market, this made Thomas expendable which left a sour taste in his mouth. Thomas was becoming the face of the franchise for the Celtics until he was traded. And after working to become a star, Thomas will have to start over once again. Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. And typically when you’re the last player selected in the draft, a team does not put that much stock in you. Thomas has worked extremely hard to get to where he is at, and now he’ll have another hill to climb as he looks to prove the Celtics wrong.

However Thomas’ debut with Cleveland will be put on hold as the result of a hip injury which could potentially keep him out of action until the All-Star Game. But if Thomas is healthy, he gives the Cavs another scorer, and more importantly a finisher.

Other key players around James will include shooting guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert as well as center Tristan Thompson. There is good J.R. Smith and then there is the bad version of him and the latter could be on display for the Cavaliers this season. Smith is already upset that he had to initially concede his position to Wade in the starting lineup. Ultimately Wade decided that he would be better served coming off of the bench, but dealing with Smith is the equivalent to having a human powder keg around.

Shumpert is one of the better perimeter defenders in the Eastern Conference which is a trend that should continue this season. Thompson’s main contributions to Cleveland come on the boards as he has averaged 8.6 rebounds for his six-year career. Like Smith, Thompson has been known to lose focus throughout his NBA career, and you have to wonder what version of him the Cavaliers will be getting this season.

And then there is the case of James who is the glue for this team. Hands down James is the best player in the NBA as there isn’t anything on the basketball court that he cannot do. James will be 33-years of age in December and although that he has the potential to average at least 28 points per game this season, it is all about preservation for him. James led the NBA in minutes last season in spite of the fact that Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue wanted put a cap on his time on the floor. James has also appeared in seven straight NBA Finals and at some point that wear and tear has to catch up to him.

However with James set to become a free agent next summer and with this more than likely being his swan song in Cleveland, you can expect him to have another splendid season. At 6’9″, 250 lbs., James is a freak of nature due to his speed, size, and agility. James still possesses one of the most explosive first steps in the NBA in order to get to the basket, and when he gets going there is absolutely nobody who can stop him. After James struggled at perimeter scoring in the early stages of his NBA career, he has improved. And although that James can hurt opponents from the outside, you can still expect him to specialize in using brute force in order to get to the basket.

Even without Irving, the Cavaliers are still the best team in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland once again has the ability to reach the NBA Finals, but they will be judged by what they can do in June versus the Warriors should they meet each other for a fourth consecutive year.

Y-Detroit Pistons 44-38 (5)

Stan Van Gundy

When Stan Van Gundy became the head coach and president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons in 2014, he was seeking to change the culture of the franchise. Prior to Van Gundy’s arrival, the Pistons had not qualified for the NBA Playoffs since 2009, while they hadn’t finished with a winning record since 2008. By Van Gundy’s second season in Detroit, the Pistons were back in the postseason while displaying potential in regards to becoming a force in the Eastern Conference. However after the Pistons were able to make the playoffs in 2016, they missed out on getting back to the postseason after they finished with a record of 37-45. This definitely didn’t sit well with Van Gundy as this mark just the second time during his head coach tenure in the NBA that he failed to get to the postseason which makes you wonder what he will have up his sleeve in order to get this back to the playoffs for the upcoming campaign.

For starters the Pistons will be operating in a new venue this season. After spending the last 30 years playing in Auburn Hills, the Pistons are moving back to Detroit. This marks the first time since 1978 that the Pistons will play their home games within the city limits of Detroit as they played at the Pontiac Silverdome from 1978-1988. But now it is all about the Pistons calling the Little Caesars Arena home which they will share with the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League.

One look at the Pistons roster and you can see that the majority of the team fits the mold of what Van Gundy is looking for in his squad which includes being solid on defense and the boards. But there was one category that the Pistons struggled in mightily last season which was their inability to distribute the basketball.

Last season the Pistons were tied for 23rd in the NBA in assists with just 21.1 per contest. Reggie Jackson is the Pistons starting point guard and he is coming off of a season in which he missed 30 games due to injury. And since Jackson joined the Pistons in 2015, his production has decreased; especially in distributing the basketball as he averaged just 5.2 assists last season. At times Jackson can focus too much on getting his own shot which is not what the Pistons need. Detroit has too much talent on this team, and the last thing that they can afford to have is a point guard who is not making the players around better. And if Jackson cannot be the floor general that Van Gundy needs him to be, don’t be surprised to see him traded this season.

Tobias Harris

The Pistons need a point guard who can consistently get the basketball to center Andre Drummond and small forward Tobias Harris. Both Harris and Drummond saw a slight dip in their production last season which coincides with the Pistons struggles at the point guard position being the catalyst for that. Since coming into the NBA in 2012, Drummond has been on the league’s top rebounders. Drummond is not a polished scorer, but he can clean up on put backs as well as shots close to the basket. And if Jackson can find a way to feed Drummond on easy shots in the paint, the big fella will see his offensive productivity increase.

Harris has been the Pistons best perimeter threat, while he also knows how to get to the basket. Harris can consistently knock down the mid-range jump shot, and like Drummond, he will need Jackson to be on top of his game as a point guard.

In acquiring guard Avery Bradley from the Boston Celtics, the Pistons will pick up a versatile guard who is defensive minded which fits into what Van Gundy wants to do. Bradley has built a reputation in regards to his perimeter defense and his toughness will be a welcome addition in Detroit.

The Pistons should be a very interesting team and a fast start to the season could propel Detroit to the playoffs for the second time in the last three years.

Y-Milwaukee Bucks 43-39 (6)

If there was ever a team in the NBA that could be described as an enigma, then it would be the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are loaded with size, depth, and youth as they are truly one of the few teams in the NBA that can defeat any squad in the league. The Bucks have flip-flopped as they have alternated making the playoffs and not making the playoffs in each of the last five years. Jason Kidd has been the Bucks head coach in each of the last three years, but he has never been able to get Milwaukee to that next level bring that they have never won more than 42 games in a season under him. However as the expectations have increased for Milwaukee this season, will Kidd be able to lead them to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2004, while also winning their first postseason series since 2001?

Giannis Antetonkounmpo

The success of the Bucks begins and ends with small forward Giannis Antetonkounmpo. Antetonkounmpo was an afterthought when the Bucks made him the 15th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft. And Antetonkounmpo has rapidly become one of the better players in the NBA as there are some people who see him as an MVP candidate. Antetonkounmpo has been labeled as the “Greek Freak” due to his height and athleticism. At 6’11”, Antetonkounmpo possesses the ball handling skills of a point guard, and the speed of a shooting guard. Antentonkounmpo is also no slouch on the boards as he averaged 8.8 rebounds per contest. There aren’t too many flaws in the game of Antetonkounmpo, but will be be able to Milwaukee get to the next level?

Two of the last three seasons have seen forward Jabari Parker succumb to ACL injuries. And surprisingly without Parker, the Bucks were able to make the playoffs. Parker entered the NBA in 2014 amid plenty of hype due to his scoring ability. In parts of three seasons with the Bucks, Parker has averaged 15.8 points per game, but will he ever be able to reach his potential?

Parker is still out for the Bucks and he is not scheduled to return to the court until the All-Star break. But the biggest thing for Parker in rehabbing is once again be able to trust his body after suffering multiple severe knee injuries.

Small forward Khris Middleton is another one of those athletic contributors for the Bucks. And after Middleton missed the majority of the 2016-2017 NBA season with a hamstring injury, he is ready to bounce back. At 6’8″, Middleton is another one of those players with tremendous length for Milwaukee. Middleton possesses the ability to play off of Antetonkounmpo due to his mid-range game as well as his ability to get to the basket which makes him another viable option in the Bucks offense.

The Bucks currently have 14 players under contract who are least 6’5″, but that didn’t help this team on the boards last season as Milwaukee was 29th in rebounding. Center Greg Monroe has the potential to clean up on the boards, but will he have the mentality to be a force on the boards on a nightly basis? Last season saw center Thon Maker get adjusted to life in the NBA as a rookie. Maker checks in a 7’1″, and he still has tremendous potential to be a defensive force which could be recognized some more this season.

With the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers in rebuilding mode, the Bucks could be the team that is most equipped in the Central Division to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a run for the top spot.

Indiana Pacers 34-48

The 2017-2018 NBA season marks the beginning of a new era in regards to basketball for the Indiana Pacers. This past May saw Larry Bird step down as the Pacers team president. Bird would be replaced as the Pacers team president by Kevin Pritchard who along with general manager Chad Buchanan had to deal with a difficult situation right out of the chute.

After small forward Paul George spent the first seven years of his NBA career, which included him being a four-time NBA All-Star, he let the organization know that he did not intend to sign an extension to remain with the team. George was entering the final year of his contract and with the Pacers not wanting him to leave and not get something in return, he was traded during this off-season to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In exchange for George, the Pacers received guard Victor Oladipo and power forward/center Domantas Sabonis as this organization is in all on rebuilding and getting younger. And for Pacers head coach Nate McMillan, it will be all about being a teacher more than ever this season.

With George leading the way, the Pacers will be without three of their top five scorers from last season. But what the Pacers do have is a youngster in center Myles Turner who is rapidly turning into an impact player. Turner was the Pacers first-round pick in 2015 and he led the club in rebounds (7.3), as well as blocks last season with 2.1 per contest. And aside from Turner’s ability on the boards, he gives the club a legitimate presence in the post who can score. Turner made 81 starts last season, and as he should see his shots per game increase this season, he has the potential to average 18 points per game, while also averaging a double-double.

Sabonis was a first-round pick of the Thunder in 2016 and he was beginning to figure it out in the NBA, but now with the Pacers, he will have an opportunity to really develop. Sabonis should be able to penetrate Indiana’s starting lineup. Sabonis is also more polished on the offensive end of the floor than Turner which includes his ability to be a mid-ranger shooter. And as Sabonis and Turner continue to grow, they could have a similar impact for the Pacers as that of the one in which center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph had for the Memphis Grizzlies during their time together.

Throughout the NBA career of point guard Darren Collison, he has always been a player who appeared to be on the brink of taking the next step in his career, but he has never been able to break through. Collison signed with the Pacers over the summer as this marks his second stint with the team. Collison has always shown the ability to facilitate and penetrate the lane throughout his career. And as the Pacers will be a younger team this season, Collison’s veteran presence will be important at the point guard position.

The Pacers should start out slow due to their youth, but they will gel as the season progresses.

Chicago Bulls 29-53

11 of the last 13 NBA seasons have seen the Chicago Bulls qualify for the playoffs. But in that stretch the Bulls were only able to advance past the first round of the playoffs four times. Last season the Bulls would sneak into the playoffs with the last slot in the Eastern Conference. And after Chicago won the first two games of their series with the Boston Celtics, they would lose the next four. The 2016-2017 NBA season which began with so much promise for Chicago was marred by dysfunction which saw them end on a sour note, and in the process it marked the end of an era.

The Bulls will enter the 2017-2018 NBA season in rebuilding mode. During the 2017 NBA Draft, Chicago decided to trade swingman Jimmy Butler as well as the draft rights to center Justin Patton to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine as well as the draft rights to center Lauri Markkanen. What the Bulls are giving up in Butler is a player who has led their team in scoring in each of the last three seasons, while also being one of the better players in the NBA. But the biggest issue was that Butler’s style of play did not fit into the philosophy of Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg.

Fred Hoiberg

Hoiberg’s offense relies on his team getting up and down the floor in a more uptempo offense, whereas Butler’s style was more a fit for former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau which led to them being reunited in Minnesota.

Aside from Butler, the Bulls lost five of their top seven scorers from last season’s team which included shooting guard Dwyane Wade who came to an agreement with Chicago on a buyout as he is now a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It is going to be a work in progress this season for the Bulls as they will attempt to now find a go-to-guy. Power forward Nikola Mirotic is the Bulls leading returning scorer after he averaged 10.6 points per game last season. Dunn should be able to become more of a focal point in Chicago after he was in the shadow of center Karl-Anthony Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota, while shooting guard Denzel Valentine who was a first-round pick by the Bulls in 2016 could be ready to take his game to the next level.

The schedule for the Bulls to begin the season won’t be easy for Chicago as each of their first five opponents made the playoffs last season. The Bulls are beginning this season in search of an identity, and I am not sure if they’ll ever find it over 82 games.

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2017-2018 Atlantic Division Projections

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X-Boston Celtics 51-31 (3)

For teams in the NBA who are really serious about rebuilding, they need to sit back and see what the Boston Celtics are doing. After the Celtics won the NBA Championship in 2008, they were able to remain as a title contender until 2013 when their age began to show. And instead of hanging on to players that were over the hill, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge immediately pushed the rebuild button as his team began the process of starting over.

Danny Ainge

Ainge’s first order of business was to find a head coach who was on board with his rebuilding plan and he found his man in former Butler Bulldogs men’s head basketball coach Brad Stevens. Stevens had never coached at the profession level and his first season in Boston only saw the Celtics win 25 games. However the Celtics would quickly be ahead of schedule in regards to rebuilding as in year two of the Stevens regime, they would be playoff bound. Last season the Celtics would win 53 games en route to winning the Atlantic Division Title as well as having the best record in the Eastern Conference. Boston would reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2012, and although that they were swept there by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the C’s have served notice to the rest of the NBA that they are once again ready to be a title contender.

Heading into the summer, Ainge knew that he had a team that was a good enough to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but what could he do in order to give the Cavaliers a run for their money?

Courtesy of a lopsided trade with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, the Celtics acquired multiple first-round draft picks. And after the Nets the finished with the worst record in the NBA last season, they earned the first overall selection in the draft. However the Celtics had the option to swap first-round picks with Nets which they did. But Ainge wasn’t done wheeling and dealing as he made a deal just prior to the NBA Draft with the Philadelphia 76ers as he moved down to the third overall slot, and in the process he was able to obtain more draft picks.

Jayson Tatum

The Celtics would select Duke Blue Devils small forward Jayson Tatum who after averaging 16.8 points and 7.3 in his only collegiate campaign showed that he was ready to take his game to the next level. Tatum would add to that in the NBA’s Summer League as he was able to average 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds for the Celtics as he gave them a glimpse of what to expect from him this season.

Ainge wasn’t done there as he pulled off a huge shocker when he was able to acquire All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Cavs. Irving is just entering the prime of his career and he has been integral in Cleveland’s three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. However Irving has gotten tired of being in the shadow of small forward LeBron James.

In acquiring Irving from Cleveland, the Celtics parted with a pair of draft picks which includes a first-round pick for next year that originally was the property of the Nets, as well as small forward Jae Crowder, and point guard Isaiah Thomas. The past few years had seen Thomas morph into being the heart and soul of the Celtics due to his scoring ability as well as his fearlessness which endeared him to the Boston fans. However a hip injury put Thomas’ future with the Celtics in doubt, and when Irving was put on the trading block after letting the Cavs front office know of his desire to no longer be a member of the organization, the trade went down.

Kyrie Irving

What Irving gives the Celtics is a proven scorer who has shown that the bigger the stage, the more that he produces. For Irving’s six-year NBA career he has averaged 21.6 points per game. But Irving is not in that typical point guard mode as he is more of a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. However Irving should have no problem fitting into the offensive system that Stevens operates due to the fact that it comes down to ball movement, moving without the ball, and getting to the basket. Irving should have a big season for the Celtics as he looks to not only endear himself to the folks in Boston, but also show that he can succeed without LeBron.

Sandwiched in between drafting Tatum and obtaining Irving was the Celtics being able to sign free agent small forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward was one of the most coveted free agents over the summer after he averaged 21.9 points per game and helped the Utah Jazz reach the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2010. All signs pointed to Hayward not re-signing with the Jazz, and it appeared to be a slam dunk decision for him to join the Celtics as Stevens was his college head coach.

Hayward made his decision official on July 4 when he and the Celtics came to terms on a four-year deal for $128 million. What Hayward gives the Celtics is a point forward who has what it takes to excel in Stevens’ system. Hayward can move well without the basketball, while can also score, while making the people around him better. And Hayward’s ability to handle the basketball can take some pressure off of Irving while also allowing him to concentrate more on being a scorer.

However things would become bad for Hayward and the Celtics on opening night when he fractured his ankle. More than likely Hayward is done for the season, but luckily the Celtics do have depth in the front court, while this injury occurred at the beginning of the season as this team will still have time to gel.

Boston would also lose some depth in their backcourt when they traded guard Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons. In exchange for sending Bradley to Detroit, the Pistons received power forward Marcus Morris who provides with interior scoring as well as some toughness that they lost when they traded Crowder.

Marcus Smart

Boston still has guard Marcus Smart who has proved to be a valuable bench player, while also providing toughness to the squad. In 2016, the Celtics drafted small forward Jaylen Brown third overall and he showed flashes of his potential. And with the Hayward injury, he will be a valuable player due to his athleticism.

The Celtics also have veteran center Al Horford who will never be a player that will consistently get 20 points and 10 rebounds, but he is a guy that could give Boston 15 points and 8 boards, while his decade long experience in the NBA, as well as winning a pair of national championships collegiately with the Florida Gators should pay dividends.

It will take the Celtics some time to gel, but they should improve as the season goes along as they’ll seek to fill the void of Hayward’s absence.

Y-Toronto Raptors 50-32 (4)

The Toronto Raptors currently find themselves in their best stretch in franchise history. The Raptors have made the NBA Playoffs in each of the last four years which included making the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 2016. But after three straight Atlantic Division Titles, the Raptors finished second in the division last year due to a surge by the Boston Celtics. And as the Celtics appeared to have passed the Raptors in regards to being the team to beat in the Atlantic, will they have enough in their arsenal to keep up with them and the other top powers in the Eastern Conference?

Dwane Casey is set to begin his seventh season as the head coach of the Raptors and by far he has had the most successful tenure of any head coach in franchise history which is also a credit to team president Masai Ujiri who has put the right players in place in order for the team to have success.

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan

The Raptors still possess one of the best backcourts in the Eastern Conference which consists of shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry. The confidence level of DeRozan has continued to increase throughout his eight-year NBA career. Last year DeRozan averaged 27.3 points per game which was fifth in the NBA as he has become “the guy” in Toronto. DeRozan has never been known to be a perimeter shooter as he has only shot 28% from behind the three-point line for his professional career. But what DeRozan specializes in is getting buckets as he is one the quicker players in the NBA in regards to his first step which helps him to get to the basket.

It may not seem like it, but Lowry is set to begin his 12th NBA season and sixth with the Raptors. Lowry has become a steadying force for the Raptors at the point guard position which led to him agreeing to return to the club last summer after agreeing to a three-year deal for $100 million. But as good as Lowry and DeRozan have been for Toronto, who else will step up in order to make this a championship team?

Serge Ibaka

Last season saw the Raptors acquire power forward Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic. What Ibaka gives the Raptors is a stretch four who can knock down perimeter shots which opens up the lane for both Lowry and DeRozan. Center Jonas Valenciunas has been a project for the Raptors and he has  now turned into a player who can get 15 points as well as 10 rebounds per night. But will this frontcourt production be enough for Toronto to keep up with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics in the Eastern Conference?

The schedule makers were not kind to the Raptors as they will begin a six-game road swing in late October. This stretch will see the Raptors face some of the top teams from the Western Conference which includes games against the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. The Raptors are still one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, however they are still not on the level of the Cavs.

New York Knicks 38-44

There was a time when the New York Knicks were one of the top teams in the NBA, but for their disgruntled fan base, that was a lifetime ago. Since 2005, the Knicks only have three playoff appearances, while each of the last three years has seen them lose at least 50 games. The Knicks have been the epitome of dysfunction which was further illustrated by the failed tenure of Phil Jackson as the team’s president. The Knicks have been nothing short of a circus with none of the key people within the organization on the same page, and it doesn’t appear to be that much better at Madison Square Garden heading into the new NBA season.

After Knicks owner James Dolan decided to part ways with Jackson in June, he decided to hire Steve Mills as the team’s president and Scott Perry as the general manager. Dolan decided to retain Jeff Hornacek as the Knicks head coach as he should finally have a chance to flex his basketball muscles.

Jeff Hornacek

Last year was Hornacek’s first year as the Knicks head coach and under him New York lost 51 games. A big reason for the Knicks struggles was that Jackson wanted Hornacek to operate under the umbrella of the triangle offense, while his system is more wide-open. But now with the Jackson debacle behind the Knicks, we should see a more wide-open brand of basketball being played at Madison Square Garden this season.

Another reason why this season shouldn’t be as stressful for the Knicks is that the team finally came to grips and traded small forward Carmelo Anthony. When the Knicks acquired Anthony from the Denver Nuggets in 2011, he immediately became their first true franchise player that they had since the days of Patrick Ewing. However Anthony and Jackson were never on the same page, and with the star small forward turning 33-years of age this past May, he wanted to go a team that would give him an opportunity to win an NBA Championship.

Last month the Knicks would trade Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder and in process they handed the keys to their franchise to power forward Kristaps Porzingis.

Kristaps Porzingis

In 2015, Porzingis was the fourth overall pick of the NBA Draft by the Knicks and it has not taken him that long to establish himself with the fans in the Big Apple. Last season Porzingis averaged 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds, but with Anthony no longer in New York those numbers should increase. Coming into the NBA there were some scouts who compared Porzingis’ skill set to that of Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki. And the scoring ability of Porzingis as well as his prowess for passing will once again be a thing of beauty at Madison Square Garden.

In trading Anthony to the Thunder, the Knicks were able to acquire center Enes Kanter and small forward Doug McDermott. The last two seasons have seen Kanter used as a bench player in Oklahoma City, but he will be a starter in New York City. What Kanter gives the Knicks is a player that can score close to the basket, while also being able to consistently grab boards which was a category that New York flourished in last season as they averaged pulling 45.2 rebounds per game, and that was fifth in the NBA.

After McDermott was a three-time All-American for the Creighton Blue Jays, he has gone on to be a solid scorer coming off of the bench in the NBA. And with the scoring ability of Porzingis and Kanter, McDermott should get his fair share of open looks at the basket.

The Knicks were 19th in the NBA in assists last season and this will once again be a category that they’ll struggle in due to the struggles at the point guard position. The Knicks did sign veteran point guard Jarret Jack as this will be the ninth different NBA team that he’ll play for, but injuries have limited him over the past few years. The Knicks used a first-round pick on point guard Frank Ntilikina who was injured before he even signed a contract with contract with New York as that doesn’t bode well for him or the team.

This will be an interesting season for the Knicks as they will be good enough to take care of the also-rans in the NBA, but they will have their struggles versus the contenders.

Philadelphia 76ers 35-47

The Philadelphia 76ers are set to begin their 69th year as an NBA franchise. The 76ers have claimed three NBA Championships, while they’ve had some of the greatest players in league history such as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson play for them. But the Sixers recent history has been marred by a philosophy which has revolved around “tanking”. Philadelphia has not made the playoffs since 2012, while they have only won 73 games over the last four years. The last four NBA Drafts have seen the Sixers picking no lower than third in the first round. However with the penchant to select injured players by former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, the turnaround in Philadelphia has taken longer than it should. But for the first time in a long time, there is some optimism in the City of Brotherly Love for this team.

Bryan Colangelo

Bryan Colangelo has one full season under his belt as the 76ers president/general manager. Colangelo knows how to build a roster as he was twice named as the NBA’s Executive of the Year during his tenure as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, while he also helped to turn around the fortunes of the Toronto Raptors when he served as their general manager. Philadelphia went 28-54 as Colangelo set out to restore some order to the franchise last season. And as the Sixers learned how to compete, they showed that their days of being a pushover in the NBA could be coming to an end.

Joel Embiid

The brightest spot for the 76ers last season was the impact that center Joel Embiid had. Embiid was the third overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft by Philadelphia, however injuries forced him to sit out his first two seasons in the NBA. Embiid became a force for the Sixers last season as he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks. But the injury bug once again did Embiid in as he was limited to just 31 games. However if Embiid is ever to remain healthy, he will be a force in the interior at both ends of the floor for Philadelphia.

2016 saw the 76ers use the first overall pick of the NBA Draft on small forward Ben Simmons. However Simmons would suffer a fractured foot last September which saw him miss the entire 2016-2017 NBA season. But Simmons is now healthy and ready to go which will be a huge plus for Philadelphia. Heading into the 2016 NBA Draft, Simmons was compared to Cavaliers small forward LeBron James due to his ability to pass and be an all-around player at the small forward position. At 6’10”, Simmons has the ability see over most of his opponents, while he has made the players around him better at each step of the way along his basketball journey.

Philadelphia would once again select first this year in draft, but it was after they made a deal with the Boston Celtics. Originally the Sixers were slotted to select third overall, but with the Celtics feeling that they could trade down and still get the player that they wanted, Philadelphia moved up to select point guard Markelle Fultz.

Markelle Fultz

In one season collegiately for the Washington Huskies, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds to become a third-team All-American. And now as the first overall pick of the draft, Fultz is ready to live up to the hype.

In 2015, Philadelphia selected center Jahlil Okafor third overall. And although that Okafor has tremendous upside to score in the low post, he has fallen out of favor in Philadelphia as it would not surprise me to see him traded at some point this season.

Very quietly shooting guard J.J. Redick has become one of the better three-point shooters in NBA history. The Sixers shocked many observers during the off-season when they gave him a one-year for $23 million as his game is one-dimensional. However Redick can provide the young Sixers with a veteran presence who knows what it takes to get to the playoffs as it all about changing the culture in Philly.

The schedule makers were not kind to the 76ers as four of their first five games this season will be versus teams who reached the playoffs last season. Philadelphia should be an improved team, but there success primarily hinges on their key young players remaining healthy.

Brooklyn Nets 22-60

The spend today and not worry about tomorrow philosophy that the Brooklyn Nets have employed for the last five years has finally caught up to them in a very bad way. Several “win-now” trades by the Nets saw them part with multiple first-round picks which could have been vital for them, but instead those draft picks are being used to build other teams. In 2013, the Nets sent multiple first-round picks to the Boston Celtics for small forward Paul Pierce, power forward Kevin Garnett, and shooting guard Jason Terry. None of these players suited up for the Nets for two seasons, while Garnett and Pierce are now retired. The Nets have helped the Celtics to become a title contender as Boston has consistently been picking early on in the NBA Draft courtesy of Brooklyn. And to make matters worse, the Celtics who own the Nets first-round pick for 2018 have already traded that pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a deal that saw Boston acquire point guard Kyrie Irving. The Nets are coming off of consecutive seasons in which they lost at least 60 games and for the folks who follow the squad that calls New York City’s most popular borough home, don’t expect things to get that much better heading into the new NBA season.

Kenny Atkinson

Kenny Aktinson is set to begin his second season as the Nets head coach and he has a tall task in front of him in regards to making this team compete in the Eastern Conference. This off-season saw the Nets make a very questionable trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets sent center Brook Lopez, along with the 27th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Lakers for center Timofey Mozgov and point guard D’Angelo Russell. Lopez was coming off of one of his best seasons with the Nets, and he leaves Brooklyn as the franchise’s all-time leader in points with 10,444. In trading Lopez, the Nets parted with a quality big man for a point guard in Russell who comes to Brooklyn with question about his maturity. In two seasons with the Lakers, Russell never showed that he could be a leader for the team, and when Magic Johnson became the franchise’s president of basketball operations earlier this year, it made the young point guard expendable. And whereas that the Lakers gave up on Russell, will a fresh start with a new team be able to motivate him?

In looking at the Nets roster there is not that much optimism heading into a new NBA season as this team could once again finish with the worst record in the league and not even have a top draft pick to show for it.

X-Division Winner

Y-Playoff Berth

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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2017-2018 Southwest Division Projections

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X-San Antonio Spurs 61-21 (2)

There is consistency and then there is what the San Antonio Spurs have been able to accomplish. Since the Spurs joined the NBA in 1976, only four seasons have gone by where they have not reached the playoffs, and in each of the last 20 campaigns they’ve been postseason bound. Last season saw the Spurs win 61 games in the regular season as another deep run in the playoffs appeared to be in the works. The Spurs would advance to the Western Conference Finals where they were seeking to unseat the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs were able to build a 25-point lead on the Warriors in the third quarter of Game One on the road, however the series would change when small forward Kawhi Leonard was lost for the remainder of the series after he re-aggravated an ankle injury that he initially sustained during the Western Conference Semifinals versus the Houston Rockets. The Spurs would go on to get swept by the Warriors who went on to claim their second NBA Championship in the last three years as we’re only left to ponder what could have been for San Antonio.

Gregg Popovich is set to begin his 21st full season as the head coach of the Spurs and he is not showing any signs of slowing down. When watching the Spurs it is quite clear who is the boss and that is Popovich. With Popovich it is always about the team and not the individual as they are the New England Patriots of the NBA. And Pop’s philosophy means that anyone on the Spurs roster can get 20 points on any given night.

Kawhi Leonard

But Leonard is the engine of this squad as he makes this team go. In each of Leonard’s six seasons with the Spurs, his production has increased. Leonard is a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, as well as being a two-time NBA All-Star. And aside from Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James, Leonard is the best two-way player in the game as there are not that many flaws in his game which will keep him in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP this season.

However as good as Leonard is, he cannot carry the Spurs team by himself. The summer of 2016 saw the Spurs sign power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to a four-year deal for $80 million. But in two seasons with the Spurs, Aldridge has underachieved which includes him failing to provide San Antonio with a consistent post presence. Aldridge was able to average 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds last season for the Spurs, but he has been too inconsistent which has not won him over that many fans in San Antonio. And if Aldridge continues to fail to meet Popovich’s expectations, don’t be surprised to see him traded.

Rudy Gay

Throughout the 11-year NBA career of small forward Rudy Gay, he has continued to put up quality numbers. The Spurs will be the fourth different NBA team that Gay has played for as he has gone on to average 18.4 points per contest. I don’t expect to consistently see Gay in the starting lineup for San Antonio, but what he can provide San Antonio with is a quality veteran scorer off of the bench who will be instant offense, while providing San Antonio with length that can be utilized at each end of the floor.

San Antonio continues to employ a selfish cast of veterans which includes point guard Tony Parker, shooting guard Manu Ginobili, and center Pau Gasol. Parker and Giniboli are legends within the Spurs organization, and although that each player is in the twilight of his respective Hall of Fame career, they know how to use craftiness in order to get the best of players who are least 10 years their junior.

Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge

Like Ginobili and Parker, Gasol will be headed for Springfield when his playing career is over, and at the age of 37 he is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Popovich has been one of the best in regards to keeping his veteran players fresh for the stretch run. Gasol is still a player that can average at least 15 points per game, while also providing the Spurs with 7 or 8 rebounds per game as well the ability to pass and consistently block shots.

The Spurs are a team that could get off to a slow start, but this is a team that typically doesn’t get its stride until March which should once again be the case this season as San Antonio will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference.

Y-Houston Rockets 50-32 (6)

Each of the last five NBA seasons have seen the Houston Rockets reach the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to break through and get back to the NBA Finals since their last championship in 1995. By the time that the Western Conference Semifinals rolled around last spring, the Rockets were decimated by injuries as they would eventually succumb to the San Antonio Spurs. And after the Rockets fell to the Spurs, you had to expect that Houston would make a few tweaks to their roster, but not a mega trade.

Over the summer the Rockets were able to acquire All-Star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. However the acquisition of Paul was a costly one as Houston sent eight players as well as a first-round pick to Los Angeles. But what the Rockets now have is a back court that will help them keep up with the top teams in the Western Conference.

Chris Pail

Paul will team with guard James Harden who is coming off of his best season in the NBA as he averaged 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, while his 11.2 assists per contests led the league. Harden was able to accomplish this in his first season as a point guard, bur now the acquisition of Paul will not see him as Houston’s primary ball handler. However regardless if Harden is the Rockets primary ball handler or not, it does not take away from the fact that he is one of the game’s best scorers. For Harden’s eight-year NBA career he has averaged 22.1 points per game, while in five seasons with the Rockets that number is 27.4. Last season Harden scored at least 40 in 11 games and he should continue to flourish by playing alongside Paul in the offense of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni.

The Rockets will become the third different NBA team that Paul has played for and at the age of 32, he is still one of the top points guards in the league. Paul has led the NBA in assists on four separate occasions and he has a solid chance of doing so once again this season due to his ability to penetrate the lane as well as playing alongside Harden.

Two key players who were not traded to the Clippers were power forward Ryan Anderson and small forward Trevor Ariza who will once again be important to what the Rockets want to do. D’Antoni’s uptempo offense is all about spacing the floor and finding open shooters which is right up Anderson’s alley. For Anderson’s nine-year NBA career he has made more than 42% of his three-point shots, and that trend should continue now that he is playing alongside both Harden and Paul.

Ariza will once again be important to the Rockets due to his perimeter defense which will be important versus the top wing players that the Western Conference has to offer; especially since Houston was 26th in the NBA in points allowed last season.

With the Rockets losing their depth to acquire Paul, while also missing out on acquiring small forward Carmelo Anthony, as well as D’Antoni’s not being known for defense, they will come up short of being a championship team. The Rockets will be exciting, but the struggles of Paul when he faces Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry will once again be exposed as the furthest that this team will be able to advance in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.

Dallas Mavericks 41-41

After being one of the top teams in the Western Conference since 2000, the Dallas Mavericks took a huge step backwards last season as they lost 49 games for the first time since 1998. The Mavericks lost their first five games of the season and they were never able recover in the Western Conference Playoff race. And for Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, will he be able to reverse the fortunes of this franchise heading into a new season?

Dirk Nowitzki

For the Mavs, power forward Dirk Nowitzki has been the face of this franchise for nearly two decades. Hands down Nowitzki is the most prolific player in franchise history, but as he is 39-years of age, he isn’t the player that he once was. However Carlisle has done a solid job in recent years in regards to managing Nowitxki’s minutes which should once again be the case for the upcoming season. And it would not surprise me to see Carlisle utilize Nowitzki off of the bench at some point this season. But as Nowitzki is on the downside of his Hall of Fame career, the Mavs have begun the process of building towards to future.

Last year saw the Mavericks acquire small forward Harrison Barnes from the Golden State Warriors. Barnes was a member of the Warriors team that won the NBA Championship in 2015, but his skills at the offensive end of the floor were never going to be fully recognized as he was playing in the shadow of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. However Barnes’ first season would begin to see his potential recognized as he was able to average 19.2 points which led the club. And the good thing for the Mavericks is that Barnes has the potential to get better.

Barnes gives the Mavs a solid perimeter scorer, while he also knows how to get to the basket. And as Barnes and Carlisle are getting to get more acquainted with one another, the results will only be good for Dallas.

Dennis Smith Jr.

The Mavericks are high on point guard Dennis Smith Jr. who was their first-round choice this year. Throughout the NBA’s Summer League as well as training camp, Smith has shown that he has what it takes to be a solid floor general for Dallas as he has the ability to get his own shot, while also making the people around him better.

Shooting guard Wesley Matthews continues to be a solid perimeter defender, while both center Nerlens Noel who can clean up on the boards as well as being a rim protector and shooting guard Seth Curry who continues to improve as a three-point shooter could each be in the running to be the NBA’s Most Improved Player this season which fits into the Mavericks identity of being underdogs this season. However Curry’s season debut will be delayed after he suffered a stress reaction in his left tibia during the preseason. It will be important for Noel to remain healthy as he is a big part of what Dallas wants to do on defense as they were fourth in the NBA in points allowed last season and he can be an anchor on their back line.

Five of the Mavericks first six games this season will be against teams that made that playoffs last season. And the last thing that Dallas needs is another slow start as it would derail their season before it even starts.

Memphis Grizzlies 40-42

Each of the last seven NBA seasons have seen the Memphis Grizzlies qualify for the postseason which is the third longest current playoff streak in the league behind the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks. But unlike the Spurs who have gone on to win five NBA Championships during their postseason streak, the Grizzlies have only been able to advance to the Western Conference Finals once, while they were eliminated in the first round in each of the last two seasons. David Fizdale led the Grizzlies to a winning record as well as a playoff berth in his first season with Memphis. Fizdale did this with a veteran team that he inherited as it was vital for him to manage the minutes of the Grizzlies as the season progressed. But as Fizdale is set to begin his second season with the Grizzlies, his team will have a different feel to it as they look to make it eight consecutive trips to the postseason.

Power forward Zach Randolph spent the last eight seasons with the Grizzlies and in the process he became one of the best players in franchise history. Randolph averaged 16.8 and 10.2 rebound during his Grizzlies career. Randolph also became the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds, while being third in points. Randolph turned 36-years of age this past July and he decided to join the Sacramento Kings on a two-year deal that is worth $24 million.

Marc Gasol

During Randolph’s time with the Grizzlies, his tag-team partner in the frontcourt has been center Marc Gasol. At the age of 32, Gasol is still one of the best all-around big men in the NBA as he it the total package due his ability to score, pass, facilitate, block shots, rebound, and defend. When Gasol is on the floor, the Grizzlies have the benefit of another point guard, while his blocked shots in the paint tend to lead to fast break opportunities on offense. And with Randolph no longer will the Grizzlies, Gasol will be more important that ever to what Memphis wants to do.

Mike Conley

The summer of 2016 saw point guard Mike Conley Jr. cash in as he and the Grizzlies came to an agreement on a five-year that is worth $153 million. Conley did his part to live up to his inflated contract as he averaged a career-high 20.5 points to go along with 6.3 assists. Conley began to take more ownership on offense for the Grizzlies as he connected on 46% of his field goals which was a career-high, while he shot more than 40% from downtown for just the second time of his NBA career. But whereas that Conley is not considered a top-tier point guard in the NBA, will he be able to elevate his game once more in order to make Memphis a threat in the Western Conference?

In 2010, swingman Tyreke Evans was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year as he was able to do a little bit of everything for the Kings. That season Evans was able to average 20.1 points per game, however he has never been able to match the production that he had as a rookie. Since then Evans has bounced around with several teams, each time he has found himself that did not properly suit his skill set which is him playing in the point forward role. But Evans has an opportunity to do something special with the Grizzlies due to his ability to get to the basket, facilitate, and rebound as he should be able to play off of both Gasol and Conley.

Times have changed in the NBA as scoring is up. The Grizzlies were third in the NBA in points allowed last season in spite of the fact that they surrendered 100 points per game, and they should once again be one of the top defensive teams in the NBA due to the mindset of Fizdale, as well as having players such as Gasol leading the way.

The Grizzlies will be an up and down team this season, but they will continue to be a tough for their opponents.

New Orleans Pelicans 37-45

Five of the last six NBA seasons have resulted in the New Orleans Pelicans failing to make the playoffs. And ever before the start of a new campaign, the Pelicans find themselves at the crossroads.

Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins

Last season saw the Pelicans acquire All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings with part of the compensation seeing New Orleans part with both of their draft picks in the 2017 NBA Draft. Cousins’ arrival in New Orleans saw him team with power forward Anthony Davis to give the Pelicans one of the top front courts in the NBA, but their presence wasn’t enough to get to the postseason.

However heading into a new NBA season, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry has a tough task ahead of him which includes being able to utilize both Cousins and Davis, while keeping the other players involved.

What the Pelicans have in Davis is the best big man in the NBA as well as a player who will be an MVP candidate this season. There is not anything that Davis cannot do on the basketball court as he is the total package at both ends of the floor. The ability of Davis to score in the paint as well as on the perimeter will now be magnified as he is playing alongside Cousins which means that opponents of the Pelicans can no longer solely focus on trying to stop him.

Like Davis, Cousins is one of the better big men in the NBA, but he just does not have the perimeter game of that his fellow former Kentucky Wildcat possesses. Cousins is at his best when he plays angry as you can pencil him in for 25 points and 15 rebounds when that is the case. At the conclusion of the 2017-2018 NBA season, Cousins will be a free agent which means that he should have a big season as he is looking to get paid by the Pelicans or another team.

Jrue Holiday

The Pelicans do have a pair of quality ball handlers in veteran point guard Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans will mark the fifth different NBA team that Rondo has suited up for which is a reflection on his attitude. Rondo has led the NBA in assists on four separate occasions, however he been known to clash with his head coaches which has made him expendable. Rondo is 31-years of age and the Pelicans need him to be a leader for this team as opposed to being a combustible element like he has been in the past.

For Holiday, his passing ability should be magnified alongside both Davis and Cousins. Rondo will miss the beginning of the season due to sports hernia surgery. However when Holiday and Rondo are each healthy and with both players projected to be in the Pelicans starting lineup, who will be the primary ball handler for this club?

Veteran guard Tony Allen comes to New Orleans and he can provide the club with some much needed toughness. The upcoming NBA season will mark Allen’s 14th year in the league which has been highlighted by him being a three-time All-Defensive First-team member as well as winning a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008. At the age of 35, Allen still has the ability to slow down and frustrate perimeter scorers, and his experience in the NBA should benefit New Orleans.

Last season saw the Pelicans give up 106.4 points per game which was 17th in the NBA. However New Orleans needs to have a change to philosophy in order to maximize the ability of their personnel. With Davis and Cousins in the front court, New Orleans needs to run more half-court sets with their two All-Star big men in the paint as much as possible. And if done properly, Davis and Cousins could have a huge impact for the Pelicans. Defensively the Pelicans need to take more pride being that both Cousins and Davis are shot blockers as well as possessing the ability to clean up on the boards.

However the Pelicans have too many combustible elements on this team, while Gentry is not the right head coach to reign everyone in which means that the upcoming NBA season will be a train wreck on the Bayou.

X-Division Winner

Y-Playoff Berth

Source: Basketball-reference.com

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2017-2018 Pacific Division Projections

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X-Golden State Warriors 69-13 (1)

The last three years have seen the Golden State Warriors playing at a different level than the rest of the NBA. The Warriors have won two of the last three NBA Championships, and in the process they’ve gone a combined 207-39 over the last three regular seasons. The Warriors are a team that is loaded with stars, but their best players don’t have a problem in regards to checking their egos at the door for the greater good of the team. And as the Warriors continue to play their brand of unselfish basketball, don’t expect this team to fall off anytime soon.

Steve Kerr is set to begin his fourth season as the head coach of the Warriors and he is seeking his fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Kerr knows a thing or two about hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy that represents the NBA Champion as he won three championships as a player with the Chicago Bulls, two more with the San Antonio Spurs, and twice now as the head coach of Golden State. Kerr knows how to let his players be themselves which he learned from playing under Phil Jackson, while he also reigns them in when need which he picked up from current Spurs head coach Greg Popovich. And as this formula has been so successful for the Warriors, don’t expect them to go away from it anytime soon.

The Warriors averaged 115.9 points per game last season which was tops in the NBA. Teams have tried to outscore the Warriors in their meetings which is a recipe for disaster as there is not another team in the NBA that can match them point for point.

Kevin Durant

After joining the Warriors last summer, small forward Kevin Durant knew that anything short of winning an NBA Championship was going to lead to more ridicule for him. Durant joined Golden State after spending the first nine years of his NBA career with the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder franchise. Durant’s time with Oklahoma City included him being an NBA MVP, leading the league in scoring four times, and being a burden in the side of the Warriors.

But Durant joined Golden State seeking to get that elusive NBA Title and he delivered in a big way last season as after averaging 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in the regular season. Durant would then take his game to the next level in the NBA Finals as he averaged 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, while he shot nearly 47.5% from beyond the three-point line. Durant just turned 29 years-old last month, and as he in the prime of his career, he is not showing any signs of slowing down. Durant doesn’t appear to be content with just having one title which means that he’ll continue to be on board with Golden State’s “team first” philosophy.

Steph Curry

Like Durant, point guard Steph Curry saw his offensive numbers slightly dip as he was teamed with so many quality shooters, but that didn’t take away from his effectiveness. Curry once again shot more than 40% from behind the three-point line as he continues to show off one of the sweetest deep shots in NBA history. And if Golden State opponents want to put too much attention on Durant, Curry can light it up, and before you know it, he’ll have 50 points.

With so much of the focus being on Curry and Durant, the forgotten scorer for the Warriors has been shooting guard Klay Thompson. In spite of Durant and Curry garnering so much attention last season, Thompson still managed to average 22.3 points per contest which was a career-high. Like Curry, Thompson has connected on more than 40% of his three-point shots throughout his NBA scorer as along with Durant and Curry, this becomes a dangerous trio that I am in no rush to compete against in a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Draymond Green

But the glue that continues to keep this team together is power forward Draymond Green. Green does a little bit of everything for the Warriors at each end of the floor as he is indeed the team’s MVP. Last season Green averaged 2 blocks and 1.2 steals per contest en route to being named as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Green’s temper at times can get the best of him, but he is by far the most intense player who is currently in the NBA. And as long as the Warriors are able to reign in Green’s aggression in a way that it benefits his club, the sky is once again the limit for this quartet.

Aside from Golden State’s star power, they also have a solid supporting cast. Small forward Andre Iguodala and point guard Shaun Livingston each had the opportunity to leave Oakland over the summer in free agency, but both guys chose to remain with the Warriors for an opportunity to win another NBA Championship. Iguodala continues to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, while at 6’9″, Livingston is mismatch for most point guards, and he also gives the Warriors a quality ball handler coming off of the bench.

One of the quiet signings over the summer in the NBA was the Warriors signing shooting guard Nick Young. Throughout Young’s NBA career, he has been an under utilized player with some of it being his on doing. Young has always shown flashes of being a solid scorer, but he has not always played within the realm of an offense. However Young should be committed to his craft which comes this season with playing for the Warriors and their dedication to winning. And if Young is on top of his game, he will provide Golden State with instant offense coming off of the bench.

The Warriors will enter the NBA season once again with a target on their backs. However in recent years Golden State has embraced the hate as they once again have everything in place to be playing in June.

Y-Los Angeles Clippers 52-30 (5)

Each of the last five years have seen the Los Angeles Clippers win at least 50 games in the regular season, but it has not translated to success in the playoffs. The Clippers have never been able to advance past the second round in the NBA Playoffs, while their recent success has seen them take a backseat to the dynasties of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. And with the Clippers failing to get out of the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two years, changes were made and you can expect more to be coming down the pike for the “other” NBA franchise that calls Los Angeles home.

Since Steve Ballmer became the Clippers owner in 2014, he has sought out to change the culture for this franchise. Ballmer inherited a head coach in Doc Rivers who knows what it takes to win an NBA Championship as he led the Boston Celtics to the title in 2008. Rivers joined the Clippers in 2013 not only as their head coach, but also as the team’s president. But with the Clippers inability to take the next step, Ballmer decided that it was time for Rivers to focus solely on being the team’s head coach which paved the way for Gillian Zucker to be the team’s president. However the biggest move that Ballmer made was to lure Jerry West away from the rival Warriors.

For nearly six decades, West has symbolized greatness in the NBA. West helped the Lakers win an NBA Championship as a player in 1972, while he became the team’s general manager in 1982 and became the architect of one of the greatest dynasties in league history as Los Angeles would go on to win four more titles with him at the helm during the 1980’s. Overall the Lakers would win seven NBA Titles with West as their general manager, while he would also help to reverse the fortunes of the Memphis Grizzlies and Warriors. West had been a consultant for the Warriors since 2011 and he helped to nullify a trade that would have sent shooting guard Klay Thompson to the Minnesota Timberwolves for power forward Kevin Love as Thompson has gone on to become a vital piece in two NBA Titles for Golden State. And after winning the NBA Title this past June, Warriors co-owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber tried valiantly to retain the services of West, but his heart was on returning to Los Angeles; this time with the Clippers.

Upon joining the Clippers as a consultant, West inherited a disgruntled star player in point guard Chris Paul. The last six years saw Paul ascend to being the best player in Clippers franchise history, but a failed trade to acquire small forward Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks last season all but signaled the end of Paul’s run in Los Angeles as he had now reached his boiling point. And with Paul unwilling to sign an extension to remain with the Clippers, he was traded this past June to the Houston Rockets for eight players and a future first-round pick. This huge haul speaks to the genius of West as he has always had a keen eye for talent, while also being a tremendous negotiator. The Clippers may not have a point guard that can lead this team, but they now have the depth which could help them pull off some more trades in order to get one.

Blake Griffin

One of the biggest issues that has hindered the Clippers is that they have lacked a consistent go-to-guy. The hope is that power forward Blake Griffin can be that guy as he has led the Clippers in scoring in each of the last seven seasons, but you have to go back to his rookie season to find the last time in which he was able to play a full 82-game schedule. Griffin’s inability to stay healthy has limited what the Clippers have been able to do. However even with that Griffin received a new five-year $173 million contract from the Clippers this past summer after he flirted with joining the Phoenix Suns.

Aside from trading Paul, the Clippers lost three of their top five scorers from last year’s squad. Shooting guard J.J. Redick signed with Philadelphia 76ers, while shooting guard Jamal Crawford joined the Minnesota Timberwolves via a trade.

Danilo Galinari

In trading Crawford, Los Angeles was able to acquire small forward Danilo Galinari from the Denver Nuggets. Since Galinari came to the NBA from his native Italy in 2008, he has been an underrated scorer, and now he can give the Clippers a consistent scorer at the small forward position.

Lost in the trade which sent Paul to Houston were two of the guards that the Clippers received. Point guard Patrick Beverley has played with a chip on his shoulder since he came into the NBA in 2012. Beverley has always been a tough minded player which is right up the alley of his new head coach in Rivers.

Guard Lou Williams has always been instant offense coming off of the bench for the majority of his NBA career. Williams has averaged 12.8 points for his NBA career primarily as a bench player, and it does not take that much for him to get going. In trading Crawford, the Clippers parted with a player who is a three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award winner. However Williams has also taken home the honor once, and the Clippers second unit should not skip a beat this season in regards to having quality scoring coming off of the bench with Williams.

With so many new players on the Clippers roster, they should start of slow before getting into a groove. However the Clippers still don’t match up with the Warriors or Spurs which will once again prevent them from making a deep playoff run.

Los Angeles Lakers 35-47

The best way to sum up the current state of the Los Angeles Lakers is that they are in uncharted waters. For the first time in franchise history the Lakers have missed the playoffs in four consecutive years as they have become a shell of themselves. Former Lakers point guard Magic Johnson was hired to be the team’s new president of basketball operations this past February and he knows a thing or two about the organizations winning tradition. Johnson helped the Lakers win five NBA Championships in the 1980’s as a player and now he wants to bring that winning formula to the front office. Johnson hired former sports agent Rob Pelinka to be the Lakers new general manager, while he retained the services of Luke Walton as the team’s head coach. And this will be the brain trust that can hopefully turn around the fortunes of the purple and gold.

The Lakers went into the 2017 NBA Draft in possession of the second overall pick. There were several directions that the Lakers could have gone in regards to their selection, but they ultimately decided on UCLA Bruins point guard Lonzo Ball. In Ball’s one season at UCLA, he averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 assists, and 6 rebounds en route to being a First-team All-American as well as the Pac-12 Conference’s Player of the Year.

Unfortunately for Ball, his prowess on the basketball court has been overshadowed by the off-the-court antics of his father LaVar Ball. Ball has been outspoken in regards to how he feels about the basketball skills of his son as well as how his son stacks up versus some prominent NBA players. All along the elder Ball wanted his son to play for the Lakers, but will his enthusiasm benefit or hinder the young Lakers team?

In drafting Ball, the Lakers traded point guard D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets. Part of the Lakers compensation for sending Russell to the Nets was that they were able to obtain center Brook Lopez. Lopez had spent his entire nine-year NBA career with the Nets as he became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Lopez comes to Los Angeles after he averaged 20.5 last season for Brooklyn. Lopez won’t be the focal point of the Lakers offense, while he must get adjusted to the triangle offense that Walton operates. But the fact that Lopez will become a free agent next summer should see him have a solid season for the purple and gold.

Brandon Ingram

If the Lakers are going to push for a playoff spot in 2017, the maturation process of small forward Brandon Ingram must continue. Ingram was the second overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft by the Lakers, and as a rookie he averaged 9.4 points. Ingram came off of the bench in 39 games for the Lakers last season, and he should have more of an opportunity to be an impact player this year due to his potential as a scorer and ball handler.

Power forward Julius Randle continues to be a consistent double-double threat in the front court for the Lakers. However Randle is not going to be a player that can continuously produce 20 points and 10 rebounds due to his inability to be a consistent scorer in the post. Randle gets the majority of his points off of put backs and his energy on the boards must continue.

The young Lakers will be more exciting than they have been in recent years, but there is still a rather large gap between them and the playoff contenders in the Western Conference.

Sacramento Kings 32-50

The Sacramento Kings will enter the current NBA season in possession of the second longest current playoff drought in the league. You have to turn the calendar back to the 2005-2006 NBA season in order to find the last time that the Kings were able to reach the postseason. Since then the Kings have been plagued by bad horrible front office decisions which includes making poor choices in the NBA Draft. The Kings have one of the best home arenas in the NBA which the debuted last season in the Golden 1 Center. However the basketball fans in Northern California are not going to consistently support the Kings with the product that they are putting out on the basketball court. And by the looks of things this could be another long NBA season in Sacramento.

Dave Joerger

As Dave Joerger is set to begin his season season as the head coach of the Kings, his squad will definitely have a different feel to it. Five of the top six scorers for Sacramento from last season are no longer with them which includes All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins who was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans this past February. And in trading Cousins, the Kings are once again “starting over” which unfortunately has been the norm for them.

Buddy Hield

The key player that the Kings received in trading Cousins was shooting guard Buddy Hield. In 25 games last season with the Kings, Hield was able to averaged 15.1 points per game as he was showing the flashes of being “instant offense” which made him an All-American during his senior season for Oklahoma Sooners in the 2015-2016 college basketball season.

The Kings now have three first-round picks from this year’s NBA Draft on their roster. Guard De’Aron Fox, forward Justin Jackson, and forward Harry Giles won’t be able to turn around the fortunes of the Kings right away, but they will each have the opportunity to get their feet wet while potentially showing the fans of Sacramento a glimpse into the future. The Kings also have veterans such as power forward Zach Randolph and small forward Vince Carter who are familiar with Joerger’s coaching style from their time together with the Memphis Grizzlies. However it is hard to believe that a 36-year old Randolph, as well as a 40-year old Carter will be able to have a big impact this season for the Kings.

The Kings will be fighting an uphill battle all season long as their playoff drought will continue.

Phoenix Suns 30-52

Ever since the Phoenix Suns made the Western Conference Finals in 2010, they don’t have any postseason appearances, while only being able to record one winning season. During that time the Suns have restructured their front office several times, but to no avail as the losing continues. Earl Watson is set to begin his second full season as the head coach of the Suns. Watson has one of the youngest teams in the NBA to work with as the Suns had 13 players on their roster under the age of 25 when training camp began. And as the youth movement is once again the direction that the Suns are going, will it result in them being competitive in the Western Conference?

Eric Bledsoe

It is not a secret anymore that the Suns are developing one of the best backcourt combos in the Western Conference. Each of point guard Eric Bledsoe’s seven years in the NBA have seen his production increase. Bledsoe averaged 21.1 points per game and 6.3 assists last season. Bledsoe is one of the most explosive point guards in the NBA due to his speed and ability to get to the basket. And that ability could lead to Bledsoe making his first All-Star team this season.

Devin Booker

Booker made tremendous strides from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign in the NBA. After Booker averaged 13.8 points per game as a rookie, he was able to tally 22.1 points per contest last season which included him dropping 70 points versus the Boston Celtics on March 24. Booker is instant offense and as he is developing his perimeter game while also benefiting from the penetrating ability of Bledsoe, he could find himself in the top ten in regards to scoring this season in the NBA.

Another project for the Suns has been small forward T.J. Warren. Warren was selected by the Suns in the first round in 2014 and like Bledsoe and Booker, his production continues to improve. Warren does not yet have the ability to make an impact for the Suns as a perimeter scorer as he only shot 26% from behind the three-point line last season, but he could be a force in regards to playing pick-and-roll with Booker and Anderson, while also crashing the boards which will help the Suns who were sixth in the NBA last season in rebounds per contest with 45.

Last season the Suns were ninth in the NBA in scoring at 107.7 points per game, but they were also dead last in points allowed (113.3). The Suns must find a way to get tougher on the defensive end of the court as they are not always going to be able to outscore their opponents. However Phoenix should still be one of the more exciting teams in the NBA this season.

X-Division Winner

Y-Playoff Berth

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

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2017-2018 Northwest Division Projections

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X-Oklahoma City Thunder 53-29 (3)

The 2017-2018 NBA season proved to be a strange, but interesting one for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had to deal with the notion that they no longer had the services of small forward Kevin Durant as after nine seasons with the franchise he decided to leave in free agency to join the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder only had one superstar to carry the load now in point guard Russell Westbrook who went out of his way to answer the bell. Last season Westbrook won the NBA’s MVP Award as he averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Westbrook would help the Thunder to their seventh playoff appearance in the last eight years. But in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the Houston Rockets and point guard James Harden proved to be too much for the Thunder as they eliminated them in five games. Westbrook showed that he was good enough to get Oklahoma City to the postseason, but he alone would not be enough if this franchise was serious about winning an NBA Championship.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti has never been one to shy away from making a deal in order to improve his club and this off-season was no different.

In July, the Thunder were able to acquire All-Star small forward Paul George from the Indiana Pacers as Oklahoma City once again had a star duo to help them compete in the Western Conference. However Presti was not done there as last month saw the Thunder acquire small forward Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. And in the span of two months things have really changed in regards to the outlook for the Thunder.

For Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, he no longer has to worry about Westbrook needing to do everything by himself as his ability to penetrate the lane will be magnified as Anthony can now play the role of being a spot up shooter. And if the Thunder don’t want to consistently use Westbrook as the team’s primary ball handler, George can provide them with some quality minutes in the point forward role.

Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony

The biggest thing for the Thunder is attempting to find their chemistry. Anthony, George, and Westbrook have all been members of the United States Men’s Basketball team which should help to expedite the process due to familiarity with one another, while Donovan knows how to stay out of the way of his players in order to allow them to be themselves. I don’t see Westbrook averaging a triple-double this season, but he should still be able to facilitate. Westbrook, George, and Anthony have all shown that they can be the guy during their respective NBA careers, but who is going to be “the guy” in those key moments for Oklahoma City?

The Thunder did lose some depth to acquire both Anthony and George which included them trading center Enes Kanter to the Knicks, but they still have center Steven Adams, while they signed power forward Patrick Patterson. Adams has shown that he is willing to do all of the dirty work. In four years with the Thunder, Adams’ numbers have continued to increase, and although that his offensive numbers might dip this season, he should still be a factor on the boards as he has the potential to average 9 rebounds per game, while also being a presence in the paint due to his shot blocking ability.

Last year the Thunder averaged 106.6 points per game which was 11th in the NBA, while they shot just above 45% from the floor which was 17th. Both of those stats should increase as the additions of George and Anthony will allow Oklahoma City to play and even more wide-open brand of basketball. And as soon as George, Westbrook, and Anthony are able to get on the same page, the more dangerous that the Thunder will be for this NBA season.

Y-Minnesota Timberwolves 52-30 (4)

It has been a long dry spell for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they have gone 13 seasons without a postseason berth, but things finally appear ready to change. The spring of 2016 would see former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau named as the new head coach of the Timberwolves as well as being the team’s president of basketball operations. And after losing 51 games last season, Thibodeau has gone out to upgrade the Timberwolves roster which not only puts them in position to make the playoffs, but also to contend for an NBA Championship.

Jimmy Butler

The Timberwolves were able to pull off one of the biggest splashes of the summer in the NBA when they acquired All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. In exchange for the services of Butler, Minnesota sent guards Kris Dunn and Zach Levine as well as the draft rights of power forward Lauri Markkanen to Chicago which will be worth it. In six seasons with the Bulls, Butler’s points per game have increased during each season, while he is one the better two-way players in the NBA.

What Butler gives the Timberwolves is a proven finisher who knows Thibodeau’s system. Thibodeau drafted Butler in 2011 as a late first-round pick while he developed into one of the better players in the game and that aspect will help to give Minnesota some credibility.

Aside from Butler, Thibodeau signed a pair of his former players with the Bulls in point guard Aaron Brooks and power forward Taj Gibson. Like Butler, Gibson knows Thibodeau’s system like the back of his hand, while he can also help Minnesota improve in the toughness category. Gibson falls into the category of being a player that will do whatever it takes to win. Gibson has shown the ability throughout his NBA career to rebound, defend, as well as consistently hit baseline jump shots, and he should be able to feed off of the talented players around him this season.

Brooks didn’t spend as much time with the Bulls that Butler and Gibson did under Thibodeau, but he does fit the mold of being a gritty player.The Timberwolves will be Brooks’ seventh NBA team in 11 years which gives you an idea of how mentally tough that he is. What Brooks gives the Timberwolves is a quality player off of the bench, who has the potential to explode for 20 points on any given night.

And aside from the editions of Gibson and Brooks, Minnesota will now consistently get consistent scoring off of the bench as they signed shooting guard Jamal Crawford. Crawford is the is the only three-time winner of the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award as he is instant offense as soon as he enters the game. And just like Brooks, Crawford has the ability to go for 20 points on any given night.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins

The additions that the Timberwolves have made are solid, but the success of this team will still hinge of center Karl-Anthony Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins. This side of New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis, Towns is the most exciting young big man in the NBA. Towns was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2016 and he was able to avoid the sophomore slump as he was 12th in the NBA in scoring at 25.1 per game and sixth in rebounds at 12.3 per contest last season. Before the Timberwolves made all of their moves during the off-season. it would have been easy to pencil in Towns to average 25 points and 15 boards, but his points per game production should take a slight dip with the addition of Butler.

Like Towns, Wiggins was a Rookie of the Year during his first year in the NBA, and his production has continued to increase. At 6’9″, Wiggins is a matchup nightmare for opponents due to his length as well ability to score. And with the addition to Butler as well as the maturation of Towns, Wiggins could be scary good this season.

But for all of the big moves that the Timberwolves made during the off-season, there most significant one was signing point guard Jeff Teague. After Minnesota traded point guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz over the summer, they needed a floor general that could operate the team’s offense in the fashion that Thibodeau wants which is exactly what Teague can do. Teague is coming off of arguably his best season in the NBA as he averaged 15.3 points and 7.8 assists for the Indiana Pacers. Now Teague will be charged with consistently getting the ball to Butler, Towns, and Wiggins which should not a problem for him as he has always proven to be a team first point guard which goes back to his time with the Atlanta Hawks.

Defensive basketball has always been a hallmark of Thibodeau’s teams which was not the case last season as Minnesota was 18th in the NBA in points allowed at 106.7 per contest. However the addition of Butler will help to change that due to his ability to clamp onto the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. And although that it will take this squad some time to get on the same page, Minnesota will be a very dangerous team in the second half of the NBA season as well as the playoffs.

Y-Denver Nuggets 44-38 (7)

The Denver Nuggets have been competitive, but they have missed the NBA Playoffs in each of the last four years. The Nuggets went 40-42 last season and they missed the postseason by one game. And as Denver fell just one win short of the postseason, they’ll look back at the fact that they went 1-3 versus the Portland Trail Blazers which was the team that edged them out for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But as the Nuggets were able to overachieve under head coach Mike Malone last season, will they have enough for the upcoming campaign to take that next step in order to reach the playoffs?

The Nuggets traded their leading scorer from last season in small forward Danilo Gallinari to the Los Angeles Clippers, but they still have the potential to have one of the more underrated front courts in the Western Conference.

Nikola Jokic

When the Nuggets drafted center Nikola Jokic in 2014, he appeared to be an afterthought. But once Jokic left Europe in 2015, he was able to adjust to the NBA game rather quickly. Last season Jokic was able to average 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, while also chiming in with 4.9 assists per contest. And after Jokic barely missed out on averaging a double-double last season, he should be able to pull it off during this campaign, while also being in the mix to be an All-Star.

Last season the Nuggets acquired center Mason Plumlee from the Portland Trail Blazers who throughout his NBA career has been severely underutilized. Plumlee knows how to crash the boards as well as score in various ways due to his ability due to produce buckets without having a play called for him.

Like Plumlee, power forward Kenneth Faried is a member of the all-energy team, but he has been limited over the past few years due to injuries. However if Faried is healthy, he can provide the Nuggets with more depth coming off of the bench due to his ability to crash the boards as well as by making plays that will never show up on the stat sheet.

Paul Millsap

Over the summer the Nuggets were able to sign power forward Paul Millsap who has always shown the ability to produce in the paint. For Millsap’s 11-year NBA career, he has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, while he also has the ability to pass from the perimeter as well as in the paint.

Since small forward Wilson Chandler broke into the NBA in 2007 with the New York Knicks, he has gone on the be an underrated player at his position. Chandler has averaged 14 points for his NBA career which included tallying 15.7 per contest last season to go along with 6.5 boards. And what Chandler gives the Nuggets is a slasher from the small forward position who should be able to feed off of the passing ability of Jokic as well as that of the point guards in Denver.

Malone has a solid blend of primary ball handlers to work with in veteran point guard Jameer Nelson and Emanuel Mudiay. Nelson has 13 years of experience to share with Mudiay who only has two years under his belt. And this duo must find a way to facilitate for this Nuggets team; especially for Mudiay as the potential success for Denver will be in his hands.

The Nuggets will be a team to pay attention to for the entire NBA season as they will make each opponent work for everything in every game.

Y-Portland Trail Blazers 42-40 (8)

After overachieving during the 2015-2016 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers underachieved last season. The Blazers had to fight, scrap, and claw in order to earn the final playoff spot in the Western Conference last season with a record of 41-41. For Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, he relied on his back court of point guard Damian Lillard and shooting guard C.J. McCollum to carry the team last year as they combined to average 50 points per game, but will this strategy be able to get Portland back to the NBA Playoffs?

Damian Lillard

Lillard is one of the most exciting point guards in the NBA and he became the focal point of the offense two years ago when the Trail Blazers lost several key players in free agency. However after Lillard averaged 6.8 assists per game during the 2015-2016 NBA season, he only averaged 5.9 per contest last season. Lillard focused too much on isolation ball which destroyed the rhythm of Portland’s offense. And heading into a new season, Lillard must find a way to make the players around him better, while also not losing his ability to score.

Playing alongside Lillard has afforded McCollum the opportunity to become a solid scorer for Portland. In each of the last two seasons, McCollum has averaged more 20 points per game. But the duo of McCollum and Lillard taking nearly half of the Trail Blazers shot once again won’t cut it.

Jusuf Nurkic

Last season the Blazers acquired center Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets and he showed the ability to play off of Lillard and McCollum. In 20 games for Portland, Nurkic averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds before his season came to a premature end after he suffered a broken leg. Nurkic is still working his way back from the injury, and once healthy, he has the ability to have an impact at both ends of the floor.

Aside from Nurkic, the Trail Blazers have size on their front line which includes small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, center Meyers Leonard, and power forward Ed Davis. Portland was tied for 13th in the NBA in rebounding last season at 43.7 per game, but with their size, there needs to be a change in philosophy in regards to how this team plays. Offensively Portland should concentrate more on having Lillard drive the lane in order to set his big men up for easier shots, while they also need to get nastier at the end of the defensive of the floor where they surrendered 108.5 points per game last season which was 25th in the NBA.

Unlike last season, Portland might not be able to recover from having a slow start due to the Western Conference being tougher which means that they must develop team chemistry early on in order to keep up.

Utah Jazz 41-41

The past NBA season saw the Utah Jazz emerge as a force in the Western Conference. The Jazz were able to win their first Northwest Division Title since 2008, while they won their first playoff series since 2010. The Jazz showed all of the signs of a team that was trending upward until they had to deal with the harsh reality of the NBA.

Small forward Gordon Hayward who led the Jazz in scoring at 21.9 points per game decided to leave Salt Lake City as a free agent to join the Boston Celtics. The Jazz are one of the NBA’s smaller market franchises, and the allure of Hayward playing for his former college head coach in Brad Stevens as well as being in Boston was enough for him to leave town.

The Jazz won’t be able to replace the contributions of Hayward as he was a solid two-way player. But for Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, he heads into a new NBA season trying to keep his squad on track, while making the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

Rudy Gobert

The departure of Hayward means that center Rudy Gobert will now be the guy for Utah. Gobert was a first-round pick by the Jazz in 2013 and he has been a project. However Gobert is coming off of his best season in the NBA as he led the league in blocks last season at 2.6 per contest. Gobert stands 7’1″, but his wingspan makes him 7’9″ and his ability to block shots makes him Utah’s best interior defender since Mark Eaton. However Gobert could become more of a threat at the offensive end of the floor as he should get more shots now in the post as there are not too many centers in the Western Conference that will be able to deal with his size and presence.

Aside from Gobert, the Jazz have size on their front line in the form of power forward Derrick Favors. Like Gobert, Favors has ability to be a shot blocker and rebounder, but his overall production took a dip last season due to injury. Favors is a seven-year NBA veteran, but he is still a youngster at the age of 26. And if Favors is healthy this season, points will be at a premium this year for Utah opponents due to his presence as well as that of Gobert on the interior.

Ricky Rubio

The Jazz were able to acquire point guard Ricky Rubio from the Minnesota Timberwolves over the summer as he has morphed into a quality point guard, and the Jazz’s style of offense which focuses on movement will benefit him. Utah still has veteran swingman Joe Johnson, but the one thing that’ll hinder their chances this season is that they no longer have a play maker like Hayward who can consistently create for his teammates.

The Jazz will definitely take a step back as the loss of Hayward, along with a stacked Western Conference will make it tough for them to get back to the postseason.

X-Division Winner

Y-Playoff Berth

Source: Basketball-reference.com

 

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