We'll get back into the Grizzlies specifically tomorrow, but for now it's once again time to go on the record with how I see the whole league shaking out this season.
I did over-under predictions on all 30 teams last week on The Chris Vernon Show, alongside Verno, producer Jon Roser, and Grizzlies radio play-by-play man Eric Hasseltine. Even though circumstances have changed for a few teams and my opinions have shifted on a few others, I'm including those over-under picks here as is for the sake of posterity.
On with the predictions, conference picks separated into tiers:
1. Miami Heat (61.5 — OVER)
After the breakthrough comes the victory lap. I think Lebron James is about to run wild over the whole league.
2. Boston Celtics (50.5 — OVER)
I know, they were a 48-win equivalent team last season and now Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are another year older. And they're totally focused on a post-season rematch with Miami. But I think they got younger and deeper around a still-elite three-man core and the best coach in the conference. And I think they're hungry. A 55-win team.
3. Indiana Pacers (50.5 — UNDER)
4. Atlanta Hawks (43 — OVER)
5. Brooklyn Nets (46 — UNDER)
I see all these teams in the 44-50 win range. The Pacers were unusually healthy last season and are already seeing warning signs on that front from top scorer Danny Granger. I think their offseason moves to shake up their bench were lateral at best. “Lateral at best” is how I see their season.
The Hawks are my Eastern sleeper team. They lost Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams — which will hurt their wing defense more than anything — but made up for it by loading up on ballhandlers (Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Lou Williams) and shooters (Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, Williams) to surround the dynamic frontcourt duo of Josh Smith and a returning-from-injury Al Horford. This should be a fun and surprisingly good team.
In Brooklyn, I love the Deron Williams-Joe Johnson backcourt, but don't love the defense and depth. But they'll win the All-City title and fight for homecourt in the first round. This was one of the tougher over/under calls for me.
6. Philadelphia 76ers (47 — UNDER)
If Andrew Bynum seemed healthy they would be in the tier above, but the would-be franchise big man hasn't suited up yet and the Sixers are less dynamic on the perimeter than they were a year ago. A playoff team, with upside if Bynum puts it all together.
7. Chicago Bulls (47.5 — UNDER)
8. New York Knicks (45.5 — UNDER)
9. Toronto Raptors (33.5 — OVER)
10. Milwaukee Bucks (37.5 — UNDER)
Fighting for those last two spots in the 35-42 win range. My bet is that Derrick Rose sits the whole season and that the defense, with the loss of Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer, slides just a little. But the Bulls are still too professional a team to miss the post-season in this lackluster conference.
The Knicks may well ride the Carmelo Anthony Iso Project into the post-season, but their backcourt is bunk and their depth is decrepit. I could easily see Milwaukee or, especially, Toronto stepping up to take their slot.
The Raptors were an above-average defense last season under coach Dwane Casey and just upgraded at point guard with Kyle Lowry and center with rookie Jonas Valanciunas. Offensively, a healthy Andrea Bargnani has breakout potential.
The Bucks might be my eighth-seed on paper with their backcourt scoring and frontcourt depth, but I wonder if that backcourt (Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis) is really built to win and suspect that hard-nosed coach Scott Skiles might be about to hit his expiration date in Milwaukee.
11. Detroit Pistons (32 — OVER)
12. Cleveland Cavaliers (31.5 — UNDER)
13. Washington Wizards (28.5 — OVER)
Creeping up to that 28-35 win range. All of these teams have signature young stars (Greg Monroe, Kyrie Irving, John Wall) and will be auditioning rookie sidekick options (Andre Drummond, Dion Waiters, Bradley Beal) but these rosters are still too young and too shallow for playoff contention. (That Wizards over/under is the one I would most tempted to change in this conference.)
14. Orlando Magic (24.5 — UNDER)
15. Charlotte Bobcats (18.5 — UNDER)
The sub-25-win dregs. At least the Bobcats have hit bottom and are creeping up with a presumed cornerstone (rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) in place. The Magic are starting at zero this season.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (60.5 — UNDER)
2. San Antonio Spurs (55.5 — OVER)
3. Los Angeles Lakers (58 — UNDER)
4. Memphis Grizzlies (49 — OVER)
5. Denver Nuggets (51.5 — UNDER)
When the preseason began, I would have divided the top of the West into two tiers, with the Thunder, Lakers, and Spurs as “true” contenders and the Grizzlies, Nuggets, and Clippers as more “puncher's chance” contenders.
But, over the past few weeks, the James Harden trade, Manu Ginobili injury concerns, and the Lakers confirming their dire depth problems have taken a little shine off the Thunder, Spurs, and Lakers, respectively, while the Grizzlies and Nuggets seem a little stronger.
The result, for me, is a five-team top tier that I think will all finish in the 50-60 win range and could finish in any order at all. Come playoff time, I still think the Lakers and Thunder have the greatest upside, but in the regular season I think it's a dogfight for first-round homecourt advantage.
6. Los Angeles Clippers (49.5 — UNDER)
7. Utah Jazz (44 — OVER)
I see the Clippers falling and the Jazz rising to collide in the 45-49 win range. The Clippers seem strong on paper, but the more I look at it the more I think they messed up their off-season, bringing in (or back) a bunch of past-their-prime name players (Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford) whose performance won't match their reputation.
I don't like Utah's point guard situation, with Mo Williams back in a starting role, but they've got one of the league's best and deepest frontcourts and I think Gordon Hayward will be a breakout player.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves (38.5 — OVER)
9. Dallas Mavericks (41.5 — OVER)
10. Golden State Warriors (36.5 — OVER)
A lot of injury uncertainty with all of these teams, which I think hover around .500 and compete for the last playoff slot.
I really like the Warriors roster on paper, with all those shooters surrounding defensive ace Andrew Bogut, but it's hard to assume more than 60 games from their injury-prone best players (Bogut and Steph Curry). The Mavericks will be without Dirk Nowitzki for the first month, but with good depth and a great coach (Rick Carlisle), they could coalesce around him on his return and preserve their playoff slot. They could also unravel.
Ultimately, though, I'm going to go with the Wolves for the last playoff slot, even though they'll play the first month — and maybe more — without their two best players in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. I'm not counting on much from Brandon Roy here, but I do think the additions of Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Buddinger, and ex-Griz Dante Cunningham will help them stay close enough to .500 early on to make a playoff push in the spring.
11. Houston Rockets (29 — OVER)
12. New Orleans Hornets (26.5 — OVER)
Thirtysomething-win teams on the rise with new signature players (James Harden, Anthony Davis) in place. Too young and thin to compete for a playoff spot in this conference, but these teams will be a lot of fun to watch develop.
13. Portland Trailblazers (33 — UNDER)
14. Phoenix Suns (33 — UNDER)
15. Sacramento Kings (31 — UNDER)
Bad, but not Bobcats bad. The Blazers might have the worst bench in the NBA and rookies at point guard and center, but Lamarcus Aldridge is the best player in this tier and — on a related topic — they have the most coherent pecking order. The Kings have the most top-to-bottom talent in this group, but the parts don't fit together and the organization is a mess. The Suns? I don't know what they think they're doing, but I like center Marcin Gortat to have a big season.
Finals pick: Heat over Lakers
Lebron vs. Kobe, sure. But more than that: The league's best small-ball team (with Lebron as “point power forward”) versus the league's best big team (with twin towers Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol), and neither set-up well to play the other's style. With apologies to my colleague Frank Murtaugh, we may rue their super-team success, but nobody who enjoys the game of basketball could be bored by this series.
De Rigueur Award Picks:
1. Lebron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Rajon Rondo
1. Anthony Davis
2. Damian Lillard
3. Jonas Valanciunas
1. Erik Spoelstra
2. George Karl
3. Larry Drew
1. Gordon Hayward
2. Mike Conley
3. Klay Thompson
1. Lebron James
2. Dwight Howard
3. Kevin Garnett
1. Lou Williams
2. Kevin Martin
3. Chase Buddinger