It's been a restful hiatus for the Index and now we're back with a few thoughts prior to the opening tip. Patrick Minton of the NBA Geek wrote an excellent piece not long ago about how little he thinks of prediction making, and demonstrated, when it comes to accuracy, the analytics community doesn't vastly outperform the mainstream media, if they do at all. Why should this be?
Well, injuries, rookies, aging, personal problems, trades, dumb coaches, smart coaches, new coaches ect ect. The number of variables are so great and the relationships between them so complex, and frankly so arbitrary, that even with sophisticated tools at our disposal, an 82 game season is going to hold quite a few surprises.
So, don't take these as predictions per se- but rather a few places where you and I probably differ and some reasons I have for thinking what I do.
Team I like to outperform expectations: Orlando Magic
I'm not sure how interested the Magic are in making major strides this season, but I don't think they're going to be one of the leagues worst teams, as most seem to believe. I'm not one to care about Rookie of the Year, much less to figure out who's going to win it, but to my eye, Victor Oladipo is the rookie most ready to come in and make a significant contribution to an NBA team this season. His presence adds desperately needed defensive support and puts Nelson and Afflalo in more of a supportive role. The front court has improved as well: Jason Maxiell provides more defensive help and has been an underrated player for years, while Harkless, Harris, and Vucevic all enter their second season in Orlando and could very easily make incremental improvements to their games.
I don't think the Magic quite make the playoffs, but I think they establish themselves as a team on the rise and could easily stay around the .500 mark.
Team I think falls short of expectations: New York Knicks
Analytics guys killed the Knicks for trading a productive player and multiple draft picks for arguably the league's least productive player, Andrea Bargnani. It's not a trade I would have made, but this isn't even totally about that- actually I'm kind of interested to see how playing next to an elite defensive center effects Bargs. Rather, this is a cumulative assessment. Losing Jason Kidd is bad, moving Carmelo back to the three is bad, swapping Novak for Bargs is bad, replacing him with World Peace is bad...and they weren't all that great to begin with.
Others have alluded to the general volatility of the Knicks situation this year: Carmelo can opt out, Amare is back (maybe) which begins the coexistence argument again, J.R Smith and MWP are there, the Nets are going to be contenders...
What we're saying is this could get ugly. It wouldn't amaze us if the Knicks miss the playoffs or barely sneak in this season.
Eastern Conference Champion: Miami Heat
*This is a straight forward pick and we won't get into it, but very quickly, Pat Riley deserves a lot of credit for the way he's built the supporting parts on this team. Chris Anderson was a saavy addition and does things that this team needed prior to his arrival, Michael Beasley is one of the highest ranked players in DI history and bringing him in for pennies and trying to get him to focus and stay under the basket is a worthy roll of the dice. Last, and hopefully not least, Greg Oden could make this team historically great if he can manage to get and stay on the floor. Bottom line, Pat is one of those guys that just gets it.
Team I like to exceed expectations: New Orleans Pelicans
I don't love what the Pelicans did in the offseason (that's not necessarily a dig at the name change) but I think the stars more or less line up for them this season. First of all, Anthony Davis is probably going to be one of the 10-15 best players in the game this season, which just makes everything else that much easier. Though they gave up too much to get him, Jrue Holiday is an upgrade over Vasquez, and Evans a general upgrade however they choose to use him, again, price tag not withstanding.
After good complimentary pieces like Aminu, Anderson, and Morrow, things get a little rough, and the determining factor for the Pelicans this year might be how much good stuff they can get from the other guys, or if they can manage to get some different guys as things progress.
I'm looking for N.O to return to the playoffs as the 7th or 8th seed this season.
Team I think falls short of expectations: Golden State Warriors
This is somewhat murky territory, as I pretty much love what the Warriors did this offseason, but I think they'll have a tough time taking the next step in a treacherous Western Conference. First of all, defensively they are merely OK, which they addressed with the addition of Andre Igoudala. It's a great signing, but fundamentally they are still an up-tempo team that relies upon outshooting opponents, which is a tough way to make a living in the postseason.
I am also concerned about the injury histories of the very pivotal Andrew Bogut and David Lee, and to a lesser degree Steph Curry. There aren't obvious replacements for any of those guys on that roster, and losing one or more could be really difficult to overcome.
If you're thinking this sounds like nitpicking, you're probably right, but I think the Warriors don't end up with much more than a 6th or 7th seed and a quick exit from the postseason.
Western Conference Champion: Houston Rockets
Call me crazy, but they've got the big man, they've got the guy who can take the big shot, they've got guys who can spot up around the arc and make defenses pay, they have depth and roster flexibility. A strong case can be made for half a dozen teams, but strictly on paper, I like what Morey and Co. are bringing the table.