Most Surprising Team to Sneak into Playoffs
Andy G: Sacramento Kings
Many will predict the Kings to win less than 25 games, this year. Here’s why I think they can sneak up and win 10 or so more than that: First, they finished last season strong. They added Marcus Thornton mid-season and he provided a consistent shooting and scoring punch on the perimeter. Although they went 24-58 for the season, the Kings won 8 of their last 15 games. The Jimmer-Tyreke-Thornton backcourt trio is explosive offensively (and last year, the Kings struggles were more offensive than defensive, according to the numbers.) Last, and most importantly, DeMarcus Cousins could make “the leap.” He showed some big flashes of talent last year, but much of the same immaturity that was on full display in his lone collegiate season at Kentucky. If he can cut the whining in half, avoid foul trouble with some consistency, and continue to polish his already-advanced post game, Boogie could be a top-tier post presence. Combine that interior option with the perimeter firepower they’ve surrounded him with, and good things will come. Westphal is an experienced coach who will figure out how to make this work.
Patrick J: Utah Jazz
It’s in fashion to bag on Utah. The Jazz traded Deron Williams and parted ways with Jerry Sloan, replacing them with Devin Harris and Timberwolves legend Ty Corbin while adding Derrick Favors (#2 overall in the 2010 draft), Enes Kanter (#3 overall in 2011 draft), and veteran free agent Josh Howard (who bears an uncanny resemblance to The Wire’s Marlo Stansfield) along the way. Together with a solid core that includes fringe stars Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and glue guy Gordon Hayward, the Jazz have as much talent as any team unanimously expected to miss the playoffs. They play in the tough Western Conference and have their talent stacked at PF. Yet Jefferson, Favors, and possibly Kanter, can play minutes at center without giving up much against most teams, and Millsap will be productive regardless of his role. Meanwhile, the time seems right for Devin Harris to rebound from sub-par seasons and again show the talent that made him a key piece in the Williams trade. This prediction obviously hinges on (1) Corbin’s ability to coach, (2) Hayward’s ability to produce from the wing, and (3) Howard’s ability to stay healthy and happy in Utah. All of SLC may not have enough kind bud to guarantee the latter, but the Jazz will still be capable of surprising the naysayers.
Most Surprising Team to Miss the Playoffs
Andy G: Boston Celtics
First of all, it felt good just to type that. I hate the Celtics and perhaps that bias played a small part in this choice. In any case, the “Big 3″ are now 34, 35, and 36 years old. A 66-game sprint of a season will not be kind to these elder statemen. KG’s knees have been wearing down fast and this year could mark a breaking point of sorts. Paul Pierce, the youngest of the trio, is doubtful for the season opener with a heel injury. But what about Rajon Rondo, you ask? He was shopped all over the NBA this summer in unsuccessful trade attempts and who knows where his heart lies, right now. I wouldn’t bet on Boston to miss the playoffs, but if I had to pick a shocker to fall short, the C’s would be it. They’re old, they’re getting worse, and they have no quality depth.
Patrick J: Los Angeles Lakers
First of all, it felt good just to type that. I hate the Lakers with a passion and so perhaps my pick is biased. But the wheels are coming off for the Lake Show. Kobe’s still Kobe, just not as good. His supporting cast—Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and someone named METTA WORLD PEACE—is aging, injury prone, or crazy. Is Josh McRoberts the Lakers’ fourth best player? Is that a good thing? (RHETORICAL!) Is J-Mac the third best player during Bynum’s five-game suspension and the inevitable games he’ll miss due to injury? WORLD PEACE isn’t good anymore and can’t be relied on. The rest of the roster is horrible. See for yourselves.
Verdict: Lakers just miss the 8th seed.
Non-Superstar Player Most Likely to Swing NBA Title
Andy G: Baron Davis, New York Knicks
For me, this was an easy one. Boom Dizzle is the single most bipolar player in the NBA, and perhaps all of pro sports. When he’s on, he’s as good as there is. That isn’t hyperbole — an inspired Baron Davis is a franchise cornerstone player capable of carrying his team to victory over any team, any night. He carried Golden State over the 67-win Mavericks in a 7-game playoff series. He carried the 17-win Cavs last year over LeBron and Miami in a regular season tilt. Good Baron runs the point, shoots the three, posts up, and plays really strong on-ball defense. Baron Davis recently joined the Knicks and once his back heals up, he’ll be the backcourt general for a team that already includes Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler. If–and it is a huge “if”–that foursome can enter the playoffs with their health intact, the Knicks will be a serious championship contender.
Patrick J: Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks
Same team, different player. The same team thing will make it hard to distinguish the causal impact of Boom versus Chandler. Unless of course, Boom doesn’t play or mails it in or leaves the team in February to make a documentary in Williamsburg. Like Davis, Chandler is an injury risk, but unlike Boom, Chandler has a history of being a difference-maker. Boom’s has a single otherworldly playoff series just isn’t enough evidence that he’ll play to his potential this season, if he plays at all. The Knicks will be nothing if not electrifying this year, but I’m putting my chips on Chandler as the non-superstar most likely to swing the title to New York.
Rookie of the Year, 2011/12 Season
Patrick J: Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves
Kyrie Irving is likely to have better all-around numbers and teammate Derrick Williams should average more points, but Rubio is the rookie who will put up NUMB#RS–J-Kidd-like lines (4pts, 6rebs, 12asts, 3stls) seem probable—and lead his team to Ws. The Wolves are a different team when Rubio’s on the floor and the fact that he’s a rock star persona whose delayed NBA debut has given NBA fans blue balls for two years won’t hurt his chances either.
Runner-up: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Andy G: Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves
I’ll co-sign on this . I expect Rubio to quickly become this team’s starting point guard and primary facilitator of offense. With excellent shooters abound, Rubio’s penetrate-and-kick style should help rack up assists without excessive turnovers. Assuming that the Wolves show the expected, marked improvement under Coach Adelman, some credit will go to the newcomers. This should lead to a Rookie of the Year honor for the Wolves newest phenom.
Top 10 Rookies in 2011/12
1. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
2. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves
4. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
6. Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings
7. Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Bobcats
8. JAN VESELY!, Washington Wiz-ards
9. Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks
10. TRISTAN THOMPSON!, Cleveland Cavaliers
1. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
2. Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves
3. TRISTAN THOMPSON!, Cleveland Cavaliers
4. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
5. Jordan Hamilton, Denver Nuggets
6. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats
7. Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings
8. Marshon Brooks, New Jersey Nets
9. Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Bobcats
10. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Patrick J: LeBron James, Miami Heat
The best player on the best team. It’s not that difficult.
Andy G: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
It’s not as bold as it sounds. He’ll average something like 23/12/4, and it’ll be on a Top-4 team in the West. More on that below.
NBA Finals, 2011/12 Season
Patrick J: Miami Heat defeat Oklahoma City Thunder in five. Dwyane Wade wins Finals MVP.
Andy G: Chicago Bulls defeat Los Angeles Clippers in six. Derrick Rose wins Finals MVP.