20 Predictions For The 2016–17 NBA Season (Part I)

USA Today Sports

Each year, there’s nothing more entertaining about an NBA offseason than making (and reading) projections. No matter how much you think you’ve grasped the league and how much free agency has built your confidence level, you’re still wrong most of the time.

Predictions are usually silly. Because foreseeing the future of a league that’s profoundly based on the amount of injuries teams can avoid is just a losing battle. It happens every year.

Even if we believe it’s pointless and only setting yourself up for future internet humiliation, it’s still incredibly fun.

As I begin “Young’s 20 Predictions for the 2016–17 Season,” I should present you with this warning:

Most sections are long. It was just an entertaining way to spend a Friday night and Saturday morning, so I may have rambled a bit. Feel free to skim through whatever you need, and pay attention to anything you choose. These are just for the audience — mainly to make fun of me, if need be.

Here’s Part 1, with 10 of the 20 predictions. Part 2 will come early next week. Enjoy!

1. Warriors will finish 1st in Offensive Rating (record-breaking mark), and 4th in Defensive Rating

If it weren’t for Mike D’Antoni taking the Houston rocketship straight to the moon with his high-octane offense, the gap in Offensive Rating from first to second would likely be the largest we’ve ever seen.

Last season, taking the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the picture since Durant has departed, the next closest team to the 73–9 Warriors in Offensive Rating was the Cavaliers, finishing 3.6 points per 100 possessions below.

That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s huge when it comes to averages for a full season.

Golden State produced their points at a rate of 114.5 per 100 possessions last year, ranking them 10th all-time. Oddly enough, they were still behind the 2009–10 Suns (Pringles influence!), and those 1995–96 Bulls they tried to dethrone all of last year. Other than Phoenix’s “seven seconds or less” squad, no other modern team had a rating that high. It’s still arguable whether or not Golden State would’ve smashed it had they played all of their guys in the fourth quarters of games. But, they didn’t need to. They would’ve risked injury.

The highest mark of all-time was set by the 1986–87 Lakers, known as “Showtime,” which scored on a rapid tear of 115.6 points per 100 possessions.

This Warriors unit, comprised of a death lineup with Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green, has the right tools to snatch that record from Pat Riley’s Lakers.

Given that the Warriors shot the league’s best percentage from the field (48.7 percent) and from long-range (41.6 percent), you wouldn’t think they have any room to grow. Yet, the floor will be spread even wider than it was. Defenses will have so many more gaps that make them cringe and scream, and that’s because it’s comical to compare the threat of Durant’s perimeter shot-making to that of Harrison Barnes. The bench shouldn’t be as much of a problem as people are making it out to be, either.

Offensively, a mark of 116 points per 100 possessions is in their sights. Well, not literally, because there’s no way the players actually care about metrics like these … but it’s something they’ll have the chance to hit. Perhaps they should keep track of it, instead of the 73-win record or trying to lie to the media about not caring about regular season win totals. That would be pretty neat, wouldn’t it? If a team actively chased an advanced metric record so that they could brag about it?

Defensively, this team was already 5th in the league last year, trailing Boston, Indiana, Atlanta, and San Antonio. On the perimeter, though, only one team allowed a lower percentage from three-point territory. Golden State (without Durant) held teams to just 33.2 percent from deep all year. The Spurs were marginally better, and that’s it.

Kerr just added a (basically) 7-footer that’s longer and more athletic than anyone else in their starting lineup. Things are about to get suffocating.

The three teams above them will be the Spurs, Jazz, and ….

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

2. Celtics finish 1st in Defensive Rating

Danny Ainge’s rebuilding plan has progressed faster than anyone else’s in the league, even if Boston’s core isn’t as alluring as that of the rival Los Angeles Lakers, or the pups trying to become wolves in Minnesota. The best way to label them would be: While L.A. and Minnesota have the offensively-dangerous group of studs, it’s Boston that scares the living bejesus out of you defensively. They don’t just have two or three guys that defend at a high level. They have a pack of five or six that can be either annoying as hell on the perimeter, or very competent and switchy as big men.

Boston lost Jared Sullinger, who finished with a +0.15 Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, and replaced him with Al Horford, the veteran big men Ainge and Stevens have been longing for, who posted a +1.85 DRPM. Oh, and one of the defensive anchors in the frontcourt (along with the criminally trivialized Paul Millsap) of the Atlanta Hawks last year, a team that held opponents to 43.2 percent shooting (1st overall) and only 101.4 points per 100 possessions.

Having Horford join the mix should be beautiful for Brad Stevens, a coach that heavily values his defensive options. While Horford isn’t the shot-blocker and rim-protector that most would view in the same light as Hassan Whiteside or Rudy Gobert, it needs to be understood that swatting a shot and earning the highlight or Vine is only a fraction of defense. A tiny, minor fraction. The last few years of Horford’s career have been under the supervision of Mike Budenholzer, which has blossomed his abilities and focus on the defensive end. At age 30, he still has a rare ability for someone his size to switch onto power forwards or perimeter ball-handlers, and then quickly recover back toward the paint when necessary. It’s one of the reasons why the only team you could confidently say Atlanta would’ve lost to (in the East) since 2014–15 was the Cavaliers.

The Celtics’ greatest defensive ingredients are Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley, three of the most frustrating wing defenders the league has to offer. Stevens probably doesn’t even realize how fortunate he is for that.

Crowder made the leap from 39th of all small forwards in DRPM for 2014–15, all the way to 4th — of all small forwards playing at least 25 minutes per night — during his first full season with Boston. Crowder is exactly what teams are fighting so hard to draw in at the moment: a 6'6" forward that has no problem sliding the the four spot in small-ball lineups, can switch any pick-and-roll with point guards or power forwards, and will (likely) shoot the three-pointer at an exceptional rate as his game matures. He just turned 26, which places him right in that sweet spot of maintaining peak athleticism and still advancing his basketball skills. Crowder is precisely what they’ll need — and may be the single-most important defensive player — when matched up against Golden State’s lineup that makes Michael Myers cry at night, or when they need to make a statement against Cleveland. He’s their best and only option against LeBron, Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.

Smart accounted for 2.9 win shares last season as a sophomore, and 2.4 of them came from the defensive side. He enervates guards to the point where it makes every halfcourt possession stressful. And it’s not even like Boston is the grind-you-down type of team that wants you to burn slowly. They played at a wicked-fast pace last year, with the only teams faster being Golden State and Sacramento. Smart is superb defending at a fast or slow pace, and his strength makes him a handful for everyone (veterans included) to deal with. It’s essentially the reason he’s earned the backing of Boston executives, teammates, and so many of the wild fans.

Shooting 61-of-241 (25.3 percent) from three-point range before the playoff outburst isn’t what earned Smart the applause. It was his defense. Only six point guards ranked higher in DRPM than Smart at his +0.72 rating — Stephen Curry, Patrick Beverley, Ronnie Price, Kyle Lowry, Ricky Rubio, and Chris Paul.

Those guys are an average of 29.2 years old. Smart is only 22. Let the growth excite you, especially if he can play in the 70–82 game range this time around.

Bradley has never garnered the respect he deserves, despite landing on the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team this past season. Perhaps most of it is because it’s beyond puzzling how Boston could’ve allowed 99.8 points per 100 possessions (a Spurs-level mark) with him OFF the court, but a 105.3 rating with him ON. At 6'2", he’s still undersized for a shooting guard, and Stevens played him at the point for just 10 percent of his total minutes last year — a career-low for Bradley. In fact, when they went small for experimentation purposes throughout the season, he played at the three for roughly 14 percent of his minutes.

On the ball, he’s one of the five best defenders in the league, regardless what your opinion is of him. The lateral quickness and gifts he has are only part of the equation. The rest of it comes down to his strategic defensive decisions, the stance he guards with, and the change-of-pace he excels with during one-on-one coverage.

One thing Bradley has picked up through his six years as a pro, is how to make ball-handlers curse up a storm on the perimeter. His stance has the same effect on all top-tier ball-handlers — forcing them to turn their backs to Bradley, in an effort to protect the ball:

If they don’t shield him away, it’ll get ripped in less than two seconds. But, by turning their backs to the halfcourt action, they’re allowing Bradley to create so many problems. Not being able to see potential cutters and open shooters, not having the driving lanes to get around him at full speed (which really hurts the point guards that rely on it, such as John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, or Russell Westbrook), and perhaps the most unnoticed or disregarded component:

SLOWING DOWN THE OFFENSE.

That’s what Bradley is best at. Making his ball-handler work his tail off for 6–10 seconds, or maybe even more if the offensive player gets ticked off and seeks to prove a point. Meanwhile, Stevens is on the sidelines thinking quietly to himself, “keep burnin’ that shot-clock baby, keep going.”

It’s seriously music to a defense’s ears, especially when it’s coached by specialists like Ron Adams and Tom Thibodeau that have been defensive coordinators for years. Thibodeau will try to mold the same out of Kris Dunn, who is three inches taller than Bradley and already 22 years old. But, that’s for a different topic.

In this era of pace and space, it’s more dangerous than ever to get too close to your defensive assignment without eventually being burned. One step too close, and you’re likely not allowing yourself any room to get back in time. This can ruin a defense — forcing your teammates (big men) to rotate off their man in an effort to make up for you being a stride behind the ball-handler, which leads to a field day of alley-oops and layups. Take a gander at the Clippers’ offensive ideology and how Chris Paul torments defenses.

Bradley and Kawhi Leonard are known as the exceptions, with how well they can keep their man in front of them despite attacking so closely. Again, he makes them go into “protection mode,” which cuts off nearly every passing and dribbling lane available:

For the few occurrences each game that Bradley does face the danger of getting beat off the dribble — mostly in a screen-roll setting — I can’t pinpoint anyone better at “racing” his man to the exact spot he wants to go.

Bradley knows where his teammates will be to help him cut off the point guard, and only focuses on sprinting to that spot. He has the best stop-and-go defensive moves a player needs in order to pull this off:

There really isn’t a strong argument anymore for Boston not being able to sustain a top 1–3 defense for the entire year. Jaylen Brown is only a rookie, but it’s not as if Stevens is going to use him to a high degree when matched up against the top competition. Boston has more than enough complementary pieces defensively to make up for any negative defender that’s on the floor. Hell, Stevens transformed Evan Turner into a plus-defender for the most part, although he won’t carry that reputation by hardly anyone.

While the Hawks and Pacers finished ahead of Boston last year in terms of defensive rating, Boston was the most exasperating of the top four. Their ball-hawking and excellent switching is what kept them alive versus a great spread pick-and-roll offense in the playoffs. With Horford leaving Atlanta and joining this defense, it should only make them better.

The Celtics should propel past the Hawks and Spurs, who are likely taking a small step back with Pau Gasol’s defense replacing Timothy Theodore Freakin’ Duncan, the most impactful 40-year-old defensive center ever.

Something in the neighborhood of 100.5 to 101 points allowed per 100 possessions is obtainable by Boston.

3. Karl Towns earns All-NBA First Team honors, as a sophomore

Shaquille O’Neal’s first All-NBA Team came during his second season, but it was only a third-team selection. That seems asinine with his 29.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game during that year. Kevin Garnett didn’t record an All-NBA selection until his fourth season (what the ****?) and it was also only third-team honors.

Tim Duncan, as a rookie, did the unthinkable by performing at an All-NBA First Team level in 1997–98, being on the same ballot as Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and O’Neal himself.

Duncan was 21 when he achieved it during his rookie season. Karl Towns will be 21 this November, after running away with the Rookie of the Year award last year on a 29-win roster. The All-NBA center positions for 2015–16 went to DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, and Andre Drummond — three guys that helped their teams finish higher in the standings than Minnesota, albeit Sacramento wasn’t too far ahead.

It’s hard to determine if a team’s record is heavily weighed in the voting for All-NBA teams. The statistical production has to be impossible to ignore for a clan of voters to be turned off from voting a player onto the list, hence why Cousins’ 27 points and 11.5 rebounds per game mattered more than Al Horford’s contributions to a 48-win team in Atlanta. Both were in a similar boat last year, which is strange. Cousins and Horford increased their three-point intake significantly, leaping into the 200-range in terms of triples attempted. Horford made a slightly better percentage of his — and played much better defense over the course of the regular season — but it was ultimately the larger usage rate that got Cousins into the All-NBA Second Team.

This year, Towns is projected to take such an astounding step forward compared to his (already farcical) rookie campaign.

Without Sam Mitchell on the sidelines, his usage rating should be higher than 24.9 percent, unless Andrew Wiggins absorbs more of the possessions because of his own ascension into that next tier of wing scorers. If that’s in the cards for Wiggins, then it’s deserved. Lord only knows what he could turn into under a coach that understands defensive schemes better than Mitchell, who was unorganized and messed up so many lineups for Minnesota last year.

There isn’t really a scenario where I could see Towns’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) drop from 22.5, which was higher than most expected during his rookie year. Fellow Kentucky Wildcat, Anthony Davis, saw his PER rise each of his first three seasons after it started at 21.7. His sophomore year bumped it up nearly five points, to a 26.5 rating that nearly led the league.

As a jack-of-all-trades offensive center, Towns’ ceiling during his second year is even higher than Davis’ was in 2013–14. You can thank his outside touch for that, as he already started out his career by shooting 88 three-pointer as a rookie. Making 34 percent of them is nothing but a great sign, since first-year 7-footers never have the automatic success with the longer three-point arc. That usually takes time to develop, and thus centers never have the temerity to step out and shoot with confidence off the pick-and-pop.

Towns is a different breed. You just wonder how much he’s going to be taxed physically this season, with Thibodeau drilling more defensive responsibilities into his frontcourt. Towns already led the entire NBA, as a rookie, in total pick-and-roll possessions with 358. It seems ludicrous, but he just had the luxury of staying injury-free for the entire year. He could stand to be more efficient in those situations, however, as his 0.95 points per possession was 15th of all the big men who had 200 or more of those chances. Still, we’re talking about a rookie here.

It’s extremely uncommon in this generation for a player to take the league by storm the way Towns could this year.

Will he be an immediate threat to the top tier of the Western Conference (Warriors, Clippers, Spurs)? No.

Will he steal any MVP award votes when his young team’s ceiling is in the mid-40’s range? No.

But, will he be a force to be reckoned with at an age that just makes you question science? Unequivocally.

The battle for All-NBA First Team center will come down to numerous candidates. Cousins, Jordan, Horford, Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, and Marc Gasol seem like pretty safe assumptions to be in the conversation. In a resurgence year, Dwight Howard could also be a sneaky choice.

Nevertheless, Towns should have five things on his side.

The statistical outpour, a fierce two-way machine, the likability for young(er) voters, an All-Star selection, and most importantly … wins.

4. The Northwest Division gets 4 playoff teams

What appears to be the most competitive and riveting division this season hasn’t been loaded with playoff competition for the last few years. The last time three teams from the Northwest Division made the postseason was 2011–12 (the lockout year), when the Utah Jazz snatched the eight seed and got annihilated by San Antonio in four games.

In 2015–16, the Northwest combined for 201 victories — an average of 40.2 per team. The outlier was obviously Oklahoma City, which won 55 games and had the third-highest point-differential in the league.

Yeahhhh, about that …

Sorry, not happening again. Oklahoma City hopefuls can believe this current team is destined for the 50-win mark, but so much of their defensive pressure relies on Steven Adams staying healthy and playing at a Superman level in the middle. It’s not plausible.

Instead, I have the Northwest projected to be the tightest division race that we’ve seen in a long, long time. Not that anyone in the league even cares about divisional races anymore, right? Since the NBA decided it didn’t want its playoff format predicated on who wins the divisions (contrary to the NFL and MLB), nobody should even bother.

Nonetheless, it still matters to a small group of us. Plus, if you think about it, these teams are facing each other four times apiece during the regular season. So, it matters in terms of competing against one another for a chance to climb the standings ladder.

After my win-loss projections were finalized, the Northwest ended up with 221 wins — 20 more than last season. The breakdown, however, is more interesting than the total number:

  • Portland Trail Blazers: 50–32
  • Utah Jazz: 49–33
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: 44–38
  • Minnesota Timberwolves: 41–41
  • Denver Nuggets: 37–45

The largest gap between teams, based on what I project, is the five-game difference between Utah and Oklahoma City. Durant leaving for the Bay Area made this a more even playing field, and that could be what allows four teams to squeeze into the West’s top eight.

With Portland’s shooting, coaching, and lethal backcourt duo, I’m admittedly higher on them than majority of the national media seems to be. That’s fine, since their defensive issues are noteworthy and they fell into the same area as Houston last year in defensive rating — and we know nobody truly respects the Rockets like they should.

The Jazz singing has been loud all summer, and rightfully so. You don’t have a starting five of George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert without shocking opponents out of their shoes with your length. If Quin Snyder manages his depth the right way, and if the Boris Diaw-Joe Johnson pairing still has enough left in the tank, they could rise from 7th defensively into the top three. Anything from 42 to 52 wins for Utah — if Hayward comes back soon after his finger injury — is up for grabs.

OKC will probably just fall into their 44-win total by the sheer anger and frustration of Russell Westbrook alone, as he tries to become the NBA’s scoring and assist champion in the same season. Between he and James Harden, it doesn’t seem completely insane. Yet.

As for Minnesota, two basic standings/schedule components stick out as clear answers as to why they can improve by 12 wins this season (that’s not even an inconceivable amount, considering we’ve seen teams jump by 20-plus wins in the last handful of years).

First, they were in 14 games last season that were decided by three points or less. That was one of the highest amounts in the league, and they only went 7–7 (.500) in those scenarios. We should be of the mindset that replacing Sam Mitchell with Tom Thibodeau alleviates some of those late-game hiccups, especially when it comes down to figuring out what the hell your game-plan is defensively. Even as a young and inexperienced group, they allowed over 110 points per 100 possessions last year, which is basically the same as shooting yourself right in the foot with a revolver. Every night.

Second, they were 15–18 versus team below .500, which actually doesn’t seem too horrendous. Minnesota will advance to another tier as a result of third-year Wiggins and second-year Towns, but most importantly sixth-year Ricky Rubio. That’s what most aren’t remembering: Rubio is entering his prime years. He still needs to learn that his early-season shooting displays aren’t fooling anyone — he still can’t shoot consistently — but there’s really only one pick-and-roll facilitator I would want running with these young pups more than Rubio. And he’s in Los Angeles. Rubio is a top four passer in the league, and they should be more strict this year when facing bottom-feeders. Cleaning up those losses and fixing late-game mistakes should account for 12 wins, somehow.

Before the Nuggets fans grab me by the neck and go for my veins, just know that the subtle four-win improvement isn’t because the team isn’t vastly better. It actually is, with an international frontcourt that can give all 14 teams in the conference a real problem. Their perfect and ideal blend of veteran wing talent with young, athletic motors are what makes them the ultimate playoff sleeper. The only thing that hurts Denver is that the Western Conference is loading back up at the wrong time for them. Before we know it, it could get back to taking 48 wins just to reach the eight seed.

Denver will keep building what they have under a fantastic coach, and it’ll be fascinating to see what happens with the Kenneth Faried situation, given there are so many options for them at the power forward slot.

At the end of the season, the Northwest should go around 221–189, with either Portland or Utah coming out on top.

Getty Images

5. Three players reach the prestigious 50–40–90 club in one season

This is certainly the most far-fetched prediction on the list. But, why not swing for the fences? It’s October, after all. The Cubs have everyone feeling like they can pull off the unthinkable.

There’s only been one year that featured two players reaching the 50–40–90 club during the same season. That was Steve Nash and Jose Calderon during 2007–08, although Calderon’s doesn’t get recognized because he didn’t meet all of the generally accepted “minimums.”

A player must make at least 300 field goals, 82 three-point field goals, and 125 free throws to be considered on the “leaderboards” for each category.

11 different seasons in NBA history have been recorded as genuine 50–40–90 seasons, which can be viewed here.

So, I’m projecting we go from just one player per season, all the way to three for 2016–17. Again, it sounds outrageous and impossible.

But, wait … didn’t we also believe it was implausible that someone could hit 400 threes in one season, whenever the previous record was 286? In some ways, that one is even harder to believe.

I guess clarity is important here, so I’ll list the players that will accomplish it this season:

Stephen Curry (2x), Kevin Durant (2x), and Chris Paul

Last year, Kawhi Leonard barely missed the cut by only shooting 87.4 percent from the free throw line — 2.6 percent below the required 90 percent. He would seem like the obvious candidate for the third choice, but there are a couple quibbles with that. He could very well take on more of the offense now, shooting more than 15.1 field goal attempts per game. In return, we aren’t so sure that won’t dip his field goal percentage below 50 percent (it was barely past the benchmark last year). Also, it would surprise me majorly if Leonard ever got to a 90 percent clip from the charity stripe, and stayed there for a full season.

Paul is the interesting pick, because he’s been fairly close before. In 2014–15, Paul shot 48.5 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from three, and 90 percent from the line. He only made one threshold, but missed by a hair on the other two. That was with only 14.3 field goal attempts per game.

When Blake Griffin went down with his quad injury and broken hand last season, Paul had to increase his offensive production. Taking over 15 shots per game, his percentages took a small hit.

Since Griffin is back and primed to take over more on the offensive end, with more play-making duties and potentially giving Paul more rest by staggering lineups … it should take off a decent amount of the pressure from the point guard. If the Clippers are in a rough, close battle with San Antonio for the second seed, maybe this prediction goes out the window. But for as close as Paul was to joining the club when Griffin was in full holy-hell mode two years ago, combined with how Paul’s age will force him to be more selective and take smarter looks, this could be the year.

Nash was 31 when he entered the 50–40–90 club for the very first time. Paul turned 31 this offseason.

Durant and Curry are way easier picks, if I had to choose three — which I’m definitely out on a limb for. It might not happen, but these are two guys that know the value of more spacing between a defender and their lethal release points, which is something Golden State will have a lot more of this year.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

6. Buddy Hield Wins Rookie of the Year

This one is a little depressing in one sense, but also quite delightful if you look at it in a different light.

With such a loaded top eight in the 2016 NBA Draft — Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, and Marquese Chriss — only one of them is truly in a great rookie “eruption” predicament.

Simmons broke his foot during the lengthy training camp grind (even before the unnecessary preseason schedule!) and had surgery on Oct. 4 to repair it. Although the team didn’t formally announce a timetable for Simmons to return, a fracture of that nature usually takes longer than the 6–8 week recovery that’s assumed.

Simmons was the clear-cut favorite to take home Rookie of the Year honors before it was known that he would miss some regular season action. For the Philadelphia 76ers, he could still return sometime during December (or maybe later) and put together a stat-line that mirrors what Michael Carter-Williams used to cruise to his award in 2013–14. But, it just doesn’t feel likely that voters will give him that much leeway and ignore the missed games.

Ingram isn’t even starting for Luke Walton’s Lakers to begin the season, which isn’t as depressing as it was originally viewed. The kid isn’t ready defensively yet, and still needs to figure out how to play at an NBA pace.

Jaylen Brown is behind a gob of versatile guards and forwards in Boston, so an injury seems to be the only way he gets enough time to shine and showcase all of his potential. Kris Dunn is actually in the same situation, as it’s known that Thibodeau doesn’t trust his rookies too much until he absolutely HAS to. Plus, Thibs will fall head over heels for Rubio’s pick-and-roll defense and on-ball pressure, so Dunn’s odds at reaching enough playing time is out the window.

Murray is a sniper from long-range, but extremely alarming on the defensive end (not like that matters for this award voting). Still, it might give Mike Malone an excuse to go with his other guys in the rotation for majority of the season. Chriss is playing with three guys that shot over 11 field goal attempts per game last year (Bledsoe, Knight, Booker), and we’re all certain that Booker will become the team’s best shooter and fan favorite.

The other wild card is a machine named Joel Embiid, who enters his official “rookie” season after being drafted in 2014. Already, he looks like Brett Brown’s new toy that will destroy most of his defenders in the paint. Heck, he can even step out and stretch the court with a semi-pretty jump-shot. But, does everyone expect him to play 60–70 games? I hope he does. It would be a blessing for Philadelphia, a franchise in agony. But I’m skeptical.

That leaves us with Buddy Hield, playing in Alvin Gentry’s structured offense that makes a lot of sense for this sharpshooter. He’s the best shooter in this draft class, and it’s not even close as far as I’m concerned. In his last three preseason games, he’s found a groove and averaged 17 points per game on 20-of-38 shooting (52.6 percent).

Better yet, nearly 40 percent of Hield’s field goals are coming from long-range. This may be the key to breaking the (unofficial) formula for winning Rookie of the Year, which is the highest points per game + rebounds per game + assists per game average. Have the highest total amount at the end of the season (while playing a healthy amount of games), and you’re going to win the hardware. The same happened with Towns last season.

Hield is projected to receive around 25 or 26 minutes per game as a rookie, with Solomon Hill, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, Alonzo Gee, E’Twaun Moore, and Lance Stephenson (ouch) making up the rest of the backcourt options. By stringing together an impressive first month of action — especially if he rattles off five or more threes in numerous games — Hield could easily win the heart of Gentry for the season.

With Davis as the only true usage obstacle that would stand in his way, it’s a good thing. Averaging 17–18 points, 4 rebounds, and roughly 3 or 4 assists … Hield would be my best bet for Rookie of the Year.

7. The Washington Wizards jump from 10th to 5th in the Eastern Conference

This one is filled with so much potential backfire that it scares me. Really sitting down to think about it, though, you begin to understand that it’s only a 5–7 win difference we’re talking about here. Randy Wittman managed 41 wins last year, with Bradley Beal missing 27 games. How does it sound that crazy to people?

The answer is because there’s such a logjam at the 5–10 spots in the East, that you can realistically see anyone making a late-season push to achieve the magic 45–48 win total. Right? Between the Wizards, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Bulls, Knicks, and Heat (who knows now), anything seems on the table. The top four, in my eyes at least, appears solidified with the Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, and Indiana in any order you want them.

Nobody has a clue on God’s green Earth what the Wizards are going to be defensively this season. They let teams shoot all over them last season, allowing 46.2 percent from the field (23rd) and an anemic 37.1 percent from long-range (27th).

Two offseason maneuvers were used to remedy the problem: Signing Ian Mahinmi, one of the league’s top rim-protectors who learned under Roy Hibbert for a couple years, and hiring Scott Brooks, a coach that has a higher defensive reputation than most realize.

UPDATE: Mahinmi underwent surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus on Oct. 15, which will sideline him for 4–6 weeks, maybe a bit longer. Doesn’t change my stance.

Listen, we’re talking about apples and oranges compared to what Brooks had in his lap at Oklahoma City with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Adams. However, he was constantly preaching about the defensive issues before anything else, and that says something whenever he had two of the greatest offensive forces of our generation on the roster.

They should be far better. If not because of Brooks’ intelligence and schemes, then for his generally better coaching style than Wittman, strong teaching bonds he can build with his core players, and his development strategies with Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, and Tomas Satoransky, who everyone is jumping on the train for all of a sudden.

Don’t buy too much into the Wall and Beal drama having any lingering effects in the regular season, folks. Wall is still going to push for his 20–10–5 average, and Beal should get back into the 350 range of three-pointers attempted this year. He has to earn the max contract somehow, or prove it to brother Johnny.

Still, in the games he did play last season, Beal posted career-highs in PER and effective field goal percentage. So, I’m not worried that they can build on a 41–41 letdown season. Back into the 4–5 playoff matchup they go ….

8. The league attempts over 60,000 3-pointers, breaking another record

Back when I wrote about this at-length in March, the league was only on pace to shoot 58,699 three-pointers last season.

In less than a month span after it published, when the playoff push was heating up, everyone decided they were going to shatter the league’s record.

Before last year, the record for three-pointers attempted in one season was 55,137. It was obliterated to smithereens in 2015–16, as all 30 teams combined to take 59,241. Hitting 20,953 of them, league average was right where it usually is (35.4 percent).

We witnessed a hefty portion of the league increasing their spread offense, bringing small-ball into the NBA sphere like it’s never been before:

Golden State became the first team in history to eclipse the 1,000 mark in three-point makes, beating Houston to something it had previously inched closer to. Shooting 41.5 percent on all of their looks made the Warriors the deadliest offense of all-time, but yet they still failed to close to deal.

This year, expect the league’s overall three-point intake to rise from 59,241 to over the 60,000 mark.

It doesn’t feel that unreal until you put it into perspective: In 2009–10, we were still at 44,600.

Yep.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

9. Hassan Whiteside, not Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green, wins Defensive Player of the Year

Note: This is acting under the assumption that Miami does not tank their season away, because it’s just too hard to believe Pat Riley and his competitiveness go in that direction.

Is Whiteside a better defender, in any capacity except shot-blocking, than Leonard or Green?

Not a chance.

Is he going to be on a 50-win team that garners a lot of media attention?

Again … not a chance!

However, I just have a hunch that this is the year the voters fall for the bonkers stat-line and extremely high amount of blocks.

Last year, Whiteside finished third in the battle between the three mentioned above, while Green finished second. Leonard captured his second-straight Defensive Player of the Year trophy, and a lot of credible writers believe he’s destined for a trifecta. It would make the most sense, considering he’s well on his way to becoming the greatest individual defender and wing hound the league has ever seen. Yes … ever.

Whiteside only racked up 83 points in the voting system last year, while Leonard won 547 and Green took 421. Two members of the media voted for Whiteside as their first-place winner.

While it may be difficult to see how Whiteside accumulates more than 269 blocks — what he earned last season — and how his massive body can stay durable for 73 games, it’s just a hunch.

He averaged 3.7 blocks per game for that 48-win Heat team, but only played 29.1 minutes per game. Only Erik Spoelstra knows how many minutes he’ll allow Whiteside to use this coming year, but it just feels like an enormous offensive and defensive campaign for the Heat’s breakout, max-contract star.

Compared to how it was whenever he entered the Heat’s rotation in 2014–15, his pick-and-roll defense is improving with every game he plays. It could be enough to finally get voters believing in his ability to lock down the middle, especially if he becomes better at switching onto smaller wing players and holding his own. Or, if Miami just wants to hold him back in the screen-roll and protect the rim, he could feast on what he loves the most.

Last season, Whiteside was tested at the rim 769 different times — the most in the league by any center. Guards and penetrators felt the need to attack Miami, and a lot of them resulted in rejections. At the same token, it also results in him getting into foul trouble, which the coaching staff vows to improve within his game.

In NBA history, there have been 17 occurrences of a player blocking 300+ shots in a single season. All were in the 1990’s except for Theo Ratliff, who blocked 307 shots in 2003–04.

Barring injury, it may not be out of the question for Whiteside to be the 18th on this list.

Blocking shots aren’t everything. In fact, it’s just a little part of something called team defense. But, the voters could be swayed if he’s insanely active on the glass and gobbles up a lot of silly attempts near the rim.

Getty Images

10. Kawhi Leonard Wins Most Valuable Player

Annnnnd, this is why Leonard isn’t my 2016–17 Defensive Player of the Year.

In this modern era, I’m not sure a player could win over the media to the extent he would need to, in order to win both the Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

In some ways that we can all agree on, this award has turned into a psychotic debate that doesn’t even measure who the best player for that specific season is. If that was the case, then you wouldn’t have had so many people criticizing Stephen Curry’s unanimous vote for the 2016 MVP. There were still rumblings that he “wasn’t the most valuable to his team” because of the powerful core Golden State had surrounding him.

Bogus. It was all bogus.

For the most part, MVP does indeed fall into the hands of the best player for that specific season. There are a couple exceptions: Steve Nash wasn’t the best player in 2006 (Kobe Bryant was), and Bryant wasn’t the best player in 2008 (Chris Paul was).

But, that’s why they vote. And that’s why the award doesn’t have a definition. It’s much more beautiful when things are left open to interpretation. The world is generally a better place when there’s room for different opinions, and various ways to determine what the term “valuable” entails.

This coming year, Leonard will fight with LeBron James— okay, let’s be honest, only one of them probably cares about the award — for the MVP. It’s arguable, but some of the candidates have already been eliminated (by most) to steal the thunder.

In the last 32 years of MVP voting, the average playoff seeding of the award winner has been 1.28. That means that, on average, the MVP winner since 1985 has been a member of a 1 or 2 seed in the playoffs.

  • Russell Westbrook, the betting favorite, will attempt to average a triple double and win the scoring title. He’ll probably succeed in one of those. But, the Thunder aren’t looking at a realistic shot at 50 wins, which wouldn’t even guarantee them a 2-seed in the West.
  • James Harden: See above.
  • Anthony Davis: Pelicans aren’t sniffing 45 wins under their current situation with Jrue Holiday out.
  • Chris Paul: He has a realistic chance, and I would certainly bet on his 33/1 odds if I were a betting man. That’s a tremendous pay-off for someone that will be the best (and most efficient) player on a 55–60 win team in the West. But, there’s just fear that if he hasn’t won it by now … nothing he does at this age is going to change that.
  • Blake Griffin: He and Paul will take votes away from each other just by their statistical output, if it even got that close.
  • Stephen Curry: Between the factors of voter fatigue and the distribution of offense between Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green for Golden State, the raw numbers just may not be there for Curry in order to sway the voters his way. Efficiency-wise, though, he’ll be even better than last year’s 50–40–90 clips, or I’ll be greatly surprised.
  • Kevin Durant: Everything above, mixed in with the dumb narrative of “this guy joined a super team after being one win away from the Finals” may cost him any shot at winning enough votes. Although, he could be a candidate to average 25–7–7 while hitting the 50–40–90 club once again. That won’t be (totally) ignored.

Honestly, that leaves us with three players after I outline it.

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and the forgotten Paul George.

The only way George can be lifted into the discussion, is if you believe the Indiana Pacers will have enough offensive firepower to be in the Top 2 or 3 of the Eastern Conference seeding. For me, that’s going to be an assured “yes.”

George’s November last season was everything you could ask for if he was an MVP dark-horse, as he averaged 29.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the field, and a stunning 49 percent clip from long-range. That’s not sustainable for more than a couple months from any human being on Earth, but his goal should be to maintain a lesser degree of that efficiency for the entire regular season.

If George finished 2016–17 in the neighborhood of 26–7–5 per game while shooting career-high marks (45% from the field) and Indiana reached 52 wins? He would be my MVP vote. It’s just that I don’t expect that type of production out of him, mainly because he’s never shot over 42 percent with the increased offensive responsibility in Indiana. During his rookie and sophomore days, he did. But the kind of shots he gets while being the focal point doesn’t lean him towards the type of efficiency a Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Stephen Curry would produce.

Leonard is in the perfect position right now.

Duncan departed to work on automobiles at his shop, Tony Parker is older and can’t take all of the necessary ball-handling duties that he could in his twenties, the Spurs’ bench is suspect, and Pau Gasol may be a wash defensively.

Between Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, so much of the pressure is going to be on both of their shoulders — offensively and defensively.

If the Spurs defy all of the regression odds and stay above 60 wins, it’s going to be 80 percent (or more) because of those two. It leads me to believe that Leonard could lead the league in total Win Shares this year, if they did win 60 games … regardless of what Golden State managed to win. Last year, Leonard’s 13.7 win shares ranked fourth in the league, behind Westbrook, Durant, and Curry.

It’s hard to project if he’ll start taking more than 15 field goals per game for this Spurs team that will definitely need to score more, simply because Leonard has never been that type of guy. I mean, for heaven’s sake, he’s only taken more than 20 shots in a game 13 times in his career — extremely low for any of the viable MVP candidates.

Still, there’s a high likelihood Leonard leaves every wing player and guard in the dust in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which is probably used more than you think to determine some media members’ votes. It’s not like a random beat reporter from a small-market team has too much time to indulge in 300+ games on League Pass each season, and that’s just the reality. Considering that Leonard was the only non-center or power forward to finish in the Top 10 of total RPM last year, it may just be enough for him to steal some of those “undecided” votes.

Leonard will be the indubitable best player on the second or third seed in West, on a team that won’t have an MVP race within its superstars.

LeBron will be the best player on the planet — once again — but Cleveland just won’t be in the mindset to win every single game that’s in front of them. Which, we know leads to resting more of the robot #23 that never gets hurt anyway. PER-wise, LeBron should finish above everyone outside of the Warriors’ reigning MVPs from 2014–16. It just won’t matter enough to the voters.

Leonard claims the trophy that causes Twitter wars and media controversies.

Just be prepared for one thing:

It should be the closest race of the last 10 years, dating back to the Nowitzki-Nash battle of 2006–07.


Stay tuned for Part II, which will have 10 more wild and fun predictions. Some even crazier than these above.