It seems like only last week when we saw LeBron crying on the Oracle Arena floor, jubilant in the fact that finally, finally, the city of Cleveland was finally able to call itself a winner.
Yet here we are, in the middle of October, staring at yet another new, shiny, unsullied NBA season.
As a Knicks fan, this is always my favorite time of the season. It’s a time when there is an air of hope and the familiar feelings of failure and frustration haven’t set in yet.
Oh to be a fan of one of those good franchises! Fans in San Antonio must be amped! Or are they? Is the inevitability of another 55 plus win season hardly worth the effort of getting amped?
But these days, we can add traditional joke teams like the Cavaliers, Clippers and the Warriors into the "guaranteed" echelon, while traditional powerhouses like the 76ers, the Bulls, and the Lakers won’t be anywhere near this mark. What the hell is going on here?!
What follows is a look at 15 teams this season that will catch your eye and I don’t mean that in a necessarily positive way. Eight of the teams listed will be in the "definite" category of making the playoffs as contenders (four from each conference) and another seven will be in the Cleveland Browns' category for making the playoffs as pretenders.
15 Contender: New York Knicks
Before you choke on your meal or projectile spit-take it across the room at this prediction, remember the title of the article – it’s "to make the playoffs" not "contend for title."
The Knicks roster improved dramatically over the summer with backcourt additions in Brandon Jennings, Courtney Lee and Derrick Rose. That’s a huge overhaul for a team whose weakest spot was the whole backcourt last season. Kristaps Porzingis will only improve and hopefully (for Knicks fans anyway) become more Dirk Nowitzki than Darko Milicic. Carmelo Anthony is coming off of another busy summer after winning gold in the Olympics, and will continue to score loads. The rest of the roster is filled out with some decent names, notably Joakim Noah.
14 Pretender: Philadelphia 76ers
This is hardly a big call, I know, but it’s worth reiterating that the 76ers are an example of how a franchise should not be run. It’s a situation for which I feel the utmost sympathy, especially for coach Brett Brown. He’s left to deal with the mess that Sam Hinkie made during his tenure as General Manager and President of Basketball Operations.
The backcourt appears to be easily the worst in the league and possibly of all time. Then there’s the task of balancing the three centers on the roster, who are all first round picks from the last three years.
13 Contender: Detroit Pistons
Stan Van Gundy is building something in Detroit and, last season, the Pistons showed signs that eventually they will become a force with which to be reckoned in the Eastern Conference.
The Pistons aren’t built around a star necessarily, but for arguments sake, Andre Drummond is the focal point. He’s a versatile big man and if he continues to work on his free throws, he may become elite. Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will run the backcourt, while Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris will help Drummond. As I said, they’re not necessarily star power heavy, but certainly work ethic and fundamentally heavy.
12 Pretender: Brooklyn Nets
These guys may well challenge the 76ers for the number one pick in next year’s draft.
Did you know that this is where Anthony Bennett ended up? And Greivis Vasquez? And Chase Budinger, Jeremy Lin, Luis Scola and Randy Foye? Horrible. Just horrible. The Nets are still paying Deron Williams and the Celtics can take their draft pick this year if (actually, most definitely when) they decide to exercise their option as part of the mega deal a few years back where the Nets picked up Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett among others. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
So it isn’t getting any better for the Nets anytime soon.
11 Contender: Los Angeles Clippers
With the names on this roster, how could they not make the playoffs? It’s a given that they’ll be there at the end of the season, but the Clippers in essence have failed to deliver, especially given who they have on the floor each night. Generally speaking, when that trend continues with teams, chemistry suffers and I think this will potentially be the Achilles heel of the Clippers, barring catastrophic injuries of course, that could derail their season.
10 Pretender: Orlando Magic
The Magic, on paper at least, don’t look like a lineup that is that terrible and they’re a lot further along than the vomit-inducing lineups of the 76ers and Nets, but it’s a lineup that won’t exactly instill fear into the opposition.
Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton look to be the starting back court, so Hezonja better hurry up and develop because Payton’s shot won’t be getting the Magic any points. They lost athleticism on both ends of the floor with Oladipo departing over the summer, so they’ll be working hard – something I’m not sure Payton can do.
9 Contender: Minnesota Timberwolves
If they win, as writers are predicting they will, look for the Timberwolves to become everyone’s "second team" or the band-wagoning team of choice. Move over Golden State, the Timberwolves have got some jerseys to sell!
This team is loaded with potential talent. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are pants wettingly exciting prospects. Towns, fresh off his Rookie of the Year season is the name on everyone’s lips and will look to unseat Anthony Davis as the next face of the league. Then there’s Zach LaVine and rookie Kris Dunn, who was taken with the 5th pick out of Providence.
Tom Thibodeau is now in charge too.
8 Pretender: Phoenix Suns
Remember a couple of seasons ago when the Suns almost made the playoffs after many pundits predicted they’d be lucky to win 15 games? I do. What I don’t remember is them building on that by signing free agents, resigning their coaches and drafting well. They had the start they needed, but squandered it.
Phoenix is a perplexing franchise in the NBA. Never a championship winner, but still, Phoenix has had two periods of immense success -- in 1992-93 with Sir Charles at his peak and later in the mid-2000s with Mike D’Antoni’s "seven seconds or less" offense. But they never consolidate!
They have Eric Bledsoe, who could have been great, if not for injuries. Devin Booker could end up being good, as could T.J. Warren. I worry about Tyson Chandler these days, as he's well past his prime and more likely to be in a suit, than suiting up.
7 Contender: Boston Celtics
Since they traded away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce after that memorable championship back in 2008, the Celtics have been on a slow but steady rebuild. The 2016-17 season will see the realization of that patient vision.
Coach Brad Stevens is one of the best in the game, quietly going about his business and instilling systems that his players can use. He is a quiet achiever who doesn’t get nearly the kudos he deserves.
There aren't loads of salary commitments on this roster, so potentially the Celtics are one name away from being the number two team in the Eastern Conference, but with Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas and rookie Jaylen Brown on the roster, there is huge potential in Boston.
6 Pretender: Sacramento Kings
It’s the Kings, so of course they won’t make it. It’s a constant theme in the Western Conference. No matter what talent they have on the roster, the Kings front office will do their best to screw it up.
DeMarcus Cousins should be easily in the top ten players in the NBA, but given that he plays in basketball purgatory and never gets the talent around him to thrive, he’ll only ever be talked about when he’s getting a technical foul. If he were in any other city, he’d be a superstar.
5 Contender: San Antonio Spurs
Of course they’ll be there, right? They have the best coach in the league in Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker in their starting lineup.
It’s awesome to see what the Spurs continue to put out on the court each year. San Antonio is a small market and hardly on players’ radars as a hot free agency destination. For players who want to win and are obsessed with the fundamentals of the game, it is the premier destination and the more and more I think about this notion, the more I continue to be amazed by them.
4 Pretender: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls faithful are not expecting much this year. On paper, Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade look great as a trio, but delve any deeper and it gets a little murky. How many games will Wade actually play this season? In the last five seasons, he has played 49, 69, 54, 62 and 74 games (shockingly) last season. The trend won’t spike upwards of course. Rondo’s interest in the game is questionable at times and Chicago is not a city you want on your back. If you play lazily, they will crucify you for it. The team is Jimmy Butler’s for the time being. He is consummate professional and beloved. It will be interesting to see Robin Lopez anchoring the middle, as he was solid last year in New York and hardly to blame for any of their issues.
3 Contender: Cleveland Cavaliers
They were the feel good story of last year, enjoying an amazing season, but now that the title has been won, Cleveland needs to understand that the sympathy they had is now evaporated. They’ll have the biggest "Kick Me" sticky note on their backs and fans should be prepared for all the “poor Cleveland” sentiment to be heckled right out of them.
Only a fool would say that they won’t end up with the best record in the Eastern Conference, which of course usually goes without saying when you have the best player in the league (of a generation even) on your roster. Kyrie Irving needs to stay healthy for the Cavs to succeed and he was more durable in the playoffs last year, hence the title. Kevin Love needs to continue to carve out his niche, also.
2 Pretender: Los Angeles Lakers
With the whole banal Kobe Bryant retirement sideshow now complete, look for the Lakers to rebuild much quicker than many would realize. They’ll be better than you think, but this year they won’t come anywhere near a playoff berth.
1 Contender: Golden State Warriors
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of hearing about the Warriors already. I don’t hate what Durant did, I’m just sick of them getting so much coverage, when they didn’t win the title last year and the Warriors basically have little historical relevance to the league.
But I understand, of course.
Steve Kerr has the best coaching headache of all – how do you balance the minutes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson? It will be the most discussed storyline of the first half of the season. The Warriors will surprise people and have their early hiccups, but it won’t be anything drastic (despite what your favorite ESPN amateur psychiatrist will think).
Look for them to recover and end up with a handsome 60 or more wins.
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