We are not to be trusted. Looking back at our 2014-15 NBA Preview it becomes clear that pre-season predictions are an exercise in futility. Even though there are disclaimers throughout the five posts that aim to remove any expectation of insider knowledge or deep statistical research, the quality of our predictions are reprehensible. Some of it was straight-up dumb. A lot of the time we were just guessing. We’re the guys who bought an HD-DVD player.
The problems with predictions is that they’re fucking impossible. Besides, the season currently playing out before us is significantly more interesting than the one we had imagined: the return of the Hornets is nothing like the final scene from My Girl that I expected, Detroit is interesting but for none of the reasons we suggested, and the Atlanta Hawks might be the second most interesting story in the league, definitely the biggest surprise… and we had them 27th. We imagined a season built from the bones of season’s past and the reality is that things are really weird in the NBA right now. The past doesn’t mean anything (until it inevitably will again).
On top of it all, a huge trade deadline explosion happened. We know nothing. No one knows anything. This season is great. — Travis Nicholson
What We Got Wrong
My prediction for the Hawks was less of an actual prediction and more of a statement: after all the drama and deserved discontent that was the Hawks’ off-season (leaked emails, casual racism, too much stuff that isn’t basketball), the best place for the Hawks to sort this stuff out was the basketball court. This is what the Hawks have done, going 43-11 and leading the Eastern Conference, steamrolling the league until everyone officially took notice. Even their social media team, the true superstar of this Hawks ascension, is out there gunning off fire emoji tweets at Korver-like pace. The Hawks are making all the right decisions on and off their beautiful new court.
In the 2014 playoffs, when they nearly took down the first seed Pacers team, the evidence was actually there that this Hawks team was not to be fucked with. Like no other team, the Hawks are not defined by their past. This is the only way they can do things that are unexpected: a team with no singular star could not ring off a winning streak spanning an entire month, Kyle Korver could not pull off such insane shooting numbers, and the Hawks could not be the most surprising championship contender since the 2004 Pistons. — Travis Nicholson
Golden State Warriors
Our assessment of the Warriors was waaaaaaaaay too low. Chef Curry has been stuck on God Mode and Klay Thompson doesn’t give a damn about your NBA records. The Dubs started the season 19-2, later going on to win a staggering 19 straight to begin the season. All of this happening with a rookie head coach, the absence of David Lee for most of the season and Andrew Bogut injuring his everything all of the time. The blinding light that is Draymond Green has been an absolute revelation and is going to cash in BIG time after this season, while Harrison Barnes is playing once again in a situation where he belongs. These guys are the truth. — Mitch Orsatti
Pace and chaos. No single team has exemplified the chaos of this regular season like the Suns have. For 54 games they’ve been a gift to League Pass degenerates. A three-headed point guard hydra that was more of an experiment than any real template for future success. Their current standing, 8th in the West has been hard-earned with pace, back court aggression and an unheralded unit of forwards and young centers. They’ve experienced four buzzer beater losses (and no buzzer beater wins) in a season where they’ve known all along that they will be fighting for limited playoff spots in an insanely difficult conference. Tied for the final playoff spot, they’re going to war with OKC. They’ve swapped Brandon Knight for Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, two very unhappy guards wrestling for the keys from Eric Bledsoe. For a team that is just a few buzzer beaters away from the middle pack of great Western Conference teams, the Suns are a rebuilding on the fly, and no one doubts their legitimacy. There is no looming disaster, only pure underdog. — Travis Nicholson
Los Angeles Clippers
The sheen is wearing off. Blake Griffin went and found himself a semi-consistent jumpshot and stopped feasting on the souls or mortals in the paint – how not interesting. Couple that with the increasingly tired Cliff Paul, the constantly beleaguered Chris Paul who still bitches at every call and non-call alike and the fact that their big offseason signing of Spencer Hawes has been a bust and you’ve got some pretty un-interesting ball from a Western Conference playoff team. On the flip side, Hedo “Ball” Turkoglu is still somehow getting minutes and the Biggest Ever Big Baby Davis is in full on hoagie-mode at the supposed to be tail end of your prime, age of 29. Oh, and Doc traded for his son. I’m out! — Mitch Orsatti
New Orleans Pelicans
I will concede that it is always interesting to watch Anthony Davis do superhuman things on the court; the kid is a beast – but outside of him, and especially without him (injury) this team offers very little interestingness. Ryan Anderson has devolved to his first evolutionary form, Jrue Holiday has predictably been injured, and injured, and re-injured, ditto for Eric Gordon and Jimmer still gets no burn on a team that can’t space the floor worth a damn. — Mitch Orsatti
No one could have predicted Hassan Whiteside happening as much as Hassan Whiteside has happened. That’s the tragedy of basing an entire opinion of the Heat on evidence from their past: you’re blindsided by the Hassan Whitesides of the world because you’re pre-occupied with a player who isn’t on the team anymore. What I now realize: LeBron has nothing to do with the season the Miami Heat are currently having. They’ve have been able to get over LeBron’s departure faster than everyone expected. The rings help, but not as much as a real future in Whiteside running up 20/20 nights and devastating Bosh/Dragic pick and rolls. The Heat might actually contend, but they’ve made big waves no one expected and suddenly they’re being cast as a first round nightmare for some ambitious Eastern Conference contender. — Travis Nicholson
With Rose starting off the season in a self-imposed glass case, uncertainty loomed large on this Bulls season. Pau Gasol started out the season looking better than ever, and while he has regressed some defensively, he is gobbling up rebounds at what is almost a full rebound more per game higher than his best rebounding season. Jimmy Butler has developed into what most are considering a sure-fire MIP and the defense continues to hum along under the ever-interestingly raspy Tom Thibodeau. Beyond having a samurai warrior centre, a former MVP, an almost uncanny ascension of Butler and a renaissance year from a Gasol, the most interesting part of this Bulls squad is the bearded wonder, Nikola Mirotic. This dude is all heart and huge balls out there on the court. If Nikola missed 3 straight jumpers and two of them were air balls, he wouldn’t hesitate an eye’s blink on his fourth, fifth and sixth shot. On top of all that, he also rocks a top-5 NBA beard. — Mitch Orsatti
The Los Angeles Lakers
In reality, we should have separated Kobe Bryant from the Los Angeles Lakers as two categories. The Lakers are chum for a eight- or nine-headed beast of a Western Conference, woefully uninteresting unless you’re strangely into Nick Young’s simultaneous impersonation of Dwight Howard and Nick Cannon. Bryant, on the other hand, has become a myth in his own time. Injured and out for the season once again, he’s emerged as an unlikely publishing magnate and the has not-so-quietly become the best interview in all of sports. I am enjoying everything I am getting from Kobe Bryant. Keep the Lakers on pause. — Travis Nicholson
Kings, 76ers, Knicks and Hornets
The charm of bad basketball teams wears off quickly. The Kings fired one of the best young coaches in the league and alienated their best player, which seems to be their first step towards a radical catastrophe. In between bong hoots, Phil Jackson snakecharmed the Knicks in a Perfect Fibonacci Tankjob. The Hornets were loudly terrible and quietly mediocre as they cycled through injuries. The Sixers have inspired some good basketball writing, but Sam Hinkie is on bathsalts and there is a void in Philadelphia that is growing deeper and deeper. — Travis Nicholson
There will be a moment in the coming months, unseen by the public, where Kevin Garnett will gather Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett and Shabazz Muhammad in a small room. There will be no windows. He will tell them stories. He will scream at them. For no reason in particular, Ricky Rubio will arrive later in the day wearing sailor shoes with ice cream cupcakes for his young teammates. These two events will not be coordinated, and neither KG or Rubio will ever find out, but it will remarkably change the fate of all four gentlemen. — Travis Nicholson
What We Got Right
I don’t think people thought Cleveland was going to be as interesting as they actually are. I mean, look at this: (1) the Cavs were super interesting when the entire basketball planet thought they were going to demolish every team that stepped in their path; (2) the Cavs were just as, or more interesting when the entire basketball planet thought they were an awful team, their coach was going to be fired and both Kevin Love and potentially LeBron would bolt. To make things even more interesting, David Blatt took the team bowling right after LeBron returned from his ultra-suspicious two week trip to Miami, the home of BioGenesis scandals that have been written about at length, and the Cavs rattled off 13 straight wins. It almost certainly couldn’t get more interesting…unless, wait – yup, it does! They traded mercurial Dion Waiters for slightly less (probably due to age) mercurial J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert while also trading two (2!!!) first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov. Cleveland is where amazing happens, and the NBA is just along for the ride. — Mitch Orsatti
Grizzlies, Blazers and Rockets
Before going into this season, it was common knowledge that the Grizzlies were looking to upgrade for a deep playoff run, being deep on the roster everywhere but the wings. By the the trade deadline explosion, they had already made their move, upgrading on the wing to Jeff Green. The transition has been seamless. The Grizzlies are cruising, maintaining a comfortably between the first place Warriors and the five teams stuck between 34 and 36 wins.
Two other contending teams, the Portland Trailblazers and Houston Rockets have similarly made trades to bolster themselves for the Western Conference playoff gauntlet. The Blazers picked up Aaron Afflalo from Denver — finally adding some bench depth, one that became more necessary as Nicholas Batum took a hard slide in his effectiveness. The Rockets picked up rookie KJ McDaniels and Pablo Prigioni, adding to previously acquired Josh Smith, who is heaving threes at an actually respectable 36% clip.
In some ways, we always knew what to expect from these three teams: they’re really fucking good. — Travis Nicholson
There is no way that this ranking is wrong. Sure, Detroit was absolutely awful to begin the season, but the reason that they were terrible is what made them so interesting. And then, Stan Van did what almost no other GM does: he put chemistry and club success over money. Detroit swallowed up about $20 million dollars just so Smoove stopped coming to their building and playing basketball with them. You know what happened next? It worked! The spacing that pundits across the league thought would be available for the Pistons all of the sudden was and Brandon Jennings didn’t have a terrible-chemistry-twin to latch on to. Unfortunately, Jennings tore his Achilles, but that has not made them any less interesting. D.J. Augustin stepped into the starting position and had been tearing it up (prior to being moved to the Thunder for Reggie Jackson), averaging 18 points and 8 assists including going 52 of 54 from the free throw line. Maybe there are more than two “more interesting” teams in the league, but the Pistons are one hell of a story. — Mitch Orsatti
San Antonio Spurs
This is probably right, unless you find near-perfect basketball, relic-old basketball players and the best coach in the league to be interesting, then it might be a little low. San Antonio just doesn’t care about what you find interesting, which is interesting in and of itself, but as long as it wins enough regular season games to make it into the playoffs, they are going to send out lineups that are missing every notable name they have in order to ensure long term health; interest be damned – long live Jeff Ayres and Aron Baynes! — Mitch Orsatti
Oh, have these Raptors EVER been interesting. Do you know how interesting the Raptors are? There are tour busses full of Raptors fans that travel to neighbouring American cities and shut the building down. I was lucky enough to be in attendance for the blood bath that was James Johnson cocking that joint back and banging it all over Andre Drummond, and let me tell you all this – the next play, where Drummond put JJ on his ass, I have never felt a more alive building. Every single Toronto Raptors fan (most of the people in attendance, as a matter of fact) stood up and let the Detroit Pistons know that if they wanted to go, We The (polite) North would not be backing down. — Mitch Orsatti
At the beginning of the season, the Mavericks were on fire. All of their experiments, it seemed, had paid off: Tyson Chandler became the same Tyson Chandler that left Dallas for New York, resurrecting Charlie Villanueva and bringing in Ray Felton from the bitter cold. They kept tinkering with acquiring Rondo and losing Brandan Wright and his infinite field goal percentage. The result: an elite offense took a turn for the generic. Amar’e Stoudemire, cast to fill space by the rim vacated by Wright is another ingredient that may be too ripe for Rick Carlisle to do anything with. Where the Mavs are right now (6th in the West at 36-20) is as expected, but they are cooling off and things are getting weird in Dallas. They might end up a low seed, but when people talk about the depth of the West, an uncelebrated team like the Mavs are your prime example. — Travis Nicholson
In October, I wrote that “unlike other teams who got that way because of horrible ownership, incompetent management or a high profile bust or injury, the Jazz made a series of respectable basketball decisions and got burned.” Through years of struggle, the young players the Jazz have acquired (Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum) could be the nucleus of something long term. The Jazz are stocking picks and lighting up League Pass against dominant teams who underestimate a young, hungry Jazz team. — Travis Nicholson
When I close my eyes and imagine the Pacers, I seek stink lines. The green, wavy kind.
If Paul George comes back, I still don’t think that changes anything. Just not interested. More than a half dozen championship-worthy teams will be gearing up for their playoff runs and Paul George will be spending NBA minutes getting back into form. That’s great for PG13 – and next September the rebirth of the Pacers will be a feel-good story for sure. For the rest of this season, Pacers box scores will continue to resemble secret encrypted communique, completely made up and someone might notice but they probably won’t care. — Travis Nicholson
Magic, Nets, Celtics & Nuggets
At some point you have to sit and evaluate what you’re doing with your life. In the Celtics and Magic, you have teams that are learning, growing, evolving. In the Nuggets and the Nets, you have teams deconstructing themselves, finding new ways to fail, trolling to new depths of misdirection. Do you want to be the person burdened to watch that? If someone asks you how the Nets/Celtics game went, do you really want to be able to supply that information? Would you trust that person? — Travis Nicholson
What We Don’t Know
Oklahoma City Thunder
“I’m a total asshole. I’m a dick. I don’t talk to the other team. If I fall on somebody, I throw them to the ground, I’m not helping them up. I just feel like it’s a war mode. Like, they’re trying to kill me, but I gotta kill them before they kill me.” &emdash; KD in GQ
As soon as it went live, Zach Baron’s interview with Kevin Durant in GQ has been picked apart in detail. KD has been asked respond to it on multiple occasions, and has, reinforcing and clarifying certain ideas. Writers have crafted responses and reactions, carefully selecting choices quotes. He was candidly honest about learning to live more of the life he wants, losing his fiance because he didn’t know how to love her. He talked about what happens when your heartfelt honesty becomes a meme, where expectations are made for you, and how difficult it is to truly be yourself in those scenarios.
But no one has picked up on two important words.
As I read the interview (which you should do, go do it!), on a post-it note, I jotted down “WAR MODE” in big letters. I don’t know why — maybe it was how casually he used the term, or how personal it was. Granted, players talk about “going to war” all the time, like sports and battle are similar. The part that comes after those words, “they’re trying to kill me, but I gotta kill them before they kill me,” is a more juicy nugget. To KD, that is an intensely personal feeling. The dominance of the Western Conference is a trope on repeat throughout the NBA and Kevin Durant is at the bottom of that powerful group of teams, taking them all on one-by-one.
This is why we currently find ourselves in an NBA season where there is doubt surrounding Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. People question whether they can even make the playoffs, yet some of those people may still pick them to succeed once they get there. Sam Presti can finally sleep, after landing some real actual players. He acquired Enes Kanter from Utah (who can hopefully learn to set as devastating a pick as Kendrick Perkins was able to) and a real, actual backup point guard who can efficiently run an offense in D.J. Augustin. Even as 30/10/5 nights become regular for Westbrook, a nagging foot injury to Durant could derail the entire plan. But the Thunder will rise from the back of the train, and compartment by compartment destroy anyone in the west’s idea of a supposed supremacy.
People have accused the greatest players of all-time of being an asshole. Jordan, Bird, KG, Kobe. All verifiable assholes. All champions. Embrace being an asshole, Kevin Durant. Take the hand of Russ, and let him teach you. — Travis Nicholson