Tonight marks the start of the 2016-17 NBA Season. While the Warriors and Cavaliers remain favorites to win their respective conferences and meet each other in what would be the third straight Golden State-Cleveland NBA Finals, many of the finer points of this NBA season remain much less clear. Here are five bold predictions that I have for the upcoming year.
1) The Warriors will finish with more than 70 wins: Last year, the Warriors broke the 1995-96 Bulls’ record for best regular season record when they finished a remarkable 73-9. However, since the free agency signing of 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant, many have argued team chemistry issues will force the team to take a step back this season. While I agree that the Warriors likely won’t be breaking their own record this season, I think that has more to do with the wear and tear of the NBA season and travel than the team as a whole. On paper, these guys are even better than a year ago, now with four All-NBA players on the roster. While they lost a few pieces, they have retained Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, leaders of the best bench in the league, and have replaced the losses of big men with Zaza Pachulia and David West. I don’t see the communication concerns among the now Big 4. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have had remarkable chemistry over the past few years, and Thompson and Green already played with Durant during the Olympics. Most importantly, Durant isn’t coming from a team where he had to do everything- he’s used to sharing attention and the ball with former teammate Russell Westbrook, and the Warriors can only benefit from having more superstars on the court. While I don’t think they’ll make a run at 74-8, expect 71-72 wins from the Warriors.
2) The Timberwolves make the playoffs (and win 50 games!): The Timberwolves have missed the playoffs in each of the last 12 seasons, and have finished last in the Northwest division six of the last seven years. Not this time around. Simply put, I believe the Timberwolves are the league’s best team no one is talking about. With Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota has the last two Rookies of the Year, and have another strong candidate in Kris Dunn. They have a very young roster, and lots of depth and talent in the backcourt with Dunn, Ricky Rubio, Zach Lavine, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyus Jones. New coach Tom Thibodeau will help the team mature and incorporate his defensive expertise into a team who allowed the second-highest field goal percentage in the NBA last season. The West should also be weaker than in previous years, with teams such as the Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies, and Thunder expected to experience declines this season. The T-Wolves are ready to take a big step forward, and I believe they can parlay their talent into 50 wins and something like the #6 seed in the West.
3) The Bulls take a big step back: In Fred Hoiberg’s first season as coach of the Bulls, the team finished with a 42-40 record, finishing ninth place in the eastern conference and missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign. However, they were unafraid to make moves during the offseason, trading their former face of the franchise in Derrick Rose, and losing aging big men Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in free agency. The Bulls replaced these pieces by signing Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, hoping to create a Big 3 with emerging star Jimmy Butler. So will these new-look Bulls lead the team back to a playoff run? I don’t think so. Rondo, Wade, and Butler are all great defensive players, but none of them have a reliable three-point shot, something becoming more and more necessary in today’s league. I also don’t understand why the Bulls decided to replenish their team with aging veterans. Rondo is entering his 11th season and Wade his 14th, meaning even if they achieve success, it won’t be long-lasting. I do like the Bulls’ trade for Michael Carter-Williams, but ultimately I think the Bulls are putting too much pressure on role players to score the ball and will become victims of a rapidly improving East as teams such as the Pistons, Bucks, and Hornets improve, and will fall even further out of the mix.
*NOTE: So I realized after the fact this wasn’t as bold of a prediction as I had thought. Still, I expect the Bulls to really struggle this season.
4) Russell Westbrook sets the Single-Season Usage Percentage record: With Kevin Durant gone, it’s going to be the Russell Westbrook show in Oklahoma City. The impact of Victor Oladipo will be crucial in determining the fate of the Thunder in the post-Durant era, but after Oladipo, it’s difficult to identify the next option for the Thunder. During the 2014-15 season when Durant missed significant time, Westbrook posted a usage percentage of 38.37%, the second-highest in NBA history, trailing only Kobe Bryant’s 2005-06 year. It’s the highest rate of Westbrook’s career by almost six points, and even holding the ball that much couldn’t get the Thunder to the playoffs. Westbrook is easily one of the five best players in this league, and potentially the fastest man in the NBA. Almost impossible to stop on fast breaks, the Thunder are going to move quickly, and #0 will have the ball as much as he wants. Sure, he’ll be drawing more attention, but I think Westbrook is determined to prove he doesn’t need Durant to successfully lead a team. He’s going to shouldering the burden in a way few players have in NBA history, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him break the usage percentage record.
5) Joel Embiid wins Rookie of the Year easily: One of several young big men who became a part of Sam Hinkie’s “process”, the 76er drafted with the third pick in the 2014 draft has yet to make his professional debut due to foot injuries. Embiid is a dominant, lengthy defensive player who also owns an impressive offensive arsenal with a strong post game and the rare ability of a big man to step back and hit the three. If he can continue to develop over the season and remain healthy, he should become a strong force for the Sixers, who are desperate for a superstar on a largely underwhelming roster. Early on, Embiid might see limited minutes as he eases his way into the league, but I believe he will quickly differentiate himself as the most versatile and overall best center on the roster. His expectations might be lower due to his foot problems, but I actually think he will benefit from the time he’s spent in the NBA without the pressure to perform, instead being able to quietly study the game and learn about the different beast that is the NBA. Embiid definitely has the potential to become an NBA superstar, and I believe he will make a big statement this season and achieve Rookie of the Year honors. With teammate Ben Simmons set to miss time as he recovers from injury, there is no clear RotY frontrunner or star for the 76ers- yet.