This Monday through Friday, I’m going to give my season predictions in a countdown from worst to first. The format will be three teams per post, one post in the morning and one in the afternoon. Whichever team you’re a fan of, there’s a good chance you’ll feel like I’m disrespecting them. I understand this, and I promise you I won’t take your insults personally.
12. San Antonio Spurs
Pop quiz, hotshot: Which team won the championship in the NBA’s previous lockout-shortened season? It was the San Antonio Spurs in Gregg Popovich’s third season coaching the team. 22-year-old Tim Duncan played all 50 regular season games in the truncated schedule and averaged 39.3 minutes per game. In the 17 playoff games it took the Spurs to win the title, Duncan averaged 43.1 minutes per game.
It would be pretty funny and amazing if Popovich and Duncan led the Spurs to another lockout-season championship and then both retired so they could perfectly bookend their careers. But let’s face facts: Timmy is 35-years-old now and will be 36 by the time the playoffs arrive. His per-game playing time has declined for five straight seasons to the point where he averaged less than 30 minutes last season. He’s now in the role that David Robinson played in ’99 as a fading (but still very capable) big man who needed the young upstart to help carry him to glory. Sadly, there isn’t anyone to play the “young Tim Duncan” role on this team. And of course there isn’t. He’s the greatest power forward of all time. Cloning technology isn’t quite there yet.
The Spurs will make the playoffs because Popovich will make sure they do. In 14 full seasons as head coach of this team, they’ve never failed to make the post-season. Barring a drastic roster move, the Spurs’ gradual defensive decline will likely continue as Duncan fossilizes — their points allowed per 100 possessions has increased in each of their last seven seasons. Worth noting: They were still 11th in the NBA in that category last season.
11. Atlanta Hawks
“I’ve never been a guy to make excuses. I had a down year and I’m looking forward to bouncing back.” Since this is the Hawks’ profile, you probably guessed that quote came from Joe Johnson. Whatever the Hawks expected from Johnson when they granted him a $127 million contract in July 2010, we can safely assume they thought he would be the best player on the team. Last season, you could make the case that he was the third-best Hawk behind Al Horford and Josh Smith.
If there’s a player on this roster that might boost the Hawks higher in the standings than expected, it would be third-year point guard Jeff Teague. Fans, media and opponents alike took notice when Teague exploded for three 20-point performances in the Hawks’ six-game series loss to the Bulls in the second round. Kirk Hinrich is expected to miss the first month of the season, so Teague will have ample opportunity to show if that playoff performance was a fluke or if he’s an up-and-coming star.
10. Boston Celtics
For these Boston Celtics, the regular season is merely a formality. Doc Rivers will get creative with rotations to make sure that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen don’t get too worn down, and while they may not admit it publicly, they probably know they just need to get a high enough seed so that they don’t have to face one of the top two seeds in the East in the first round.
The Celtics’ lack of bench depth is more than a little troubling, but team president Danny Ainge made a huge upgrade when he tricked Magic GM Otis Smith into trading quality big man Brandon Bass to Boston for walking pie-wagon Glen Davis. In terms of backcourt depth, Marquis Daniels is a solid rotation player, but things get shaky when we get to Avery Bradley and Keyon Dooling. Regardless, anyone who believes Kevin Garnett won’t still be barking in May is engaging in wishful thinking.