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.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
Because of their impressive depth and shocking first-round upset of the Spurs in the 2011 playoffs, the Grizzlies have become a sexy pick to possibly make the Western Conference Finals this season. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have begun making a case as one of the top two or three frontcourts in the NBA, and the return of Rudy Gay to the lineup gives the Grizz a pair of threats to average 20 points per game in Randolph and Gay.
Memphis’ backcourt has a few more question marks. While Mike Conley has improved to the point that he’s a league-average starting point guard who doesn’t make too many mistakes, O.J. Mayo has been a big disappointment considering the hype surrounding him when he entered the league. In contrast, Tony Allen was a revelation as a lockdown perimeter defender — he managed to finish fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting in spite of the fact that he only averaged 20.8 minutes per game. As unpredictable as he can be both on and off the court, coach Lionel Hollins will be selling his team short if he doesn’t give Allen the opportunity to show that he’s even more valuable at 30-plus minutes per game than he is a 20.
8. Orlando Magic
As long as Dwight Howard doesn’t miss more than a few games — and he, of course, remains in Orlando for the entire season — the Magic are basically a lock to finish top-four in the Eastern Conference. They’re also a virtual certainty to get knocked out in the second round of the playoffs because Howard doesn’t have enough offensive support. Looking at their roster, Jason Richardson is the only other player likely to surpass 15 points per game.
The Magic do have something of a secret offensive weapon off the bench in big man Ryan Anderson. After three NBA seasons, Anderson has developed a very effective offensive repertoire that includes a surprisingly effective dribble-and-drive game for a man his size and a deadly outside shot that translated to 39 percent accuracy on over five three-point attempts per game last season. His stat line reminds me of a younger Troy Murphy, only Anderson can actually play a bit of defense. When Magic GM Otis Smith acquired Anderson along with Vince Carter in a trade that sent Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie to the Nets in June 2009, few could have predicted Anderson would be the most valuable piece in the deal.
While Smith may have won that trade, he continued to bolster my suspicions that he might be the worst GM in the NBA when he traded Brandon Bass for Glen Davis and Von Wafer earlier this month. Magic fans will eventually learn why Davis is one of the most maddening players in the NBA — aside from drawing charges, he doesn’t do anything particularly well on the court. As bad as I feel for what these fans are going through with Howard’s wavering loyalty to the franchise in the final year of his contract, they can’t really blame Howard for wanting out when Smith continues to demonstrate that he was no clue how to build a good supporting cast around the most dominant center in the game.
7. New York Knicks
How well you think this team will perform this season should depend largely on how you feel about the potential impact of newly-acquired center Tyson Chandler. The Knicks are certain to improve on last season’s 22nd-ranked defensive efficiency as Chandler will impact shot after shot with his tremendous reach, and he should become a real weapon on offense as well once Baron Davis joins the ranks to toss lobs in his direction. If Chandler’s defensive intensity is contagious and spreads to Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks could emerge as a team that nobody wants to face on a given night.
That last “if” is the tricky part, however. Stoudemire and Anthony are fond of talking about playing tough defense, much less fond of actually demonstrating it on the court. For all the credit Chandler got for the Mavericks’ defensive improvement, the Knicks don’t have a match for Shawn Marion’s athleticism and versatility and Jason Kidd’s savviness. Former Hawks coach Mike Woodson was added to Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni’s staff, and despite Woodson’s reputation for defensive wisdom, D’Antoni insists the he’s not a “defensive coach” per se. Semantics aside, the Knicks’ defensive improvement will ultimate dictate how far into the post-season they go.