The great thing about sports prognostication is that nobody really remembers when you’re wrong about stuff. I mean, occasionally, if you say something really, really stupid, or if you say something marginally stupid really, really loudly, it might come back to haunt you. But otherwise, your basic prediction stuff never really lingers in the public memory. Unless, of course, you remind people about it later. So it’s super-easy to take credit for the stuff you get right, and equally easy to dodge the stuff you get wrong.
A little too easy, if you ask me. It sets up a system that encourages consequence-free, shot-in-the-dark prediction making, since as long as nobody remembers the unlikely predictions you make that never come through, why not make as many as you can until you strike gold with one of them? It’s a system without accountability. In sports journalism, without accountability, you can’t have any kind of credibility.
Therefore, I’ve taken it upon myself to comb through most of the major NBA preseason forecasts from various publications, and pick out some of the boldest predictions, some of which seem really pretty unlikely on the surface. I’ll revisit them later in the year, and if they come true, I’ll give all credit to their respective writers for having the guts to make such bold calls that were nonetheless evidently based in some sort of fact. However, if they’re wrong — especially if they’re really wrong — you better believe I’m gonna make sure people are reminded that said really wrong predictions were originally made.
Now, before we get started, I do want to at least credit all the below publications for at least having the courage to make their controversial prognostications. Easy as it is to cover up a bold prediction gone awry, it’s easier still to just not make them in the first place. And while I certainly don’t encourage making outlandish predictions you don’t actually believe in, if you don’t believe in at least a couple against-the-grain opinions … why are you doing a season preview column in the first place, anyway?
Sports Illustrated (print only): Knicks in Conference Finals
Sports Illustrated mostly takes it easy with their standings predictions. If you took the aggregate of every such amateur and professional preseason prediction, it’d probably look pretty close to SI’s standings, minus some nips and tucks — Pacers over Celtics for 2nd in the East, Mavs and Jazz over Wolves for the final playoff spots in the West — here and there. The only really bold prediction in their NBA issue comes in their brief playoff forecast, in which they have the New York Knicks — who have had decreasingly few believers as their off-season got more and more dysfunctional — making it all the way to the East finals, albeit losing to the Heat once there. Not a huge reach, but a notable one, and one they’ll certainly get to enjoy a couple ounces of dap for should it pan out.
Basketball Prospectus (Via ESPN the Magazine): Atlanta Hawks second, Knicks third, Pacers eighth in East / Nuggets first, Timberwolves third, Spurs fifth in West
Unlike SI’s layup for par, Basketball Prospectus — whose projections were also commissioned for ESPN the Magazine’s NBA preview this year — goes straight for the green and the birdie. It’s hard to even know where to begin with this one. The Hawks, a team that many wrote off initially after their jettisoning of nominal franchise-player Joe Johnson (though the idea of them being just as well if not better off without Joe has certainly picked up steam since), finishing higher than all but Miami in the East? The Pacers, a three seed last year that mostly kept their roster intact, barely even making it into the playoffs? Add in SI-like confidence in the Knicks ending as the three seed, and that’s a pretty out there Eastern prediction.
Still, that’s nothing compared to the outright wackiness going on out West. Having the Nuggets as the No. 1 seed (with a forecast of 58 wins) is a pretty shocking beginning, especially to those who see the West as an inevitable two-team race between the Lakers and Thunder. But the real prize is Minnesota, a team that hasn’t won 30 games in half a decade, getting forecast at No. 3. Now, the projection was made before news of Kevin Love’s injury spread, so certainly that might have had an effect, but even before K-Love’s injury, I think most people would have considered the Wolves fortunate just to make it into the playoffs. To be predicted higher than the Lakers at No. 4 and the Spurs, who had the best record in the West the last two years and kept their roster virtually identical, at No. 5? Wowza.
Now, before you mention, I know that the BP folks are working off computer readings, and that the predictions are based off of SCHOENE projections rather than their own personal opinions. But I don’t think it matters. If Minnesota does end with the third-best record in the West, you better believe the BP peeps will be taking all the credit in the world for it — which they should — so I’m not hearing any “Hey, blame the computer, not us” if they’re totally off base. If you’re putting your name on the prediction, it doesn’t matter if it was you, your computer, or your talking ghost dog who came up with it. You will take responsibility for it as such.)
Zach Lowe of Grantland (26 Bold Predictions): Memphis is done, Nikola Pekovic will be a borderline-household name, Phoenix will be league’s most disappointing team
Grantland’s deservedly acclaimed new hoops scribe Zach Lowe’s column of 26 Bold Predictions for the 2012-13 Season is, unsurprisingly, something of a misnomer, as most of the predictions are a little too esoteric to really be considered bold. Somehow, I don’t see a lot of monocles getting dropped into teacups over proclamations that Thaddeus Young will play the most minutes at PF for the Sixers, or that Denver will have a defense ranked 13th or worse in points-per-possession.
Still, a couple of Zach’s thoughts are pronounced enough to be callback-worthy, most notably his arguably early time-of-death call on the Grizzlies, his calling of the obscure-until-recently Nikola Pekovic as a potential All-Star-to-be, and his deeming Phoenix the league’s most disappointing team since that team is gonna have to be reeaaally bad to even be slightly disappointing. We won’t call him on the Thaddeus Young thing either way, but we’ll revisit those in due time.
Bleacher Report (25 Bold Predictions): Jrue Holiday will emerge as a top 10 point guard, Jimmy Butler will be in running for Sixth Man of the Year, Omer Asik will be the worst free agent signing
As with Zach’s Grantland column, most of the bold predictions in Roy Burton’s Bleacher Report season preview are really just plain ol’ predictions. Though unlike on Grantland, the predictions here aren’t insider-y so much as they’re just uncontroversial, from James Harden proving himself worth a max contract to Utah trading one of their big guys to the Lakers winning the Finals. But Roy did reach with a couple, most notably that Jimmy Butler call, which actually made me exclaim “WHAT?!?” when I flipped past it. (Apparently he had a big Summer League showing — who knew?)
And though the Holiday prediction doesn’t sound like that bold a call, and I like Jrue Holiday, here’s the arguable list of the top 10 guards in the league at the moment (in some order): Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Ricky Rubio. So to say that Holiday will be a top 10 point guard is saying that he’ll be better than at least one of those guys and also better than Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry, Mike Conley, Jeremy Lin and John Wall. Not impossible, but not easy either.
ESPN NBA Shootaround (Shooting Drill, on air): LeBron will average a triple-double (Jalen Rose), Anthony Davis will lead the league in rebounding (Michael Wilbon), Rajon Rondo will finish second in MVP voting (Bill Simmons)
Simmons and Rose have been boasting of how they’re gonna do some cage-rattling this season, and they got off to a good start on NBA Shootaround before a preseason double-header last Friday night, where they took turns making bold predictions. To their credit, most of their predictions were actually pretty bold — so much so that I didn’t even list Jalen’s kind of eventually right call that James Harden’s season would be his last as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, or how Wilbon called that the Wizards would actually make the playoffs (homer).
Of the three predictions (and Wilbon specified that Davis would average 13 a game, by the way, a whole lotta boards for a rookie) I’d say Jalen’s has to be considered the most outlandish. Great a year as LeBron had last season — and he won an MVP, a Finals MVP and a gold medal, which is a pretty good year by the standards of many — he was still nowhere close to a trip-dub, falling over two rebounds and nearly four assists shy of double digits. I’m not sure why this year he’d have a better shot at it. Simmons even seconded Jalen’s proclamation, though, so we’ll see. Stranger things have happened. Maybe?
Scott Carefoot of TBJ: Nuggets 2nd in West and Hawks 3rd in East, monster year for Deron Williams, Hornets making the playoffs
Seems only fair to me that I give the same treatment to my co-writer Scott Carefoot‘s predictions as for those of outside publications. Scott doesn’t say anything super-nutty over the course of his 30-team power rankings, but like BP, he has more love for the Nugs and Hawks than most. And like no other prediction I’ve seen for this upcoming season, he has the Hornets sliding into the eighth seed and the playoffs in their first year under the long arms of the Unibrow. Also, I don’t recall a lot of people being so unreservedly bullish about Deron Williams: Comeback Player so that’s certainly a prediction I’ll have my eye on throughout the year. Best of luck, Scott.
And in the interest of total fairness, I’ll also lay a couple of my own bold predictions on the line — admittedly, mostly based on my emotional gut reactions to reading all these other previews — to check myself against everybody else:
Steve Nash will have minimal effect on the Lakers season. You know Derek Fisher never had a 10-assist game while playing with the Lakers? There’s a reason for that, and you know what his name is. There’s just no way Kobe lets anybody but him be the team’s primary play-maker. Even if Nash would set up Kobe for 10 open threes a game, that still wouldn’t satisfy him, because deep down, he’d view those as Nash’s points, not his. Ultimately, I think both Kobe and even Pau will have as much ball-handling responsibility as Nash, and Steve’s final stat line will probably resemble that of a slightly more efficient Ramon Sessions.
Andrew Bynum will miss a whole bunch of games … and the Sixers will be fine. Every day that passes, Andrew Bynum seems like a surer and surer bet to miss at least the first few weeks of the season. As a Sixer fan, I’m already emotionally bracing for the news that we won’t see him until at least Thanksgiving, if not all the way to Christmas. But I think people are way underestimating how solid the team will be, even without him. They’re deep and they’re well-coached and they looked great in the preseason (SPENCER HAWES BABY!!), and they have a soft enough schedule to start the year for them to do a reasonably good imitation of the hot start they got off to last year. By the time Bynum actually gets on the floor, I fully expect the team to still be a couple games over .500.
Where he takes the Sixers from there, I’m actually much less confident about. I could see it being a bit of a struggle to integrate him at first, but I at least don’t see Bynum having to withstand the pressure of needing to save this season from the abyss or anything like that. And that’s not to say that the Sixers are better off without bynum by any means — they’ll need him to have any shot at beating the Heat or Celtics, or getting to home court advantage in the playoffs — just that without him, they’re capable of playing solid, low-ceiling ball that will result in them beating a lot of bad teams and getting crushed by a handful of really good ones.
Kyrie Irving will underwhelm in his second season. Everyone loves Kyrie, and for good reason. He had an excellent rookie season, he killed it at the Rookie-Sophomore game, he seems like a natural leader and a solid dude, and so on. But I think people are getting a little ahead of themselves in anointing him as the Next Great Point Guard or whatever. His NBA resume is still only 50 games in a lockout-shortened season long, his team went 1-10 in the last 11 games he played in last year, and I don’t see any real help coming from any of teammates this year. I’m always wary of the Assumed Leap Forward, and though I doubt he takes a Tyreke-esque step back, I would bet Kyrie posts a statistical line fairly similar to the one he did last year, while his team wins something like 27 games. I certainly wouldn’t save a seat on the All-Star bench for him just yet.
The Hawks will barely get into the playoffs and will get crushed in the first round. It’s funny because this wouldn’t have seemed all that bold of a prediction three months ago, but now that the advanced stat community has gotten behind them as a likely home court team, it actually registers as against-the-grain to say that they’ll take a step back this year. And that’s not even a testament to Joe Johnson’s greatness so much as it is a vote of no-confidence in the guys they brought in to replace him. I mean, when did we decide that Anthony Morrow and Kyle Korver were such difference makers? Has anyone ever actually watched Lou Williams for an entire playoff series? What the hell has Devin Harris done recently? I don’t see it.
Some of this can be mitigated if any of their top three incumbent players — Jeff Teague, Al Horford and particularly Josh Smith — can jump a level in their play next year. But as previously stated, I bet against the Assumed Leap Forward. Of course, I still have them making the playoffs, which might make this prediction fall just short of bold. In which case…
The Nets will finish last in the Atlantic division. This one is my real stretch, but I think it’s very possible, based on believing the following things to be true:
-Every team in this division is improved — yes, even the Knicks in their own roundabout way, I’d argue.
-Gerald Wallace is already fairly close to being toast.
-A Kris Humphries/Brook Lopez frontcourt is gonna let up a ton of easy hoops.
-Joe Johnson is a terrible team leader.
-Deron Williams gets discouraged easily.
I certainly don’t see this team contending for the Eastern Conference crown in any way, and I do think they’ll easily be worse than the Celtics and Sixers, and probably the Knicks as well. The real question for me is if the Raptors can squeak by them. The more I think about it, the more I’d rather bet on Dwane Casey, Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani than Joe Johnson and four key players from two truly awful Nets seasons. I think we’ll see a lot about this team in its first eight games, six of which are at home. If the Nets can take care of business at home and get off to a hot start, then maybe they’ll be off and running, but if they lose a bunch of those home games, I think their season could get submarined more quickly than you’d think.
Check back in about seven months to see how I and everyone else did. Accountability — it’s what separates us from the meth addicts.