Regular Empty the Bench contributor Zachariah Blott handicaps the 2009-10 NBA season with his predictions for playoff finishes, individual awards, the league’s best backcourt, and more. The season kicks off on Tuesday… finally! There’s still time to get the Early Bird Discount on the NBA League Pass.
Eastern Conference Playoff Teams:
1. Boston Celtics
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Orlando Magic
4. Chicago Bulls
5. Toronto Raptors
6. Philadelphia 76ers
7. Washington Wizards
8. Atlanta Hawks
Boston Celtics over Cleveland Cavaliers
Western Conference Playoff Teams:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Portland Trail Blazers
4. Denver Nuggets
5. Dallas Mavericks
6. Utah Jazz
7. Houston Rockets
8. New Orleans Hornets
San Antonio Spurs over Los Angeles Lakers
Boston Celtics over San Antonio Spurs
Six Things that Could Blow Up These Predictions:
1) Tons of key injuries like last year (Garnett, Yao, Duncan, Brand, Nelson, etc.)
2) San Antonio finally gets too old.
3) Denver rolls like they did from mid-March to mid-May (22-5).
4) Orlando uses all their weapons and continues shocking the league.
5) Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers both take a quantum leap for Miami.
6) The new-look Pistons gel faster than anticipated.
Player and team predictions for the 2009-10 NBA season after the break…
Perfect Starting Five:
C: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
F: Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
G: Dwayne Wade, Miami Heat
G: Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
Best Bench for Those Five:
FC: Rasheed Wallace, Boston Celtics
F: Paul Milsap, Utah Jazz
F: Lamar Odom, Los Angles Lakers
G: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
G: Ben Gordon, Detroit Pistons
Most Likely MVPs:
1. LeBron James
2. Kobe Bryant
3. Dwayne Wade
4. Dwight Howard
5. Carmelo Anthony
Most Deserving MVPs:
1. Kevin Garnett
2. LeBron James
3. Dwayne Wade
4. Chris Paul
5. Brandon Roy
Most Likely to Have Great Stats, But You Don’t Want Him on Your Team (other than Zach Randolph)::
O.J. Mayo, Memphis Grizzlies
As a rookie he went for 18.5 ppg—including 38% from deep—and I’m sure his scoring average will only increase. As sexy as his scoring is, he takes way too many bad shots at this point in his career (sub-par 44% FG, and it actually went down during the season), and his passing is definitely not point guard-worthy, as was advertised (3.2-2.8 A/TO). He’s obviously been reading his own headlines for years because his shooting, ballhandling, and rebounding skills have been stagnant for a while as he slides by on his athleticism.
He has been busy building his resume as a questionable character, however. (Search combinations of “O.J. Mayo” and “received money in college,” “marijuana,” “not giving coach his phone number,” “championship ejection,” and “assaulted referee,” to get you started… and that’s before being around Randolph for awhile.)
Runner Up: Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies
Least Likely to Have Great Stats, But You’d Want Him in Your Starting Lineup:
Andrei Kirilenko, Utah Jazz
In 2003-04, then-23-year-old Kirilenko looked to be on the verge of a statistical breakout the likes of which basketball fans have rarely seen. He averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds, but he really took the NBA by storm by becoming the only player other than David Robinson to ever rank in the league’s top-5 in steals (1.9) and blocks (2.8) in a season. Well, the breakout never happened, and last year he posted a modest 11.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.2 spg, and 1.2 bpg. Lucky for the Jazz, AK-47’s stats are only a small piece of what he does.
The 6-9 Russian is a defensive maestro, swooping in from the weak side to disrupt a huge percentage of passes and shots. Utah’s defense is significantly better with him on the floor, both observationally and statistically, and the numbers he does accrue usually seem to come at very crucial times in a game.
Offensively, Kirilenko does a little of everything (posting up, driving, passing, shooting threes) without being poor at anything, and his skills are versatile enough that he’s played shooting guard through power forward. Watch his intensity and knack for big plays, and there should be no question why he is one of Jerry Sloan’s captains.
Runner Up: Shane Battier, Houston Rockets
1. Phoenix Suns (96.0 possessions/game in 08-09): They replaced fundamentals-first head coach Terry Porter with Alvin Gentry midseason, and he promptly returned the Suns to being more Suns-like. Also, the Suns dropped aircraft carrier Shaquille O’Neal and added fleet-footed C Channing Frye.
2. Golden State Warriors (98.2): It’s a typical Nellie-ball squad: lots of athletes (Donta Ellis, Anthony Randolph) and chuckers (Anthony Marrow, Stephen Curry). Here’s hoping we see more 154-130 games with Phoenix like last year’s.
3. New York Knicks (96.7): Coach Mike D’Antoni is the guy who originally made the Suns Suns-like. He’s doing the same in NYC for a second season, but without the talent or the wins.
4. Indiana Pacers (96.5): Jim O’Brien keeps his boys moving fast, but they’re still bland. You figure it out.
5. Denver Nuggets (94.3): Billups and Anthony love what George Karl’s system does to their stats.
1. San Antonio Spurs (88.4): They’re getting old, have been slow for a while, and Greg Popovich is always more concerned about the defensive end.
2. New Orleans Hornets (87.8): They’ve gotten progressively slower compared to the league each year under Byron Scott: ranked #21 (05-06), #23 (06-07), #26 (07-08), and #28 (08-09) in pace.
3. Charlotte Hornets (88.3): Larry. Brown.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (88.7): LeBron is gangbusters on a fast break, but it’s not as often as you think considering the Cavs’ good D forces far more bad shots than turnovers. Adding Shaq doesn’t help, either.
5. Portland Trail Blazers (86.6): They’ve been among the league’s three slowest teams each of the past 4 seasons under Nate McMillan, but new PG Andre Miller loves to push the pace.
Best Four-Deep (or more) Frontcourts:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers – They have the game’s biggest talent (SF LeBron James), players that physically control the paint (C Shaquille O’Neal, C Zydrunas Ilgauskas, PF Anderson Varejao), and the athletic jack-of-all-trades, SF Jamario Moon.
2. Boston Celtics – PF Kevin Garnett, SF Paul Pierce, C Kendrick Perkins, F/C Rasheed Wallace, PF Glen Davis, SF Marquis Daniels
3. Orlando Magic – C Dwight Howard, PF Rashard Lewis, SF Mickael Pietrus, C Marcin Gortat, PF Brandon Bass, SF Matt Barnes
4. Denver Nuggets – C Nene Hilario, SF Carmelo Anthony, PF Kenyon Martin, C Chris Andersen
5. (tie) San Antonio Spurs – C Tim Duncan, PF Antonio McDyess, SF Richard Jefferson, PF Matt Bonner, PF DeJuan Blair, SF Michael Finley, C Theo Ratliff
5. (tie) Los Angeles Lakers – PF Pau Gasol, C Andrew Bynum, SF Ron Artest, PF Lamar Odom, SF Luke Walton
Best Three-Deep (or more) Backcourts:
1. Boston Celtics – They have the big-time veteran gunner (SG Ray Allen), the young dynamo (PG Rajon Rondo), the 3-point bomber off the bench (PG Eddie House), and the versatile whatever-you-need (SG Tony Allen).
2. Portland Trail Blazers – SG Brandon Roy, PG Andre Miller, SG Rudy Fernandez, PG Steve Blake
3. Detroit Pistons – SG Richard Hamilton, PG Rodney Stuckey, SG Ben Gordon, PG Will Bynum
4. Dallas Mavericks – PG Jason Kidd, SG Jason Terry, PG J.J. Barea
5. Chicago Bulls – PG Derrick Rose, SG John Salmons, PG Kirk Hinrich
If I had to assemble a team of youngsters (players in their first 3 seasons) to play for the next 10 years, I would take:
C Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets (1)
C Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers (1)
PF Anthony Randolph, Golden State Warriors (1)
PF DeJuan Blair, San Antonio Spurs (R)
F Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers (R)
F Michael Beasley, Miami Heat (1)
F/G Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder (2)
G/F Anthony Marrow, Golden State Warriors (1)
SG James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder (R)
SG Rudy Fernandez, Portland Trail Blazers (1)
PG Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls (1)
PG Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder (1)
PG Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies (2)
(And I would have to consider:)
C Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (1)
F/C Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls (2)
F/C Luis Scola, Houston Rockets (2)
F/C Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks (2)
PF Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves (1)
G Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings (R)
G Rodney Stuckey, Detroit Pistons (2)
G O.J. Mayo, Memphis Grizzlies (1)
PG D.J. Augustin, Charlotte Bobcats (1)
PG Aaron Brooks, Houston Rockets (2)
Zachariah Blott is a dish best served cold.