12 NBA Predictions for the ’15-16 Season, Pt 2

December 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Before this NBA season, I sat down and wrote some predictions: outlandish or unexpected things that I didn’t necessarily believe were going to happen, but were more likely to happen than I had heard anyone else write about. This is part 2. For part 1, click here.

4) The Bulls will be better under Fred Hoiberg.

Last year, a playoff-tested team made the risky move of dismissing their successful head coach, who was beloved by his players and had installed a bruising defense that had led the team to a lot of success, yet didn’t get along with the front office. That team replaced him with a rookie coach, whose ability was unknown at the NBA level but came from a good pedigree and promised to revitalize their offense. That team was the Golden State Warriors, and last year they won the NBA title.

I don’t mean to lump Tom Thibodeau in with Mark Jackson, who is by all accounts his inferior as a coach, but it’s easy to envision a similar buoy for the Bulls as the infamous hardass is replaced by Fred Hoiberg. There’s evidence to suggest that, unless a team experiences significant roster upheaval, teams with a successful culture and scheme on defense often retain it for a season or more after the coach who created that defense leaves. While the Bulls should receive a bigger boost from a healthy season from Joakim Noah and a more acclimated Nikola Mirotic, this could certainly be at play in Chicago.

One can look at the continued success of the late-aughts Boston Celtics on that end of the floor after Thibodeau himself architected their defense as an assistant coach before leaving to Chicago. The mid-aughts Pistons, after swapping Larry Brown for Flip Saunders, also come to mind, as do the current Grizzlies under Dave Joerger instead of Lionel Hollins. With Hoiberg injecting new ideas into the Bulls’ moribund offense and providing a new voice in the locker room—and a considerably less hoarse one at that—the Bulls could be the next team to benefit from such an arrangement.

5) Led by Kyrie, the Cavs will crush the Warriors on Christmas Day

Christmas Day is the NBA’s biggest regular-season showcase and the unofficial “real” beginning of the NBA season. Stuffed full of superstars and intriguing matchups, it’s a day for the league’s best teams to leave an early stamp on the season. Yet somehow, year after year, that luster usually doesn’t extend to the defending champions.

Over the last 10 years, the defending champions have played 9 times on Christmas day, losing 6 of those contests with an average scoring margin of -5.1—for reference, across a full season that would sit between last year’s Kings at -3.7 and last year’s Magic at -5.8. In finals rematches, the defending champs fare even worse, sporting a 1-3 record with a -7.3 scoring margin a half-point worse than last year’s Lakers (-6.8). Curiously, all three Christmas wins by defending champs in the last decade were claimed by the Heat, whose erstwhile star LeBron James owns a career 7-2 record on the holiday. I think you see where this is going.

This year, James and the Cavs face off against the team that beat them in last year’s finals, the Golden State Warriors. And while the early season might be rocky for Cleveland, who will be dealing with an injured Kyrie Irving and a rehabbing Kevin Love, there’s every reason to believe the Cavs will be looking forward to making that Christmas rematch their statement game. For example, a recent news story estimated that Irving would be sidelined until January. That sounds like a perfect timeline for him to “unexpectedly” come back “ahead of schedule” and wreak havok on Golden State’s gameplan for the marquee matchup.

6) Jahlil Okafor will follow in Michael Carter-Williams’s footsteps, for good and for ill.

If there’s one thing Jahlil Okafor can do, it’s put up numbers. The highly touted Duke product is considered a once-in-a-generation talent in the low post, capable of scoring in a variety of ways with his back to the basket. He’s the kind of offensive cornerstone that once dominated the NBA, a fundamentally sound behemoth whose advantages down low in both size and skill should translate to becoming the rare type of scorer whose efficiency won’t decline with increased usage. However, the rest of his game gives NBA teams pause. On draft day, despite his prodigious promise on offense, Okafor fell the Philadelphia 76ers with the 3rd pick overall, due to concerns about his defense, shooting, and rebounding.

On the Sixers, Okafor will have plenty of opportunities to put those numbers up—Philadelphia looks to be putrid for the third straight year, and Okafor might be the only player on their roster with even a decent amount of offensive skill. Fortunately for Okafor, numbers get a lot of attention. For all the inroads advanced statistics have made in helping fans and front offices alike gain a better understanding of basketball, raw scoring average still correlates the most highly with bigger contracts, all-star nods, and, crucially for Okafor, end-of-the-year awards. With his unique combination of talent and opportunity, it’s easy to peg Okafor as the front-runner for this year’s Rookie of the Year award.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should: the Sixers have been down this road before. Two years ago, Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams averaged 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds, historic numbers for a rookie that earned him best-of honors. Digging a little deeper, however, the picture didn’t seem so bright. Carter-Williams only shot .405 from the field and an abysmal .264 from 3-point range his rookie year, and both numbers actually regressed in his sophomore campaign. Furthermore, advanced statistics indicated that his huge per-game totals were nothing special considering the number of possessions he used. Perhaps recognizing this, as well as the value his Rookie of the Year award gave him to other teams around the league, the Sixers traded Carter-Williams at last year’s trade deadline for a draft pick most considered to be far more valuable than the young point guard they traded away. With the Sixers facing a positional logjam at center, having drafted Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor in consecutive lotteries, Okafor just might be the kind of overvalued asset that mad scientist GM Sam Hinkie dangles for a chance at bigger future rewards.

Now, imagine the irony when that bigger future reward turns out to be the 3rd pick in next year’s draft. After Ben Simmons and Dragan Bender go first and second, the Sixers have no choice but to take the consensus best player available, the one with the greatest chance to develop into a star… yet another center, Skal Labissiere.

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