By: Rob Mahoney
1. Kevin Durant will win his first MVP award. This season is setting up an unusual scenario in which Durant may well unseat the league’s best player in the MVP race without the aid of narrative fireworks. Having already made “the leap,” most would expect Durant to ride out the rest of his 20s, making subtle improvements to his game with corresponding boosts in his production. But KD’s evolution has been anything but subtle. His improved help defense is punctuated with weak-side blocks, his court vision now invokes comparison to his only basketball superior in Miami and he’s somehow an even smoother creator off the dribble than he was previously.
But Durant and the Thunder — despite a great start after the departure of Sixth Man Award winner James Harden — have been almost completely eclipsed by the Knicks’ shiny success, the Lakers-inspired schadenfreude and the Heat’s occasional malaise. Durant may have years of feel-good coverage working in his favor, but in the most impressive season of his career he’s been oddly under-covered. That quiet isn’t likely to last, but in today’s world of minute-to-minute reporting it’s almost refreshing to see Durant very quietly close the gap on three-time winner LeBron James to the point where he makes for a credible MVP choice.
2. The Clippers will make the Western Conference finals. The West is shaping up to be a crucible. The top-four teams are a fantastic mix of talent and execution, but only two can make it to the conference finals. Memphis and San Antonio are as worthy picks as any, but the Clippers seem to be the most likely candidate — if only by a hair — to join the Thunder in the last stage of the conference playoffs. L.A.’s defense has come and gone, waxing and waning as if choreographed to Chris Paul’s effort level or Jamal Crawford’s streak shooting. But the sum of the parts in Clipperland begets a potentially fearsome two-way team, benefiting from a masterful offensive orchestrator, a deep roster and legitimate defensive improvement on the back line.
3. Josh Smith will get a max deal as an unrestricted free agent. The omens for free-agent absurdity are all there: Paul appears entrenched with the Clippers, Dwight Howard (through his team’s struggles and all) seems likely to remain a Laker and Andrew Bynum’s wobbly knee may make him unfit to be a franchise cornerstone. But teams have been clearing cap space and maintaining flexibility for years in anticipation of making a run at one of those three stars, and so many suitors will be left all dressed up with nowhere to go.
That’s where Smith comes in, ready to tempt teams into handing out a massive contract when no better options come available. The 27-year-old Hawks forward is tremendously versatile, but his poor decision-making upends some of his varied production. Good passing skills inspire Smith to throw overly ambitious passes, a relatively nice handle encourages poorly conceived drives and the perimeter bent of his game instills an overconfidence in his jump-shooting abilities. But desperation often causes teams to overlook those very flaws, and the workings of the NBA salary structure (extensions, rookie-scale deals, etc.) force teams into using up cap space at specific times. For those franchises that have been planning around 2013, Smith may be the most attractive potential addition. He’ll undoubtedly have a few teams competing for his services, and one is bound to offer him a maximum salary.
4. Derrick Rose will be awfully good when he returns, but won’t ever be the same. Basketball fans everywhere are ready for Rose to get back on the court, and yet I can’t help but shake the unsettling feeling that his game may mimic the state of his torn-and-repaired left knee. Even after medical professionals put Rose back together again, there will always be some remnant of his ligament tear, and a visible scar on his game that hearkens to his collapse to the United Center floor last April.
That won’t prevent Rose from jumping back into the conversation of the league’s best players, albeit with something missing. He’ll still be quick. He’ll still be clever. He’ll still be exactly what the Bulls need. But he may be just a tinge slower with a game that’s just slightly less deadly. It may not seem like much, but in a read-and-react sport dependent on quick-twitch reflexes, even the slightest hesitation could cost Rose a great deal.
5. Yet another analytics-driven team will win the NBA title. Since 2004, five franchises (Heat, Spurs, Celtics, Lakers and Mavericks) have won an NBA title. All five scout, coach and/or make personnel decisions as informed by analytics, and this season’s eventual champion will almost certainly follow suit. Miami and Oklahoma City are the favorites from each conference, and both run quiet, diligent forays into the quantitative side of the game. The Spurs and Grizzlies are also very much a part of that conversation, with the former being among the most numbers-savvy team cultures in sports and the latter having recently hired ESPN.com stat-head John Hollinger as vice president of basketball operations. Odds are good that one of those smart, analytics-inclined teams walks away with the Larry O’Brien trophy this season, in only the latest example of new-wave thinking making a significant difference in the way basketball operations are run.