NBA Eastern Conference Preview

And…we’re back.  Year 2 of the AVS over/under NBA preview is upon us and we have expanded it this year to include predictions on all 30 teams.  We have big shoes to fill as last year we hit on 13/16 over/under totals among the 16 playoff teams (thank you!, thank you!) and our promise this year is to do even better than that.

In my column you will notice one broad theme that will aid me with many of my predictions.  The upcoming draft is one of the deepest and most talented classes in years.  Certainly since 2003 (LeBron, Wade, Melo), and perhaps since 1996 (AI, Kobe, Nash, Ray Allen), and perhaps even 1985 (some guy named Michael Jordan).  Hence, you will see an exorbitant amount of teams who are set up to tank for draft position.  Teams that have little to no chance to win this year will be faking injuries to their best players and mailing games in constantly.  Not only will this cause the teams at the bottom to win even less games, but it will also inflate the win totals at the top.  Riggin’ for Wiggins will be a huge theme among teams this year.

Let’s take a look at 1997, a year where teams were tanking and pretty openly trying to lose games.  During that season 7 teams in the east won at least 50 games (led by MJ’s Bulls) and 5 teams in the west won at least 49 games (led by the Malone/Stockton Jazz).  That’s a staggering 12 teams that won at least 49 games.  On the flip side, there was an equally staggering 7 teams that won 26 GAMES OR LESS.  Now why are talking about the 1997 when trying to predict what’s going to happen this year?  Because this season has the exact same set of ingredients as ’97.  Few elite teams that leave the rest of the league hopeless (2013: Heat, Bulls, Spurs, OKC vs. 1997: Bulls, Jazz, Heat).  A few other teams that are very good and are all in trying to win this year (2013: Pacers, Nets, Clippers vs. 1997: SuperSonics, Rockets, Knicks).  The rest of the league realize(d) they didn’t have much of a chance and instead of trying to get the 8th seed, which is essentially NBA no man’s land, they realize(d) it would be better to bottom out.  Oh, and of course the 1997 draft had a franchise altering future star at the top in Tim Duncan, eerily similar to the upcoming draft with Andrew Wiggins.

Welcome to 1997!

Before we get started, I wanted to note a few things about how this preview is going to be done.  The predicted order of finish here is for the REGULAR SEASON only.  We’ll have plenty of time to sort things out come playoff time.  Next to each team is the predicted win total per and next to that will be the AVS prediction on OVER or UNDER that amount.  I won’t be going through all roster moves that happened in the offseason, new coaching staffs, team name changes, etc., as the team blurbs will be more about why these teams are going to under or overachieve.

Oh, and one more thing.  I have locks that I feel most comfortable with.  Put your mortgage on them.  Take out a second mortgage and put it on them.  Heck, put your retirement on them.  Just remember to thank me later and that my favorite restaurant is Wolfgang’s (although I’m certainly not telling you what to do).

Let’s roll.

1.    Chicago Bulls: 56.5 – OVER.  This team is built to just demolish people during the regular season.  Rose is back and will be motivated to prove he is over his injury and back as an elite player.  Thibs has these guys prepared and playing hard night in and night out.  Jimmy Butler is getting better by the game and will have a larger role this year.  They also have an underrated amount of tradable assets in Boozer’s expiring deal, Deng, and Charlotte’s unprotected first round pick in 2016.  Still don’t believe me?  Just take a look at their previous regular season records.  They won 45 games last year and went through the entire season without their best player, they went 50-16 in the strike shortened year, and then went 62-20 in 2010.  Again, they are built to win in the regular season.  61 wins.

2.    Miami Heat: 61.5 – UNDER.  The Heat has essentially played 4 seasons during the last 3 if you count up all their high-pressure playoff games.  That has to catch up with them eventually, right?  It might be best to compare them to the two previous teams that went for a 3 peat: Jordan’s 1998 Bulls (62 wins) and the 2002 Lakers (58 wins).  That neighborhood sounds about right for this Heat team as well.  I could easily see the Heat coasting to a 55-18 record and then resting their starters the last few weeks of the season to get ready for the playoffs.  They are experienced, know how to win, and won’t over-exert themselves to take home court advantage in the playoffs from the Bulls.  This team was on pace for 60 wins until their ridiculous winning streak last year.  60 wins sounds about right this year.

3.    Indiana Pacers: 54.5 – OVER.  The Pacers grew up in last year’s playoffs.  Paul George became a franchise building block and Roy Hibbert was a dominant defensive presence.  That growth is only going to help them this year.  They actually have a bench now in the form of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Danny Granger to help the first team.  Last years Pacers won 49 games.  Their bench, the improvement of the young guys (George, Stevenson, Hibbert), and the bag of poop at the bottom of the conference should catapult them to 57 wins and the third seed.

4.    Brooklyn Nets: 52.5 – OVER, LOCK.  Get out those checkbooks ladies and gentlemen, your first lock of the column!  This team had 49 wins LAST YEAR!  Deron Williams also forgot how to play the first half of the year.  In the offseason, they added first ballot hall of famers who are out to prove their previous employer wrong (Pierce and Garnett), plus spark plug Jason Terry and veteran Andrei Kirilenko.  They haven’t played with teammates this good since 2008 and will welcome not having to be the main options on every possession.  Vegas is essentially telling me with this line that all those additions aren’t with an another FOUR wins.  What am I missing here?  Take the over and don’t look back.  56 wins.

5.    New York Knicks: 49.5 – UNDER.  The Knicks are going to have a really hard time stopping people.  Between Bargnani, Melo, Amare, Felton, Prigioni, and Bargnani (he deserves mention twice), opponents are going to be attacking the rim with relative ease.  But the main issue here is we’ve all seen this movie.  Mike Woodson is going to look confused on the sideline, Melo is going to dominate the ball, no one is going to move on offense, J.R. Smith is going to take some absurd shots, Amar’e is going to miss games.  Not enough has changed or improved for the Knicks to be a serious contender.  Under is the call. 47 wins.

6.    Detroit Pistons: 40 – OVER.  The Pistons are the most polarizing team in the NBA.  Many GMs and scouts think they are a threat to make the second round of the playoffs, while others think they are a lottery team.  I’m inclined to think they are somewhere in between, but there is no doubting they added some nice pieces this offseason.  Their front line, while can’t shoot outside the paint, is going to dominate defensively.  However, they are able to space the floor with a few shooters off the bench.  Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings will be out to prove people wrong this year.  Andre Drummond is a beast in the making.  Plus, they will be trying to win every game.  That has to count for something this year.  Slight lean over.  42 Wins.

7.    Washington Wizards: 39 – OVER.  Another team that is trying to win every game this year.  They have a dynamic backcourt in Wall and Beal, both of whom will be a year better.  The Wiz played about .500 ball after the return of Wall last year.  The trade for Gortat, while reeking of desperation, gives them another competent big man who can play up to 30 minutes a night.  Otto Porter has looked like a disaster so far and is the early leader in the clubhouse for draft bust 2013.  However, there is still enough talent here to get to 40 wins.

8.    Atlanta Hawks: 39.5 – UNDER.  This team is built to trade with a lot useful players signed to smaller contracts.  A bonus prediction: Paul Millsap will not finish the year there and will be moved prior to the deadline to Houston where he would fit in well next to Dwight Howard.  While a very solid big man, Al Horford is not a franchise type player and for this team to win 40 games he’s going to need to play like one.  Lou Williams is out until January.  I could see this team going way under after some trades but at the moment the lean is slight under and 37 wins.

9.    Cleveland Cavaliers: 40 – UNDER.  This is the trickiest number in the Eastern Conference as the Cavs are the most injury prone team in the NBA and would be well suited to enter the lottery again, not make the playoffs.  I just don’t trust Varejao, Irving, and Bynum, who this bet really depends upon, to stay healthy.   Basically this same team, now with Bynum, Jarrett Jack, and first overall pick Anthony Bennett, went 24-58 last year.  I just don’t think they are 17 games better this year.

10.  Milwaukee Bucks: 29 – OVER, LOCK.  Biggest lock of the eastern conference.  The owner and the team are all in on an 8 seed this year.  Who knows why they aren’t trying to bottom out, but they will be going for it every night.  They aren’t much worse than they are last year, when shoot first guards Jennings and Ellis dominated the ball and waved at people defensively.  OJ Mayo, Caron Butler, Gary Neal, Zaza, and Brandon Knight are all solid rotation type players that will keep them competitive most nights.  Larry Sanders and John Henson are a pain defensively and Ersan Ilyasova can stretch the floor at the 4 position.  There is more than enough to win 30 games here.

11.  Toronto Raptors: 35.5 – OVER.  This is another tricky win total because no one knows what the Raptors intentions are.  The best scenario may be to start fast and trade Rudy Gay and his terrible contract.  Jonas Valuanciunas is a legit piece to build around but the rest of the roster is average.  They were 18-17 since the Rudy Gay trade last year and will be around .500 again this year.  Over and 36 wins.

12.  Orlando Magic: 24 – OVER.  The Magic has a bunch of young pieces, but this team is headed back to the lottery.

13.  Boston Celtics: 27.5 – UNDER.  I don’t see how this number could possibly be over.  Either they get off to a slow start, hold Rondo out similar to what the Bulls did with Rose last year, and finish with about 22 wins.  Or they start fast, have Rondo come back, and then look to trade him and their other rotation type players like Bass, Lee, and an expiring Kris Humphries.  Either way that adds up to the under.

14.  Charlotte Bobcats: 26 – OVER.  Happy LJ?  The Bobcats for some reason signed Al Jefferson, who is a walking 20 and 10, to will help them win a few more games this year.  They are headed back to the lottery though and will ultimately be competing only for draft position.

15.  Philadelphia 76ers: 17 – UNDER.  This team is the king of the tank.  Riggin’ for Wiggins 1.0.  They have already announced Nerlens Noel isn’t going to play this year.  Soon Evan Turner or Thaddeus young will be on the trading block and MCW will have a hamstring pull that holds him out for a few weeks.  Single digit wins is actually in place and Andrew Wiggins has a good a chance as any to be wearing a 76ers uniform as early as next summer.

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