The NBA season begins on Tuesday with a touch of sadness following the death at age 60 of Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders.
Although he never achieved the pinnacle of success by winning an NBA Title – only a few coaches ever do – Saunders was well thought of in the NBA community and had started to change the culture in Minnesota with a team that had endured numerous key injuries in recent seasons that made it tough for them to reach their full potential in the very tough Western Conference.
The West will again be the dominant conference this season with perhaps as many as 7 of the 8 teams that ultimately make the Playoffs capable of winning the Title.
Last season saw ultimate Champion Golden State win 67 regular season games under first season coach Steve Kerr, earning the top seed in the West by a whopping 11 games. However the teams seeded 2 through 7 were separated by just 6 games with Houston and the LA Clippers each winning 56 games and seventh seeded Dallas winning 50. Only New Orleans made the Western Conference Playoffs with a record of less than 18 games over .500 (45-37).
Contrast that to the Eastern Conference. Atlanta earned the top seed with its 60-22 record, 7 games better than second seeded Cleveland. New Orleans 45 wins that earned them the eighth seed in the West would have had them seeded sixth in the East where Milwaukee earned that seed with its 41-41 mark. The seventh and eighth Eastern seeds, Boston and Brooklyn, each had losing records. The eighth seeded Nets earned that seed due to tie breakers with Indiana as both teams finished at 38-55.
It should be more of the same this season with the strength clearly still in the West. Perhaps the major movers will be Utah on the upswing and Portland in decline. Phoenix also is considered capable of earning a lower seed in the West with Dallas perhaps missing the Playoffs.
In the East, Toronto is expected to again win the Atlantic Division which they won last season by 9 games over Boston. The Raptors were the only team in the Division with a winning record (49-33).
Cleveland should win the Central Division by more than the 3 games by which they edged Chicago last season. It took time for the Cavs to adjust to the return of LeBron James and several new key players and should get off to a much better start this season. The Cavs were basically a .500 team well into January. Chicago is still good enough to finish second but will have injury concerns all season with Derrick Rose. Both Milwaukee and Indiana will be improved and could challenge the Bulls for second place should those injury concerns be realized.
Atlanta will be hard pressed to duplicate its 60 wins season but should still contend for the Southeast Division title with Washington the most likely challenger. Miami, which slipped to 37-45 in the first season PL (post LeBron) may be in store for another losing season with an aging roster that will still rely on injury prone Dwyane Wade.
With a healthy Kevin Durant back on the court Oklahoma City should easily win the Northwest Division as he and Russell Westbrook form one of the top duos of the past quarter century. New coach Billy Donovan should have a successful debut season and could repeat Steve Kerr’s feat of last season by winning a Title in his first season as an NBA coach. Utah should finish second to OKC but is unlikely to mount much of a challenge for the Division title.
The Clippers and Golden State should dominate the Pacific Division with Golden State rating the nod with its well balance roster. Phoenix should finish a distant third but be a contender for a Playoffs berth.
Finally, the Southwest Division may be the deepest Division of any major pro sports league. All 5 teams made the Playoffs last season as the Division was a combined 112 games above .500, an average of 22.4 games above .500 per team.
The forecasted Division winners from this point of view are Toronto, Cleveland and Washington in the East and Oklahoma City, Golden State and Houston in the West.
Projected to join the aforementioned Division winners to round out the field of 16 Playoffs teams are Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Boston and Indiana in the East and San Antonio, Memphis, Utah, the LA Clippers and New Orleans in the West.
Note that the NBA has made the wise decision to seed the teams 1 through 8 based upon their Win/Loss records with no special treatment given to Division winners other than grant the Division winner an automatic berth in the Playoffs.
The projection for the Conference Finals have Cleveland defeating Washington in the East and San Antonio defeating Oklahoma City in the West, sending the Cavs’ LeBron James to his sixth straight NBA Finals (seventh overall) as he seeks his third NBA title and the first major pro title for the city of Cleveland in more than a half century.
And the projected winner of the NBA Title is none other than old, reliable San Antonio to defeat LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers in 6.
Brooklyn at San Antonio (Friday) – The Nets could raise the white flag if the game gets out of hand early, saving their starters for their Saturday date in Memphis. SAN ANTONIO.
Golden State at New Orleans (Saturday) – The Warriors are likely to be favored here regardless of Tuesday’s result and will be laying a few extra points if they were upset by the Pelicans. Play Tuesday’s straight up loser.
Milwaukee at Toronto (Sunday) – . The Bucks seek to improve upon last season which ended with an elimination in 6 games by Chicago in the opening round. UNDER.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to GamingToday readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Email: [email protected]