My NBA predictions for 2013
In anticipation of the new year, SI.com's writers are predicting the stories they think will define the sports landscape in 2013.
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.
6. The Mavericks and Jazz will miss the playoffs. Right now, 12 teams are within striking distance of a top-eight seed in the West. That spells bad news for several playoff hopefuls, even assuming that they play well the rest of the way. Minnesota powered its way through a slew of injuries, but too often lets opponents hang around in otherwise winnable games. Denver is incredibly streaky, and it's not impossible that a prolonged lull could shove the Nuggets below the playoff cut. Houston and Portland are on the cusp, but could be burned by inexperience and lack of depth, respectively. Golden State is playing great basketball, but I'm reluctant to put complete faith in a defensive system (impressive though it may be) that's just 30 games old.
Assuming that the Lakers stave off a midseason implosion and continue on their current trajectory, that leaves two other fringe playoff contenders unaccounted for -- and ultimately likely to fall into the chasm that separates the top eight from the rest of the pack. The Mavericks and Jazz both have the makings of competent teams, but unfortunately own the least promising résumés of all the West squads on the bubble.
In Dallas' case, the makeshift roster put together to coast through this season just hasn't panned out. Though no one expected the Mavs to hold pace without Dirk Nowitzki in the lineup, there was some assumption that they would be able to get more defensive mileage out of the system that's guided them through the last few seasons. To make matters worse, the lack of a reliable point guard has doomed too many possessions before they've even begun. Nowitzki, who returned this week from preseason knee surgery, will help disguise some of those flaws with his offensive contributions, but Dallas is in real jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since 2000.
Utah, on the other hand, is playing decently but remains ill-equipped to win out in this war of attrition. The Jazz rank only 24th in points allowed per possession, and the deficit created by their slow rotations leaves just enough of an opening for the rest of the playoff contenders to pass them by. A midseason trade could help rearrange some of Utah's resources, but even a fair deal isn't all that likely to save the Jazz from being nudged out of the postseason by a narrow margin.
7. Interest and involvement in the D-League will continue to increase around the NBA. The D-League isn't yet a true NBA farm system, but every year brings better talent, better league-to-league integration and a new crop of teams interested in owning (or functionally owning, via the hybrid model) their own direct affiliate. Assignments and call-ups are now incredibly routine, and the NBA is filled with D-League alumni. The next big avenue for D-League use is rehabilitation from injury -- a possibility created by the new CBA, and one already being taken advantage of by teams such as the Knicks. As NBA general managers and coaches get more comfortable with the affiliate system and the workings of the D-League in general, they'll only come to find more creative uses for it as an extension of their in-house operations.
8. The Kings and Wizards will have new coaches. Both teams are a mess, and at some point the blame will be coordinated against a single target. Who is at fault for Sacramento's nonsensical lineup combinations, consistent spacing issues or the very presence of Travis Outlaw in an NBA rotation? Who is to blame for Washington's heinous offense, makeshift rotation and league-worst record? It's not Keith Smart or Randy Wittman exclusively, but when things get testy and the records turn miserable, the coach is so often the first to go.
9. New luxury tax penalties will ultimately keep most high-spending teams in check. There may be no power on earth that can prevent mid-level teams from imprudently using up their cap space to sign mediocre players, but the luxury-tax penalties of the new collective bargaining agreement are starting to kick in and limit the league's biggest spenders. Already we've seen the title-winning Mavericks broken up partially because of the tax; the Knicks balk at matching an offer sheet to Jeremy Lin because of their massive salary total; the Bulls allow Omer Asik to walk because of a poison-pill contract offer; and the Thunder trade Harden because of the growing cost of their core. Mistakes always will be made in terms of assigning players a dollar value, but the punitive provisions of the CBA have created a legitimate deterrent for teams accustomed to living above the tax line.
10. The Nuggets will make at least one significant trade. Denver's phone will be active as the Feb. 21 trade deadline approaches. Virtually every player on the roster would be attractive to some potential trade partner, and those players' contracts are largely reasonable enough to attract plenty of interest.
A less active general manager might choose to sit tight. But the Nuggets' Masai Ujiri can't seem to help himself, and since his arrival in Denver the franchise has been turned over entirely and tweaked incessantly. The fact that the Nuggets are a middle-of-the-pack West team only makes a potential trade more likely, and one can only imagine how a deal might offer some resolution to a cluttered depth chart. Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried are more or less strapped down, but everything else seems available for trade. It'll just come down to Ujiri's tinkering with the offers available until he finds something he likes, with the timing and finances making sense for a Denver team with plenty of options.