7 Bold Predictions for the Houston Rockets During 2014-15 Season

The Houston Rockets are preparing to launch their regular season, the fans are ready to watch in enthusiasm and the analysts are ready to predict what happens. What is in store for Clutch City?

Will they be surprisingly good, shockingly bad or about what we expect them to be? Will they regret the departure of Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin, or will Trevor Ariza make a big enough impact to offset their loss?

Here are seven bold predictions for the Rockets’ season. They are ranked in order of the entirely subjective aspect of “boldness” with the more eyebrow-raising projections at the top.

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Ranking Every Season of Gregg Popovich as San Antonio Spurs Head Coach

Can San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich improve upon a 2013-14 campaign that may have been his finest yet?

After inking a multiyear extension with the club this summer, he’ll have a few opportunities to do just that. Star veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili may be reaching the end of their respective careers, but 32-year-old Tony Parker remains in his prime, and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is just beginning to discover his.

There are almost certainly more good times ahead.

And they’re plenty already in the rearview mirror.

Here’s a look at how each of Popovich’s seasons rank in terms of San Antonio’s overall success. Taking regular-season performances and playoff outcomes into account, here’s a look at which incarnations of the Spurs are especially memorable in Popovich’s 18 seasons in the driver’s seat.

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Season Predictions and Analysis for the 2014-15 Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets will look to claw their way back into contention this year with a healthy Brook Lopez and Deron Williams leading the charge under new head coach Lionel Hollins.

Do the Nets have enough to challenge the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers in the East?

Ric Bucher gives his take when he joins Adam Lefkoe in the video above.

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10 Bold Predictions for the First Week of the 2014-15 NBA Season

With the 2014-15 NBA season rapidly approaching, there’s never been a better time to be bold.

And, really, that is the best type of prediction, isn’t it? No one is going to claim Prognosticator of the Year honors by foreshadowing good things ahead for the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs or putting a team featuring LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving on a pedestal.

In this business, it pays to take risks.

Not outlandish ones, of course. There has to be some substance behind the sizzle, a line of reasoning leading to these bold, yet realistic, forecasts.

So, with both eyes on the first week of the upcoming seasonwhich we’ll define here as extending from opening night on October 28 through the 12-game slate on Saturday, November 1let’s look ahead at what’s in store for the glorious return of the world’s greatest game.

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Sensational Rookie Season from Julius Randle Is What Los Angeles Lakers Need

In the middle of an ongoing rebuilding phase, the Los Angeles Lakers need certain things in order to have any success in a loaded Western Conference. One huge priority will be a sensational season from Julius Randle.

The Lakers suffered through their worst loss record in franchise history last season with a meager 27-55 record. Their consolation prize was the No. 7 pick in the draft lottery. When the big night arrived, they chose Randle—a hard-charging freshman power forward out of Kentucky.

The preseason has offered varying degrees of progress for the 6’9″ lefty, whether through strong inside work or leading a fast break like a runaway bull. It has been both promising and maddening.

Would you expect more from a 19-year-old before the regular season even begins?

Randle is drawing plenty of commentary from his first NBA head coach—at times positive, and in other instances, sharply worded.

After an early preseason loss, Byron Scott described the young rookie as follows, per Arash Markazi of ESPN LA: “I thought he was lost, in the first half especially.”

It is a story as old as sports itself—a tough-love coach and a headstrong, yet impressionable pupil. And in the end, we hopefully learn that the Los Angeles Lakers and Randle need each other in equal measure in order to succeed.

One is a grizzled coach who had to sweat three interviews and an extended wait to get hired by a team he used to play for. The other is a teenager who tends to scatter opponents like bowling pins.

Patience, young grasshopper—you have to learn where your place truly is in the basketball universe.

Scott isn’t the only one wielding both a stick and carrot—reigning franchise cornerstone Kobe Bryant has also been playing the part of the caring taskmaster.

Randle’s place is already becoming clearer—the headlong rushes are gaining control, and his jump shots are starting to fall. It appears that he wants to be more than a bull in a china shop.

As Mark Medina for the Los Angeles Daily News recently wrote, a lottery pick who was touted for his low-post moves is pushing the envelope in other ways:

For all the comparisons Randle has drawn to Memphis’ bruising power forward Zach Randolph, Lakers forward Ed Davis noticed that Randle has mirrored more of the modern version of Lamar Odom. Just as the former Lakers forward interchanged roles as a post player, facilitator and ball handler, Randle has provided the same job description:

‘It’s all about putting pressure on the defense when you can outrun the bigs and have the ball too. That’s what Coach wants me to do every time I get the rebound. I’m pushing the ball and making plays. I’ve been doing it my whole life so I’m comfortable with it.’

Much has been made of the Odom comparisons, but remember—the former Sixth Man of the Year was a chameleon in his prime. His full-court sallies occurred sparingly and when opponents least expected it. He spent long stretches setting up his teammates or concentrating on rebounding. His hesitation moves were a thing of beauty.

On Wednesday night during a win against the Portland Trail Blazers, Randle continued to show improvement with 17 points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes of play. More impressive than the total numbers was his efficiency, with 7-of-10 shooting and a nice mixture of interior play and end-to-end romps—this time at a less frenetic pace.

The second unit worked well together, with Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson making their first appearances after missing several games due to sprained ankles and a calf strain, respectively. Ed Davis and undrafted rookie Roscoe Smith provided interior energy and glass cleaning.

After the game, Scott spoke about his young ward’s evolution, per Serena Winters of Lakers Nation:

I don’t think the kid has really ever had to play hard and I know he hasn’t ever had to work as hard as he’s had to this year. I still expect him to work harder but each game he seems to get a little bit better and that’s the progression that you want, and we all tend to forget that he’s 19. So, you’ve got to give him a little slack at times, even though I don’t, I should I guess.

With the start of the regular season looming, the obvious question becomes how much the Lakers need from Randle and how soon.

So far, the rookie is coming off the bench behind Carlos Boozer—the veteran frontcourt player and perennial starter who the Lakers claimed off amnesty waivers from the Chicago Bulls this season.

It’s likely that role will remain for now and that the young warrior’s lessons will continue unabated. Randle could well be the future of the franchise, but the powers that be don’t want to stunt his development through premature expectations.

Randle is where most young players are before they launch into their first regular-season games—a work in progress and untested when it counts in the NBA. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a sensational rookie season, even if it’s filled with tough love and teaching moments.

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Chances of Each NBA Team Making the Playoffs Heading into 2014-15 Regular Season

It’s all about getting to the NBA playoffs. 

From there, anything can happen. We’ve seen No. 8 seeds take down No. 1 seeds, and if that can become a reality, then there’s at least a possibility of an overmatched squad pulling off upset after upset en route to a championship. Sixteen teams have a distinct chance at holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy after the regular season, while the other 14 are forced to watch from home. 

At this point in the year, everything revolves around the postseason, whether teams are just trying to gain entry to the all-important festivities or attempting to position themselves with a specific seed. A title is the ultimate goal, but the playoffs are the first step. 

Unfortunately, not every team has a legitimate shot to make it past the 82nd game of the 2014-15 campaign. And even those that do can be placed in a hierarchy of their own, counting down toward the one squad that’s the biggest postseason lock of all. 

These rankings are not about which team is best, and a squad that comes in one spot ahead of another isn’t necessarily better. They’re determining which franchises have the best chance to make the playoffs, looking at upside for those that aren’t projected to be a top-16 team and the floor for those that are. 

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Milwaukee Bucks 2014-15 Season Preview: Roster Breakdown, Win-Loss Prediction

After putting together a franchise-worst record in 2013-14, it’s cliche to say that things can only get better for the Milwaukee Bucks when 2014-15 tips off.

But, despite the 15-67 record the team turned in a season ago, that’s exactly the mentality needed to turn things around. And with an abundance of young talent, it’s not unreasonable to think brighter days are right around the corner.

It didn’t take long for the direction of the franchise to drastically change after the nightmare season, either.

New ownership, new coaching and some new roster additions were all part of a flurry of offseason moves that gave the Bucks a new, exciting look.

And while this team’s true potential is several years off, 2014-15 is the beginning of what is hopefully a path back to success for Milwaukee.

What, then, is in store for fans in the immediate future?

 

Biggest Question Mark

By far the biggest question mark for the Bucks this season is Larry Sanders.

The big man had a tremendous 2012-13 season, averaging 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks en route to becoming one of the league’s most intimidating interior defenders.

However, 2013-14 was a major letdown.

Sanders appeared in just 23 games due to injuring his thumb in a night club incident and subsequently fracturing his orbital bone.

It was a disappointment, to say the least.

And while his absence did allow John Henson to emerge as a legitimate interior defender—he averaged 1.7 blocks—Sanders’ presence on a consistent basis would have given the Bucks a very good interior defense.

Instead, Henson was the team’s only real paint presence on both ends of the floor.

In order for the Bucks to move forward successfully, Sanders not only needs to prove he can remain healthy, but he needs to deal with his emotional outbursts and off-court issues. Truthfully, it’s those things preventing him from becoming one of the league’s premier big men.

If a younger, more understanding coach like Jason Kidd can get through to Sanders, perhaps he can turn things around in 2014-15 and return to being a dominant interior presence on defense.

 

Best Five

Last season, Larry Drew toyed with an astonishing 27 different starting lineup combinations.

And while it’s important to try different things when you’re dealing with a team full of raw, young talent, it’s also vital to establish some iota of consistency.

The roster hasn’t changed significantly, but the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and drafting of Jabari Parker will certainly mean less minutes for other players.

Discussion of the Greek Freak manning the point-guard role are certainly intriguing, but him playing long-term minutes at the 1 probably isn’t going to happen on a consistent basis.

Ultimately, Milwaukee’s best lineup will look like the one below:

PG: Brandon Knight

SGO.J. Mayo

SF: Jabari Parker

PF: John Henson

C: Larry Sanders

That’s right, Antetokounmpo is best suited coming off the bench as the team’s sixth man.

Why?

At this point, the youngster is still incredibly raw on the offensive end and is too inconsistent to provide the team with a consistent scoring threat. Not to mention, the spark he can bring off the bench with his energy and passion will be beneficial to the second unit.

The five aforementioned players provide the team with a good balance of offense and defense.

You won’t find Knight and Mayo winning any Defensive Player of the Year awards, but both put forth the effort to defend and aren’t terrible.

And while Parker’s defensive struggles aren’t a secret, he can prevent himself from becoming a liability with a focus on team defense and rotating properly.

With Sanders and Henson starting, Milwaukee finds itself possessing one of the most intimidating shot-blocking duos in the NBA, and that alone can help alleviate some of the pressure on the team’s perimeter defense.

Offensively, Knight led the team in scoring a season ago, and Mayo has the capability of going off on any given night. 

Parker’s prowess for scoring was well documented during his lone season at Duke, and Henson has continued to develop his low-post game, increasing his scoring average to 11.1 points in 2013-14.

Sanders himself is raw but, with continued work, can become a serviceable option in the interior.

Overall, these are the most well-balanced five players the Bucks can put on the floor at the same time—at least for now.

 

A Youthful Appearance

According to RealGM.com, the Bucks have an average roster age of 24.4, making them the third-youngest team in the league.

Leading that youth movement are Parker and Antetokounmpo.

Both players bring vastly different skill sets to the table, yet they are equally exciting and should be productive for the franchise well into the future.

Parker’s readiness on the offensive end gives the Bucks a go-to scorer who is aggressive and who can usually get the shot that he wants.

Magic Giannison—that nickname will never get old, even if he doesn’t play point—is a versatile, athletic freak who has the potential to turn into a special, two-way player if and when he rounds out his offensive arsenal.

With those two names garnering the most attention, it’s easy to forget that Knight is just 22 years old himself and continues to develop at point guard.

Coming off his best season, he’ll have the opportunity to become more of a distributor now that the team has more offensive weapons. Whether he’ll recognize and embrace that opportunity is yet to be seen, but he can make just as big of an impact this season as he did last, just in a different way.

As a whole, this team is young and hungry. It might take some time, but if and when these guys reach their potential, the franchise will be in a good place.

 

Team Award Predictions

Most Valuable PlayerJabari Parker

Parker is a rookie and will certainly make his number of mistakes, but when the season comes to an end, the youngster is going to wind up being the team’s biggest asset. He’ll likely be given the green light on offense, and that alone should be enough to make his impact felt in a big way. But what he does this year will only be a glimpse of what he can do for the franchise from a long-term standpoint.

 

Defensive Player of the YearLarry Sanders

Sanders will certainly have his doubters in 2014-15 and rightfully so. But regardless of how poorly he sometimes manages it, there’s no questioning his passion for the game and desire to win. Everyone makes mistakes, and last season was one massive blunder. The chance to continue his downward spiral obviously exists, but it would be surprising for him not to have received a major wake-up call after last year.

 

Biggest Surprise of the YearO.J. Mayo

Writing Mayo off after arguably his worst season as a professional is the easy thing to do. However, from all indications, he has taken the criticisms in stride and is dedicated to improving. According to Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mayo has shed 15 to 20 pounds during the offseason, and the veteran finished the preseason by averaging 16.7 points over the final four games.

 

Mr. ExcitementGiannis Antetokounmpo

With the scoring ability of Parker, the fancy passes from Kendall Marshall and shot-blocking ability of Sanders, the Bucks have a number of players who provide an ample amount of exciting plays. However, it’s Antetokounmpo who will once again wow fans on both ends of the floor. Whether it’s making a defensive play, sprinting back up the court and throwing down a dunk or going the length of the floor in two dribbles, he’ll be sure to please fans once again in 2014-15.

 

Final Predictions

When compared to the 15-67 record they posted a season ago, this year will be a major improvement for the Bucks when the curtain closes on 2014-15.

No, they won’t make the playoffs, but you had better believe this team will be competitive.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic both in similar—or even worse—situations than them, the Bucks will dig themselves out of the Eastern Conference cellar and will be looking at a 13th-place finish. 

If everything were to go really well, they might be able to move up a few spots, but that shouldn’t be expected.

In terms of number of games won, look for Milwaukee to be around 23 to 25 wins when it’s all said and done.

If assessing the team fairly and understanding that young players don’t become experienced overnight, those numbers are both fair and realistic.

But what the numbers in the win and loss columns say this year won’t speak to the direction the franchise is headed. It’s all about the eye test. If players continue to show signs of developing and guys like Sanders can get back on track, the future in Milwaukee isn’t as dim as it was prior to the offseason.

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Sacramento Kings 2014-15 Season Preview: Roster Breakdown, Win-Loss Prediction

The expectations for the Sacramento Kings have changed heading into this 2014-15 season. 

Last season—in his first year as owner and with a new general manager and head coach—Vivek Ranadive wasn‘t concerned with the team’s win-loss record. It was a good thing, as the Kings ended up finishing with a 28-54 record, identical to the previous season.

However, Ranadive‘s outlook has changed this season. The owner talked to reporters at media day and told them he expected an improvement in the team:

Last year, when the season started, I said it wasn’t going to be about wins and losses. When I came here and we bought the team, there was dysfunction in the locker room, there wasn’t mutual respect, the arena was literally falling apart, the roof was falling down.

So we brought in a new team, we restored stability, restored respect, we put in a strong culture. But this year, let’s be clear, it is about wins and losses.

While the owner declined to put a specific number or expectation on the table, he did add, “We have to do a lot better than we did last year.”

Making the sort of improvements the ownership expects will be a task in the difficult Western Conference. The Kings didn’t add any marquee players. They drafted Nik Stauskas and signed Ramon Sessions, Darren Collison, Ryan Hollins and Omri Casspi in free agency. 

The franchise’s biggest trump card is more familiarity with head coach Mike Malone in his second season with the team. Hopefully that, coupled with improvement from players already on the roster, will be enough to make serious headway.

However, there are still plenty of question marks. Starting with…

 

Biggest Question Mark: How Do They Replace Isaiah Thomas’ Offensive Production?

The Kings lost one of their key players when point guard Isaiah Thomas signed an offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns. As a restricted free agent, the Kings were able to execute a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, but the package the Kings received (a $7 million trade exception and the rights to Alex Oriakhi) doesn’t compare to the production they lost.

That means Sacramento will need to replace Thomas’ production through other means. 

Most notably, Collison and Sessions will be asked to fill those shoes. But despite Thomas’ 5’9″, 185-pound stature, they’re big shoes to fill.

The point guard averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in 34.7 minutes of action. He also produced a team-high 6.4 offensive win shares.

Going off of what Collison and Sessions did last season, the duo combined for 23.7 points and 7.8 assists in 52.6 minutes. The two also produced 6.9 offensive win shares. 

It’ll require a similar effort—if not a better one, considering each will probably see a small reduction in playing time—to make up for what the Kings are missing. 

However, if the preseason is any indication, they should be up to the task. Their 25 combined points and 9.3 assists would do the trick. But there’s obviously a big difference between the preseason and the regular season. 

Yet if the Kings are to make the jump in the standings the front office expects, that production will need to hold up.

 

Best Five

Point guard: Darren Collison

Shooting guard: Nik Stauskas

Small forward: Rudy Gay

Power forward: Jason Thompson 

Center: DeMarcus Cousins

This is more of a projection of the best five players for the majority of the season. Although no starting lineup for the regular season has been announced, Ben McLemore will probably get the nod over Stauskas to start the year. He’s started five of the team’s six preseason games at 2-guard.

However, Stauskas‘ shooting ability, which we’ll get to momentarily, should be enough for him to supplant McLemore by the end of the season.

Point guard is also up in the air, with Collison or Sessions the two options to start. Collison gets the nod here for a couple reasons.

For one, he’s started four of the six preseason games, while Sessions has only started two. Collison is also primarily a point guard, whereas Sessions is capable of playing both backcourt spots (52 percent of his minutes came at the point and 48 percent at the 2 between his stops in Charlotte and Milwaukee last season). 

Power forward is the other spot that has a few options. Namely there’s Carl Landry, Reggie Evans and Thompson. Thompson started 61 games there last season, and he’s started five of six games this preseason. 

Not to mention Thompson, along with Evans, had a very strong training camp.

All of those factors give him the edge. 

Center and small forward really aren’t up for discussion. Cousins is the team’s best player, while Gay is unquestionably its second-best player. Both made Team USA for the FIBA Basketball World Cup and are the cornerstones of this franchise.

If the Kings are to do anything at all this season, it’ll be because of the production they get from Cousins and Gay.

 

Youth Movement

Stauskas was the Kings’ only draft pick this offseason.

The former Michigan Wolverine plays shooting guard and figures to have a prominent role with the Kings. He’s averaged 24.4 minutes during the preseason and has started one of the five games he’s appeared in. 

The player who’s started the other games at 2-guard is also a youngster—Ben McLemore. The 21-year-old is entering his second season in the NBA. After a lackluster rookie season, the Kings are hoping to see improvement from McLemore in 2014-15. 

How the two of them play will be a big determining factor in whether the team can live up to those lofty expectations. McLemore will need to find more consistency to his shot—he only made 37.6 percent of his field goals and 32 percent of his three-pointers as a rookie.

Stauskas, on the other hand, has a great shot. He’s made 36.8 percent of his three-pointers during the preseason and knocked down 44.1 percent of them in his two years at Michigan. His major adjustment will be to the increased speed and physicality of the NBA game.

Adding an additional layer to the equation is the long-term outlook of whether the two of them can develop next to one another. With both playing the same position and being incapable of switching to the 1 or 3 for extended periods of time, they’ll need to progress without huge playing time. It’ll also be interesting to see if the presence of Stauskas has any effect on McLemore‘s psyche.

Those were some concerns listed by NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper when the Kings drafted Stauskas.

There’s also the possibility power forward Eric Moreland plays with the Kings. The rookie is intriguing because of his ability to block shots and rebound—two blocks and five rebounds in 20 preseason minutes—but he’s likely to spend most of the year in the D-League.

 

Team Award Predictions

 

Best Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins’ was the team’s highest scorer last season (22.7 points), and it figures to be much of the same this time around. 

Without Isaiah Thomas on the team, who was one of three Kings players to average more than 20 points, the ball will go to Cousins with even more regularity. That’s saying something considering the center was third in the league in usage percentage, trailing only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

But with Cousins, it’s not a case of only volume. He gets his points in an efficient manner. In fact, he was fifth in player efficiency rating, with only Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis ahead of him.

Between his ability to get to the charity stripe (9.3 attempts per 36 minutes), his efficiency and his touches, Cousins will be Sacramento’s best offensive player. While it’ll require improvement from all over the roster to meet expectations, the Kings will go as Cousins goes. 

 

Best Defensive Player: Omri Casspi

There were a few directions to go for the team’s best defensive player. Truth be told, Cousins could also win this one as well. However, for the sake of change, let’s look at a different player in Casspi.

Casspi deserves recognition because of his ability as a wing player. According to 82games.com, he held opposing small forwards to a PER of 6.9 last season. With 15.0 being league average, Casspi did a solid job shutting down the opposition. 

His previous team, the Houston Rockets, were also a stronger defensive team when he was on the floor. They posted a 103.9 defensive rating with Casspi in the game, opposed to a 107.2 defensive rating when he was on the bench. 

Considering Gay is the unquestioned starter at small forward, Casspi can fill a similar role in Sacramento. Meaning he can be a defensive sub who comes in to help slow down opposing teams. That’s an important option to have as he can not only help on defense, but he can do so while giving Gay a rest.

 

Most Improved Player: Carl Landry

Based on last year’s production, nobody is likely to improve as much as Landry. That’s mainly because he was so poor last year, rather than him making a dramatic improvement over his previous production.

Last season was Landry’s first back in Sacramento, after he played for the Kings during a previous stint a few years ago. Unfortunately he was hurt for most of the campaign, only appearing in 18 games throughout the season.

However, his scoring (4.2 points), rebounding (3.2) and win shares per 48 minutes were the worst of his career. Of course, Landry also played fewer minutes, both per game and overall, than he had during any other season. That could partially explain the decrease in scoring and rebounding.

Yet his per-minute production was also the worst of his career. His points (11.7) and assists (0.8) per 36 minutes, player efficiency rating (11.2) and free-throw rate (2.6 attempts per 36 minutes) were all career worsts.

At just 31 years old, it’s unlikely Landry’s athleticism suddenly fell off a cliff. Simply by returning to previous production, he’ll be the team’s most improved player.

 

Team MVP: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins is clearly the Kings’ most valuable player. Without him, the team would be lost, which is saying something considering it hasn’t been too productive to begin with. 

For evidence, look no further than what happens when Cousins misses games. Last season the center missed 11 games. The Kings’ record in those 11 games he missed—0-11.

He also led the team in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks per game. Not to mention he had the most total win shares, defensive win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, the highest PER and the lowest defensive ranking.

At only 24 years old and coming off an offseason working with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Cousins won’t see that production decrease. If anything it’ll increase. That means last year’s team MVP will also be this year’s team MVP.

 

When the Dust Settles… 

Ranadive and the front office may be expecting dramatic improvement in the team’s win-loss record, but it likely isn’t in the cards. 

It’s just too tough to compete in the difficult Western Conference. Not to mention the Kings haven’t added enough quality players to expect a dramatic improvement in their on-court talent. That means what’ll it’ll really come down to is how they adjust to a second year in Malone’s system.

More familiarity with the coach and his expectations will definitely help. But at 28-54 last season, there’s just too much ground to make up to even qualify for the playoffs. So even if the Kings improve, it may not be enough to satisfy those expectations. 

At this point, a better question isn’t whether the Kings make the playoffs—it’s whether they can do enough to earn Malone and general manager Pete D’Alessandro another year at the helm. 

Final Prediction: 31-51

 

Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

How do you think the Kings will do? Let me know on Twitter @SimRisso.

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Denver Nuggets 2014-15 Season Preview: Roster Breakdown, Win-Loss Prediction

After ending the 2012-13 NBA season third in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets could not escape the injury bug last year and fell into the lottery for the first time since 2003.

The Nuggets bring back the majority of their core heading into this season and are hoping a healthy season from their starters will help land them a playoff spot in a loaded Western Conference.

Denver is an interesting team, as it is one of the deepest teams in the league. But its lack of a dominant offensive player may preclude it from competing with some of the star-loaded teams in the West.

It’s clear that the Nuggets’ success predominately rides on their ability to stay healthy, as Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson and JaVale McGee all went down with significant injuries at some point last season. 

This is a young, talented team with a lot of potential that could turn into a legitimate threat in the Western Conference if it can develop chemistry and significantly cut back on the number of injuries in 2014-15. 

 

Biggest Question Mark

After missing the entire 2013-14 season after undergoing knee surgery, there is no question that Danilo Gallinari should be considered the biggest question mark for the Denver Nuggets heading into this year. Once considered the prize of the Carmelo Anthony trade, Gallinari has failed to live up to the hype due to a string of injuries over the past few seasons.

Gallinari’s main strength is his ability to score in a variety of ways. After starting his career as mainly a three-point shooter, Gallinari has since expanded his offensive game to the point that he is an efficient scorer who can draw fouls and knock down free throws.

In 2012-13, his last healthy season, Gallinari shot 37.3 percent from beyond the arc and knocked down 82.2 percent of his free throws. Assuming he has fully recovered from his knee injury, Gallinari should have another strong scoring performance.

In addition to a strong offensive game, Gallinari is also a sound defender as well. In 2012-13 he had a defense-per-100 rating of 1.2. To put that into perspective, renowned defender Patrick Beverley had a rating of minus-0.5 that same year.

Clearly, the tools are there for Gallinari, but as always, he will need to stay healthy to contribute to the Nuggets this season.

 

Best Five 

Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Timofey Mozgov

Despite not having an All-Star in their starting lineup, the Nuggets will still throw out a solid group that doesn’t appear to have any holes.  

The lineup is very young with no player over 29 and loaded with potential. In addition, every player in the lineup except for Arron Afflalo has yet to reach his peak as a basketball player.

The least accomplished player in the starting unit is Timofey Mozgov, but he still averaged 10.8 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game as a starter last season. Mozgov has looked great so far in the preseason for the Nuggets and should see his game elevate this season.

However, for the Nuggets to compete, one or two players from this group must develop into a star player. Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari and Faried have all look like very good players at times in their careers, but they’ll need to become more consistent for the Nuggets to have a chance this year.

 

Youth Movement

After pulling off multiple trades on draft night, general manager Tim Connelly acquired two first-round draft choices in Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris.

Nurkic is a 6’11, 280-pound raw center from Bosnia and Herzegovina who could eventually turn into the Nuggets’ big man of the future. With a massive body that he uses to post up and grab rebounds, Nurkic has the ability to become a very good offensive player.

He will take time to develop, but a few years down the road Nurkic could end up being one of the hardest big men to cover on the block. Some experts, via NBADraft.net, compare Nurkic to Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who has quickly developed into one of the best offensive centers in the league.

The other first-round pick rights they acquired were for Gary Harris, a 6’4” shooting guard out of Michigan State. Although a good shooter and scorer in college, Harris may struggle to adjust to the pros because of his size.

He is stuck in a tough position, as he has the game of a shooting guard but body of a point guard. However, if he can get past that he could end up becoming a very good offensive threat for the Nuggets for years to come.

 

Team Award Predictions

Breakout Player: Ty Lawson

In a point guard-driven league, the jury is still out on whether Ty Lawson is just an average starter or capable of being a top-10 player at his position. After missing 20 games in 2013-14, a full 82-game season will give Lawson a stronger case for the latter.

He still had a strong season statistically last year with 17.6 PPG and 8.8 RPG. Although critics may state that Lawson has become a less efficient player with the increased workload—his turnovers have increased, and field-goal percentage has decreased over the last few years—he was still second in PER with the Nuggets last season.

With the addition of Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari coming back from a season-long injury, Lawson will not be asked to take as many tough shots on offense and should become even more efficient this season.

Without a true star on the roster, the opportunity is there for Lawson to make the Nuggets his team. 2014-15 will be the year Lawson develops into a premier player in the Western Conference. 

 

Best Addition: Arron Afflalo

After one of the biggest offseasons in recent memory, with LeBron James and Kevin Love changing teams, GM Tim Connelly quietly pulled off one of the best trades of the summer by acquiring Arron Afflalo from the Orlando Magic for Evan Fournier and a second-round pick. Afflalo brings scoring, defense and experience to the shooting guard position, three things the Nuggets lacked at the 2 last season.

If Afflalo can average between 18-20 PPG, play quality defense and limit the number of mistakes the Nuggets make, Denver will have a strong chance of reaching the postseason in 2014-15.  

 

Least Valuable Player: JaVale McGee

The second-highest paid player on the Denver Nuggets is center JaVale McGee, a player who has lost his starting job after injuries plagued him for all but five games in 2013-14.

The problem with McGee was that he was not particularly good when he was healthy. The 7-footer averaged just 3.4 RPG and shot .447, an abysmal mark for a player his size. One could argue that this is a small sample size, but McGee’s low basketball IQ has always made him a frustrating player no matter what team he’s played for.

With two years and 23.25 million left on his contract and Mozgov taking over the starting duties at center, McGee is clearly the least valuable player on this young, talented roster.

 

When Dust Settles…

In the Northwest Division, the Denver Nuggets are stuck between two teams with title aspirations and two other teams who are more focused on who they are going to draft come June.

Even with Kevin Durant out for the beginning of the season with a foot injury, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still one of the best teams in the NBA. Right behind them are the Portland Trail Blazers led by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Trail Blazers are young and talented, and they figure to be even more dangerous this season.

On the other side are the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. The Timberwolves showed everyone in the league they’re looking to rebuild after trading perennial All-Star Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer. The Jazz are still a few years away from contending for the postseason, with no player in their starting lineup over the age of 24.

That puts the Denver Nuggets right in the middle of the division. With a starting lineup that has few holes but no star player, the Nuggets are an average team in the Western Conference. If they can stay healthy, they could squeeze into the No. 8 spot in the West, but you should expect a very early exit if they do reach the postseason.

Assuming health isn’t a concern like it was last year, the Nuggets will finish the 2014-15 season with a record of 44-38.

 

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, HoopsHype.com and ESPN.com

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Steve Nash ruled out for season with back injury (Yahoo Sports)

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 16: Steve Nash #10 of the Los Angeles Lakers warms up before a game against the Utah Jazz at Honda Center on October 16, 2014 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash has been ruled out for the season because of a back injury, putting the two-time NBA MVP’s career in doubt. The Lakers and Nash announced their joint decision Thursday, less than a week before the start of what would have been the 40-year-old Nash’s 19th NBA season.


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