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SCHOENE on 2011-12 (12/23)

December 23, 2011
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At long last, the 2011-12 NBA season is almost here. Basketball Prospectus' NBA analysts are ready with their predictions for who will win and why, as well as answers to other key questions.

Who wins each division?

Division       BD    DF    NP    KP
-----------------------------------
Atlantic      PHI   BOS   BOS   NYK
Central       CHI   CHI   CHI   CHI
Southeast     MIA   MIA   MIA   MIA

Midwest       SAS   DAL   DAL   SAS
Northwest     OKC   OKC   OKC   OKC
Pacific       LAC   LAL   LAC   LAC

Bradford Doolittle: Unless you consider the Clippers taking the Pacific a surprise, the only real upset I'm going with is Philly in the Atlantic. The Sixers' depth, Doug Collins, a breakout season from Jrue Holiday and improvement from Evan Turner will be enough to boost them past the aging Celtics and the oddly-formed Knicks.

Dan Feldman: Celtics, Mavericks, Lakers--I'm betting old at the expense of the Knicks, Clippers and Grizzlies. This isn't a prediction that older teams will thrive in the short season. Frankly, I have no idea which of the competing theories will prove true. I just picked the teams I think are better.

Neil Paine: Most of these are pretty uncontroversial ... aside from picking the Clipps to topple the Lakers in the Pacific. L.A.'s traditional power team still has a dominant duo in Kobe & Gasol, but the Clippers' Chris Paul/Blake Griffin pairing might be even better in 2012, and it's not like the Lakers are making up for it in terms of depth (SCHOENE expects Josh McRoberts to be their fourth-best player by WARP). This might finally be the year the Clippers are the Staples Center's marquee squad.

Kevin Pelton: There's complete consensus on three divisions, and at this point I think the Clippers have emerged as the clear favorites in the Pacific (Dan aside). That leaves two worth discussing. In the Atlantic, I think the Knicks have as much upside and downside as the Celtics; the two are basically tied but SCHOENE gives a slight edge to New York, so I'll go with that. I think Dallas will be a better playoff team, but it may take a while to fit the new pieces, which gives San Antonio a slight edge in the Southwest.

Who will be the NBA's worst team?

BD: Toronto Raptors
Several teams could have "made" the cut here, but I'll go with Toronto even though I like where they're headed as a franchise. The Raps lost 60 games last year and their reward for doing so--Jonas Valanciunas--isn't coming over stateside until next season. I like Dwane Casey as a coach, but there is only so much a man can do.

DF: Charlotte Bobcats
Unless Tyrus Thomas (injured and mistaken-prone) or Bismack Biyombo (young and raw) surprisingly become reliable, the Bobcats' bigs are shockingly bad. Boris Diaw and DeSagana Diop? Blerg. Corey Maggette is a downgrade from Stephen Jackson, and Gerald Henderson doesn't terrify anyone. D.J. Augustin is too limited to carry the team, which might be what he's asked to do to make Charlotte relevant. Oh, and I'm not a Kemba Walker believer.

NP: Charlotte Bobcats
It's tough to find any redeeming things to say about the 2012 Bobcats' roster as currently constructed. Their best player is Tyrus Thomas, whose 99 ORtg over the past two seasons tells you he shouldn't be anybody's go-to guy. Their big offseason pickup was Corey Maggette, a ball-stopper and perennial defensive liability. And they'll probably give significant minutes at center to raw rookie Bismack Biyombo, whose top SCHOENE comps are Sean Williams and Darko Milicic. It's going to be a dismal year for pro hoops in the Queen City.

KP: Cleveland Cavaliers
I see this as a battle between the teams that picked No. 1 the last two years, and the Wizards are heading in the right direction more quickly than the Cavaliers, who could struggle if they sell off Anderson Varejao and other vets.

Who will be the most surprising playoff team?

BD: Minnesota Timberwolves
I'm not sure I really believe this, but I do think the Timberwolves will be the league's most-improved team. They will also be one of the most fun teams to watch. Kevin Love may lead the league in three-pointers made with Ridnour, Rubio and Barea driving and kicking to him.

DF: Houston Rockets
I predict three new playoff teams from last year: Rockets, Clippers and Bucks. I also think the Trail Blazers will remain a playoff team. I don't consider any of those surprising, but take your pick.

NP: Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks were an excellent defensive team in 2010 and allowed an even lower rate of points per possession last year ... but unfortunately their Offensive Rating tanked badly in 2011, and the result was a rough 35-47 season. The good news for Milwaukee is that it can't possibly be as bad on offense in 2012, with the acquisitions of Mike Dunleavy, Stephen Jackson and Ben Udrih, to go along with a possible bounceback season from Andrew Bogut and improved efficiency from Brandon Jennings.

KP: Houston Rockets
Not that this is really a surprise, but unless the Timberwolves leap as quickly as SCHOENE projects, I don't think we're in for much of a surprise this year.

Who will be the most surprising lottery team?

BD: Atlanta Hawks
I don't see an obvious team for this one, but I'll go with the Hawks. The people in Atlanta already think I hate them, so why not?

DF: Orlando Magic
The entire team and system is based on Dwight Howard, and if Orlando trades him, it all falls apart. Offensively, he creates room for outside spot-up shooting. On the other end, he protect a team full of less-than-spectacular defenders.

NP: Atlanta Hawks
Despite their first-round upset of Orlando, the Hawks were a deeply mediocre team in 2011. Their SRS (Basketball-Reference's simple rating that judges a team relative to league average) was 1.1 points per game below average, thanks in large part to a scoring attack that was more than a point of Offensive Rating below the league norm. That's a trend which will get worse this year with the loss of Jamal Crawford, unless you somehow think Tracy McGrady is due for a career renaissance.

KP: Memphis Grizzlies
I saw first-hand in Portland last year that Dante Cunningham doesn't work as a third big man, and the Grizzlies don't have enough flexibility under the luxury tax without a trade. Anyone they do get to back up Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will be a stopgap. If either starter misses extended time, Memphis is in trouble.

Who wins the Eastern Conference Finals?

BD: Miami over Chicago
I really think the invincibility many prematurely imbued the Heat with last season will manifest this season. The Bulls are the second-best team in the league, but I think by the time the conference finals roll around, the Heat will have separated from even them.

DF: Miami over Chicago
The Bulls have excellent big men with Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer (yes), Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. With a plus small forward (Luol Deng), a collection of shooting guard capable of playing different styles (Richard Hamilton, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver) and a great head coach (Tom Thibodeau), that's a strong playoff team. Add an MVP point guard like Derrick Rose, and Chicago is a legit contender. Unfortunately for them, the Heat have the talent to be an all-time great team.

NP: Miami over Chicago
Picking a rematch (with the same result, no less) is never fun, but with the Heat and Bulls so far ahead of everyone else in the conference, it seems unlikely that we'll see a different set of combatants in 2012. I give the nod again to Miami because they were the better team a year ago and have improved their depth, while SCHOENE sees little impact in Chicago's big addition of Rip Hamilton (0.2 projected WARP).

KP: Miami over Orlando
If only to avoid a completely generic answer, let me predict that the Magic keeps Dwight Howard, coalesces and upsets the Bulls in the conference semifinals before losing to the Sunshine State rivals.

Who wins the Western Conference Finals?

BD: Denver over Oklahoma City
The Thunder has a Russell Westbrook problem that will catch up to them in the conference finals. I really believe that for Oklahoma City to get over the hump, Westbrook will have to eventually be traded to a place where he can launch 30 shots a game. The Thunder losing in this round was my immediate thought when I saw the category. It took me longer to come up with a winner. I think the West is primed for a surprise champ this season.

DF: Oklahoma City over L.A. Clippers
I nearly picked the Mavericks to lose this round, but I think the dearth of back-to-backs in the playoffs (even if there might a few this year in the second round) will help the running Clippers. Brendan Haywood replacing Tyson Chandler is just too big of a question mark for me.

NP: Oklahoma City over L.A. Clippers
This is the Thunder's year to take over the West, and with the obvious candidates either aging (Lakers, Spurs) or declining over the offseason (Denver, Dallas), the Clippers' suddenly star-studded roster could carry them to the brink of the Finals. OKC has more continuity and is the better-constructed team, though, so I expect them to win this series and set up the LeBron-Durant dream matchup.

KP: Oklahoma City over Dallas
Any of about five or six teams could legitimately face the Thunder, but I like the Mavericks to put it together in the postseason with Lamar Odom causing matching problems along the way. There, Oklahoma City just has too much to overcome.

Who wins the NBA Finals?

BD: Miami over Denver
The Heat in a sweep. Perhaps I have too recently read Tom Haberstroh's fine piece on Erik Spoelstra's new blitzkrieg philosophy, which I followed by watching it in action in the second Orlando-Miami preseason game. I think Miami will be depressingly good this season.

DF: Miami over Oklahoma City
What will surely be pegged as a good-vs.-evil matchup, the dark side will win. I don't buy that LeBron James is a choker, and the Heat, with Shane Battier and a healthy Udonis Haslem, is better equipped this year than they were last year, when the team nearly won the title. Even if Miami is the same, that might be enough. The young Thunder won't be quite as good as the surging Mavericks were last June.

NP: Miami over Oklahoma City
This is the Finals showdown that star-minded fans have been waiting for: Durant vs. LeBron, "good" vs. "evil". But it's also a pretty good basketball matchup--I want to see whether OKC's towering interior defense can stop Miami's forays to the hoop, and I want to see Durant's offensive brilliance go against LeBron's relentless defense. I want to know if Shane Battier can give the Heat the shot-making the team lacked from Mike Miller in the 2011 Finals. I want to see Russell Westbrook on the game's biggest stage. And, most importantly, I want to see how Miami reacts the second time around after coming so close to a title last year. Personally, I think they rise to the occasion.

KP: Miami over Oklahoma City
This is a stronger Miami team, and I don't think the Thunder is positioned to exploit the Heat's weaknesses the same way Dallas was a year ago. I think either Miami or Chicago should be strongly favored in the NBA Finals.

Who wins MVP?

BD: Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers
The best player in the league will again be LeBron James, but the best story will be the Clippers' rise. As we saw last season with Derrick Rose, the best story always has a leg up in this category.

DF: LeBron James, Miami
We're far enough from The Decision that voters will give him the award he deserved last year. LeBron is the game's elite two-way player, and my biggest question is whether voters will unfairly punish him again, not whether he'll be worthy.

NP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
If the Thunder takes the top seed in the West--and I think they will--it's going to be hard to wrest the MVP hardware from Durant's clutches. Derrick Rose is the incumbent, but it's tough to see him (or the Bulls) quite matching what they accomplished a year ago, and LeBron James will likely see his votes diluted by his superstar teammates and leftover resentment from two summers ago. This is Durant's award to lose.

KP: LeBron James, Miami
More than a year removed from "The Decision," I think the James backlash subsides enough this year for everyone to recognize he's the league's most valuable player, whether he wins the hardware or not.

Who wins Rookie of the Year?

BD: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
A fairly easy selection. He's good, he'll be on the court and he will be the focal point of his team. The sheer raw numbers will be enough to get him the award.

DF: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
Irving, most importantly, will get the minutes to produce big numbers. Because Irving is starting the season as the favorite, as long as he doesn't disappoint, another player will have to be clearly better to overtake him. Irving has enough polish to ensure that won't happen.

NP: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
He's the best of a pretty weak crop of prospects, and (more importantly) he's the player most likely to get a ton of minutes and shots out of the gate. Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams might give him some competition, but Irving should be the favorite.

KP: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
This is an interesting field of candidates and I'm tempted to pick Ricky Rubio, but I think Irving's polished game and opportunity to play heavy minutes will win out.

Who wins the Sixth Man Award?

BD: Tyler Hansbrough, Indiana
He looks fantastic this season and I think the Pacers will be garnering a lot of attention. Hansbrough will be coming off the bench as long as David West is healthy enough to start, and that appears to be the case.

DF: James Harden, Oklahoma City
I'm worried Harden will move into the starting lineup, but I stuck with him over Lamar Odom for two reasons. 1. Odom might not even be the best sixth man on his team (Jason Terry). 2. After an extended summer of eating candy, I'm not sure what type of shape Odom is in.

NP: James Harden, Oklahoma City
After his performance in last season's playoffs, Harden seems like a good candidate to grab Sixth Man honors--provided he doesn't actually displace Thabo Sefolosha and become OKC's starting SG at some point during the year. Incumbent Lamar Odom will also be coming off Dallas' bench, but we haven't seen a repeat Sixth Man winner since Detlef Schrempf in 1992.

KP: Lamar Odom, Dallas
I think Odom's contributions will look even better than usual if the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings.

Who wins Defensive Player of the Year?

BD: Dwight Howard, Orlando
Traded or not traded, this is Howard's award until proven otherwise.

DF: Dwight Howard, Orlando
Until someone comes close to taking the crown, I can't pick anyone else. Howard will become the first player to win four straight Defensive Player of the Year awards. I wonder which team Howard will be playing for when he accepts the honor.

NP: Dwight Howard, Orlando
Howard's already the three-time defending DPOY, and it's hard to come up with a viable list of challengers for the 2012 season. Barring some kind of dramatic defensive improvement by the Knicks (in which case Tyson Chandler could steal the hardware), Howard's a near-lock for this award.

KP: Dwight Howard, Orlando
Oh, you mean the Dwight Howard memorial trophy?

Who wins the Most Improved Player award?

BD: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento
Cousins just needs a couple of refinements to really boost his numbers, the most important of which is staying out of foul trouble. I think the condition he was in at the time the lockout was lifted was a great start towards making that happen.

DF: DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers
This award has a lot to do with perception, and on the lowly Clippers last year, Jordan probably wasn't perceived to be as good as he actually was. So, even a modest Chris Paul-fueled improvement could win him this award.

NP: Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee
Jennings has struggled with his efficiency since joining the league, and took a step backwards in the minds of many last season when Milwaukee's offense cratered. He's still just 22, though, and clearly has the talent to make plays for himself and others. I think he could be primed for a big breakout year in 2012.

KP: Danilo Gallinari, Denver
Will Gallinari be better? Yes. Will Gallinari get more shots? Definitely, plus exposure as the Nuggets' second star after Nene. That spells MIP.

Who wins Coach of the Year?

BD: Frank Vogel, Indiana
I see the Pacers as one of the league's surprise teams and Vogel has made enough schematic changes to get his fair share of the credit for Indiana's improvement.

DF: Doug Collins, Philadelphia
The 76ers, a good young team, will make the next step. Collins planted the seeds last year, and the 76ers semi-surprisingly made the playoffs. They should be even better this year.

NP: Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City
Assuming the Thunder ascend to the West's No. 1 seed, Brooks appears to be in line for COY honors. In less than three short years, he has helped OKC's core of young, raw talent coalesce into the conference's best team.

KP: Rick Adelman, Minnesota
This award is really about performance versus expectations, so if SCHOENE is right, Adelman will get plenty of credit. Plus, Kurt Rambis set the bar really low in Minnesota.

Who will be the first coach fired?

BD: Larry Drew, Atlanta
He's a good coach, but the Hawks are about to hit the skids and his co-majority owner--Michael Gearon, Jr.--sounds like a guy with unrealistic expectations.

DF: Paul Westphal, Sacramento
It's been a pretty uninspiring two years for Westphal in Sacramento. With a decent collection of young players in place--a group probably not ready to win yet--the Kings might to decide to get them a new mentor with a slow start.

NP: Alvin Gentry, Phoenix
As Phoenix continues their slide into mediocrity, look for Gentry to take the fall. He was never able to instill in the Suns a commitment to defense; their D has ranked no better than 23rd in any of his seasons at the helm.

KP: Larry Drew, Atlanta
The Hawks will try to do something to shake things up if they start as poorly as we expect, and there's little payroll flexibility to change the roster, so ... .

Who will be the NBA's Executive of the Year

BD: Neil Olshey, L.A. Clippers
If the Clippers are as improved as we think they are, this award is a slam dunk for Olshey.

DF: Neil Olshey, L.A. Clippers
Traded for Chris Paul, claimed Chauncey Billups, signed Caron Butler, matched for DeAndre Jordan--Olshey had a busy offseason. With fewer trades than usual, because teams had less time before training camp, he easily did more to reshape his team this offseason than anyone else. If the new-look Clippers win the division, or even come close, Olshey is a shoe-in.

NP: Neil Olshey, L.A. Clippers
By trading for Chris Paul, Olshey transformed the Clippers into a contender and shifted the balance of power in Los Angeles.

KP: Neil Olshey, L.A. Clippers
Sam Presti deserves some kind of recognition for his work over the last three or four seasons, but who are we kidding? Olshey has basically already won this award.

For a comprehensive preview of the 2011-12 season, check out Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, now available in .PDF format.

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Premium Article Cards on the Brink (12/22)
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SCHOENE on 2011-12 (12/23)

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