The 2012-13 NBA season begins tonight. 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 BOS BOS BOS BOS
Central CHI CHI IND -
Southeast MIA MIA MIA MIA
Midwest SAS SAS SAS SAS
Northwest DEN OKC DEN DEN
Pacific LAL LAL LAL LAL
Bradford Doolittle: I'd be tempted to repeat my pick of Philadelphia to win the Atlantic, but I'm as freaked by Andrew Bynum's knee trouble as anyone. Tom Thibodeau can will the Bulls to another division crown, even if he has to run onto the floor and guard somebody himself (a la Winston Garland). In the West, I guess the Nuggets are a surprise pick but any waffling on them I felt disappeared when OKC traded James Harden.
Dan Feldman: It's basically a tossup between the Bulls and Pacers, and I even like Indiana's roster a bit more than Chicago's--not counting Derrick Rose, of course. But I went with the Bulls because I'm starting to believe Tom Thibodeau can make any group of players elite defensively. In the Pacific, I don't consider the Lakers the lock that many do, but I still give them a slight upper hand over the Clippers.
Neil Paine: I, too, was torn between the Bulls and Pacers. In the name of slashing payroll, Chicago decimated what had been the league's best bench two years running, and they also face the absence of Derrick Rose for most of 2013 (Kirk Hinrich, his replacement, hasn't been effective in years). Despite all of that, they should still be neck-and-neck with Indiana--but the Pacers have continuity on their side and look to be the more talented team, if only slightly. Like Brad, the only other pick I feel unsure about is Denver over OKC. Even after dealing Harden, the Thunder should be very close. Denver is built in a way that will probably give them a regular-season edge, though, and that's what I'm calling on here.
Kevin Pelton: First off, I'm recusing myself from the Central Division because of my role with the Pacers. I think the most interesting other divisions are the Atlantic--where you could argue for as many as four different teams, but Boston remains the favorite--and the Northwest Division after the James Harden trade. I'll buy SCHOENE's Nuggets optimism to the extent it translates into now being better than a weakened Thunder squad.
Who will be the NBA's worst team?
BD: Charlotte Bobcats
They are kind of headed in the right direction, but they didn't do nearly enough to close the gigantic chasm between them and the rest of the league. Scoring is going to be a real problem for this year's Bobcats.
DF: Charlotte Bobcats
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was absolutely the right pick for the Bobcats. Unfortunately, he's still raw and his best attributes won't shine until he's playing with other good players. He's not going to lift Charlotte out of the NBA's basement this season.
NP: Charlotte Bobcats
Orlando did its darndest to try and beat Charlotte in the race to the bottom, but the Bobcats are still quite bereft of talent. Bonus negative points go to drafting a future role player with the No. 2 overall pick and introducing new uniforms that transparently rip off the design Dallas introduced more than a decade ago. In almost every way, Charlotte is still the laughingstock of the league.
KP: Charlotte Bobcats
Things can't possibly go wrong as much as they did last season, but I still think the Bobcats are the least talented team in the league and even a possible Orlando teardown at midseason won't be enough to surpass Charlotte for most ping-pong balls.
Who will be the most surprising playoff team?
BD: Toronto Raptors
The combination of a more solid rotation, the coaching of Dwane Casey, the addition of Jonas Valanciunas and the improvement of a couple of young players will be enough to lift the Raptors into the eight seed. There will be some team projected ahead of them that falls because of an injury spate, with the Knicks being a possible candidate with so many old players.
DF: Milwaukee Bucks
I nearly said the Washington Wizards, but John Wall's injury probably keeps them out. The Bucks have depth, play tough defense and compete every night--a formula for regular-season success. Milwaukee has hovered around the No. 8 seed lately, but this year, they should fall on the playoff side of the ledger.
NP: Atlanta Hawks
Does Atlanta count? Most people wrote off the Hawks after they dumped Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, then missed out in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. But I think a lot of observers will be surprised at just how little Atlanta will feel the effects of their supposed offseason fire sale. It wouldn't shock me if they continue about their business without even missing a beat.
KP: Minnesota Timberwolves
While I don't agree with their placement, I buy SCHOENE's eight playoff teams. I think the Timberwolves have improved more than enough to overcome spending the first month playing without both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
Who will be the most surprising lottery team?
BD: Dallas Mavericks
I'm actually kind of surprised that SCHOENE projects Dallas to have a winning record. I don't like the Mavericks' roster at all. At least they're not locked into it.
DF: Brooklyn Nets
Am I the only one who remembers that Deron Williams played for the Nets last season, when they went 21-34 with him in the lineup? He's not a newcomer whose production can simply be added. Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez should provide a decent boost, but they're both limited players.
NP: Dallas Mavericks
I also say Dallas. This looks like the year they finally fall apart, finishing the slide that started a season ago despite their best efforts to rebuild on the fly. Of course, I could see Chicago landing here too if Rose misses the whole season, but I think they're too good defensively to fall quite that far.
KP: Dallas Mavericks
I guess they finish here by default. I'm not expecting any major surprise in the lottery.
Who wins the Eastern Conference Finals?
BD: Miami over Boston
It's dynasty time on South Beach, barring a catastrophic injury to LeBron James.
Nobody else is even close. And I'd say that even if Derrick Rose were healthy.
NP: Miami over Boston
I'm very sure about the Heat beating somebody here; it's just not clear who that somebody will be. Could be Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Indiana or even Chicago if Rose rounds into shape by playoff time. But I'm going with the Celtics, who still feel like the most likely foes for Miami here.
KP: Miami over Boston
Same matchup, same outcome, very different in terms of difficulty. The Celtics have improved. A healthy Heat team is still significantly better..
Who wins the Western Conference Finals?
BD: Denver over L.A. Clippers
Hey, I'll stand by SCHOENE. I picked the Nuggets last year and perhaps I will continue to do so until they actually win the West. I just know it would be good for the NBA if a team built like Denver were to win big.
DF: Oklahoma City
They won the West last year, and they should be even better this year. The Nuggets are certainly intriguing--deep, talented and exciting--but Oklahoma City is all those things, too.
NP: L.A. Lakers over Oklahoma City
I said earlier that Denver could possibly be a better regular-season team than OKC, but the Nuggets' depth gets wasted a bit when rotations shorten and the focus becomes more on the superstars. The only Western Conference team I see beating Kevin Durant in a seven-game series is the star-studded Lakers, who ought to be nigh unstoppable in the playoffs.
KP: L.A. Lakers over Denver
This pick changed Saturday night. I had been favoring Oklahoma City to come out of the Western Conference, but now the Lakers' path to the Finals looks much clearer. I could certainly see the Nuggets having home-court advantage in this series, but the Lakers' stars give them an advantage come the postseason.
Who wins the NBA Finals?
BD: Miami over Denver
I just don't see how you can pick anyone else.
DF: Miami over Oklahoma City
It will probably be a couple years until I pick someone else here.
NP: Miami over L.A. Lakers
Notice I said "nigh" unstoppable. L.A. has an incredible collection of superstar firepower, and should make this the best Finals we've seen in a long, long time, but Miami has something nobody else can match: the LeBron James trump card. If he keeps playing like he did in the playoffs a year ago, using the full range of his physical gifts, it's difficult to see anyone being favored over a James-led team in a seven-game playoff series.
KP: Miami over L.A. Lakers
I actually suspect this would be a more difficult matchup for the Heat than one against Oklahoma City, since the Thunder is less equipped to exploit Miami's lack of size. Still, I think the Heat is the best team and has the potentially easier path to the Finals.
Who wins MVP?
BD: LeBron James, Miami
I just don't see how you can pick anyone else.
DF: LeBron James, Miami
I'm glad we're finally past the point voters were punishing LeBron for leaving Cleveland. He's the best player since Michael Jordan, and he should annually win the MVP.
NP: LeBron James, Miami
With apologies to Derrick Rose, the only reason he's not going for his fifth straight MVP was anti-"Decision" voter bias in 2011, and that's all a distant memory now. He'll also be working with arguably the best supporting cast he's ever had this year, so barring injury it's hard to imagine a scenario where James doesn't end up with the MVP.
KP: LeBron James, Miami
I give James one more year before writers get sick of voting for him.
Who wins Rookie of the Year?
BD: Anthony Davis, New Orleans
Big potential, big minutes, big production.
DF: Anthony Davis, New Orleans
Because of his hype and draft position, Davis has a big head start toward winning the award. In New Orleans, he should get a chance to play a big enough role, too.
NP: Anthony Davis, New Orleans
He's been the real deal in the preseason, and there's a massive talent gap between him and anybody else in this year's rookie class. It's his award to lose.
KP: Anthony Davis, New Orleans
From day one, Davis will be one of the NBA's best defensive players. He's also an underrated scorer with good touch around the basket. The No. 1 pick will also be this year's top rookie.
Who wins the Sixth Man Award?
BD: JaVale McGee, Denver
This award suddenly opened up, didn't it? Since I'm on the Denver bandwagon and George Karl seems intent on starting Kosta Koufos at center, I'll take McGee in a wild-card pick. I don't think a backup center has ever won the award. (Editor's Note: Bradford forgot about Bill Walton's Sixth Man honors in 1986-87. The Big Redhead is the only full-time center to win the award, though Kevin McHale and Roy Tarpley split time at both post positions.)
DF: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
Harden likely won't be eligible this season, but Ginobili believes he'll be coming off the bench, and if he does, he might be the only star reserve this season.
NP: Jason Terry, Boston
He's no stranger to the award, which he'll be gunning for as a Celtic this time around. With Harden out of the picture in OKC, Terry just became the favorite in my mind.
KP: Ryan Anderson, New Orleans
This pick also changed Saturday. Kevin Martin could keep it in Oklahoma City. I'm going with Anderson, who is overqualified for the reserve role it looks like he'll play with the Hornets this season.
Who wins Defensive Player of the Year?
BD: Dwight Howard, L.A. Lakers
If Howard stays healthy, the pub he's going to get in L.A. will give him a leg up on all sorts of postseason honors.
DF: Dwight Howard, L.A. Lakers
This all comes down to Howard's health. If he's not healthy, LeBron followed closely by Andre Iguodala are my next picks.
NP: Dwight Howard, L.A. Lakers
He didn't win last year because his effort level wasn't as high as it had been, Orlando's D disappointed, he caused unprecedented off-court drama, he got hurt, and voters were generally tired of him. This year, though, he's refocused and in a much more favorable situation. If motivated, he should be able to single-handedly reinvigorate L.A.'s defense, and that will be enough to earn him a fourth DPOY award.
KP: Dwight Howard, L.A. Lakers
Despite last season's criticism and injury, Howard is always the safest bet. Serge Ibaka is an interesting wild card if he plays more minutes this season and posts an even more impressive block total
Who wins the Most Improved Player award?
BD: Enes Kanter, Utah
Kanter has to get on the court first of all, but if he keeps playing like he did in preseason, how can you keep him off it?
DF: John Wall, Washington
He's been working on his jumper all summer, and the Wizards have gotten rid of most of his frustrating teammates. When he returns from injury, Wall might finally take the proverbial next step.
NP: Klay Thompson, Golden State
I feel like taking a flier on Thompson, who was overmatched at times as a 21 year old last season but had a great preseason and should get more playing time this year.
KP: Kemba Walker, Charlotte
SCHOENE is all-in on a breakout season from Walker, and despite some skepticism that he might still be a year away, I'll go along. Somebody's going to have to score points for the Bobcats and Walker will have the ball in his hands.
Who wins Coach of the Year?
BD: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago
Expectations are lower than they should be, which works in Thibodeau's favor. They should rename it Coach of the Team that Most Outperforms Consensus Perceived Expectation.
DF: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago
Derrick Rose's injury will give him an opportunity to prove all over again that he's defensive mastermind.
NP: George Karl, Denver
If the Nuggets do remotely as well as SCHOENE thinks they will (and I do think they'll finish with a better record than OKC during the regular season), Karl will get a lot of accolades for guiding a star-less team to one of the top seeds in the West.
KP: George Karl, Denver
Among the six coaches with more wins than Karl (who has an extremely outside chance of passing Phil Jackson this season if SCHOENE is right on the Nuggets), Jerry Sloan is the only other never to win Coach of the Year. So I see Karl as a sentimental choice if he can turn this unorthodox team into a contender.
Who will be the first coach fired?
BD: Mike Woodson, New York
Why not? It's the Knicks.
DF: Alvin Gentry, Phoenix
It's not his fault the Suns decided to rebuild, but he might pay the price. Gentry has the NBA's ninth-longest tenure with his current team, which might be enough to convince Phoenix brass that another change is necessary.
NP: Alvin Gentry, Phoenix
Gentry's a good guy, so I hate picking him here for the second year in a row, but this will be his fifth season at the helm in Phoenix and the Suns are going nowhere. That's not really his fault, and he did strong work just getting that team to .500 a year ago, but he's the longest-tenured coach of any team currently in rebuilding mode. Hard to see him lasting much longer in the desert.
KP: Scott Skiles, Milwaukee
Skiles was in danger at the end of last season and has little job security, so if the Bucks slump at any point, he could pay the price.
Who will be the NBA's Executive of the Year?
BD: Masai Ujiri, Denver
If the Nuggets do what SCHOENE says, Ujiri's got a shot. He made the splashy move that could be the perceived stroke of genius needed to win the award.
DF: Mitch Kupchak, L.A. Lakers
If the Lakers are good at all, Kupchak will win. Trading for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash are the big-time moves that every voter will recognize.
NP: Mitch Kupchak, L.A. Lakers
After bringing Howard and Steve Nash to the Lakers, Kupchak's sort of a no-brainer pick here. Voters won't be expected to take into account the built-in structural advantages L.A. had in its Howard pursuit, nor the fact that Orlando eschewed better offers that were on the table in an open, unapologetic effort to tank.
KP: Mitch Kupchak, L.A. Lakers
I will note that last year we were unanimous that this award would go to Neil Olshey, who ended up finishing third. So there's still room for someone like Ujiri or even David Kahn to make a run.
For a comprehensive preview of the 2012-13 season, check out Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, now available in .PDF and paperback formats.