Wake up, wake up wake up wake upppppp! Break out your favorite Starter jacket from the ’90s and saddle up, because the NBA is back tonight. Three games usher us out of the humdrum summer and firmly into fall, where all of our favorite professional basketball players await to push the bounds of reality beyond any of our preconceived notions.
The reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers welcome the not-reigning-anything New York Knicks to Cleveland, suddenly the epicenter of North American professional sports, where Carmelo Anthony will get to watch the likes of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert receive their championship rings. Afterward, the re-tooled and reloaded Golden State Warriors host a Tim Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs while the Utah Jazz visit Portland. With one eye on the proverbial jump ball and another drifting ever so slowly toward the Larry O’Brien Trophy, we take a moment – just one, lest we think too hard about the Bulls – for a thought on each team. As always, best of luck to everyone, especially anyone in a contract year. May you swindle a billionaire out of a few million.
- Atlanta Hawks: Two seasons removed from sending four players to the All-Star Game, the Hawks send but one this time around – Paul Millsap, who will set his career high in points per game without Al Horford there to share some of the burden. Obligatory mention of Dwight Howard as retaining the title of the NBA’s biggest ass-clown, but if anybody can figure out how to use him creatively, it’s Mike Budenholzer.
- Boston Celtics: Speaking of which, working in another great system with solid role players and a fantastic coach will help Horford realize his best self. Isaiah Thomas was magnificent last season and will see an increase in efficiency, if not necessarily production, with Horford in the post. The Celtics are winning 50 games.
- Brooklyn Nets: Bound to be more fun than people expect, and not even because of “Linsanity 2.0: Get Out While The L Train Still Runs,” the Nets will nevertheless be awful but could catch great teams off-guard. Wouldn’t it be peak Jeremy Lin to upstage Curry, Durant & Co. on December 22nd in the Barclays Center? Merry Christmas, courtesy of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and a ton of people I won’t recognize on the street the next time I’m in Park Slope.
- Charlotte Hornets: Even if I can still catch it in Indiana, I’m going to miss Al Jefferson’s footwork in the post and on the glass. With a fully healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the fold, however, Steve Clifford is going to find a way to get the most out of this team. Kemba Walker will finally be an All-Star.
- Chicago Bulls: Mayor Hoiberg can’t figure out the best way to deploy the Jimmy Butler-Dwyane Wade-Rajon Rondo trio, and the Bulls miss the playoffs.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Having predicted the Cavaliers’ championship in this very space a year ago makes me wonder where my LeBron-approved contract is. Much like Richard Jefferson, nothing can now stop me from going into a bar and looping Sisqo twelve times in a row on the jukebox. Six years after The Decision, Teflon Bron truly is untouchable, his one-man stimulus package having revitalized Northeast Ohio sports. What more does he have to prove? Then again, what better way to follow up knocking off one once-in-a-generation squad by defeating another? LeBron is limitless, so the Cavs are the same. Here’s to an improbable repeat.
- Dallas Mavericks: With Harrison Barnes unceremoniously swiped-left out of Golden State, he will assume a larger role in Dallas. Rick Carlisle is an absolute magician, and Dirk continues to be Dirk. We likely only have two more seasons of this, if that, so enjoy it while you can: the Mavericks are squeaking into the playoffs yet again.
- Denver Nuggets: So much of the Nuggets’ fate and future depends on how good Emmanuel Mudiay actually is. Only 19 at the beginning of last season, Mudiay averaged 12.8 points, 5.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game on a relatively high usage rate (25.7%); some of that will improve, but he was a net minus in win shares last season. Peak Kenneth Faried Trade Season has passed, but this may finally be the year he is moved. Denver’s front court is obscenely packed, and somebody’s gotta go.
- Detroit Pistons: It would just be incredible to watch Stan Van Gundy trot out a supersized lineup of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond and Boban Marjanovic against the Warriors, just for kicks. That likely won’t happen – the movement of a Drummond/Boban front court would validate the theory of absolute zero – but it could bully small lineups, if it could ever catch them. Anyway, Jackson will make an All-Star push.
- Golden State Warriors: Despite giving some opposing players the business, Draymond Green will finally wrestle the Defensive Player of the Year from Kawhi Leonard, but only out of necessity: with Andrew Bogut and
Marreese Speights gone, iterations of the Death Lineup become more frequent, allowing Green to showcase his versatility in non-pressure situations. Curry and Durant average more on the season, but Klay Thompson finishes with the most 40-point games of the three.
- Houston Rockets: James Harden gets closer to averaging a triple-double than erstwhile running mate Russell Westbrook. With Clint Capela seemingly ready to handle interior duties, including rolling to the rim and not being a wacky nuisance, Harden takes his offensive game to unforeseen heights. Again, he leads the NBA in free throws, but this time he finishes in the top three in assists per game as well.
- Indiana Pacers: It’ll take some getting used to the fact that the Pacers aren’t a plodding wall of molasses surrounding Paul George. With Jeff Teague and an improved Myles Turner on board, however, as well as Aaron Brooks providing instant offense with the second unit, the Pacers return to the playoffs, and George reclaims his place as a top ten NBA player. Georges Niang could be an interesting project as well, even as a 23-year-old rookie.
- Los Angeles Clippers: Finally, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin make it out of the second round…only to lose in the Conference Finals. Paul unceremoniously leaves Los Angeles for arguably dimmer pastures. Thankfully, JJ Redick is here for podcast therapy.
- Los Angeles Lakers: Luke Walton is already a hero in Lakerland, and after a mind-melting run in Steve Kerr’s chair at the beginning of last season, he seems to have the temperament to handle coaching in the NBA. How Nick Young is still on this team is beyond me, but D’Angelo Russell is set to have a breakout year. Also, Brandon Ingram will usurp Luol Deng’s starting spot by January.
- Memphis Grizzlies: Is Chandler Parsons about to lead this team in scoring? As Memphis eases out of its Grind and Grind heyday, Mike Conley benefits from pushing the pace, and Marc Gasol returns to bully clowns in the paint. Moving Z-Bo to the bench was tough, but it was the right thing to do, and he may end up being a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
- Miami Heat: Free Chris Bosh! Free Goran Dragic! Don’t free Hassan Whiteside; I’m here all day for his points/rebounds/blocks triple-doubles, with sides of Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson to compensate.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Point Giannis is one of the best things to happen to this league in recent memory. Watch a 6’11” Greek dude with the wingspan of a condor bound from one end of the floor to the other in three steps while directing traffic is why Vine exists.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: Even though Brad Stevens will continue with his alchemy in Boston, it is Tom Thibodeau who takes home Coach of the Year. The embarrassment of young talent is enough to make Sam Hinkie feel vicariously guilty, and with Karl Anthony-Towns already nearing All-Star levels of production, the Timberwolves can warm the hearts of Minnesotans everywhere in the dead of winter.
- New Orleans Pelicans: Feeling good about the Wolves? Great, now let’s feel badly about Anthony Davis: two years ago, he was poised to become the next great NBA superstar. He basically already was. Somewhere between Steph Curry’s pregame routines and Karl Anthony-Towns’ affable displays of destruction, Davis may have missed his train. The supporting cast has to step up, and Davis has to stay healthy. Otherwise, Alvin Gentry may be the first coach fired this year.
- New York Knicks: Last season, Carmelo Anthony averaged his lowest point total since his second year in the league. Yet, for the first time in four years, hope springs abundant at Madison Square Garden due to the exploits of a 7’3” Latvian with as many nicknames as he has ways to make you look foolish. New York’s next token All-Star by virtue of the fan vote has arrived, but he is not without merit. This team now belongs to Kristaps Porzingis.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Despite leading the league in triple-doubles for the season, Russell Westbrook will NOT set the league record for usage rate. His supporting cast is better than Kobe Bryant’s was in 2005-’06, which is when he set the record. As a result, he’ll be able to defer to the likes of Victor Oladipo,
Steven Adams and others more frequently than some are predicting. Nevertheless, he will make a strong push for the MVP.
- Orlando Magic: Frank Vogel figures out the optimal way to utilize Serge Ibaka, who finishes second in the league in blocks per game. Elfrid Payton continues being not terribly good, much to Vogel’s dismay. Keep an eye on Mario Hezonja.
- Philadelphia 76ers: A popular choice which is nevertheless a fun one, Joel “The Process” Embiid will win the Rookie of the Year. He is already the NBA’s crowned prince of social media.
- Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker has all the chops to pour on points in bunches. He’s no one-trick pony and can score from anywhere. With he and Eric Bledsoe leading the charge, the Suns will have a few unbelievable nights.
- Portland Trail Blazers: As far as starting back courts go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better non-Warriors set than in Portland. Terry Stotts has the trust of his players, and C.J. McCollum broke out in a huge way last season. They could pose a threat to gain a top-four seed in the West.
- Sacramento Kings: The Kings continue their ceaseless quest through the desert. There is no Red Sea in sight, or else DeMarcus Cousins would slam dunk it to the land of Canaan. There is no covenant, and Cousins is left to wander the earth in search of nourishment and the Promised Land. Let my Rudy Gay go!
- San Antonio Spurs: Duncan or no Duncan, the Spurs are a force. The talk of LaMarcus Aldridge causing trouble is hullabaloo, and the Spurs will hit 55 wins anyway. Kawhi Leonard MVP talk will drown out his non-threepeat in DPOY voting.
- Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are made for each other, but Toronto is about to feel the pain of that DeRozan max contract. Sliding him down to the 3, where his comfort in the midrange could be slightly more useful, alongside Lowry and Norman Powell may end up being a popular play for Dwane Casey. The Raptors are poised to win 50 games again.
- Utah Jazz: There is no “favorable schedule” in the NBA, and especially not in the West, but the Jazz have a manageable path in the early going through injuries to Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors…minus a four-games-in-six-days stretch featuring the Spurs (twice), Clippers and Mavericks. Not that you read it here first, but the Jazz win 50 games, and Rudy Gobert leads the league in blocks.
- Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal has averaged just under 62 games per season in his first four years in the league. That’s autumn Dwyane Wade but without the production. John Wall is electric, but what felt so promising so recently may have passed before our eyes.
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 And Dwight Howard
 Because this isn’t 2011, mostly