Sam Smith predicts the 2017-18 season around the NBA

This may be one of the rare times the Eastern Conference is mentioned first. Other than perhaps when listing the worst conferences in the NBA.

The exodus of stars—is LeBron next?–to the Western Conference has been extraordinary. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joined the great East diaspora in Oklahoma City. Et tu Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? But, hey we got back J.J. Redick. OK, Gordon Hayward, too, in Boston. Maybe he did it just to make an All-Star team for the second time. Maybe that’s why they’re making the All-Star game choosing sides. Of course, how bad is it going to be when no one wants Andre Drummond or Hassan Whiteside for the last pick?

But the Cavaliers even with the trade of Kyrie Irving to the neighboring Boston Celtics are loaded. Both the East and West look like one of those golf tournaments when Tiger Woods was in his prime and Tiger was playing in one tournament and everyone else was in this other one for No. 2. Actually, those became some fairly entertaining contests, which the runnerup spots in the East and West should be this season. It should be a lot more difficult predicting who’ll be in each conference finals compared with who will win each.

The NBA is never without drama, even if it may be where LeBron, Chris Paul, Anthony, George and Dwyane Wade will be next season. We know the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are overwhelming favorites to play in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season. But there’s still 82 games to play and stuff happens, especially in the NBA.

Hey, maybe the commissioner will have them choose up teams for the Finals. Here’s an early guess about how it might work out over the next six months:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Kyrie Irving beat the posse out of town, in a sense. Irving figured LeBron’s leaving and he’s not being stuck in Cleveland. So he whined and forced his way out, though the Cavs did very well in the trade with Boston. Even if Isaiah Thomas cannot play until midseason after hip problems. Derrick Rose will do just fine in reserve and starting perhaps until Isaiah’s return. Rose was supposed to play with LeBron and Wade in Chicago seven years ago. Oh, well. Better late? Jae Crowder is an excellent addition as the Cavs will go full three ball with Kevin Love at center and LeBron, of course, orchestrating. They’ve got a deep bench now with veteran Jeff Green as well as J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson; just a lot of guys who can play. It’s difficult to see with a healthy LeBron, unless he takes a month in Florida this time, them not at least 10 games ahead. Of…

2. Toronto Raptors

It’s supposed to be Boston here, but Cleveland seems the only certainty. Jonas Valanciunas was terrific in the preseason. So they’re really going to pass him the ball when the regular season stars. Really, this time, they promised. No really. And off go DeMar and Kyle? We’ll debate a lot about the dynamic backcourts, and they’re always in the discussion, amazingly in this era for how many mid range shots DeRozan takes. But this one with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan is one of the few places where the inside game might just make a difference. They’ll get Valanciunas going and he scores easily and then they forget his name and start firing away. It’s led to the ultimate plateau of teams, good but seemingly going nowhere. Can so many playoff disappointments get their attention? That’s a lot of ifs for second. They brought back Serge Ibaka and added a good shooter in C.J. Miles, though Paul George didn’t like him shooting at important times. But if they don’t make a move—and LeBron may just take a look at the West and figure out he’ll be lucky to finish third—and the Cavs don’t implode, they may also be closing in on the path being pursued by much of the Eastern Conference. Tanks for the memories?

3. Boston Celtics

Well, they’re not going to be bad. And everyone basically has them second in the conference with the chance to win. After all, they did have the most wins last season. Though Thomas made an incredible number of fourth quarter shots. Oh, right, Kyrie. Let me think about this again. But you get the sense with the sudden dependence on back to back No. 3 picks in the draft, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, they’re working on the post-LeBron East for next season. Though that’s another story about where he’ll go to compete for a title better than Cleveland. Really, nowhere make sense. Right, we’re talking about the Celtics. It’s all LeBron all the time. Boston’s got plenty of all the kings horses and all the kings men’s stuff to put their very good thing back together again. They’ve got about a dozen new players, and last year it seemed only Thomas shot the ball. Kyrie has a history of not playing nice with others; good guy, if not at geography, but not much for passing the ball. Pretty amazing scorer. Well, they got used to that philosophy with Thomas. But, hello, Gordon Hayward. Anyway, that’s a lot of star power for the understudies in the East and it should be good enough for that special top four. Maybe even another surprising run to the best record? Losing Crowder and Avery Bradley could stunt the defense unless Marcus Smart makes a larger impact. And who will he play ahead of?

4. Washington Wizards

The last stand for them, also? The Celtics, last season’s conference finals sacrifice, have been the rage with adding Irving and Hayward. But Boston did blow up a pretty good team and Thomas was amazing last season. They lost their two best defenders and probably smartest players in Crowder and Bradley, and…; hey, isn’t this the Wizards paragraph? Oh, right. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter. Lots of stability there, though Bradley needs another rare healthy season. One also might say same old, same old. But it matters. It’s worked for the Spurs. Better when they had Tim Duncan. Wall has become really good and probably the best all around point guard in the East when LeBron isn’t playing point guard, which he basically does. They usually lose the deciding games in the playoffs, so they have some things to prove. Not really much depth. Not much at all. If their other major league sports teams weren’t so bad in the playoffs, there would actually be expectations. Their veteran consistency could make them the team that loses in the conference finals in five games. If they get past the first round.

5. Detroit Pistons

This is where it gets tough because I’m not sure anyone else but those top four teams can make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. This is what that seeding 1-16 is all about, and, by the way, which never will happen. Not without a balanced schedule that basically will end every rivalry that ever existed and may result in your cross country first round series. Hello, Miami/Portland. Enjoy the flights. Anyway, these things change and will, but the NBA in this era seems about fixing things not broken, like the draft lottery. Oh, right, it’s the Pistons’ paragraph. Have they heard enough from Stan Van Gundy yet? As a media member you never have. But this is a group that too often plays like they aren’t paying attention. Andre Drummond says he will now; maybe Reggie Jackson, too. Memo: Don’t let your coach make the trades. Reggie Jackson as the franchise guard? Anyway, they picked up a real leader in Avery Bradley who could make the rest of them take it seriously. Or more so. Can Stanley Johnson do something? They’ve got a new downtown arena; you always have to mention that, but it wins few games itself.

6. Charlotte Hornets

It doesn’t help having lost Nicolas Batum for perhaps two months with an elbow injury. Of course, others will say it doesn’t help bringing in Dwight Howard, either. He says he’s serious this time. Really; no, really. We’ll see. They’ve got a kid shooter in Malik Monk to maybe persuade Kemba Walker to pass the ball. Is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hurt yet? They’ve got a tough, detail oriented coach in Steve Clifford and a real big guy for a change. Maybe all those close games go the other way this time; or some. If they are bad again, we guess it wasn’t underachieving.

7. Milwaukee Bucks

It’s probably all about for them if and when Jabari Parker returns and what he looks like and where he fits again. He was looking fabulous before that’s second ACL and would have been an amazing pairing with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is expected to be the LeBron of the East starting next season. They really didn’t add much except for a couple of journeymen like Gerald Green and still think Thon Maker will be special. Hey, maybe they’re right. Khris Middleton will fill it up and should be better a year removed from injury. But it’s difficult to see how they will be able to make a serious move until Parker returns.

8. Orlando Magic

And maybe even Brooklyn, Indiana or, of course, Miami, whom most everyone has in in the top eight. Maybe they don’t all play with those shoulder chips this time with many having gotten paid. The Magic has a lot of guys who took a step back last season, like Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton. There’s some new guys, like Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights; still D.J. Augustin and quietly Terence Ross and Mario Hezonja, Bismack Biyombo, Jonathan Simmons from the Spurs. New management. Heck, why not in the wild and wacky East?

9. Miami Heat

Few teams had a poorer first half of last season, and basically no one had a better second half. And it still didn’t equal the playoffs. Goran Dragic is sort of a star; he certainly was this summer in Eurobasket. Takes a little bit out of you, though. They’re a tough team to read because they had so many of those chip-on-shoulder guys, like James Johnson and Dion Waiters, who knocked those chips off impressively last season. Can they and the others from that hard playing group do it again? Doesn’t happen that often. They made a good addition with Kelly Olynyk to support Hassan Whiteside and maybe Justise Winslow makes a move. Like last season, maybe five, maybe 12.

10. Indiana Pacers

It’s a different sort of rebuild with the loss of Paul George, Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis, the core of their team. Which usually means starting from the bottom. But they got back Victor Oladipo in the George trade and added veterans like Darren Collison, which sounds like a move to make the playoffs again. They could. Al Jefferson looks in better shape and they still feature Thaddeus Young and Lance Stephenson, who now may be trying to blow in the ear of Aaron Gordon if that’s a chance to distract someone to get to eight. It’s an eclectic mix and one that also should be in that mix for the final playoffs spots.

11. Brooklyn Nets

It’s unclear some of the wisdom of taking on longer contracts for guys like DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe, but they finally are putting out some competitive talent to dig out of the horrendous Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trades. The draft pick this season goes to the Cavs from the Kyrie Irving trade, and then they finally get in the game again. But they have added talent like Carroll, Crabbe and D’Angelo Russell from the Brook Lopez trade. It changes their style of play dramatically more in line with the way the game is these days. Jeremy Lin has proven a good point guard who can push and shoot and they could be a surprise team.

12. Philadelphia 76ers

They are everyone’s new playoff favorite with the entertaining and talented Joel Embiid and rookies Ben Simmons, one year delayed, and Markelle Fultz, consecutive No. 1 overall picks. We’re all wishing Embiid will stay healthy. They guy is a hoot from his engagement with fans, challenges to opponents. No one looks like they’re having more fun playing. Who’s ever played. With Dario Saric also they have the market of potentially great young talent and supported them with J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. It looks like enough talent for the playoffs in the East. Most believe they’ll grab that last playoff spot. Though it seems a year early for that with so many kids in major roles. Can Embiid finally play at least half a season?

13. Chicago Bulls

We’re No. 13! Most reviews have the Bulls last in the East, if not the entire NBA, and it’s not unreasonable given the roster housecleaning and Zach LaVine out until midseason and Kris Dunn now out early for a few more weeks. But those guys will play and the Bulls appear to be embracing an appealing style of play with sacrifice and teamwork that could catch some teams by surprise as they check the backs of the jerseys to see just who are those guys.

14. New York Knicks

Finally, no more ‘Melo. No Phil Jackson, either, as they start again in some form. Now it’s Kristaps Porzingis’ team and who knows what that means. They added offensive-minded Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott from the Anthony trade. Where does Joakim Noah fit in and for how long? They picked up Tim Hardaway Jr. as a free agent and now guards Ramon Sessions and rookie Frank Ntkilikina. Another New York traffic jam?

15. Atlanta Hawks

Another franchise, not unlike the Bulls, with a run that never made the finish line. So they start again with Dwight Howard off to Charlotte, Paul Millsap to Denver, Thabo Sefolosha to Utah and Mike Dunleavy waiting for a call. Dennis Schroder is now the main man, and so it goes.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Golden State Warriors

So who’s No. 2? They’re the show of the NBA as the Boston Celtics were in the 60s, the Lakers in the 80s, the Bulls in the 90s, the Spurs when anyone was really paying attention. The Warriors seem in the middle of one of the game’s great runs with the era’s ideal formula of great shooting—those rules changes cutting down perimeter contact were big—team play and effective defense with multiple MVPs and a confident insouciance that seems as appealing, at times, as their play. Draymond Green taunts and no one can shut him up even at his size and, really, how could everyone not like Steph Curry. Durant? Tough continuing to keep up the villain thing at 175 pounds. But no one yet seems to have much idea how to solve that style of play.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook now has a lot of help. Paul George, Carmelo Anthony. It’s not the sort of Big Three many have imagined, especially with Anthony toward the end of his career, but those guys can score. Hey, who’s got ‘Melo’s man? The starting group even with Andre Roberson looks impressive. They did add shooter Patrick Patterson, but the bench does seem limited. Perhaps the most intriguing part is all the talk George wanted to and wants to sign as a free agent back home in L.A. But he could end up liking success if it occurs in Oklahoma City and change a lot of summer free agency plans and perhaps send Magic Johnson to help put the L.A. Chargers. The Thunder kind of went all in with George and Anthony able to be free agents after the season. But they did get Westbrook signed for the long term, which surprised some and at least insures their competitiveness.

3. San Antonio Spurs

The least mentioned big name free agent of the summer probably is their Rudy Gay, returning after Achilles surgery, which is a bad one. He didn’t seem the Spurs sort of player, isolation, not seemingly team oriented. But the Spurs have been scrambling after losing Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons. Right, never figured to read that anywhere. How much can Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have left? Even when Parker finally returns. It’s not a classic mix with Pau Gasol, who moved to the bench, and LaMarcus Aldridge, whom they supposedly wanted to trade. But they have the incomparable Kawli Leonard and are as good as any at team building and identity. But uh oh. Leonard misses the opener with a quad injury after not doing much in the preseason. By the way, Leonard may have been the only one—that’s his way—to believe Zaza Pachulia didn’t purposely try to injure him in the playoffs to the point the NBA changed the rule. But if Leonard has injury issues, well, David Robinson missed one season and the previously highly regarded Spurs ended up with Tim Duncan in the draft.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

It’s a heck of a big jump from 31 wins last season, especially with half the roster new. But there are some really interesting new guys like former Bulls Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford, the former two back with coach Tom Thibodeau. While Butler is getting all the publicity, the breakthrough guys there figure to be Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the latter who signed a big new deal. Thibodeau also gathered up another old favorite in Aaron Brooks. He’s putting the band back together! They’ll also need to turn around one of the league’s poorer defenses last season and a team that repeatedly lost late leads. Thibs’ guys? How much can Jimmy do?

5. Denver Nuggets

Like with the Timberwolves playoff drought, though Minnesota’s was substantially longer, it’s time to give the fans something to root for. Paul Millsap for big money at 32 isn’t about building. With the breakthrough last season of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray starting to emerge, it’s now a formidable front line. They lost Emmanuel Mudiay again to injury, but have old hands like Wilson Chandler, Jameer Nelson and Mason Plumlee. They look like a team ready to make a move, sort of a version of the Utah Jazz from last season.

6. Houston Rockets

They’re supposed to be the big Golden State stopper with the addition of Chris Paul. But it’s difficult to see how two such edgy personalities as Paul and James Harden can play well together, both who are best with the ball. Given his size, it seems unlikely it will be Paul coming off the picks. Is Harden after nearly winning two MVPs going to back off? Difficult to see that. No one is wishing ill of anyone, but after years of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson injuries are they going to remain reliable? Paul is probably the most overrated all-league defender who plays for steals and leaves his man constantly. So they brought in good defenders, like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, but it’s not so much Mike D’Antoni doesn’t emphasize defense; he doesn’t play defenders. They vainly bid all summer for Anthony, and that failed. Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley quietly played key roles and are out. This has the feel of a disappointing time.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

See, the West isn’t as great as everyone says. They still could make the playoffs. With Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, they have more stability and they get Chandler Parsons back. He was never too fast, but in this era he can play power forward with his shooting and have his defense covered up by their deliberate pace. Maybe Ben McLemore can make some shots for them as they move on from Zach Randolph and Tony Allen.

8. Portland Trailblazers

There was a glimpse of what might be with the late season addition of Jusuf Nurkic, who then was injured. But with Nurkic for a full season there are possibilities with the high scoring guards and a core of complementary players with Evan Turner, Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu. Maybe Noah Vonleh also can give them something.

9. Los Angeles Clippers

You get the sense with the departure of Chris Paul that was just the first guy off the plank. Blake Griffin is still around, but as good as he is, he’s not the guy who’ll lead you. They recovered some adding Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams with Sam Dekker. But it’s an entire new backcourt with J.J. Redick to the 76ers. Can everyone follow Milos Teodosic? They did add Danilo Gallinari, but that’s also a lot of new guys for a team heading the other way.

10. Utah Jazz

Gordon Hayward did a real lot for them and he’s in Boston as a free agent. So did George Hill when he was healthy and Boris Diaw at times, the latter two also gone. They still have Rudy Gobert to anchor the defense, but scoring will be difficult. Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha should help. Rookie Donovan Mitchell could fill some, but that’s asking a lot.

11. Dallas Mavericks

Dirk at center is going to be curious, but they’ve put together one of those overlooked, hard playing groups with some overachievers like Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry and might surprise. Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes will compete and many are anxious to see the fabulous athletic ability of rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

12. New Orleans Pelicans

Hardly anyone’s mentioning DeMarcus Cousins anymore as someone you have to have. If he can’t keep his cool with Anthony Davis and Alvin Gentry, is there any hope? They absorbed an early blow with Rajon Rondo going out with hernia surgery, and they were counting on Rondo being the Boogie whisperer. Jrue Holiday is still there, but you also get the sense here an earthquake is coming if things don’t go well.

13.Los Angeles Lakers

There’s going to be more attention and media for a rookie far away from the playoffs in Lonzo Ball and, of course, his family. But Hollywood needs stories. The Lakers have looked like they’re clearing the decks for, dare as say LeBron, after the season ny taking on Brook Lopez’ contract. But is that a team that LeBron can lift that far? Doesn’t look like it. They picked up some guys, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. And Kyle Kuzma has been a surprise rookie. Can Brandon Ingram do something more? Julius Randle? It will be difficult to notice.

14. Phoenix Suns

Josh Jackson is a rookie many gms thought might even be worth the top pick. With Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe back (soon to be traded somewhere?), they should be a high scoring group. They curiously sat veterans like Tyson Chandler last season to get a draft pick. They probably would have gotten it, anyway. Remember Dragan Bender? The kids will continue to play.

15. Sacramento Kings

They finally had enough with Cousins, so it’s a whole new game. What sort remains a bit murky with the additions of veterans like Vince Carter and Zach Randolph. De’Aaron Fox has been somewhat overlooked in the point guard draft with Ball and Smith getting the publicity. But Fox should not be left alone in the house with his ability to move quickly on the court. Young big guys Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere now get to play and everyone will probably be happier, if with fewer wins for now.

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