2013-14 NBA season: A fearless forecast

nbacrystalball.jpg

2013-14 NBA season: A fearless forecast

Plenty has happened since last season’s NBA Finals came to a dramatic conclusion.

With the 2013-14 campaign set to tip off, I take a look into my crystal ball and try to predict how things will shake out six months from now.

Let’s get down to business …

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division
Predicted winner: Brooklyn Nets
The Nets gave their franchise a complete makeover during the offseason. The additions of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry give Brooklyn an instant talent upgrade and championship pedigree. Mix that with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez and they should not only win the Atlantic but also seriously contend in the East. The only question will be how Jason Kidd handles his duties in his first season as a head coach.

The rest of the pack
2. New York Knicks
3. Toronto Raptors
4. Boston Celtics
5. Philadelphia 76ers

Central Division
Predicted winner: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls fell shy of winning the division title last year by less than a handful of games. Now they get former MVP Derrick Rose back and he has a United Center-sized chip on his shoulder after being criticized in NBA circles for sitting out all of last season while he recovered from a torn ACL. The key for the Bulls is health for Rose and the rest of his teammates. If they avoid the injury bug, the Bulls will reclaim the division from the Indiana Pacers.

The rest of the pack
2. Indiana Pacers
3. Detroit Pistons
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
5. Milwaukee Bucks

Southeast Division
Predicted winner: Miami Heat
The road to a three-peat for Miami will start with conquering the relatively weak Southeast Division. The Heat won the division last season by a whopping 22 games. While each team in the group tweaked its rosters for the better, they clearly aren’t in the same class with the reigning champs.

The rest of the pack
2. Washington Wizards
3. Atlanta Hawks
4. Charlotte Bobcats
5. Orlando Magic

Western Conference

Northwest Division
Predicted winner: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder may have lost some firepower, but they are still the class of this crop. Reggie Jackson proved in the playoffs that he can hold down the fort at point guard until Russell Westbrook returns from injury. While Kevin Martin’s departure will hurt in the scoring department, it won’t be enough for anyone to knock the Thunder off their perch in the Northwest.

The rest of the pack
2. Minnesota Timberwolves
3. Denver Nuggets
4. Portland Trail Blazers
5. Utah Jazz

Pacific Division
Predicted winner: Los Angeles Clippers
It’s not often that a team’s best offseason acquisition is its head coach, but that’s exactly the situation with the Clippers. Doc Rivers brings his championship past and toughness to a supremely talented Clippers roster. Bringing in veterans Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Antawn Jamison and J.J. Redick provides plenty of depth to the reigning Pacific Division champs.

The rest of the pack
2. Golden State Warriors
3. Los Angeles Lakers
4. Sacramento Kings
5. Phoenix Suns

Southwest Division
Predicted winner: San Antonio Spurs
Pick against the Spurs at your own risk. Time and again, they have proven the naysayers wrong. I have no doubt that Gregg Popovich’s crew will come back strong from that heartbreaking Finals loss. Look for Kawhi Leonard to take a more prominent role in helping the Spurs stay atop the league’s deepest division.

The rest of the pack
2. Houston Rockets
3. Memphis Grizzlies
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. New Orleans Pelicans

Who’s in the NBA Finals: Signs point to a rematch of last year’s epic Finals, but in the end I believe the two most talented teams will square off for the Larry O’Brien trophy: Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Clippers.

The Heat definitely will be challenged in the top-heavy East. However, they still have the league’s best player in LeBron James and the desire to be mentioned with great NBA teams of the past with a three-peat.

On the other side, the Clippers have had a roster built for success over the past few seasons but apparently needed the right coach to bring it out of them. In walks Rivers, who will teach them how to take that critical next step from being really good to great.

In a heavyweight matchup, I feel the Heat will do all the little things to walk away with a third straight championship.

Now, let’s get to the real fun by predicting some things to keep an eye out for this season and who will take home the individual hardware.

Awards

Team awards

Team on the rise
Predicted winner: Golden State Warriors
Last year’s introduction to the postseason party was just the beginning. The Warriors have the potent offensive attack with the Splash Brothers -- Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson -- and on the low block with David Lee. Adding Andre Iguodala will only help, as the veteran forward will slide right into his natural role of playmaker and defensive force.

Team on the decline
Predicted winner: Denver Nuggets
Don’t count on the Nuggets repeating their 57-win success from last year. Don’t believe me? That’s fine, but what if one of their own players says it won’t happen? “Nah, you know that won’t happen again,” point guard Andre Miller said at the Las Vegas summer league this offseason. Miller’s right. With George Karl replaced, Iguodala in Oakland and Danilo Gallinari still recovering from an ACL tear, the Nuggets could be in for a step backward.

Biggest surprise
Predicted winner: Washington Wizards
The Wizards are big, skilled and hungry. That’s a solid mix for a team looking to get back to the postseason. Last week’s trade for Marcin Gortat only makes them more dangerous and John Wall is due to finally have his breakout season.

Biggest disappointment
Predicted winner: Indiana Pacers
It’s hard to pick a team that just took the eventual champion Heat to Game 7 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals to experience a dropoff, but that’s exactly what I envision happening for the Pacers. The top half of the East will be as tough as ever. Plus, Danny Granger’s insertion back into the mix will throw things off, especially with his health in flux (he is already scheduled to miss the first three weeks of the season with a strained calf after sitting out the bulk of last year with a knee injury.)

Individual awards

Rookie of the year
Predicted winner: Victor Oladipo
The Orlando Magic guard proved he could get better each season during his time at Indiana. I don’t expect that to stop in the pros. His defense will be what sets him apart from other the league’s other top rookies.

Most improved player of the year
Predicted winner: Eric Bledsoe
Sometimes all you need is an opportunity. Stuck behind Chris Paul with the Clippers, Bledsoe will finally have the stage to himself with the rebuilding Phoenix Suns.

Defensive player of the year
Predicted winner: Dwight Howard
Houston’s new big man will give a team that ranked 28th in opponents’ points per game a boost. The Rockets’ up-tempo style of play can create easy paths to the basket at times, but Howard’s career 2.2 blocks per game average should deter some of those trips through the lane.

Sixth man of the year
Predicted winner:
Tyreke Evans
Take a player that was forced to try and have a well-rounded game as a starter and move him to the bench with his sole focus being on scoring. Enter, Tyreke Evans. No longer responsible for setting things up on offense for those dreadful Sacramento Kings teams, Evans will be asked to score and score in bunches as the New Orleans Pelicans’ top man off the bench.

Coach of the year
Predicted winner: Doc Rivers
I guess if I tabbed him to take the Clippers to the Finals, he has to be my pick for COY.

Most valuable player
Well, Rose is back and could be better than ever. … Paul will only raise his game in Rivers’ system. … It’s only a matter of time before Kevin Durant breaks through. Stop. Until proven otherwise, James is the game’s best player and it shows on a nightly basis. It all comes down to whether there will be voter fatigue for a player who has won four of the last five MVP trophies.

Well, what do you think? Am I right? Am I way off base? Let your feelings and personal predictions known in the comments.

Sixers-Grizzlies 5 things: Walking wounded duel in Memphis

Sixers-Grizzlies 5 things: Walking wounded duel in Memphis

The Sixers (4-17) open a three-game road trip against the Memphis Grizzlies (14-8) at FedEx Forum on Tuesday night (8 p.m./TCN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Walking wounded
There will be enough players between both teams for the Sixers and Grizzlies to play on Tuesday ... barely.

The Sixers, losers of seven straight, have several key players sidelined for the opener of this road trip. The biggest absence will obviously be Joel Embiid, who will sit out for rest after struggling Monday in the first game of the back-to-back set.

Joining Embiid on the shelf for Tuesday's game will be Jahlil Okafor and Robert Covington while Jerryd Bayless is questionable to suit up. That's in addition to Ben Simmons and Nerlens Noel having yet to play this season.

The Sixers won't find much sympathy in Memphis as the Grizzlies' injury situation is actually worse.

After using an NBA record 28 different players last season because of injury, the Grizzlies have already received a hardship exemption from the league this year to sign guard Toney Douglas. That's because the Grizz are currently down five players, including star guard Mike Conley and swingman Chandler Parsons.

2. One big problem
One player who will be suiting up for the Grizzlies is Marc Gasol, which is certainly bad news for the Sixers.

Now in his ninth season, Gasol is playing some of his best basketball. Despite the center's rebounds dipping to 5.7 a game, he is putting up career highs in points (18.9) and assists (4.2).

The Sixers know all too well just how good Gasol has been this season. The two-time All-Star went off for 27 points, four rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks in the Grizzlies' double-overtime win over the Sixers on the night before Thanksgiving.

That was before the Sixers got hit even harder by the injury bug. There's no telling what Gasol will do against a team with one available center in Richaun Holmes.

3. Foul play
With so many players not able to take the floor, the Sixers -- Holmes in particular -- would be wise to stay out of foul trouble.

The Sixers average 22.0 fouls per game, the fifth-highest mark in the league.

On the flip side, the Sixers could benefit from attacking the Grizzlies. Memphis is obviously limited with players because of its own injury issues and actually averages 23.8 fouls per game, the second-highest rate in the NBA.

4. Injuries
Bayless (wrist) is questionable. Embiid (rest), Okafor (illness), Covington (knee/illness), Noel (knee) and Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

Zach Randolph (personal) is a game-time decision. Conley (back), Parsons (knee), Vince Carter (hip), James Ennis (calf) and Brandan Wright (ankle) are out for the Grizzlies.

5. This and that
- The Sixers have lost eight straight to the Grizzlies.

- The Grizzlies are 10-0 in games decided by five points or less or have reached overtime.

- The Sixers are 1-6 in games Embiid has sat out this season.

Sixers name Elton Brand as Player Development Consultant

Sixers name Elton Brand as Player Development Consultant

Elton Brand is back with the Sixers, albeit not on the court.

The Sixers agreed with the former NBA forward to name Brand Player Development Consultant. In a press release, the team said Brand will be working with Sixers players in 'every facet of their on- and off-court development' while also working in the front office.

“We are extremely excited to bring Elton Brand back into the organization where he will be a valuable resource to our young and developing team," Bryan Colangelo said in the release. "Elton’s leadership and character displayed throughout his playing career as a player align perfectly with our vision, direction and culture of this basketball team, coaching staff and management group."

Brand retired during training camp after 17 NBA seasons, including five with the Sixers over two stints. The 6-foot-8 forward came out of retirement last season to provide a veteran presence for the Sixers and eventually played in 17 games when the team was snakebitten by injuries. 

He will now continue to be an influence on the Sixers' young core thanks to his new role with the basketball operations department.