2013-14 NBA season: A fearless forecast

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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.

Give and Go: Which Sixer has been the most surprising?

Give and Go: Which Sixer has been the most surprising?

With the team at the All-Star break, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are CSNPhilly.com producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

In this edition, we pick the Sixers' most suprising player this season.

Haughton
Imagine an underdog beating the odds to not only make an NBA roster, but also play significant minutes. Now imagine him doing it twice.

T.J. McConnell continues to shatter any perceived limitations put on his career.

McConnell came into last season as an undrafted free agent that was expected to be cut. Instead he beat out several other point guard candidates to stick on the roster. Not only that, he managed to become a mainstay off the bench as he played in 81 games for the Sixers.

Fast forward to this season and McConnell was to be buried on the bench behind free-agent signees Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez.

It's a good thing nobody told the Pittsburgh native about those plans. He again played a solid reserve role off the bench while Bayless missed most of the season with an injured wrist. Then when Rodriguez sat out with an illness in a December matchup in Detroit, McConnell pounced on the opportunity. He just missed a triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in an 18-point win over the Pistons and the rest is history.

McConnell has been the team's starting point guard ever since. The numbers aren't going to wow anyone: 6.3 points, 6.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 24.9 minutes a game. However, he's a consistent contributor and a leader on an improved Sixers team.

Hudrick
T.J. McConnell. And it's not even close.

Before the season started, I projected McConnell to the D-League, considering him a solid emergency point guard. McConnell Wally Pipp'd his way into the starting lineup when Sergio Rodriguez was out with an illness. McConnell has flourished while Rodriguez has struggled.

Since becoming a starter, McConnell has averaged 8.9 points, eight assists and 1.7 steals in 31.4 minutes per game. He's averaging just two turnovers a game and also managed to hit two game-winning shots in that span. Most importantly, the Sixers are 14-11 when McConnell has started this season.

The most impressive personal stat for McConnell may be the 49 percent he's shot from the field over his last 24 games. McConnell never looked for his shot last season. He shot only out of desperation and his numbers reflected that. You can see his comfort level rising and his confidence in finishing around the rim.

McConnell is likely not the long-term solution at point guard for the Sixers, but I have to eat crow and say that at the very least, he's a solid NBA player.

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum lights up Virginia, Wake Forest

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum lights up Virginia, Wake Forest

We're have just a few weeks left in the college basketball regular season, so everyone is looking for a big win. Or in the case of a top prospect, a big performance to show all the scouts.

Let's take a look at whose stock rose and whose fell this week among eight top freshmen.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
America is finally seeing the Jayson Tatum that was highly touted coming into his one-and-done stint with the Blue Devils. The move to power forward has ignited his game and helped catapult Duke in its seven-game winning streak. His line Saturday against Wake Forest — 19 points on 6 for 11 shooting, 3 of 5 from three, and seven rebounds — was pretty good and he made some clutch free throws to clinch the win.

But can we talk about his Virginia game? Seriously, this may be the gem of his college career. Tatum's Blue Devils were held to just 21 points (he had seven of those) by Virginia's stingy defense in the first half. So what does he do? Score 21 by himself in the second half to lead the Blue Devils past a top-15 team. He had 28 points on just 13 shots, making 6 of 7 from three while adding eight rebounds, a block and a steal. He had a 7-0 run by his lonesome that put Duke up for good. He's likely a three at the next level, but Tatum displayed all the tools to be an effective three while dominated at the four, a much-needed boost for the soon-to-be top-10 Blue Devils.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
The three-point shooting slump isn't quite done yet for the Finnish freshman, but at least he's found his scoring touch again. Markkanen had a pair of double-doubles in Wildcat wins this week over Washington St. and Washington, all while only making 1 of 6 from beyond the arc. He's now just 4 for 19 from three in his last five games, a slightly worrying stretch that has brought his three-point percentage down to 46.5 percent.

Still though, he didn't fail to produce in 68 minutes combined over a three-day span. First, he had 19 points and 11 rebounds vs. Washington St. in a 78-59 win, his first double-figure rebounding effort since his last game vs. the Cougars. He then came through with 26 points and 13 rebounds against Washington in a 76-68 win. He was able to hit some jumpers but also competed inside, making his way to the free-throw line nine times and making eight from the stripe. It's certainly encouraging after some lackluster showings over the last two weeks.

Markelle Fultz, guard, Washington (6-4/195)
After missing two games last week with a knee injury, Fultz came back fully healthy with a pair of nearly identical performances. On Thursday, the impressive freshman shot 7 for 16 from the field, 2 of 6 from three, and had 19 points to go with four assists during an 83-81 loss to Arizona State. Two days later, he shot, get this, 7 for 16 from the field, 2 of 6 from three, in the loss to Arizona. He did make to the charity stripe more often (make 10 of 15 from the free-throw line) and finished with 26 points and six assists.

In the defeat, Fultz still played 38 minutes and scored or assisted on over 55 percent of the Huskies' points. Sure, he had four turnovers, but when you have the ball in your hand as often as he does, it's bound to happen. It's a pretty good idea of what he'll be doing for a team that finds itself at the top of the lottery this year. He showed off every part of skill set — shooting, getting the rim, finishing, etc. — Saturday and nearly led the 9-18 Huskies to a win over the No. 5 team in the country.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
Most players don't dominate a game while taking the fewest shots among his team's starters. Most players aren't Lonzo Ball. Ball messed around with a triple-double while taking just nine points Saturday night, coming up just short with 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Bruins, who beat USC, 102-70.

Three teammates scored more points than Ball, but that's in part thanks to how well he spreads the ball and runs the offense. His maturity doesn't just come on offense. He's also solid on the defensive end, in part thanks to his 6-6 frame at point guard.

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky (6-4/185)
Kentucky's catalyst keyed the Wildcats to two more wins this week as they extended their win streak to four. Monk was his normal volume shooting self in the two games against Tennessee and Georgia. He took a total of 31 shots, up from 30 over two games the week before. While he made just 10 of the 31 attempts, the formula seems to be working because the Wildcats keep winning.

He had 20 points with four threes and eight rebounds in a blowout win over Tennessee. The more impressive effort came with worse stats in the road victory against Georgia. He made just 3 of 11 but got to the free-throw line for 11 attempts and got it done for Kentucky in other ways, notably five assists and three steals. Monk has been labeled an offense-only guard, so the trio of steals are a welcome sight. How he'll defend ones and twos at the next level will be a real defining challenge for him.

Quick Hits
• Florida State lost consecutive games and forward Jonathan Isaac was relatively quiet, scoring 15 points on 14 shots over the two games. He had just three free throw attempts yet still reeled in 12 rebounds and had four blocks.

• Kansas' Josh Jackson provided 16 points on 14 shots Saturday, as the No. 3 Jayhawks defeated No. 4 Baylor. Jackson, by making his only attempt vs. the Bears, is up to 35.3 percent from three.

• NC State fired its coach this week, but that didn't stop Dennis Smith Jr. from being his normal self. In a pair of losses to ranked teams, Smith had 43 points, nine assists and seven rebounds combined.