Entering the season, most of us tend to make predictions and presumptions (in many cases) about which teams will ultimately battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy, how a particular draft pick might fare at this level and which new additions could potentially flourish in new surroundings among plenty of other topics of deliberation. The 2014-15 NBA season was no exception to such forecasting, as there were plenty of intriguing storylines, newly-formed alliances and several players attempting to defy odds in some form or fashion. Let’s take a quick, fun look back at some of the predictions and common lines of thought shared as we headed into the year:
The Cleveland Cavaliers would run through the competition in the East
While that certainly didn’t appear to be the case in the early going – especially prior to the moves that reshaped the roster – the Cavaliers appear to finally be in the groove many of us figured they would eventually find. Make no mistake, as although a slow start absolutely should have been anticipated given all of the moving parts and circumstances, this is a team that probably wouldn’t be in the position it is currently in without the moves made to not only acquire guys like Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert but also in jettisoning a former first-rounder (fourth overall) in Dion Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Waiters remains a talented player with promise, but is was clear there were chemistry issues that required a change of scenery.
They’ve clearly figured things out between finding a way to mesh the styles of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but there should still be legitimate concerns over how Kevin Love is being utilized over major stretches of games. Put simply, while Love may not be a guy you’d trust to carry a team on his back to a Finals run, the 26-year-old power forward has much more versatility to his game than is currently being displayed with the Cavs. Love didn’t just forget how to play the game all of a sudden, and absolutely to his credit, he’s played the “good soldier” throughout the year and Euro-stepped his way out of several potential media fires along the way.
The team is currently winning and competing at its highest level so far, and while Love is wise and professional enough not to complain, it is difficult to believe he is satisfied with essentially being used as a glorified spot-up shooter from either corner. Cleveland may be rolling at this stage and appear to headed for a deep playoff run, but you’d imagine they’ll eventually need to find a way to mask or off-set the defensive concerns the coaching staff may have with Love playing in the fourth quarters of tight games as well as maximizing what is actually a well-rounded offensive skill set from the seven-year veteran if they are going to truly compete for a title.
The Bulls, Wizards and Raptors will each compete for the Eastern Conference title
Although the Bulls should absolutely remain a wildcard in the discussion among the Cavs and Atlanta Hawks, it is clear that some of us may have been guilty of a bit of conjecture when it came to Washington and Toronto.
After semi-successful yet promising playoff runs following the 2013-14 season, many of us (hand raised) anticipated each of those teams taking another step in terms of being contenders for the East’s crown. John Wall took that proverbial next step over the past couple seasons and has developed into one of the league’s best young point guards and Bradley Beal was expected to enjoy a similar trajectory coming off of an impressive playoff performance. Unfortunately, that progress simply has yet to come to fruition, as Beal missed the first nine games of the year due to a broken wrist and another nine games here of late with a foot injury.
Wall should absolutely be credited for playing in each of their 65 games, although battling what has been reported as ongoing knee pain. He’s still been special (17 points, 10 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals), but can hardly be expected to offset every deficiency each game.
The combination of an emerging Otto Porter Jr. and the veteran presence of Paul Pierce were also expected to be enough to offset the loss of Trevor Ariza. Outside of a few moments, games and short stretches here and there, that dynamic simply hasn’t materialized and the Wizards end up being overly reliant upon Wall to be special on just about every play.
The Raptors have endured their share of injuries as well, and find themselves in the similar position of relying upon point guard Kyle Lowry to play out of his mind on most nights. DeMar DeRozan finally looks like himself after being slowed by injuries, but it has yet to translate into team success and the Raptors find themselves potentially trapped in middle ground mediocrity. The truth of the matter is, beyond needing another contributing player at the deadline, the Raptors really needed guys like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross to take larger steps forward in terms of overall progress as players and that simply hasn’t transpired for Dwane Casey and crew this year.
The Bulls, on the other hand, should still be considered a wildcard team, as they’ve managed to remain in the hunt even though enduring a ridiculous amount of injuries of their own. Although they aren’t what they once were defensively, this is still a team hovering around the top-10 (11th) in terms of points allowed and with the addition of Pau Gasol, the progression of Jimmy Butler and the play of Nikola Mirotic, they are far more dangerous on the offensive end than in previous seasons. If Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose are available for the postseason, we still have every reason to consider the Bulls as legitimate contenders to make a run.
It’s time to finally write the San Antonio Spurs off
Haven’t we all learned our lessons when it comes to San Antonio? If we’re being honest, they remain competitive even in what would be considered “down years,” but there really was no need to preemptively kick dirt over their proverbial graves given how Gregg Popovich continues to manipulate and get the absolute most out of his entire roster.
Now, admittedly, things did look a bit more bleak than usual while they struggled through their annual rodeo trip (4-5), but that was clearly more about the preservation of the team’s overall health (Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard in particular) than any true indication of things to come. Time will tell whether they have another Finals run in the tank, but with only four games separating them from the second seed in what remains a tough conference, would any of us be all that shocked to see these very Spurs that so many attempted to write off eventually find a way to leapfrog some of their competitors out West?
While you contemplate an answer that should be clear, keep in mind the fact that said Spurs also have eight games remaining against teams currently in playoff positions. By the way, it took a career-high (57 points) and absolutely phenomenal overtime performance by Kyrie Irving and the Cavs in order to stop the six-game roll the Spurs were on.
The James Harden and Dwight Howard experiment in Houston would fail
In fairness to those of us that questioned their leadership and ability to galvanize this group, there were legitimate concerns heading into the year with which direction the team might be headed. The loss of guys like Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik required definite adjustments for the team (even though Harden and Howard didn’t want to publicly acknowledge this). The ongoing health concerns of Howard were also concerning.
But Harden has, without equivocation, been absolutely fantastic for Houston this season and deserves all of the MVP talk and consideration he’s received given the circumstances the Rockets have overcome. Howard has actually missed over half of the team’s games mainly due to ongoing knee issues, but you certainly wouldn’t know it as Houston (21-12 sans Howard) has hardly skipped a beat in his absence.
GM Daryl Morey should be credited for going out and acquiring Corey Brewer and Josh Smith in order to solidify the rotation and the progress and steady play of guys like Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones must be acknowledged. But if we’re doling out rewards for services rendered, Harden clearly takes the crown for these 2014-15 Rockets.
A specific return date for Howard (one-to-three weeks away, reportedly) hasn’t been designated, but it will be interesting to see how the team adjusts to his presence and altered roles once the eight-time All-Star returns to the lineup. One thing that has been made abundantly clear is that regardless of his eventual return, Harden has established himself as the unquestioned on-court leader of the Rockets moving forward.
Teams like Memphis may have difficulty keeping pace in today’s NBA
Wrong! It may sound completely foolish at this point, but there were plenty of people (again, hand raised) that wondered whether the Grizzlies might have to adjust their approach given the current trend of more and more NBA teams resorting to perimeter-oriented play with such a focus on three-point shooting.
In a league where an unprecedented amount of threes are taken and much of the league is attempting to run with smaller lineups in order to increase the tempo and create or exploit mismatches, the Grizzlies still prefer to apply maximum defensive pressure and grind it out with you for a full 48 minutes (barring overtime). They’ve actually managed to put together a roster so diverse they are actually able to force teams to pick their poison on most nights.
Mike Conley is quite possibly the most underrated star player around and their tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is still arguably the best frontcourt in the league. General manager Chris Wallace and that front office have done a phenomenal job of shaping this roster, as guys like Courtney Lee, Jeff Green and even a vet like Vince Carter (when healthy) have played very well within the roles carved out for them.
Teams like the Warriors, Blazers and Clippers may get a majority of the headlines, but the reality is the Grizzlies may just be the toughest team to matchup with when you start looking at facing them for a seven-game series.
Again, there’s no such thing as an exact science when it comes to preseason prognostication, especially since one of the greatest things about each NBA season is the unpredictable nature from year to year. Team chemistry and a player’s comfort within new surroundings and systems run hand-in-hand with overall success. Just ask those of us that expected Lance Stephenson to flourish under Steve Clifford and the Charlotte Hornets to propel themselves into (at least) the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.
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