Even the NBA, the most predictable major U.S. pro sports league, is fraught with uncertainty. The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals! But making predictions is a useful thought exercise, and it's healthy to creep out on a limb once in a while.
As usual, we throw darts at issues both huge and teensy. Some of these calls are so ultra-specific, the odds of them actually happening are miniscule. There's no fun in safety.
1. No lockout, baby!
I've been living on Lockout Optimist Island for years, but even I've been surprised by the giddy hope burbling from stakeholders on all sides over the past six-plus weeks. Almost no one has the stomach for a work stoppage. There is too much money on the line, and too obvious an opportunity to seize more of the sports fan pie.
Both the league and the players' union can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 15 -- step one toward a lockout (or strike) when the league's fiscal year ends on July 1. As recently as two weeks ago, I would have predicted that one or both would opt out -- but that they would hammer out a new CBA long before that July 1 doomsday date. Now, there might be a 50/50 chance they wrap things before the opt-out date -- and a longer shot at announcing a deal before the season even starts, per sources across the spectrum.
That latter scenario would surprise me, but barring a last-minute cash grab from either side, there won't be a lockout. A bunch of league owners are furious that the salary-cap spike helped Golden State sign a fourth superstar in Kevin Durant, and they are pushing for some changes -- we'll get to them -- aimed at snuffing star clusters. But none of those proposals should upset momentum toward a deal.
2. LeBron James reclaims the MVP
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will cannibalize the Golden State vote, just as Clippers teammates Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have accidentally hurt each other's chances for years. Oklahoma City and Houston may not win enough for Russell Westbrook or James Harden to snag the trophy; right or wrong (note: wrong), there is very little history of MVPs coming from teams that finish outside the top two in their conference.
That could hurt Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis and other alleged sleeper candidates.
That leaves two guys: LeBron and Kawhi Leonard. We know the case against LeBron: The Cavs will limit his workload, and he will coast through the regular season. But it's not as if Chill-Mode LeBron puts up some ho-hum 16-6-5 stat line. He's going to post crazy numbers, orchestrate Cleveland's offense for long stretches and get (deserved) recognition for being an all-encompassing force stabilizing an otherwise volatile franchise. He cares about the MVP, and if he's healthy, I bet he'll play in enough games -- about 70 -- to present a strong dossier. The Cavs' title run left a sense of, "Oh, we kind of moved on from LeBron too fast," and some voters will view the MVP as a reward for his titanic NBA Finals performances.
So it's LeBron, for perhaps one last MVP run. And if it's not? The 10-to-1 Vegas odds on Leonard are insane.
3. Utah wins 50 games
Yup, even with Gordon Hayward missing perhaps the first 20 games of the regular season with an injured finger. Utah has the wing depth to tread water without him, despite a road-heavy early schedule. The Jazz won 40 games last season while navigating major injuries that forced coach Quin Snyder to overexpose a blah bench. They went 12-21 in games that were within three points in the last three minutes, one of the worst such records in the league.
They've upgraded at point guard from "total black hole of incompetence" to "George freaking Hill." Hill can take on more ball-handling duties with Hayward out, just as he did when Paul George missed most of the 2014-15 season.
They should be a top-five defense, even if they have to separate the Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert tag-team a little more than expected to juice the offense. When those two share the floor, Utah eviscerates teams on the glass.
I get the skepticism about Utah. The Jazz haven't won anything -- or proved they can score enough with their super-big lineup. But this team is versatile and deep, and those things win big in the regular-season slog.
4. Houston finishes No. 2 in points per possessions
Now that they have surrounded James Harden with legit 3-point bombers, the Rockets might even have the goods to push Golden State for the No. 1 spot in scoring efficiency. The Warriors will take a little time to mesh, and after splaying on the ground just before the finish line, they figure to pace themselves in the regular season.
Houston could be a joke on defense, especially if coach Mike D'Antoni shoves Eric Gordon into Patrick Beverley's starting spot, but there is no real counter for a turbo Harden spread pick-and-roll.
5. Houston takes more 3-pointers than any team in NBA history
They set the record with 2,680 heaves in 2014-15, and last season, Houston and Golden State became the second and third teams to jack more than 2,500 triples. The Rockets should smash this record.
6. Miami tanks
Miami never planned for the Big Three era to end so abruptly. Chris Bosh leaves one void, and Dwyane Wade divorced them so late in free agency, they could only fill his salary slot with unwanted spare parts. The Heat want to see what this feisty group can do, but if they struggle early, history suggests that Miami won't be afraid to plummet down the standings.
The easiest method: trade Goran Dragic without receiving a point guard in return, leaving the offense in the hands of (mostly) unproven ball-handlers. The Heat and Kings have had some vague trade talks since July -- not necessarily involving Dragic, sources say -- and given the Kings' shaky point guard situation, it's tempting to build deals sending Dragic to Sacramento. A half-dozen other teams are searching for a long-term answer at point guard.
Problem: Miami gave up two first-round picks for Dragic, even though he was about to hit free agency, so the Heat need real stuff in exchange for him to save face -- stuff the Kings don't have. Team president Pat Riley is 71, and he obviously had no interest in a teardown when he coughed up so much for Dragic.
But Riley is a pragmatist. He knows the draft pick cupboard is pretty bare. (Miami also owes second-round picks in 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2021. Yikes.) The Heat own their own pick in a loaded draft, and with everyone trying to win (what a concept!), the path from mediocrity to the No. 4 or No. 5 pick has never been cleaner. Some team with busted postseason hopes is absolutely going this route.
7. The Clippers, not the Spurs, will be the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference
It's ridiculous to worry about the Spurs. Their defense can survive without recently retired Tim Duncan; they allowed 98.6 points per 100 possessions when Duncan sat last season, a mark that would have led the entire league. They beat younger, stupider teams just by making the proper play every time on both ends.
But I'm a little worried about the Spurs. Their defense and rebounding should take a hit with Pau Gasol sliding into Duncan's starting spot alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are a combined 73 years old, and San Antonio didn't add anyone to soak up some pick-and-roll duty. (Scouts love Dejounte Murray, but it's hard to see him playing much as a rookie.)
The Clippers know exactly who they are, they score like hell and they don't beat themselves (until the second round). Their annual collection of Doc Rivers Bargain Bin Veterans looks friskier than usual.
We love to mock the Clippers, but they are awesome.
8. Alan Anderson wins the Clippers' starting small forward spot
It's probably not a good sign that this might be L.A.'s best-case scenario.
9. LaMarcus Aldridge's name will surface in trade talks
The Spurs are self-aware. I have a hunch they know this is something of a placeholder season, and that without some injury luck swinging their way at the right time, they are a tier below Golden State. Aldridge is 31, six years older than Kawhi Leonard, and his trade value will never be higher; he can opt out of his contract after the 2017-18 season.
The Spurs will see if this team outperforms expectations. If it doesn't, they should take calls on Aldridge. He's really good, and there are a lot of impatient owners chasing immediate gratification. If opportunism meets desperation, the Spurs could fleece some rival and restock with a bundle of assets that better line up with Leonard's timetable.
The Lakers have a ton of young talent -- and top decision-makers clinging to jobs. Aldridge almost signed in Phoenix, and Suns owner Robert Sarver is dying to get back to the playoffs. They have a stockpile of prospects stuck behind fogies and mid-career guys, plus those extra Miami picks. Dallas and Houston will always look, even with Dirk Nowitzki and Ryan Anderson slotted into Aldridge's nominal position (and not much to trade beyond future picks). Maybe Toronto goes for it. Maybe Oklahoma City reloads.
The odds are against any deal happening. Signing Gasol to a two-year deal (with a player option for 2017-18) is something of an all-in move, and even if Gasol opts out after this season, the Aldridge-Leonard combo is a shiny lure for free agents. But if the season unfolds the wrong way, here's betting the Spurs at least listen.
10. Kawhi Leonard three-peats as Defensive Player of the Year
There are other candidates, including Draymond Green, a revived Anthony Davis and the French Rejection in Utah. But Davis and Rudy Gobert have never sustained peak defense over a full season. Leonard has been engulfing his prey every night for years; it's folly to bet on anyone overtaking him.
If Leonard wins, he will tie Dwight Howard for the second-most defensive player of the year trophies -- trailing only Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace, who have four each. Remember when wings and guards couldn't win this award? Leonard may be on track to win it more than anyone in NBA history.
11. Both Dallas and Memphis miss the playoffs
If Utah is in, one of the Portland/Oklahoma City/Houston/Memphis/Dallas cadre has to bow out. Both the Mavericks and the Grizzlies feel rickety, so let's get nuts and shove them both into the lottery. Go big, or go home.
If Memphis' stars stay healthy, this prediction will be wrong. Marc Gasol is in great shape, and people around the team say the players already love coach David Fizdale. The pieces fit, and moving Zach Randolph to the bench nudges Memphis into the pace-and-space, switch-everything era.
It also might stretch JaMychal Green too far. Chandler Parsons still isn't playing. Gasol and Conley are coming off major injuries. Tony Allen has bounced in and out of the lineup for three years, and as he approaches 35, he really shouldn't be anyone's starting 2-guard. The bench is unreliable.
The Mavs have been pulling wins out of their ass for years. A season ago, it looked like the house of cards would finally crumble. Nope. Former Warriors Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut fill needs, and coach Rick Carlisle will brew up a live-wire bench from J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Dwight Powell, Seth Curry, Salah Mejri and some random fan who shows up in uniform. Dirk is Dirk, the legend that keeps on swishing.
Still, the lack of off-the-bounce verve in the starting lineup is alarming, and a ton of these dudes are coming off injury.
Look, this hurts. I love Dirk, and I write a column every year called The Marc Gasol All-Stars. But these teams make me feel queasy. Having both miss the playoffs requires a leap from either Denver, New Orleans, Minnesota or, gulp, the Kings. Denver is trending the right way, but the Nuggets have to play through Emmanuel Mudiay's growing pains. Still, they won 33 games last season as Mudiay found his footing, and it might not take much more than 40 wins to sneak in.
If Anthony Davis has the season a lot of us (raises hand) expected last season, the hardscrabble Pelicans should hang around. New Orleans is also a good candidate to rush into a win-now move. The Wolves are everyone's pick to steal a spot, but cracking .500 while starting three 21-year-olds is really hard.
Injuries and other craziness upend our projections every season. Almost nobody expected Portland, Houston, Chicago, Washington and New Orleans to finish where they did last season.
12. Sacramento trades Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore, but not Boogie
The trade front is quiet now; everyone in the bloated middle is waiting to see how good they are before pivoting up or down. The Kings may be the best bet to act early, since Gay politely told them he would very much like to leave. Keep an eye on the Thunder among potential Gay suitors.
McLemore's agents want him out of Sacramento, and teams are curious about what a change of scenery might do for him. Trading both Gay and McLemore could leave the Kings thin on the wing, but Sacramento may not care if it concludes early it's not a playoff team.
These are mere sideshows surrounding the big top: Is this the season Sacramento finally makes DeMarcus Cousins available? Right now, Cousins is off the market. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive loves him. But this is Cousins' seventh season. He has been a spectacular offensive player for most of that time. He has been a spectacular defensive player for bits and pieces of it. He has been a well-loved, stable teammate for slices of it. He has been all three of those things at once for barely any time at all.
He has two years left on his deal; his trade value declines by the day. Teams are making a big show of their disinterest, but if the Kings ever put Cousins out there, at least a half-dozen rivals would make strong offers.
For now, I'm still betting against it.
13. The Kings complete the greatest protected pick streak in world history
Sacramento owes Chicago its first-round pick, though the Kings keep it if it falls within the top 10 -- the same protection that saved them in each of the past two drafts. The debt stems from a trade with the Cavaliers in 2011, when the Kings sent a lottery-protected 2012 pick (and Omri Casspi!) to Cleveland for J.J. Hickson.
The Kings are on a remarkable five-year streak of being so bad, they keep the pick. The debt gets expunged this season; if the pick falls within the top 10 again, Sacramento sends the Bulls its second-round pick and washes its hands of this atrocity. (Let's not even get into the pick swap with Philadelphia that complicates all of this.)
This should be really close. If they reach their ceiling, the Kings could compete for the No. 8 seed -- and deliver the Bulls a pick below No. 10. If things go badly, how many teams are locks to finish with worse records? Maybe just the Lakers, Suns, Nets and Sixers?
Seriously, if the Kings keep this pick again, it deserves its own exhibit in the Hall of Fame.
14. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns make their All-Star debuts
The path isn't easy for the Greek Freak, even though he might come closer than Russell Westbrook to averaging a triple-double. Fans will probably vote LeBron, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony into the three starting Eastern Conference "frontcourt" spots, leaving Antetokounmpo to battle Paul Millsap, Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Nicolas Batum, Nikola Vucevic and a bunch of others for one of five backup slots (three for front-court guys, and two wild cards).
The West is a bloodbath. You can probably reserve eight of the 12 spots for Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard. That leaves almost two dozen plausible candidates, including Damian Lillard and two incumbent Golden State All-Stars, fighting for four spots. Good god, Lemon.
Still, Towns is legit. If the Wolves are in the playoff race, maybe the coaches reward him.
15. Utah extends Derrick Favors
Favors becomes extension-eligible on Oct. 19, exactly three years after he signed his current deal. In theory, he should wait a year before re-upping with Utah; this will be Favors' seventh season, and once players hit that mark, they qualify for a larger maximum contract.
But Utah needs cap room to bump Favors up, and the Jazz may not have enough next summer if they extend Gobert this month. (Bonus prediction: I think they will do that.) Favors' current deal is such a bargain, he could double his salary this season -- from $11 million to about $22 million -- if Utah jacks him up to his current max. That is a lot of guaranteed present-day cash to pass up, even if Favors could net more by waiting for unrestricted free agency in 2018.
Locking up Favors would also be a strong signal to Gordon Hayward ahead of his free agency: "We are serious about winning, so maybe stick around?"
16. Gordon Hayward re-signs with Utah
There is probably more buzz surrounding Hayward's impending free agency than about Paul, Griffin, Kyle Lowry and other starrier names. Hayward is 26, in the meat of his prime, killing it at the thinnest position in the league. Utah waited for Charlotte to max him out last time around, and Hayward has a long memory. The Jazz have a ton of guys to pay, and if they down enough beers (just kidding, it's Utah!), they might convince themselves they have the wing depth to withstand Hayward bolting. His beloved college coach runs a rising team with an easy roadmap to max-cap space -- and real interest in Hayward, per several league sources.
But if Utah makes a leap, the smart money is on Hayward sticking. The Jazz can offer a winning young core, an extra fifth season and if the new CBA breaks right for them, a little more cash than home teams can dangle under the current deal.
17. The new CBA: Extensions, home-court advantage and more
It doesn't look like the new CBA will include dramatic changes. There will still be individual max contracts, a soft cap and a punitive luxury tax -- at least as things stand today.
But you can bet on some important tweaks. Both sides agree that teams should have more leeway, in terms of dollars and years, offering contract extensions before their guys hit free agency. When players do hit free agency, the new deal may widen the gap between what incumbent teams and rival suitors can offer -- the closest thing the NBA will get, right now, to an NFL-style franchise tag.
They'll bump up salaries for first-round draft picks to track with the cap spike. The union may win its fight to shrink the matching period in restricted free agency, so teams pursue more players in that market. As I wrote last week, expect an adjustment to the obscure Gilbert Arenas rule that has muddled the pursuit of Tyler Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and a few others.
One bit of caution for fans eager to erase a bad contract: I'd bet (slightly) against the new deal including an amnesty provision. The cap mega-jump gifted everyone enough flexibility to survive without a get-out-of-jail-free card.
18. Orlando trades Nikola Vucevic
It's hard to find teams willing to give up anything of value for a center who can't protect the rim; ask the Bucks. Hell, it's hard to find any team who needs another center in a league trending smaller.
But Vucevic is the belle of the ball among ground-bound low-post types -- a brute with passing skills, high hoops IQ and enough shooting touch to stretch almost to the 3-point arc. That range makes him a bit more malleable than Greg Monroe, Al Jefferson and perhaps even Brook Lopez. He'll be 26 at the end of this month, with three years (including this season) left on a ridiculous contract.
The Magic don't want to trade Vucevic, but it's hard to see Orlando finding enough minutes for their giant pile of big men. Early attempts to play Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo together have gone as you might expect.
The Pelicans have always been curious about pairing Anthony Davis with a low-post threat. The Blazers have a ton of center types, but it's unclear if any of them -- including Mason Plumlee, up for what could be a pricey extension -- represent the long-term answer at the position. Portland general manager Neil Olshey has chased back-to-the-basket types before. Speaking of which ...
19. Portland trades a salary for ... ?
The Blazers are not going to vault $20 million or $30 million over the tax next season. They will trade one of their high-priced guys -- or an impending free agent due for a raise. They don't need to trade a wing for a big man -- not with Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Festus Ezeli and Ed Davis scrapping for minutes -- but they are one of the few teams that could make that sort of swap if they find the right one.
Portland knows the league is poor on wings, and the Blazers bet massively on their guys having trade value -- especially when rivals strike out in free agency.
20. Charlotte drops at least four spots in points per possessions
Charlotte finished a surprising ninth in points per possession last season, and the three key guys it lost -- Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin -- would all appear replaceable. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back, and the Hornets have always played better with MKG flying around; their projected starting group, switchy and fast, destroyed teams last season in a limited sample.
Only a few teams that finished below Charlotte appear poised for any meaningful offensive improvement.
But there are reasons to fret. Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams are coming off career seasons; Williams transformed almost out of nowhere into a 40 percent 3-point shooter with some off-the-bounce juice. If any of the three decline, the Hornets could have some trouble squeezing out buckets.
Walker should carry over his improved shooting, but he's coming off knee surgery. Cody Zeller is nursing a bone bruise. Batum's season-to-season fluctuations have been crazy, due mostly to health. Williams is 30.
Lin and Jefferson represented fail-safes on nights when Charlotte's drive-and-kick jumpers weren't falling. Charlotte should still make the playoffs, but keep an eye on its offense.
21. Denver and Toronto (mostly) stand pat
I badly want this to be wrong. Denver is dying to turn some young players and picks into a star, but it's hard to see which one might shake free.
The Nuggets may have missed the window for trading Danilo Gallinari now that he's on an expiring contract, though if Gallo stays healthy, a pseudo-contender playing above his head would probably cough up a first-rounder for a Rooster Rental. If no such suitor emerges, Denver and Gallo may as well hammer out a new deal this summer; the Nuggets don't have any big long-term salaries, and Gallinari might find the free-agency market cooler than expected, given his health issues.
The Nuggets haven't been able to froth up a market for Kenneth Faried. If they decide to go all-in in on the Jusuf Nurkic/Nikola Jokic frontcourt, they might shrug and just take whatever they can get for him.
Toronto needs an upgrade at power forward to mount anything like a real challenge against Cleveland, and the Raptors have looked and re-looked at every available guy -- including Faried -- over the past two years. (Jared Sullinger isn't the answer.) They've concluded Faried, Markieff Morris and the rest don't boost their chances enough to justify giving up a first-rounder or one of their many interesting young guys. When it counts, the Raptors can mothball their token starter and split the power forward minutes between DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson.
Paul Millsap would move the needle, and the Raptors would give up real stuff for him if the Hawks implode.
Toronto is cautious, and the Raptors know their accidental rise has purchased reservoirs of goodwill. Their fans would be thrilled to win 50 games and lose to LeBron in the conference finals again.
But at some point, any competitive person feels the itch to try to beat the dude standing in their way. Maybe that time is now, with Kyle Lowry staring down free agency at age 30. Finding the right deal will be a challenge.
22. Contract extension mania!
A lot can change between now and the Oct. 31 deadline for rookie extensions. If the league has a new CBA in place by then, you can scrap a lot of these predictions. For now, here's an educated guess at some of the thornier cases.
Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo: The Thunder will have less than $10 million in cap room this summer unless they move Enes Kanter, so they might as well pay everyone for the sake of harmony, right?
That might apply to Adams, a core player who may take a slight discount to secure money now. Roberson won't make enough to tilt the Thunder's cap sheet, so he could go either way.
Oladipo is tougher to peg. He wants the max, or close to it, and the Thunder would be right to hold off. An early extension can sew goodwill between player and team, but beyond that, there's not really any point to signing such deals at an amount close to the max. A team can just wait until restricted free agency, evaluate the player for another season and hand over the max (if that's what it takes) in July.
The Thunder need to see how Westbrook and Oladipo fit. If they don't love the mix, Oladipo would be easier to trade without an extension attached under the current salary-matching rules. As a prediction, I'd lean "no" on Oladipo for now.
Dennis Schroder: No.
Kelly Olynyk: No. Giving Olynyk a raise over his cap hold amount would cramp Boston's plans to carve out max-cap space.
Gobert: Leaning yes. See above.
Otto Porter: No. David Falk, his agent, rarely compromises early. He knows Porter should stand out amid a depressing group of wing free agents in July.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: No. Replace "David Falk" with "Rich Paul" in the previous entry.
Michael Carter-Williams: Leaning no. Milwaukee has dangled him in trade talks.
Nerlens Noel: No.
Gorgui Dieng: Leaning yes! Thibs likes him.
Mason Plumlee: I'll say no. Olshey waited out an oversaturated big-man market with both Meyers Leonard and Festus Ezeli. He could do the same here.
23. Boston leads the league in forcing turnovers
Boston finished third last season, behind Memphis and Houston, and added a skilled big man in Horford capable of trapping ball-handlers far from the rim. Marcus Smart, a maniac, is a year older.
Boston is probably the best bet to lead the league in points allowed per possession -- i.e., total defense -- after finishing tied for fourth last season behind San Antonio, Atlanta and Indiana. That somehow feels premature. Boston still doesn't have an intimidator at the rim, and opponents might hit better than 33.6 percent from deep -- the stingy mark Boston allowed last season.
24. Someone signs Chris Bosh for the minimum
The most likely course of action as of now in this murky, sad situation, per sources all around it: The Heat wait until after March 1 to waive Bosh so that he is not eligible to appear in the postseason for any team that signs him. At that point, Bosh's mammoth salary would vanish from Miami's cap sheet, freeing Riley to plop his rings in front of one or two stars this summer.
Bosh wants to play, and some team will absolutely sign him for the minimum -- even if it's just for this season. Bosh is still going to get all of his money from Miami, and suitors will try to coax him into signing through 2017-18.
That is Miami's financial nightmare: The Heat spend a gazillion on free agents this summer, and Bosh plays at least 25 games elsewhere in 2017-18 -- at which point, NBA rules require his salary nestle back atop Miami's cap number. That could send the Heat flying into luxury tax hell. Miami hasn't found a middle ground that would allow it to waive Bosh and proceed with financial certainty. Bosh is under no obligation to provide them with one.
Meanwhile, signing Bosh on the cheap is a no-harm, no-foul move for a team with an open roster spot and the patience for a thorough medical evaluation.
25. Oklahoma City posts the best offensive rebounding rate since 2003-04
The Thunder grabbed 31.1 percent of their misses last season, the highest mark in the league, and the gap between Oklahoma City and the No. 2 team (Detroit) was the largest such chasm in NBA history. No team has hit the one-third mark in offensive rebounding rate since the 2003-04 Jazz. The Thunder have the goods to get there.
With Kevin Durant gone, Russell Westbrook has free rein to attack the rim whenever he can. When he misses, he leaves behind little goodies for his army of mooches -- Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and others. Westbrook himself is a sneering pogo stick on the offensive glass.
26. Allen Crabbe and Moe Harkless start more combined games than Evan Turner
Turner's ball-dominant drive-and-kick style overlaps with the core skills of both Lillard and C.J. McCollum. He fits better as a bench guy who can help run the offense when one of Portland's star guards rests.
Harkless probably has the inside track to the fifth starting spot. He can switch across four positions on defense, covering Portland's weak spots, and the Harkless-infused starting five outscored opponents by a whopping 14 points per 100 possessions last season. Crabbe provides much-needed outside shooting, but the Blazers get smaller and a little squishier on defense when he takes Harkless' spot. Still, if Harkless slumps, it wouldn't shock me if coach Terry Stotts gave Crabbe a look before Turner.
27. Brandon Jennings starts at least 30 games
The Jennings hype train is careening a little out of control. New York fans chanted his name during a preseason game on Monday! A preseason game! He shot just 37 percent and barely got to the rim in his first season back from an Achilles tear. He is a glaring minus at the top of any defense.
So is Derrick Rose -- or at least the version of Rose from most of the past four seasons. Rose hasn't played more than 66 games since 2010-11, and he's a much worse shooter than Jennings from distance. Jennings isn't Steph Curry, but he's about league-average from deep, comfortable launching off the bounce on the pick-and-roll -- a must-have skill for the amped-up, non-triangular stuff coach Jeff Hornacek wants to run.
28. Jordan Clarkson gets his starting spot back
Enough with this nonsense of starting Lou Williams next to D'Angelo Russell. Come on, Luke Walton! Make the Lakers fun again! If you're worried about how Williams and Jose Calderon would "defend" on bench units, you're overthinking this.
Yes, Clarkson fits the mold of a sixth man combo-guard gunner: He's 6-foot-5, short-ish for a wing, with a swervy pick-and-roll game. He needs the ball some.
That also describes Williams, only Williams is 6-foot-1, about to turn 30 and irrelevant to the Lakers' future as anything beyond trade bait. Clarkson shot 35 percent from deep last season, and the Lakers should be invested in learning as much as possible about how Clarkson and Russell cohabitate.
Count this as a bet that Walton makes the switcheroo even before any Williams trade.
29. Terrence Jones has a bounce-back season
Jones has more red flags than Nikolai Volkoff: questions about his character and smarts, plus a long history of scary injuries -- including nerve damage firing down one leg. But the guy feels the game. He can dribble and pass, and he reads the floor well enough to make advanced plays off the bounce. Remember his feathery lobs to Dwight Howard two seasons ago, before the Rockets started hating each other? Imagine Jones lofting those same lobs to Anthony Davis as part of a smaller, bouncier Pelicans front line.
Jones will work mostly as Brow's backup, but I'm intrigued by how the two might mesh. Jones is fighting for his career on a minimum contract. There is a quality NBA player in here somewhere.
30. Bobby Portis gets his starting shot
It's a two-man race between Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson for Chicago's starting power forward spot, and if Gibson wins, Chicago will zoom to the forefront of NBA innovation by rolling out zero (well, maybe 0.5) 3-point shooters. Go Bulls!
(By the way, the Bulls would be 20 percent more fun if they started Doug McDermott, and slid Dwyane Wade to the bench as the Eastern Conference Manu Ginobili. They'll effectively do that by staggering minutes between Wade, Butler and Rajon Rondo -- please, let's scrap the awful Three Alphas name -- and they don't have the political capital to bring a big name off the bench.)
Portis is behind both guys, and he'll have to fight Cristiano Felicio for backup minutes. Portis was kind of a trainwreck as a rookie; he jacked up jumpers without even looking for teammates, like he was playing Pop-A-Shot, and just sort of ran around in random directions waving his arms on defense.
But most rookies struggle, and the Bulls are hopeful Portis weaponized his jumper over the summer. Coach Fred Hoiberg may give him a look -- even just a brief one -- in the starting five.