This is the eighth version of this column -- our last big preseason tradition -- and I almost scrapped it. How can you predict anything in this league after the summer that just happened? Is any prediction too insane?
The goal here is to sift through all the trend lines and intel to make some reasonable off-the-beaten-path calls, and go out on some crazy, ultra-specific limbs.
I'd love if all of these turned out right! At least half will go bust. But where's the fun in playing it safe?
Golden State wins 70 games
I know all the reasons this shouldn't happen: malaise; exhaustion from their preseason China trip; Steve Kerr squeezing in several DNP-Rests for his stars; the Western Conference gauntlet; the proverbial bull's-eye on the back.
But this team is just so damned good. It went 67-15 and came within a Steph Curry mustache whisker of finishing first in both points scored and allowed per possession -- and it should somehow be better. It even enjoys continuity after working out the kinks with Kevin Durant.
The Warriors are deeper now -- deep enough to overcome Kerr sitting one star in almost any game, save for maybe a few road back-to-backs. Nick Young is a decent defender when he tries, and he can't even comprehend yet how easy his life is about to be on offense. Omri Casspi, all sneaky cuts and Curry-range bombs, is built to play for this team.
Three-time NBA Finalists are typically primed for major age-related regression. Not this bunch. Kerr can issue all the take-it-easy edicts he likes; his players are too competitive to help themselves. It's hard to find any game in which they would reasonably be considered an underdog.
Even sniffing 70 wins would give Golden State an airtight claim to the greatest four-year regular-season run in basketball history. Cap it with a title, and the Warriors elevate themselves into the loftiest historic debates.
Houston finishes second in the West
The last time I predicted big things for the Rockets, they farted to the No. 8 seed. So let's run it back!
The safe bet is the Spurs. They just win, and they are bringing back almost the same team once Tony Parker returns.
The sexy bet is Oklahoma City. Before acquiring Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder's path to 60 wins was clear: Paul George would slither around as the slightly less wealthy man's Kevin Durant, and their defense would smother people. They had an identity -- a mix of new Thunder and old Thunder.
The Anthony deal -- one you make every time -- confuses that identity. That is worth it in the long run. You need crazy scoring potency to hang with Golden State. You need to embrace variance, and risk.
But Melo introduces a learning curve that might deflate the win total. He softens their defense. Snagging George and Melo in two-for-one trades depleted Oklahoma City's depth.
Houston will have its own superstar integration hiccups, but adding one new guy -- even a slow-it-down yapper like Paul -- should be smoother than adding two. Houston is deep across every position; Clint Capela and Nene Hilario form a dynamite center rotation, and the Rockets are loaded with rangy, corner-shooting wings. Ryan Anderson is roadkill in the wrong playoff matchup, but he's a dangerous regular-season weapon.
All these teams should be roaring in April. The bet here is Houston wins the most before then.
LaMarcus Aldridge opts in ... and gets traded
What Aldridge does with his $22 million player option is one of the hottest questions in the league. I probably asked about 50 executives and agents, and the response was close to evenly split.
When Aldridge signed in San Antonio two summers ago, the option barely registered: The cap would zoom up and up, teams would have oodles of room, and Aldridge would opt out to cash in on a new deal.
A player of his age (32) and stature might opt out for the security of something like a three-year, $50 million deal. Waiting another year risks further age-related erosion. (Side note: He's also eligible for an extension before the season starts. Just saying.)
But who is giving Aldridge a new $17 million-per-year deal in a cap environment tighter than anyone anticipated two years ago? Most teams slated to have mega-room are bad. Aldridge serves no purpose on a bad team. The Earl Watson connection will (probably) be there in Phoenix, but Suns GM Ryan McDonough should throw himself in front of any Aldridge signing.
Aldridge might normally count on his incumbent team for that sort of offer. But if this season ends the way the last one did, both parties might be ready to move on. He could still choose that $22 million over a cool market, work with the Spurs on a trade, and try free agency again in the summer of 2019 -- when teams are (for now) projected to have more cap room.
Kawhi Leonard wins MVP
I picked LeBron James a year ago. I was tempted again, but voter fatigue has metastasized. This is a regular-season award; it is absolutely fair to dock LeBron for waiting until April to try on defense.
Kawhi Leonard finished third last season, and the top-two finishers have three new Hall of Fame teammates between them. James Harden and Russell Westbrook won't repeat their anomalous statistical absurdity. Durant and Stephen Curry cannibalize each other. I am skeptical the Bucks win enough to propel Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That leaves Leonard, who should be about ready after sitting the preseason. He showed in the playoffs that he can ramp up his playmaking -- the part of his resume that falls short of historic MVP candidacy levels. If he averages five-plus assists per game, he could emerge as the favorite.
He will probably be the lone All-Star on a 55-plus-win team. He carried the Spurs on offense last season, popping for jumpers all over the court and bailing out dead possessions. He is the NBA's soul-snatcher on defense.
Popovich's resting practices work against him, but cracking 70 games again will satisfy voters.
Toronto tries to trade Jonas Valanciunas
Toronto is about $4 million over the projected 2018-19 luxury tax counting only 10 players. They dealt DeMarre Carroll and a first-round pick to duck this season's tax. Sloughing Valanciunas is their most realistic way to limbo again.
Given the glut of big men, we should see more center-for-center deck chair shuffling: You take my guy because his contract fits your salary sheet, and I'll take your guy with the longer contract and lower annual salary (and I also secretly think he might be good). One iteration: Valanciunas to Orlando, where former Toronto No. 2 Jeff Weltman is in charge, for Nikola Vucevic. The deal saves Toronto about $7 million over the next two seasons, and Vucevic comes off the books a year earlier than Valanciunas.
One roadblock: league rules bar the Magic and Raps from trading with each other until April or May (depending on when Toronto's season ends) as a condition of Toronto letting Weltman out of his contract.
How about Valanciunas for Tyson Chandler? Toronto gets a win-now veteran and the same years-and-money reduction; Phoenix exchanges a geezer for a 25-year-old. Eh. Unloading deals that extend past the summer of 2019, when some of the bubble contracts come off the books, is going to be really hard. The market will loosen up in July, when more cap room pops open and those deals creep a year closer to expiration.
Even then, Toronto may have to attach another asset to dump Valanciunas. They might prefer exchanging Valanciunas for a non-center, anyway; Ibaka needs time there, and either Jakob Poeltl or Bebe Nogueira will be in their long-term plans.
Here's a wild one: If the Raptors fall off badly -- and I don't think they will -- I wouldn't be shocked if DeMar DeRozan's name pops up in the rumor mill.
The Clippers trade DeAndre Jordan if they underperform
The Clips finally listened when suitors called on Jordan around the draft, according to sources across the league. They did not shop him. They conducted some due diligence. They like DeAndre Jordan so much, they have discussed a potential extension, per a report by Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times.
Those talks might signal some trepidation about re-signing Jordan this summer. If he hits the market, Jordan will be eligible for a maximum salary of about $35 million. The most he can get in the first year of an extension: $27 million. Do the Clippers really want to lock up $70 million per year in the Jordan-Blake Griffin duo?
If they don't, L.A. should investigate what Jordan might fetch. The Clippers will stand pat if they find themselves on pace for 50-ish wins. But what if they are around .500, jostling for one of the last two playoff spots?
Finding a match is brutal; expiring contracts like Jordan's have more value now that cap room is scarce, but the old template of flipping expirings for good players on longer deals might be harder to follow over the next couple of seasons.
The unprecedented two-year cap spike spawned a wild spending bubble; the league is littered with long-term contracts that now look like horrid overpays. It is really hard to find a non-superstar on a two- or three-year deal for whom a team might exchange a big expiring contract. Like, a lot of teams wouldn't touch Andre Drummond's contract, even if they only had to send dead money to get him. On the flip side, teams are loathe to flip talented players -- even overpaid ones -- for someone who will bolt right away. Even Detroit, in tax hell, might not give up Drummond for salary relief alone. (At least not yet.)
Only a hungry team that fancies itself one piece from contention would dare. In the age of LeBron and Golden State, very few teams conceive of themselves that way.
Jordan probably isn't good enough for the Cavs to dangle their Nets pick (plus Tristan Thompson). The Celtics can't match salaries without upending their team. On the other end of the spectrum, the Lakers aren't going to compromise cap space for Jordan.
The most tantalizing candidate: the Wizards. Let's build Lob City, East! Washington could offer Marcin Gortat, Kelly Oubre, Jason Smith, and at least one unprotected first-round pick. Want to simplify? Just send Otto Porter for Jordan (and one teensy salary) once Porter becomes trade eligible in January.
One monkey wrench: The salaries going back and forth have to match almost exactly; the Wizards are over the tax line, and the Clippers are crouched just beneath it. A huge contract for Jordan would be untenable atop Washington's other giant salaries. It's still workable, especially if a third team helps.
The Mavs could open enough space to absorb Jordan sending out only Dwight Powell, Nerlens Noel and a pick, but there was that whole kidnapping thing. The Thunder have already unloaded two young players on mega-deals for superior veterans; why not flip Steven Adams for Jordan? (The answer: any talent gap between Adams and Jordan is small, and shrinking. Also, it should be illegal for any team to have two of Andre Roberson, Jordan, and Drummond.) Other suitors might come out of the woodwork.
Washington faces one other obstacle:
The Wizards trade a pick to shed someone in July (probably a center)
If that theoretical Jordan trade doesn't happen, the Wiz are still slated to be about $10 million over next season's tax if Smith and Jodie Meeks pick up player options. Washington might need a pick to bribe someone into swallowing Ian Mahinmi.
The Pelicans re-sign DeMarcus Cousins
Here's what I really wanted to predict: The Pelicans trade Cousins and filler to the Heat for Hassan Whiteside. That is my favorite fake trade in the league.
Think about it: If the Pelicans combust, they should get something for Cousins instead of letting him walk and pissing off Anthony Davis. Davis doesn't want to play center; Whiteside does!
For Miami, this is a pure talent play. Cousins is better and younger, with an untapped upside. If he ever gets his head on straight, Cousins is a top-10 player. You know who has a good record of coaxing alleged trouble personalities down the right path? The team that rescued Whiteside, and bought early on the Waiters Island waterfront!
The Heat are confident that once a player gets a taste of the way they do things (and of that South Beach life) they can entice him to stay. Miami's cap sheet is clogged through 2020; this might be their only way to land a star talent.
Alas, both teams swear up and down this won't happen. I almost predicted it anyway; Shea Serrano is always telling people to shoot their shot.
I'll settle for this: The Pellies hang around .500, miss the playoffs, shrug their shoulders, and max out Boogie. As of now, they won't have cap room to sign anyone else of consequence. Cousins would have them over a barrel the same way Jrue Holiday did.
And who else is lavishing Cousins with the max? At least half the league has (or claims to have) an ironclad "No Boogie" rule. The Lakers might take a shot on him as an Amar'e Stoudemire Memorial Free Agency Consolation Prize if they strike out on bigger names. The Mavs aren't afraid of gambling, and they'll need a center if Noel jets.
Beyond that, the market is murky.
Miami trades Justise Winslow and a big salary
With Josh Richardson's extension, Miami is already over next season's tax. This is their easiest path out of cap prison: use Winslow as a sweetener to get off a bigger salary, and nab something useful in return.
Among my favorite versions of this: Winslow and Dion Waiters to the Pacers in exchange for Bojan Bogdanovic (on a semi-expiring contract), Cory Joseph, and perhaps some throw-in to make Miami feel less crappy about punting on Winslow.
That return would enrage Heat fans, but Winslow's trade value is at rock bottom after a lost season. Richardson has passed him in the team's hierarchy. Miami needs a true backup point guard, and Joseph is among the league's very best.
The deal requires Indiana to love Waiters, and that is where it might fall apart. That is where any deal exchanging expiring money for long-term contracts falls apart. Indiana isn't touching the last two years of Tyler Johnson's deal, at $19 million a pop. James Johnson's contract is too hefty for most teams.
But the bet here is Miami sniffs out deals like this. With Rodney McGruder out at least three months due to a stress fracture, the Heat have to be a little careful dealing from their wing depth.
Related bonus prediction: Indiana is a near-lock to flip one or both of Bogdanovic and Darren Collison, guaranteed just $3.5 million combined in 2018-19. If the Lakers send Luol Deng and Brandon Ingram to Indy for those deals (and some sweetener), the league should be very afraid L.A. knows a certain someone is in the bag.
LeBron James leaves Cleveland again
There is too much smoke, even with Russell Westbrook's mega-extension snuffing one potential superstar cabal in Los Angeles. LeBron could still go there with Paul George, though the Lakers need some high-wire cap gymnastics to open up the requisite $65 million in room. And can LeBron really chase the Warriors with George, Lonzo Ball and whatever flotsam is left after L.A. sheds money?
LeBron still values winning above all else. He wants another title. He needs one to challenge Michael Jordan's GOAT status. The path there with those theoretical Lakers is uncertain.
Put it this way: If you forced me to name which team LeBron is on next season, I'd take the Cavs by a hair over the Lakers. But if you give me Cleveland versus the field, I'm taking the field. LeBron is dominant enough to go anywhere he wants. He could tell almost literally any team, "I'm coming as long you also sign Players X and Y," and that team would make it happen.
Speaking of which: Maybe we should take the Houston threat more seriously. Harden is locked up. Paul is there. Getting off Eric Gordon is easy. Snag a pick in the process, and dumping the Ryan Anderson albatross -- the one that cost them the official Team Banana Boat photographer -- becomes feasible. Trade and renounce everyone else, including potentially Paul for cap purposes, and they are close enough to the double-max for Paul and LeBron that the Texas income tax edge might come into play.
Sound crazy? So did everything that happened this summer. The league's best players have the clout to make anything happen.
(I have no idea where LeBron is going. Nobody does.)
Denver declines its option on Nikola Jokic -- and pays him the max
The Nuggets are navigating the same dilemma Houston faced in 2014 with Chandler Parsons. They hold a cheapo $1.5 million team option on Jokic for the 2018-19 season. If they pick up that option, locking in one last year of discount labor, Jokic becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019.
If Denver declines it, Jokic hits the market a year earlier -- July 2018 -- but does so via restricted free agency.
In cold economic terms, the Nuggets should exercise the team option. With Gary Harris' extension, maxing out Jokic would vault them into the tax for the 2018-19 season. Even in unrestricted free agency, the Nuggets could offer Jokic more money and years.
But teams in markets like Denver don't always have the luxury of operating in cold economic terms. The Nuggets have seen stars force their way out the door. They cannot risk leaving it wide open for Jokic. He knows the Nuggets have the right to pay him unimaginable amounts in nine months; how will he feel if they wait?
They acted early on Harris, even though this summer's market is overcrowded with shooting guards. They'll happily do the same with Jokic.
Phoenix trades Eric Bledsoe to (maybe) the Nuggets
This should happen, even if Bledsoe is (if you wish really hard) young enough at 27 to still be good when the Phoenix kiddos are ready to win. How about Emmanuel Mudiay, Darrell Arthur (present for salary-matching), Juancho Hernangomez and an unprotected Denver first-round pick?
Phoenix has asked for more in the past, but the Suns have to accept the reality of Bledsoe's market. They get a free look at a lottery-pick point guard on their age timeline, a crafty, sweet-shooting combo forward in Hernangomez, and another pick in the quiver.
Denver would miss Hernangomez; they need him to sop up wing minutes. Tough. Every upgrade comes at a cost. Any three-for-one deal would put the Suns over the roster limit, but they have easy avenues to address that.
Bledsoe would give Denver at least two plus defenders in its starting five. He's not the cleanest fit on offense with Jokic, but he can adapt; a team relying on Bledsoe to run every possession isn't going anywhere, anyway. He's big enough to defend some wings and play alongside Jamal Murray, unlocking more small-ball lineups.
Bledsoe would swell Denver's 2018-2019 tax bill, but they have almost two years to unload a big salary -- Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee (on a fat new deal despite negative leverage!) or perhaps even Wilson Chandler next season if Chandler picks up his option.
The Clippers might poke around a Bledsoe reunion. The Pelicans could get desperate if Rajon Rondo's recovery from a sports hernia goes haywire. The Bucks have a long-standing jones for him, but it's unclear how they would match salaries. Don't count out some of the bad Eastern Conference teams with long-term point guard questions or untrained prospects: Orlando, New York and, especially, Chicago.
Cody Zeller wins his starting spot back from Dwight Howard
Charlotte will resist as long as possible. The Hornets have invested sweat equity in Howard. Steve Clifford loves him. They have concerns about Zeller's ability to bang every night with enemy starting centers. Howard is not the sort of player who offers more value as a reserve, and the Hornets might lose him if they go this route.
But it feels kind of inevitable. Zeller is an eager-beaver, rough-housing screen-setter who fits well with Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum. He's faster diving from the arc to the rim than Howard, and has improved his finishing. He will not demand post touches, or pout when he doesn't get them. He can't touch Howard as an individual rebounder, but he's one of those Nene/Roy Hibbert types who boxes out so teammates can get the statistical credit. Charlotte was an elite defensive rebounding team with Zeller, anyway.
The Hornets famously plummeted to 3-17 without him last season. That wasn't all about Zeller, obviously. It was about the, umm, quality of his backups, and the rest of a thin roster. But something about his game clicks.
Charlotte sets the all-time defensive rebounding rate record
This is just fun trivia. Only seven teams have rebounded at least 79 percent of opponent misses. All played within the past three seasons, including the past three Charlotte teams -- the product of Clifford's abdication of fast-breaking in favor of having all five guys protect the glass. (Last season's Pistons snared 81.2 percent of opponent misses, the only team ever to crack the 80 percent barrier.)
Howard can still munch boards above the rim. Charlotte is already close to the upper bound of defensive rebounding. Howard will nudge them toward that theoretical limit -- at least until Zeller leapfrogs him.
The Sixers join the 16 percent club
Only 77 teams have coughed the ball up on at least 16 percent of their possessions; only one of them played in the past decade. Philly approached the 15 percent mark last season, and the 76ers project as straight blunderous after handing the rock to one rookie (Markelle Fultz), one rampaging fake rookie (Ben Simmons) and a delightful superstar big man coming off one of the highest-turnover half seasons in league history.
Minnesota leads the league in offensive rebounding rate
The Wolves finished third last season, and this year's version will be downright rude in the paint. Taj Gibson punks weak box-out guys. Jimmy Butler's sneaky offensive rebounding was perhaps the first skill -- at least on offense -- that got him noticed. He's not as brash crashing these days, but he's a load.
The Thunder topped the league last season, but they're going to play smaller -- and without Enes Kanter's bruising, hippity-hoppity put-back game.
Cleveland keeps the Nets pick
The Cavs would be open to dealing this gem if the Nets exceed expectations -- and if LeBron signals he might stay alongside a new co-star. It's just unclear who that would be. George was the best candidate before the Thunder stole him, and with Russell Westbrook locked in, Oklahoma City can play out the season without crafting fallback rebuilding plans.
Chris Paul re-signs with the Rockets
If the Rockets are really good, odds are Paul stays with a known winning quantity. Where else is Paul getting all his money and the chance to win alongside another top-10 player? The Lakers come into play if LeBron orchestrates, but all the chatter surrounds the possible LeBron-George team-up. At 33, Paul won't quite be in the stratosphere where any team would rearrange its entire roster just to get him. He can't call his shot like LeBron.
Deep in the recesses of their cold analytical souls, the Rockets surely feel queasy at the prospect of paying Paul $40 million-plus per season into his late 30s. Daryl Morey probably has a framed graph of John Stockton's aging curve in his office to make him feel better.
But they are trying to win it all in Harden's prime. They will do what it takes to maximize that window, and figure out the rest later.
Greg Monroe wins Sixth Man of the Year
Yup, this is dumb. Big guys never win this. It always goes to some empty-calories wing chucker. There could be a ton of candidates: Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Jamal Crawford, Andre Iguodala (he's apparently never winning it, either, which is insane), Dario Saric, Marcus Smart, Norman "Norm" Powell, someone from the Heat, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Patrick Patterson, Patty Mills, Milos Teodosic, and probably one or two more.
If Milwaukee craters, the Bucks might look to unload Greg Monroe's expiring contract -- torpedoing his candidacy.
But right now, none of those candidates feel as essential as Monroe. Thon Maker is 20. There will be a ton of nights when Jason Kidd doesn't trust him to close games. Monroe played the best all-around ball of his career last season, and de-iced what had been (at times) a frosty relationship with Kidd.
A shallow Bucks team needs him, badly. His ground-bound bully-ball game is a crucial source of late-clock offense after the Bucks fritter away possessions around the elbows. It wouldn't surprise if he averaged almost 30 minutes per game.
Karl-Anthony Towns goes 50-40-85
It's more likely Karl-Anthony Towns goes 50-38-85, but where's the fun in that? I really wanted to pull the trigger on Towns joining Dirk Nowitzki as the only big men in the hallowed 50-40-90 club, but leaping from 82 to 90 percent at the line in one season is a lot to ask. Maybe someday. Towns has a chance to be the greatest scoring big man since Shaq -- and the most versatile ever.
Atlanta tries to trade Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore
They likely fail on both counts. Kent Bazemore is due $18 million in 2018-19 and $19.3 million the next season. That 2019-2020 money is the killer -- the reason the Lakers can't move Loul Deng, and the Bucks are stuck with John Henson.
The Hawks will probably try. Moving a wing should be easier than moving a big man with the same contract; everyone needs 3-and-D types, but no one needs centers. You could build plausible deals sending Bazemore to Denver, the Clippers, and a few other teams. Atlanta might even settle for another distressed contract that expires a year earlier than Bazemore's -- if they can even find a taker at that price.
We might be at least a year from any Dennis Schroder move. Most teams are satisfied with their point guard situations. But over the next year or so, some of those point guards will change teams, flame out, get injured, or enter free agency again. Travis Schlenk, Atlanta's new GM, didn't pick Schroder; Schlenk inherited him. Schroder has long been a polarizing locker-room presence, and his recent arrest on battery charges had executives around the league rolling their eyes.
Schroder is just 24 -- young enough to be a key piece in Atlanta's long-term rebuild. If he rehabilitates his trade value, he could also net Atlanta more picks. He's good enough to do it. If and when the Suns flip Bledsoe, they will need a long-term answer at point guard. The Bulls are still searching, though they would not deal their 2018 pick for Schroder. What about their protected 2019 pick? The Pacers need to find a young point guard somewhere.
The Knicks just drafted one, but if they think Frank Ntilikina can play some on the wing -- or that he might be years away -- Schroder would be an interesting talent play. (Let's hope New York is not dumb enough to send their 2018 pick unprotected for him.)
Whether it's this season, this summer, next season or July 2019, the bet here is that Schroder finishes his contract someplace else.
Dallas trades Wes Matthews
Matthews is better than Bazemore -- sturdier on defense, more reliable from deep -- and his contract expires a year earlier. If he plays well, he might be movable for a Mavs team hell-bent on opening up as much cap space as possible ahead of a summer in which few teams will have it. Matthews' $18.6 million player option for 2018-19 -- the last year of his deal -- mucks up that plan.
This might be a long shot. A bunch of teams are already up against the 2018-19 tax; they won't take on Matthews' contract without shoving some other big-ticket player out the door. Dallas will be hesitant to take on any contract that runs beyond this season -- unless some desperate team makes it worth their while.
There may be only one real candidate: New Orleans, poor on shooting and all-in for a playoff spot. Would a lottery-protected pick entice the Mavs into swallowing Omer Asik and the requisite filler?
That would be dumb from New Orleans, of course. The Pellies have traded most of their first-round picks assembling this mediocrity; they need building blocks. Matthews would clog their cap space in the event Cousins walks, and they need to reorient their team yet again. The filler matters here, too; the Pelicans are just below the tax, and hard-capped above it.
Dallas will have a broader market in July, when more cap space crops up across the league.
At least one coach is fired by Christmas
I'm not going to name names, because that's unpleasant. Our Era of Coaching Good Feelings is about to end. There are a bunch of volatile middle-of-the-road teams facing high expectations, and at least a couple will have fallen short by the time the calendar flips to 2018.
Marc Gasol and Mike Conley remain untouchable
They aren't really untouchable. Only like three or four guys are. But barring a catastrophic first 30 games -- something even worse than 10-20 -- the Grizzlies are prepared to chase 45 wins through 2019 with their foundational stars. They cough up their pick to Boston that June; after that, the slate is clean, and Memphis can contemplate a true rebuild.
The wild card: An unusual buy-sell clause that comes into play later this month, and could result in minority owners buying out Robert Pera. If that happens, the organizational priorities might shift. And trust me: you can build a lot of juicy fake Gasol trades of all stripes (to Washington, Toronto, Detroit, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and other spots).
Milwaukee pays to get off Henson or Mirza Teletovic
They could probably get off Mirza Teletovic now if they sweetened the pot with a first-round pick and a year's supply of Teletovic's favorite hair gel. They need him at least until Parker returns around February. Dumping Henson might have to wait until July, when his deal will be a year closer to expiration.
Minnesota trades Cole Aldrich and a second-round pick for Jared Dudley
The Wolves need depth and shooting, and the Suns could use more wiggle room Aldrich's partially-guaranteed deal would crack open this summer. They are not getting better than this for Dudley. Minnesota is staring down a hefty tax bill for next season after handing over Scrooge McDuck's vault to Andrew Wiggins; Dudley would add to it. Tom Thibodeau might snare a bench piece now anyway, and deal with next season's tax next season.
No more extensions
Something could happen at Monday's buzzer with Jabari Parker or Aaron Gordon, but I'd wager (slightly) against it in both cases. It's likely the rest of the 2014 draft class heads into restricted free agency. Teams know how much leverage they have as the cap constricts. Some extension-eligible guys -- Clint Capela, Rodney Hood -- have teensy cap holds valuable to teams that might have some room. Some aren't good.
There may be only one non-first-round pick for whom an extension makes any sense: Jerami Grant, who could sign the Josh Richardson/Norman Powell deal in Oklahoma City. Given the Thunder's looming tax situation, I'd lean against any Grant deal.
Detroit trades Tobias Harris in the offseason and re-signs Avery Bradley
Unless things blow up -- and maybe even if they do -- the Pistons will pay market value to keep Avery Bradley away from the Sixers and other suitors. That risks tax hell, and unless Detroit finds an eager taker for Drummond or Reggie Jackson, dealing Tobias Harris might be their only way to escape while netting an asset in the process.
Philly trades Jahlil Okafor to Chicago or Phoenix
The Thunder have an affection for out-of-vogue back-to-the-basket brutes, but they're over the tax, and it's hard to find anything on their roster that would interest the Sixers. Remember: Philly has carefully carved out max room for next summer. They won't compromise that to get off Jahlil Okafor.
Chicago and Phoenix could both take him into cap room now; the Suns are still a little under the mandatory salary floor. Phoenix could also give Philly a free look at Alex Len, though Len has the right to veto any deal after signing his one-year qualifying offer. (The Suns also can't trade him until late December.)
The Knicks finish last in points allowed per possession
New York would be a flammable defensive team even if Kristaps Porzingis were 25, and well-versed in the nuances of pick-and-roll containment after years learning in a functional environment. He's 22, a little unsteady in open space, and entering Year 3 working at the circus.
Courtney Lee is solid, but almost everyone else is either a train wreck, a youngster, or Joakim Noah. Teams are going to get whatever they want against the Knicks.
Don't count out the Lakers, Kings and Suns, but I'm betting on New York bringing up the rear.
The eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are ...
Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, Washington, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Miami and Philadelphia.
Detroit's depth is shaky, and it's hard to have faith in the Jackson-Drummond duo after last season. The Pistons are a 5-12 start away from serious drama.
Meanwhile, did you see Joel Embiid's preseason debut? Holy god. And remember: Philly had a positive scoring margin -- by a mile -- with Embiid on the floor last season. Right now, he's healthy. If he plays 50 games, the Sixers have a good shot at sneaking in. If he sniffs 60, we party.
The eight playoff teams in the Western Conference are ...
Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, Denver, Minnesota, Portland, Clippers.
Well, that was agonizing. The last two spots came down to Portland, Utah and the Clippers; Memphis and New Orleans were tough cuts in whittling it to those three. For most of the preseason, I had Utah over both L.A. and Portland. The Clippers face obvious health questions, and some positional awkwardness. Portland is light on shooting. Jusuf Nurkic has to prove he can plug its leaky defense again.
Utah is deep, well-coached and fearsome on defense. That alone can get you 45 wins, even if your offense stinks. I would not be surprised if the Jazz get the No. 6 seed -- or if any two of Utah, Memphis and New Orleans qualify.
But in the end, I worried I might be overrating Utah's bench guys. I'm a little cooler on Rodney Hood than I was a year ago. If he doesn't make a leap, there could be too many nights -- at least in this harrowing conference -- when they will just not be able to grind out enough buckets.
We'll get answers soon enough. See you on the other side!