It’s always hard to make predictions of any kind, especially finals prediction before game 1 of 82 regular season games has been played, but doing my best Miss Cleo, I’ve come up with two teams I think will be there at the end.
Coming out of the Western Conference will be the San Antonio Spurs. Several Western Conference teams got better over the offseason. Houston added Dwight Howard, but it won’t be enough to even get them in the Western Conference Finals. Adding Andre Iguodala to an already lethal scoring duo of Curry and Thompson could make Golden State a scary team, but too much rides on Andrew Bogut’s health.
Memphis is always a threat, but while they made some efforts to improve on the offensive end, especially on the perimeter, Mike Miller won’t have the luxury of getting as many open shots as he did in Miami, and the offense will get too stagnant to keep up with their defense. The Oklahoma City Thunder, while still a force to be reckoned with, took a few steps back when they lost James Harden. This offseason, they also lost Kevin Martin, and instead of looking for a proven replacement, Sam Presti opted to go with Jeremy Lamb, who was assigned to the Thunder’s D-League affiliate last season and was largely inconsistent in Summer League. In order to make another run at a title, the Thunder need their third amigo. Lamb is not it. The Los Angeles Clippers made some nice additions to their roster, and perhaps their biggest move, was bringing over Doc Rivers from Boston. While they'll be an improved team, I don't see them making it all the way, but they certainly have a shot at the West Finals.
The Spurs, while another year older, are still largely the team that was within seconds of winning a fifth NBA title. They made improvements in signing Marco Belinelli to replace Gary Neal, and Jeff Ayres to replace DeJuan Blair. Belinelli will bring another dimension to the offense that Neal couldn’t, and Ayres has become a favorite early on because of his work ethic. Aside from their additions, Kawhi Leonard looks primed and ready to take another leap forward as he becomes a bigger part of the offense, and before the Spurs had to play small ball to counter Miami in the Finals, Tiago Splitter was turning heads. With the core intact, and some of the Spurs’ younger players becoming a bigger piece of the puzzle, I expect that the Spurs will find themselves back in the NBA Finals, but against a different opponent.
The Miami Heat are the defending champions, and I’ll probably get a lot of flak for this prediction, but I don’t see them completeing the three-peat this season, and in fact, I don’t expect they’ll be in the Finals at all.
The Heat’s biggest loss was likely Mike Miller, and while he was a role player, it takes away another three-point threat. Miller hit some big shots for them, including one without a shoe. The 2013 playoffs also showed that the Heat do have a weakness, and that’s defending against big frontcourts.
It just so happens that the Indiana Pacers, who took the Heat to seven games, have quite the solid frontcourt, anchored by 7-2, 290 lb. center Roy Hibbert. Next to Hibbert is David West, and it won’t get any easier for teams when Hibbert or West go to the bench and Luis Scola checks in. Danny Granger is also back and pairing him with another 6-9 player in Paul George at the shooting guard and small forward positions will give smaller teams fits. Former Spur George Hill will run the offense, and he has a more capable number two now in C.J. Watson.
Having the luxury of a second unit featuring Watson, Lance Stephenson, Chris Copeland, Scola and Ian Mahinmi will give the Pacers the size and depth to exploit the Heat’s weakness and get them into an All-ABA Finals matchup with the Spurs.
In the end, the Spurs’ experience and having two quality starting defenders to throw at George and Granger will give them the edge. Call it a homer pick if you wish, but I have the Spurs in six, but won’t be surprised if it went to seven.