As we near the midway point of football season, the new National Basketball Association season arrives!
Once again, members of the staff of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM and ArizonaSports.com have put their thinking caps on and tried to predict what will unfold on the hardwood between now and June.
We’ll take a look at the Phoenix Suns, their chances to make the playoffs and the rest of the league — from postseason prognostications to award projections.
It’s the Arizona Sports 2015-16 Phoenix Suns/NBA Preview!
Eight of our 14 panelists believe this is the year that the Phoenix Suns break their postseason drought. The non-believers: Dave Burns, Paul Calvisi, Doug Franz, Adam Green, Andy Greenberg and Steve Zinsmeister.
The average number of wins predicted for the Suns by our panel was 43.9. Ron Wolfley was on the high end of the scale, predicting Jeff Hornacek’s team to win 51 games. Paul Calvisi was on the low end, projecting just 36 victories.
Markieff Morris’ future in the Valley
After a tumultuous 2014-15 season which was defined by technical fouls, admonishing Phoenix fans and off-the-court issues, the Suns chose to trade Markieff’s brother, Marcus, to the Detroit Pistons. That led to some very public declarations from ‘Kieff that he wanted out of town.
As the regular season begins, it’s clear that the Suns will have the services of the fifth-year forward out of Kansas … for now. We asked our panelists if they believe Morris will be in purple and orange at the end of the season.
Suns’ Leading Scorer
Eleven of our panelists predict that Eric Bledsoe will repeat as the Suns’ leading scorer in 2015-16. The former Kentucky guard, who is starting his third season in Phoenix, paced the team with 1,389 points (17.0 per game) last season.
Although, Bledsoe was not a unanimous choice. Two voters — Paul Calvisi and Ron Wolfley — think T.J. Warren’s unique offensive skill set will make him the Suns’ leading point man this season, while Craig Grialou thinks it’ll be Brandon Knight.
Suns’ Leading Rebounder
Last season while playing with the Dallas Mavericks, Tyson Chandler ranked fifth in the NBA in rebounding, averaging 11.5 per game (13.6 per 36 minutes). So it’s no surprise that the vast majority of our panel picked the first-year Sun to lead the team in that category this season.
Doug Franz was the only dissenter, picking Markieff Morris to pace the squad — at least until he’s traded. Then he’s got third-year center Alex Len as Phoenix’s leading glass cleaner.
The Panel’s Thoughts on the 2015-16 Phoenix Suns
Jon Bloom: The Suns have an opportunity to get out to a quick start. I can see them winning seven or eight of their first 10 games before being cooled off by a tough stretch of opponents and hovering around .500 through a difficult December schedule. January is probably the easiest month from a strength-of-schedule standpoint, so they’ll have to use that to their advantage before February, which includes 9-of-10 games at home, but against a bunch of playoff-caliber teams. It’s very likely that the Suns’ playoff chances come down to their final two-game homestand against the Kings and Clippers, which comes on the heels of a treacherous final road trip to Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans.
Dave Burns: Simply put, the Suns do not have enough pure talent to earn a playoff berth. I think it will take too much time for another two-point guard system to develop and if it does, it will be too late. They didn’t address their lack of shooting and Devin Booker is too young to realistically contribute right now.
Doug Franz: Same as last year — surprising wins, but they’ll lose to teams they should beat because a lack of intensity.
John Gambadoro: Phoenix is stuck in the mediocrity rut and as we learned from the Rocky IV soundtrack, “There’s No Easy Way Out.” They’re not good enough to do any damage if they even get in the playoffs and not bad enough to get the high lottery pick they desperately need. With the inability to lure prime free agents to town, the Suns are what we think they are — a mediocre team that will win enough games to compete for a playoff spot, but no real threat to win the Western Conference. They have a good coach who will have them prepared and they’ll always play hard, but talent-wise, they don’t stack up in the wild west.
Bryan Gibberman: The Suns will exceed expectations this season. The addition of Tyson Chandler is going to help them on both sides of the ball, especially making life easier on Phoenix’s penetrating guards on the offensive end. Markieff Morris is going to be pushed towards his best tendencies and away from his worst. The pieces fit together well for this Suns team — it’s just a matter of whether it can all come together. I’ll bet on head coach Jeff Hornacek making it happen.
Adam Green: The Suns will be competitive and in the running for most of the year, but will not be able to keep up with the West’s top teams.
Andy Greenberg: This is going to be another middling year for the Suns. They’ll be on the cusp of playoff contention, but will never sniff the top eight after the first month of the season. T.J. Warren is going to surprise everybody by averaging double digits in points, and we’ll get some highlight-reel dunks from Archie Goodwin and Sonny Weems. But unless you REALLY enjoy watching player development over an 82-game season, then this will be another uneventful year of sub-.500 basketball that lands another late lottery pick.
Craig Grialou: After a slow start, the Suns will begin to click, especially point guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight — reminiscent of the Bledsoe-Goran Dragic tag team of two seasons ago. Markieff Morris will keep his mouth shut and let his actions on the court, not off, speak for themselves. Devin Booker will provide much-needed instant offense off the bench. The rookie will prove to be a nice surprise, and further bury Archie Goodwin on the roster. The Suns’ playoff hopes will once again come down to the final weeks of the regular season, with them securing the eighth seed by one game.
Vince Marotta: The playoff drought finally ends as the Suns beat out the Utah Jazz for the final Western Conference spot. However, the postseason stay will be short-lived as James Harden and the Rockets sweep Jeff Hornacek’s team in the first round.
Kellan Olson: The Suns’ backcourt finally has some clarity with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. The two complement each other very well and will benefit from an elite pick-and roll-player in Tyson Chandler. Alex Len will thrive in a bench role against opposing backup big men and T.J. Warren will easily fill the role as primary scorer off the bench. Chandler will make the team better defensively and he and Ronnie Price will bring much-needed veteran leadership.
Ron Wolfley: I see the Phoenix Suns improving dramatically on the defensive side of the ball. Bledsoe is an excellent on-the-ball defender and Tyson Chandler will have a profound impact on attitude. Once Markieff Morris makes his exit, the Suns will play better overall. And T.J. Warren turns into the Death’s-head Hawkmoth in 2015-16.
Kevin Zimmerman: The offense is less clunky than last season. Bledsoe, Morris and Knight all take small steps forward and the bench is refreshingly solid. A trade or injury to Tyson Chandler causes some sputtering, but it’s overall a decent year with a chance at a playoff spot.
Steve Zinsmeister: Some of the young guys will finally get a chance to contribute significantly. Alex Len will be a premier player (health permitting), T.J. Warren will get his chance to score more and Devin Booker will be the spot-up shooter that the Suns wanted Gerald Green to be when they brought him in. They know what they have in Bledsoe, Knight and Chandler. It’s time to find out what the young guys can do.
Western Conference Outlook
Our panel has identified five teams as unanimous playoff participants — Golden State, Houston, Memphis, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
In all, 12 of the 15 Western Conference teams got votes to play in the postseason. The only ones that didn’t were Denver, Minnesota and Portland.
Consensus Western Conference Playoff Rankings
Eastern Conference Outlook
There’s a lot less mystery in the Eastern Conference, where all 14 of our panelists picked LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to repeat as champs. Joining the Cavs as unanimous playoff picks were Chicago, Miami and Toronto.
Interestingly, not everyone was on board with two of the conference’s top teams from last season. Bryan Gibberman doesn’t have the Atlanta Hawks making the playoffs, while Andy Greenberg has the Washington Wizards on the outside looking in once the postseason hits.
Consensus Eastern Conference Playoff Rankings
Only four teams got votes to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who took Golden State to six games in last year’s Finals, garnered ten votes from our panel. The San Antonio Spurs got two, while the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder each received one vote.
Most Valuable Player
Last season, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors won the league’s MVP easily by capturing 100 of a possible 130 first-place votes.
Everybody who thinks Curry will repeat, raise your hand.
Cleveland’s LeBron James is the panel’s most popular pick to win this year’s hardware, with four votes. Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis each got three, last year’s runner-up — Houston’s James Harden — got two votes and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook got one.
Rookie of the Year
If our voting is any indication, this year’s rookie class is deep and talented as seven different players received votes to win the Rookie of the Year award.
Denver guard Emmanuel Mudiay was the most popular choice, getting four votes. Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor got three, while Detroit forward (and former Arizona star) Stanley Johnson got two.
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, Indiana big man Myles Turner and Miami forward Justise Winslow each received a single vote.
Defensive Player of the Year
Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets finished fourth in the balloting for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award last season. That won’t be the case this year, according to our panel.
Davis received seven votes in our poll, followed by reigning DPOY Kawhi Leonard of San Antonio and L.A. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Utah’s Rudy Gobert each received one vote.
Coach of the Year
Nine different head coaches received votes, but it’s newcomer Billy Donovan who got the most.
The former Florida head coach, who is making his first foray into the pro game with the Oklahoma City Thunder, received three votes in our balloting.
Former Suns coach Alvin Gentry, now with New Orleans, and Houston’s Kevin McHale got two votes while Cleveland’s Dave Blatt, Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra each got a vote.
Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City had to carry a big scoring load last season thanks to a foot injury that kept teammate Kevin Durant in street clothes for 55 games. Westbrook averaged 28.1 points per game to lead the league.
That won’t be the case this season, according to our panel. Houston’s James Harden and Durant each received four votes, while Steph Curry of Golden State and Portland’s Damian Lillard each got two. New Orleans star Anthony Davis received one vote.
DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers grabbed 1.5 more rebounds per game than anyone else in the league last season to lead the NBA in that category for the second straight year.
Eight members of our voting panel predict Jordan to do it again in 2015-16.
New Orleans’ Anthony Davis got three votes, while Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Cleveland’s Kevin Love each got one.
First Coach Fired
It’s an annual occurrence. A coach, whose team struggles out of the gate, gets let go early.
Our panel predicts the ax will fall first on Sacramento’s George Karl. The veteran bench boss coached 30 games for the Kings last season, but was dogged by all kinds of stories this offseason about his relationship (or lack thereof) with star big man DeMarcus Cousins. Add free agent point guard Rajon Rondo into the mix, and the recipe for a chemistry disaster is more than present in California’s capital city.
Four panelists picked Karl to be the first coach let go, while three predict Philadelphia’s Brett Brown to be shown the door. Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins, New York’s Derek Fisher, Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland’s Terry Stotts and Indiana’s Frank Vogel each got one vote.
Bold NBA Predictions
Jon Bloom: The Houston Rockets will have the most wins in the league in the regular season, but will lose in the 2nd round of the playoffs.
Dave Burns: Head coach George Karl will not make it through the season in Sacramento.
Doug Franz: Cleveland head coach Dave Blatt will not be fired.
John Gambadoro: Someone will throw a towel in George Karl’s face.
Bryan Gibberman: Washington’s John Wall will finish in the top five the league’s MVP voting.
Adam Green: The Minnesota Timberwolves will contend for a playoff spot.
Andy Greenberg: The Milwaukee Bucks will be one of the most dangerous teams in the East. Jason Kidd will win Coach of the Year, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the Most Improved Player, they’ll send somebody to the All-Star Game, they’ll finish over .500 and they’ll get at least one playoff series win.
Craig Grialou: Due to injury, Lakers star Kobe Bryant will not finish the regular season and will announce his retirement.
Vince Marotta: Memphis’ Matt Barnes will choke a dude — maybe Knicks coach Derek Fisher — on the court. The Knicks visit Memphis January 16. Keep an eye on that one.
Kellan Olson: The Los Angeles Clippers will fail to make it out of the first round of the playoffs and will break up their core next season.
Ron Wolfley: Chicago’s Derrick Rose will stay healthy.
Kevin Zimmerman: There will be three Western Conference playoff teams that weren’t in the postseason last year.
Steve Zinsmeister: In an attempt to bolster their roster for a playoff push, the Phoenix Suns will make a trade for Boston forward David Lee.
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