2002-03 Predictions

By Kevin Pelton
For Hoopsworld.com
Sep. 28, 2002

With the off-season essentially complete and rosters close to how they’ll be during the regular season, I thought I’d take this opportunity to record some predictions for posterity so that in eight months you can re-read them, e-mail me, and call me an idiot. For that matter, maybe you’ll be able to do that in a month if an injury dramatically shifts things. Then be sure to indicate, “What kind of idiot predicts things before training camp?”

The answer to that, however, should already be clear: This kind of idiot.


1. New Jersey
Way too much talent to finish anywhere else in the East in my opinion. In the short term, the Dikembe Mutombo trade should be very good for the Nets. They were a very good defensive team last season, and with the addition of Mutombo and the ascendance to the starting lineup of Richard Jefferson, they could be legitimately great defensively.

2. Orlando
Call it a blind spot because he was one of the heroes of my youth, but I believe firmly that if given regular minutes, Shawn Kemp can be a reasonably productive big man, especially in the Eastern Conference. It’s not as if the Magic got a lot up front last season; anything Kemp provides would probably make them better in that regard. As well, Grant Hill almost has to produce more than he did last season.

3. Philadelphia
Going by point differential, the Sixers should have had homecourt last year despite Allen Iverson missing 22 games. They've added some depth with players like Greg Buckner and Monty Williams and . . . well, I really am not high on the Atlantic.

4. Boston
Again, I’m hardly objective on this count, but I do believe that Vin Baker will prove to be the catalyst of the Celtics’ demise down the stretch after a reasonably productive start. If Baker doesn’t get touches in the post, he’s neither happy nor productive in other areas of the game. Where will those touches come from? Pierce and Walker dominated the offense last season in Boston -- and rightfully so -- and taking shots from them and giving them to Baker is not a good plan in my opinion. The question mark at point guard also does not bode well for the Celtics.

5. Washington
Liked the Jerry Stackhouse trade, but Larry Hughes may be my least favorite player in the NBA and Bryon Russell didn't look like he had much left last year. Probably in the running for a playoff spot to the end of the season, depending on what Michael Jordan can give them.

6. New York
Yeech. No point guard, no center, no chance.

7. Miami
Pat Riley would be Coach of the Year if this team even came close to contending. Actually, that’s too pessimistic; Caron Butler should be able to contribute immediately and Brian Grant should improve on last season’s performance, but the ultimate logic is simple: If the Heat can’t make the playoffs with Alonzo Mourning, how will they even contend without him?


1. New Orleans
The Hornets have become a bit of a trendy pick, but I can't disagree. It sounds crazy, but Jamaal Magloire (who, of course, did not start last season) might be the best center in the East and Campbell is a solid player there as well. I'm not a big Courtney Alexander fan, but he'll have to be better than Bryce Drew in a three-guard rotation with newly-extended Baron Davis and David Wesley.

2. Indiana
Finally in the playoffs the Pacers looked like they had figured out how to fit their talent together. With Al Harrington healthy, they're unbelievably deep, with the main question naturally at point guard. Looking at some numbers on similar rookies, I feel there's a pretty good chance that Jamaal Tinsley shows some solid improvement this season, which would be huge for the Pacers.

3. Atlanta
I got burned by the Hawks last year, Lon Kruger is an inadequate coach in my opinion, and losing DerMarr Johnson can't help, but I still can't see how they don't make the playoffs. The Hawks can't possibly be hurt as badly by injuries as last year, and Glenn Robinson will make for a fine third option.

4. Detroit
I thought the Pistons would be a fairly solid bet to decline even before making the Richard Hamilton deal, but now I'm not sure they'll even make the playoffs. If they are able to play as well as last season, then coach Rick Carlisle really will be a miracle worker.

5. Toronto
The Raptors’ problems have all been blamed on alternately Vince Carter and Lenny Wilkens, but in my opinion the real issue is the lack of a second scorer. Maybe Morris Peterson can step up, but Antonio Davis is on the decline because of his age and losing Keon Clark is huge.

6. Milwaukee
Coach George Karl avoided flaming out in Seattle when Wally Walker spared him his job in 1995, but I think he'll make it three for four in Milwaukee. Tim Thomas taking Robinson’s job shuffles the deck, but doesn’t really change the fact that the Bucks get entirely too little from their centers and play subpar perimeter defense. In the end, the biggest change for Milwaukee this off-season might be in the coaching staff, and I don’t see that as a positive.

7. Chicago
I wouldn't be shocked if they passed up the Bucks, but the Bulls are still a year away . . . kinda like the Clippers two years ago, I think.

8. Cleveland
Yuck. At least they didn't have to complete that Mateen Cleaves deal. Now-departed forward Lamond Murray says what we’re all thinking about the Cavs.


1. San Antonio
Now that Emanuel Ginobili looks like an instant contributor and the Spurs have added Kevin Willis as some decent insurance for David Robinson up front, I think the Spurs will be a very good regular season team again. Not that it will matter if they meet the Lakers in the playoffs.

2. Dallas
The Mavericks, looking at point differential, were a little lucky to end up where they did last year and I'm not sure how much better Popeye Jones will be than just giving more minutes to Eduardo Najera. Based on that, I think the Mavericks will again finish an extremely close fourth in the West. At least once they get to the playoffs, they won't be starting Johnny Newman.

3. Minnesota
But I think the Timberwolves will be behind four or five Pacific teams. The real Minnesota team, in my opinion, showed itself in the second half (they went 20-21) and I'd be fairly surprised if Terrell Brandon was as good as Chauncey Billups was down the stretch last season. But at least they have Joe Smith; isn’t that nice consolation?

4. Utah
I do think this will be the year the Jazz miss the playoffs. Again . . . like everyone else, I've been thinking that for nearly a decade, but this looks like the real deal. I love Andrei Kirilenko, but not nearly enough talent around him, John Stockton, and Karl Malone.

5. Houston
Looks like Yao Ming will have a lot of difficulty with fouls this year . . . the long-term verdict is still out in my opinion. Steve Francis should be healthy, but the Rockets’ problems went far beyond his injuries last year. Ming helps them defensively, but they are still one of the NBA’s weakest teams on that end of the court, especially if Glen Rice plays regularly.

6. Memphis
This seems like a pretty important year for the Grizzlies to see if they’re moving in the right direction. Wesley Person and Michael Dickerson will be a dramatic improvement on the Grant Long-Rodney Buford duo that played their minutes last season (with Shane Battier moving from primarily playing the two to small forward), but they’re very unlikely to catch anyone else in the Midwest.

7. Denver
Kiki Vandeweghe's long-term plan makes sense, but this is going to be one heck of a long year, especially if the Nuggets buy out or trade two of their remaining veterans, Mark Jackson and Marcus Camby.


1. Sacramento
I don't think the top of the Pacific surprises anyone. Barring a major disturbance involving Chris Webber, the Kings should be the NBA’s best regular-season team again.

2. L.A. Lakers
This is an almost age-old story. Team finishes second in the Pacific Division in the regular season, but is still favorite to win the championship.

3. L.A. Clippers
The Clippers have maybe the best all-around starting lineup in the league with the addition of Andre Miller. In the Pacific, that’s only good enough for third place, though they should be a serious threat to the West’s four elite teams. Hopefully he and Elton Brand will get the credit they're due this season, not to mention extensions. Well, then again, I’m a fan of a Pacific foe. Maybe they shouldn’t get those extensions. . . .

4. Portland
Some shuffling of the deck, but I think the Trail Blazers are still in the same position as the last few years . . . needing a true go-to player that they count on night in and night out. I may be alone on this, but I don’t see Rasheed Wallace as a top 30 NBA player, and without one of those it’s very difficult to go deep into the playoffs. Maybe Bonzi Wells can fill the void, but that would require some dramatic improvement.

5. Seattle
I think 3-5 in the Pacific are all pretty close. Assuming of course Payton reports on time (I expect him to maybe skip media day or a couple of a practices, but nothing serious), the Sonics could well win 50 games. Last year they won 45 and were the team in the NBA that gained the most wins going from actual wins to point differential. Losing Baker, naturally, will be a huge positive. The main question mark is second-year power forward Vladimir Radmanovic, but he was at the position during the Sonics’ best run last season and I believe he will be just fine this season.

6. Phoenix
I think the Suns will be better than they were at the end of last season, and could very well be the best non-playoff team in the West, but they are stuck in the most difficult division in the NBA. Give them a few years; they’ll be back in the thick of contention.

7. Golden State
The usual pre-season optimism about them, but I expect it to be as unwarranted as usual and gone by December 1. Even if this team was markedly improved (and it could be), the gap between them and the rest of the division is enormous.


MVP: Jason Kidd, New Jersey
Kidd nearly got this award last season on a Nets squad that should be worse than this year’s incarnation. Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady will probably make another strong run at this award and the Kobe/Shaq duo, if healthy, will also be in the running, but they can’t stand up to the media darling.

Sixth Man: Mike Miller, Orlando
This is a difficult award to pick because whether a player will start regularly or not is tough to predict. In Miller’s case, that will depend both on Hill’s health and whether the Magic decide to oust Darrell Armstrong and go with a three-forward lineup. My darkhorse candidate here is Rodney Rogers of the Nets if there is a similar one-team run as in 2000 with the Sixers and last year with the Pistons.

Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers, Orlando
Another difficult pick; the question is which team will overachieve most relative to pre-season predictions. I like Orlando’s chances of being a lot better than expected, and Rivers is also a favorite amongst writers, which is the perfect fit for this award.

Rookie of the Year: Jay Williams, Chicago
Williams has the right combination of opportunity to play, NBA readiness, media profile, and, well, talent to win this award. There are lots of strong candidates for this award, but I think Williams is the natural choice.

Defensive Player of the Year: Dikembe Mutombo, New Jersey
Mutombo actually declined a bit on the defensive end last season, but should be rejuvenated in the Garden State and caught up in the sweep of the Nets’ run.

L.A. Lakers defeat L.A. Clippers 4-1 in Western Conference Finals (wouldn’t that be a great series?)

New Jersey defeats Indiana 4-3 in Eastern Conference Finals (excellent rematch of last year’s first round matchup).

L.A. Lakers defeat New Jersey 4-0 in NBA Finals (as Yogi Berra would say, like déjà vu all over again).

Kevin Pelton is the lead Pacific editor for News@Hoopsworld.com He can be reached via e-mail at kpelton@sonicscentral.com.