With the NBA offseason activity beginning to wane heavily this week, albeit for a few signings still up in the air- Nikola Pekovic notably. And on the eve of the NFL and college football's annual takeover of all things media, I think it's finally time to make some predictions for the upcoming NBA season given that the majority of rosters are somewhere between working rough draft and fixed. Now before reading this column, I need you guys to realize a few things: 1) I'm making NBA predictions in JULY and literally ANYTHING can happen before the season to derail these predictions. 2) These are 100% serious. I am not here to troll or make fun of anybody. That would be churlish and a waste of time. 3) I encourage you to respond with how you feel about my predictions. So without further ado, I present to you a running column that will include a Fanpost for each and every NBA team, "The Flagrantly Early, Incredibly Half-Baked NBA Predictions Series.
No. 1: Kirilenko will be sorely missed
From a pure value standpoint, Chase Budinger is a much better option than Andrei Kirilenko. Budinger is 7 years younger (25), he’s getting paid half of what the T-wolves would have given Andrei, and because there’s such a low sample size from last year (only played 23 games) it’s hard to dog on his statistical ability. Thus, this prediction is based solely on the eye test. Watching Andrei last year, it was evident the guy still had it; he finished 10th amongst small forwards in PER. Amidst the stretches where Kirilenko was busted up with injuries, were games like this double-double vs. Houston or this decent showing vs. Miami or this efficient shredding vs. New Orleans. Kirilenko could flat out change the game in Minnesota’s favor with such efficiency and grace that it made you reminisce of the former All-Star’s younger years. I don’t think Budinger has that quality; Budinger is a nice player- he’s super athletic, shoots a helluva lot better than Kirilenko from deep, and is certainly a nice rotation piece for this T-Wolves team. Yet, there’s never going to be a time when Chase Budinger takes over, puts the team on his back, and wills this T-Wolves squad to a win much like Kirilenko did on multiple occasions last season. And maybe Budinger doesn’t have to if Love, Rubio, and Martin are healthy all season and if Pekovic regains his 2012 form. Further, Chase will probably split minutes with Corey Brewer, Derrick Williams, and possibly Shabazz, so the onus isn’t even entirely on him to fill the void left by AK-47’s departure. It’s just that when you lose a professional of such high caliber like Andrei Kirilenko, there’s bound to be a drop in form when the next man steps up.
No. 2: Ricky Rubio will lead the league in assists
As a disclaimer, this prediction hinges upon Ricky Rubio actually playing 82 games or something close to it next season (he’s missed 25 in each of the last two seasons). Yet, I think when you give Ricky a healthy lineup- Minny’s injury luck (or lack thereof) can’t remain this unfortunate forever- he’s got a shot. Especially if Kevin Love returns to the double-double animal he was during the 2011-2012 season (averaged 26-13). Add also the shooting specialists Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer the T-Wolves added plus Chase Budinger’s return (better shooter than AK-47) and that’s a lot more made buckets in Minnesota’s favor considering Ricky Rubio’s wizard passing ability.
Further, when you view the landscape of assist leaders in the NBA, there’s been a great change from last year to this year. Rajon Rondo will probably miss some games to start the season, and is no longer playing with 2 other All Stars. Grievis Vasquez was tossed out of New Orleans system to test his fate with the unstable Kings who aren’t exactly flooded over with talent. Yeah, there are guys like CP3, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook who will perennially be at the forefront of the chase, but I think if Ricky and the Wolves finally dodge the injury bullet, Rubio is hands down the front runner given his pure passing ability and unselfishness with the basketball.
No. 3: Shabazz will be a Sha-bust… at least in non-NBA junkie’s eyes
Now I’m not the guy who’s going to knock a rookie- no matter how bad he plays. There’s just no sense in bashing somebody who’s that young in their career because there is so much growth Shabazz has to do, and he is eons away from defining his NBA ability. 7/10 times teams draft based on potential and that upside is rarely maximized within a player’s first few years- Shabazz will be no exception. It’s just when people look at Shabazz’s game this year they are going to wonder. Shabazz is as pure a scorer to enter this league as anybody; he’s absolutely unstoppable when he finds a rhythm and goes to work, but as he adjusts to the NBA those stretches are going to be few and far between this year because good NBA defenders just know how to roast dudes who are inexperienced, make them look like fools. Moreover, Shabazz is going to have plenty of nights with DNPs when the T-Wolves are actually competing to win games and not letting the rooks run in hopes of development like years past as the injury reports grew longer.
But Shabazz is in a good situation for his growth, yet not one that will portray him in positive light with the media. The T-Wolves locked up Budinger and Brewer as their wings for this year- two guys who fit the 3 point/defense role well, something they’ll need as Martin and Rubio need that space to slash and also aren’t exactly world killers on defense. Thus, Shabazz can take his time to work on his flaws- passing, spacing, hustle, three point shooting, defensive intensity- with little pressure to produce immediately because Minnesota has the Small Forward position tied down for now. However, when Shabazz looks ahead of himself on the depth chart, he sees two players he can easily displace with hard work and a little more intensity to his game, so the motivation is there for him to go to work if he wants to be an All Star player. Yet, that’s not what everyone will see, they’ll see a bust, a guy who’s not good enough to challenge Chase Budinger’s minutes, and someone who was all hype. But, if Shabazz puts his ego aside, his head down, and doesn’t worry about the press then he will make it in this league and come out a better man for it. Realistic career ceiling: left-handed J.R. Smith with a little less crazy. But hey, they all dogged on JR too before games like this.