SEASON-PREVIEW

Tell me a story …

… is one of the earliest and most common phrases children utter to their parents. As October draws to a close, many kids want to hear stories of ghosts, goblins and ghouls.

Other youngsters are more interested in tales of game-winners, gym rats and Gasols. And storylines for the 2015-2016 NBA season are everywhere.

Golden State looking to repeat. Anthony Davis vying for the MVP in year number four. LaMarcus Alridge joining the Spurs. Kevin Durant‘s return for OKC. The various exciting, young, league pass teams like the T-Wolves, Bucks and Magic.

The season kicks off Tuesday, Oct. 27, and it’s only right that UPC presents its predictions. Or, rather, allow us to tell you a story.

Western Conference

Predictions by Eli S. (@eschwad).

8. Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks landed Deron Williams and Wes Matthews in the off-season. Williams is clearly past his prime, but maybe moving to his hometown state of Texas will rejuvenate his career. Matthews is coming off a torn Achilles, and there’s no way of knowing whether he’ll fully bounce back.

Chandler Parsons recently had microfracture surgery on his right knee, but he should return to the lineup shortly after the Mavs’ season opener. The 26-year-old has great length as a 6-foot-9 small forward and is coming off season averages of 15.7 PPG and 4.9 RPG.

Zaza Pachulia as your starting center is not ideal. Dallas possesses solid depth at the point guard position in Devin Harris and J.J. Barea, but the rest of the bench lacks the talent needed to compete night in, night out in a brutal Western Conference. I still think this team will sneak in at the eight spot — Rick Carlisle is too good of a coach, and Dirk Nowitzki is still going to post around 20 PPG.

If DeAndre Jordan hadn’t pulled his July free agency fake-out, the Mavs would’ve been higher on this list. By the way, can we acknowledge that Paul Pierce is the G.O.A.T. for his part in that whole fiasco? The Truth really tweeted a photo of an emoji. Technology is tough, sometimes.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph make up the best front court in the L, and Mike Conley is a top-seven-or-eight point guard. Tony Allen is still an elite defender and defines Memphis’ Grit-n-Grind philosophy. Let’s not forget what he did against the Warriors in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.

This team is consistently good — but that’s just not enough to win a championship. Unless Jeff Green suddenly turns into Paul George, Memphis will once again have a terrific regular season only to fall short in the Playoffs.

The Grizz were relatively quiet during free agency. They picked up Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes, who should each fit the system fairly well. But those are still players who averaged just 7 and 10 points per game last year, respectively. Head coach David Joerger will need to find a spark in his team, or add another piece before the trade deadline, to have a shot at making the Finals.

6. New Orleans Pelicans

121814-NBA-Pelicans-Anthony-Davis-pi-ssm.vresize.1200.675.high.58Anthony Davis could literally go down as the greatest to ever play the game. He’s a 6-foot-10 freak of an athlete. He attacks the rim in the half-court and in transition. He can hit mid-range jumpers. He can post. He’s even been working on his three-pointer. And, he’s clutch.

On the defensive end, Davis eats up shots like pots of gumbo. When he isn’t sending shots into the first row of the bleachers, he’s affecting them, because even the best finishers in the league hear his footsteps from the Superdome. Oh, yeah, and he’s only 22 freaking years old.

Davis could contend for the MVP this season, but winning takes time. New head coach Alvin Gentry must figure out how to best utilize New Orleans’ prized possession, and how to put together a product around him that will lead to post-season victories.

Tyreke Evans is one of those players that certain fans call overrated, and other fans call undderrated. I err on the side of underrated. He put up 16.6 PPG, 6.6 APG and 5.3 RPG last year, and he attacks the lane in a LeBron-esque, freight train manner. Evans is dealing with a knee injury, but it’s unclear how serious it is. He can play positions one through three, so it’ll be interesting to see if Gentry goes small and employs a starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Evans, Davis and Omer Asik. With Ryan Anderson off the bench, the Pels have a strong core in place — but it’ll take a few years for it to all come together.

5. Houston Rockets

The Rockets were plagued by injuries in 2014-15. With Patrick Beverly, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones back healthy, Houston will have a plethora of lineup opportunities at its disposal. The addition of Ty Lawson means the point guard duties will not fall entirely on Beverly. Expect to see Beverly on the court for the opening tip early in the season, but Lawson to eventually overtake him in the starting five.

I just wrote four sentences about the Rockets without even mentioning James Harden‘s name. The Beard will once again be in full effect — cashing step-back jumpers, crossing up helpless defenders and euro-stepping through the lane. Harden has transformed his defense, as well. Two years ago, both his man and off-the-ball defense were laughable. Last season, he averaged two steals per game and hustled in help D.

Dwight Howard will need to stay healthy for the Rockets to compete with the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Warriors come Playoff time. Many people are picking Houston as a darkhorse to win the West, but I don’t see it yet. That being said, this team can go far as long as it avoids the injury bug.

4. San Antonio Spurs

lamarcus_aldridgeChris Paul ran circles around the Spurs in the first round of last year’s Playoffs. CP3 capped off a masterful series with a game-winner in Game 7, and many people (ourselves included) thought San Antonio’s run was finally over. Gregg Popovich’s coaching genius could no longer make up for his squad’s lack of youth. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were still fine players last season, but for the first time in what seemed like forever, it felt like something was missing.

And then, boom. San Antonio landed free agency’s biggest fish, signing LaMarcus Aldridge to a four-year, $80 million max contract. Shortly thereafter, David West turned down $12.6 million with the Pacers, instead agreeing to a $1.4 million deal with the Spurs and a chance to win a ‘chip.

The Aldridge pick-up should spook the rest of the conference. Despite suffering a torn ligament in his thumb in January, Aldridge still managed averages of 23.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG for the Blazers in 2014-15. He also led the league in field goals made with 659. Here’s a scary thought: San Antonio’s incredible ball movement will only increase LA’s open shot opportunities. That deadly mid-range game that Aldridge possesses? Yeah, that’s only going to get easier for him.

Think about this: the last time the Spurs got an All-Star in free agency was when they signed Dennis Rodman in 1993. They’ve won five championships just by building through the draft and developing their unselfish system. With Aldridge on board, SA’s championship window remains open, and opposing defenses remain stressed.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant‘s return from injury instantly propels OKC to the Top 3 in the West. Expect EasyMoneySniper to be back in full force, competing for both the scoring title and MVP award. His silky jump shot and slithery trips to the rim have been on full display in the pre-season, and barring any more mishaps, KD is primed for a gigantic year.

The biggest news is Durant’s comeback, but let us not forget the magical season Russell Westbrook had in his absence. Russ attacked every play — offensive or defensive — like it was his last. It just looked like he wanted it more than any other player on the court. He raced up the court like a cheetah on Red Bull. He posterized poor defenders with the ferocity of a mini Shawn Kemp.

Westbrook led the league with 11 triple-doubles — seven more than second-best James Harden. With his team in desperate need of wins to make the playoffs, Russ averaged 42.5 points, 9.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds over the final three games of the season. The fact that he’ll now be playing alongside a healthy KD is frightening.

With the 14th pick, the Thunder drafted Murray State’s Cameron Payne, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 20.2 PPG with the Racers last year. If new head coach Billy Donovan is smart, he’ll delegate a good chunk of the ball handling duties to Payne, allowing Durant and Westbrook to play off the ball and be in full attack mode. Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams will be solid again in the front court, while Enes Kanter can get buckets but presents a defensive liability. Mitch McGary provides energy, and Dion Waiters scores in bunches off the bench. Anthony Morrow and Kyle Singler add long-distance shooting.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

Before an epic collapse against the Rockets in last year’s post-season, it looked like LAC might be ready to claim its first-ever championship. After that brutal loss in the conference semi-finals, things went from bad to worse for the Clips when it seemed like they would lose DeAndre Jordan to the Mavericks.

Then, all of a sudden, the Clippers’ luck did a 180. They picked up Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson in free agency. Most importantly, Jordan eventually decided to stay in Los Angeles. The only mistake the Clips made in the off-season was with their new uniforms — those jonts are hot garbage.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are hungrier than ever. Pierce will do Pierce things in the post-season. LA is hoping Josh Smith can, in spurts, play just as well as he did in the second half of Game 6 Rockets-Clippers last Playoffs. Jamal Crawford will again contend for sixth man of the year. Clips fans are hoping Stephenson can return to Pacers-era Born Ready. Doc Rivers and company are hoping that Donald Sterling’s bad mojo is finally gone, so that a Los Angeles team other than the Lakers can hold the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Expectations are sky-high like the Hollywood sign. Let’s see if the Clippers can put it all together.

1. Golden State Warriors

Let’s just be honest, let’s just be real: nobody is guarding Stephen Curry this year. The 27-year-old baby-faced assassin is coming off an MVP and championship season, and there are no signs of him slowing down. The Warriors hired Steve Nash in the off-season as a part-time assistant, and the idea of the NBA’s third all-time assist leader working with Curry is plain awesome. Steph has already added certain parts of Nash’s game to his repertoire — namely, throwing no-look passes and keeping his dribble alive for as long as possible to find the best available open shot or teammate.

Golden State critics like to point out the fact that they caught myriad of breaks in the Playoffs. They say things like, ‘Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were injured in the Finals.’ Or, they bring up how in round two, Mike Conley and Tony Allen missed games one and four, respectively. Some detractors think the Spurs would’ve beaten the Warriors, but they didn’t get a chance to match up because of Chris Paul’s Game 7 heroics in round one. No matter what, people find excuses.

How about the fact that Curry is the best shooter we’ve ever seen play the game of basketball? How about the fact that his back court mate, Klay Thompson, scored 37 points in one quarter last season? How about the fact that Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes grew up right before our eyes? How about the fact that, at age 31, Andre Iguodala is still a lock-down defender who played the biggest role in holding the Cavaliers to 38 percent shooting — the third-worst performance in NBA Finals history?

The Dubs went 67-15 last year, which tied for the sixth-best regular season record for any team, all-time. It’s repeat or bust for the Warriors in 2016, and if they can avoid injuries as they did last season, we think they’ve got a decent shot. They re-signed Green, their number one priority in the off-season. They also acquired Jason Thompson, who will serve as a fine backup to Andrew Bogut.  They lost David Lee — no doubt a solid player — but he wasn’t playing much for Golden State last year, anyway.

Our advice? Sit back, relax, and enjoy the Steph Curry show. He’s bound to put more than a few defenders on skates this season. We’ve never seen a player quite like this before:

Eastern Conference

Predictions by Zane T. (@zaneomaxbaby).

8. Orlando Magic

Jan 14, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo (5) and guard Elfrid Payton (4) high five after Oladipo dunked against the Houston Rockets during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Houston Rockets 120-113. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsThe Magic are a young team with a promising future. Orlando’s first step to perennial post-season success will be its first Playoff berth since the 2011-12 season. Elfrid Payton looks like the new Rajon Rondo, and C.J. Watson is a solid backup. Victor Oladipo made a leap last year and could see his first All-Star game in 2016 if he continues to improve offensively. He’s already shot better than expected and should get to the rim even more this year. Oladipo’s best attribute is that he can hawk positions one to three on defense. 

Tobias Harris is a natural scorer. Aaron Gordon could be the most athletic power forward in the league, and if he can shoot the three even a little bit effectively, his skills in transition will make him a dangerous player. Nikola Vucevic is an anchor in the middle and has one of the more flexible skill sets of any center in the league. His style of play doesn’t fit that well with Orlando’s run-n-gun offense, but when the kids decide to slow down and play smart, Vucevic will be there to deliver.

Evan Fournier is an under-appreciated backup guard, and the off-the-bench role is perfect for him. Mario Hezonja has been called the European J.R. Smith more than once since being drafted in July. Rookies don’t usually contribute too much in year one, but a few Hezonja heat-checks should, at the very least, provide entertainment. The front court is thin, but Channing Frye‘s shooting abilities translate anywhere. Look for the Magic to just go small when Vucevic needs a break.

7. Toronto Raptors

The most interesting off-season move the Raptors made was the acquisition of Canada’s own, Anthony Bennett. It’s funny that a player so stuck in the mud went to a team that has the same problem. This lineup didn’t change much, and it needed to.

Kyle Lowry slimmed down and looks primed for a big season, but he can’t be a team’s best player. DeMar DeRozan is Canada’s Rudy Gay, which is really just saying he takes a lot of contested mid-range shots, and he’s not a good enough shooter to get away with it. DeMarre Carroll was a solid addition at the three, but whoever starts at the four (probably Patrick Patterson or Luis Scola) will be going against a better player every night. Jonas Valanciunas has plenty of potential but doesn’t often give the impression that he likes playing basketball all that much.

The Raps’ depth is razor thin, and they don’t have a strong enough starting lineup to overcome that disadvantage on most nights. Terrence Ross is the best player coming off the bench and could crack the starting lineup some nights if Dwane Casey decides to play small-ball. If Delon Wright and/or Cory Joseph can give the Raptors serviceable time running the point, allowing Lowry to work off-the-ball more, this offense could be better than expected.

6. Atlanta Hawks

It might seem a little disrespectful to rank last year’s No. 1 seed this low, but c’mon — the yawn factor alone with this team justifies the spot. Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford have incredible chemistry, but individually, they’re all just above average for their respective positions. That doesn’t bode well for post-season success. In the infamous words of Denny Green, “THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!”

Ultimately, the Hawks aren’t young, quick or deep enough to run with the contenders this year. They really need more shooting.  Seriously, the next best shooter on the roster behind Korver is Tim Hardaway JR, and that’s a problem. Tiago Splitter may prove to be a viable back-up, but the fact that the Spurs were willing to part with him isn’t a good sign. As a general rule, just always assume Gregg Popovich knows more than you. Dennis Schroder is the most exciting guy on the team and brings youthful energy off the bench. Hopefully, he worked on that broken jumper during the off-season.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have the brightest future of any team in the East, but they still have too little experience be considered a contender this season. Every up-and-coming star comes with a big “yeah, but” attached to his name right now.  Giannis Antetokounmpo has arguably the most enticing physical package of any young player in the league, but whether he can ever harness all of these gifts and become a dominant force remains to be seen. The Greek Freak could become a great sixth man or he could become a superstar. We probably won’t know for another three years, at least — he’s still that raw.

It will be a joy to see Jabari Parker back on the floor this year.  He was never the most explosive player on the floor, and never needed to be, but one has to hope that his athleticism hasn’t been further diminished by his ACL tear last season. Parker should compete for scoring titles very soon — if healthy. 

Greg Monroe was a solid addition but doesn’t move fast enough for this team. O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless provide a much-needed scoring security blanket when the young guys go cold. Khris Middleton is provides long-range shooting for a team that struggles from the outside. 

Michael Carter-Williams‘ can finish and dish, but he needs to develop his jump shot. Milwaukee’s back court is unusually long, so rebounding shouldn’t be an issue.

4. Washington Wizards

Mar 20, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) reacts after making a shot during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. The Los Angeles Clippers won 113-99. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY SportsJohn Wall is probably the fastest player in the league dribbling baseline-to-baseline, and he can finish at the rim with the best of them. He’s unselfish with good vision and possesses a steadily improving jump shot. In short, you can win with John Wall as your best player as long as your second best player is also All-Star quality. Which brings us to Bradley Beal. He’ll probably be an All-Star at some point, but he’s dealt with reocurring health problems up to this point. The Wizards need him to make a leap into the elite range.

The Wiz are deep in the frontcourt as Marcin Gortat, Nene and Kris Humphries provide good muscle and rebounding ability. Nene, per usual, will be the wild card of the bunch, as he is prone to flashes of greatness intermixed with long stretches of mediocrity and injury. Gary Neal, Alan Anderson and Jared Dudley are good additions to the bench. Otto Porter JR hasn’t looked like a star — yet — but the Wizards don’t need him to be. They just need him to continue to improve his outside shot and find ways to get open. He has all the tools, but tends to hide during big moments. First-round pick Kelly Oubre JR is likely a few years away from making a meaningful impact on an NBA team, but his athleticism is undeniable, and his ceiling is high.

3. Miami Heat

It remains to be seen just how good Goran Dragic can be. One thing’s for sure: he’s a major improvement from past Heat point guards. This ranking is dependent on Bosh being healthy and Erik Spoelstra properly running the offense through him. Dwyane Wade is still one of the best shooting guards in the league. Add in Hassan Whiteside (big upside, big downside), Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Gerald Green and rookie Justise Winslow, and you’ve got a squad that has Eastern Conference Finals potential. Amar’e Stoudemire and Udonis Haslem are past their primes, but they’ll have positive leadership roles in the locker room.

2. Chicago Bulls

It’s no surprise the Bulls are good enough to make the Eastern Conference Finals. The problem is: it’s also no surprise they’re just not good enough to beat the Cavs.

What’s the best case scenario for the Bulls this year? Derrick Rose becomes an All-Star again. Joakim Noah becomes an All-Defensive player again, and his offensive repertoire surpasses that of the really tall kid on your middle school team who coach only puts in to win the opening tip. Jimmy Butler continues to improve and challenges Klay Thompson for the second-best SG in the league after James Harden. Nikola Mirotic keeps building his game and suddenly looks like the next Dirk. Those four — plus new head coach Fred Hoiberg — are the variables. Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, and Pau Gasol are known quantities. Though Bobby Portis was a good pick, he probably won’t make an impact this year. Even if the very best case scenario plays out, this team will still struggle to knock off the Cavs in the post-season.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers are the only real contender in the East at this point, and that says more about the rest of the East than it does about the Cavs. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are still the scariest threesome in basketball, but the latter two suffered injuries before they could prove they could play together at the highest level.

On paper, Love should fit in perfectly, so it was a little confusing to see him struggle. He’s a stretch-4 who can spread the floor for LeBron and Kyrie by knocking down three-pointers. But Love can be so much more than that — he needs to get back to dominating on the glass like he did on the T-Wolves. Mozgov and Varejao are both very valuable but need to be around the lane in order to thrive. In a time when the NBA is getting smaller, the Cavs seem to have the “problem” of being too big. Let’s not forget that Tristan Thompson will be re-joining the team at some point, too.

The roster hasn’t improved much in the off-season. Losing Shumpert to a three-month wrist injury is a bigger blow than it might be for some teams, because he would have been the starting two-guard. Mo Williams was the biggest addition to this roster, but he’s getting old, and he’s a defensive liability. However, he’s proven his value in crunch time and will be a streaky scorer off the bench.

After Williams, Cleveland essentially replaced one washed-up veteran, Mike Miller, with another washed-up veteran, Richard Jefferson. The Cavs retained another washed-up veteran, James Jones, when they signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Aside from LeBron, they’re thin at the shooting guard and small forward positions, but Blatt should be able to mix and match his lineups well enough to cover that up. If the Cavs can continue to gel in year two, which they’re fully expected to do, they’ll cruise to another Finals.

Western Conference Finals:

Clippers over Warriors

Los Angeles’ depth is the deciding factor in this series. Their off-season moves — retaining DeAndre Jordan, signing Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson — finally pay off in a trip to the NBA Finals. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will get theirs, no doubt. But the Warriors won’t have anyone to defend DeAndre Jordan at the rim, as Draymond Green will be tied up guarding Blake Griffin. Andrew Bogut is a suspect defender who often times resorts to dirty play around the basket. Paul Pierce and Jamal Crawford hit big buckets down the stretch. LAC in seven games.

Eastern Conference Finals:

Cavaliers over Heat

Kudos to the Heat for making it all the way to the Conference Finals, but this is where their journey ends. Don’t front — nobody on Miami’s roster can guard LeBron. Sorry Luol Deng, it just ain’t happening. And if both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are healthy, this one isn’t even close. Cavs in a sweep.

NBA Finals:

chris_paul_2015_basketball_basketball_player_nba_los_angeles_clippers_100566_3840x2160

Clippers over Cavaliers

It just feels like 2016 is the Clippers’ year. After seasons and seasons of being cast off as the “other” Los Angeles team, the Clips — led by franchise cornerstone Chris Paul — will capture their first championship. Kyrie Irving can’t come close to checking CP3, Jordan is too athletic for any of Cleveland’s bigs, and as we’ve harped on throughout this piece, the Clippers have the best bench in the league, easily.

LeBron will have to wait another year for a chance to bring a ‘chip to his home state of Ohio. Clippers in six games.