Predicting the 2015-16 NBA season

I can’t pinpoint when exactly I fell in love with basketball, but I remember when I fell in love with my favorite NBA team.

It was the 1997-98 season, and I was in the sixth grade. As a young, impressionable sports fan in a small New York town, I could have easily adopted the Knicks as my favorite team. Yet I was drawn to the out-of-town underdogs — an upstart Minnesota Timberwolves team featuring 21-year-old Kevin Garnett, 20-year-old Stephon Marbury and third-year head coach Flip Saunders.

That Timberwolves team went on to reach the playoffs and push the No. 2-seeded — and heavily-favored — Seattle SuperSonics to a deciding fifth game in the first round. Minnesota lost, but I was hooked. I’ve been a Timberwolves fan ever since, through ups and (mostly) downs.

With increased player movement in professional sports, it’s become easier for fans to detach themselves from players and other franchise figures. Why buy a player’s jersey if he’s going to leave as a free agent in a year or two? I try not to think like that. As someone who has worked in the world of sports media and met athletes from all walks of life, here’s something to remember — they’re just people, too. And as such, I am really going to miss Flip Saunders.

I didn’t know him personally, though I did see him around on the ESPN campus occasionally. And yet, I feel like I lost a friend. I’ve heard multiple times this week that the NBA is a close-knit fraternity. A family, even. Does that family simply consist of players, coaches and executives, or can it include fans? I believe it can.

Even though I’m 18 years removed from that Sonics-Timberwolves series, the memories won’t soon fade. Another NBA season kicked off this week, and Flip Saunders didn’t get to see it. That, for him and his family, is a tragedy. But his extended family of NBA players, coaches and fans can continue to honor his memory with basketball — playing it, watching it, loving it.

I usually have some fun by making predictions at the start of each season. Here’s my shot at the 2015-16 season:

WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

  1. Los Angeles Clippers
  2. Golden State Warriors
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder
  4. San Antonio Spurs
  5. Houston Rockets
  6. Memphis Grizzlies
  7. New Orleans Pelicans
  8. Dallas Mavericks
  9. Utah Jazz
  10. Phoenix Suns
  11. Sacramento Kings
  12. Minnesota Timberwolves
  13. Portland Trail Blazers
  14. Los Angeles Lakers
  15. Denver Nuggets

EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Chicago Bulls
  3. Washington Wizards
  4. Toronto Raptors
  5. Miami Heat
  6. Atlanta Hawks
  7. Boston Celtics
  8. Milwaukee Bucks
  9. Indiana Pacers
  10. Orlando Magic
  11. Charlotte Hornets
  12. Detroit Pistons
  13. New York Knicks
  14. Brooklyn Nets
  15. Philadelphia 76ers

PLAYOFFS

East finals – Cavaliers over Wizards; West finals– Clippers over Thunder

NBA Finals – Cavaliers over Clippers

AWARDS

MVP – LeBron James, Cavaliers

Defensive Player of the Year – Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Rookie of the Year – Jahlil Okafor, 76ers

Sixth Man of the Year – Isaiah Thomas, Celtics

Most Improved – Bradley Beal, Wizards

Coach of the Year – Doc Rivers, Clippers

#tbt: LeBron James and other bad NBA breakups

With the 2015-16 NBA season less than a week away from tipoff, here’s a fun look back at some of the most notable splits in league history.

My short post for ESPN.com went live on the five-year anniversary (July 8, 2015) of LeBron James’ “Decision” to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers via free agency and join the Miami Heat.

Among the other notable breakups: Dwight Howard leaving the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013, Pat Riley leaving the New York Knicks in 1995, and Shaquille O’Neal leaving the Orlando Magic in 1996. An excerpt on O’Neal:

Playing varying roles in his decision [to join the Lakers] were reported tension with then-coach Brian Hill and guard Penny Hardaway, a highly publicized Orlando Sentinel poll to which O’Neal took exception, and opportunities in the entertainment world. But the bottom line is this: O’Neal went on to win four titles (one with Miami), while Orlando has made just one Finals trip since.