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

Predicting the 2015-16 NHL season

Hey, a second straight predictions post! ‘Tis the season, I suppose.

After laying out my MLB playoff predictions — through one wild-card game, I’m already wrong — I’ll take a stab at forecasting the upcoming NHL season, which begins Wednesday.

Below are the teams I like (in no particular order) to reach the playoffs this season, followed by Stanley Cup and award predictions. Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Eastern Conference playoff teams: Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens. Quick hits:

A return trip to the Cup finals is within reach for Tampa Bay. … Washington always seems to underachieve, but this could be a breakthrough season. … Henrik Lundqvist always makes the Rangers a contender. … Young Islanders star John Tavares could win the Hart Trophy this season. … Any team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is a threat. … The Blue Jackets are a popular choice as a surprise team, and for good reason. … Death, taxes, and the Red Wings in the playoffs. … I expect Montreal to slip a bit, but not out of the playoff picture.

Western Conference playoff teams: Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks. Quick hits:

The defending champions certainly lost some key pieces, but enough talent remains for another deep playoff run. … The Ducks are one of the favorites this season. …. Young Blues standout Vladimir Tarasenko is simply nasty. … The Kings will be motivated after narrowly missing last year’s postseason. … I like Calgary’s team-first culture. … I see many outlets predicting a step back for the Jets, but I still think they’ll contend. … Nashville flies under the radar quite often, but they should compete in the West. … Minnesota should be in the mix, but I give the nod to Vancouver.

Stanley Cup prediction: Lightning over Blues. Tampa Bay was supposedly overmatched in last season’s Stanley Cup finals against Chicago, yet the series still went six games. With a healthy Ben Bishop in goal, and the continued improvement of young stars Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay is locked and loaded for another deep run. St. Louis has been eliminated in the first round each of the last two seasons, but I see a breakthrough this season behind Tarasenko and a deep, talented roster.

Award predictions:

  • Hart (MVP): Steven Stamkos, Lightning
  • Art Ross (Top scorer): John Tavares, Islanders
  • Norris (Top defenseman): Victor Hedman, Lightning
  • Vezina (Top goalie): Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers
  • Calder (Top rookie): Connor McDavid, Oilers
  • Jack Adams (Top coach): Todd Richards, Blue Jackets

Predicting the 2015 MLB playoffs

If you’re looking for an exercise in futility, you’ve made it to the right place. I’m about to predict the MLB postseason, which is usually about as pointless as trying to predict the NCAA tournament each year.

The scale is smaller (10 MLB teams compared to 68 for March Madness), but the unpredictability is on the same level. That’s why MLB’s history is full of out-of-nowhere champions like the 1969 Mets, 1997 Marlins and 2002 Angels, among others.

Teams get hot, teams get cold, pitchers get hot, hitters get cold. Over a 162-game season, trends have a way of evening out. It’s hard to be a “fluke” for six months, but it’s certainly possible in a six- or seven-game series.

But hey, it’s the playoffs! Let’s have some fun making inevitably incorrect predictions.

AL Wild Card: Yankees 3, Astros 2. I wanted to pick Houston here, but this just feels like a game the veteran-heavy Yankees will win.

NL Wild Card: Cubs 2, Pirates 1. Another tough one, but it’s hard to pick against Jake Arrieta right now. I give him the slight edge over Gerrit Cole.

ALDS: Royals over Yankees in 4 games. Kansas City didn’t exactly close out the regular season with a bang, but New York will struggle to match up pitching-wise, particularly after the loss of CC Sabathia.

ALDS: Rangers over Blue Jays in 5 games. Easily the toughest series to forecast. Both teams have been on a tear in the second half of the season. I just like Texas’ pitching, led by Cole Hamels, a bit more than Toronto’s offense, which although formidable, can be boom-or-bust.

NLDS: Mets over Dodgers in 4 games. It’s not easy to pick against Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, but New York’s rotation is just as imposing. I like the Mets here.

NLDS: Cardinals over Cubs in 5 games. St. Louis has advanced to the NLCS in each of the last four seasons. I expect that streak to continue, but Chicago will make it interesting.

ALCS: Royals over Rangers in 7 games. Another series that could go either way. I give an experienced Kansas City squad the slight nod.

NLCS: Cardinals over Mets in 6 games. St. Louis puts together a deep postseason run seemingly every year. New York will present a serious challenge, but I lean toward a veteran St. Louis team.

World Series: Cardinals over Royals in 6 games. Much like how the Giants reached three World Series in the last five years, I can see St. Louis doing the same. And if the Cardinals face their Missouri counterpart, I give the edge to the Redbirds.