- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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In the normal course of NBA punditry, predictions attached to the start of a season are publicly disseminated before that season actually starts.
But here's the thing:
Stein Line Live, as a tiny new entity in this mammoth NBA stratosphere, did not yet exist last Tuesday when the 2013-14 season commenced.
So we're getting our Eight Fearless Predictions to commemorate the league's 68th season out on the maiden Tuesday in SLL history, touching on some prime matters of importance that look a bit beyond the various prediction packages ESPN.com hit you with early last week.
For recreational purposes only, please ...
1. LeBron James will become the first player in NBA history to win five Most Valuable Player awards in the span of six seasons.
You want to know how I already know? Here's how: I've seen several colleagues write recently about the epidemic of "voter fatigue" and how that raises the real possibility that LeBron will fail to collect a majority share of MVP ballots even if (when?) he’s deserving again. My counter? Back in the days when voters really did tire of voting for Michael Jordan season after season, we weren't nearly as self-aware as we are now about our collective media shortcomings. The volume of media watchdogs shouting us down for voter fatigue was practically nonexistent. Some two decades later, Kevin Durant or Chris Paul is going to have to be very, very special to deny LeBron his fifth regular-season MVP trophy and third in a row overall ... assuming he’s the most worthy candidate come April as the overwhelming majority of us expect. Modern-day voters can’t just quietly opt for variety in the name of merely mixing it up. Not anymore.
2. This will be Luol Deng's last season in Chicago.
Only a championship for the Bulls this season can potentially lead to a management rethink that invalidates this one. Otherwise? There are just too many raw feelings at hand after Chicago refused to seriously negotiate with Deng on an extension this past offseason despite his standing as one of Tom Thibodeau's all-time favorites. Deng will be a free agent in July and rest assured, at 28, he's going to attract significant interest. We're talking about a pro's pro, so you won't see any dismay seep into his game, but the overwhelming likelihood is that Deng and the Bulls -- after years and years of trade speculation that never begat an actual trade -- will finally be going their separate ways in July. Veteran Bulls watchers don't see any way that the organization plans to pay Deng as well as the blossoming Jimmy Butler.
3. Lamar Odom will be back in the NBA in 2014.
With so many teams in the hunt at the top of the East as well as the top of the West, every contender out there is going to be looking for any conceivable veteran boost for the playoff push. And the vibe I get is that Odom, despite that summerlong string of really daunting headlines, does want to make an NBA return eventually. Nothing will realistically happen until we get to January or February at the soonest, but I’m starting to hear that he really does have his eye on a second-half comeback. And he's still too seasoned and skilled at 34, no matter what potential concerns you want to raise, for teams not to give him a look. (Just to throw out one example: You’re telling me Oklahoma City, as thin as the Thunder look, wouldn’t have interest in a gamble on a minimum-salaried Odom with his close friend Derek Fisher in place as a welcoming committee?)
4. So will Jason Collins, Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis.
The concerns teams have about the inevitable media onslaught that will come with signing Collins, which we've been talking about since camps opened, sadly do mean that his absence from ppening night rosters is tied to Collins' sexuality and the announcement he made in April. Yet I remain convinced that a contender will decide at some point after January arrives, when 10-day contracts become available, that the addition of Collins' interior defense and veteran expertise will trump fears of relentless media swarms and land him at least one more NBA job at 34. I believe the same, furthermore, for Jackson and Davis -- who I hear is working steadfastly toward a second-half comeback of his own -- and that's based on the same premise as my Odom take. Teams will roll the dice on guys who have the resume and know-how that suggest they can make a difference.
5. Gordon Hayward will land a four-year max offer sheet in restricted free agency next July.
The surprise of Extension Season was undoubtedly Utah's decision to let the July market decide the price for its new face of the franchise. Contrary to some of the chatter out there, Hayward was not seeking the four-year max worth in excess of $60 million from Utah during the past month-plus of negotiations, but I'm convinced that's a legit possibility for him in the summer when he becomes a restricted free agent. There are too many Hayward fans in front offices around the league for the former Butler star not to cost the Jazz more later than a deal would have cost them now, given how many teams are projected to have cap space and knowing that the price tags on restricted free agents are always higher than they seemingly should be because the bidders are trying to dissuade the home team from matching.
You'll recall that it's not too far in the past that Eric Gordon landed a four-year max offer sheet in restricted free agency from Phoenix amid serious questions about his knees. The Suns and Boston Celtics -- just to name two franchises known to be big Hayward admirers with Jeff Hornacek and Brad Stevens running their respective benches -- are among those projected to have the cap space to put an uncomfortable offer on the table. Utah, of course, will have plenty of its own cap space to match a max offer if necessary, but doing a deal with Derrick Favors when Hayward might be an even bigger part of Utah’s future ... struck me as curious to say the least.
6. Jerry Sloan will replace Ty Corbin as coach of the Utah Jazz.
This might rank as the most extreme projection on our board, but I can't shake the nagging belief that Sloan really does want to coach in this league one more time. And no spot for a comeback makes more sense than the SLC, where the 71-year-old is back with the franchise in an advisory role that carries a near-daily presence ... and where Utah continues to run much of Sloan's offense. The reality is that Washington's Randy Wittman and Toronto's Dwane Casey -- especially Wittman -- are the coaches in the final year of their contracts facing the far more immediate burden of playoff expectations than Corbin. And Sloan has gone out of his way in his new role to try to keep some distance to hush any suggestions that replacing his former player and February 2011 successor is an option.
Yet there's also little evidence to suggest that the Jazz regard Corbin as the long-term answer on their bench, so it really doesn’t strike me as a stretch to suggest that if we ever see Sloan back in the game -- for all the belief that he’d only come back at this point to coach a win-now squad -- Utah is where it's most likely to happen. Perhaps it would only be Sloan taking over on an interim basis if things go awry until Dennis Lindsey, Utah’s new front-office chief, can bring in his own guy after inheriting Corbin. All I’m saying: If folks can throw out the idea of Michael Jordan coming back at 50 to play one game for the Bobcats -- something you can actually wager on -- suggesting we’ll see Sloan coaching the Jazz again is by no means outlandish.
7. Your NBA champion in June is coming from the Eastern Conference.
OK, OK. It's not the most definitive proclamation of all time, but here's the point: LeBron's Heat are either going to three-peat ... or the East team that keeps them out of the NBA Finals is going to go on and win it all. Pacers versus Clippers was my real-life Finals pick in ESPN.com's and ESPN The Magazine's respective preseason prediction collections, but what I feel even stronger about is the fact that Indy, Brooklyn and Chicago are all more title-worthy than the best of the West. Whether it's the Clips, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies or Warriors, I can't talk myself into any of those teams knocking off the Heat or a team that beats the Heat. I just can't.
8. Andrew Wiggins will not go No. 1 overall in the 2014 NBA draft.
Regular readers have heard me say for years that I leave NBA draft forecasts to the real experts: Chad Ford, Andy Katz and now my new teammate Jeff Goodman. And nothing has changed: Big West basketball -- starring Cal State Fullerton specifically -- is the only college basketball I watch. Yet even I’m already hearing stuff here and there about the studs bound for the top of the 2014 lottery, which leads me to ask: Isn’t the top-five talent way too good for all of us to just surrender the No. 1 slot to Wiggins before Thanksgiving? Dante Exum, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart and a kid who played his high school basketball five minutes from my house -- Julius Randle -- are as responsible for this season’s tanking phenomenon as Wiggins, because the tank teams are convinced they’re getting a franchise-changer as long as they land in the upper half of the lottery. Maybe this take cements my college basketball idiocy, but I really don’t think so. For all of the obvious hype and momentum behind Wiggins’ No. 1 candidacy ... it’s early.
99dMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo