BY NICK PORR
It’s October, and we are going into the craziest NBA season I’ve seen in my life as a fan. A dramatic end to the 2019 postseason and four wild off-months have set the table for a uniquely unpredictable 2019-2020 season.
Kawhi Leonard powered the Raptors to a shocking NBA title run, shaking off the haters and solidifying his legacy as one of the best to ever do it. He then proceeded to leave Toronto for the Clippers. Eight of last year's 24 All-Stars (not including the Wade/Nowitzki special additions) have switched teams, including half of the game’s starters. There is no favorite - no road-map for how the season will turnout.
Here I've done my best to piece together a prediction for the regular season standings. I can't wait to see how wrong I am.
1. DENVER NUGGETS
The Denver Nuggets were just four points short of their first conference finals visit since 2009, ending a surprisingly-excellent season on a sour note. Still, after finishing behind only the Warriors in the West last year, the Nuggets look like they can only improve. The young core led by Nikola Jokic (24) and Jamal Murray (22) will look to improve on last season with the veteran leadership of Paul Millsap and coach Mike Malone.
Also they drafted Bol Bol so extra points.
2. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Los Angeles Clippers took on an almost fully-healthy Warriors team and pushed them to six. The Rockets only got one win. The Blazers got none. Add in Kawhi Leonard (you know, the guy who beat the Warriors), and MVP-candidate Paul George to the mix, and you have a solid championship contender, if not the favorite. A defense headed by Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley has the potential to be one of the greatest ever, and a deep bench led by the dynamic pick-and-roll duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell will allow the oft-injured Leonard and George to rest through the season. The only thing holding them back from the top spot is a lack of cohesion, a problem coach Doc Rivers will surely solve in time for the playoffs.
3. UTAH JAZZ
The four teams from third to sixth could honestly have gone in any order, but I’ve got the Jazz coming out on top. Donovan Mitchell shook off a shaky start last season to show us he’s still the offensive monster he was his rookie year, if not better. Now, he doesn’t have to do it alone anymore. The addition of Mike Conley gives Mitchell the play-making, spacing, and defensive guard he deserves to have by his side (sorry, but not sorry, Ricky Rubio). Alongside perennial-DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert and the criminally-underrated Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Jazz look ready to be a finals contender in the west.
4. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
I don’t mean to be rude, but after LeBron, Davis, and Kuzma, who does this team have? Okay, Danny Green is a solid starter, and JaVale McGee was fine last season, but who else beyond that? A 33 year-old, brick-chucking Rajon Rondo? Warriors system-product Quinn Cook? DWIGHT HOWARD?!?! If LeBron or Davis miss any substantial time, which Davis has been known to do, the Lakers are left asset-less to fill the void via trade. Other writers and analysts talked all about how LeBron’s title window is closing, but I think it may already be shut. Playoff team? Yes. Title contender? No.
But then again LeBron could go right ahead and shut me up with a classic LeBron MVP season so…
5. HOUSTON ROCKETS
Regardless of how the backcourt fit of Westbrook-Harden shakes out in the long run, it will sure be fun to watch. Westbrook’s playmaking and athleticism will create many beautiful lobs to Clint Capela, and the Rockets look ready to be as dynamic on the offensive end as ever. But defensively… this team is a DISASTER waiting to happen. Harden is Harden. Westbrook is a year older and slower. Ditto on PJ Tucker. The Rockets were 12th-worst in opponent field goal percentage, and that should only slide more this year.
Political side note: If Daryl Morey gets fired, I’m convinced free speech in America is dead. That is all.
6. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Everyone forgets Portland. Last year, they sent the league a reminder of who they are. CJ McCollum was an absolute monster in the playoffs, with him and Damian Lillard leading a shorthanded Blazers team to the conference finals. Losing Al-Farouq Aminu and Seth Curry hurts, but the former was unplayable in the playoffs and the latter’s production will be covered by the recent emergence of Rodney Hood. The addition of Hassan Whiteside is a puzzling one to forecast, but I personally see it working out well. He should be starting in Portland with Nurkic still out, and his role as the #3 offensive option will be clear. I could easily see him thriving in that role. Although #6 on this list, don’t be surprised if they make another postseason run.
7. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The Spurs have made the Playoffs 22 consecutive times, and there's no reason to think they won’t make it 23 and break the all-time NBA Record. The DeRozan-Aldridge pick-and-roll is one of the most underrated 1-2 punches in the league. Dejounte Murray is back, and a guard tandem of Murray/White could be deadly. Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will still be there off the bench. Most importantly though, Greg Poppovich and Tim Duncan will be reunited on the sidelines. Need I say more?
8. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
For five years now, you couldn’t imagine the NBA Playoffs without the Golden State Warriors. Now, we might just see it happen. KD is gone. Klay is out for most of the season. Key role players Andre Igoudala and Shawn Livingston are gone. The core of this team just isn’t the same one that took the NBA landscape by storm five years ago. Although this Warriors team is depleted, there's still hope. Stephen Curry is still the greatest shooter of all time, and unarguably a generation defining athlete. D’Angelo Russell can ball, and when your roster is so thin, fit doesn’t really matter. Draymond Green will still be there hounding the opposing offense and yelling “AND ONE” with every bricked shot. If these Warriors mesh well enough to last to the playoffs and get a healthy Klay, the league should be on upset alert.
EDITORIAL NOTE: The above was written before Steph's left hand met the foot of 6'10, 260-pound Aron Baynes on October 30th. With Steph out for three months, the Warriors need to be the scrappiest team since Space Jam to remain in the chase (looking at you Eric Paschall...). Otherwise, it's time to embrace the tank.
9. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Eur-all gonna want to watch this team! (Euro? Get it?) The European youth of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will immediately make Dallas one of the most exciting teams to watch. Tim Hardaway Jr. should be able to thrive in a tertiary scorer role, and the Mavs may be the deepest team in the NBA not named the Clippers. Although Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kebler may not be household names, they’ve developed into great players under Rick Carlisle. Overall, the Mavs are up and coming. BUT in a competitive West, they'll likely fall short of the playoffs.
10. SACRAMENTO KINGS
Oh, Sacramento. How I longed to see you in the playoffs last year. De’Aaron fox and Buddy Hield are potentially a top-five back court in this league, and the springiness of Marvin Bagley III made the Kings super fun to watch. While I buy into the Harrison Barnes signing, the Kings will regret taking on Ariza. As good of a vet as he is, two years/$25 Million is way too much for a 34 year-old 3-and-D wing. As much as I want to see a playoff team in Sacramento for the first time since I was 4 years old, I just can’t see it happening in this crowded West.
11. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Wow. David Griffin is a good GM. He’s also very very lucky to have gotten the first pick before the Anthony Davis trade, but I digress. That 6% chance of occurrence has turned the Pelicans from “That’s All Folks” to a young Monstars team. Zion Williamson has a high potential of being a generational talent. Jrue Holiday was more positive on the court than Anthony Davis last year, and not just because he actually played games for his team. Lonzo, Ingram, and Hart all could be starters in this league, and rookie Jaxxon Hayes has massive hops and equally large highlight reel potential. This season might be too ambitious yet for a young squad...but next year? Just wow.
12. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
In my opinion, this is the most boring team in the West. Stat-stuffing aside, I’m still not sure Karl-Anthony Towns is a franchise cornerstone. I’ll seemingly never know for sure though, because the Timberwolves cannot build a team around him. Andrew Wiggins is oft called the most overpaid player in the league - why? His scoring slashes are atrocious, he plays bad defense, and his contract has been clogging up the Timberwolves' books for years now. Although he’s only 24, this is already his 6th season in the league. If you’re waiting for a breakout season, just don’t. It’s not coming.
13. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Draft picks are great and all, but they do not lead to immediate success. OKC has some interesting pieces left though, even after seemingly blowing it all up. Stephen Adams is a stalwart at the rim, and one of the best screen-setters in the league. Gallinari seems healthy for once, and can score as well as most all-stars. CP3, if he stays, would be a great mentor for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s best young piece and one of my favorite young players to watch. The Thunder won’t be atrocious by any means - in fact they'll even be fun to watch - but don’t expect to see them in the big dance this spring.
14. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
This team may not win games, but they’re the right kind of bad. Filled with young and athletic players, the Grizz could be one of the most electric teams in the league this year. As sad as it is to see the Grit and Grind era end, the Grizzlies have a great future ahead. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a potential unicorn. Ja Morant reminds me of D-Rose in all the right ways. Brandon Clarke is one of the few players to ball up in the summer league and make it look convincing. Grayson Allen, Tyus Jones, Dillon Brooks, and Bruno Caboclo are all intriguing young prospects. Last year, the Grizz were stuck in the past. Now they look ready for the future.
15. PHOENIX SUNS
I am BIG on the Ricky Rubio signing. His fit next to Devin Booker should be outstanding, and will create tons of open jumpers for the entire team. The problem is, I’m not that big on Devin Booker. The “no double teams” tape was embarrassing in so many ways. The guy can score, but has no grit or defensive ability at all, and I’m not sold on him as a leader. I’m also not sold on Deandre Ayton as a modern NBA center, let alone a building block. Stat-stuffers and rookie studs are not the same thing. Lastly, why did they trade T.J. Warren? He had made significant strides last year, and now the Suns are thin on the wing. Classic Phoenix front office: one step forward, two steps back.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Phoenix at 5-2 two weeks in...maybe they crawl out of the basement finally?
1. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
This pick is more a condemnation of the 76ers than it is praise of the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league, and Khris Middleton is a very strong Robin to his Batman. Bledsoe is terrible in the playoffs, but was a fringe all-star candidate last season. The rest of the roster is lacking. Last year, the Bucks succeeded by using shooters to create space for Giannis-drives to the basket. Losing a 50/40/90 guy like Malcolm Brogdon is going to hurt that strategy. Nikola Mirotic went back to Europe. Brook Lopez was abysmal going against light competition in the FIBA World Cup, shooting 3-19 from 3-point range. He struggled to gain minutes over Mason Plumlee. Yikes. I don’t see the Bucks system working as well this year as it did last year, but Giannis’s talent should still carry the Bucks to first in the East in the regular season.
2. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Wow, they’re really going for it this year. Losing Butler and Redick will hurt, but gaining Richardson and Horford and going super-tall should make the defense near-impenetrable. Even so, this Sixers team has quite a few problems. Most important to me is the lack of 3-point shooting. Although I think “going bigger” with lineups will work much better this year than it has in recent years, you still need shooters. Harris is the only projected starter to have shot over 36% from 3 last year, when the league average was 35.5%. Most of all though, the 76ers have less depth than a kiddie pool. Trey Burke and James Ennis III are solid, but beyond that, the bench is a wasteland. Philadelphia should start praying for their health right now because if any starter gets injured for the long term, they’re done for.
Although third and fourth respectively, I think the next two teams are likely going to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Why? For one, it has been proven that Budenholzer’s “sharing is caring” offense doesn’t work in the playoffs. He isn’t willing to rely on Giannis or any star to takeover, which is how you win in the playoff games. For the Sixers, on top of the aforementioned concerns, I don’t believe in Ben Simmons in this system or possibly as a star at all. You cannot be a starting point guard and not make a single three. Especially when you are starting two all-star centers as well. On a team that can’t shoot threes. This is even more of a problem when the lights are on in the playoffs.
3. BOSTON CELTICS
I am on the hype train. Team USA was horrendous in FIBA this summer, but Kemba, Tatum, and Brown looked like the three best players on the team. More importantly, I think they looked great together. Alongside fellow Team USA player Marcus Smart, these Celtics look ready to be what we hoped they’d be last year. Kemba is a better leader (and player!) than Kyrie, Hayward is one year healthier, and the young guys have had another year to mesh. My only major knock is the Center position. Horford has left a gaping hole, and although Enes Kanter improved defensively in the playoffs last year, I’m not big on him as a starting center.
4. INDIANA PACERS
I always feel like I’m the only person who thinks the Pacers are as good as they constantly prove that they are. Although Oladipo won’t be back until December, the Pacers have more firepower than ever. Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb are extremely underrated, and will be even better next to Oladipo. Sabonis will continue to be have possibly the best post offense in the league. I like the idea of him starting with Turner, but Turner needs to give a bit more on both ends to make the partnership truly flourish.
5. BROOKLYN NETS
The Nets are set to take the league by storm… next season. This year, meh. As I said before, Kyrie is an all-star talent, but a horrible leader. Without KD, the leadership is missing on this young team. Nonetheless, the Nets have much more talent than other analysts are giving them credit for. Caris LaVert was on track for an all-star season before his injury, and came back and looked like the Nets best player last year in the playoffs. I am a big Jarrett Allen fan. He’s a fearless defender, is strong on the pick and roll, and is only 21. Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler, Rodions Kurucs, David Nwaba… this team is DEEP with talent. If someone emerges as a leader without KD on the court, these Nets could make noise this year. If not, I don’t trust Kyrie enough to help put the pieces together on the court.
6. TORONTO RAPTORS
Losing Kawhi is going to hurt, especially in the playoffs. In the regular season last year, the Raptors were strong without Kawhi, going 17-5 sans-Leonard. Although critics argue that in that stretch they were only 4-5 against playoff teams, they were 13-0 against non-playoff teams. The Raptors know how to take care of business. They have vets like Ibaka, Gasol and Lowry, a young stud in Pascal Siakam, and a Most Improved Player dark horse in OG Anunoby. Anunoby has improved every year, and should get much more time without Leonard on the roster. This will be a awkward season for the Raptors, but there’s too much talent and too good of a culture in Toronto for this team to miss the playoffs.
7. MIAMI HEAT
Jimmy Butler finally has his own team. As with any team that features Butler and no other star, the Heat are going to be an average team. Bam Adebayo is young and will be a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate with Whiteside gone. Goran Dragic is still productive, and Tyler Herro looked great in summer league, for what its worth. The Heat look ready to devolve into in-fighting though. Between Jimmy’s ego, Dion Waiters’ ego, the coaching, and the veterans, there’s too many different views on one team for the Heat to be a serious contender.
8. CHICAGO BULLS
Am I biased? Yes. But are the Bulls a team full of potential in a weak Eastern Conference? Absolutely. I’m personally not sure on Zach LaVine as a primary option, but he can score as well as anyone in the league when he’s hot. Lauri Markkanen is a future star; I’ll swear by it. If he stays healthy, he has a chance to be an All-Star. Coby White doesn’t know how to pass yet, but coach Jim Boylen will help him learn. Satoransky and Thaddeus Young are great vets, and I think they’ll give depth to a Bulls team that needs it. This year could be the beginning of something good in Chicago.
9. DETROIT PISTONS
The Pistons are full of players that are vastly different than they were when they first came into the league. Blake Griffin has transformed his game from dunker to all-around superstar. Derrick Rose can shoot threes now. Joe Johnson has returned from the Big 3. Additionally, the roster has more depth than years past, adding Markieff Morris and another year of growth for Luke Kennard. The Pistons are probably better than the Bulls one on one, but the lack of depth and roster of injury prone players is setting the Pistons up for failure.
10. ATLANTA HAWKS
Trae Young was starting to look like Curry in the second half of last season, and although I think he’ll be that good eventually, I don’t think this is the year. He may sneak onto an All-Star team, but he’s not yet the supernova-level scorer than can drag a team into the playoffs. He and John Collins will continue to a two man game this season with them both healthy, and Huerter will try to expand upon his 38.5% three-point shooting from last year. Beyond those three though, the Hawks roster is a barren wasteland of rookies, guys looking for one more chance, and for some reason, Vince Carter.
11. ORLANDO MAGIC
The vision for this team is unclear. Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Bamba, and Nikola Vucevic are all starting caliber bigs. There’s just not enough minutes to go around. The team lacks depth at every other position beyond Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and DJ Augustin. There is no play-making in there. Unless Markelle Fultz mesmerizes the NBA world and becomes a fringe All-Star, this team is not repeating its playoff berth.
12. NEW YORK KNICKS
I’m not sure why the Knicks added so many veterans. Don’t they want there to be playing time for their promising young players? Knox, Barrett, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Mitchell Robinson have all showed promise. But now they have to cede minutes to guys like Taj Gibson and Wayne Ellington, who are vets on a bad team and are signed to short term deals. There is no reason for the Knicks to have signed them. The only signing from this offseason that I liked was Julius Randle. Although he and Knox are both PF's, I like Randle’s fit next to Robinson in the frontcourt. This is a Knicks team headed for a dismal 30-win season.
13. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Bradley Beal vs. the world!!! This roster is devoid of talent beyond him. I hope for his sake that he gets traded. Rui Hachimura will be fun to watch, and Thomas Bryant is one of the most underrated young players in the league. Beyond that I am so bored by the Wizards that I don’t even want to write about them. Sorry D.C. natives. Maybe Isaiah Thomas will come back healthy and the Wizards will be more fun than I expect. But probably not.
14. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Colin Sexton looked pretty solid in the backcourt, especially towards the end of last season. So the Cavs would do anything but draft another ball-dominant guard, right? Oh, what’s that you say? They drafted TWO?? Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., and Sexton all need the ball, aren’t the best defenders, and get tunnel vision offensively. Less touches for each of them, and much less for promising young wing Cedi Osman (who also plays best with the ball in-hand, but actually knows how to pass!) means less development all around for a young team.
15. CHARLOTTE HORNETS
A Rozier-Zeller pick and roll is the Hornets best offensive option.