The 2018-2019 NBA season begins in 16 days! Personally, it was kind to have a break from basketball, but I am elated to have it back. In writing this post, I realized that following the NBA is just like when my friends get excited about having a television series start up again; I don’t presently follow any TV series, but I do have basketball—and following it goes far beyond catching games on TV. For me, it’s listening to Zach Lowe’s podcasts, reading Zach’s in-depth weekly ESPN NBA pieces, watching the latest BBallBreakdown videos (I multi-task while I wash Miguelito's bottles or our dishes), watching Rachel Nichols and Amin Elhassan break down league-wide happenings on The Jump, and reading Marcus Thompson II, Tim Kawakami, Anthony Slater and Ethan Strauss’s savvy and comprehensive coverage of my beloved Warriors in The Athletic. On top of all that, I’ll sprinkle in a more-than-occasional article or podcast from The Ringer’s NBA staff, particularly pieces from Jonathan Tjarks. Over the past few years, I must admit that day-to-day normalcy entails tuning into all this coverage (and occasionally watching a Warriors game). So I kind of feel like I’m getting my life back with basketball returning to the fold.
Akin to the 2017-2018, this past offseason was brimming with drama and action. LeBron headed West to the Lakers. (I know I’ll eventually get used to it, but right now it is completely bizarre to see him in Lakers gold.) Kawhi Leonard cowardly forced his way out of San Antonio, which subsequently paved the way for Toronto trading DeMar DeRozan for Leonard after firing Dwane Casey. Paul George surprisingly stayed in Oklahoma City without even taking a meeting with the Lakers. (Bill Simmons has an interesting conspiracy theory on that.) The Rockets lost two of their 3-and-D aces: Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. The Fellowship of the Rings in San Antonio finally disbanded with Manu’s retirement (boohoohoo) and Tony Parker’s signing with Charlotte. And now Jimmy Butler wants out of the flaming poo of a mess that is the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise. It’s a long, long season, but I can’t wait to see how this all unfolds.
I want to make it my tradition to christen each NBA season with a series of predictions, including each playoff team for both conferences. This year, I also want to chime in on Westgate’s Over/Under win total predictions for these projected playoff teams.
So without further ado…
1. Boston Celtics
Projected win total: 59.5
After the Golden State Warriors, I think the Celtics have the most talented roster. In today’s NBA, it’s hard to find a better switchy starting five than Irving, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Horford. And Boston’s strength doesn’t end there; they are deep with Scary Terry Rozier, the mini-Draymond-like Marcus Smart, the moving New Zealand brick wall known as Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris rounding out their top bench players. To boot, they have one of the absolute best coaches in the game.
Barring major injuries, 59.5 wins sounds about right. If anything, it’s a conservative projection. This team can win a lot of games. Right now, they’re the only team that stands a chance of beating the Warriors at full strength.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Projected win total: 54.5
I think second place in the Eastern Conference will undoubtedly come down to either the 76ers or Raptors. Both teams have their share of questions. At this point, I favor the 76ers to take second because they come into this season with more continuity from the previous season—no superstar trades; no roster upheavals; no coaching changes. Their biggest change was the absolutely confounding situation that ended with Bryan Colangelo’s resignation and their long-ass process in hiring a new general manager (which recently ended with Elton Brand’s elevation to the role).
Barring major injuries (that’s the second time I’ve already used that phrase), the 76ers should at least be as good as they were last season when they won 52 games. Despite last year’s campaign, they still have an astounding amount of upside. What if Ben Simmons has gotten a better jump shot? What if Joel Embiid figures out how to be a more efficient scorer? What if Markelle Fultz’s first-year-wackiness is past him? (And his preseason debut was quite promising.)
Although their core is still so young, this team can be scary good. If everything breaks well, they may have the most talented young trio since the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder.
3. Toronto Raptors
Projected win total: 55
The post Dwane Casey era begins in Toronto. After trading franchise star DeMar DeRozan and talented big man Jakob Poeltl, the Raptors still have plenty of talent and depth. Casey got all the praise for successfully changing Toronto’s offensive attack last season, but new head coach Nick Nurse was really the guy who spearheaded that effort, according to NBA insiders. So the Raptors should be good. They can be really good if Kawhi is healthy and actually fucking trying his hardest for this non-LA team. However, given how he handled his last season in San Antonio, I think there’s still a decent chance some confounding, awkward shit happens on this team.
4. Indiana Pacers
Projected win total: 48
Last year’s most surprising team won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season. They return their talented young core led by Victor Oladipo, who should have been a second team All-NBA selection last season over DeRozan (in my humble opinion). And—on paper—the Pacers had one of the best offseasons by adding Tyreke Evans, Dougie McBuckets and resigning key contributors like Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic.
48 wins sounds about right. But if everything breaks right, I can see them winning 50 games.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Projected win total: 48.5
Like last year, a bunch of folks are bullish on the Bucks. Westgate is predicting they will finish with the seventh best record in the NBA. Given their length, youth, and athleticism I easily understand their potential, and Mike Budenholzer should be a significant coaching upgrade over Jason Kidd or Joe Prunty. Brook Lopez with his respectable three-point stroke might go down as one of the best under-the-radar acquisitions this offseason if his spacing allows Giannis to further dominate in the paint.
After being too bullish on the Bucks last season, I didn’t want to make that mistake again. But Budenholzer can bring a Spursian focus and discipline to this team that can push them to the top half of the Eastern Conference.
6. Washington Wizards
Projected win total: 45
Last year I was bullish on the Wizards; I predicted they would finish 3rd in the Eastern Conference. I’m not as optimistic as I was last season, but—with the addition of Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard, possibly one of the sneaky-best offseason acquisitions—I have a funny feeling that this team will gel. They have the top-tier talent to challenge anyone in the Eastern Conference with Wall, Beal, and Porter. With Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris, Howard and Rivers they may now have the role players and bench contributors they sorely lacked the past two seasons.
Nevertheless, this team finds a way to underachieve in the regular season, which is why 45 wins sounds about right until they prove otherwise.
7. Detroit Pistons
Projected win total: 38
2018 will be Dwane Casey’s Fuck-You coaching campaign, and it could propel the hapless Pistons into the playoffs if their stars can stay relatively healthy. But that’s a lot to ask with a roster banking on brittle players like Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson.
38 wins seems about right, but, somehow or another—especially in a LeBron-less East—I think Casey will manage to get this team to overachieve.
8. Miami Heat
Projected win total: 42.5
Last season’s Miami Heat had five players who averaged more than or nearly 10 points per game (PPG) with three additional players who nearly averaged 8 PPG. That’s some balanced scoring à la a Kansas Jayhawks team. That can translate to regular season success but come playoff time you need at least one baller who can drop 20 a night. Shit, even Larry Brown’s Detroit Pistons—one of the few teams that won a championship without a mega superstar player—had Rip Hamilton to count on for significant consistent scoring. Other than the lack of elite talent, that is one of the biggest problems I see for this team: who do they go to in crunch time when they need a bucket? Goran Dragic (who should be their closer)? Dion Waiters(!)? Or the soon-to-be-37-year-old Dwyane Wade in his swan-song season (but it shouldn’t be him—at least on a nightly basis)?
1. Golden State Warriors
Projected win total: 62.5
They’re going to be good. Understatement of the year. After last year’s season-long slog, I am excited to see the Warriors embrace a much-needed youth movement, particularly with our big men. In all likelihood, while DeMarcus Cousins is out (I am a bit in shock to mention his name in conjunction with the Warriors) Jordan Bell will continue to be our best big to run alongside Steph, Klay, KD, and my boy, Draymond. Damian Jones has the physical talent to succeed in this league, but can he improve his defensive skills? Can he sink free throws when he is sent to the foul line? And will Jerebko also suddenly become gun-shy from the three-point line alongside Steph, Klay and KD like Omri Casspi and Nick Young last season? And what will this team look like on the offensive and defensive ends once Boogie starts playing? I can’t wait to see that!
2. Houston Rockets
Projected win total: 56
Last season, before their Western Conference Finals showdown, I said in my blog that the 2017-2018 season would be Houston’s best chance at winning a championship. I think this season will prove it. Unless Daryl Morey pulls off an astounding trade, I think Houston’s championship window has already shut. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Harden have another dominant offensive season, but there’s no way this defense matches the grit and intensity they displayed last season; they lost Ariza, who played outstanding defense in last season’s Western Conference Finals, and Mbah a Moute, who was equally versatile on D. But perhaps most importantly, the Rockets lost Jeff Bzdelik, last year’s associate head coach. Bzdelik was to the Rockets what Ron Adams is to the Warriors. With their new personnel, including an all-time piece-of-shit defender in washed-up Carmelo Anthony, they are going to miss his defensive stewardship.
3. Utah Jazz
Projected win total: 49.5
I have a lot of good things to say about the Jazz:
If he can avoid major injuries, I think Donovan Mitchell will become the greatest player from the 2017 NBA Draft. He has legit Hall of Fame talent and instincts. And he's coachable.
Quin Snyder is a great coach. In time, I think there’s a decent chance he will prove himself to be in the same stratosphere that coaches like Brad Stevens and Gregg Popovich breathe.
Once Rudy Gobert returned from injury in the second half of last season, there were exactly two teams that gave the Jazz problems: the Warriors and Rockets. They did so by playing smaller, quicker athletic line-ups that took advantage of having Gobert awkwardly defend out on the perimeter. This offseason was a quiet one for them, but I think it has set them up to continue to ascend from last season’s success. They shed themselves of limited players with defensive liabilities like Rodney Hood and Jonas Jerebko in favor of retaining the rangy, quicksilver Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks. In sum, this team resembles their coach: they’re smart, disciplined, gritty, and play selflessly. In short time, this front office and coaching staff have molded a Rocky Mountain version of the Spurs organization. After lucking into Mitchell with the 13th pick, they now have the superstar player who can take them to great heights.
Yes, I’m an admirer of this team. This season, I think they’ll have improved personnel better equipped to compete against top-tier teams like the Warriors, Rockets (who they may surpass) and Celtics.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected win total: 48.5
OKC is largely regarded to have won the offseason: they resigned Paul George. They got better through subtraction by giving Carmelo the boot. They resigned Jerami Grant, a young, rangy forward who raises their defensive prowess. They traded for the swift, score-first Dennis Schröder to back up the Triple-Double Stat Machine. They scored potential huge upside with little to lose by signing Nerlens Noels to join their frontcourt. With Andre Roberson back from injury, they can be a defensive juggernaut. This should undoubtedly be the best Thunder roster since the 2016 team that should have beaten the Warriors. But piss-poor three-point shooting—unless it’s addressed with a midseason trade or waiver acquisition—could be their undoing.
5. LA Lakers
Projected win total: 48
Last season, LeBronto led a craptacular team to the brightest NBA stage. Just imagine what he can do paired with young talents like Brandon Ingram (who the Lakers refused to include in a trade for Kawhi Leonard), Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Even in the Western Conference, LeBron’s addition should translate to about 48 or so wins. I’ve got to admit, I am eager to see how his presence will affect these other young players—and you know Magic and Rob Pelinka are just waiting to make another big move.
6. Denver Nuggets
Projected win total: 47.5
Once Paul Millsap returned from injury late last season, the Nuggets trotted out the highest scoring offense in the NBA. And then they added Isaiah Thomas for cheap in the offseason and landed Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th pick in the draft. The Nuggets won’t defend well, but this team can light up the scoreboard if they manage to stay healthy. In the Western Conference, that translates to battling for one of the bottom-half playoff seeds whereas they could compete for one of the top three seeds in the East.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Projected win total: 45
For the second season in a row—and only the second time since the 1998-1999 season (which was a strike season)—the Spurs probably won’t reach 50 wins. However, this season, Gregg Popovich will have DeMar DeRozan and an energetic, versatile big man in Jakob Poeltl in his rotation. If any coach can get the best out of a player, it’s undoubtedly Pop. In the recent past, Popovich and his all-star staff have coaxed great play out of the likes of Tiago Splitter (who is now retired), a way-over-the-hill Pau Gasol, and Matt Bonner. The 9th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Poeltl can immediately become a significant contributor for this team.
Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spurs overachieve and manage to win 50 games.
8. New Orleans Pelicans
Projected win total: 45.5
On paper, they had a savvy offseason by not overpaying for Rajon Rondo and committing a mountain of money for DeMarcus Cousins, who wasn’t an ideal fit alongside The Brow. Instead, they signed Julius Randle, a player with the talent and drive to be a nightly 20 & 10 guy on a bad team. Jrue Holiday—the Brow’s Robin—is coming back after his best season ever (and he only missed one game last season). Out in the West, 45.5 wins sounds about right for this talented roster led by a solid coach.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert
I don’t feel good about this pick, but it’s not a contract year for Draymond Green, and I don’t know how engaged Kawhi Leonard will be in Toronto. If the Warriors experience a significant injury, I can see Draymond revving himself up more in the regular season in order to lift the team atop the playoff seeding and winning his second DPOY in the process.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Dončić
This dude can ball:
I think Atlanta is ultimately going to regret their ballsy draft-day trade. Dončić’s court vision and feel for the game—especially for a 19-year-old—is extraordinary. With mentors like Dirk, Rick Carlisle (who has coached some all-time great point guards), and cagey veteran guards like J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, Dončić should step into a most excellent situation to learn and thrive in the NBA. If he helps to lift the Mavericks to playoff contention, this award is his.
NBA MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The onset of this season is exciting because there are so many potential legit MVP candidates. The obvious suspects include LeBron, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Russell Westbrook (though unlikely), Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry or Kevin Durant. Presently, Vegas likes LeBron as their MVP favorite, but I’m going to pick the Greek Freak as my odds-on-favorite to win it with LeBron as second most likely to win (the Lakers would have to win 50 games or more) followed by Anthony Davis. Here’s my rationale:
1. In five seasons, Giannis has proven to be durable—more durable than The Brow. Last season, Giannis missed only seven games, which was the most he had ever missed in a season.
2. His game has improved each season, so he should make another leap this season:
3. I do believe having Budenholzer as his coach will elevate his game and the team’s performance.
4. If the Bucks win more than 50 games, take one of the top-three seeds in the East, and if Giannis puts up even better numbers than last year, I think he would have a strong case to win MVP—and I think this is all feasible.
My dark horses for MVP are Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard. Like Giannis, if the Raptors win more than 50 games and take one of the top-three seeds in the East, I think Kawhi would have a compelling case. As for Steph, I think some unfortunate things would have to happen for him to win MVP; I think Durant would have to get injured and miss a good portion of the season—like at least 30 games. If that happens, and if Steph puts up numbers similar to his 2015-2016 season while leading the Warriors to the best record in the NBA, he would have a strong case to win.
Worst Team: Atlanta Hawks
Most Disappointing Team: Portland Trailblazers
I think this might be the season that management decides to break up their backcourt and hit the franchise reboot button.
Most Surprising Team: Sacramento Kings
During the offseason, Bill Simmons had Jayson Tatum on his podcast. They talked about many of the top young players Tatum has been familiar with since high school. Tatum said that Sacramento’s Harry Giles was the best player he saw. And so, of course, I looked up highlights of this guy and was a bit blown away:
His raw talent and guard-like skills for a 6'10 forward with a 7'3 wingspan are readily apparent. And the Kings get this dude back this season along with the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, Marvin Bagley III. (I’m still a little surprised Vlade didn’t draft Dončić, but that’s the Kings for you.) Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic are no slouches when it comes to shooting, and the talented and speedy DeAaron Fox should only get better after his first season running the point in the NBA. To boot, Dave Joerger is a former Coach of the Year candidate circa 2016 for good reason. Giles or Bagley III need to supplant Z-Bo with great, promising play. If that happens, this Kings team could surprise and compete with the playoff teams in the competitive Western Conference.