Sunday, October 20, 2019

2019-2020 NBA Season Predictions

The 2019-2020 NBA regular season lifts off this Tuesday! It’s going to be quite an intriguing season, but first, let’s zoom back to the NBA Finals because some NBA-landscape-altering shit went down in that series. Then-Warrior Kevin Durant, one of the greatest scorers of all-time, a player who briefly seized the title of Greatest Basketball Player Alive before his injury in the Warriors vs. Rockets series, tore his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the Finals, which will keep him out until the 2020-2021 NBA season. And then, Klay Thompson, the Iron Man of the Warriors dynasty, tore his ACL in Toronto’s close-out game, which will presumably keep him out of action until the All-Star Break in mid-February 2020. For the first time in four seasons, the Warriors aren’t the prohibitive favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy. After an offseason in which nearly half of the NBA’s players were free agents, a total of 9 teams—by my count—have legitimate championship aspirations if the ball bounces their way (see what I did there?): the Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets, Jazz, Warriors out West, and the Sixers, Bucks, and Celtics in the East.

Rather than project the 1-8 playoff seeds for each conference like I have in years past, I’m gonna change shit up and break down my predictions for conference playoff teams into three tiers: the Cream of the Crop (in Macho Man parlance, or the top-3 seeds), Middlers (not to be confused with the Urban Dictionary term), and Low-Hanging Seeds (bottom-two seeds).

Here we go.

Western Conference

Holy shit, the Western Conference is going to be nuts. As far as I’m concerned, I think 12 teams in the Sunset Conference have a legit shot at making the playoffs. Some fun, talented Western Conference teams that could make noise in the Sunrise Conference (a.k.a. Eastern Conference) will again miss the postseason. At this juncture, I don’t feel confident whatsoever in predicting who will ultimately emerge from the conference. This can go so many ways for too many teams.

Cream of the Crop
Denver Nuggets
Utah Jazz
Los Angeles Clippers

Denver’s foundational pieces—Jokić and Jamal Murray—return after garnering some invaluable playoff experience and grit last season. Unlike most NBA teams, they are returning their starting lineup from last season. Continuity should keep them in the top rung of the Western Conference, and young players like Michael Porter Jr. and Malik Beasley should contribute this season. Of my three Western Conference Cream of the Crop teams, I feel most confident that the Nuggets will be a top-3 seed.

On paper, Utah had one of the best offseasons in trading for Mike Conley Jr. (and allowing the shooting-impaired Ricky Rubio to leave), adding Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis, one of the most solid big men off the bench. If Conley can keep healthy, he should alleviate the playmaking ability from Donovan Mitchell, which should help his game flourish. With the additions of cagey veterans like Conley and Bogdanovic—players with playoff experience who have shined in the postseason—the Jazz should finally break through the first round of the playoffs, especially if they can avoid the Rockets.

If I was forced to pick a team to win the NBA Finals, at this point I’d go with the Clippers. If healthy, they’re the most talented roster with the least glaring weaknesses. They have the supernova talent typically needed to take the crown and quality role players and depth. To boot, Doc Rivers coached his ass off last season, and I don’t think this team’s coaching is going to take a step back this season.

Houston Rockets
Portland Trailblazers
Golden State Warriors

So many teams could end up here. This will likely again be a 47- to 53-win tier. As much as I hate them, I think the Rockets are a cinch to at least make this tier. I wouldn’t be surprised whatsoever if they snag a top-3 seed, but I don’t think they will. D’Antoni’s coaching staff was overhauled in the offseason, including their defensive ace coach, Jeff Bzdelik. They lost Chris Paul, swapped him for an undisciplined, mediocre defender in Russell Westbrook. And PJ Tucker is a season older, approaching the wrong, unforgiving side of his 30s. I think their defense is going to suck, and I’m not confident the Pairing of Ball Hogs is going to be all that great for them. In fact, I think there's a good chance that the spiritual death of Houston's legitimate title hopes will be Game 5 of their last series against the Warriors when they choked and failed to seize what they had so badly wanted but that this season will be the unquestioned end of their title hopes with James Harden as their unworthy leader.

Last season, I picked the Trailblazers as the most likely team to underachieve. Boy was I wrong! Having two stone-cold killers in Lillard and McCollum ain’t so bad after all, in terms of roster construction, and I think their continuity, strong leadership and team culture will continue to serve them well. Their frontcourt is still a big glaring weakness, though.

And what can I say about my beloved Warriors. They moved across the Bay to a Disneyland of an arena. They traded my second favorite Warrior, Andre Iguodala, to make cap space to bring on D’Angelo Russell (and I’m still distraught and saddened about that, though I completely understand why it had to be done). At 31, Steph is the elder camp counselor to a young, young team. With Steph, Draymond, and Klay, the championship nucleus remains, but can they and Steve Kerr’s coaching staff teach all the new players how it’s done? Without Klay, the Warriors now only have one proven plus defender with my boy, Draymond Green—and their starting center is already injured. This defense is going to suck. Unless Ron Adams—who is taking a step back this season—can work some unbelievable magic, this team could be right there with bottom-dwelling teams like the Suns in terms of defensive efficiency. And if Steph or Draymond get hurt, this season is officially going off the rails. Best-case scenario: they tread above .500 until the All-Star Break, get Klay back—even if he’s like 80% of himself—and their key guys stay healthy and they go on a run. I think 48 wins is their realistic ceiling—a 6th or 7th seed. But, come April, if their offense is humming, if it remains a top-5 unit and their defense is middle of the pack with flashes of great synergy and brilliance, NO ONE will want to face them in the first round. No one. And they could make it to the conference finals.

Low-Hanging Seeds
San Antonio Spurs
New Orleans Pelicans

Last season, the Spurs clinched a playoff spot for the 22nd straight season, which matches the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers from 1950-1971 for the record of consecutive NBA postseason appearances. A few seasons ago, I think I counted them out—like many other basketball pundits at the time—and I learned my lesson: I am not counting out a Spurs team led by Gregg Popovich until they actually fucking fail to make the playoffs.

And last but not least, we have the New Orleans Pelicans, who had quite an offseason as well. They defied huge odds and snagged the top overall pick, which means they won the Zion Williamson Sweepstakes. Zion’s the biggest rookie to hit the NBA since LeBron—and for good reason. I mean, did you see his highlights in a preseason game against the Jazz? The 0:33 mark is my favorite and a play that made my jaw drop when I realized he went straight at two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, a man with a condor-sized wingspan, and finished on him as though he were just another college player he overpowered last year at Duke:

The Pelicans are going to be one of the most fun teams to watch this season (I don’t know how Zach Lowe only ranked them #9 on his 2019-2020 NBA League Pass Rankings)—and they’re going to make the playoffs, despite Zion’s latest injury. 14-year veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick has never missed the playoffs, and his streak will remain intact.

Hottest Take:
Before I move on to my Eastern Conference predictions, I want to put down my Hottest Take for this season: the Lakers will miss the playoffs. I’m basically predicting that Father Time, who has an unblemished record over humanity, even superhuman athletes, will deal LeBron James—a mere mortal!—a cruel blow. LeBron will turn 35 midway through the 2019-2020 regular season—his 17th season. The motherfucker missed 27 games last season, the most he’s ever missed in one season. He currently ranks 17th in all-time minutes played in the NBA/ABA. With 10,049 minutes logged, he now clearly stands above all NBA/ABA players in total playoff minutes:

NBA & ABA Career Playoff Leaders for Minutes Played
Kobe Bryant famously tore his Achilles’ heel at age 35 when he went uber-Black Mamba to push an inferior Lakers squad into the playoffs. LeBron will have more talent surrounding him this season than a 35-year-old Kobe, but he will still be asked to carry a heavy load for this flawed roster that only makes sense if he’s at the center of it. Without question, LeBron is one of the most physically gifted players to ever play basketball (I would argue that he is the most physically talented player I’ve ever seen), but last year’s groin injury was no apparition. Maybe it’s my dislike of LeBron and the Lakers talking, but I don’t think he’s going to make it through the entire NBA season without a notable injury. If he was playing less minutes and operating primarily as a point power forward instead of his career-long orchestrator role I’d feel differently. But, with a roster with only one wing who’s got competent handles (I’m looking at you, Rajon Rondo!), LeBron has to carry a big load again, despite all those minutes he’s already clocked on his body.

Besides, there’s other troubling signs that this season can implode for The Lake Show:

  1. Their coaching situation. (Mark my words, by the end of this season, NBA analysts and pundits will be howling that the Lakers fucked this up by not hiring Tyronn Lue.)
  2. Even though they stumbled into signing Twilight LeBron and trading for Anthony Davis, their front office is still a hot mess, and most sports teams rarely succeed at the highest stage in spite of such turmoil from the top.
  3. Two words: Dwight Howard 

Eastern Conference

Cream of the Crop
Philadelphia 76ers
Milwaukee Bucks
Boston Celtics
The 2019-2020 76ers give me nightmarish flashbacks of the 2015-2016 Oklahoma City Thunder—an incredibly long, imposing, and athletic bunch. A gangly forest of limbs just waiting to deflect balls and suffocate passing lanes. Joel Embiid has slimmed down and now firmly holds the key to The Process in his hands. If he keeps healthy and manages his minutes to keep a little fresh for the postseason, he could be an absolute monster this season. Veteran Al Horford may be a missing piece of championship alchemy that this young team lacked last season when they pushed the eventual champions to the fucking brink of elimination. Their bench is bare, but this starting five can be scary-good.

With the defections of Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotić, I think the Bucks will inevitably take a step back this season. The Bucks and their offensive and defensive schemes took the NBA by storm last season, but teams adjust. They figure shit out, and I think teams will catch up to the Bucks this season. Giannis is still largely unguardable and well positioned to repeat as MVP so they should easily win at least 50 games again.

And the Celtics are the Celtics. They swapped out one elite score-first point guard for another. Brad Stevens’s system should produce the best we’ll ever see from Kemba Walker, and their team chemistry should be improved from last season but this team’s at least one impactful big man from being a serious title contender. Losing Horford in the offseason was brutal. With their fleet of talented wings they’ll be really good, but I think they’re undoubtedly a notch below the 76ers and Bucks.

Toronto Raptors
Miami Heat
Indiana Pacers

The reigning NBA champions are the biggest wild card entering this season. Masai Ujiri did a ballsy, masterful job of assembling a championship roster and cashed in when they needed. But what happens if they’re not a top-4 team in the Eastern Conference this season? Shit, even if they are fledging in the middle of the playoff standings he might hack away at this roster of smart, cagey veterans if teams with championship aspirations coming knocking. I developed a crush on Nick Nurse in last year’s playoffs and have Albertosaurus-sized respect for their players so I will be curious to see what happens with this team. Best case scenario: Siakam continues to develop into a certifiable superstar; OG Anunoby returns as a 12-14 point scorer and solid perimeter defender; and their supporting cast continue their high level of heady and gritty play from the playoffs to power them into a top-3 seed in the East. But, they could become a bottom seed, or even miss the playoffs, if Ujiri trades away veterans like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, or Serge Ibaka (and their huge salaries) to reload the roster.

After the Raptors, the Heat figure to be the second biggest question mark of a team in the Eastern Conference (because the biggest unknown in the Eastern Conference is still what the hell happened to Markelle Fultz?). It’s been a while since the Heat have been good, but they finally have a top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, and I think Riles will make a win-now move sometime this season. Erik Spoelstra is still one of the great coaches in the NBA, but he needs to prove it again this season with a peculiar construction of a roster. I suspect Bam Adebayo’s success—or possible lack thereof—is going to mirror the team’s piecemeal ascension or continuation in low-40-wins mediocrity.

Indiana played hard and stuck together last season to amass 48 impressive victories, but they lost some key role players. Brogdon’s a good backcourt addition but this team’s ceiling is dependent on Victor Oladipo’s return, which is still a big unknown.

Low-Hanging Seeds
Brooklyn Nets
Orlando Magic

Continuity should serve both of these teams. I will be curious to see if Kyrie and his poor-ass excuse for “leadership skills” ruins the chemistry of a second team, especially since the up-and-coming Nets fostered such great camaraderie last season.

NBA Finals Prediction: Clippers over the Sixers

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo
(I want to go out on a limb and pick Joel Embiid, but the Greek Freak, as the only star on his team—and a good one at that—is better positioned to win it. Steph will have a shot because he needs to regain pre-KD MVP form to keep the Warriors afloat in the West, but I think his team will have far more growing pains and adjustments to wade through than Giannis and his crew.)

ROTY: Zion Williamson (as long as he keeps healthy enough to play at least 60 games)

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