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The best part of the NBA offseason is almost everything feels possible for the upcoming campaign.
Sure, we might assume there are only a handful of contenders. And even then, we probably expect the Golden State Warriors to claim their fourth championship in five years.
But there’s so much more to basketball’s greatest marathon than its final stage.
The journey is usually just as good—and sometimes better—than the end result. Since all 30 squads are set to make that trip, we’re glimpsing into the crystal ball to see the best- and worst-case scenarios awaiting each club.
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New head coach Lloyd Pierce establishes a defense-first mentality that makes the Atlanta Hawks a pesky matchup—but not a team that wins too much and decreases the value of its 2019 first-rounder.
Trae Young resembles a Stephen Curry clone and runs away with the Rookie of the Year award. Kevin Huerter shoots his way onto the All-Rookie first team. John Collins flashes an expanded offensive arsenal (including a steady perimeter stroke) and garners some Most Improved Player votes. Finally, a couple of veterans prove potent enough to be flipped for draft assets at the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
The Hawks lack both an identity and star power, leaving the fanbase waiting on yet another prospect to serve as franchise savior down the line.
Much to Pierce’s dismay, the defense takes a step back from last season’s 21st-placed finish and the offense again sits in the bottom five. Young looks less like Curry than he does the Jimmer Fredette reboot no one is clamoring to see. Collins and Huerter are dunking and shooting specialists, respectively. Rookie Omari Spellman rarely sees the floor.
The draft lottery odds remain strong, but Atlanta can’t grow its pick cache as the veterans fail to build any trade value.
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The Boston Celtics have increased their win total each of the last four seasons. They’ve followed two first-round exits with consecutive Eastern Conference Finals berths. It’s glaringly apparent just how high this group can climb.
Head coach Brad Stevens makes everyone wonder why we questioned whether the Shamrocks might have too many cooks in the kitchen. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford form the best quintet in basketball—sorry, Death Lineup—and banner No. 18 floats into the TD Garden rafters.
The Celtics spend most of the season stepping on one another’s toes. Irving and Tatum wrestle over the lead-scoring gig, and everyone’s role gets muddled behind them. Boston is good at both ends but not elite at either.
Barring a rash of injuries, the Celtics are probably looking at a return to the conference finals. But having LeBron James out of the East only means Boston’s dreams are instead shattered by Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors or those process-trusting Philadelphia 76ers.
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Because the Brooklyn Nets are sort of occupying the in-between state of rebuilding, we’ll offer two quick best-case scenarios.
Kenny Atkinson continues climbing the coaching ranks, D’Angelo Russell finally demands All-Star consideration, Jarrett Allen factors into the Most Improved Player race and Dzanan Musa ranks among the top-five scoring freshmen. Brooklyn still loses enough to grab prime lottery position, then attacks next summer with gobs of cap space, an improving nucleus and a high-profile prospect.
The other path features all that growth of the youngsters, plus surprisingly potent play from the vets. Kenneth Faried and Ed Davis perform like 90th percentile pick-and-roll screeners and dominant per-36-minute rebounders. Allen Crabbe, Shabazz Napier and Joe Harris all clear 40 percent from distance. The Nets not only snap their three-year playoff drought, but they also post their first winning record since 2013-14.
No one establishes himself as a go-to scorer or passer, and the offense slides from No. 21 into the bottom five. Russell stagnates, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert fail to build off last season’s progress. Allen appears over his head as a full-time starter, and Musa can’t hold down a rotation spot.
The vets, meanwhile, do enough to prevent Brooklyn from bottoming out but can’t produce a playoff run or build their value on the exchange market. In other words, after waiting to regain control of their own first-rounder, the Nets only walk away with a late lottery pick. Top-tier free agents have little reason to consider Brooklyn a viable destination next summer.
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For the first time in four seasons, the Charlotte Hornets play at the level of their expected win total. This looks an awful lot like the 48-victory 2015-16 version, with Kemba Walker leading the offense, Nicolas Batum filling the cracks and a veteran reserve providing a steady scoring punch (Tony Parker now, Al Jefferson then).
While Walker heads to his third straight All-Star Game, he does so without needing to shoulder such a heavy burden. He not only has a bona fide backup in Parker, but Walker also benefits from Malik Monk’s sophomore leap. The starting five is rock-solid on both ends, and the bench becomes an asset behind Parker, Monk, Jeremy Lamb, Miles Bridges and Frank Kaminsky.
Walker again is left on an island, leading him to consider greener pastures in 2019 free agency. The presumed chemistry bump from Dwight Howard‘s departure never yields tangible gains, and instead, his absence leaves scoring and rebounding voids that Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo can’t fill.
Bridges fails to stand out among the Hornets’ forwards, who continue delivering underwhelming results. Monk is as inefficient as his rookie version (36.0 field-goal percentage), while consistency avoids Lamb and Kaminsky. The win total stays trapped in the mid-30s, meaning another missed playoff berth and no great lottery chances to show for it.
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Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg shows what he can do when given a roster fit to run his preferred uptempo, perimeter-based offense. Kris Dunn rockets up the assists leaderboard, finding enough shots to keep Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis happy and engaged.
The offense jumps from the bottom three into the upper half, while Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. ensure the defense isn’t disastrous. There isn’t enough talent to make a playoff push, but the youngsters collectively step forward and the franchise snags a top-10 pick for the second straight summer.
The top Google search during Bulls games is “worst defense in NBA history.” For now, that dubious distinction is shared by the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets, 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks and 2008-09 Sacramento Kings. But the worst fears are realized for the papier-mache tandem of LaVine and Parker, bringing that title to the Windy City.
“Just when you thought the Bulls defense couldn’t get any worse, buckle up,” cautioned Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Putting LaVine and Parker on the court at the same time might be an invitation for opponents to get in a layup line and have at it.”
The offense, meanwhile, is the worst kind of traffic jam. A dearth of shooting causes mass congestion, and the scoring is stop-and-go with LaVine, Parker and Markkanen all reaching for the wheel. Carter can’t dethrone Robin Lopez, who can’t command anything of substance in trades. Losses pile up, and Hoiberg can’t survive the carnage.
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Kevin Love not only moves back into the offensive spotlight, but he also returns to his Minnesota Timberwolves form. He’s an All-Star starter and the Association’s leader in 20-point, 10-rebound performances.
Collin Sexton forces his way into the starting lineup and then onto an All-Rookie roster. Rodney Hood excels as a second option, David Nwaba wreaks two-way havoc and the Love-Tristan Thompson-Larry Nance Jr. trio makes Cleveland one of the league’s best rebounding teams.
Tyronn Lue is a Coach of the Year finalist after steering the LeBron-less Cavs back to the playoffs.
The defense is just as bad as last season’s unit (29th), and the offense nosedives from the top five to the bottom third. Love’s volume barely budges, but his efficiency tanks. Sexton’s play doesn’t warrant major minutes. The wings become revolving doors as both the youngsters and seasoned players fail to distinguish themselves.
This isn’t the 63-loss dumpster fire seen after James’ last exit; it’s worse—a slightly less than mediocre squad that misses the playoffs but has some of the lowest draft lottery odds.
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Dirk Nowitzki makes his playoff return after the Dalls Mavericks claim the West’s No. 8 seed on the regular season’s final night.
Nowitzki, though, is more of a subplot to the real stories: Luka Doncic runs away with Rookie of the Year, DeAndre Jordan captures Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison Barnes averages 23-plus points and Dennis Smith Jr. finishes in the top five in triple-doubles.
While trying to straddle the fence between rebuilding and competing, Dallas fails to make progress on either front.
Smith posts another sub-40 shooting percentage. Doncic isn’t an All-Rookie selection, but the player he was traded for is (Trae Young). Barnes doesn’t move the needle as a top option. Jordan can’t nudge the defense above mediocrity. The 40-year-old Nowitzki looks like he aged in dog years over the summer.
The Mavs are better but not dramatically so. Their victory total sits in the upper 20s, meaning in all likelihood, they’re stuck handing over a top-five-protected pick to the Hawks.
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After hinting at a breakout the last two seasons, the Denver Nuggets burst out of their shell and into the 50-win club.
Nikola Jokic draws MVP votes. Jamal Murray is a Most Improved Player finalist. Michael Porter Jr. has both a top-five freshman scoring average and an All-Rookie roster spot. Isaiah Thomas proves to be the summer’s biggest steal. Denver’s starting five ranks among the league’s most efficient.
There isn’t enough defense to take the Nuggets deep into the playoffs, but they’re positioned to escape the first round with home-court advantage.
The defense is comically bad—like last season’s 26th-ranked unit but worse. The offense, meanwhile, retains a top-10 position but still slides a couple of spots back as too many players try to take over and no one succeeds.
The red flags on Porter (hip, back) and Thomas (hip) both prove prescient, as neither is able to handle a substantial role. The Nuggets have a lot of good players, but no great ones—a formula that proves fatal as they again fall just short of the postseason.
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Remember point-Blake Griffin, the 6’10”, 251-pound playmaker who drove, dished and dunked his way to a top-three MVP finish in 2013-14? Well, the 2018-19 Detroit Pistons get that player, only he’s shooting threes at a league-average clip, too.
Griffin and Andre Drummond bring out the best in each another and join the discussion of the NBA’s best frontcourts. Reggie Jackson not only looks like an $80 million player, he also finishes among the top 10 in assists and points-assists double-doubles. Stanley Johnson makes his long-awaited leap. Luke Kennard paces the loaded sophomore class in three-point percentage.
It all adds up to Detroit’s second playoff trip in nine years and top-five Coach of the Year voting support for Dwane Casey.
Jackson and Griffin don’t play 100 games between them. The Pistons again fare worse with Drummond than without. Two players have league-average three-point percentages—Kennard and Reggie Bullock—and neither is more than a specialist. Johnson stagnates, and Henry Ellenson somehow regresses.
This becomes a 50-loss team with a $124 million payroll, shedding light on just what kind of mess Stan Van Gundy left behind.
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The Golden State Warriors have closed the last four seasons with three championships and one silver medal. They also hold the top spot on ESPN’s future rankings. With this talent level, a title is more of an expectation than a best-case scenario.
So, why not get greedy here? How about an MVP for Kevin Durant or Curry, another Defensive Player of the Year for Draymond Green and a top-three Most Improved Player finish for Jordan Bell? Oh, and save a fifth All-Star spot for DeMarcus Cousins, who returns ahead of schedule from his torn Achilles and fits seamlessly as both a long-lost Splash Brother and the interior force they’ve never had.
Sure, the Dubs aren’t guaranteed another ring, but their roster is somehow the NBA’s deepest and most star-studded. It often feels like only a teamwide illness or repeated assaults by the injury bug could dethrone this group.
To play devil’s advocate, though, maybe the frontcourt’s transition from vets to youngsters lead to too many breakdowns at both ends. Cousins can’t stop the bleeding, because his Achilles won’t let him see the floor. Complacency rears its ugly head, and the Warriors fall out of the top 10 on defense and top three on offense.
Talent alone gets this group to the conference finals, but a motivated club from Houston, Oklahoma City or Utah shockingly ends Golden State’s run atop the West.
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The Houston Rockets won 65 games last season, and despite losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to free agency, they think they can keep climbing.
“Usually coaches are sandbagging, but Mike [D’Antoni] feels like we’ve got a better team this year than last year,” general manager Daryl Morey said, per Fox 26’s Mark Berman.
James Harden repeats as MVP, Chris Paul rejoins the All-NBA team after a two-year hiatus, and Clint Capela is a Most Improved Player finalist again. Carmelo Anthony feasts on open looks, and the defense is versatile enough with James Ennis alongside PJ Tucker.
Space City celebrates an NBA championship like it’s 1995.
Houston’s sixth-ranked defense plummets out of the top half, as the absences of Ariza and Mbah a Moute cast a dark shadow over the season. Paul and Eric Gordon both miss 20-plus games. Anthony again struggles to accept his third-wheel status. Neither Ennis nor Tucker shoot well enough to wear the three-and-D label.
The Rockets still clear 50 wins but find the reloaded West more crowded at the top. Their playoff run falls apart in the second round.
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The reigning Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo, somehow leaps again and enters every “best two-way player” discussion. Myles Turner joins Oladipo on the All-Star roster, and Tyreke Evans is generally regarded as the event’s biggest snub.
Indy successfully challenges the notion the LeBron-less East runs through Boston, Toronto or Philly. The Indiana Pacers are a legitimate 50-win contender with the top-10 efficiency marks on offense and defense to prove it. They claim their first playoff series win since 2014 and have realistic hopes of escaping the second round.
Oladipo’s All-Star breakout seems more like a mirage, as he loses his recently discovered efficiency. None of Indy’s point guards run away with the starting job. Turner plateaus again. Evans can’t stay healthy. All defensive combinations involving Doug McDermott, TJ Leaf and/or Domantas Sabonis are shredded to pieces.
Both the offense and defense grade out a tad below mediocre, and they drag the wins column down with them. This is less like last season’s 48-win version and more like the 42-victory group swept out of the 2017 opening round.
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Tobias Harris shocks the world by swiping an All-Star spot. Danilo Gallinari shocks the world by playing 70-plus games for the first time in six years—and averaging 20-plus points along the way. Montrezl Harrell shocks the portion of the world that didn’t realize how dominant he was late last season.
Somehow, Doc Rivers finds enough minutes to get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander onto an All-Rookie team and Jerome Robinson into the Rising Stars Challenge. And even while developing the key young parts of their rebuild, the Los Angeles Clippers play their way into the postseason.
Gallinari spends the bulk of his season in street clothes, Harris doesn’t provide enough beyond scoring to elevate the team and Lou Williams turns back into a shot-chucking pumpkin.
The entire backcourt struggles with rhythm, as no one is good enough to demand major minutes or command a significant trade offer. Rivers trusts his vets too much, costing Gilgeous-Alexander, Robinson and Harrell prime developmental time. It doesn’t get the Clippers into the playoffs but does prevent them from drawing favorable lottery odds.
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Life with the King is good—not “crashing the Finals” good, but still “ending the playoff drought and battling for a top-four seed” good. James finally collects his fifth MVP and—more surprisingly—picks up his first scoring title since 2007-08.
Luke Walton is Coach of the Year. Brandon Ingram is an All-Star reserve. Moritz Wagner earns All-Rookie second team. Josh Hart lands just outside the top three in Most Improved Player voting.
James looks like he doesn’t have any more help with the Los Angeles Lakers—and might have less—than he did last season. The offense can’t compensate for the lack of outside shooting. The defense dips from the top half to the bottom third.
More concerning, though, is the damage done to L.A.’s recruiting pitch to 2019’s top free agents.
The youngsters respond poorly to the pressure of playing alongside James, and Wagner barely makes it off the bench. Walton’s coaching acumen is questioned during every skid, of which there are many. James loses not just his Finals streak (eight straight) but also misses the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
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Marc Gasol looks like Marc Gasol again, Mike Conley climbs back to the forefront of the “most underrated” discussion and Kyle Anderson perfectly blends Memphis’ modernization with a nod to the club’s grit-and-grind past. Jaren Jackson Jr. earns a top-three finish in Rookie of the Year voting, while Dillon Brooks builds off last season’s surprising success.
The Memphis Grizzlies don’t dominate the defensive end as they once did, but they do jump 10-plus spots from a year ago (tied for 22nd). The offense climbs from abysmal (27th) to respectable (mid-teens). The West’s oppressive depth probably keeps them out of the playoffs, but they’ll play meaningful games in April and could sneak in with a furious finish.
The 33-year-old Gasol goes from aging to ancient, Conley misses 25-plus contests for the third time in four years and Anderson becomes the latest player to struggle to match his production outside the Alamo City. Jackson is too raw to be reliable, and the entire forward rotation becomes a revolving door of hit-or-miss options.
While the playoff window closes in March, pride prevents the regulars from waving the white flag. So, instead of collecting the draft bounty from another 60-loss season, Memphis wins enough games to put its top-eight-protected pick (owed to Boston) in jeopardy.
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The Miami Heat steal the “Strength in Numbers” slogan from the Warriors and prove a collection of good players can compensate for the absence of great ones.
Hassan Whiteside not only buys what coach Erik Spoelstra is selling, but the 7-footer also anchors a top-three defense. Whiteside’s efforts are rewarded with his first All-Star selection, and he’s joined at the world’s greatest pickup game by Most Improved Player finalist Josh Richardson.
Dwyane Wade not only returns for another go-around with the Heat, but he also forms a lethal late-game tandem with a healthy, rejuvenated Dion Waiters. Their clutch scoring, combined with the stonewall stoppers, proves a strong enough formula to get Miami into the mix for a top-four seed in the East.
The lack of star power is crippling, and it surfaces at the worst possible times. The Heat don’t have a closer—not Waiters, not Wade (if he returns), not anyone else—and they go from decent in tight games (9-9 in three-point contests last season) to well below average.
Whiteside causes more headaches than highlights, but he still gets too many minutes for Bam Adebayo to take flight. The potential leaps from Richardson and Justise Winslow don’t happen. Thirty-somethings Goran Dragic and James Johnson both show their age. Tyler Johnson makes every list of the league’s worst contracts.
While the Heat spend most of the season hovering around .500, a late skid denies them a playoff spot and sends them into the back portion of the draft lottery.
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Giannis Antetokounmpo is your MVF—Most Valuable (Greek) Freak. Oh, he’s your runaway MVP winner, too, which might be as close to reality as any of our best-case scenarios.
As SI.com’s Andrew Sharp put it, “Giannis is going to own the league sooner or later. Why not start this year?”
Antetokounmpo isn’t Milwaukee’s only award winner, either. Mike Budenholzer puts a second Coach of the Year trophy on his mantel for overseeing the Milwaukee Bucks’ first 50-win effort since 2001. Khris Middleton is an All-Star. Donte DiVincenzo is an All-Rookie performer who draws a smattering of Sixth Man of the Year votes.
Milwaukee not only secures home-court advantage for the first round, but it also enters the second as the team no one wants to face.
Presuming good health, this is a playoff squad regardless of how the season shakes out. But the Bucks miss Jabari Parker’s scoring more than they anticipated, as only Antetokounmpo and Middleton are consistent offensive weapons.
Rather than break out, the Bucks once again fall victim to a member of the Eastern Conference elite in the opening round.
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The summer murmurs of internal discord are silenced, as the Minnesota Timberwolves surge out of the gate and establish themselves as one of the West’s elites.
Jimmy Butler seizes greater control of the team and earns his second career All-Star start. He’s joined at the festivities by Karl-Anthony Towns, who finally translates his defensive potential into success. Andrew Wiggins makes defensive strides, too. The offense squeezes just enough shooting out of Anthony Tolliver and Josh Okogie to keep driving lanes from getting cluttered.
Minnesota claims both its first Kevin Garnett-less 50-win season and a top-four seed in the West.
The Wolves go from bad (22nd) to worse on defense, frustrating Butler to the point that rumors of a trade request start to surface. Slight regression from Jeff Teague means there’s only one above-average shooter in the starting unit (Towns), and the offense slides out of the top 10.
Although the stat sheet suggests he should do otherwise, coach Tom Thibodeau leans heavily on his former Bulls. Derrick Rose struggles with efficiency and distributing. Luol Deng provides neither three nor D. Age and mileage catch up to 33-year-old Taj Gibson.
Rather than risk losing a disgruntled Butler over the summer, the Wolves panic-trade him at the deadline, and their playoff dream disintegrates.
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The revamped frontcourt allows the New Orleans Pelicans to play faster and more perimeter-oriented, freeing Anthony Davis to do his most statistical damage to date. By year’s end, he’s not only an easy MVP choice, but he also joins Bob McAdoo as the only players to average 30 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game.
Jrue Holiday gets All-Star consideration. Julius Randle makes the Lakers look foolish for letting him walk. Nikola Mirotic captures consistency and, with it, a handful of Most Improved Player votes. Elfrid Payton gets mistaken for #PlayoffRondo more than once.
New Orleans tops the 50-win mark, secures a top-five seed and has a good chance of getting back to the second round.
Randle and Mirotic both battle inconsistency, and New Orleans’ loss column swells to the point that Davis wonders aloud why the club didn’t re-sign Cousins. While Holiday mirrors last season’s volume, he does so without the efficiency. The Pelicans field one of basketball’s worst wing rotations.
Worried about what a lost season might mean for Davis’ 2021 free agency, New Orleans sacrifices another first-round pick in search of a quick fix. But it’s only a Band-Aid on a wound that requires surgical attention. The Pelicans fall short of the postseason, and head coach Alvin Gentry’s seat gets too hot to touch.
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Kevin Knox carries his summer-league success into games that count, and he’s an easy choice for Rookie of the Year. He’s also not the New York Knicks’ lone All-Rookie performer, as second-rounder Mitchell Robinson reminds folks why he was a McDonald’s All-American.
Buoyed by Knox, Robinson and a sophomore-leap-taking Frank Ntilikina, the ‘Bockers are League Pass favorites and plucky opponents. This isn’t a playoff team, but that’s a good thing. New York has no reason to rush Kristaps Porzingis’ recovery from a torn ACL and instead nurses him back to full strength and lets the kids find their footing.
Then, the Knicks storm into next summer with cap space, an established star, a handful of promising prospects and a major market to attract top targets.
The 20-and-under trio of Knox, Robinson and Ntilikina all look their age, leading the Knicks to limit their minutes and lean on veterans instead.
The strategy sort of works—Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter help the offense pop into the top half, and the Knicks find themselves in the thick of the playoff race. That’s enough to motivate Porzingis to push up his return date, hoping to get his first taste of the postseason.
Spurred by its spot in the standings, New York passes up opportunities to deal veterans for assets—a decision it quickly regrets. Porzingis doesn’t return to his All-Star level, and the team can’t find traction to make a late-season push. This isn’t a playoff squad or one positioned high in the lottery, and there isn’t much to sell to 2019 free agents.
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Russell Westbrook‘s knee surgery doesn’t cost him any regular-season games, and the Oklahoma City Thunder hit the ground at an Olympic-caliber sprint. Statistically, there isn’t a better two-man tandem than Westbrook and Paul George. Steven Adams gets All-Star buzz. Dennis Schroder draws Sixth Man of the Year votes.
Carmelo Anthony’s exit indeed becomes addition by subtraction, as OKC has a faster offense with better ball movement and a more versatile defense. The Thunder race into the West’s No. 2 seed, dispatch the Dubs in the conference finals and deliver OKC its first NBA title.
Westbrook’s setback lingers into the campaign, Schroder can’t make sense of an offense that’s too light on shooting and OKC doesn’t right itself before December. The damage done during that stretch eventually keeps the Thunder from claiming a top-four seed.
Without home-court advantage or a steady third option behind the All-Stars, the Thunder have too many challenges to overcome and are sent packing in the opening round.
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New head coach Steve Clifford proves a big-man whisperer and somehow strikes the right balance to maximize the impacts of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. Gordon provides 20 points every night, while Isaac and Bamba spearhead a climb from a tie for 19th in defensive efficiency into the upper third.
The Magic find a defense-driven identity built around youth, length and athleticism. They rarely win games—Nikola Vucevic, Jonathon Simmons and/or D.J. Augustin are moved for assets—but should have a shot at a high-profile scoring prospect such as Duke’s R.J. Barrett or Indiana’s Romeo Langford.
The Gordon-Isaac-Bamba frontcourt proves as puzzling as it looks on paper. Clifford abandons hope of making it work, gives Vucevic the bulk of big-man minutes and runs the offense through Evan Fournier. Melvin Frazier, Wesley Iwundu and Jerian Grant get similarly buried behind older players, and Orlando’s future forecast fails to brighten.
The Magic flirt with 30 victories, meaning they’ll likely draft in the back half of the top 10 again.
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Drew Hanlen proves prophetic. If you’re not familiar with Hanlen, he’s a shooting and skills coach who has worked closely with last year’s top pick Markelle Fultz. Suffice to say, Hanlen is a big-time believer in a sophomore spike.
“I literally think that if he’s back to 100 percent, I think he’s immediately an All-Star,” Hanlen told Fox Sports 1’s Evan Daniels.
A healthy, yips-free Fultz joins Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at the All-Star Game. With that trio doing the heavy lifting—and JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric supplying steady support—Philly posts a top-two record in the East and then escapes the conference by ousting the Raptors and Celtics in back-to-back rounds.
Injuries keep this potential flyer grounded. Embiid doesn’t reach 60 games. Fultz doesn’t either, but Philly fans are sort of OK with that since he still can’t remember how to shoot. Simmons fails to increase his shooting range or trim his turnovers.
The Sixers still finish near the 50-win mark, but they’re clearly behind Boston, Toronto and at least one more team (maybe Indy or Milwaukee). After handling its opening-round opponent, Philadelphia suffers another humbling, abbreviated series loss in the second.
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The Suns have an All-Star (Devin Booker), the Rookie of the Year (Deandre Ayton) and a second All-Rookie performer (Mikal Bridges). For a rebuilder coming off a 61-loss season, that’s about as promising a foundation as you’re going to get.
The win total doesn’t climb much, but Josh Jackson does, looking more like the player seen after the All-Star break (18.7 points on 43.8 percent shooting) than before it (11.2 on 40.6). Trevor Ariza dispenses veteran wisdom before he’s shipped out for an asset. Dragan Bender, threatened by Ryan Anderson’s arrival, finally looks like a keeper.
The playoffs aren’t a realistic goal, but developing prospects and adding another high lottery pick are helpful ones.
Booker’s hand surgery serves as a harbinger of a disappointing season, as he fails to improve his scoring, distributing or three-point shooting numbers for the first time in his career. Ayton only exacerbates what’s already the Association’s worst defense, and the Suns don’t have enough offensive weapons to prevent opponents from overcrowding him and muting his impact.
Ariza and Anderson become the preferred forwards of head coach Igor Kokoskov, cutting short the critical developmental minutes going to Bridges, Jackson and Bender.
The losses pile up, but it’s hard to spot the silver linings in them, as the season is remembered for this young nucleus’ failure to launch.
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Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are the NBA’s highest-scoring duo, boosting the Blazers offense from the middle of the pack (16th) to comfortably inside the top 10. Last year’s defensive improvements (from 21st to eighth) carry over, too, giving Portland a good-to-great unit on both ends of the floor.
While a third scorer doesn’t emerge, Portland turns that into a strength. Different guys deliver on different nights, so defenses can’t relax with Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Seth Curry or Anfernee Simons on the floor.
The Blazers enjoy the 50-win accomplishment they were supposed to have last season (they won 49 despite dropping four of their last five). Then, they break out of their 10-game playoff losing streak in a big way by advancing to the conference semis.
Not pursuing external frontcourt upgrades proves a costly mistake, as the Blazers grow increasingly reliant on Lillard and McCollum for almost all of their offense. But that just depletes the scoring guards’ efficiency. And when the defense reverts to its 2016-17 form, Portland sees no other options besides self-destruction.
The Blazers bite the bullet and break up the Lillard-McCollum backcourt and then furiously work to slash costs elsewhere as it becomes clear the playoffs aren’t happening.
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While the playoffs are out of the question for the foreseeable future, this has a chance to be a fun season in Sacramento. Virtually all of the minutes should go to youngsters.
Between Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley, the Kings have a top-six pick from each of the past three drafts. But there’s also Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Yogi Ferrell and Skal Labissiere.
Bagley takes Rookie of the Year, Giles gets All-Rookie love and Fox elevates his shooting rates from all three levels.
The Kings find little reason to believe there’s a future star anywhere on the roster.
Fox and Bagley are both plagued by perimeter woes, and the latter can’t keep small-ball 4s in front of him. Hield resembles a shooting specialist. Giles not only shows rust, but his play indicates he’ll never get all of his old explosiveness back. Bogdanovic and Jackson can’t push their ceilings past the complementary level.
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The Spurs look like a 47-win team that turned a disgruntled player who only made nine appearances (Kawhi Leonard) into a four-time All-Star (DeMar DeRozan). The 29-year-old DeRozan proves there are more layers to his game than he showed in Toronto, as San Antonio’s commitment to player and ball movement makes him a more efficient weapon.
LaMarcus Aldridge benefits from having a second 20-point scorer on the roster. Rudy Gay capably fills the No. 3 scoring role. Dejounte Murray finds ways to score inside the arc. Jakob Poeltl and Lonnie Walker perk up what’s already a top-third bench.
San Antonio starts a new 50-win streak and will be a handful for whichever team it draws in the first round.
The Spurs are a strange combination of old and unpolished, with Father Time catching the vets and a lack of seasoning plaguing the youngsters. DeRozan and Aldridge handcuff each other by failing to stretch the floor and trying to occupy the same mid-range spots. Murray offers so little on offense, he’s a net-negative presence despite defending at an elite level again.
San Antonio’s defense regresses with no Leonard, Danny Green or Kyle Anderson. The offense is nothing special. The Spurs win a shade fewer than 50 games, meaning they’re fighting for their playoff lives into the season’s final days.
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Kawhi Leonard is KAWHI LEONARD, picking up where he left off in 2016-17 when he was an All-NBA first-teamer and No. 3 in MVP voting. He’s the NBA’s best defender, a 25-point scorer and a better passer than ever.
Kyle Lowry books another All-Star appearance. Jonas Valanciunas adds more shooting to his arsenal, and his rim protection is better due to there being fewer leaks on the perimeter. The Leonard-Danny Green-OG Anunoby trio is as ferocious on defense as it sounds. Fred VanVleet once again pilots the NBA’s best bench.
The Raptors repeat as the East’s No. 1 seed, holding a critical advantage over their eventual conference finals opponent.
Leonard is either still hurt or uninterested in life north of the border. Either way, he’s never mentioned as one of the league’s best players.
Minutes and aging start to wear on Lowry. Valanciunas can’t modernize fast enough to keep up with the league. Serge Ibaka becomes a $21.6 million part-timer. VanVleet can’t recreate his breakout.
Toronto finishes closer to 50 wins than 60, slipping from first to third in the conference.
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In keeping with their summer theme of continuity, the Jazz keep doing what they do best. Namely, they badger opponents on defense and let 22-year-old Donovan Mitchell drive the offense.
The formula works. From Jan. 19—when Rudy Gobert returned from injury—through the end of the season, Utah paced the league in defense and efficiency. Mitchell, meanwhile, had the second-best scoring season for a freshman in the 2010s with 20.5 points per night.
Utah’s best-case scenario is simply a continuation of the above. Mitchell matches his value, but with better shooting rates. No team defends better. Ricky Rubio keeps his offensive numbers trending the right way. Grayson Allen adds a perimeter punch off the bench. This is a 55-win team and conference finalist.
While the defense is as stingy as ever, Utah’s margin for error on offense becomes problematically thin.
Mitchell does what he can to right the ship, but it costs him shooting percentage points he didn’t have to spare. Rubio reverts to his Minnesota days with sub-40 shooting and zero reliability from distance. Dante Exum can’t stay on the floor. Joe Ingles is the rotation’s lone long-distance threat, and his scoring is spotty.
The Jazz can’t separate from the middle of the West’s playoff pack, and they have to open the postseason on the road against an elite team.
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John Wall and Bradley Beal share the All-Star Game floor for the first time, and each is made more potent by Washington’s offseason additions. Dwight Howard’s athleticism makes pick-and-rolls more productive. Austin Rivers and Jeff Green add enough scoring to the second team for Wall and Beal to get actual rest (see: fewer than 34 minutes played per game).
The Wizards’ whole becomes greater than the sum of their parts. They have top-10 ratings on offense and defense, a top-four seed in hand and realistic hopes of reaching the conference finals.
Let’s remember, for a moment, the situation the Wizards found themselves in last season.
“It was just guys all for themselves last year,” Wall told Yahoo Sports’ Michael Lee. “…It wasn’t the same as the year before when we were all having fun. It was hard to find any fun on the court.”
So, a locker room that previously had chemistry concerns added Howard and Rivers to the mix. You probably get where this is going. The Wizards are again less than their talent says they should be. Nothing about this group grades out as elite, including the record—which sits around 45 wins and isn’t near good enough for a top-four seed.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.