The NBA season tips off on Tuesday night, and this particular season will be especially interesting because there is no clear-cut favorite to win the championship for the first time in at least five years. In this fearless forecast, I will predict the number of regular-season wins for each team, the eventual NBA Champion, the league MVP, the Rookie of the Year, and more.
I’ll start by projecting each the team’s number of wins, going worst to first. Playoff teams are noted with an asterisk. The draft order for the early Hoops Prospects 2019-20 Mock Drafts will be based on these projections.
30. Washington Wizards (22) – The Wizards are clearly in rebuilding mode. With the exception of shooting guard Bradley Beal, the team has little proven talent. Backcourt mate and fellow All-Star John Wall is expected to miss the entire season due to a torn left Achilles’ tendon suffered last year, while Wall’s projected replacement, Isaiah Thomas, who has barely played since the 2017 playoffs with the Celtics, is expected to be out for roughly a month due to a thumb injury. Additionally, 2018 first-round pick Troy Brown (SF) could be out for more than a month due to a calf injury. Brown’s injury will open the door for rookie forwards Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield to get significant playing time out of the gate, while the Lakers’ 2018 first-round pick Moe Wagner is in a position to earn significant minutes at the four and five spots.
29. Charlotte Hornets (25) – The Hornets won 39 games last season, but a big slide is expected after losing their clear-cut star, point guard Kemba Walker, to the Celtics via free agency. Former Celtic Terry Rozier will takeover at the point, at least for now. The team’s main building blocks are forwards Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington, first-rounders in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In fact, the versatile Washington appears to be a dark-horse candidate for Rookie of the Year after finishing the preseason with excellent shooting splits (.629/.500/.818) and averaging 12.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.6 steals plus blocks per game.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (26) – The Cavs’ rebuilding process continues, but they should take a small step forward, thanks to a pair of top-ten picks in the backcourt – Collin Sexton (2018) and Darius Garland (2019). The diminutive tandem is very suspect on the defensive end, but both guards are dynamic scorers/playmakers. The Cavs’ other top prospects, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter, both 2019 first-rounders, will need time to develop. Windler missed all of the preseason and remains out with a leg injury, while the raw Porter was highly inefficient in exhibition play.
27. New York Knicks (27) – With a league-low 17 wins last season, the Knicks have nowhere to go but up. The point guard situation in New York remains a mess, and small forward Kevin Knox has yet to prove that he was worth the ninth overall pick in the 2018 draft, but the club hopes that it has a future All-Star in shooting guard RJ Barrett, who averaged 15.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game during the preseason. New York has plenty of bigs, including free-agent additions Julius Randle and Marcus Morris, plus promising second-year rim protector Mitchell Robinson.
26. Memphis Grizzlies (30) – It may not show in the win column this season, especially in the highly competitive Western Conference, but the Grizzlies are moving in the right direction. Second-round pick Ja Morant should develop into a star at the point. Possessing great vision, creativity, and athleticism, he has the potential to be both a prolific scorer and passer. In the preseason, the 20-year-old Murray State product averaged 11.2 points and 7.2 assists per game. Morant will be surrounded by young players with potential, including Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen on the wings and Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke in the frontcourt. The youngsters will be complemented by a handful of proven vets, including point guard Tyus Jones, forward Jae Crowder, and center Jonas Valanciunas.
25. Chicago Bulls (31) – The Bulls figure to take a significant step forward this season thanks to a nice mix of promising youngsters and solid veterans. Guard Zach LaVine and power forward/center Lauri Markkanen are potent scorers with All-Star potential, and they will be joined by the seventh overall pick in the draft, guard Coby White, who averaged 19.2 points per game in the preseason. White, however, may not be the ideal floor general; he averaged just one assist per game in exhibition play, and how he and LaVine will mesh remains to be seen. Free-agent Thaddeus Young will bring some much-needed toughness and leadership to the team, though as a group, the Bulls will likely struggle on the defensive end of the floor.
24. Phoenix Suns (33) – The Suns have won fewer than 25 games for four consecutive years, but that streak should come to an end this season. Shooting guard Devin Booker will have to remain healthy for that to happen, however. He has averaged at least 25 points per game over the past two seasons, but has missed a total of 46 games over the same span. If motivated, second-year center Deandre Ayton has the potential to average more than 20 points per game as well (16.3 PPG as a rookie). Free-agent point guard Ricky Rubio should help both players with his ability to create plays, and he also will reduce some of Booker’s ball-handling load. The rest of the roster includes forward Kelly Oubre, who flourished in Phoenix for 40 games after being traded from Washington, power forward Dario Saric, a steady all-around contributor, wing Mikal Bridges, the tenth overall pick in 2018, and sharpshooting rookie wing Cam Johnson, who made 45 percent of his threes in the preseason.
23. Atlanta Hawks (34) – The Hawks have done a great job rebuilding via the draft, acquiring power forward John Collins in 2017 and point guard Trae Young and wing Kevin Huerter in 2018. Both Collins and Young averaged better than 19 points per game last season, and are true building blocks for the future. This past draft yielded a pair of top-10 picks, forward De’Andre Hunter and wing Cam Reddish. Hunter will likely have far more of an impact as a rookie – his tenacious defense is greatly needed on a squad that led the NBA, by far, in points per game allowed (119.4). Hunter is one of the few Hawks considered to be stellar defenders, and the club also lacks a center that can dominate on either end of the court.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder (35) – The Thunder’s prospects are somewhat difficult to gauge because it’s uncertain if point guard Chris Paul will be with them for the entire season; the nine-time All-Star has been rumored to be on the trading block ever since he arrived from Houston. However, even with Paul, who is 34 years old and is often hampered by injuries, OKC would have a tough time making the playoffs in the highly competitive Western Conference. After a number of questionable trades and draft picks, the Thunder are short on talent and potential, with the main exceptions being guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and center Steven Adams. Fantasy owners should note that Gilgeous-Alexander, who averaged 18.8 points per game in the preseason, should be the club’s top scoring threat and appears primed for a breakout season.
21. Detroit Pistons (37) – The Pistons did not have an exceptional offseason, and may not match last year’s mark of 41 wins. The main additions were veteran Derrick Rose, who will split time with Reggie Jackson at the point, and top pick Sekou Doumbouya (PF/SF), who is a few years away from making significant contributions. The key for the team is the development of a pair of young wings – Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown – if both players can raise their games up a couple of notches, the Pistons might sneak into the postseason again.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves (37) – On paper, the T’wolves should have produced more than the 36 wins that they earned last season. Part of the problem is that they play in the Western Conference, but another significant factor is that the team’s “stars,” Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, produce gaudy stats but are inconsistent on the defensive end. The team has other issues as well: 1) point guard Jeff Teague is best suited to be a backup at this stage of his career; 2) other than Noah Vonleh, there is no true power forward on the roster; and 3) the bulk the club’s talent is clustered at the wing spots, with Wiggins, 3-and-D maven Robert Covington, second-year pro Josh Okogie, and rookie Jarrett Culver cutting into each other’s minutes.
19. Orlando Magic * (38) – Basically the same club that won 42 games and finished first in the Southeast Division last season will take the floor in Orlando this season. That may be enough to earn a spot in the playoffs, but this team remains a long way from competing for an NBA Championship. The strength of the club is upfront with power forward Aaron Gordon and centers Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba. Of course, since the latter two can’t realistically play at the same time, it’s somewhat of a waste of talent. Meanwhile, the team still lacks a legitimate starting point guard, and based on the preseason, former first overall pick Markelle Fultz looks to be far from the answer.
18. Dallas Mavericks (39) – The Mavs will get a huge boost from the return power forward Kristaps Porzingis, who hasn’t played in a regular-season game since February of 2018 due to a knee injury. The 24-year-old Latvian was impressive during the preseason, but the Mavs are expected to be cautious and limit his playing time. The other star on the club is the reigning Rookie of the Year, Luka Doncic, who dazzled NBA fans with his feel for the game and all-around ability. With Porzingis and Doncic, the Mavs could place two players on this year’s All-Star squad, but the rest of the roster is lacking an abundance of talent.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (39) – Going into the draft, the only real concern with Zion Williamson was his durability. The Pelicans felt comfortable enough to make him the top overall pick in June, and after an ultra-impressive start to the preseason, he appeared to be a lock to win Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, the 19-year-old power forward developed soreness in his right knee after four games, and then on Monday, it was announced that he underwent knee surgery and would miss 6-8 weeks. In preseason action, Williamson was averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 71.4 percent from the floor. If the rookie returns in a minimal amount of time and can remain healthy, a playoff run is not out of the question for the Pelicans, who have amassed a great deal of promising young talent to combine with some very reliable vets, such as Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick. This team is likely a year or two away from making serious noise, but the future looks very bright.
16. Miami Heat * (40) – The addition of free agent wing Jimmy Butler has the fan base energized in Miami, but the Heat do not appear to have enough overall talent to make a long playoff run. With Miami trading Hassan Whiteside to Portland, center Bam Adebayo has an opportunity for a breakout season, and he appeared up to the task in preseason action, averaging 11.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. Also, with veteran guard Dion Waiters suspended and likely headed out of town, rookie Tyler Herro becomes a dark-horse candidate for Rookie of the Year. The 19-year-old sharpshooter averaged a team-leading 14.2 points in the preseason while shooting 51.9 percent from deep.
15. Sacramento Kings (40) – Will the Kings finally have a wining season, something that they have not done since 2006? Last year, they came close with 39 wins, and in the offseason, they kept their core intact and added quality role players in Trevor Ariza (SF), Dewayne Dedmon (C), and Cory Joseph (PG). The big guns on the squad – Marvin Bagley (PF), De’Aaron Fox (PG), Buddy Hield (SG), and Harrison Barnes (SF) are all either in their prime or on the uptick, and the same could be said of wing Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. This team is still likely a year away from making the playoffs, but the worst that can be said about this unit is that it lacks a dominating center.
14. Indiana Pacers * (42) – Under the direction of Head Coach Nate McMillan, the Pacers have developed a reputation for overachieving, and they will have to do more of the same to match last season’s mark of 48 wins. Not only did the club lose a number of key contributors in the offseason, including forward Thaddeus Young, point guard Darren Collison, and wing Bojan Bogdanovic, but they also will be without the services of their best player, guard Victor Oladipo, for an indefinite period of time, as he continues to recover from the quad injury that he suffered last season. The newcomers to the squad include former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon (PG), Jeremy Lamb (SG), and T.J. Warren (SF/PF), and it’s questionable whether these additions are a significant upgrade over the players that they are replacing. On the plus side, the team has plenty of talent and potential in the frontcourt with Domantas Sabonis and T.J. Leaf at power forward and Myles Turner and rookie Goga Bitadze at center.
13. Brooklyn Nets * (44) – While the Nets are not expected to have their biggest offseason acquisition, Kevin Durant, until next season due to an Achilles injury, they should still improve upon last season’s 42 wins. The team will have the services of its free-agent prize, six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving, to run the point, replacing the departed D’Angelo Russell. Shooting guard Caris LeVert and forward Taurean Prince appear primed for breakout seasons, and should provide most of the scoring punch to complement Irving. The team should also have a very solid bench with Spencer Dinwiddie at guard, sharpshooter Joe Harris on the wing, and veteran free-agent DeAndre Jordan at center. The key for the Nets will be the development of their young frontcourt players, center Jarrett Allen and power forward Rodions Kurucs – both need to take a significant step forward for the Nets to make a long playoff run. Rookie center/power forward Nic Claxton was a steal at pick No. 31, but it’s unlikely that he will have a huge impact this season.
12. Toronto Raptors * (45) – The reigning NBA champs will likely take a huge step backward due to the free-agent loss of forward Kawhi Leonard. OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are hardly equivalent replacements, even collectively. The good news is that the rest of the team remains mainly intact, and still includes power forward Pascal Siakam, a future All-Star. Also, fifth-year pro Norman Powell appears ready to assume the role as a full-time starter at shooting guard. In the preseason, he averaged 15.7 points per game with outstanding shooting splits (.615/.692/.857).
11. San Antonio Spurs * (46) – While the Spurs may have no All-Stars this season, they will have exceptional depth and the versatility to put a variety of lineups on the court. They also have a nice blend of youth and experience. The main difference between this year’s squad and the one that won 48 games in 2018-19 is that guard Dejounte Murray returns after missing all of last season with an ACL injury. Also, look for the ultra-athletic Lonnie Walker (SG/SF) to be more of factor in his second season.
10. Golden State Warriors * (47) – No empire ever lasts. Not only are the Warriors no longer favored to win the league title, but they also are not favored to win their division. The Warriors suffered major losses in the offseason, including ten-time All-Star Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, and All-Star shooting guard Klay Thompson may miss the entire season due to an ACL tear suffered in last season’s playoffs. The addition of guard D’Angelo Russell will help offset the loss of Livingston and the absence of Thompson, but small forward Glenn Robinson III and rookie shooting guard Jordan Poole will not be able to adequately fill Durant’s and Igudala’s shoes. The combination of former MVP Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Russell should keep the team competitive, and if Thompson returns, the Warriors should be a very dangerous playoff team.
9. Los Angles Lakers * (49) – The Lakers should be vastly improved over last year’s 33-win squad, assuming that Anthony Davis and LeBron James remain healthy for the majority of the season. The trade to acquire Davis was costly in terms of depth and long-term potential; the Lakers sent Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and the No. 4 pick in the draft to the Pelicans. As a result, the Lakers roster is filled with nondescript players, many of whom are well past their prime, with the lone exception being forward Kyle Kuzma.
8. Boston Celtics * (50) – The Celtics should benefit from replacing disgruntled point guard Kyrie Irving with three-time All-Star Kemba Walker. The same might be said of rookie Carsen Edwards replacing Terry Rozier as the backup point. In the preseason, Edwards averaged 15.2 points per game while making 45.2 percent of his threes. The Celtics’ primary concern is in the frontcourt, where Al Horford (PF/C) and Aron Baynes (C) must be replaced. Free-agent Enes Kanter and second-year pro Robert Williams should be able to fill Bayne’s shoes, with the former providing offense, and the latter providing defense. However, there is no ideal replacement for Horford currently on the roster.
7. Portland Trail Blazers * (50) – The Blazers exceeded expectations last season by making it to the Western Conference finals, and I expect them to take a slight step backward this season. The team must replace a number of regular contributors in forward Al-Farouq Aminu, center Enes Kanter, and guards Evan Turner and Seth Curry. Additionally, center Jusuf Nurkic is expected to miss a significant portion of the season, as he continues to recover from a serious leg fracture. He contributed 15.6 points and 10.4 boards per game before going down last season. The biggest concern is replacing the pair of centers, and the Blazers are hoping that the combination of Hassan Whiteside, acquired from Miami, and third-year pro Zach Collins can hold down the fort until Nurkic returns.
6. Houston Rockets * (51) – Heading into this season, the only significant change in Houston is the addition of Russell Westbrook and the subtraction of Chris Paul. The rest of the roster looks much the same, lacking quality depth at most spots and stuffed with mediocre role players with little upside. Westbrook is clearly an upgrade over Paul, but will that be enough for this team to avoid a disappointing result in the playoffs once again? If the preseason is any indication, the addition of Westbrook won’t hurt the production of fellow guard James Harden, who averaged 31.2 points and posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 42.2 in six games.
5. Utah Jazz * (52) – Utah’s offseason moves were clearly designed to “jazz” up the offense, and in the process, the club sacrificed some depth and height. The main move was acquiring point guard Mike Conley from Memphis, giving the team a very dynamic backcourt, with Donovan Mitchell being the other half. With Jae Crowder being shipped to Memphis and Derrick Favors not resigned, the Jazz will rely more on small-ball lineups, which will include free-agent additions Bojan Bogdanovic and Jeff Green at the forward spots. Of course, center Rudy Gobert remains to anchor the defense, so the Jazz will never be too small when he is on the court.
4. Los Angels Clippers * (55) – Many think that the additions of All-NBA forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George make the Clippers the team to beat this season, and with good reason. Many of the players who were responsible for the team’s 48 wins last season remain, and now that core is joined by two of the best players in the league. Of course, to make a huge leap forward, both Leonard and George must remain healthy, which has not always been the case for either. Last year with the Raptors, Leonard’s workload was significantly managed so that he would be ready for heavy use during the playoffs. The Clippers may not have the same luxury in the tougher Western Conference. Meanwhile, George is already expected to miss at least the first ten games of the season due to multiple shoulder surgeries.
3. Milwaukee Bucks * (55) – The Bucks finished last season with a league-leading 60 wins, and given that basically the same squad will take the floor this season, it would be no surprise if they reached that mark again. Guard Malcolm Brogdon was the team’s primary offseason loss. Last season, he led the team, which was collectively mediocre from deep (35.3 percent) in three-point percentage, making 42.6 percent of his shots. The biggest concern, however, is that reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has to carry so much of the load and has no real stars to complement him. Relying on one player so heavily is bound to catch up to the Bucks at some point, making them a risky proposition to win it all.
2. Denver Nuggets * (56) – The Nuggets won 54 games last season, and there are multiple reasons to think that they will surpass that mark in 2020. First, all of their key players are returning, and they added versatile forward Jerami Grant to the mix. Second, this is a young team that it is on the upswing; Paul Millsap is the only key player over 30 years old, and Grant will help ease his workload. Third, it’s a long shot, but rookie Michael Porter Jr. could provide the team with an offensive spark at key times; before suffering several injuries prior to the 2018 draft, he was considered to be a top-3 prospect.
1. Philadelphia 76ers * (56) – The major changes that the Sixers made this past offseason were adding Al Horford (PF/C) and Josh Richardson (SG/SF), while trading away Jimmy Butler and allowing J.J. Redick to leave via free agency. At first glance, it might appear that the team took a step backward with these moves, but based on the collective plus-minus rating of the four players, the club has improved. There are other not-so-obvious things to consider about the moves. For example, the addition of Horford will likely greatly benefit Joel Embiid by limiting the latter’s minutes per game and picking up the slack at center when the Sixers’ best player misses games. Embiid, a fourth-year pro, played in 64 games last season, a career-high. The Sixers won eight of the 18 games that he missed (44 percent); with him, they won 43 games (67 percent). More importantly, Embiid, who led all true centers in the NBA with 33.7 minutes played per game, was beat up and worn down by the time the playoffs rolled around. A relatively healthy and rested Embiid will vastly improve the 76ers’ chances of making a long run in the playoffs. Additionally, the underrated Richardson and rookie Matisse Thybulle, who averaged 2.6 steals per game in the preseason, will greatly improve Philadelphia’s perimeter defense. There is no doubt that Redick’s ability to knock down threes will be missed, but a healthier Embiid and a more tenacious defense should more than offset that loss.
Projected Playoff Seeds
Philadelphia 76ers – I basically see this season coming down to a four-team race between the top-two seeds in each conference. Surviving in the eastern playoff bracket is likely going to be a much easier task, which is why I am giving the nod to Philadelphia over Denver. Trust the process.
Rookie of the Year
RJ Barrett (NY Knicks) – As noted above, Barrett’s college teammate, Zion Williamson would have been the pick here if he wasn’t going to miss significant time due to injury. Another top candidate is Memphis’ Ja Morant. Barrett was not highly efficient as a shooter in the preseason, but he was better than Morant. Also, it’s clear that the Knicks are going to give the Duke product plenty of run, as he led the league in minutes per game (37.4) during exhibition play.
Sixth Man of the Year
Montrezl Harrell (LA Clippers) – This pick is a tough choice between four players: Harrell, Lou Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and a 3-time winner, Derrick Rose, and Coby White. I am bit leery of Rose due to his injury history, and White is somewhat of a long shot because only one rookie has ever won the award (Ben Gordon in 2005). That leaves the 32-year-old Williams, and his teammate Harrell, who finished third in the voting last year. This award is typically dominated by scoring guards like Williams, but I am going with the big guy because he is in the prime of his career.
Most Improved Player
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (OKC Thunder) – As noted above, SGA should be “the man” in Oklahoma City this season. Sacramento’s Marvin Bagley will likely produce even more impressive overall numbers, but the increase from their rookie season to this season should be more dramatic for Gilgeous-Alexander. Two other prime candidates for this award are the Nets’ Caris LeVert and the Heat’s Bam Adebayo.
Defensive Player of the Year
Miles Turner (Indiana Pacers) – Rudy Gobert has won this award for two consecutive years, but only one player has ever won the award three times in a row (Dwight Howard, of all people). Gobert, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are likely the frontrunners to win this season, but I am going with the disrespected Turner, who led the league in blocks last year but failed to receive a single vote for the All-Defensive team. Among players who defended at least 300 possessions last season, Turner ranked ninth for points allowed per possession (.822), finishing well above any of the other aforementioned candidates.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) – I expect many of the dynamic duos (Harden/Westbrook, Leonard/George, James/Davis) to cancel each other out, leaving Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic as my top choices. Joel Embiid will very much be in the running as well if he plays close to 80 games. A longer shot is Damian Lillard. The edge ultimately goes to Antetokounmpo, who dominated the voting last year while Jokic finished a distant fourth.