The NBA season is upon us, and it’s time for Hoops Prospects’ annual NBA Fearless Forecast, featuring projected wins and potential breakout players for each team, plus predictions for the Association’s season-end awards.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (54 wins, 1st in the East)
The reigning NBA Champions will basically have the same squad from last season, and should be bolstered by the additions of Grayson Allen and Rodney Hood, the development of Jordan Nwora, and the eventual healthy return of Donte DiVincenzo. Add those players to Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Pat Connaughton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will be surrounded by a lot of shooters.
Breakout Player: Jordan Nwora
2. Brooklyn Nets (52 wins, 2nd in the East)
If it were not for the bizarre Kyrie Irving situation, the Nets would likely top this list. Even without the All-Star guard, Brooklyn should have enough to be a serious title contender. If Irving’s absence continues to linger, look for rookie guard Cam Thomas to be worked into the rotation — he’s an NBA-ready scorer.
Breakout Player: Nic Claxton
3. Utah Jazz (52 wins, 1st in the West)
The Jazz’s core returns intact, and the addition of rookie Jared Butler gives the club a promising backup behind the oft-injured Mike Conley. Before he was red-flagged in the pre-draft process due to long-term injury concerns, I considered Butler to be a potential lottery prospect.
Breakout Player: Jared Butler
4. Phoenix Suns (50 wins, 2nd in the West)
I am disappointed that the Suns didn’t do much to improve their roster, and I expect them to take a small step backward. They are especially thin in the frontcourt due to Dario Saric’s ACL injury.
Breakout Player: Cam Johnson
5. Los Angeles Lakers (50 wins, 3rd in the West)
The Lakers feature a formidable trio in LeBron, AD, and Russ, but these stars will be mainly surround by aging vets and free-agent castoffs. The Big Three’s health will determine how far this club goes.
Breakout Player: Talen Horton-Tucker
6. Atlanta Hawks (49 wins, 3rd in the East)
The Hawks made it all the way to the Eastern Finals last season, and they were not even at full strength. If one of their promising prospects (De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, or Onyeka Okongwu) emerges as a consistent force, watch out!
Breakout Player: De’Andre Hunter
7. Philadelphia 76ers (48 wins, 4th in the East)
Depending how the Ben Simmons situation plays out, the Sixers could be a championship contender or a lower seed in the playoffs. I believe that Simmons must go, but the 76ers are unlikely to receive enough in immediate returns to offset his loss. To make matters worse, there is not another true point guard on the roster.
Breakout Player: Tyrese Maxey/Matisse Thybulle
8. Golden State Warriors (47 wins, 4th in the West)
The Dubs have a lot of unanswered questions. Can Klay Thompson return to form, will James Wiseman start living up to his potential, and can Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga contribute as rookies? If the answer is “yes” to the first two questions, the Warriors will be title contenders once again.
Breakout Player: Jordan Poole
9. Miami Heat (46 wins, 5th in the East)
The underappreciated Kyle Lowry was a nice addition, but how much does the 35-year-old hustling point guard have left in his tank? The Heat had trouble staying healthy last season, and their depth isn’t much better this season. If the team can avoid serious injuries, they have the potential to be a very dangerous playoff opponent.
Breakout Player: Tyler Herro
10. Boston Celtics (46 wins, 6th in the East)
Boston has a talented core with Dennis Schröder, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum. The Celtics’ young bench has a lot of potential, and if players such as Aaron Nesmith, Robert Williams, and Romeo Langford step up, Boston could win 50-plus games.
Breakout Player: Aaron Nesmith
11. Denver Nuggets (45 wins, 5th in the West)
If Jamaal Murray was healthy, the Nuggets would be right up there with the Jazz, Lakers, and Suns, but as it is, there is a good chance that Murray will not play this season. Guard Bones Hyland is in a good spot to win ROY, as Denver is counting on him to help offset the loss of Murray.
Breakout Player: Bones Hyland
12. Dallas Mavericks (45 wins, 6th in the West)
Luka Doncic continues to be surrounded by mediocre talent. If Kristaps Porzingis doesn’t regain his old form, the Mavs will not win a championship this season, and in turn, it likely would be the last time that we see the two Euro stars paired together.
Breakout Player: Jalen Brunson
13. Portland Trail Blazers (43 wins, 7th in the West)
Will 31-year-old Damian Lillard finish the season in Portland? As of now, the Blazers appear destined to finish in the middle of the pack of the West Conference, again, and a roster shakeup, such as a trade for Ben Simmons, might not be a bad idea.
Breakout Player: Dennis Smith Jr.
14. Los Angeles Clippers (43 wins, 8th in the West)
Even without Kawhi Leonard (ACL), the Clippers should have enough to make the playoffs, but anything more than that seems unlikely. Leonard’s absence sets the stage for Terance Mann to have a big season.
Breakout Player: Terance Mann
15. Chicago Bulls (42 wins, 7th in the East)
The revamped Bulls appear likely to make the playoffs. Chicago will start the season without guard Coby White (shoulder, out until December), but the addition of Lonzo Ball gives the team a much-needed distributor. The key to the club’s success may be second-year forward Patrick Williams, who was not ready for prime time last season.
Breakout Player: Lonzo Ball
16. Indiana Pacers (42 wins, 8th in the East)
The Pacers have the look of a middling team once again, but if Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, and Myles Turner can stay healthy, the club could surprise. Indiana should also receive a big scoring boost when T.J. Warren (foot) returns.
Breakout Player: Chris Duarte
17. New York Knicks (41 wins, 9th in the East)
I have a feeling the Knicks may have overachieved last season, but the addition of point guard Kemba Walker could push the club to the next level. Also, New York has a lot of untapped potential on the bench, including Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, so an improvement over last season is certainly possible.
Breakout Player: RJ Barrett
18. Memphis Grizzlies (41 wins, 9th in the West)
The Grizzlies remain intact for the most part, and the club is relying on its young players to take the next step, especially point guard Ja Morant and power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. Jackson definitely has to step up to offset the loss of Jonas Valanciunas’ consistent inside scoring and rebounding.
Breakout Player: Jaren Jackson Jr.
19. New Orleans Pelicans (40 wins, 10th in the West)
The health of Zion is constant concern in New Orleans. He is not expected to play until at least November, and when he does return, can he stay in the lineup for a significant portion of the season? On the upside, the Pelicans may not be so reliant on Williamson this season, thanks to the additions of Devonte Graham, Jonas Valanciunas, and rookie Trey Murphy. Murphy may get significant run while Zion is out, and he has surprised me by being much more than the 3-point specialist that he was at Virginia.
Breakout Player: Trey Murphy
20. Sacramento Kings (38 wins, 11th in the West)
The Kings’ long playoff drought figures to continue, though strong seasons from rookie Davion Mitchell and Marvin Bagley could push the team into the play-in round of the playoffs. However, it’s more likely that Bagley will continue to struggle in Sacramento, and eventually be traded for a better defensive option.
Breakout Player: Tyrese Haliburton
21. Washington Wizards (38 wins, 10th in the East)
The Russell Westbrook trade greatly enhanced the Wizards’ depth, but is Spencer Dinwiddie an equivalent replacement at point guard? How far this team goes is probably dependent on one of three youngsters living up to their potential: forward Rui Hachimura, forward Deni Avdija or rookie wing Corey Kispert. If one of the three emerges as a formidable starter/sixth man, a playoff berth is a very good bet.
Breakout Player: Spencer Dinwiddie
22. Charlotte Hornets (37 wins, 11th in the East)
The Hornets are definitely moving in the right direction, but the club may be a bit too inexperienced to make the playoffs this season. However, back-to-back strong drafts, featuring the reigning ROY LaMelo Ball, dynamic scoring guard James Bouknight, and versatile forwards J.T. Thor and Kai Jones make Charlotte a club to keep an eye on.
Breakout Player: LaMelo Ball
23. Minnesota Timberwolves (36 wins, 12th in the West)
The additions of veterans Patrick Beverley and Taurean Prince are not enough to make the Timberwolves a good defense team (ranked 28th in defensive efficiency last season). However, the combination of D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns should light up the scoreboard on many nights.
Breakout Player: Anthony Edwards
24. Toronto Raptors (36 wins, 12th in the East)
The lack of a big-time scorer and a true center will likely keep the Raptors out of the playoffs, but rookie Scottie Barnes has the look of a future star. Barnes gives the team another long, versatile defender, and scoring vs. Toronto this season will not be easy.
Breakout Player: OG Anunoby
25. Cleveland Cavaliers (32 wins, 13th in the East)
The Cavs are another team moving in the right direction, but the club lacks great depth and doesn’t have many consistent outside shooters. Cleveland definitely has a lot of defensive upside with wing Isaac Okoro, center Jarrett Allen, and rookie Evan Mobley. Power forward Lauri Markkanen developing into a consistent scoring threat will be key for the team to take a significant step forward.
Breakout Player: Lauri Markkanen
26. San Antonio Spurs (32 wins, 13th in the West)
The Spurs have good depth and a lot of potential on their young roster, but the team is likely a year or two away from being competitive. San Antonio has a number of breakout candidates, including Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson, and two very promising rookies in Joshua Primo and Joe Wieskamp. Also, once Zach Collins (foot) is healthy, the team will be well stocked with solid frontcourt players.
Breakout Player: Keldon Johnson
27. Houston Rockets (29 wins, 14th in the West)
With an outstanding draft haul (Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba, and Josh Christopher), Houston’s rebuild is off to an excellent start. However, the Rockets are a long way from being consistently competitive. Veteran point guard John Wall is on the trading block, and won’t play until he finds a new home. As a result, the team will try Kevin Porter at point guard, an experiment that could easily fail.
Breakout Player: Kevin Porter
28. Detroit Pistons (27 wins, 14th in the East)
As of right now, Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk are the most reliable players on the Pistons’ roster, which means that this team is far from being a playoff contender. The last two drafts have put the building blocks for the future in place (Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Saben Lee), but expect a lot of growing pains this season.
Breakout Player: Isaiah Stewart
29. Orlando Magic (26 wins, 15th in the East)
The Magic were devastated by health and injury issues last season, and the story remains the same, as five players are currently sidelined, including guard Markelle Fultz and forward Jonathan Isaac. Next year, this young team should be highly competitive, but for now, they will be mainly interesting to watch, as the Magic are well stocked with exciting guards — Cole Anthony, rookie Jalen Suggs, and R.J. Hampton.
Breakout Player: Cole Anthony
30. Oklahoma City Thunder (23 wins, 15th in the West)
OKC is a heavy favorite to have the worst record in the league. Journeymen Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala are the only players on the club with more than three years of NBA experience. Rookie Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, and Aleksej Pokusevski are nice building blocks, but the Thunder are completely off this season’s playoff radar.
Breakout Player: Josh Giddey
Milwaukee over Utah — I am not going to deviate from the projections above. I believe that the Bucks and Jazz have both improved over last season, while the same cannot necessarily be said of the other leading contenders (Nets, Lakers, and Suns).
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) — A lot of dynamic duos will likely cancel each other out, such as LeBron/AD and Durant/Harden. Antetokounmpo should be, once again, the best player on the best team in basketball. I expect Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, and Steph Curry to be very much in the mix. Longer shots would be Durant, Harden, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, and Trae Young.
Defensive Player of the Year
Rudy Gobert (Jazz) — Arguably, Gobert should have been part of last season’s MVP discussion, but he seems destined to be limited to this award, which he has already won three times. Other candidates for this honor would be Antetokounmpo, Embiid, and Ben Simmons. Longer shots are Marcus Smart, Jerami Grant, Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton, and Matisse Thybulle.
Rookie of the Year
Josh Giddey (Thunder) — This is a wide-open race. The candidates include first-overall pick Cade Cunningham, who missed the entire preseason with an ankle sprain, and is not expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. Other top contenders are Scottie Barnes, Jared Butler, Bones Hyland, Jalen Green, Trey Murphy, Evan Mobley, James Bouknight, Davion Mitchell, and Alperen Sengun. However, I am giving the nod to Giddey, who has a high basketball IQ, the size of a forward, high-level pro experience, and outstanding passing skills. Additionally, the Aussie point guard shot very well during the preseason (four games), making 52.3 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep.
Sixth Man of the Year
Tyler Herro (Heat) — The third-year pro appears primed for a big season, averaging 22.4 points per game, with shooting splits of .512/.448/.895, in five preseason outings. He’ll receive plenty of playing time at both guard spots, behind Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler. I give Herro a slight edge of over the reigning champ, Jordan Clarkson. Others in the mix are Miles Bridges, Lauri Markkanen, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jordan Poole, Malik Beasley, and Cam Johnson.
Most Improved Player
OG Anunoby (Raptors) — I am giving the nod to Anunoby over Jaren Jackson Jr., Lonzo Ball, and Terance Mann. Other candidates that I considered were Keldon Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Nic Claxton, and Kevin Porter. Anunoby had a stellar preseason, averaging 19.3 points, 4.0 boards, 1.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, with outstanding shooting splits (.520/.542/.923). Already a respected defender, the 24-year-old figures to be a bigger part of the Toronto offence due the departure of Kyle Lowry and the injuries to Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher.
Coach of the Year
Nate McMillan (Hawks) — Of the championship contenders, the Hawks appear to be the most underrated team. McMillan turned this squad around last year, and led Atlanta all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. It will be a challenge to achieve the same success this season, but even if McMillan comes close, he could earn this award for his accomplishments over a two-year span.