The Frozen Envelope’s 2018-19 Standing and Playoff Predictions

It is always a very difficult and almost pointless exercise to try to predict NBA teams’ exact win total or even to attempt to rank them in a 1-15 order. Especially this season, where a minimal number of wins could separate home court advantage from missing the playoffs out West, it is impossible to correctly see how the standings will shake out come season’s end. Having said that, what I have done is broken down the conference’s into the tiers that I imagine they will be in at the end of the season. Teams within the same tier are ones that I expect could finish in any order, though I do also try to sort them out.

Note: These predictions are considering the regular season only. Absent specific seeding projections, my playoff predictions will be limited to the Conference and NBA Finals only.  

Eastern Conference

Tier One: 55+ Wins

 

  1. Boston Celtics
  2. Toronto Raptors

The race for the top of the Eastern Conference should be absolutely fascinating. For the first time in what seems like forever, and definitely for the first time for these NBA franchises in their current iterations, LeBron James’s team is not a shoo-in for a spot in the NBA finals. James’ move to the Western Conference opens a new world of possibilities for teams that have been relegated to little brother status for an entire generation of NBA basketball.

At the top of the list are two teams that have combined to lose to LeBron a total of six times in the four years since the King returned to Cleveland. Boston enters the season as the slight favorite in the East; they pushed the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and have since welcomed back both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injury, adding into the fold two of their four best players, and arguably the top two when fully healthy.

Boston has few clear weaknesses. Irving and sophomore sensation Jayson Tatum, who arrived as a bona fide NBA star in last year’s postseason, are go-to isolation scorers. Hayward can be added to that list if he recovers fully, and he is at worst a role player plus: Someone who can contribute in all facets of the game in a positive way. Al Horford is the ideal do-it-all center for today’s NBA. He can shoot the three, take advantage of mismatches inside, defend guards on the perimeter and is an underrated defender inside. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier provide defensive intensity and Marcus Morris is probably as good an eighth man as you’ll find in the NBA. The team is extremely deep, well-coached, and hungry.

If they have any shortcoming it is that their absolute top-end talent is not elite. Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all a step above Boston’s best player. Still, Boston’s collective talent is unmatched in the East and only topped by Golden State’s league wide. Throw in the league’s best or second best coach and the second seed in the East is as low as they will fall. In most team’s cases, I would add barring injury, but for Boston, it’s barring multiple injuries, and perhaps as many as three or four before they need to panic. The postseason may bring about a different set of questions for the Celtics, but there are as solid a regular season team as they come.

Still, if all goes according to plan, the Toronto Raptors should be right there with them come May. It’s hard not to when you take a clear step up talent wise following a 59-win season. Although the optics on trading a loyal franchise player who embraced Toronto in a way that no other star player has in exchange for a one year rental are not great, it is almost impossible to argue with it from a basketball standpoint.

If Leonard in Toronto is a success story, the Raptors will compete for an Eastern Conference title and maybe more. That could be enough to entice him to stick around. If he does in fact flee, then Toronto has accelerated its rebuild, breaking up a team that was a nice story but that had already maxed out its potential. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were never going to lead this team to a title.

I am a believer in this experiment. I don’t think that Leonard will be physically incapacitated this season, and even if he is indeed unhappy in Canada, he will at least be playing for a new contract next season, wherever it may be signed. It is in his own self-interest to be fully committed next season.

Now, back to the on the court stuff. The potential five man unit of Lowry/Danny Green/Kawhi/OG Anunoby/Serge Ibaka is downright scary defensively. It has the clear potential of being the most destructive lineup in the league. The guards and wings can stifle opposing ball handlers, and all can guard two positions at worst. Leonard and Anunoby can conceivably guard four. If Nick Nurse wants to experiment with Pascal Siakam at the five, the teams defensive versatility can contend with the Hamptons Five for best in the league. In short, this team is going to be tough to score on.

Offense may be harder to come by, but even 85% of Leonard is better than DeRozan, especially in terms of efficiency and three point shooting. I wonder if Toronto, and specifically its bench unit, can maintain what it did for 82 games last season but their offense will score way more than enough points to win games if the defense is as good as I expect. Even if the reserve squad takes a step back from their ridiculous performance last season, it will still be among the best units in the league.

The combination of stars and depth separate Boston and Toronto from the pack this season.

Tier Two: 50-55 Wins

  1. Philadelphia 76ers
  2. Milwaukee Bucks

I want to believe in the 76ers as potential Eastern Conference champions. I really do. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are absolute studs. They are the two most promising young players in the league and an MVP is very possibly in both of their futures. I’m just not sure that the rest of this team is ready to fly with them, at least not this season.

The 76ers went through some Twitter-related front office turmoil this summer, and elected not to make any big personnel changes, despite being linked with game changers such as LeBron James and Paul George. The team that they are left with is dangerously thin, and probably too much so to seriously compete this season. Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and JJ Redick are all either good complementary pieces or elite role players, and figure to create a dynamic starting five alongside the two young stars. Beyond that, the roster is just a bunch of question marks.

The losses of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were understated, silly as that might sound. They brought a crucial shooting element to the Sixers’ bench and were instrumental to their late season run to the playoffs. Nemanja Bjelica would have been the ideal replacement for Ilyasova, but he reneged on his agreement with Philly to sign with the Sacramento Kings. No one was brought in to replace Belinelli.

Philly’s hope is hinging on Markelle Fultz’ progression, and I am simply not buying it. He still can’t shoot off the dribble or from beyond the three point line, and it is hard to believe that that will change over the course of the season. He and Simmons are essentially unplayable together, not only because they allow for Embiid to get doubled more easily in the post, but also because even with the ball they are not threats from outside. At times, Embiid will be doubled even without the ball, making it impossible for Simmons to throw entry passes into him. At this point in his career, Fultz is far from starter material, and he may not be able to be a part of the 76ers rotation in the playoffs.

JJ Redick will have to supplant Fultz as the fifth starter at some point this season to open things up for Simmons and Embiid, and when that happens, Brett Brown will have no one outside of TJ McConnell, who has his own significant limitations, to rely on off the bench. Philadelphia will need Wilson Chandler to come back as a better version of what he was in 2017-18 to provide the team with much needed depth on the wing.

Look, Philadelphia’s starting five will be dominant on both sides of the ball this season. They should win more than 50 games. They just have too many clear shortcomings in terms of shooting and depth to be considered in the same class as conference juggernauts Boston and Toronto. They are still one or two moves, mostly off the bench, and one or two more years of Embiid and Simmons growth before they reach the absolute top echelon.

Judging from their entire roster, Milwaukee should be just about on par with Philly. Giannis is the best player on either team, and the Bucks starting five looks impressive on paper. Eric Bledsoe is an above average point guard, Khris Middleton is among the league’s most underrated player and has the ideal skill set for a complimentary piece. Malcolm Brogdon, John Henson, and Tony Snell have specific roles that they perform well. Thon Maker and Brook Lopez provide contrasting skill sets at the five, with Maker having supreme athleticism that aid him as a rim runner and protector, and Lopez is a solid low post scorer. Both guys can effectively spread the floor. It will come down to coach Mike Budenholzer to unlock this roster’s potential and deliver the 50-win season that the fanbase rightfully expects.

The Bucks simply haven’t proven that they can be compete at an elite level like the 76ers did last season, and this may be their last chance to do exactly that. Philadelphia and Boston will only continue to get better, and Milwaukee will want to strike this season before it has to start  worrying about the Greek Freak’s contract situation.

The Bucks should be right there in the chase for the third seed, and join the 76ers as potential conference champs if everything goes perfectly right and one of the favorites slips up or falls short of expectations.

Tier 3: 43-50 Wins

  1. Washington Wizards
  2. Indiana Pacers
  3. Miami Heat

Even if Miami does land Jimmy Butler, a move which no longer appears imminent, the Heat would remain in this tier, though they would probably jump up to the top position. As of now, however, Erik Spoelstra’s squad ranks slightly below both the Wizards and the Pacers. This tier holds three teams that are not quite explosive or consistent enough to earn home court in the first round, but with the correct matchup will have a chance to upset any of the top four in the first round.

Washington was among the league’s most disappointing teams last season. Coming off a 49-win season that concluded only one game short of the Eastern Conference Finals, Washington won only 43 games and was knocked out decisively in the first round by the Raptors. However, John Wall missed 41 games, and if he plays a full season, Washington is the fifth most talented team in the East. Washington also managed to plug its two biggest holes this summer despite operating with little available cap space, replacing the aging Marcin Gortat with an equally aging–but more athletic and dynamic– Dwight Howard, and strengthening the bench by bringing in Austin Rivers and Jeff Green.

It is hard to trust the Wizards. Every time they flash their tantalizing potential, they promptly let their fans down. Still, Wall and Beal and now probably the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference. The team should be motivated to quiet a growing chorus of doubters. The team is very clearly stuck in a mediocre rut, and a locker room implosion has been teetering on edge for the better part of three seasons, but they have made the playoffs four times in the past five seasons, and a standing between fifth and seventh in the East seems to be a likely outcome for this season.  

The Pacers, on the contrary were a big surprise last year, turning what was supposed to be a rebuilding year into 48 wins and an epic battle against the eventual conference champions Cavaliers in the first round. What Victor Oladipo did last season was shocking and incredibly impressive, but it may be even more difficult to repeat his exploits.

Teams will now know that he is the focal point of the Pacers’ offense, and he will likely face increased defensive pressure. The Pacers were one of the few teams with ample cap space and despite being linked to such names as Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon, they chose instead to make more lowkey moves, bringing Kyle O’Quinn, Doug McDermott, and Tyreke Evans into the fold. Evans will provide needed versatility off the Indiana bench, but Indiana missed a chance to take its roster to the next level.

Something about the Pacers’ season seemed a little fluky to me and they will be hard pressed to approach 50 wins again. The team’s best chance at improvement lies with the internal growth of Myles Turner, in which I am a big believer, but that growth will likely be joined by a regression to the mean by the likes of Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Oladipo. The Pacers are a legit postseason team, especially in the East, but I see them more as 45-win team than the 50-win one that they probably aspire to be.

Miami’s roster is simply not as talented as Washington’s or Indiana’s, so their ceiling is not quite as high, but they are well-coached and have created a solid floor for themselves. In the regular season, Miami is perfectly on par with their counterparts in this tier, and they make the opposition work for every basket, and they have just enough offensive firepower to keep pace with their opponents.

Josh Richardson and James Johnson are underrated players and tough competitors, and joined with Heat stalwarts Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside they create the physical, aggressive for Spoelstra. Last season, Miami lacked an isolation scorer to turn to down the stretch (save for a couple virtuoso performances by Dwyane Wade, who is another year older), but Dion Waiters might fulfill that role off the bench.

This offseason, not a single player left or signed with the Heat, so there are not many questions when it comes to the Heat. They have no glaring holes or overpowering strength and are just about the most average team in the NBA. It seems as if Pat Riley has been successful in building a foundation for the next championship contending Heat team as the Team President continues to pursue stars through trades or free agency

The Heat likely have one of the smallest ranges of victory totals in the league this season, and that number should fall between 43 and 46 wins. Miami’s roster is not necessarily constructed for postseason success, but they are firmly in the playoff picture and clearly a cut above the two teams that will be fighting for the eighth seed.

Tier 4: 38-43 Wins

  1. Charlotte Hornets
  2. Detroit Pistons

I think that the top seven teams, all playoff squads last year, are going to make it back this year, while Charlotte and Detroit, two mediocre teams with clear shortcomings, will battle it out to replace the LeBron-less Cavs.

Charlotte is one of the leading contenders to blow it up this season if they are not in playoff picture, but Michael Jordan has thus far seemed reluctant to pull the trigger to deal Kemba Walker. If Jordan and the Hornets’ front office’s ultimate goal was just to reach the postseason, the season may be their chance. Walker is one of the most exciting players to watch in the league, and it is sad that his team has proved wholly incapable of constructing a viable roster around him. It’s difficult to even say who the teams second best player, and they didn’t improve the roster in any significant way this past summer.

Still, they have won at least 36 games in four of the past five seasons, and that might be enough to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs. Unless it trades Walker and blows the team up, Charlotte is too good to tank this season, and that means that they will look to chase the final playoff spot full steam ahead.

Detroit is the only other Eastern Conference team in the same boat. The team is not quite complete enough to be a normal playoff team, but they are clearly all in on making the playoffs this season. They swung for the fences by acquiring Blake Griffin last season, and the move did not payoff. Detroit responded by moving on from Stan van Gundy and brining in defending Coach of the Year Dwane Casey. Getting Griffin and Drummond to coexist positively would be one of the most impressive feats of Casey’s coaching career.

I actually like the potential of a Griffin-Drummond frontcourt and the idea of Detroit going against the grain in the East by starting two traditional bigs. Still, the team is dangerously thin on useful players on the wing, and made not moves towards improving that gaping hole in the offseason.

Detroit has more good players than Charlotte, but Charlotte at least have some shooters that can spread the floor and make the offense as a whole tougher to defend. It should be an extremely close battle between the two of them, with the spot possibly being decided by a few head to head games or a couple of lucky bounces. Overall, neither of these teams inspire too much confidence. It will be a race to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff standings, and whoever wins it will stand no chance of beating whichever top seed it plays in the first round.

Tier 5: 30-38 Wins

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Chicago Bulls
  3. Brooklyn Nets
  4. Orlando Magic

These teams are not good, but they shouldn’t completely throw away the season, either. If absolutely everything goes according to plan, Cleveland or Chicago could be in the fight for the final playoff spot come April. More realistically, I expect these four teams to be on pace for 35ish wins before taking a step back during the stretch run in order to solidify draft placement.

The Cavaliers seem unprepared to tank this season, as they kept much of last year’s conference-winning team despite losing LeBron James, who, at times, seemed like he was, in fact, the entire team. A slew of veterans–JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver–proved difficult to move, so instead of gutting the roster, General Manager Koby Altman re-signed Kevin Love to a hefty extension, perhaps in hopes of proving that there is life in Cleveland outside of LeBron. He must not have watched his team without the King on the court last season. I don’t blame him.

The Cavs were absolutely brutal without James last season, and not in a good way. Although they have some solid shooters, they lack any kind of shot creator, and playing with LeBron for four seasons will make it even more difficult for these guys to adjust to having the ball in their hands more often. The majority of this roster is past its prime. Its too old, too slow, and not athletic enough to compete even in the East. Still, Kevin Love is the best player on any team that I have missing the playoffs in the conference, and a large number of games against teams that are even less talented than them may give Cleveland a possibility to get more wins than their level of play will deserve.

If Cleveland is smart, they might offload Love. Some in the media have suggested that the extension was geared towards making Love a more desirable trade chip (it has proved difficult to get adequate value out of players on expiring contracts in recent years), and to start on a large-scale reboot. Cleveland is not as far away from a potential rebuild as they might want to think. Collin Sexton has potential to be a solid guard in this league, and Cedi Osman should not be overlooked. He’s an excellent shooter with solid athleticism, who has proved difficult to stop in transition. He should be the primary beneficiary of LeBron’s departure from The Land.

The Bulls have an intriguing cast of young talent, but though they should be fun, their collection of tools probably won’t yield too many wins. Zach Lavine, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, and Wendell Carter are five exciting young players, but those first three guys just don’t play enough defense for Chicago to stop anybody. If Lavine and Parker fulfill their potential–a long shot, to be sure– Chicago could be interesting to watch, but both have an injury history and have not demonstrated enough consistency to prove that they can be an important part of a winning basketball team.

I like Chicago’s rebuild, they’ve taken a number of chances and accumulated some good basketball players. What that roster yields remains to be seen. I am interested in seeing this core grow together, particularly the frontcourt of Carter and Markkanen, which appears to be a perfect pairing with complementary skill sets, but they are at least a couple of years away from competing for the postseason, unless their whole team undergoes unexpected growth.

The fact that Sean Marks, the Nets General Manager, has been widely praised (and deservedly so) for the work he’s done in Brooklyn, and that this is the roster that he has, is a testament to how poor a job Brooklyn’s previous regime did. Despite never owning his own first-round pick, Marks has gathered a decent group of young, tough players. He has made smart midseason moves to acquire late first round picks that have resulted in Jarrett Allen and Dzanan Musa, he took a flier on former second round pick D’Angelo Russell and signed underrated free agents Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham to below market-value contracts. Brooklyn’s roster is one of the strangest in the league. It’s starting lineup consists of five above-average bench players, and its bench consists of, well, five above-average bench players.

While it’s hard to win in the NBA with maybe one guy who would start for the average NBA team, and with a roster completely devoid of anyone even resembling a star, if Brooklyn is indeed in the running for some marquee free agents this summer, they do have a solid base of complementary players already in place. Expect this team to compete (although they may be tempted to lose since they finally control their own draft pick) and be a good bellwether for the quality of their opponents.

Orlando is, for me, on the borderline between the fifth and sixth tiers. In a vacuum, I don’t dislike the draft selections of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, or Mo Bamba, but I’m just not sure how the three fit together. The Magic’s M.O. seems to be to pick the longest player in the draft and then hope for the best. Bamba will at the minimum be a useful NBA player–he can knock down the three and protect the rim–but both Isaac and Gordon are best used at the four, and court becomes far too congested when all three youngsters are playing together

What inches Orlando over the next two teams on my list is that I like their veterans, namely Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, just a little bit more than New York’s or Atlanta’s. It is unclear whether these two will make it through the season in Florida, but so long as they stay, Orlando should push for 30 wins and stay out of the Eastern Conference cellar.  

Tier 6: Fewer than 30 Wins

  1. New York Knicks
  2. Atlanta Hawks

If New York plays it smart, which is always far from a guarantee with this organization, they’ll ease Kristaps Porzingis back into action slowly, secure a high draft pick, and try to figure out what they have with some of the raw, young talent on the roster.

The Knick’s four most intriguing prospects–Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Mitchell Robinson–are high on physical traits but very low on polish. Determining who from this group is worth developing should the coach David Fizdale’s primary objective this season. New York seems fully committed to a rebuild (unless it lands Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving next summer, which I doubt), and Fizdale should be in no hurry to make short sighted moves for short-term gains.

New York, like Orlando has a couple veterans, Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway, Jr., who could be contributors on playoff teams, and, if the opportunity presents itself, should be open to offloading one or both of these guys. While I don’t think New York has completely whiffed on any of its most recent draft choices, it is extremely hard to find a star player in the second half of the lottery, which is where the Knicks have been stuck ever since landing Porzingis. With the roster as currently constructed, sans Kristaps, they could be in line for a top-five pick next summer.

The Atlanta Hawks’ only goal for the 2018-19 season should be doing as much as they can to secure the first overall pick in next summer’s draft. They have completely torn down all the remnants of one of the NBA’s all-time mediocre dynasties, one that reached the playoffs ten seasons in a row but only had one Conference Finals appearance to show for it.

Trae Young is so far at the center of that rebuild. I really like Young as a prospect (though I would have far preferred Luka Doncic), but it will take time for him to acclimate quickly. For the time being, he is too slight, too weak, and not quite quick enough to be an impact player, and he has too many weaknesses to be a positive player as a rookie. Still, he should be given free rein over the offense and may put up solid counting stats.

Outside of Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince are the only intriguing names on the roster, and both project more as solid role players than future stars. Outside of those three, the roster is almost utterly devoid of talent. Atlanta is very clearly taking the long view on this rebuild. They won’t be any good any time sure and I am almost sure that they will finish this season as one of the two worst teams in the league.

Western Conference

Tier 1: 55+ Wins

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Houston Rockets

I am not as staunch a believer in Golden State this year than I was either of the past two seasons. Having said that, I was ready to hang the banner in Oracle Arena on opening day in both 2016-17 and 2017-18. There are a couple reasons why I think the Warriors are a little more vulnerable this season. Most obviously, it’s hard to win three titles in a row. It’s even harder to reach five consecutive NBA finals. The Warriors have played a lot of basketball over the past four seasons and it’s hard to maintain motivation after having so much success. Only one of the Warriors’ eight playoff series with Kevin Durant has even been a challenge. Secondly, the East is stronger this season than either of the past two. Sure, LeBron is gone, but Boston or Toronto will be the best team that Golden State has faced in the finals since it blew a 3-1 in the second of four consecutive Finals match-ups with Cleveland. The third reason is the most interesting and, I assume, the most controversial.

I am not a fan of what the Warriors front office did this summer. Yes, DeMarcus Cousins has been one of the best centers in the game for the past few years and can be a game-changing presence when healthy. He does give the Warriors’ offense a new option when shots aren’t falling. But, he’s coming off an achilles tear, a notoriously tough injury for anybody, especially a guy of Boogie’s size, to come back from. I wouldn’t expect to see the court until February at the earliest, and he may never be 100% of what he was every again.

More importantly, though, I don’t see Boogie as being a great fit with Golden State on or off the court. His history off-the-court is well documented, and although I would pin those issues on Sacramento’s organization more than Cousins himself, it is never a good idea to add a combustible personality to a locker room that doesn’t need to take that risk.

Basketball-wise, I’m nervous about what Cousins means for the Warriors defense. Their small-ball lineup, featuring Draymond Green at the five, has long been a linchpin of Golden State’s success. That unit had the ability to switch everything and did not have a clear weak point for opponents to exploit in the pick-and-roll. Boogie changes that and makes Golden State a suddenly more vulnerable team, especially against a team like Houston that will surely look to exploit a Harden-Cousins mismatch at any chance they get. I know that Boogie makes the Warriors already unstoppable offense even more deadly, but they didn’t really need much help on that side of the ball.

Now, it would be one thing if the Warriors were a completely flawless team and could therefore take this risk. They may be the most complete team in the league, but it would be misguided to think that the two-time defending champions roster has no holes in it. After all, they were arguably a healthy Chris Paul away from bowing out in the Conference Finals last May.

Outside of their “Big Three”, (who are admittedly, three of the greatest shooters in NBA history), Golden State struggles with outside shooting. Their bench ranked last in three-point shooting last season and they will likely replicate that feat this season. They would have been better served adding a solid three-and-D wing to come off the bench this season instead of flexing their collective organizational muscle on the rest of the league.

Bottom line: If Cousins is going to be a part of Steve Kerr’s crunch-time five, he detracts from so much of what makes the team so impossible to beat, and the clear quality that he provides may not be enough to overcome this. If Cousins is not in the closing unit (which I assume will be the case), the mid-level exception could have been better spent on someone who could maybe replace Iguodala in the death lineup, as the wing figures to take yet another step back this season. The best-case scenario is that Cousins understands that his role is to play in lineups without Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, where he effectiveness can be maximized, but the usefulness of a player in that role is limited come playoff time.

Despite all that, the Warriors are, by far and away, the most talented team in the league. Even if they coast during the regular season, which they likely will, 55 wins seems like the absolutely floor of their total this season. If they stay healthy, they will probably approach 65.

I won’t take too much time on Houston, because they figure to do pretty much exactly what they did last season season, albeit at a slightly lower level. They will pick-and-roll opponents to death, give Chris Paul and James Harden the keys to the offense, shoot a ton threes, switch everything on defense, and win a whole lot of basketball games.

I expect James Ennis to replicate a lot of what Luc Richard Mbah a Moute did last season, and though losing Trevor Ariza hurts, that issue should become more evident during the playoffs. Carmelo Anthony should improve slightly over last season, and the team will score enough points to paper over what it sure to be a defensive regression. I like Marquese Chriss’ potential in a simplified role as Clint Capela’s backup.

The main reason that I see Houston’s win total dropping is because they proved last season how good they can be in the regular season, and setting themselves up for the playoffs should be the priority. Mike D’Antoni’s goal this time around should be to get his stars some rest and figure out the best postseason rotation. The first seed would be nice, but I don’t see Houston prioritizing that this season. Either way, they are firmly cemented as one of the conference’s two best teams.

Tier 2: 50-55 Wins

  1. Utah Jazz

I like the Jazz as the three seed in the West. The reasons are fairly straightforward: Stability, good coaching, stingy defense, three point shooting, and Donovan Mitchell’s continued growth. Utah has such a deep roster that despite ample cap space it decided to bring in virtually no free agents this summer. Beyond adding a bona fide superstar, there is really not much that the Jazz can do to improve its fortunes. Unfortunately, absent that superstar player, the roster as currently constructed is not equipped to surpass the Warriors or the Rockets, especially in the postseason. They will need to count on internal improvement, notably from Mitchell, in order to take that big step forward. As much as I like Mitchell and as impressive as his rookie season was, I wonder if he will ever ascend to that truly elite status.

Utah went on a torrid, league-best run after Rudy Gobert returned from injury and a full season from the disruptive Frenchman should propel the Jazz to a near league-best defense. They won’t be able to replicate the pace from that insane second half run, but they might not be so far off.

What separates the Jazz from the next batch of teams is that I expect them to really take care of business against the bottom-feeders in the league, just like they did last season. They are the best coached team, and defense tends to travel better than offense. I am not quite prepared to cement the Jazz as the third seed, but I do think that they have a leg up on the chasing pack.

Tier 3: 44-50 Wins

  1. Denver Nuggets
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. New Orleans Pelicans
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder

This was the toughest tier for me to sort out. Even the three teams below (and, to an extent, the Jazz), had a case to be in this grouping, but I thought capping the tiers at four made it more fair. Either way, I am not even going to try to argue which of these teams will finish where in relation to the others, because, as we saw last season, one game can stand between the fourth and seventh seed in this bloodbath of a conference.

The Nuggets missed out on postseason basketball on the final day of the regular season last year, but, to me, they were clearly one of the eight best teams in the West. Nikola Jokic had a unreal run to close the season, and I expect him to continue that growth this season. A 20/10/6 season should be well within his reach.

The rest of the Nuggets’ team remains underrated. The Jamal Murray/Gary Harris backcourt duo is dangerous; they can both score from all over the court and will only get better as they gain experience. With Jokic running the offense, they should both get ample opportunity to score points in bunches. I see both guards being in the running for Most Improved Player come season’s end.

Will Barton transitions into the starting lineup and and slots in beautifully as a guy who can play of Jokic by catch-and-shooting threes or by using his athleticism to cut hard and finish around the basket. The key to this whole team might be Paul Millsap, who needs to grow more comfortable without the ball in his hands and continue to adapt as he ages into the latter stages of an under appreciated career. At his best, Millsap also has the ability to be the linchpin for a team that otherwise figures to be an absolute sieve defensively.

The only notable offseason addition (except for Michael Porter, Jr., a potential draft-day steal who figures to miss the entire season), was Isaiah Thomas, who fits perfectly with the team’s all offense, no defense M.O. It remains to be seen how much IT can contribute, but I have no qualms with a team trying to absolutely maximize its strength.

Again, it’s totally possible that the Nuggets are the seventh seed but I expect this team to outscore enough opponents to at least secure a playoff berth after last year’s heartbreak.

Like the Nuggets, I put the Lakers in the upper half of this tier not because I necessarily thank that they will finish fifth, but more because they are the least likely to miss the postseason altogether. It seems downright silly to think that a team led by LeBron James won’t be playing when it counts, no matter how stacked the conference is or how little sense the roster makes to me.

Quickly, on the roster: I cannot understand what Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka were doing this summer. They quickly went from the offseason’s big winners, landing the Best Player in the World—on a four-year contract, no less—to a huge question mark. LeBron has won three titles and reached eight finals in the last eight years largely with a similar supporting casts of guys who can play well off the ball, knock down shots from the perimeter and (ideally) play good defense. Johnson and Pelinka may be onto something by thinking that approach may never defeat a three-point shooting behemoth like the Warriors, but I can almost assure them that the way to win is not by signing a bunch of guys who can’t shoot and don’t play defense.

The Lakers aren’t expecting to win this season and most of the bizarre signings are on one year deals, so the moves don’t matter too much in a vacuum, but the question of whether Magic has a good blueprint for this roster remains.

Any number of lineups that the Lakers will be intriguing, fun, and scary in transition, but they will almost necessarily sacrifice shooting (Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson), defense (Michael Beasley, Kyle Kuzma), or both (Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee). The two guys who fit a typical LeBron teammate, and who I expect to have fairly big years, are Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

My faith in the Lakers as a surefire playoff team hinge on confidence in LeBron, a belief that Ball and Brandon Ingram will continue to grow—although, for the latter, not quite as much as many are expecting), and the hope that the team is good enough in transition to mitigate the other shortcomings.

The Pelicans have an extremely high ceiling but a lower floor than either Denver or LA this season. Their good pieces are really good. Anthony Davis will stake his claim as the heir apparent to LeBron’s throne and is my pick to be this season’s MVP, Jrue Holiday is an excellent complementary piece who had a career scoring year and played absolutely elite defense last season, and the Julius Randle/Nikola Mitotic duo is so exciting to me. They fulfill contrasting roles, but I see both power forwards playing very nicely off of Davis. The first round sweep of the Blazers in last year’s playoffs was an exhibition in how good this team can be, and the addition of Randle makes them that much scarier.

The problem is, New Orleans has no talent on the wings. At it’s extremely hard to win at this level without wings. Offensively, they should be fine, given that they have the best offensive big in basketball surrounded by just enough shooting. The real shortage in quality comes on the defensive side of the ball. One of the reasons why New Orleans disposed of Portland so easily was because the Blazers had no wing to exploit this weakness. Once Golden State came to town, Durant scored at will and the Pelicans had no chance at competing. The Pelicans are also counting on Elfrid Payton to replace Rajon Rondo, and I’m not at all convinced that he can do that. Holiday proved so much more effective off the ball last season, and the team’s lack of backcourt depth means Payton has to be serviceable for New Orleans this year.

If the hot shooting of Mitotic and E’Twuan Moore drops off, it could spell trouble. Ultimately though, at this point in his career, Davis is just about good enough to guarantee the playoffs for his team.

So long as Russell Westbrook comes back healthy and at least somewhat as explosive as he was, the Thunder should be in the playoff picture. I am still not a believer in this team’s postseason capabilities, but there’s simply too much talent for them not to get there. Westbrook and Paul George are top 15 players in the league, and the teams win total should hover around where it was last year so long as those two are still around.

I would like to think that there would be some level of addition by subtraction as a result of Carmelo going to Houston, but the Thunder did not replace him at all, and front-court depth was not the team’s forte last season. At this point, they’re starting Patrick Patterson or Jerami Grant and that means that they are sacrificing too much on defense or offense, respectively.

The Thunder did upgrade its bench, by adding Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel, two moves which I like. Schroder, especially, will be an important piece. He will start in place of Westbrook while the point guard recovers, and will probably play alongside Russ in the crunch time five, at least until Andre Roberson returns.

Oklahoma City doesn’t inspire much, and I don’t see them going very far, but Westbrook got to the playoffs almost on his own two years ago. He should be able to do it with this team.

Tier 4: 42-46 Wins

  1. San Antonio Spurs
  2. Portland Trail Blazers
  3. Minnesota Timberwolves

As I said before, these teams could theoretically reach as high as number four in the West (hence the overlap in the win totals), but they don’t figure to be quite as explosive as the tier 3 teams. Any of these three teams has just about an equal chance at landing the number eight seed, and whichever two teams miss out will justifiably feel robbed of something that they deserve and would unquestionably have gotten if they were in the other conference.

If Dejounte Murray hadn’t gone down with an ACL tear in the preseason, I would have surely favored the Spurs to reach the postseason for a record tying 22nd consecutive season. As it stands, I have them sneaking into the final slot, but that standing is on extremely shaky ground.

The Spurs really have no one at point guard, but I trust Gregg Popovich to make something work and deliver the goods once again. While the Spurs likely came out as the losers in the blockbuster trade with the Raptors, they nonetheless improved significantly over last season, when they were the seventh seed while the since-traded Kawhi Leonard missed 72 games.

DeMar DeRozan is clearly superior to Danny Green and he provides a much needed second shot creator alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. While the fit between the two iso-heavy, midrange dependent guys is a strange one, especially given the current state of the NBA, they have two guys who know how to create their own shot, which will always be a valuable commodity.

Although he preaches ball movement and teamwork, Popovich has an incredible knack for playing perfectly to his team’s strengths, and I think that we will see a heavy dosage of DeRozan and Aldridge isolation sets this season.

The lack of depth and athleticism scares me a bit, but the Spurs have been a consistently excellent defensive squad for over two decades, and though they may drop off, they will be better than their talent would indicate. If the Spurs ridiculous streak comes to an end this season  it will be because of the depth and talent of the conference and not because San Antonio themselves regressed.

Portland’s 2018-19 season, on the other hand, screams regression to me. They basically maxed out their potential in last year’s regular season, and still got swept in the playoffs. They remind me of the Western Conference version of the Wizards, and it is hard to remain motivated when a roster and team remains so stagnant and stale.

Already, as it was, last season seemed like a fluke. They got hot at the right time, and were realistically only a handful of games from the eight seed. The compact nature of the Western Conference made their season appear better than it really was.

Now, dispirited from the ugly postseason loss, I don’t think Portland will recreate what they did. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are great, but they do not get enough help from the rest of the roster. The teams above them are either more exciting or more talented than Portland. I have them ranked above Minnesota due to the uncertainty of the Jimmy Butler situation, but if I had to  pick one of these 10 teams to miss the playoffs, it would be Portland. Don’t be shocked it they are looking to blow it up by next summer.

With a fully committed Jimmy Butler in uniform for the entire season, Minnesota slots closer to where the Lakers are this season. My guess, though mostly unfounded, is that Butler will be traded before the deadline, and that drops Minnesota down to tenth.

Like the Lakers, the Timberwolves’ roster is ultra-talented but illogically constructed. There are not enough shooters and too many guys who need the ball in their hands to maximize effectiveness. Still Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are among the best inside-outside combos in the league, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson are solid, reliable veterans, and for all the recent negativity and lack of growth, Andrew Wiggins is not bad as a third or fourth option.

The Timberwolves were on a 50-win pace (good for third in the Conference) with a healthy Butler last year, and even though some chemistry and confidence issues might drop them back, they have the ability to be in the top half of the standings.

Without Butler, this team will not make the playoffs, assuming that the return is in the range of some of the packages that have been reported as possibilities. Overall, the uncertainty is too great to make a confident projection, and Minnesota’s win range is probably the largest one in the league.  

Tier 5: 38-42 Wins

  1. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers were among the hardest teams for me to place. As I’ve already articulated, the above seven teams are ones that more than have the ability to make the playoffs. Any of the seven could possibly jump to fourth. While the Clippers might be in the eight to ten seed range, they simply don’t have anywhere near the ceiling of Minnesota or Portland. They don’t have a player at the level of Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, LaMarcus Aldridge, CJ McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns or DeMar DeRozan. As you’ll notice, the teams in tier four have two each. At the same time, the Clippers figure to be in the thick of things come March, whereas the teams ranked below have virtually no playoff aspirations.

In some ways, the Clippers are a rich man’s version of the Brooklyn Nets. They don’t have any single standout player, but they do have a deep collection of talent. They might have more solid contributors vying for playing time than any other team in the league. Doc Rivers has to manage minutes for three rotation worthy player at each guard spot and center, and two at each of the forward positions. Also similarly to the Nets, the Clippers have been rumored to be in the market for a number of big name players next summer, and they have a solid foundation of above average complementary pieces already in place if they land a big fish.

I like the Clippers to surpass most preseason expectations. Their guards present an ideal mix of scoring (Lou Williams), playmaking (Milos Teodosic), and defense (Patrick Beverley), their starting forwards, Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris are very versatile and can switch between the three and the four seamlessly, and Montrezl Harrell should eventually supplant Marcin Gortat at center and provide the team with an athletic presence in the middle. Although they may struggle to see too much time on the court, the Clippers also have an intriguing duo of late lottery picks in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. Los Angeles will be far from a pushover, and if a team like Minnesota or Portland implodes, they should be ready to jump at the opportunity to make the playoffs.

Tier 6: 30-38 Wins

  1. Memphis Grizzlies
  2. Dallas Mavericks

Memphis and Dallas are two teams who should undergo meaningful improvement this year, although both are still a long way off from competing for a postseason spot. They both have a mix of young talent and productive veterans, which put them above the bottom-feeders of the conference, but that’s about as high as they will reach this season.

Memphis’ season was derailed early in 2017-18 by an injury to Mike Conley, Jr, who appeared in only 12 games. When it became evident that Memphis would not be a serious competitor, Marc Gasol seemed to take his foot off the pedal, and the rest of the team was not talented enough to win games.

Getting Conley back, along with impressive fourth overall pick Jaren Jackson will make the Grizzlies a lot better this season, but their overall roster is still mediocre, and that will not cut it in the cutthroat West.

The Grizzlies seem organizationally opposed to tearing it all down, instead choosing to ride Gasol and Conley until they are on their last legs. The duo gave some great moments to the franchise, but they are past their time. It would have been an intriguing option to deal one or both franchise cornerstones, since they already have a potential future building block in Jackson, but so long as they remain in town, Memphis will be just good enough to win 30+ games every year, but just bad enough to remain irrelevant.

Dallas is also at an interesting mix between wanting to compete for wins in the present and looking to build for the future, although they appear more inclined to the latter than Memphis is. The Mavericks have not one, but two potential key components to their future roster in Dennis Smith and Luka Doncic, and I expect both of them to be productive players this season, but them getting a heavy load of playing time may not contribute wins for Dallas.

The offseason signing of DeAndre Jordan seemed odd, not only because he betrayed the franchise once before, but also because he does not fit in at all to the Doncic/Smith timeline. Neither does Harrison Barnes, although I would not be surprised if Dallas looks to ship him out this season. Those two won’t win any games on his own, but they are solid NBA starters and will keep Dallas at least somewhat competitive in what figures to be Dirk Nowitzki’s final NBA season.

Luka Doncic guarantees that the team will be anything but irrelevant, but in terms of final record, the Mavericks figure to be stuck in the worst possible position, nowhere near good enough to be in the playoff fight, but talented enough to not jump into the upper half of the draft lottery. Dallas also has more reason to try to win games, since they will almost assuredly owe Atlanta their draft pick from the Doncic trade.

Tier 7: Fewer than 30 Wins

  1. Phoenix Suns
  2. Sacramento Kings

Like in the East, there are two teams in this conference who might as well be playing for next year. Both the Suns and Kings franchises have made a habit of whiffing on draft picks in the past several years, and although Phoenix has shown a recent ability to buck that trend, both of these teams simply have too many holes to compete this season.

The Suns appear to have not gotten that memo. They added seasoned veterans Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, both of whom figure to help the Suns win some games this season. Since moving on from the Steve Nash era almost a decade ago, Phoenix has bizarrely alternated between moves aimed at an all-out tank and those that seemed more in line with a quicker timeline. That continued this offseason.

In Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, the Suns have the potential cornerstones for a future franchise. Both are exceptionally talented, but they struggle defensively and their current game styles do not necessarily transmit to wins. The bench is also extremely weak, the team lacks a traditional point guard worth mentioning, and the franchise moved on from two former top 10 picks (Marquese Chriss and Alex Len) this summer, and two more (Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender) will need to take steps forward this year to prove their worth. Like New York, the Suns have young talent to judge, and this is a season where that will be the top priority.

Sacramento is not even at that point yet, as they seem perpetually stuck in the phase of accumulating that talent, a step that the front office has proved fully inept at doing. De’Aaron Fox has shown some promise, but the roster outside of him and Marvin Bagley (who is far from a sure thing at this level) does not inspire much hope. Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Bogdan Bogdanovic may be serviceable role players at some point in their careers, but none have especially significant room to grow.

Sacramento has not made the playoffs since 2005-06 and that streak is not ending this season. It would take a serious effort to keep this roster out of the basement of the conference, and it appears as if the race for the worst record in the league will include them and the Atlanta Hawks.

Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference Finals

Boston Celtics over Toronto Raptors, 4-3

I really went back and forth with this one. A series like this one could come down to home-court advantage on a Game Seven. Ultimately, I like Boston’s depth a little bit more in a playoff series. In the regular season, when bench players get more minutes and bench units play more often together, Toronto may excel. But Boston showed in the playoffs last season, sans Irving and Hayward, that they have the unrivaled capacity to trot out effective five man lineups.

Boston’s five of Irving/Brown/Hayward/Tatum/Horford is one of only a handful that can hang with Lowry/Green/Leonard/Anunoby/Ibaka on both sides of the ball. At the end of the day, Boston just has a few too many playmakers and I trust Brad Stevens to make the correct adjustments on the biggest stage. I’m a big believer in what Toronto can do this season, but they will come up just short of their long-term goal of reaching the NBA finals.

Western Conference Finals

Golden State Warriors over Houston Rockets, 4-2

I don’t think either Golden State or Houston will be as good as last year, nor will they reach this point as easily as they did last year. But the other teams in the West did not improve enough to overtake these two. In Ariza and Mbah Moute, Houston lost two big parts of their gameplan to slow the Warriors, and let’s just say that Carmelo Anthony does not alleviate these fears.

Though DeMarcus Cousins presents defensive issues for the Warriors, Anthony does the same for the Rockets. Steph Curry and Durant are still the two best players in the series. Houston proved las year that they can definitely compete with Golden State, but they took a bigger step back than their opponents this offseason. In a hard-fought series, I like the Warriors to triumph in six games.

NBA Finals

Boston Celtics over Golden State Warriors, 4-2

Call it a hunch. Ot just call me crazy.

I don’t think that the Celtics are a better team than the Rockets, but I like their chances to beat the Warriors a lot more. The earlier paragraphs detail what I like about Boston and not so much about Golden State, but there are particularities about the match that make me lean towards Boston. I like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier guarding Curry, with Kyrie Irving going at him on the other end. I like the bevy of guys who can battle Kevin Durant or chase Klay Thompson around screens. I like that Al Horford allows Boston to match-up against the death lineup without sacrificing. I like the fact that Boston should be able to exploit any Warriors lineup that has more than one reserve in it, no matter who is on the court for Brad Stevens.

Of course, Golden State has the better individual players and has every right to be considered the favorites in this matchup. But unlike Cleveland in the past two seasons, Boston will force Golden State to bring its A-game every night.

Golden State is playing for a third consecutive crown. Some of their roster will be in its fifth straight finals. Boston is hungry, tough, versatile and deep. They have enough guys who can break you down defensively and score one-on-one. It would take a perfect storm to beat this Golden State team, and by being able to both exploit the teams weaknesses and somewhat mitigate its strengths, Boston might present precisely that.

 

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