A flurry of trades, free-agent signings, surprise retirements, European migrations and calamitous injuries have transformed the NBA landscape. The super-team Warriors are no more, two new super-teams share Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Rockets reunited old Thunder buddies James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and Brooklyn has its most exciting duo since Mos Def and Talib Kweli formed Black Star.
With all this player turnover, it’s a guarantee that the playoffs will be upended as well. And if the road to the title is wide open, then the road to the playoffs is the Autobahn. Which of last season's 14 lottery teams will be taking the on-ramp into postseason basketball this season, and which teams will be forced to exit competitive basketball ignominiously in April? Let’s start with the most obvious choice to make the playoffs.
The Lakers traded for Anthony Davis in the summer, one year after signing LeBron James. Los Angeles missed the playoffs last season, after LeBron’s groin injury cost him 27 games and ended his season in late March. The upside is that for the first time in more than a decade, LeBron got six months off from competitive basketball. The Brow also got a lot of rest after New Orleans virtually shut him down when the first Lakers trade talks fell apart. There are questions about how AD and LeBron will fit together, how effective the team’s perimeter defense will be, and how much some of the team’s veterans have left. But barring an on-set accident at LeBron’s barbershop that takes out both superstars, this Lakers team is going back to the playoffs for the first time since Harlem Shake videos were everywhere.
Miami reshuffled its team, ditching high-priced center Hassan Whiteside and three-and-D artist Josh Richardson to add mercurial superstar Jimmy Butler, a man who starts working out 6 1/2 hours before practice begins. At 3:30 AM, Butler’s old teammates Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are still up playing Fortnite! Butler’s insane competitiveness should fit in great with the Heat’s maniacal workout culture.
Miami fell two games shy of the postseason last season, despite being the sixth-best team in defensive rating, because its offense was 26th. The Heat hopes the Butler experience vaults it back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and that Justise Winslow can continue to thrive running the point when Goran Dragic sits.
But the main reason to be bullish on the Heat is Dwyane Wade is gone. Wade is an all-time great, but his retirement tour last season probably cost the Heat a playoff spot. Wade was fourth on the team in minutes, and in those minutes he shot the ball at will -- 25 shots per 100 possessions, a higher rate than Kevin Durant -– despite not being very good at it. He was 13th on the team in true shooting percentage. Simply giving Wade’s shots to Butler, Dragic and a rehabilitated Dion Waiters should make the Heat’s offense at least average, which is all it needs with its elite defense (top 10 in the past four seasons).
All eyes are on first overall pick Zion Williamson and the Pelicans, and with good reason. He’s the most exciting, can’t-miss college product since, well, Anthony Davis, who got the Pelicans a huge haul of young players and picks when he finally went to the Lakers.
It’s unclear how good prospects Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart will be, though Lonzo Ball should be much better simply because his shoes won’t fall apart during games. Jrue Holiday was an All-Defensive player at guard last season, underrated swingman E’Twaun Moore has shot over 42.5% for two straight seasons, new center Derrick Favors is a dominant rebounder who plays much better without another center on the floor, and new shooting guard J.J. Redick is a career 41% three-point shooter –- and he has never missed the playoffs.
The Western Conference will be difficult. But the Pelicans are young, play fast (third in pace last season) and have a ton of depth for the first time this decade. If they sneak into the playoffs, no one will want to face them, particularly once Zion gets his feet under him. He’s shooting 71% in the pre-season and dunking at will, so just imagine the panic he’ll cause once he’s actually comfortable. My one concern? They have five players from Duke on the roster, which means they may be in trouble if they play a team with a lot of guys from Mercer or Lehigh.
The Mavericks, another young team ready to challenge the big guys in the West, have committed to building around the Euro duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. It’s hard to tell what to expect from Porzingis, who hasn’t played since tearing his ACL in February 2018. Before the injury, he averaged 22.7 points and made nearly 40% of his threes. He’s certainly going to be a lot more “swole” when he returns, which should help his rebounding, as long as he’s not too muscle-bound to shoot.
Dallas dumped Harrison Barnes at the trade deadline to open space for a maximum contract, but it struck out on superstars, namely Kemba Walker. This is nothing new for the Mavericks, who haven’t landed their top summer target since winning the title in 2011. Instead, they added Seth Curry, Delon Wright and action star Boban Marjanovic, who will help, but they’re nowhere close to making a Big Three with Luka and Kristaps.
Why should Dallas be optimistic? Because their record (33-49) was five games worse than you'd expect, given their point differential. Last season was a clear effort to tank. Dallas waived the white flag by trading Barnes in the middle of a game on Feb. 8 and went 8-21 the rest of the way.
The Mavericks were fourth in three-point attempts last season but 27th in three-point percentage. Seth Curry and Porzingis bombing away instead of Dennis Smith Jr. should make a huge difference. But the Mavericks are probably going to wish they’d landed a bigger star with their cap space, or simply kept Barnes around.
The dark-horse playoff team in the Eastern Conference is the Bulls, who won only 22 games last season but made smart moves in the off-season. After spending most of the season without a real small forward on the roster, the Bulls stole Otto Porter and his excellent three-and-D game from Washington. Porter probably won’t shoot 49% from three again as a Bull, but he should stay over 40% and guard the opposing team’s best wing scorer. The Bulls filled their other primary hole by signing Tomas Satoransky away from Washington, added a quality backup at both forward spots in the well-rounded, defensively stout Thaddeus Young, and added an exciting, play-making 19-year-old guard in the lottery, North Carolina’s Coby White.
The Bulls' young front court of Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter should improve. But what makes Chicago so prime for a leap is how many minutes went to below-average players last season. Ryan Arcidiacano played the second-most minutes on the team, and Shaquille Harrison was fifth, with the departed Justin Holiday playing the most minutes per game. We’re not knocking Arcidiacano; he’s a fine backup point guard who unfortunately had to start 42 games. But simply getting average production from guys playing heavy minutes would be a huge boost compared to last season, and the Bulls have enough talent that they can expect more than that.
Another plus? After a rough first week, Coach Jim Boylen and his unending optimism won over the team. Is Boylen the right coach to lead a team to a title? Probably not, but he’s exactly the right coach to lead a young team on a Cinderella run to the eight seed.
We’d be more optimistic about the Timberwolves and Kings making the playoffs if they were in the East. The Wolves have the best non-Lakers player who didn’t make the playoffs last season in Karl-Anthony Towns, who put up a sizzling 24.4 points and 12.4 rebounds and shot 40% from three-point range. The Wolves should have a much better season now that the team doesn’t hate the coach, and the star veteran doesn’t hate, well, everyone. Plus, getting more than 22 games out of defensive ace Robert Covington should go a long way to ending the Wolves' five-year streak of finishing in the bottom seven in defense.
Young wings Josh Okogie and rookie Jarrett Culver should help the perimeter defense, as will losing Derrick Rose. Towns has done well when there’s a veteran like Covington or Kevin Garnett calling out defensive plays and not just yelling at him about video games. Plus, they’re going to join the 21st century and finally start switching on defense. Even with an average defense, Minnesota will need Andrew Wiggins to step up his shooting, as he barely outshot Gorgui Dieng (33.9 %) from three-point range last season.
The Kings were a feel-good story last season, taking a winning record into the All-Star break and finishing with their best record (39-43) in 13 years. Of course, Vlade Divac responded to that improvement by firing head coach Dave Joerger and hiring their sixth coach in seven years, Luke Walton. De’Aaron Fox is a great, young player, Marvin Bagley is promising, and Buddy Hield is one of the best shooters in the league. And they added quality veterans to fill out the bench -– Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph, and a re-signed Harrison Barnes. But it may take a while to adjust to the new coach, who didn’t exactly thrive as Lakers coach. And teams that make dramatic improvements in one year, like the Kings' 12-game bump, tend to regress the next, so Sacramento should consider another 39-win campaign a success.
As for the remaining 2019 lottery teams, the Grizzlies and Hawks are tanking. Both spent the off-season taking big contracts in exchange for draft picks. The Cavaliers are also tanking, but their roster is bad enough that there’s no need to gut it –- Jordan Clarkson and Tristan Thompson are fully capable of leading them to the league’s worst record.
The Hornets may not be tanking, but they’re sure to be terrible after replacing their backcourt of Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb with Terry Rozier and Dwayne Bacon. The Knicks' roster consists of five power forwards, young guards who can’t shoot, and Mitchell Robinson -– they’re planning to be good in 2021 at the earliest.
Washington will be regular-bad if it keeps Bradley Beal, and challenging for worst team in the league if they deal him. And while the Phoenix Suns will finally have a point guard after locking up Ricky Rubio, it’s hard to be optimistic about a team that had the league’s third-worst offense and second-worst defense last season. The Suns might score more, but playing Dario Saric alongside Deandre Ayton is a good way to give up a ton of points, especially with Devin Booker’s matador defense on the perimeter. After all, he doesn’t believe in double-teams.
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