Chekhov’s Massive NBA Preview

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This all started with a simple idea: “Hey, I should try to guess the NBA standings this year!”

I wanted to take guesses at how each team in the league would fare, but I didn’t want to just pull numbers out of thin air. I’m a detail-oriented person with a complete and utter lack of self-restraint, so I wanted to make sure I did it up right. I took a look at the Celtics’ schedule and quickly realized I’d need some way to organize this whole process if I was ever going to do it right. So it became a Google Sheet.

I gridded out every team in the league and tallied up how I felt they’d fare against one another to come up with accurate record projections for each team. It was just a gut feeling sort of deal, though, and the records I came away with were a little unrealistic, like the Cavaliers winning 60 games. That wouldn’t do – I needed to do a deeper dive into each team to have a better feel for how I felt the league would play out. I started digging through Basketball Reference, pouring over articles, and consuming pretty much every piece of basketball writing I could get my hands on.

At some point, I had the realization that if I was going to put all this work in, I might as well make something out of it – something more than an Apple Notes screenshot on Twitter, at least. Thus, my NBA Preview was born.

This has been the most intensive writing project I’ve honestly ever worked on, and it’s consumed the better part of my past several weeks. I’m not quite finished as of this writing, but I suspect it’s going to total something in the neighborhood of 40,000 words in all, accounting for 30 NBA teams that each get 1,000 to 2,000 words apiece along with extra things like playoff and award predictions. It’s the kind of work that a sane person would do collaboratively, but I’m not a sane person.

The basic structure you can expect for each team is as follows: a record prediction (next to last year’s record), offseason additions and subtractions, a bulleted summary of some broad-point strengths and weaknesses of the team, and then a general write up on the team itself. From there, I’ll talk about the MVP(s) of the team, and any players who might be an “X Factor,” which I define as a perhaps unknown or unpredictable quantity that could change that team’s outlook for the year. Then you’ll get a TL;DR conclustion, because who really wants to read all that?

Despite the sheer volume of writing here, it’s important to note that I’m no expert. The vast majority of this will almost certainly be wrong; I was figuring this all out as I went along, and there are teams I just know more about than others. The Celtics were easier for me to parse out, for instance, than the Hornets. I liked the idea of one large collection of a single individual’s thoughts on the entire league, and I was crazy enough to put the time into an endeavor that huge. So here it is.

Enough bloviating, though – let’s get down to the meat of this stuff: the predictions. Each team name will link to the post for that team, so this page can serve as sort of a hub for the whole deal, saving you from having to dig through 30 different team posts on this blog (I still have to do that, but I’m already knee-deep in this anyways).


Eastern Conference:

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers – 57-25

  2. Boston Celtics – 53-29

  3. Toronto Raptors – 53-29

  4. Washington Wizards – 46-36

  5. Milwaukee Bucks – 46-36

  6. Miami Heat – 42-40

  7. Charlotte Hornets – 40-42

  8. Detroit Pistons – 39-43

  9. Philadelphia 76ers – 37-45

  10. Orlando Magic – 33-49

  11. Indiana Pacers – 31-51

  12. Atlanta Hawks – 25-57

  13. Brooklyn Nets – 25-57

  14. New York Knicks – 22-60

  15. Chicago Bulls – 18-64

These probably isn’t the most creative set of standings, but I think the Eastern Conference is actually pretty straightforward. The biggest thing I’ve felt with the East is polarization: the great teams should be great again, perhaps a little better, while the bad teams are much worse. The Pacers, Hawks, and Bulls were all playoff teams that lost All-Stars and now project to be among the worst teams in the league to some extent.

The teams I’d be most willing to change are Boston, Milwaukee, and Washington. The Bucks and Wizards feel almost interchangeable to me, partially because their strengths and weaknesses are very similar – they both have quality starting lineups anchored by unique stars, but lack great depth to keep them afloat when those stars need time to rest. I feel like I’m more likely to end up low on the Wizards than the Bucks, but on the flip side, it’s a D.C. sports team. Do you really trust them?

The Celtics, meanwhile, have a high talent ceiling, but their new-look roster is incredibly young, and youth is unreliable. I feel they have too much top-end talent to drop out of the East’s top-four, but they’ll certainly fall closer to 50 wins than 60, and that 57.5 line of their’s is an easy, easy under. The eight seed is up-for-grabs between Detroit and Philadelphia, but I ultimately decided to be incredibly boring and take the Pistons, who I expect will stay healthier and win it through attrition as much as anything else.

The bottom third of this conference is an absolute mess, and it’s part of the reason I see the Cavaliers gaining six games on their record last season – there are just a lot of teams to beat up on. The Hawks and Pacers will settle in a small step above the cellar, while the Bulls should be the most horrifically awful team in basketball this season.

Western Conference:

  1. Golden State Warriors – 69-13

  2. Oklahoma City Thunder – 57-25

  3. Houston Rockets – 56-26

  4. San Antonio Spurs – 56-26

  5. Minnesota Timberwolves – 50-32

  6. Denver Nuggets – 47-35

  7. Portland Trail Blazers – 47-35

  8. Utah Jazz – 43-39

  9. Los Angeles Clippers – 41-41

  10. New Orleans Pelicans – 41-41

  11. Memphis Grizzlies – 40-42

  12. Dallas Mavericks – 34-48

  13. Sacramento Kings – 30-52

  14. Los Angeles Lakers – 27-55

  15. Phoenix Suns – 25-57

The only real certainty in the Western Conference is that the Warriors will be really, really good again. Beyond that, there are a lot of combinations of teams that I’d be willing to accept here. The second, third, and fourth seeds feel largely interchangeable between Oklahoma City, Houston, and San Antonio, though I feel the Spurs are the least likely to end up at #2 and I flip-flopped endlessly between the Thunder and Rockets before taking the Thunder by a game. Previous drafts of these standings had the Thunder and Rockets finishing with 56 wins each, which would have been a cop-out of epic proportions.

I’ve seen a lot of people suggest that everything after the fourth seed is completely up-for-grabs between the teams I have fifth through eleventh, but I don’t think it’s quite a complete free-for-all. I see a distinct line between the Minnesota/Denver/Portland trio and Utah/Los Angeles/New Orleans/Memphis. I like the depth on the Jazz and Clippers in particular, and I really want to see the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis pairing succeed in New Orleans, but I would be surprised to see any of those teams hurdle higher than the eighth spot in the conference. I don’t feel the Grizzlies really have much of a chance this year, but Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are great, and they’re going to be annoying enough to hang around.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding young talents like Devin Booker and Lonzo Ball in Phoenix and Los Angeles, but I don’t think the Suns or Lakers really have enough experience to make much of a challenge in this stacked conference landscape. The Kings sit a few steps ahead of them, and the Mavericks a few steps further still, but all four feel unlikely to have much on-court success this season, as bright as their futures might look.


Playoffs:

Eastern Conference First Round:

  • 1 Cavaliers vs 8 Pistons – Cavaliers in 4
  • 2 Celtics vs 7 Hornets – Celtics in 5
  • 3 Raptors vs 6 Heat – Raptors in 7
  • 4 Wizards vs 5 Bucks – Bucks in 6

Eastern Conference Second Round:

  • 1 Cavaliers vs 5 Bucks – Cavaliers in 6
  • 2 Celtics vs 3 Raptors – Celtics in 7

Eastern Conference Finals:

  • 1 Cavaliers vs 2 Celtics – Cavaliers in 7

Western Conference First Round:

  • 1 Warriors vs 8 Jazz – Warriors in 4
  • 2 Thunder vs 7 Trail Blazers – Thunder in 6
  • 3 Rockets vs 6 Nuggets – Rockets in 6
  • 4 Spurs vs 5 Timberwolves – Timberwolves in 7

Western Conference Second Round:

  • 1 Warriors vs 5 Timberwolves – Warriors in 5
  • 2 Thunder vs 3 Rockets – Rockets in 7

Western Conference Finals:

  • 1 Warriors vs 3 Rockets – Warriors in 7

NBA Finals:

  • 1 Warriors vs 1 Cavaliers – Warriors in 5

It might not be the boldest prediction we’ve ever seen, but I think we’re getting one more Warriors triumph over the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. I just can’t see how, barring injury, anybody else makes it there. The Celtics are just a little too young to top LeBron James in a seven-game playoff series, and the Raptors need to show they can move past their epic run of playoff failures before I could even consider taking them in the same situation. Meanwhile, nobody in the league really even compares to Golden State.

I like the way this playoff bracket panned out, because it set up some juicy playoff matchups like Thunder-Rockets, Celtics-Raptors, and Celtics-Cavaliers. The exodus of talent from East to West should create an imbalance in just how interesting each conference’s playoffs will be; though the Cavaliers aren’t perfect, they’re a step ahead of Boston and Toronto, and their road to the Finals should again be pretty clear, barring injury.

Thunder-Rockets has the potential to be the series of the year, and it’s a matchup that I absolutely must see. Westbrook, George, and Melo versus Harden and CP3 is about as good as it gets, and the two teams are – in my opinion – nearly inseparable in terms of quality. I decided on the Rockets by a hair, taking Chris Paul to the Conference Finals for the first time in his career. The Rockets taking Golden State to seven games might be more wishful thinking on my part than anything, but I do believe the Rockets stand the best chance of causing the Warriors problems due to their depth and versatility.

Ultimately, it may be boring, but it’s hard to see anybody other than the Warriors standing alone at the end of the season. They have the most talent by far, and they only managed to somehow get deeper this year. This is going to end up being the most impressive dynasty in NBA history, and the unfortunate news for the rest of the league is that they could very likely be just as good next year.


All-Rookie Second Team:

  • Markelle Fultz
  • De’Aaron Fox
  • Milos Teodosic
  • John Collins
  • Josh Jackson

All-Rookie First Team:

  • Dennis Smith Jr.
  • Ben Simmons
  • Lonzo Ball
  • Malik Monk
  • Donovan Mitchell

I’d really love to have a third team for All-Rookie this season, because there are a lot of deserving players that are going to be left out. For a general trend, I opted for rookies that will be greater focal points this season over ones who won’t. Dennis Smith and Ben Simmons are going to play a lot this year, and they’re my presumptive favorites for Rookie of the Year. Jayson Tatum, who I’ve grown to like quite a bit, doesn’t even make the roster.

One darkhorse: Milos Teodosic is a former Euroleague MVP who will have a lot of minutes to work with as the de facto replacement to Chris Paul on the Clippers this season.

All-Defense Second Team:

  • John Wall
  • Danny Green
  • Giannis Antetokoumpo
  • Paul Millsap
  • Anthony Davis

All-Defense First Team:

  • Chris Paul
  • Jimmy Butler
  • Kawhi Leonard
  • Draymond Green
  • Rudy Gobert

I don’t necessarily see a whole lot of change from last year’s All-Defense teams, with Jimmy Butler jumping into Patrick Beverley’s spot on last year’s first team and John Wall and Paul Millsap replacing Andre Roberson and Tony Allen on the second. A reunion with Tom Thibodeau will be great for Jimmy Butler, who should be the lynchpin of the Minnesota defense, and I think Millsap will get a lot of credit for helping shore up a shaky defense out in Denver. John Wall has to improve his focus – he can be mistake-prone when defending off the ball – but he has the kind of talent to get there.

All-NBA Third Team:

  • Gordon Hayward
  • Jimmy Butler
  • Paul George
  • Anthony Davis
  • Karl-Anthony Towns

All-NBA Second Team:

  • John Wall
  • Russell Westbrook
  • Kevin Durant
  • Giannis Antetokoumpo
  • Nikola Jokic

All-NBA First Team:

  • Steph Curry
  • James Harden
  • Kawhi Leonard
  • LeBron James
  • Rudy Gobert

All-NBA is more or less a complete crapshoot this year, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for having almost any combination of players. One of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant is going to have to be put on the Second Team. Good luck.

I cheated a little bit on the third team, classifying Gordon Hayward as a guard to find him a spot – he’ll essentially be a guard in a lot of Boston lineups – but I omitted Chris Paul in the process, and it would make plenty of sense to bring him back in. I think we’re going to see a huge season from Hayward, though, while Chris Paul’s counting stats might not necessarily blow anybody away.

Guys missing from this list that could very well deserve to be here: Klay Thompson, Draymond Green DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol. What a mess.


Executive of the Year: Sam Presti, Oklahoma City

Would Also Accept: Scott Layden, Minnesota

It feels like Presti already has this thing close to locked up, barring a complete Thunder meltdown this season. He brought in two likely Hall of Famers in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony while getting out of some difficult contracts in the process, and locked up his franchise player, Russell Westbrook, to a shiny new extension amid speculation that he might bolt for Los Angeles this coming offseason. Patrick Patterson was a nifty signing, as well.

Even if the Thunder underwhelm this season, their floor is now seemingly pretty high, and they’re infinitely more flexible moving forward than they looked to be when last season ended. If Presti can convince Paul George to stick around – and I think he will – this race is already over.

Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston

Would Also Accept: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio

The media loves Brad Stevens to an almost ridiculous extent, so he’s bound to win this thing eventually. From a merit standpoint, though, he may very well deserve it. No coach in the league has to manage more roster turnover this year than Stevens, who retains only four players from the team he led to the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference last season. If the Celtics win 50+ games anyways, despite an incredibly young roster, you can bet Stevens will be a big reason why.

Sixth Man of the Year: Greg Monroe, Milwaukee

Would Also Accept: Andre Iguodala, Golden State

There’s been a small movement lately to see more acknowledgement for frontcourt players in the Sixth Man of the Year award, as the award has traditionally been dominated by volume-scoring guards. Lamar Odom is the only big man to win it since 2003, and he started 35 games that season, which sort of skews the definition of “sixth man.” I think this award might see some more discussion this season with centers like Monroe and Tristan Thompson expected to make significant bench contributions this season, though, so we might finally see a change.

As for Monroe himself, he’s quietly one of the most valuable players on the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are a talented team that is just so very thin at most positions, but they might be the lightest on quality frontcourt players. Starting center Thon Maker is only 20 years old, and starting forward Jabari Parker may not play until after the All-Star Break. Monroe is going to play the role of super-sub for the Bucks this season, and he’s going to see a ton of minutes.

Most Improved Player: Myles Turner, Indiana

Would Also Accept: Jusuf Nurkic, Portland or Gary Harris, Denver

I don’t necessarily love giving this award to young players that we already know have high ceilings, but that’s how this award has trended for some time now and there is a Paul George-sized extenuating circumstance that will make Myles Turner’s candidacy more compelling. With George now playing for the Thunder, Turner is likely going to see a large uptick in his responsibility on both ends of the floor for the Pacers. He’s an athletic 7-footer with defensive upside and a diverse offensive game that will stretch the floor for the Pacers offense, and I think this very well may be his breakout season.

Rookie of the Year: Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas

Would Also Accept: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia

There are an absolute ton of interesting picks for Rookie of the Year this season, but my hypothetical vote goes to Smith, who may well stand to see the highest usage of any of them. Smith is a hyper-athletic point guard who is going to have some highlights that remind you of Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard, and his only real competition for shots in Dallas is the impressively mediocre Harrison Barnes. I believe there’s an outside possibility Smith could be a 20 PPG scorer right out of the gate for the Mavericks, especially with fellow guard Seth Curry currently sidelined indefinitely. I believe this award is his for the taking.

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah

Would Also Accept: Draymond Green, Golden State or Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio

Huh, this field seems familiar.

Yes, I think we’ll probably see the same finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year award this year as we did last. This time, though, I like Gobert, whose defense is going to matter even more for Utah this season now that Gordon Hayward is wearing Celtics Green. I have the Jazz as the eight seed in the Western Conference right now, and it’s sure not going to be their offense that gets them there. If they crash their way into the party, people will see that the French Rejection was the one who carried them there.

Most Valuable Player: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio

Would Also Accept: LeBron James, Cleveland or Kevin Durant, Golden State

I touched on this in my Spurs segment, but Leonard is the only player of the MVP finalists last season whose team didn’t add at least one All-NBA caliber player in the offseason. Russell Westbrook isn’t going to average 30-10-10 again with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony on board, and James Harden’s huge offensive workload will be eased by the addition of Chris Paul. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry cannibalize each other’s candidacies a little bit.

LeBron is a deserving candidate pretty much every season, but he’s taken to coasting through much of the regular season. Leonard is going to carry a massive workload on both ends of the floor for the Spurs, and he’s grown a little more in every season he’s played. He showed a little more playmaking in last year’s playoffs, dishing about five assists per game (which would be a career-high in the regular season), and I suspect that might be what we see more of as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili continue to age. If Leonard puts up, say, 27-6-5 this year while staying healthy and making his usual defensive contributions, I think he’s this year’s favorite.


Conclusion

The Warriors are very, very good at basketball and will win many games, and probably another championship. That’s about the long and short of it.

But really, though I don’t think there will be a whole lot of drama to the end of the NBA season, the journey should be vastly improved over what we saw last year. This offseason was perhaps the wildest in the history of the league, and I think that chaos will carry over into the regular season. The Eastern Conference might be rough, but the West has so many interesting teams and overlapping storylines that demand attention.

I was as disappointed as many people with lack of drama at the end of last year, but I’m immensely excited for this NBA season. It’s been a pleasure (and a source of exhaustion) researching and writing this piece, and it’s made me feel even more invested in the upcoming year. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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