Do you ever think about mistakes?
This is my second consecutive season putting together a colossal NBA preview, and just like last time, I managed to underestimate just how much an undertaking it is. The official requirement for a work of fiction to qualify as a novel is 40,000 words. This preview will exceed that to an extent that I’m actually scared to figure out (Edit: It’s 60,775 goddamn words long!). This is the product of weeks upon weeks of work.
I’m very happy with what I’ve made here, but… whew, am I glad it’s over.
I had quite a few new ideas for this preview, and many of them didn’t ultimately make it into the final product. I dug a little too greedily and too deep, perhaps. For the most part, this will look very familiar to the people who read last season’s preview, just more in-depth and thorough. I’ll discuss each team’s overall summary, and then break down their MVP, an “X Factor” I think could swing the outlook of their season and a lesser-known player I find worth highlighting on each time. Easy peasy.
What is new is that I’m not completely alone this time. I’ve recruited a veritable All-Star team, 28 wonderful people to contribute a little bit for each preview, discussing their expectations for the team and generally upstaging me at every turn. It’s spectacular. Every team in the league has been covered… except the Kings. Nobody wants to write about the Kings. I didn’t even want to write about the Kings.
Now, this will be set up just like last year’s. This is the main page, and each team in the standings will be linked to their individual team preview. I’ll also go into general NBA predictions and expectations here. This is all meant to be as informative as you want it to be; if you’re interested in just the general stuff, you don’t need to leave this page. If you’re interested in your favorite team, you can jump straight to them. If, for some reason, you’re interested in everything I said… well, here it all is! If you read nothing else, at least read the Timberwolves preview. I worked very hard on it.
Thanks for being here, and enjoy. Looking forward to a new season of NBA basketball.
Boston Celtics — 60-22
Toronto Raptors — 55-27
Philadelphia 76ers — 51-21
Milwaukee Bucks — 48-34
Indiana Pacers — 47-35
Washington Wizards — 44-38
Miami Heat — 42-40
Detroit Pistons — 41-41
Cleveland Cavaliers — 35-47
Charlotte Hornets — 34-48
Brooklyn Nets — 29-53
Chicago Bulls — 28-54
Orlando Magic — 27-55
Atlanta Hawks — 24-58
New York Knicks — 22-60
LeBron James is gone, and the consequences for the Eastern Conference have been remarkable.
The Celtics and Raptors are the key faces here. I could easily be low on Toronto’s win total, overall — if Kawhi Leonard manages 70+ games at his peak level, they could breeze past 60 wins. However, I like Boston’s depth and overall balance just a hair more; they feel better-equipped to withstand injuries than the Raptors do. For the regular season, that puts them ahead.
Philadelphia is basically in a tier by themselves here. I think they’re certainly better than Milwaukee and Indiana, but I don’t necessarily believe they’re going to contend for a top-two seed all that closely. This is actually a win below last season’s record for them, but that record was boosted in large part by a massive win streak over generally bad teams at the end of the season. That, combined with concerns about their depth, keeps them a little bit behind.
If you’re looking for a contrarian pick in the Eastern Conference, either the Bucks or Pacers are your pick. Mike Budenholzer is going to have a tremendous impact for Milwaukee, and I believe the Pacers’ breakout season last year was for real. The Bucks win out by a hair, to me — the value of a complementary star like Khris Middleton is something Indiana does not enjoy.
After that, things get murky real quick. I don’t trust the Wizards at all, and it wouldn’t shock me if that locker room devours itself by midseason. The Heat stand to jump into the Bucks/Pacers tier if they land Jimmy Butler, but that hasn’t happened yet — though I’m sure that deal will happen immediately after this preview gets published. Until then, they’re merely a solid, well-coached team who will straddle the .500 line for most of the year. Detroit, Cleveland, Charlotte and maybe even Brooklyn could be in play for the eight seed if they play their cards right, but it feels like Detroit has the most complete roster of the group.
At the very bottom, the Bulls, Magic and Hawks will all be generally bad, but entertainingly so. Exciting youngsters like Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Trae Young should make them worth watching, at least for stretches. Fun-bad is always preferable to just flat-out terrible… which is what the Knicks are going to be until Kristaps Porzingis makes his way back onto the court.
Golden State Warriors — 64-18
Houston Rockets — 56-26
Oklahoma City Thunder — 53-29
Utah Jazz — 51-31
Los Angeles Lakers — 48-34
Denver Nuggets — 48-34
New Orleans Pelicans — 47-35
Portland Trail Blazers — 47-35
San Antonio Spurs — 45-37
Memphis Grizzlies — 40-42
Minnesota Timberwolves — 37-45
Dallas Mavericks — 35-47
Los Angeles Clippers — 29-53
Phoenix Suns — 26-56
Sacramento Kings — 22-60
The Rockets came within a few missed three-pointers of completely upsetting the balance of the NBA last postseason, but unfortunately, the odds of doing so again seem slim. The Warriors will be healthier than last season, almost certainly, and Houston has gotten at least a decent bit worse. The status quo, then, seems restored out West.
Oklahoma City and Utah are your darkhorse second-tier teams here. I think there are reasonable scenarios where either one overtakes Houston for the second-seed, and if you want to put the Jazz ahead of the Thunder, I wouldn’t argue with you. The Jazz are one of the most complete teams in basketball, top-to-bottom, and the Thunder are missing key role player Andre Roberson for some time. On the flip side, the Thunder have slightly more star power in the form of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and they’re now mercifully free of Carmelo Anthony’s endless ISO parade.
Beyond those two, the Western Conference is once again going to be a complete morass of good teams. LeBron James’ signing with Los Angeles throws a colossal monkey wrench into an already-crowded landscape from last season, and though people are understandably giddy about the idea of the Lakers possibly missing the playoffs after landing their star prize in free agency. It’s not going to happen, though. LeBron’s Finals streak will almost certainly end, but his presence alone should be plenty to carry the Lakers into April. Any combination of LA, Denver, New Orleans and Portland are on the table, to me.
The Spurs and Grizzlies seem to be two teams traveling in different trajectories — Memphis hopes to be healthy after losing Mike Conley for most of last season, while the Spurs have already lost two important contributors to significant injuries before the season has even started. Tough as it is to leave the Spurs out of the playoffs, as eternal as they always are, it may be too much for them to overcome. Memphis, meanwhile, shouldn’t be slept on; Conley and Gasol are proven winners, and the Grizzlies will play spoiler quite often if the pair is healthy for the majority of their games.
Don’t ask me about the Timberwolves.
At the bottom, Dallas is the closest to relevance. They’d be close to a playoff berth in the East. Luka Dončić is as NBA-ready as a teenager can be, and DeAndre Jordan will pair with him wonderfully on offense. Problem is, the defense won’t be stopping anyone. The Clippers are in a holding pattern until they land either Jimmy Butler, or a prize free agent next offseason. Phoenix is desperate for the playoffs, but won’t be good yet again. The Kings want to play Marvin Bagley III at shooting guard.
Eastern Conference First Round:
- 1 Celtics vs 8 Pistons — Celtics in 4
- 2 Raptors vs 7 Heat — Raptors in 5
- 3 Sixers vs 6 Wizards — Sixers in 6
- 4 Bucks vs 5 Pacers — Bucks in 7
Eastern Conference Second Round:
- 1 Celtics vs 4 Bucks — Celtics in 6
- 2 Raptors vs 3 Sixers — Raptors in 7
Eastern Conference Finals:
- 1 Celtics vs 2 Raptors — Celtics in 7
Western Conference First Round:
- 1 Warriors vs 8 Trail Blazers — Warriors in 4
- 2 Rockets vs 7 Pelicans — Rockets in 7
- 3 Thunder vs 6 Nuggets — Thunder in 6
- 4 Jazz vs 5 Lakers — Jazz in 7
Western Conference Second Round:
- 1 Warriors vs 4 Jazz — Warriors in 6
- 2 Rockets vs 3 Thunder — Thunder in 7
Western Conference Finals:
- 1 Warriors vs 3 Thunder — Warriors in 5
- 1 Celtics vs 1 Warriors — Warriors in 7
These Eastern Conference playoffs, as it stands, might not be the most entertaining ever, but there are a few doozies in there. Bucks-Pacers is basically a push; it’s going to come down to which team gets the most lucky breaks, essentially. It’s the second round and on where things really stand to shine, though. A Celtics-Bucks rematch? Raptors-Sixers? A top-two showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals? That stands to be some of the best playoff basketball the Eastern Conference has seen in a long time.
Again, the Western Conference is a powder keg that is about to explode. The Jazz versus LeBron in the first round? It’s difficult to imagine LeBron losing a first-round playoff matchup, but as good as he is, Utah just thoroughly outclasses the rest of that roster. And I still nearly picked the Lakers anyways. Most of these series are going to go very long, I think; this time, there won’t be a highly seeded team falling apart the way Portland did last year. Unless the Thunder do, of course. I’m taking a risk by pushing them past Houston, as we haven’t seen high-level postseason play from the Thunder yet. I trust them a little bit more than the Rockets, though. Plus, Roberson should be back by then.
In the end, it’s still the Warriors. But the Celtics will give them all they can handle. Regular season matchups between Boston and Golden State have always been extremely competitive, and the Celtics have been one of the best teams against the Warriors in Oracle Arena since Brad Stevens took over. We’re not quite ready for the changing of the guard yet, and the Warriors should complete the three-peat. But it’s getting close.
All-Rookie Second Team:
- Jaren Jackson Jr.
- Mo Bamba
- Collin Sexton
- Mitchell Robinson
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
All-Rookie First Team:
- Luka Dončić
- DeAndre Ayton
- Wendell Carter Jr.
- Miles Bridges
- Trae Young
As always, I find the All-Rookie team the hardest thing to predict among basically all the NBA’s end-of-year awards. There are simply too many options, and you always end up leaving off some players who could very likely be deserving. No Mikal Bridges, touted for his NBA readiness in the pre-draft process? Woof. Second overall pick Marvin Bagley III doesn’t make the list, mainly because of the Kings stench. Jaren Jackson Jr. will arguably have the impact of a First-Teamer, but maybe not the raw production. Some later picks will have roles right away, too: Kevin Huerter, Grayson Allen, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton… we need an All-Rookie Third Team, is what I’m saying.
There are almost always some surprises for these teams. This year, my biggest one is Mitchell Robinson, the second-rounder for the Knicks this summer. Kevin Knox has been a popular pick for these teams, and he might score shoot his way in there no matter what, but I think his overall value is going to be fairly bad as a rookie. He’s never scored efficiently, at any level. If he averages 20 points per game this season, it’s going to come on 20 shots per game.
Bridges is also likely a surprise, but I like that he’s a little more polished than most of this summer’s lottery picks, a credit to his second year at Michigan State. He improved in some interesting ways as a sophomore — notably, at the free throw line, where he jumped nearly 20% — and he’s going to be handed a lot of minutes for a Charlotte team desperate to find a number two option behind Kemba Walker. He’ll certainly have the highlights, and he should put up the numbers, too.
Dončić is my Rookie of the Year pick (spoiler-alert) and I’m fairly confident he’ll have the most immediate success in this class. Ayton will put up big numbers, though his actual value might fluctuate as he adjusts to the NBA game; he also needs to show huge improvement as a defender. Carter Jr. is more or less interchangeable with Jackson Jr. as a rookie, to me, but the Bulls will give him a lot more opportunity to produce than Jackson might see in Memphis. Conversely, Jackson could contribute to an actual playoff team. It could go either way.
Trae Young will get buckets and be a lot of fun. I think he might have more of a Second Team impact, but the highlights will get him a First Team spot based on buzz.
All-Defense Second Team:
- Ben Simmons
- Victor Oladipo
- Robert Covington
- Draymond Green
- Joel Embiid
All-Defense First Team:
- Jrue Holiday
- Jaylen Brown
- Kawhi Leonard
- Anthony Davis
- Rudy Gobert
We need to do away with positions on these All-League teams. It’s confusing how All-Rookie can get it right, but none of the rest seem to. There are four particularly worthy picks for Defensive Player of the Year — Gobert, Green, Embiid and Davis — and based on the league’s rule, you can’t fit all of them onto the First Team. That’s obnoxious.
A couple of hot takes here, though, starting with Jaylen Brown slipping onto First Team (as a guard). The end of last season brought some serious respect for Brown’s perimeter defense, as he finished 10th in Defensive Player of the Year voting. I don’t necessarily believe he was quite there — he needed to tighten up his off-ball and team defensive principles — but it shows how the league perceives him. Assuming he improves again, which he should, I think First Team is within reach.
Then, there’s Ben Simmons… also making it as a guard. Simmons is going to guard pretty much anyone and everything, but it’s his offensive role as the “point guard” that will slide him in here. Loathe as I am to omit Chris Paul again, I think the Rockets will limit Paul fairly heavily this season to keep him fresh come the playoffs.
Kevin Durant, for all his talk, does not make it.
All-NBA Third Team:
- Damian Lillard
- Victor Oladipo
- Ben Simmons
- Kawhi Leonard
- Nikola Jokic
All-NBA Second Team:
- Kyrie Irving
- Russell Westbrook
- Kevin Durant
- LaMarcus Aldridge
- Joel Embiid
All-NBA First Team:
- Steph Curry
- James Harden
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- LeBron James
- Anthony Davis
All-NBA is pretty much a perpetual mess. You can take these rosters pretty much anywhere — notice I have Simmons here as a forward this time. Last year, I made a last-minute switch to take out Chris Paul in favor of Gordon Hayward, only for Hayward to immediately break his leg. Wonder who I’ll curse this time?
Curry could easily drop a level or two depending on his health, but there’s no way he drops out entirely considering he made Third Team last season in only 51 games. In the Celtics’ preview, I discuss at length how Kyrie Irving could have his best season yet this year, and that could push him into the First Team if Curry misses time due to injury. Imagine the takes that would inspire. Jokic vs. Gobert for the third center spot is going to be a nightmare of a debate. Same with the Greek Freak over Kevin Durant.
Notice that I do have Victor Oladipo sticking around. I’m buying into the legitimacy of his breakout season last year. If he disappoints, though, that spot probably becomes Chris Paul. Because, again, I think Houston limits Paul as much as they can. John Wall and Bradley Beal are tough omissions, but honestly, I think Otto Porter might have the best shot at a selection if a Wizard does make it.
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens – Celtics
Would Also Accept: Quin Snyder – Jazz, Mike Budenholzer – Bucks
In some kind of irony, Brad Stevens finally takes home the hardware after numerous seasons that would have arguably been more deserving. His work last season with the Hospital Celtics was absolutely unreal, but finished third behind the subsequently-fired Dwayne Casey and Utah’s Quin Snyder. In the coaches’ poll, he somehow didn’t get a single vote. This year, though, the sheer win total of the Celtics puts Stevens on top.
Snyder deserves a lot of love for what he’s accomplished in Utah, but he seems like the guy who perpetually finishes second, while everybody says things like “he deserves a lot of love for what he’s accomplished in Utah, but…” I see Budenholzer as a serious darkhorse candidate here, as replacing Jason Kidd is going to seriously illustrate how good he really is.
It feels very weird not to have Gregg Popovich here. If he does guide San Antonio to the playoffs, though, he might need to jump straight to the top.
Sixth Man of the Year: Terry Rozier
Would Also Accept: Tyreke Evans, J.J. Redick
Look, this is always going to be the award for guards who shoot a lot. I’ve accepted that inevitability (RIP to my Greg Monroe pick last year), and so should you.
Rozier is primed for this one. He had his breakout moment in last year’s postseason, and with all eyes on the Celtics this year, he’s going to have a lot of opportunities to impress off the bench. Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart are unlikely to remain consistently healthy — at the very least, they’ll see lots of rest. That leaves a whole lot of minutes for Rozier.
Redick’s move to the bench in Philadelphia is interesting, as well. He’s still going to be playing starter minutes, without a doubt, and he may even start second halves of games. Evans is compelling too; if his improved three-point shooting continues, he’s going to be the top supporting option alongside Victor Oladipo in Indiana.
Still. We should get some frontcourt guys in on this thing. Please.
Most Improved Player: Markelle Fultz
Would Also Accept: Cedi Osman, Myles Turner
Your average top overall pick does not win Most Improved Player in their second season. You expect that kind of growth from that kind of player, so it’s a little bit against the spirit of the award.
Markelle Fultz is not an average top overall pick.
Fultz feels a little destined for this one, after the bizarre circumstances surrounding his complete loss of his jumper last season. He doesn’t really even need to shoot to win it, thanks to his versatility as both a defender and passer. I can see why Brett Brown wants to push him into the starting lineup — he has game-breaker upside. If he stays healthy for a full season, I think this will be his.
I like Cedi Osman quite a bit, and he’s got a nice supporting narrative, considering he’s the guy taking over LeBron’s old job. That said, it’s not necessarily going to be him “improving” per se — he’s just getting a bigger opportunity than he had last year.
I’ll be beating the drum for Myles Turner until the day I die. This is the year, I swear.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Dončić
Would Also Accept: DeAndre Ayton, Trae Young
Aaand here come the debates.
I discuss in further detail in the Mavericks’ preview just how polarizing Dončić is. If you swear by the “eye test,” you probably think a little less of him; he doesn’t look like a stud, he’s a little chubby and not particularly explosive. That said, he’s the reigning Euroleague MVP while still only being a teenager. He’s going to be the most impactful rookie towards actual winning basketball this season. If the Mavericks clear 30+ wins or so, this should be a no-doubter.
Don’t get me wrong, I do really like Ayton. He’s further off, though. The Suns are going to give him the opportunity to pile up tons of stats, but these stats will be at least a little empty at times. There will be games where Ayton is sitting on 10 points and eight boards at the end of the third quarter, down 30 points, and finishes with 25-15. There’s also still a lot of work to be done on the defensive side of the ball.
Trae Young’s just gonna be fun. I think he’s a relatively distant third here unless someone gets hurt.
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis
Would Also Accept: Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid
The wheel of DPOYs keeps on spinning this year, with the usual suspects all making appearances yet again. I really wanted to put Andre Roberson here, but now that he’s missing a significant portion of the season due to injury, it can’t happen. Kawhi Leonard has a shot, but health matters, and there might be a little voter fatigue hanging around him, since he’s already won it twice.
I’m going with Davis, who gets a “first-timer” kind of win. Any of these candidates would be perfectly worthy though. Utah’s defense was unfathomably good with Gobert healthy last season. Ditto Philadelphia’s with Joel Embiid. Green keeps on doing what he does, providing the emotional engine for the Warriors’ machine. I can’t fault anyone for their DPOY picks this year. It’s a complete toss-up.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Would Also Accept: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis
I know, I know. Players on four-seeds don’t win MVPs. The only two times someone who didn’t finish on a top-two seed won MVP were Russell Westbrook in 2017 and Michael Jordan in 1988. I get it.
It’s happening a third time this year.
A historic freak of nature, with the best coach he’s ever played for? I can easily see why Giannis has vaulted to the top of most MVP lists. Budenholzer and Giannis are going to be great for each other, and his game is going to find the much-needed level of refinement it’s always needed. Remember, also: LeBron and Anthony Davis aren’t finishing on top-two seeded teams either. Harden’s isn’t even guaranteed, either. With Curry and Durant vulturing each other’s votes as always, this thing could absolutely be wide open.
The darkhorses are Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard, as each are going to pile up a lot of wins and finish in those all-important top seeds. But both depend on health, too. They’re not going to take home the award with 60 games played. There will be a strong narrative supporting LeBron as well, with his arrival in Los Angeles likely leading them back to the playoffs. Davis got some well-earned momentum last year, but I can’t see what would set him apart from Giannis this time around.
Adam Aaronson (Sixers)
Andy Bailey (Jazz)
Chris Barnewall (Magic)
Ryan Bernardoni (Celtics)
Max Carlin (Nuggets)
Andrew Doxy (Bucks, Pacers)
Anthony Doyle (Raptors)
Dave DuFour (Rockets)
Nekias Duncan (Heat)
Robert Flom (Clippers)
Katee Forbis (Grizzlies)
Jackson Frank (Trail Blazers)
Ryan “The Riffs Man” Hebert (Celtics, Pelicans)
Sean Highkin (Suns)
James Holas (Thunder, Knicks)
Andy Liu (Warriors)
Matt Moore (Spurs)
Thom Powell (Pistons)
Justin Rowan (Cavaliers)
Jacob Rude (Lakers)
Maggie Schultz (Timberwolves)
Brian Schroeder (Bulls)
Jeff Siegel (Hawks)
Philip Spector (Mavericks)
Bill Sy (Wizards)
Russell Varner (Hornets)
Tucker Warner (Hornets)