2018-19 NBA Schedule: Win-Loss Predictions for Every Team

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 10, 2018

2018-19 NBA Schedule: Win-Loss Predictions for Every Team

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The roadmap to the 2019 NBA playoffs—perhaps better known as the 2018-19 NBA schedule—is officially set.

    All 1,230 matchups are available to dissect from every angle ahead of the upcoming marathon.

    We're here to get the ball rolling.

    With each club's 82-game trek revealed, our crystal ball has sufficient information to process its prophecies. By analyzing both past performances and the expected impact of all offseason additions, we can project how everyone's final win-loss record will take shape.

    Will LeBron James' arrival end the Los Angeles Lakers' five-year playoff drought? Will the Golden State Warriors fail to top the standings for the second straight season? Who shall reign supreme in the LeBron-less Eastern Conference?

    We'll answer those questions and many, many more ahead.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 20-62

    The Hawks were a 58-loss team last season. The leading scorer and distributor from that squad (Dennis Schroder) is gone, traded mostly for a lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick. Former coach Mike Budenholzer is gone, too, taking his .520 career winning percentage to the Milwaukee Bucks. First-time NBA head coach Lloyd Pierce now sits behind the wheel.

    Atlanta is still in the early stages of a top-to-bottom rebuild. Because it's so new to the process—last season was the first time it missed the playoffs in a decade—the talent level is lacking. The Hawks basically have all their eggs in the baskets of 24-year-old Taurean Prince, 20-year-old John Collins and 19-year-olds Trae Young and Kevin Huerter.

    With general manager Travis Schlenk, a one-time Golden State Warriors executive, at the wheel, Atlanta has adopted grandiose small-ball visions. Squint hard enough, and you might see Splash Brothers-type potential for Young and Huerter. Prince is a multi-positional defender who can hit threes and keep the ball moving. Collins is the vertical spacer, a springy 6'10" forward/center who lives above the rim.

    If a few of these prospects hit, the Hawks could one day have an interesting future. But their present looks as bleak as any.

Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 57-25

    The Celtics have powerhouse potential, at least the Eastern Conference version of it.

    Last season, their defense was so dominant they had the sixth-best net rating despite finishing 18th in offensive efficiency. The latter figure could skyrocket in 2018-19. They should not only add healthy versions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the mix, but they'll also benefit from the extra seasoning afforded to 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old Jayson Tatum—their leaders in playoff points.

    "The Celtics at full strength should be a sight to behold," FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring wrote. "If the young players continue to mature alongside Kyrie, Hayward and Al Horford, they'll be a tough matchup for any opponent."

    Boston's depth is incredible. This group finished one win shy of the NBA Finals with Irving and Hayward both on the shelf. Head coach Brad Stevens is a tactical mastermind. There is every reason to believe Boston continues trending up after last year's 55-win breakout.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 29-53

    The Nets are almost to the point of having assets again. Come next summer, they could have a path to two max-contract slots, plus control of their first-round draft pick for the first time this century (it feels that long, at least).

    For being dealt a brutal hand, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks has done an impressive job of improving his club around the margins. This summer looks like another smart one. Ed Davis, Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier all arrived on moderately priced deals. Kenneth Faried came in a salary dump. European scorers Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs both landed on draft night.

    These look like helpful moves. The question is whether the Nets have a core capable of being helped.

    This roster lacks a centerpiece, and it's excruciatingly difficult to win without one in this league. Maybe there's still hope of former No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell rising to that level, but his career 14.4 player efficiency rating doesn't inspire much confidence.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Projected Lineup: 39-43

    The Hornets have more talent than they've shown the last two seasons. In fact, during both campaigns they finished with only 36 victories but performed like a 42-win team.

    Charlotte's shortcomings are tied to a record in close games that's almost too anemic to believe. Dating back to 2016-17, the Hornets are a woeful 1-14 in contests decided by three points or less. Part of that feels flukey—there's some degree of bad luck—but it's still two years of data saying this club can't finish.

    While Kemba Walker has made some monster shots in his career, perhaps these struggles are tied to an inability to put a second star alongside him. Nicolas Batum was supposed to fill that void, but he's been about league average over three seasons in Buzz City. The rest of the supporting cast has been either inconsistent or blocked by low ceilings.

    Still, if the Hornets' late-game fortune improves even a little bit, they should get closer to becoming the club their underlying numbers say they should be. It's possible things go haywire and Charlotte is forced to dangle Walker ahead of his free agency, but a more likely outcome sees the Hornets once again rubbing elbows with the Eastern Conference's middle class.

Chicago Bulls

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 28-54

    What do you get when you combine Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker and Lauri Markkanen? Three 23-and-under talents all potentially capable of averaging 20 points per game. Put other young athletes around them and head coach Fred Hoiberg behind the wheel, and the Chicago Bulls could be positioned to make a decent climb up the offensive leaderboards.

    But their scoring output might need to be in the 110s more often than not. This was last season's third-worst defense, and it may still backtrack from there.

    "Just when you thought the Bulls' defense couldn't get any worse, buckle up," Joe Cowley wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Putting LaVine and Parker on the court at the same time might be an invitation for opponents to get in a layup line and have at it."

    Both LaVine and Parker are coming off late-season returns from ACL tears, and neither was a sturdy stopper to begin with. And Parker, who's torn the ligament twice in four seasons, could prove even more generous than usual if he's forced to chase around opposing 3s. But hey, at least the offense should have some electric moments, and maybe Wendell Carter Jr. can force his way onto the All-Rookie first team.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 30-52

    The bottom won't drop out on the Cavs like it did the last time LeBron James left, but they're still looking at a deep dive down the standings.

    Kevin Love will be a featured option for the first time in five seasons, a role he's never filled for a winner. Rookie Collin Sexton, who turns 20 in January, means enough to this franchise's fate he'll probably become a starter soon. The rest of Cleveland's roster is largely comprised of veterans brought in to complement James or still-developing youngsters with fairly low ceilings.

    Cleveland wants to remain competitive, but its roster may demand something different. If it stumbles out of the gate, it wouldn't be surprising to see a deeper embrace of the youth and a stronger push to shed payroll. (The Cavs are already doing some of the latter.)

    It will be fascinating to see how head coach Tyronn Lue navigates the transition. He's only been a head coach for a two-and-a-half seasons, all of which included James and ended in the Finals. Will Lue like the freedom of installing a more egalitarian offense, or might he find the position no longer suits his strengths?

Dallas Mavericks

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 36-46

    Between the draft night heist of Luka Doncic and the surprise reunion with DeAndre Jordan, the Mavs helped themselves in critical ways this summer.

    Doncic is not only a star prospect in his own right, but he'll also help enhance last year's No. 9 pick, Dennis Smith Jr., by adding both more playmaking and an equally strong desire to push the pace. Jordan, meanwhile, immediately slots in as the anchor of a Dallas defense that hasn't had a top-10 finish since 2011-12.

    Unless Doncic storms out of the gate or Smith springs forward, there isn't an elite talent on this roster. But depth is a strength, and the pieces make sense together on paper. Both Smith and Doncic can trigger pick-and-rolls with Jordan or pick-and-pops with Dirk Nowitzki, and Harrison Barnes can either spread the floor or occasionally create out of isolations.

    They'll be much improved from last season, but it's important to remember only two teams won fewer games than that group (24). A 12-victory climb would be significant, especially for a team lacking a true No. 1 scorer.

Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 50-32

    The Nuggets have been hinting at a breakout the last few years. With Nikola Jokic performing (and being paid) like a star and Paul Millsap enjoying a clean bill of health, 2018-19 looks like the season that gets this group over the playoff hump.

    The offense will be elite. This was the sixth-best attack last season, and it has since added both Isaiah Thomas (with plenty to prove) and extra seasoning for the young core. Assuming Will Barton slides into Wilson Chandler's old starting role, Denver's first five would have each averaged at least 14.6 points, 2.8 assists and 1.0 threes last season.

    The defense is the question mark and probably the problem area. That unit ranked fifth from the bottom last season and last finished outside the lowest third in 2012-13.

    That said, Denver can be 50-win good without a great defense. It came close last season (46 victories), and the 50-win Cavs were among those worse on defense than the Nuggets. If this group reaches anything close to its point-producing potential, the Mile High City should snap out of its five-year playoff drought.

Detroit Pistons

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 37-45

    For the second consecutive season, the Pistons are likely looking at starting Stanley Johnson and his forgettable career marks of 37.0 percent shooting (29.5 from three) and an 8.4 PER.

    But that's not what has us worried about Detroit. This franchise has hitched its future to the Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond-Reggie Jackson trio. The odds of this group succeeding aren't nearly high enough to outweigh the obvious risks.

    "Griffin is 29, has at least one surgery every year, has missed 107 games over the past four seasons and is in obvious athletic decline," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "Drummond is a dinosaur at center, and Jackson is a mid-tier starter who has missed 70 games in his three full seasons with the team.

    "That's not a core. That's a disaster."

    There isn't enough shooting on the roster, the frontcourt might need modernizing, and it's still unclear if the Pistons will get anything worthwhile from first-round investments in Johnson and Henry Ellenson. It wouldn't be surprising to see Detroit explore another dramatic shake-up near the trade deadline, assuming the injury bug hasn't already pulled the plug on the entire season before then.

Golden State Warriors

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 60-22

    It often seems as if the Warriors aren't bound by the same rules as everyone else, and that's no different in this exercise. For other clubs, the challenge is identifying how many games they're capable of winning. For the champs, it's weighing how many they'll try to win while pacing themselves for a potential fifth straight NBA Finals run.

    Their luck with avoiding injuries evaporated last season, as each of their four All-Stars missed at least nine games. DeMarcus Cousins, their primary offseason addition, is working his way back from a torn Achilles and doesn't have a timetable for his debut. Stephen Curry could be handled with kid gloves after knee and ankle problems cost him 31 regular-season appearances and six more in the playoffs.

    They worried about complacency ahead of last year and then stumbled through several sleepy stretches. Their 58 victories were their fewest yet under head coach Steve Kerr (67 was the previous low), and that roster was more experienced than this one will be.

    This feels like a low projection, considering there's enough talent to challenge the 73-win record if they wanted. But that's too taxing. Between fatigue, cautious handling of any injuries and the knowledge they can win it all without the No. 1 seed, they'll coast enough for the campaign to grade out as really good as opposed to great.

Houston Rockets

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 55-27

    Considering the limited funds available, the Rockets did reasonably well to react to the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. James Ennis III is interesting when his three-ball cooperates, Carmelo Anthony remains a prolific isolation scorer and Michael Carter-Williams gives them another multipositional defender.

    But Ariza was rock-solid throughout his four seasons in Space City. And Mbah a Moute was a consistent contributor until his shoulder failed him late in the year. They didn't have the risks that will be attached to giving any of the newcomers significant minutes.

    Houston's top talent is still as good as anyone's outside of Golden State. When Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela shared the floor last season, the Rockets went an astonishing 42-3.

    This year's group has less insurance, though, which could prove relatively problematic if medical misfortunes beset Paul again. The 33-year-old has missed at least 20 games in three of the past five seasons.

Indiana Pacers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 47-35

    Last season was essentially a string of pleasant surprises for the Pacers. They weren't lost without Paul George—somehow they were better. They weren't star-less either, as Victor Oladipo rose to that rank with one of the Association's eight 23-point, five-rebound, four-assist stat lines.

    But they were overachievers. While they won 48 games, they performed more like a 45-win team. They also had only the one star in Oladipo, whose shooting touch disappeared for most of the season's second half (30.2 percent on three-pointers from January through March).

    The numbers suggest some level of regression awaits Oladipo, who spent the previous four seasons hovering around average. And there's little reason to believe he'll have a star-level sidekick. Tyreke Evans, the most prominent newcomer, is likely ticketed for a second-team spark plug role. Myles Turner, the best of the incumbents, was expected to leap last season but took a step backward instead.

    All of that said, the Pacers were a pesky bunch last year, they return their top six in playoff minutes and they've bulked up their depth at almost every spot. They'll compete for a top-four seed in the East.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 36-46

    The Clippers have essentially remade their entire roster since winning 51 games before bowing out in the 2017 playoffs opening round. But they aren't completely rebuilding. While they've done more subtracting than adding, they've still made significant commitments to Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Avery Bradley, plus traded for Tobias Harris and Marcin Gortat.

    L.A.'s primary focus is on 2019 free agency, when it might have the right mix of cap space and market size to reel in multiple difference-makers. But that means the current roster is treading water, hence the underwhelming projection here.

    Who will carry the scoring torch—Williams, the career reserve; Gallinari, the injury-waiting-to-happen; or Harris, the inconsistent shooter and disinterested playmaker? After a 19th-placed finish last season, how much worse will the defense fare with Marcin Gortat taking DeAndre Jordan's old spot? Will lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson see enough minutes to matter?

    Too many questions, not enough star power to think the Clippers are trending up.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 44-38

    Eight years of data suggests the bump from rostering LeBron James is nothing short of an NBA Finals ticket. But all of those trips to the championship round came in the Eastern Conference and with one (or more) All-Star sidekick. The 33-year-old is in the Wild West now and surrounded by one of the league's strangest supporting casts.

    "Almost nothing they've done since signing LeBron suggests they have any coherent vision, or have followed the NBA since 2011," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote.

    James works best with shooters, and the Lakers appear worse in that department than last season—20th in triples and 29th in three-point percentage. Unless the rookies play, the newcomers won't change the franchise's perimeter fortunes. Michael Beasley doesn't shoot them (career 1.4 attempts per game), Lance Stephenson shouldn't try (30.3 percent), and Rajon Rondo underwhelms by quantity (0.4 makes per game) and quality (30.9 percent).

    L.A. needs another star (at least) to compete at a championship level, and it seems content to wait until next summer to pursue one. This season should be a feeling-out process for James and another chance for the Lakers' youth to mature, and the growing pains from both will keep the wins column from climbing too high.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 32-50

    While our projections don't reflect this, it's fairly easy to find optimism with the Grizzlies.

    They should have a healthy Mike Conley this time around, and he's the type of player who helps everyone around him. No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. has contemporary star potential, and 32nd pick Jevon Carter arrives with NBA-caliber defense and Memphis-approved toughness. Kyle Anderson might be a lot of what Chandler Parsons was supposed to become. Shelvin Mack and Garrett Temple are plug-and-play acquisitions.

    But the glass-half-empty crowd can find faults with all of this.

    History suggests Conley won't be healthy for long, since he last played 70 games in 2014-15. Jackson is 18 years old and didn't set the world on fire at Michigan State (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds). Anderson's offense sits several stories beneath the space Parsons' used to occupy. Carter, Mack and Temple are fine, but 60-loss teams don't change their fortunes with "fine" pickups.

    There might be a best-case scenario where the Grizzlies keep up with the playoff race, but there's a worst-case one where Conley can't stay healthy, Marc Gasol takes another step back and Memphis requires a complete overhaul. Consider our 32-win projection as splitting the difference.

Miami Heat

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 45-37

    Barring trades, this was always going to be a sleepy summer in South Beach. The Heat entered the offseason without draft picks or cap space. Their work was restricted to in-house shopping. They re-signed Wayne Ellington, and now they're awaiting the decisions of Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem.

    In other words, next season's version will look almost identical to last season's. That's partly a good thing. Continuity helps, and Miami has as much as anyone. It should also get a healthy Dion Waiters back, plus benefit from having Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk get more acclimated in head coach Erik Spoelstra's system.

    But this was a mediocre team last season (17th in efficiency), and it doesn't have a ton of players trending up. Goran Dragic's field-goal and three-point percentages fell last season, as did Hassan Whiteside's everything. Tyler Johnson may have plateaued right when his salary explodes, and James Johnson showed a lot of the frustrating inconsistency that defined his pre-Heat career.

    This squad seems stuck in the middle for the foreseeable future.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 45-37

    The worry with the Milwaukee Bucks is their most high-profile offseason transaction resulted in an exit, not an arrival. 2014's No. 2 pick, Jabari Parker, was freed to leave, meaning wrecking ball Giannis Antetokounmpo's most recognizable teammate is either 2012 second-round pick Khris Middleton or get-me-out-of-this-hair-salon Eric Bledsoe.

    To be clear, Milwaukee hardly sat idle this summer. It made its biggest investment in new head coach Mike Budenholzer, who was the most desirable coaching target on the market. It also drafted NCAA championship game hero Donte DiVincenzo, then addressed a glaring need for frontcourt shooting with Ersan Ilyasova (back again!) and Brook Lopez.

    There isn't an obvious misfire in the mix, but these feel like marginal on-court moves. (As much of an upgrade as Budenholzer appears to be, he can only do so much from the sidelines.) Moreover, they're marginal moves from a club that tied for 15th in both wins (44) and net rating (plus-0.7).

    The Bucks are banking on some level of internal growth, but where can it come from? Antetokounmpo already has an MVP-type stat line. Middleton might be brushing against his ceiling as a 20-points-per-contest contributor. Bledsoe looked a lot like he did during his healthy seasons with the Phoenix Suns. This might be who Milwaukee is: a middle-of-the-pack playoff team that happens to employ an elite talent.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 49-33

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are in a tricky spot.

    Two of their most important players are 23 or younger (Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins), but this club is committed to winning now. Its core has only spent one season together, but it might already be racing against time given chemistry concerns and free-agency threats. The Wolves are talented, but their flaws might be fatal.

    There are too many question marks to predict significant growth, especially when so many of their Western Conference rivals made major moves this summer. But forecasting a fall feels foolish, when better health could be reason for growth. Remember, Jimmy Butler missed 23 games last season, mostly because of a knee injury, and Minnesota dropped 13 of them.

    Nothing done this summer inspires much hope for the Wolves to improve their defense (22nd) or their bench (20th). That said, this elite offense (fourth) will at least benefit from the addition of Anthony Tolliver and could get lifts from rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 44-38

    The fork in the road that was DeMarcus Cousins' free agency offered no correct move for the New Orleans Pelicans. Re-signing him would've meant binding their future to a 6'11", 270-pounder coming off the worst injury a pro baller can suffer: a ruptured Achilles. Letting him walk meant losing the only All-Star teammate Anthony Davis has known and failing to open enough cap room to sign a similar talent.

    New Orleans opted for the latter, replacing Cousins with Julius Randle, and Rajon Rondo with Elfrid Payton. That might amount to a wash—once accounting for Cousins' injury, at least—although the youngsters are inherently more volatile.

    That's part of the reason we're expecting slight regression from this group. There's also the fact that the Pelicans won 48 games last season but played like a 45-win group, per ESPN.com. They also benefited from seemingly outlier seasons from Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore, who are in such prominent roles they need to match those performances.

    New Orleans has a superstar in Davis. Does it have a second star without Cousins? If not, how can this supporting cast overcome that in such a star-studded conference?

New York Knicks

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 28-54

    Based on scouting reports and summer-league displays, it's possible the New York Knicks will emerge the long-term winners of the 2018 draft. But unless Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson are ready for featured roles on opening nightspoiler alert: They're not—this could be another long season for the Blue and Orange.

    Kristaps Porzingis is coming off a February ACL tear and remains without a return timetable, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. The Knicks "still plan to part ways" with their second-highest-paid player, Joakim Noah, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ian Begley. Last summer's lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina, might be blocked from the starting five no matter which guard spot he fills.

    That's not to say this season will be wasted. In fact, it should be critical for the rebuild. It's not only a chance for new head coach David Fizdale to implement his system, it's also a lengthy audition to see how—or if—the young players fit.

    But the on-court product will be rough. Last season—when Porzingis played 48 games—New York was 22nd in wins, 24th in offense, 23rd in defense and 24th in efficiency. If Porzingis can't top that number from last year, the Knicks will struggle to improve any of theirs.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 51-31

    Paul George has unfinished business. That, more than anything, is the reason he's sticking around Oklahoma City.

    "I felt when it came down to it and all the factors that played into it, deep down there was a nasty taste where we finished," George told ESPN.com's Marc J. Spears. "I just felt I had more to offer. I had more to give. ... Ultimately, I just felt this was the road for me to win."

    He might be right. The first year for the George-Russell Westbrook tandem had its dominant moments, most coming before Andre Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon Jan. 27. There was a six-game winning streak in December, then an eight-game spurt in January. This was the West's second-best team for those two months.

    The Thunder should be more flexible and formidable on defense after jettisoning Carmelo Anthony, bringing back Jerami Grant and adding Nerlens Noel. Dennis Schroder can perk up the second team or even give OKC a two-headed monster at point guard. There might not be enough shooting for the Thunder to be great, but they can be really good.

Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 27-55

    The Orlando Magic have a strange way of rebuilding. They've made six lottery picks over the past six drafts. Only three of those players remain in Disney's home—Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba—and it's unclear if they can coexist long term.

    There isn't a discernible direction, save for collecting as many long, athletic types as possible.

    Isaac and Bamba sapped Nikola Vucevic's value. Evan Fournier looks like he belongs in a complementary role for a contender, not handling marquee duties for a club trapped in a six-year playoff drought. The D.J. Augustin-Jerian Grant rotation at point guard is as anemic as it gets. It's hard to find a top-shelf skill anywhere on this roster.

    Moving from Frank Vogel to Steve Clifford is probably a lateral move at head coach, but that says more about Vogel than Clifford. Until the front office forms an identity and finds players who fit it, the Magic will be stuck near the bottom of the standings.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 50-32

    The Philadelphia 76ers were aiming for the stars this summer, but they wound up grounded. No LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George; just Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and the latest batch of prospects.

    From a macro view, that's fine. The Sixers look deeper than last season, when they won 52 games even though Joel Embiid missed 19 contests and Markelle Fultz sat out all but 14 with shoulder trouble. This remains one of basketball's elite young cores, and that's without knowing the futures of Fultz, Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet.

    But through the 2018-19 lens, this summer comes off as a slight setback. They may not have lost anyone of significance, but they can't match the reinforcements bound for Boston (healthy Irving and Hayward) or Toronto (Leonard). Not to mention, seemingly every member of Philly's young nucleus carries a health risk, apparently including Smith, who's down with a Jones fracture in his left foot.

    Philly has no obvious reason to fall, but unless Fultz takes off, it will struggle to rise with its fellow elites. There's a chance the Sixers will have a tier to themselves—a half-step behind the Celtics and Raptors, but ahead of the Pacers-Bucks-Heat level. That might mean Philly locks in its playoff seed early, which could result in a slightly worse record than last season's.

Phoenix Suns

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 27-55

    The Phoenix Suns made positive additions this summer, but perspective is critical. They're starting from the bottom, having posted 2017-18's fewest wins (21), lowest offensive rating (100.8) and worst defensive rating (110.6).

    That's the trifecta of terrible. It's unreasonable to expect NBA neophytes Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Elie Okobo to clean up this mess. It's also unwise to expect too much from newcomer Trevor Ariza, who is well-established as a role player after 14 NBA seasons.

    It's fair, however, to expect progress. Phoenix has an army of long-limbed defenders who match the physical characteristics of the Association's best small-ball units. The Ayton-Devin Booker pairing has potential to be special. New coach Igor Kokoskov's high marks in creativity and player development make him strong fits with this roster.

    The Suns can—and will—play better and still finish with one of the Association's worst records.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 42-40

    Either the Portland Trail Blazers saw something everyone else didn't last season, or they simply accepted that their financial reality made it impossible to correct any problems this summer. No matter the reason, it still goes down as a disappointing offseason on the heels of a(nother) disappointing playoff collapse.

    "GM Neil Olshey let Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton walk for minimum deals, opting to replace them with Seth Curry (fine, but a health risk) and Nik Stauskas (inexplicable)," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "Meanwhile, the roster's most glaring void, forward depth, went unaddressed."

    Portland's primary investments went to scoring guards (which it already had too many of) and Jusuf Nurkic (who seemingly plateaued last season). It isn't clear if the newcomers can play with both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, or even if that backcourt has a long-term future in the Northwest.

    It's hard to see how the Blazers got any better, which is worrisome for two reasons. Their swift playoff exit suggests this club played above its head as the No. 3 seed. Also, the Blazers were closer to the conference's midsection than that seed suggests (three more wins than No. 9), and almost everyone behind them improved in some way.

Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 25-57

    The Sacramento Kings are searching for a centerpiece. Until they find one, the rest of their rebuilding efforts won't mean much.

    Some might want to give that title to No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III. To them, I'd advise digesting this Bagley description from The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor: "He's a modern tweener who has athletic center skills but an unreliable jump shot and the body of a forward." If that's the primary building block, the final structure will never stand on its own.

    So, what about last summer's fifth overall selection, De'Aaron Fox? It's tough to give him that label when it's unclear if he can shoot. He was a 41.2 percent shooter as a rookie, hitting just 30.7 percent from distance and 35.4 percent of his jump shots.

    Sacramento needs some kind of star. And a No. 1 scorer. And better defenders. This might be the West's only team without any chance of punching a playoff ticket.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 45-37

    The San Antonio Spurs won 47 games last season with Kawhi Leonard missing all but nine with a quad injury. The disgruntled superstar has since forced his way out of San Antonio, and four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan has arrived as the replacement.

    So, why isn't the win column climbing? Because Leonard wasn't the only one who left. Danny Green and Kyle Anderson—two critical components of last season's fourth-ranked defense—are also out, as is Tony Parker, who paced them with 3.5 assists per game despite averaging just 19.5 minutes.

    The offense looks wonky. There isn't enough outside shooting, and the mix of 30-something veterans with unpolished prospects will make it tricky to find a tempo that works for everyone. It's worth noting this offense was far from dominant last season (17th).

    Last year's Spurs claimed most of their victories on the defensive end, but repeating that feat won't be easy. They lost disruptive length when Leonard, Green and Anderson exited, and that was never replaced. The frontcourt lacks athleticism, and small-ball clubs could make it impossible to play more than one of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Jakob Poeltl.

Toronto Raptors

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 56-26

    The Toronto Raptors were one of the NBA's best teams last season. They'll rank among them again in 2018-19, provided health isn't an issue.

    With all due respect to DeRozan, flipping him for Leonard could be larceny. If the 2013-14 Finals MVP is healthy, he's a top-five player—that's how MVP voters viewed him in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Pairing him with Kyle Lowry should give Toronto two All-Stars on both ends of the floor.

    "He and Lowry could give the Raptors two players ranking in the top 10 in [real plus-minus] leaguewide," ESPN.com's Andre Snellings wrote. "Over the past three seasons, only the Warriors, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have had teammates rank among the top 10 in RPM in the same season."

    So, Toronto could have one of the Association's premier All-Star pairings. And it returns most members of last season's best bench.

    This team should be a playoff force, which plays into our prediction of its winning three fewer games. The Raptors will likely err on the side of caution should any health hurdles trip up Leonard (nine appearances since May 2017) or Lowry (33 in March, missed 22 games in 2016-17). Staying fresh for the postseason will take precedence over topping the standings.

Utah Jazz

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 51-31

    The Utah Jazz are the rare powerhouse that isn't treated as such. Maybe too many observers checked out once Gordon Hayward exited in summer 2017 and forgot to check back in, but it doesn't seem like they get enough buzz for how much chaos they can cause in the West.

    Utah had the NBA's fifth-highest net rating last season (plus-4.6), a year in which Rudy Gobert missed 26 contests and then-rookie Donovan Mitchell essentially stumbled into the No. 1 scoring role. From Jan. 19—when Gobert returned from his second knee injury—through the end of the season, that mark was a league-best plus-10.8.

    The Jazz should keep climbing. They've had an offseason to better implement deadline pickup Jae Crowder, who hit the ground sprinting and posted a plus-10.3 net rating. They're still learning what they have in Dante Exum, who's only played 162 games since arriving as the fifth pick in 2014. Mitchell will only be a sophomore, and this is just Gobert's fourth season as a full-time starter.

    Is 51 wins too conservative, then? Perhaps, but it reflects unanswered questions about this offense. This attack was too reliant on Mitchell last season (no one else averaged even 14 points), and his 43.7/34.0/80.5 slash line leaves no wiggle room for a sophomore slump.

Washington Wizards

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Projected Record: 44-38

    Given a limited budget and few movable trade chips, the Washington Wizards had a productive summer. They got more athletic at center with Dwight Howard, added second-team scoring with Austin Rivers and Jeff Green and found a high-ceiling playmaker and possible all-around helper in rookie Troy Brown Jr.

    Take off the optimistic goggles, though, and each move is open to scrutiny. Are Howard and Rivers the right gambles for a team that couldn't keep its chemistry issues in-house last season? Will Green shoot nearly as efficiently as Mike Scott did (40.5 from three)? Will Brown prove capable enough from the perimeter to warrant significant minutes?

    They might all equate to lateral movement. Washington's fate will likely still be decided by whether John Wall can get back to being his old self, whether Bradley Beal can balance volume with efficiency and whether Otto Porter Jr. (and to a lesser extent, Kelly Oubre Jr.) can evolve.

    The talent pool looks a little deeper than it did last season, but the locker room may prove as combustible as ever. Washington will fight for one of the East's final four playoff spots again.


    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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