NBA Teams That Will Exceed Expectations in 2019-20
With free agency all but over, the hierarchy for the 2019-20 NBA season is beginning to take shape.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers appear set to reign over the Eastern Conference, while Los Angeles hosts both consensus Western Conference favorites in the new-look Clippers and Lakers.
That isn't to say those four teams are guaranteed to meet in the conference finals, though.
In general, preseason expectations are a thankless enterprise. Every year, multiple teams surpass their Vegas over/under lines and prove greater than the sum of their respective parts.
Last year, the Brooklyn Nets, Clippers, Bucks and Sacramento Kings all fit that bill. Who might follow suit this year?
Boston Celtics: O/U 51.0
The Boston Celtics had a rough summer. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford left in free agency, and long-rumored trade target Anthony Davis went to the archrival Los Angeles Lakers.
The Celtics pulled off their "plan A" by signing All-Star point guard Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter in place of Irving and Horford, but they clearly downgraded at both positions.
However, they might experience addition by subtraction with Irving's departure.
The Celtics entered last season as a potential Finals contender, but a lack of chemistry caused them to underachieve. With both Irving and Terry Rozier having departed this summer, their locker room may be more harmonious in 2019-20.
Although Walker isn't as potent of a scorer as the otherworldly Irving, he will likely conduct the offense in a more egalitarian and selfless manner. That may bring out the best from Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Combined with the wizardry of head coach Brad Stevens, that shift gives the Celtics reason to be optimistic about their ability to surpass their 51-win over/under line.
Brooklyn Nets: O/U 44.0
Kevin Durant is likely to miss the entire 2019-20 season as he recovers from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered during Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
As a result, oddsmakers aren't buying the Brooklyn Nets, projecting them to win only 44 games.
The Nets are 30-1 to win this year's title, according to Caesars, and they're generally considered to be on a tier below the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.
Although the Nets did overhaul their rotation this offseason, they upgraded at nearly every position.
Kyrie Irving will replace D'Angelo Russell. Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple and Wilson Chandler will replace DeMarre Carroll. DeAndre Jordan will replace Ed Davis.
Brooklyn has one of the deepest teams in the league and can play well on both ends. Kyrie is a ball-handling dynamo who can run the offense with Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, while LeVert, Prince, Temple and Jarrett Allen form a versatile unit on defense.
For those questioning whether Kyrie will create locker room turmoil, he's never been on a team like this one. Durant and Jordan are two of his best friends in the league, while Temple, Chandler and Dinwiddie are wily veterans who can offset Kyrie's quirks.
The Nets may not have the star power of the Bucks or Sixers, but they're deeper than both. They should be considered equals with Milwaukee and Philly and should easily win 45-plus games.
Chicago Bulls: O/U 33.0
For a team in the United States' third-largest city, the Chicago Bulls operate far below the national radar. They largely disappeared from NBA discourse after they traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in June 2017, and they seemingly only resurface for negative reasons.
But despite a constant stream of negative press and questionable personnel decisions, the Bulls have assembled a fairly solid roster.
Chicago has an intriguing young player at each spot on the floor in Coby White, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. The Bulls have even complemented them with savvy veterans such as Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young.
Throw in quality reserves such as sharpshooter Denzel Valentine and bouncy big man Daniel Gafford, and the Bulls should have no trouble surpassing their 33-win over/under.
Don't be surprised if Chicago competes for a playoff spot this year.
Denver Nuggets: O/U 52.5
In the era of player empowerment, stability is becoming a somewhat foreign concept.
It's easy to gloss over teams that didn't remake their rosters this offseason, but don't lose sight of the Denver Nuggets.
Their starting five is headlined by first-team All-NBA center Nikola Jokic and breakout guard Jamal Murray. The Nuggets also have Gary Harris and Paul Millsap, two of the best role players in the NBA.
Throw in a supporting cast that features Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Will Barton, Jerami Grant, and Mason Plumlee—all of whom recorded positive plus-minus ratings per 100 possessions last year—as well as high-ceiling youngsters such as Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol and Jarred Vanderbilt, and the ceiling in the Mile High City indeed approaches 5,280 feet.
The Nuggets won 54 games this past season, yet they are projected to win fewer games in 2019-20 despite having the benefit of familiarity while conference counterparts will be establishing chemistry. Their 52.5 over/under line is almost disrespectful, because the NBA Finals are well within reach for the Nuggets.
Golden State Warriors: O/U 49.5
Like the Celtics, the Golden State Warriors have less talent on their roster than they did last year. It's impossible to replace Kevin Durant, not to mention Andre Iguodala, DeMarcus Cousins and Shaun Livingston.
Klay Thompson is also likely to miss much of next season as he recovers from his torn ACL, and his stand-in, D'Angelo Russell, is a bad fit with Golden State's motion-heavy offense.
However, the Warriors still have Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and they can thrive as underdogs.
You don't win three championships in five years without digging deep time and again. As a result, the Warriors should succeed in this low-stakes situation.
Green may perceive their 49.5 over/under, a win total that the Warriors have surpassed six years running, as a slight and feel even motivated to prove the doubters wrong.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers told ESPN's Nick Friedell that he wants his team to be this generation's version of the San Antonio Spurs—a perennial contender due to the presence of several key pieces. Curry, Green, a healthy Thompson and head coach Steve Kerr are Golden State's Big Four going forward, and this season is the first test of whether they can live up to those lofty internal goals.
New York Knicks: O/U 28.5
Fresh off a 17-win season, it's easy to write off the New York Knicks.
Their offseason strategy to amass power forwards like Pokemon could result in a minutes crunch that leads to locker room turmoil. They also haven't won more than 32 games in any of the past five years.
Then again, take a look at their potential depth chart:
PG: Dennis Smith Jr./Elfrid Payton
SG: RJ Barrett/Allonzo Trier/Wayne Ellington
SF: Marcus Morris/Kevin Knox/Reggie Bullock
PF: Julius Randle/Bobby Portis
C: Mitchell Robinson/Taj Gibson
Say what you will about the positional imbalance, but those are 12 solid rotation members. It isn't necessarily a favorable situation for young players like Barrett or Knox, but the sheer competence on the roster—which some other East teams can't boast!—should make New York a threat on any given night.
The Knicks might not be pursuing the best long-term route for their franchise, but they should be able to surpass their 28.5 over/under.
Portland Trail Blazers: O/U 46.0
If you compare the Portland Trail Blazers' current roster side-by-side with the 2018-19 iteration, this year's team clearly looks worse.
Instead of Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and Seth Curry, the Blazers have Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside and Mario Hezonja. They're also without starting center Jusuf Nurkic for much of the year as he recovers from a leg injury.
However, none of that means Portland will automatically be worse.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both thrive when they are counted out. Both are smaller guards from low-major college teams who defied all odds to become lottery picks.
Lillard might be the best Trail Blazer ever by the time he retires, while McCollum is an excellent second option who can create shots out of thin air. Both have drastically improved throughout their careers, and often at times when their continued progress has been necessary.
After four Blazers starters left in the summer of 2015, Lillard improved his per-game averages nearly across the board. He also led Portland to the second round of the 2016 playoffs, while McCollum more than tripled his scoring average in that same year, his first as a full-time starter.
Just because the Blazers downgraded at some positions doesn't mean they will be fighting to make the playoffs with the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and other up-and-coming teams. After winning 53 games this past season, they enter this year with an 46.0 over/under, which underestimates their premier duo that often rises to the occasion and makes the players around them better.
As long as Lillard and McCollum are in the Rose City, the Blazers cannot be discounted.
Sacramento Kings: O/U 37.5
Buoyed by the speed of De'Aaron Fox, the knockdown shooting of Buddy Hield and bounciness of rookie big man Marvin Bagley III, the Sacramento Kings drastically outperformed expectations last season.
Although they finished 39-43 last year, they enter this coming season with an over/under of 37.0 despite returning every significant player.
Some of the contracts they handed out may not be ideal—they could grow to regret Harrison Barnes' four-year, $85 million deal—but the Kings now have a well-constructed roster filled with supporting depth pieces that complement each other.
Bagley can't shoot or protect the rim? Luckily, those are two of Dewayne Dedmon's best skills. Fox is still an inconsistent shooter? He'll play alongside Hield and Trevor Ariza, two reliable spot-up gunners.
Dedmon, Ariza and fellow free-agent signee Cory Joseph may take away playing time from some of the Kings' young players, but that could prove beneficial in the long term.
Ariza and Dedmon could help create a winning culture around them and lead the Kings to a playoff berth this year. That would only help Fox, Hield and Bagley once they become the full-fledged faces of the team.
San Antonio Spurs: O/U 47.0
The San Antonio Spurs haven't gotten past the first round of the playoffs in either of the past two seasons, but their 22-year playoff streak remains intact.
In the meantime, head coach Gregg Popovich is zigging as the rest of the NBA zags.
For years, San Antonio was at the forefront of the ball-movement, three-point heavy style that has spread far and wide. But now that most teams are bombing threes with reckless abandon, the Spurs' two best scorers are mid-range specialists, and they took the fewest number of threes in the NBA last season.
Despite their anachronistic playing style, the Spurs have a sneaky deep roster.
DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are the two headliners, but Dejounte Murray is expected to return from a torn ACL this season. Derrick White broke out in the postseason and could continue to build upon that. Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and DeMarre Carroll are steady veterans. Rudy Gay is a strong complementary piece.
The Spurs' current over/under of 47.0 this year would be tied for their lowest win total since 1998-99, which was a lockout-shortened year. They're likely to win 50-plus games and make it back to the postseason for the 23rd straight year next spring.
Toronto Raptors: O/U 46.0
The Toronto Raptors lost two starters this summer but still look like playoff locks. They're even projected to win 46 games, putting them smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race.
What does that say more about: the infrastructure in Toronto or the weak nature of the Eastern Conference?
It's likely a combination of the two, but the Raptors deserve a fair share of the credit.
Despite Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green's departures, Toronto still has plenty of talent. That conversation starts with Pascal Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player, who averaged 19.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in last year's NBA Finals and was a dynamic force from start to finish.
Siakam is the face of the Raptors' retool, but he's joined by the likes of five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, three-time All-Star Marc Gasol, veteran big man Serge Ibaka and father extraordinaire Fred VanVleet.
After Leonard's departure, the Raptors took low-risk, high-reward swings on Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and they added 2018 G League MVP Chris Boucher as well. Those players might not pan out, but betting low on unrealized potential and trying to coach up athletes is one of the smartest ways to build in the NBA.
If he sticks around, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri will have Raptors fans cheering for competitive teams far into the future.