Every NBA Team's Non-Championship Goal in 2020

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 7, 2019

Every NBA Team's Non-Championship Goal in 2020

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    With the Golden State Warriors' dynasty over and the champion Toronto Raptors short a Finals MVP, the NBA title race is more open than it's been in at least a half-decade. Nearly a dozen teams could semi-realistically target a ring as their ultimate goal in 2019-20.

    Let's rule that obvious aspiration out and focus instead on lesser objectives—hopefully ones that double as ways to discuss interesting angles about all 30 teams ahead of the regular season.

    Some squads should be aiming for the playoffs, while others should hope to see development from a specific player. Everything (except a championship) is fair game.

Atlanta Hawks: De'Andre Hunter Completes the Core

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    The Atlanta Hawks surrendered a pile of assets to land De'Andre Hunter on draft night, but if the 6'7" wing develops into the kind of defensive gap-filler his frame and skills suggest he could, the outlay will have been worth it.

    Trae Young and John Collins may be on their way to becoming Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire reimagined for the 2020s.

    As was the case with Nash's and Stoudemire's mid- and late-aughts Phoenix Suns teams, Atlanta's offense projects as incendiary. Despite two defensively challenged stars, those Suns squads also frequently fielded defenses of average quality, ranking between 15th and 18th in defensive efficiency from 2004-05 to 2007-08.

    The historically underrated Shawn Marion had plenty to do with Phoenix's respectability on D and, by extension, its status as a fringe title-contender for a half-decade.

    Hunter has to be that kind of difference-maker for Atlanta to capitalize on what should be a dynamic offense built around Young's shooting and playmaking and Collins' potent frontcourt scoring. That's not to say Hunter must develop into a possible Hall of Famer, but it does mean he's got a clear role to fill.

    The Hawks can't realistically expect a playoff trip, and they'll obviously want to see Young and Collins grow. But if Hunter assumes the Marion mantle this year, it'll give Atlanta a critical piece in its rebuilding puzzle.

Boston Celtics: Come Together

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    Talented, deep and boasting a tantalizing combo of ascendant youth and established stars, last year's Boston Celtics fell short of lofty expectations. That failure had several sources, but the most conspicuous seemed to be a disconnected locker room.

    Here's Marcus Smart on media day alluding to the new vibe with Kemba Walker replacing Kyrie Irving:

    "When you have a competitor and a guy like that, who is willing to come in and know that and not just come in here and think he deserves it because he was an All-Star and everything like that, that just helps these younger guys—myself included—cause we see it and it makes us want to go out there and give everything we have for him."

    Boston will miss Irving and Al Horford, and the roster may be less talented now than it was a season ago. But if the Celtics achieve their goal of operating as more of a collective, it could result in a better outcome (read: deeper playoff run) than they produced in 2019.

Brooklyn Nets: Preserve Harmony

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    The Brooklyn Nets are in the unusual position of not having to deliver results after a transformative offseason. With Kevin Durant unlikely to play at all this year, nobody expects Brooklyn to contend. That'll change when KD returns, but for now, the Nets have a kind of one-off free pass.

    To enter the contender conversation in 2020-21, Brooklyn will have to survive a potentially fraught 2019-20 with chemistry intact. And yes, now that you mention it, Kyrie Irving is on this team.

    How do the Nets prevent a recurrence of what Irving himself admitted was a failure to lead in Boston last year? How will Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, two young talents who played well enough last year to warrant larger roles, adjust to Irving's ball-dominant presence and mercurial personality? Will a rift like the one that separated Irving from Jaylen Brown and other young Celtics open in Brooklyn?

    How might Jarrett Allen respond to falling behind DeAndre Jordan on the depth chart, especially considering Allen outperformed Jordan (who may only be on the roster because Durant and Irving made it a condition of joining up) last season?

    If the Nets reach the playoffs without fracturing internally, they'll be in a better position to welcome Durant back onto the floor a year from now when serious expectations replace the expired free pass. 

Charlotte Hornets: Practice Mindfulness

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    Mindfulness is all about staying in the present and acknowledging your own thoughts and feelings without judging them. You accept what's happening, note it and stay settled. It helps reduce stress and mitigate feelings of anxiety.

    The Charlotte Hornets head into the 2019-20 season led by "marquee" acquisition and Kemba Walker replacement Terry Rozier, a player who'll undoubtedly lead the team in usage despite never finishing a season with a field-goal percentage north of 40 percent. Unsurprisingly, the Hornets are a common betting favorite for most losses in the league.

    Lacking a young cornerstone, short on easily tradable contracts and run by a brain trust that claimed to be unprepared for Walker's earning power-expanding spot on an All-NBA team last season, Charlotte will find itself in extreme need of mental centering.

    Anyone know any good guided meditation apps? The Hornets have a season of anguish and stress to transcend.

Chicago Bulls: Make the Dance

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    Even in the perennially inferior East, setting a postseason goal is a big ask for a Chicago Bulls team that won just 22 games a year ago. Ten-win year-over-year improvements are tough, and the Bulls might need a bump of 18 or so to give themselves a chance.

    Still, why not aim high?

    The postseason is an explicit goal, according to head coach and wind-sprint aficionado Jim Boylen. 

    You don't add 31-year-old veteran Thaddeus Young on a three-year, $43.6 million deal if you're planning to let Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. get obliterated on both ends as a learning experience. Young, a defensive stalwart who should have gotten more serious Defensive Player of the Year consideration last season, gives Chicago a seasoned leader who just so happens to make sense up front alongside either Markkanen or Carter.

    Chicago has more quality across the roster than it had at any point last year. Tomas Satoransky stabilizes the backcourt, Zach LaVine could easily approach 28 points per game, Otto Porter Jr. defends passably and makes open threes, and the frontcourt has the three aforementioned bigs, all of whom can help make a playoff push.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Get Something Good for Kevin Love

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    It's no fun to set a transactional goal. But when you're dealing with a team that would be lucky to win 27 games (and might not want to reach that total in the first place, for lottery reasons), the typical win-loss aspirations don't really apply.

    Sure, it'd be great if Collin Sexton and Darius Garland showed flashes of stardom, but the jury's out on the former and hasn't even been impaneled yet on the latter. Plus, it'll be a while before we have any sense of how either of the Cavs' young guards fits on a winner.

    That leaves Kevin Love, who'd make a lot of sense on the Portland Trail Blazers or Utah Jazz (and none in Cleveland), as the centerpiece of the season.

    Land a first-rounder or some young talent with bad money attached in a trade and the Cavs' rebuilding process gets a boost. Fail to move him for anything of value and Cleveland inches closer to getting nothing of consequence for the ill-advised four-year, $120 million extension it handed Love in 2018.

Dallas Mavericks: Prove the Pairing Works

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    The season dawns with some level of uncertainty for all 30 teams, but everything about the Dallas Mavericks' 2019-20 outlook is theoretical. That's because the Mavs' vaunted duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, upon whom the fate of the organization depends, have never played together.

    The upcoming campaign, then, will be about proving the pairing works, figuring out what complementary pieces fit best around it and getting a sense of how realistic it is to expect the KP-Luka tandem to eventually drive a contender.

    Dallas is part of a crowded field vying for one of the last playoff spots in the West, and reaching the postseason would certainly get the post-Dirk Nowitzki era off to a promising start. But the greater accomplishment would be Doncic and Porzingis validating their status as a top one-two punch in the league.

Denver Nuggets: Abandon All Excuses

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    Even if losing Game 7 of the conference semifinals at home to the Portland Trail Blazers was a disappointment, the Denver Nuggets still had a reasonable excuse for their 2019 elimination: They were young, led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, neither of whom had seen playoff action before.

    Jokic thrived in 14 postseason games, averaging 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists, and Murray had his moments. For those two and the organization as a whole, inexperience is no longer an explanation for failure. The training wheels are off now, and a Nuggets team that has improved its win total for four straight seasons should gun for the West's top seed and a Finals appearance.

    Those may very well have been the Nuggets' internal goals last season, but they pursued them while knowing (if only subconsciously) nobody was going to lambast them for falling short. They weren't supposed to contend quite yet. Their window, propped a little wider than most because of the youth of the core, is open now.

    The time for excuses is finished, and the Nuggets have to embrace that outlook to reach their potential.

Detroit Pistons: Find Hope Outside of Blake Griffin

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    The Detroit Pistons may or may not make the playoffs for a second straight season. Chances are, Blake Griffin will have more to do with determining the result of that coin-flip chance than anyone else on the roster. He grew into a complete inside-out offensive threat last year, playmaking and scoring at high volume while keeping the Pistons afloat when nobody else could.

    He'll need more help this time.

    Luke Kennard must become more of a weapon off the bounce in his third season; maybe Griffin can explain how to become an offensive hub overnight. A knockdown shooter with his feet set, Kennard has shown signs of a more complete game. If he displays those more consistently this year, it'll give the Pistons some hope for their post-Griffin future.

    Andre Drummond can opt out of his contract and hit free agency in 2020, and Griffin has the same opportunity the following summer. With Reggie Jackson headed for the unrestricted market after this season (don't bank on the Pistons retaining him), the key figures in Detroit's current makeup all appear to be short-timers.

    Someone has to emerge as a next-era option. Otherwise, one of the most mediocre organizations in recent history—the Pistons have finished between eighth and 12th in the East each of the last 11 seasons—will stay that way.

Golden State Warriors: Shut Everyone Up

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    The Golden State Warriors cannot expect to win a championship this season, a departure from the prohibitive-favorite mindset they've embraced for a half-decade. A team that had to manufacture doubts about its dominance now faces a few real ones.

    Draymond Green is predictably unbothered.

    Still, the absences of Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson (for most or all of the season) mean the Warriors will have to fight for a playoff spot. Light on wing defense and frontcourt shooting, short of a few key experienced minds and superstar scorers, Golden State will rely on an unleashed Stephen Curry and a defiant Green to prove the dynasty is on hiatus and not terminated.

    The mental shift required will be more significant than it may seem.

    For most of their run, the Warriors fought complacency, generally battling it to a draw until besting it come playoff time. Now, the talent buffer is gone, and the slightest slip in focus from a thin roster could be disastrous.

    Golden State's goal should be proving it still belongs among the league's elite, something most observers no longer believe.

Houston Rockets: Make It Work

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    Apply the above directive however you like and it'll make sense for the Houston Rockets.

    Russell Westbrook and James Harden, two of the highest-usage offensive players in history, playing together?

    Make it work.

    Letting Harden get his numbers and push for another MVP while somehow getting him the rest he needs to hold up during a playoff run?

    Make it work.

    Adopt a less predictable style while still embracing an approach that has produced eye-popping scoring numbers in recent years?

    Make it work.

    Navigate a lame-duck coaching situation, avoid the luxury tax and prove the Westbrook addition was more calculated gamble than desperate prayer? All at once?

    Make it work.

    We're not allowed to list a championship as a goal in this exercise. But in the unlikely event Houston makes all that work, there's a good chance it'll wind up with one.

Indiana Pacers: See a Healthy Victor Oladipo

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    Though not expected to see game action until December or January, Victor Oladipo did enough on the first day of Indiana Pacers training camp to inspire some awe.

    "It looks like he never left," teammate Domantas Sabonis told J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star.

    The Pacers have several big-picture concerns: melding Myles Turner and Sabonis into a functional starting tandem, figuring out whether TJ Warren and Jeremy Lamb can fill the scoring void left by Bojan Bogdanovic and determining Malcolm Brogdon's fitness for more time at the point, to name three. 

    Nothing matters as much as getting Oladipo back in form following last January's ruptured quad.

    To achieve that goal, Indiana must be cautious in its handling of a player who may have returned too soon from the right knee soreness that cost him 11 games in November and December.

    The Pacers may still be a playoff team if Oladipo is out beyond January or if he's not the 2017-18 All-NBA version of himself when he comes back. But Indy won't sniff its ceiling—this year or in the more distant future—if he can't eventually return as its anchoring star.

Los Angeles Clippers: Hit the Playoffs Healthy

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    Sure to top many preseason power rankings and a regular presence in the title conversation, the retooled Los Angeles Clippers are among the few teams for whom failing to win a title would constitute a disappointment.

    For that reason, health matters more for them than almost any other team. Their two new stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are good enough to haul the Clippers to a championship, but only if their respective health situations are handled carefully.

    The Clips' exceptional depth (with a projected second unit that could include Lou Williams, Rodney McGruder, Maurice Harkless, JaMychal Green and Montrezl Harrell) should allow them to ease George, who had offseason surgery on both shoulders, back into action at their leisure.

    Leonard played just 60 games with the Toronto Raptors last year, and though he told reporters he feels "way better" now than when he started camp last October, L.A. will almost certainly give him as much rest as the Raptors did.

    Despite some new key pieces, fit is hardly a question in Los Angeles. This was a roster already equipped with role-fillers well suited to supporting stars. There's also little doubt about the Clippers having enough talent to reach the Finals. All that matters is making sure that talent—Leonard and George, particularly—is in top form six months from now.

Los Angeles Lakers: Help LeBron James Win MVP No. 5

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    Consider all that must happen for LeBron James to become just the fourth player with five MVP awards.

    The Los Angeles Lakers would almost certainly need at least 50 wins and a top-three finish in the West; Russell Westbrook is the only MVP since 1982 to play for a team that won fewer than 50 games. In order to reach the requisite team-success threshold, the Lakers will have to defend, get enough shooting from their role players and, obviously, enjoy good fortune on the health front.

    James, of course, also has to prove his prime years aren't quite expired. With the longest offseason recuperative period he's had in over a decade, it's not hard to imagine him entering his 17th season refreshed and ready.

    Basically, if James wins MVP in the spring of 2020, it all but guarantees the Lakers have had a fantastic season, one that delivered on the hype in ways James' first L.A. campaign didn't.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant Leads the League in Turnovers

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    Over the last dozen years, four different players have led the NBA in total giveaways: Steve Nash (twice), Russell Westbrook (three times), John Wall (twice) and James Harden (five times).

    Sure, turnovers are objectively bad. But look at those names. That's company the Memphis Grizzlies should want rookie point guard Ja Morant to keep.

    A high turnover total, while damaging, is also a clear predictor of future success. It suggests ample playing time, a high-usage role, aggression, a tolerance for risk and, more than anything else, that the player allowed to stay on the floor despite so many negative plays must be contributing enough positives to make the tradeoff worthwhile.

    There's also something to the notion of allowing a promising rookie to make mistakes now so he doesn't commit the same ones later. With the Grizzlies likely to finish as one of the two worst teams in the West, Morant has a perfect low-stakes environment for a whole lot of trial and error.

    If Morant leads the league in turnovers, he'll be the first rookie to do so since Westbrook a decade ago. Things turned out pretty well for Russ, and the Grizzlies should be hoping Morant follows suit.

Miami Heat: Reel in That 2nd Star

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    The Miami Heat are short on tradeable first-rounders (the earliest they can send one out is 2025), but they've got everything else necessary to deal for a second star. Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard represent over $30 million in expiring salary, and any team with a veteran difference-maker to swap would salivate over the chance to get Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo or Derrick Jones Jr. on their current deals.

    The Heat are unlikely to move any of those three players, but you get the idea: They can enter trade negotiations confident in their assets.

    Jimmy Butler, acquired via sign-and-trade from the Philadelphia 76ers this past summer, felt like the first move in a two-step process. Whether it's Chris Paul or some other established (and handsomely compensated) name, Miami seems primed for another addition.

    The Heat have an outside shot at finishing third in the East as it is, but slotting in another star alongside Butler would give them a puncher's chance against anyone in a playoff series. These last few seasons of depth and non-star-driven rosters have felt off-brand in Miami. The Butler move signaled a recommitment to star-chasing, and the Heat should ramp up that pursuit.

Milwaukee Bucks: Keep Giannis Happy

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo cannot become a free agent until 2021. Yet because we're obligated to fixate on the possibility of Superstar X leaving Small-Market Team Y every year, the reigning MVP's future with the Milwaukee Bucks is a hot topic.

    So, even with the Bucks poised to chase another 60 wins and perhaps advance to the Finals after falling short last year, some amount of focus—ours, Milwaukee's and maybe even Antetokounmpo's—will remain on the more distant future.

    The Bucks will offer Antetokounmpo a maximum five-year extension at their first opportunity this coming summer. If they want to up the chances of him signing, they'll have to do everything they can to keep their resident superstar happy.

    That starts with winning, but Milwaukee shouldn't rule out signing some distant Antetokounmpo cousins to G-League deals and constructing a giant pneumatic tube system with which to transport its superstar directly to and from the practice facility. Nobody wants to walk outside during a Milwaukee winter.

    Whatever Giannis wants, Giannis gets. That's the best way for the Bucks to make sure they keep the most important member of their entire organization.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Remove All Doubt About Karl-Anthony Towns

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    Karl-Anthony Towns has been glitteringly productive from the moment he entered the NBA, throwing up 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in 82 appearances as a rookie four years ago. He's only gotten better from there, capping the 2018-19 season with averages of 24.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists on a 51.8/40.0/83.6 shooting split.

    He's the most complete offensive big man in the league and should be among the favorites for this year's scoring title.

    Towns also has just one career playoff win, and his Minnesota Timberwolves are a combined 21 games under .500 during his tenure with the team. That's not all on Towns; Minnesota's organizational history of poor drafting, shoddy player development, ill-advised spending and generally haphazard management bears the brunt of the blame.

    Still, for someone with such transcendent skills, there remains some question about Towns' ability to elevate the players around him. The great ones can drag a team to more wins than its talent suggests should be possible.

    The Wolves are playoff longshots. But if the 2019-20 season winds down with Towns' phenomenal performance keeping them in the postseason mix, that'll go in the books as a huge win.

New Orleans Pelicans: Figure out What to Do with Zion Williamson

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    The development of any young player is fluid, so the New Orleans Pelicans shouldn't expect to be sure how, exactly, to best deploy Zion Williamson after just one season. Hopefully, though, they'll form some rough idea of where and how he'll be best utilized.

    Defensively, Williamson's hulking frame and balletic feet should allow him to guard anyone, anywhere. The other end is the tricky one.

    Should he punish defenses as a rolling 5 in four-out looks? Can he overcome a shaky jumper and punish teams who ignore him off the ball by cutting and screening effectively? Is he ultimately more of an on-ball weapon, where his downhill drives, switch-killing post-up potential and developing vision would attract the focus of all five opposing defenders?

    All these options illustrate the breadth of Williamson's potential, but they also bring the specter of choice paralysis into the picture. With so many possibilities, how will head coach Alvin Gentry ever be sure he's optimally deploying his prized rookie?

    To Gentry's credit, he's taking care not to overwhelm Williamson, an admitted overthinker, with too many responsibilities early in camp. Hopefully, by the end of the season, New Orleans will know where Williamson works best.

New York Knicks: Stay out of the News

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    Given the size of their market, the rabidity of their fan base and the frequency with which they make newsworthy missteps, the New York Knicks will have a hard time keeping a low profile this season.

    But wouldn't it be nice, just for a change, if they made it through 2019-20 without, say, broadcasting their grand (and later unfulfilled) free-agency aims? Or if the key point of focus was RJ Barrett's gradual development, rather than, oh, I don't know, fans getting banned by ownership?

    This is an unrealistic goal, but it's one worth pursuing.

    The Knicks just emerged from an offseason of vast free-agent opportunity with a handful of mid-tier forwards and some journeyman wings. If they ever want to attract the kind of talent necessary to truly transform the franchise, they need to become less of a circus and more of an unassuming accounting firm.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Complete the Dismantling Process

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    If the Oklahoma City Thunder get full seasons from Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, if Andre Roberson returns after more than a year off in good health and if Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo take steps forward, the playoffs are a legitimate possibility. But if OKC wanted to push for another middling seed and subsequent elimination, it probably wouldn't have swapped out its two biggest stars from last season.

    The Thunder's run of success—nine playoff trips and an average of 51.5 wins over the last 10 seasons—stemmed from its hits in the draft. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were homegrown, a necessity for a free-agency landing spot most players would just as soon fly right over.

    Oklahoma City is clearly embracing that approach again, as evidenced by the trove of first-rounders it scored in deals sending out Paul George, Westbrook and Jerami Grant. By pursuing trades for Paul, Gallinari, Roberson and Steven Adams, the Thunder should try to build their pick pile even higher.

Orlando Magic: Prove That Closing Run Was Real

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    Winners in 14 of their final 20 games of the 2018-19 regular season, the Orlando Magic (playoff defeat notwithstanding) ended last year with reason to be optimistic about their future. A shortened rotation, incremental growth from Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac and the breakthrough efforts of All-Star Nikola Vucevic made it seem like they had taken a significant step.

    Then again, we're only dealing with a 20-game sample. And Orlando's opponents shot a league-worst 31.7 percent from deep during that stretch, which introduces a strong whiff of luck into the analysis.

    The Magic acted as if that closing surge reflected the team's true talent, re-upping Vucevic on a new deal and keeping the entire rotation intact, save for the addition of veteran Al-Farouq Aminu. It was an offseason that emphasized continuity. Framed another way, Orlando's summer was a wager on the legitimacy of those final 20 games.

    It needs to win that bet.

Philadelphia 76ers: Lead the League in Defensive Efficiency

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    Last year, the Philadelphia 76ers' defensive efficiency was right in line with the top-ranked Bucks whenever Joel Embiid played. Without him, the defensive rating dipped to 20th.

    Just keep Embiid on the floor for every minute of every game and the team will field the league's top defense in 2019-20. Problem solved.

    Even if we weren't in the era of load management, and even if Embiid had a cleaner health history, that approach wouldn't fly. Fortunately, the Sixers have the personnel—and the size; oh, do they ever have the size—to rank atop the NBA in stinginess without asking for 3,936 minutes from their star center.

    By adding Josh Richardson and Al Horford to a first unit that already included Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, Philly projects to have the bulkiest, rangiest starting five in the league. Richardson, 6'6" with a 6'10" wingspan, will be their least physically imposing starter. 

    There are questions beyond that group. Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle must realize their potential on D, and there will be sieves in the rotation (Mike Scott) that need hiding.

    Still, if the Sixers hit this goal, it'll mean they got mostly healthy seasons from their key players and committed to leveraging their bulk to great effect. For a contender that might struggle to find offensive flow at times, a dominant defense is a must.

Phoenix Suns: Answer the Cornerstone Question

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    There's only one important question for the Phoenix Suns this season: Are Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton good enough to make this organization relevant again?

    The Suns are going to be bad. Maybe not "19 wins and no hope after October" bad, but bad enough that it'll still be difficult to gauge how much of an impact Booker and Ayton can make on a winner. Now, if those two improbably turn the Suns into a fringe playoff threat in their age-23 and age-21 seasons, respectively, Phoenix will have its answer.

    Booker must do more than pile up (admittedly impressive) individual stats, and Ayton's grasp of defensive positioning has to improve. The jump from horrendous to satisfactory defense is a tough one, but both need to make it—or at least show they're putting in the effort.

    The Suns would certainly prefer to answer the cornerstone question in the affirmative, especially since they're already max-level committed to Booker. But clarity of any kind will be helpful. If Phoenix finishes the season with the same questions about Booker's and Ayton's fitness for lead roles on a competitive team, it might mean the next great Suns squad will have to be led by someone else.

Portland Trail Blazers: Post an Offensive Rating of 116

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    All we're asking is for the Portland Trail Blazers to post the highest offensive rating in NBA history.

    It's actually not as outlandish as it seems, though.

    The Blazers' 114.7 offensive rating last year (we're using Basketball Reference's calculation for this section) was third in the league behind the Warriors and Rockets and the 14th-highest of all time. With offense trending up over the last several seasons, it's fair to expect somebody to top Golden State's record 115.9 from last season.

    The Blazers may need to score at a historic pace to avoid backsliding from the 53 wins they amassed in 2018-19.

    Over the summer, they swapped out defensive mainstays Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless for, effectively, Rodney Hood and Kent Bazemore. They added scoring at the cost of size and stopping power in the frontcourt. A defense that ranked 16th a year ago will be lucky to finish in the top 20 this season, especially with starting center Jusuf Nurkic set to miss a large chunk of time.

    (And no, Hassan Whiteside is not a lock to be a positive defensive force. Blocks and defensive-rebound hoarding don't necessarily equate to quality defense. The Heat's defensive rating was better with Whiteside off the floor in each of his five seasons with the team.)

    To get anywhere near the championship level Damian Lillard wants, the Blazers will have to score. A lot.

Sacramento Kings: Make the Playoffs

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    New Sacramento Kings head coach Luke Walton, perhaps in a shrewd effort to keep the pressure off, downplayed the importance of a playoff trip, according to Jason Jones of The Athletic.

    "A lot of things have to go right to make the playoffs so to say it's all about making the playoffs or not being a success or not, I don't think is fair to the team, the fans or the players," he said.

    Walton isn't wrong.

    There will be plenty of other standards by which to judge the 2019-20 Kings' success. They could improve last year's 39-win total by eight or nine games and still miss the postseason. It wouldn't make sense to term that a failure.

    Yet the Kings, who haven't reached the postseason for an NBA-high 13 consecutive years, should set their sights on the postseason. Why not burden De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III with weighty expectations? If those two are going to be Sacramento's foundational stars (Fox is already there; Bagley has a chance to join him), then it's better to let them face the pressure Walton is trying to mitigate.

    NBA teams are increasingly process-focused operations, but the Kings are the rare case for whom it feels right to concentrate on a specific result.

San Antonio Spurs: Re-Establish Shutdown Culture

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    In the six seasons prior to 2018-19, the San Antonio Spurs ranked no worse than fourth in defensive efficiency. Last year's No. 20 ranking feels like a typo.

    Personnel always dictates how the Spurs play, though that trend typically defines their offense (when you've got mid-range shooters, you lead the league in mid-range attempts, for example).

    Last year may have been a case of San Antonio doing the most it could with subpar defensive talent. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge finished first and second in minutes played, and neither are known as stoppers.

    With Dejounte Murray returning, Derrick White benefitting from a summer with Team USA and DeMarre Carroll aboard to contribute savvy and effort in the frontcourt, the Spurs should perform better on D. Returning to their perennial top-four position may not be realistic, but a top-10 finish in defensive efficiency should get San Antonio back to the playoffs for the 23rd straight season.

Toronto Raptors: Bask in the Afterglow

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    The best way to avoid a championship hangover is to keep a light buzz going for as long as possible. That shouldn't be too difficult for the Toronto Raptors, who, after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, must understand they're not on the same title-or-bust level they were a year ago.

    That's fine. A ring always comes with a mandatory grace period. Throttling back is permissible, even when the roster stays the same. In this case, with critical departures, it's expected.

    Toronto is loaded with veteran short-timers.

    Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka are all on expiring deals, and the books are squeaky clean once their contracts end. That'll leave the Raptors with extreme flexibility that should make retaining Fred VanVleet (unrestricted) and Pascal Siakam (restricted in 2020 if he doesn't sign an extension before the season) easy enough while still leaving room to add more talent from the outside.

    The Raptors reached the mountaintop last season. They might as well enjoy the view before the next climb starts in the summer of 2020.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell Finishes in the Top 10 in MVP Voting

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    This is another one of those goals that, if the Utah Jazz achieve it, will indicate a lot has gone right for the organization. For Donovan Mitchell to finish that high, the Jazz will probably have to improve on last year's 50 wins and No. 5 finish in the West. 

    More than that, it'll indicate Mitchell has made the leap in Year 3 that so many expected (and didn't see) in Year 2.

    Rebuilt around the acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz have more offensive talent around Mitchell than ever before. Hopefully, that will reduce the number of times he has to bail out a stalled attack with a low-percentage look.

    The supporting cast might make things easier, but Mitchell himself will still be the main determinant of his own fate. He has to cut down his attempt rate from the non-restricted paint and must cash in on his catch-and-shoot looks, which should increase in volume.

    If Mitchell hits this new level, it'll make the Jazz a more balanced and dangerous contender than they've been over the last few years: a team capable of winning 60 games and truly entering the championship conversation.

Washington Wizards: Trade Bradley Beal

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    This is a little grim, but sometimes the most obvious and important goals are unpleasant. The Washington Wizards may not want to embrace the truth of their situation—that it's already past time to deal their most valuable present commodity in the interest of a better future—but moving Beal is still the right move. 

    Beal led the league in minutes last season, and the Wizards lost 50 games. He hasn't signed the extension that's been on the table for months because, wisely, he's not sure $111 million is enough to justify committing to...whatever it is the Wizards plan to do over the next several years.

    Beal told Fred Katz of The Athletic: "We know that this is probably gonna be a development year. It's gonna be one of those types of years. So, does Bradley Beal wanna be a part of that ultimately? And that's something I have to ask myself and something I'm probably still not done asking myself. So, I'm gonna use all my time until I can."

    Put in calls to the Nuggets and Blazers. See if the Raptors want to ship over some picks and expiring money. Do what it takes to get value for a player who'd be justified in agitating for a trade sooner than later.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.