B/R Staff Predictions for 2019-20 NBA Season

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2019

B/R Staff Predictions for 2019-20 NBA Season

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    NBA basketball is back. Soak. It. In.

    Bleacher Report recently broke down predictions for every major 2019-20 award, but with opening week upon us, it's time to really dig in.

    Who are the likeliest players to get traded this season? Is Chris Paul one of them, or will CP3 and OKC prove  BFFs? What should we expect from the new-look Golden State Warriors? Will the title really go through Los Angeles?

    B/R polled NBA writers to discuss these topics and a lot more with the new campaign on the horizon.

    For all the best NBA takes and conversations, download and subscribe to the Full 48 with Howard Beck this season. This week's episode features former NBA GM Wes Wilcox, who previews the biggest storylines of the upcoming season.

No Question About Kawhi-Paul George Fit

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    This isn't a James Harden and Russell Westbrook situation. Like the Houston Rockets' new tandem, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are high-usage forces with experience as top options. But that's where the similarities end.

    The Rockets have to suss out ways to get value from their stars when they don't have the ball, but the Los Angeles Clippers' new wings are both lights-out shooters. Leonard striped 40.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes in 2018-19; George was right behind at 40.0 percent.

    George, who might actually be best utilized as an unfairly potent "1B" threat, proved last year he's eminently comfortable as a floor-spacing weapon, firing off 415 catch-and-shoot threes. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were the only players to convert at higher rates on that kind of volume.

    George just thrived for two years with the cartoonishly ball-dominant Westbrook. Does anybody really believe he'll find it harder to spread his wings alongside Leonard?

    The Clips have two defensively dominant wings who can credibly check four positions, score at all three levels, run a pick-and-roll, get to the line and create their own offense in crunch time. It's true George and Leonard are somewhat similar players, but having two guys who can do absolutely everything is the opposite of a fit issue.

    Grant Hughes

Jimmy Butler's Heat Will Stay Jimmy Butler's Heat

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Miami entered this offseason with no cap space, yet Pat Riley still found a way to manufacture a complicated four-team, sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler. The deal had hardly settled in before Miami set its target on another marquee figure in Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, of course, ended up rejoining James Harden in Houston, and now Butler is primed for his Miami debut without another co-star alongside him.

    He spoke glowingly of the organization's culture as a significant factor in his free-agent decision. "To tell you the truth, it's the culture that I hear about all the time," he said, per Anthony Chiang of the Miami Herald. "The work that you put in every single day, the winning habits, the winning ways. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that? I was excited to have an opportunity to come here, to be here. But when I kept hearing about this culture, I was like, 'I need that in my life.'"

    This will be a season of adjustment for Miami—the official passing of the torch from Dwyane Wade. NBA players speak highly of the organization, Riley knows how to win, and you can't beat the location. But it may take a while for Butler to land a suitable co-star to push the franchise back into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.

    Butler's competitiveness has created issues at past stops, and Miami should assess his fit before making any other serious moves. However, the sides are in this for the long haul with Butler signed to a four-year, $142 million max contract.

    Jonathan Abrams

Pascal Siakam's Ascension Continues

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Does Pascal Siakam have another leap in him?

    The simple answer is "Yes."

    Putting a cap on the potential of a player going into his fourth year who has already improved as much as Siakam has would be silly, and Toronto rewarded him, signing him to a four-year, $130 million extension.

    His scoring over the years has gone from 4.2 points per game as a rookie, to 7.3 in year two to 16.9 in his Most Improved Player campaign in 2018-19. He has similar trajectories in rebounds, assists, threes and true shooting percentage.

    In 2019-20, it will continue.

    Last season, Siakam played over 2,000 possessions with Kawhi Leonard off the floor, according to PBP Stats. In those situations, he averaged 20.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 threes per 75 possessions, with a 61.4 true shooting percentage.

    Now, he'll carry that kind of responsibility full time.

    "Pascal will probably be our go-to guy," Kyle Lowry told NBA Radio (h/t ESPN's The Jump). A vote of confidence from the organization's all-time leader in wins over replacement player should go a long way, but Siakam's length, athleticism and ability around the rim will do most of the work.

    Andy Bailey

De'Aaron Fox Finds Another Level

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    De'Aaron Fox was the only player in the league to average at least 17 points and seven assists per game while hitting 37 percent of his threes last year, and he's also the only guy to ever post those figures at age 21 or younger. 

    Numbers aside, Fox developed a clear understanding of his role on the Sacramento Kings during his breakout second season. He became their engine, the sole reason they led the league in transition frequency, and embraced a leadership position on a young team. All this from a player who, following a statistically brutal rookie year, could have been forgiven for receding into the background, shadowed by self-doubt.

    Fox's speed will always give him an advantage, but as he develops subtler changes of pace, he'll flourish. He can be much more selfish than he was as a sophomore, and we should expect him to add a handful of points per game with greater aggression and foul-drawing savvy alone.

    His defensive tools—length, quickness and heady anticipation—seem certain to produce one of the league's top steal rates. There's no reason he can't contend for an All-Defensive nod.

    It might seem irresponsible to bet on Fox's second leap so soon after his first, but it's not like players (potentially great ones, in particular) just stop growing at the end of a season. There's no rule saying upward trajectories have to level off. 

    Fox arrived as a quality NBA point guard last year, but he won't be sticking with that status for long. He's about to depart on the road to superstardom.

    Grant Hughes

Sixers...a Finals Team?

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Sixers are going to be good this year. Really good. They're easily and clearly one of the top two teams in the East, and they should win around 55 games during the regular season. It'd be shocking if they don't advance at least into the playoffs' second round and surprising if they don't play in the conference finals.

    And this writer is picking them to make the Finals. 

    This is why assessing the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons pairing can be so difficult. The on-court fit is awkward, but can you really claim it to be worthy of concern while simultaneously believing the pairing is strong enough to carry the Sixers to the finals? 

    But there's a difference between being a really good team and a great one, between being a contender and a champion. The Sixers—and the Embiid-Simmons partnership—will ultimately be judged by their ability to win late in the playoffs. 

    The prediction here is that at some point in late May or early June, the weaknesses of the pairing, and specifically Simmons' unwillingness and inability to shoot from the outside, are once again exposed and questions about the long-term viability of the partnership are once again raised.

    Yaron Weitzman

Lakers' Search for Big Three Starts and Ends with Kuzma

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    The Los Angeles Lakers have a long history of winning championships, which may be why they were willing to give up so much to land Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans this summer. The one young prospect they were able to hold onto was Kyle Kuzma, who also happens to be an excellent fit as a complementary scorer to both LeBron James and Davis.

    Kuzma is an eager scorer, averaging 18.7 points per game last season as a sophomore. That was alongside a limited James (groin injury) and a mismatched roster that sputtered out at 37 wins.

    With all the attention Davis and James will command this season, opponents will have a difficult time also covering Kuzma. The 24-year-old forward is a quick decision-maker who doesn't like to dominate the ball (like former teammate Brandon Ingram, who wasn't as strong a fit next to James).

    As a rookie, Kuzma shot 36.6 percent from three-point range. He dropped to 30.3 percent last year, but expect his efficiency to jump significantly with a steady diet of open looks.

    If the Lakers struggle, Kuzma may be the only significant asset they have if they want to make a trade, but dealing Kuzma is more of a last resort. Instead, the team will probably look to the buyout market in March after the trade deadline to improve for a playoff run.

    Eric Pincus

Cautious Optimism for Fultz

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Expect Markelle Fultz to struggle offensively again this season while proving his worth on the defensive end. 

    Fultz's shooting looks smoother and more fluid while yielding the same unsightly results through four preseason games: 27.8 percent shooting.

    In his defense, Fultz isn't the only one struggling. After all, the Orlando Magic recently finished with a 34.9 effective field-goal percentage, per Cleaning the Glass, against the Boston Celtics in a 75-point showing.

    Despite his shooting woes, Fultz isn't costing the Magic yet, giving them a positive 10.4 plus-minus per 36 in addition to a net rating of 13.7. His 90.9 defensive rating would put him nearly seven full points ahead of last year's regular-season leader, Sindarius Thornwell (97.7).

    Unfortunately for him, that isn't enough to displace starting point guard DJ Augustin or 2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. "He's been our best defender," head coach Steve Clifford told reporters of MCW. "Defensively, there's nights when he's spectacular."

    Fultz will not pass Augustin, Evan Fournier, MCW or Terrence Ross in the pecking order, and Clifford has already made clear he is unwilling to expand the rotation: "We're not going to play 12 guys. We have good depth. We're going to play nine guys; some nights 10."

    Expect Fultz to win that 10th position behind supersubs MCW, Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Bamba. Fultz will show glimpses of what teammates are raving about in three-guard lineups but won't become a star in his first full season. 

    Preston Ellis

Harden, Westbrook On-Court Concerns Much Ado About Nothing

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    For three of the past five seasons, the Houston Rockets’ playoff hopes have been dashed directly by the Golden State Warriors. 

    Now that the Warriors’ dynasty is on the ropes, the Rockets have gone all-in on their championship quest with the acquisition of Russell Westbrook.

    Harden and Westbrook have both been spectacular as individual superstars in the NBA, but can two of the league’s most high-usage players play together effectively and be the best dynamic duo in the Western Conference?

    “James Harden is the best half-court player I've ever seen, honestly," general manager Daryl Morey said at media day. "And then Russell is maybe the best transition player, one of the best of all time. If you put those things together…now you've got something really special. We'll see how it all works out, but I think it could be really special.” 

    For the most part, the Rockets have been successful using head coach Mike D’Antoni’s steady diet of layups and three-pointers. But like Chris Paul, who was an engine of chaos in that system with his mid-range game, Westbrook will require the same latitude be able to go to his mid-range pull-up game and be a disrupter at and above the rim, especially in transition.

    The bonus for Houston, though, is that Westbrook is faster, stronger and more athletic than CP3 all with the same ability to get teammates involved in the lane and/or behind the arc.

    Harden will still be the offensive wizard he’s become as the Rockets’ franchise player, but he’ll likely have to acquiesce his primary ball-handling duties in place of potential spot-up threes when sharing the floor with Westbrook.

    If the Beard and the Brodie can agree to the push/pull nature caused by the intersection of their skill sets throughout the regular season, Houston can and will be a viable threat to win the title this year.

    Maurice Bobb

The Big Apple's Organic Market

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    What should we expect from the Knicks after a failed summer?

    They'll be bad but probably not quite as bad as last year (17-65). Maybe Julius Randle excels as a No. 1 option, and maybe some of the young guys improve, and maybe all those veteran forwards—Randle, Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portishelp nudge the Knicks up toward 30 wins.

    For the Knicks, this season is about figuring out what they have for the future. That means seeing if David Fizdale can be their Brett Brown and, more importantly, if RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Co. can be the type of players the Knicks can build around. 

    We've seen how the "let's put all our eggs in the free-agency basket" works for the Knicks. Now it's time for them to try the more organic route.

    Yaron Weitzman

Likeliest Coaches to Hit the Hot Season

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    LeBron James has always been tough on new coaches, the Los Angeles Lakers haven't exactly been paragons of organizational stability, expectations are high, and Jason Kidd resides just one seat over on the bench, steepling his fingers like Mr. Burns—metaphorically, of course.

    So yeah, Frank Vogel might want to tread carefully.

    Mike D'Antoni is a lame duck leading a team with egos, title hopes and the potential for thorny personnel issues. That extension talks "fizzled" twice over the summer indicates he and the Houston Rockets front office are far apart in their expectations. If Houston has a rough start, D'Antoni is in prime position to take the fall.

    Considering the losses that appear inbound for the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks, we should probably include Scott Brooks and David Fizdale in the hot-seat mix, too.

    And finally, the Chicago Bulls' Jim Boylen somehow survived a mutiny last year. That unrest could resurface if a team with semi-unrealistic playoff hopes gets off to a slow start. If that happens, his hard-driving approach seems like more of a problem than the solution.

    Grant Hughes

Likeliest Players to Be Traded

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Chris Paul is conspicuously out of place on a rebuilder, and the Oklahoma City Thunder wanted to flip him to another team as soon as they acquired him in the Russell Westbrook deal. Gag-inducing salary aside, CP3 remains one of this year's most logical trade candidates.

    Bradley Beal's two-year extension takes one of the more obvious trade candidates out of the running, but we've still got Kevin Love toiling for a go-nowhere Cleveland Cavaliers team. And don't forget Paul's teammates in OKC: Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari. The latter is on an expiring deal and could fit as a scoring power forward on just about any contender.

    Let's throw Domantas Sabonis and Buddy Hield into the mix too. Both could sign extensions before the season, but neither seems close to inking a deal. Hield is miffed enough to be dropping not-so-subtle Marlo Stanfield hints. Restricted free agency looms in 2020, and the wise move for both the Kings and Indiana Pacers might be getting value before the market dictates a price they don't want to pay.

    Grant Hughes

2019 Rookie Class? More Than Zion

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    The perception of the 2019 draft was that it lacked star power outside Zion Williamson. He is going to be an All-Star in his first season if he's healthy, and he's not just a dunking gimmick. The NBA's size won't catch up to him—the NBA must catch up to a 285-pound ball of explosion who can also hit defenders with crossovers, in-and-out dribbles and spin moves.

    But Ja Morant won't disappoint as the No. 2 pick, either. By midway through the season, fans will feel good about the class producing at least two stars. Morant is going to finish top five in the league in assists as a rookie. The Memphis Grizzlies will give him a green light to play through mistakes, and that will unlock his playmaking and passing skills. He'll likely struggle more from the field until his pull-up improves. In the meantime, bank on highlight finishes and over eight dimes per game that fuel De'Aaron Fox comparisons. 

    It won't come as easily to the No. 3 pick. Under the microscope in New York on a team without stars or shooters, RJ Barrett doesn't have the ideal setup. There will inevitably be stretches of the season that raise questions about his game and ceiling. Can he shoot? How well can he create his own shot? But Barrett still figures to produce at a solid rate for a rookie, and not just in the scoring column.

    He's going to generate buzz with his versatility and glimpses of facilitating, rebounding and defense. Barrett is also bound to draw praise for his competitiveness and fearless. He won't be a savior-type prospect for the Knicks, but by March or April, fans and management will still view him as a promising building block, regardless of whether he's consistent or the Knicks win games.

    As for the rest of the group, expect a heavy dose of serviceable role players. De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish will give the Atlanta Hawks shot-making and defense. Jarrett Culver will become a useful two-way role player for the Minnesota Timberwolves. PJ Washington will give suffering Charlotte Hornets fans something to talk about. Tyler Herro will show there is more to his game than shooting in Miami. Matisse Thybulle, Grant Williams and Brandon Clarke will add immediate value defensively for the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Grizzlies, respectively. 

    Nickeil Alexander-Walker will be the steal. His success during summer league and preseason doesn't appear fluky. He's actually going to put pressure on Lonzo Ball, whose lack of scoring could become frustrating. 

    Overall, dozens of rookies landed in suitable situations for their development and chances to play right away. This season will end with a lot of positive vibes surrounding the class. And yeah, Williamson will look as good as advertised.

    Jonathan Wasserman

AD Will NOT Follow in Dwight's Footsteps

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    Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Lakers were happy to give up all they gave to the New Orleans Pelicans (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, draft picks, etc.) to get Anthony Davis, though they face the fundamental risk that Davis opts out after the season to leaves for another franchise in free agency.

    The Lakers are confident history won't repeat itself—even with Dwight Howard's presence on the roster.

    Howard spent the 2012-13 season with the Lakers, also acquired in an offseason trade, but the year ended in disappointment, with Howard departing soon after to join the Houston Rockets.

    Confidence is an emotion akin arrogance. The Lakers may end up blindsided, with Davis leaving the team barren of prospects and draft picks. But that's a worst-case scenario, and if there's any reason for optimism, it's Davis' close relationship with LeBron James. The two share an agent in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports and, judging by social media and various public appearances, spend a lot of time together.

    That's something Howard never had with the team's former star in Kobe Bryant. They were barely on the same page professionally, let alone friends off the court. Also, James is clearly the Lakers' alpha, and Davis appears to be a more than willing beta (certainly more so than Howard was throughout his prime).

    As long as James remains happy with the Lakers' direction, it's safe to say Davis will fall in line as well and be a sure shot to re-sign next July.

    Eric Pincus

Don't Sleep on the Champs...

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    The loss of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency took the defending champions out of the obvious tier of contenders to repeat. In light of his departure, it's been an open question whether Raptors president Masai Ujiri would finally undertake the full rebuild he's wanted for so long or keep the roster competitive.

    After signing Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, it appears the answer is the latter. Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are still in tow, and that should be more than enough for Toronto to be a force in the Eastern Conference.

    Even without Leonard and Danny Green, this Raptors team is still deep, versatile and well-coached. Siakam took home Most Improved Player honors last season and, with Leonard out of the way, could be in line for an even bigger year. The Raptors still have a solid cast of role players, including Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.

    Think about the Indiana Pacers of 2017-18, who lost Paul George and remained firmly in the playoff mix and even took the eventual conference champion Cavs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.

    Thanks to Leonard's season-long load-management plan last year, this group has plenty of experience playing without him. Not having one of the league's best two-way threats drops the Raptors a notch below Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but this team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs.

    Sean Highkin

...if the Core Survives

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Beyond savoring a victory lap, why would the Toronto Raptors keep their core together?

    Their championship window was shut and boarded over once Kawhi Leonard left town. Their future is highly unlikely to feature Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, both of whom are entering the final seasons on their contracts. Even Kyle Lowry isn't necessarily long for Toronto despite inking a one-year extension.

    "A lot of the reason Toronto signed him to the deal [is] he is easier to trade under contract for next year at $31 million," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said.

    Toronto's 46-win over/under feels like this club's ceiling, in which case, why would the Raptors even play this out? Why not get a head start on the rebuilding process by flipping their win-now vets for future helpers?

    This franchise's floor is lower than you think. Toronto was minus-2.5 points per 100 possessions without Leonard and Danny Green last season, per Cleaning the Glass. Both are gone and only replaced by a healthy OG Anunoby and a couple of reclamation projects in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

    In other words, things could go south before Masai Ujiri even pulls the plug.

    Speaking of going south, 57.5 wins seems ambitious for the Milwaukee Bucks. Sure, they won 60 last season, but they caught nearly every break to reach that number and then watched Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic leave this summer. Our crystal ball also sees the Memphis Grizzlies (26.5), Minnesota Timberwolves (35.5) and New York Knicks (28.5) falling shy of their marks.

    Zach Buckley

Jaylen Brown, Three-and-D Specialist

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Kyrie Irving may be gone, but that probably doesn't mean more scoring opportunities for Jaylen Brown. Kyrie's replacement, Kemba Walker, actually had a higher usage percentage last season. Jayson Tatum is still around and hoping to bounce back from a stagnant sophomore campaign. And Gordon Hayward should be more comfortable another year removed from his leg injury.

    So, if Brown wants to distinguish himself and earn a big-time second contract, he may have to do it without a huge boost in his points per game. Instead, he can improve his three-and-D capabilities.

    Last season, the Celtics' defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was almost identical when Brown was on or off the court. And he finished 239th in defensive real plus-minus. In 2019-20, he'll become a legitimate lockdown defender on the perimeter. He'll also get plenty of opportunities to show it, taking on the opposition's best outside threat in a bunch of games.

    Three-point shooting is the other area where Brown can earn himself a few more dollars. In 2017-18, he shot 39.5 percent from deep, before falling below average last season. His free-throw percentages don't suggest elite shooting potential (the 68.5 percent he shot as a rookie is a career high), but there's no reason he can't get back to average or slightly above.

    Andy Bailey

CP3 in OKC

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    With minimal confidence, I offer a half-hearted whisper of a yes. 

    Chris Paul's trade market is so finite that it doesn't make much sense to predict otherwise. He's still a damn good player, but he's also 34, a virtual lock to miss 15-to-20-plus games and owed $124.1 million over the next three seasons (2021-22 player option).

    Which team is saddling itself with that much risk?

    The Miami Heat are the reflexive answer, particularly now that Bradley Beal is off the trade market after signing an extension with the Washington Wizards. But conventional wisdom suggests they'll need to struggle or Jimmy Butler will need to start grousing for another star (or both) to amply motivate them to make a move.

    Anyway, that's one team. Who are the other suitors?

    The Minnesota Timberwolves aren't win-now enough unless they're getting rid of Andrew Wiggins in the process. The Milwaukee Bucks intrigue, but they'd have to cobble together too many contracts for the money to work. The Denver Nuggets have the assets to go all-in on someone, but that someone was probably Beal.

    I'm playing the odds, and no, I'm not sorry. CP3 stays in OKC.

    Dan Favale

Time to Unmask Kyrie The Leader

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    We know what Kyrie Irving brings to the court as a point guard—something like 25 points, six assists and four impossible layups per game. But after an unimpressive exit from Boston last spring, we know less than ever about his work as a franchise player.

    In Brooklyn, with Kevin Durant sidelined, Irving has the perfect chance to prove his mettle.

    The Nets' supporting cast is not totally unlike the Celtics' last year—there are ascending players like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince and a sprinkling of veterans like DeAndre Jordan and Joe Harris. Much like last year, it's a pretty good roster that could be really good depending on intangibles like cohesiveness and positive energy.

    Those might be the areas where we can learn about Irving now. It's not about his style of play anymore; it's about what he can summon from a group ready to overachieve. 

    Leo Sepkowitz

Greener Grass for Lonzo

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    Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    Somewhat lost amid the 24/7/365 circus Lonzo Ball lived through with the Los Angeles Lakers: He wasn't actually bad.

    Ball's passing has not been oversold. He is a tremendous playmaker on the move. He takes a lot of chances, but passes gone wrong are the cost of transcendence in its infancy. His defense through two seasons has likewise been solid. He has the length and size to guard up and is an above-average rebounder for his position.

    Even his shooting has been more digestible than advertised. He's hitting just 31.5 percent of his treys overall, but he maintains his comfort level firing off the dribble. He's drained 44.9 percent of his step-back treys in two seasons (22-of-49). 

    To believe the grass will be greener in New Orleans is to believe Lonzo will be healthier and unburdened. And hell, why not?

    Shoulder, knee and ankle issues have cost Lonzo nearly 40 percent of his career (65 games). The upside: His issues are not recurring.

    Equally important, he won't be playing under the threat of a trade while on the Pelicans. They're in the early stages of a refresh, and even if Zion Williamson puts them ahead of schedule, Lonzo is at least a year away, when he's extension-eligible, from facing any questions about his future.

    Beyond that, it just feels like Alvin Gentry is the right head coach for him. His offensive principles cater to what Lonzo does best. His playmaking and defense are natural fits. The only semi-wholesale change he needs to make is getting, and staying, more aggressive at looking for his own shot.

    Dan Favale

Steph, Dray Never Better...

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    It's no secret the Warriors are out a few weapons this year. The West is going to be as competitive as it's ever been, and despite their pedigree, the Warriors are not a lock to make the postseason. That means Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are going to have to perform all season long. No more coasting second halves, sitting out fourth quarters or waiting until the playoffs to flip the switch. 

    Curry may well lead the league in scoring, which doesn't sound like *that* hot a take until you realize James Harden is coming off a season in which he averaged 36.1 points per game. If the Warriors are able to land in the top four of the conference, Curry could win his third MVP as well. 

    Green could average 10-plus assists, maybe close to a triple-double this year, running point while Curry and D'Angelo Russell rack up threes. He'll be back in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, and he'll have to be with the Warriors' immense lack of talent on that side of the ball.

    They have to put up points this year...a lot of them. Because the previously elite defense won't be there to buoy them.

    Will Gottlieb

...so Doubt the Warriors at Your Own Risk

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Over the past five years, the Warriors have been a juggernaut. That obviously changed this offseason, as they lost Kevin Durant—first to a torn Achilles in the Finals and then to the Brooklyn Nets in free agency—as well as Klay Thompson, who will be out at least through the All-Star break with a torn ACL suffered in the decisive Game 6 of the Finals.

    The Warriors then added D'Angelo Russell, and it's unclear how he'll fit next to Stephen Curry in the backcourt. There's already speculation around the league that Russell is earmarked for a trade at some point.

    This all takes the Warriors out of instant-contender status. Depending on Thompson's recovery, they could still be dangerous in April, which is what really matters.

    If there's one thing the preseason has made clear, it's that Curry is ready to take the reins of the franchise back after three seasons playing second fiddle to Durant. The last time Curry was the focal point of this Warriors offense, they won 73 games, and he put up arguably the greatest offensive season in NBA history.

    This Warriors roster isn't nearly as deep as that 2016 team, but if Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green are all healthy by the playoffs, Golden State has a chance against any team in a seven-game series.

    Sean Highkin

Zach LaVine's All-Star Leap

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Zach LaVine has set the table for an All-Star season, and though it will be a challenge, he should make it happen.

    It's easy to say he should be there, considering the East's lack of contending teams, but there are still great players he will have to oust. Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Bradley Beal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Blake Griffin, Kyle Lowry and other up-and-coming young players stand in his way.

    But LaVine should make it, and Chicago hosting the festivities should help.

    As one of 16 players who scored more than 23 points per game on better than a 57 true shooting percentage, we know LaVine can score like an All-Star. He makes it look easy. His ability to shoot threes off the dribble and get to the rim makes him an auto-mismatch. He is developing his passing game, has a knack for getting to the foul line and has put forth an effort to eliminate long mid-range shots, which should only help boost those scoring numbers.

    But for him to secure a spot, he'll need to round out his game and give better effort and awareness on defense, which he has shown a commitment to improving. Most importantly, he needs to lead the Bulls to meaningful wins.

    The Bulls had a sneaky-good offseason. The team has the talent to be competitive, and if LaVine continues to produce at this rate while proving he isn't just empty calories, an All-Star (and playoff) berth could be in the cards.

    Will Gottlieb

Luka, Porzingis Help Mavs Overachieve

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    It's going to be pick-and-roll city with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis teaming up. They complement each other perfectly between Doncic's ball-screen expertise and Porzingis' shooting and finishing.

    It's also going to look pretty. The question is how far can two players younger than 25 carry a team in the Western Conference? 

    Doncic is making the All-Star squad regardless. He just averaged 21.2 points as a rookie, and that was while shooting 32.7 percent from three and 71.3 percent on free throws, percentages he'll bring up. Porzingis' mere presence outside will also create more space for Doncic to work his off-the-dribble creativity.

    Porzingis may have to shake off rust, and it wouldn't be surprising if he misses some games here and there for load management. But he'll benefit from the attention paid to Doncic, plus passing skills that should lead to more open looks than he got in New York.

    They're also going to have an easy time building chemistry based on their particular games and backgrounds. 

    Dallas' new duo will surely bring the Mavericks back to relevance after a multi-season break. They'll obviously be near the top of every set of NBA League Pass rankings.

    Pump the breaks on automatically inserting them into your projected 2020 playoff brackets, though. It's more realistic for Doncic and Porzingis to make their postseason debuts during their second season playing together.

    Jonathan Wasserman

LeBron James, 2nd Banana

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    FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

    While most players don't even make it close to a year 17, 34-year-old LeBron James could somehow still be the NBA's best.

    With only one other player from the 2003 draft class still in the league (Kyle Korver, 38, on a one-year veteran minimum contract), James could actually be better this season following an extended summer vacation.

    After eight straight Finals trips that left him with about 15 weeks off before starting the regular season again, James has now had roughy 26 weeks (or about 42 percent more time) to rest, recover and recharge after the Los Angeles Lakers failed to make the postseason.

    The result should be a slightly rejuvenated James, both of body and mind now that the trade for superstar power forward Anthony Davis is complete. With apologies to Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving, Davis is the best teammate James has ever shared a court with.

    This could result in something we've never seen before: someone other than James leading his team in scoring. With a collection of role players surrounding them and no third option to force into an offense, either James or Davis could become a serious MVP candidate or defer to the other's campaign.

    Don't be surprised if it's James who takes a step back, given he'll almost certainly pass players like Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, Wilt Chamberlain and others to climb into the top 10 in all-time minutes played this season.

    James also knows Davis will be a free agent this summer, so keeping him happy en route to winning games should be high on the priority list.

    Look for James to play second fiddle for the first time in his career.

    Greg Swartz

Do Not Doubt Giannis

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Giannis Antetokounmpo already called his shot. You remember it. "Please, after this day, don't call me MVP," he said after winning the 2019 award, "until I win it again next year."

    We'd be foolish to doubt him. 

    Giannis now reigns atop every pundit's "best players" list, displacing the aging LeBron James. He averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks last season—a stat line never before produced in NBA history. His jumper can only improve. He's still just 24.

    And, well, the man clearly wants to repeat. 

    There's no reason to think he can't. MVP usually requires two things: gaudy stats and a gaudy win total. In Giannis' case, the first column is automatic, and the second is highly likely.

    The Bucks return most of the cast that won an NBA-best 60 games last season. Malcolm Brogdon's departure hurts, but the Bucks should have ample support with Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, George Hill and newcomers Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez. (The Bucks are also high on young guard Donte DiVincenzo.)

    With Toronto in transition, Boston weakened and the rest of the East in flux, Philadelphia is the only other dominant team in the conference, which means Milwaukee is virtually guaranteed a top-two finish and 50 to 60 wins. The absence of an elite co-star might become a concern in June. But it consequently gives Giannis a greater MVP platform—there's never a doubt who's responsible for the Bucks' dominance.

    No other superstar has a clean case in this season of Big Twos. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will split the Clippers' spotlight. LeBron James and Anthony Davis will do the same with the Lakers. James Harden's perennial candidacy could be undermined by a new power-sharing deal with Russell Westbrook. Steph Curry will put up worthy numbers, but the limping Warriors might not crack the 50-win plateau. Joel Embiid needs to play more (just 64 games last season), but the Sixers are already talking load management.

    If you want to make the case for Curry (returning to pre-KD usage!), LeBron (revenge tour!), AD (Making the Lakers Great Again!), Kawhi (Making the Clippers Great for the First Time!), Harden (Making Westbrook Relevant Again!), Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Damian Lillard, I'll hear you out. All are worthy.

    But look at the Greek Freak gripping that Maurice Podoloff Trophy with those Mr. Fantastic fingers. Does he look ready to give it up?

    Howard Beck

Larry O'Brien, Going Back to Cali

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Before diving into the whys and hows of this prediction (and all your requisite howls and grievances), can we just pause to appreciate how tough a call this is? I mean, really, really tough. And that's a wonderful thing!

    At least seven teams have a plausible shot at the title (and a few others can see a path if they squint). I can't remember the last time that happened. The Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz are all strong enough to win the West. It's a two-team battle in the weaker East, but the Bucks and Sixers both have the talent to win it all. 

    For sheer star power, it's hard to beat the allure of the LeBron-AD pairing. But I'm rolling with L.A.'s Other Team. The Clippers have the talent, the depth and the defensive prowess to win it all.

    Start with this: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the best two-way wings in the league, each capable of scoring, creating and defending at an elite level. Both can guard across four positions. In today's pick-and-roll-heavy NBA, that's an incredible luxury. Add professional pest Patrick Beverley, and the Clippers might have the stingiest three-man perimeter crew in the league.

    They also have the league's best bench duo, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell (who finished third in the voting). Throw in ace shooter Landry Shamet (42 percent from behind the arc) and defensive specialist Maurice Harkless, and the Clippers might have the best supporting cast in the league.

    They do have some concerns, starting with George's health. He's recovering from surgery on both shoulders and is expected to miss at least the first 10 games of the season. It might take a while before he's fully himself. The Clips are also a little thin up front, although Ivica Zubac has shown promise.

    As for Leonard and all the fretting over load management? I think that's behind him. It was necessary last season in Toronto, because he was still recovering from a leg injury. But he had a full offseason to train after leading the Raptors to the championship. There's no reason to think he'll need to sit 22 games again.

    Speaking of championships: Leonard has claimed two of the last six, and he's only gotten better along the way. So has his supporting cast. That 2013-14 Spurs title team was built on aging stars. The Raptors' secondary stars were either past their prime (Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol) or just emerging (Pascal Siakam). George, a five-time All-NBA selection, is 29 and firmly in his prime. He's the best co-star Leonard has had.

    And this is what separates the Clippers from the pack. They have two top-10 talents, each in their prime. Only the Lakers, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, can match that first claim, and they fall short on the latter count, with James nearing his 35th birthday (and a waning interest in defense).

    The other contenders come with bigger caveats. The Bucks have the reigning MVP but no true co-star. The Nuggets and Jazz are deep, but they lack an elite one-two punch. The Rockets do have two superstars, but it's questionable whether Russell Westbrook and James Harden are a good fit. The Sixers lost their best clutch scorer (Jimmy Butler) and are still load-managing their franchise star (Joel Embiid). 

    In a crowded field, it's the Clippers who have the best combination of front-line talent, capable role players, cohesion and experience. Which means the team that won July will be the team that wins next June—followed by the greatest Steve Ballmer celebration ever.

    Howard Beck

Total B/R MVP, Champion Predictions

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo: 5

    Stephen Curry: 3

    LeBron James: 2

    Nikola Jokic: 2

    Joel Embiid: 1

    NBA Champion

    Los Angeles Clippers: 6

    Los Angeles Lakers: 3

    Milwaukee Bucks: 1

    Philadelphia 76ers: 1

    Denver Nuggets: 1

    Houston Rockets: 1


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