Basketball. Is. Back. I’m ranking all 30 teams and slotting them into tiers. After looking at the teams eyeing the future on Thursday and teams at the crossroads on Friday, today we’re focusing on teams on the brink of contention. These are the potential playoff teams—teams who could become real powerhouses with one big trade or one big break.
That’s what makes this season so different. There are only a handful of teams in the West without any chance of making the playoffs, and virtually every team in the East could grab an honorary playoff spot as the 8-seed. It’s the first season in a long time when there’s not an overwhelming Finals favorite, or any clarity about which 16 teams will actually make the playoffs. So what happens in games during the long regular season will matter. We will get a season with twists and turns, more big trades, and lots of drama.
On Tuesday, we’ll finish this four-part series by looking at my top four teams in the league and season predictions. I’m offering up what I think will be the major talking points, story lines, or themes for each team for the next nine months. Let’s get this season started.
East Playoff Locks
13. Indiana Pacers
This Pacers squad is weird. Victor Oladipo played five-on-five last Saturday, but there’s no timetable for his return to competitive action, as he recovers from a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee. Oladipo’s health looms over Indiana’s season. Even when he returns, is it really fair to expect him to regain his All-Star talent? Then you have the Domantas Sabonis situation; Indiana explored trades for him this past week, but ended up extending him for four years and up to $85 million. There are a lot of new faces in town, and not a lot of continuity. Indy’s rotation isn’t even set yet. This puzzle may not fit together, but I consider them a lock because this is the Eastern Freaking Conference; it’s a joke compared with the West, and the Pacers have the talent to overcome Oladipo’s absence.
Malcolm Brogdon is the main reason. He’s best suited as a secondary option, next to Oladipo. But I’m interested to see what Brogdon can do when empowered to run more of the offense. He has long reminded me of Andre Miller, who once led the NBA in assists and was a longtime starting guard because of his reliable playmaking skill. Brogdon has the same “old man game,” and I’m confident in his ability to steady the ship. And he’ll make some spectacular plays while he’s doing it, like this sexy pass:
As good as Oladipo is, he doesn’t accurately make many one-handed cross-court passes like this one by Brogdon. The Pacers have weapons for Brogdon to pass to, like returnees Sabonis, Doug McDermott, and Myles Turner, and newcomers T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb. The defense will be worse with these new guys, though. Lamb is a blah defender and Warren doesn’t even know what defense is. And unless Sabonis gets traded, there are fit questions next to Turner when those two share the floor because of Sabonis’s perimeter limitations. Turner will need to be even more ferocious when he’s protecting the rim for this team to once again be elite defensively.
The Pacers need one of their young guys to pop, whether it’s Brogdon, Turner, or Sabonis. Otherwise, their future solely rests on whether Oladipo can return and make another leap. No guarantees of that.
12. Brooklyn Nets
For a moment, forget about Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Let’s look at the rest of this Nets roster that’s blooming with talent. Caris LeVert dribbles the ball like he’s changing time signature in a song. He herks and jerks, and stops and goes, until he sees an opening to attack. In preseason, he looked like the same emerging star that he was in the 2019 playoffs against the Sixers and pre-injury last season.
LeVert could be good enough to lead the Nets to the playoffs. They also have Spencer Dinwiddie, a jumbo guard with no fear of big moments, and David Nwaba, a brick-wall defender and bulldozer on offense. Joe Harris is one of the league’s best shooters. Taurean Prince is a spark plug scorer at forward. Jarrett Allen is already a ballsy defender and an elite interior finisher, and DeAndre Jordan looks like he’s trying again on defense. Garrett Temple is a steady two-way player, and Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa make for solid bench options.
OK. Now add Irving to all that. Irving gives the Nets a star who uses sleight of hand on the basketball court to break ankles and score at the rim. He’s one of the hardest players to guard one-on-one, and now has a strong supporting cast that could lead to a career-best season. LeVert and Dinwiddie can amplify Irving’s potent off-ball shooting, while Irving’s mere presence will make their games easier.
As good as D’Angelo Russell was, he’s no Irving, who’s far better at getting to the basket, drawing fouls, and pull-up shooting. Irving’s just a bigger threat, so I’m excited to see the type of looks Allen and Jordan get on the roll now that Irving is running point. Irving looks to be developing a solid chemistry with his bigs in Kenny Atkinson’s fast-paced, pick-and-roll-heavy scheme. This team will be a lot of fun to watch.
Then there’s the Durant factor. He’s out until very late in the season or next season while recovering from a ruptured right Achilles. Brooklyn can’t have true title aspirations until he’s back. There’s been a lot of talk about whether Durant will ever return to full strength following his injury. And there’s been an equal amount of chatter about whether Irving can ever lead a team again after his disastrous second season in Boston.
The Nets could really be special if everything breaks right. What if Irving is the good teammate he was during his first year in Boston? What if Durant returns full strength—or even near full strength? Irving and Durant are both elite, multidimensional scorers with playmaking skills. They have a track record of success at the highest level. They respect each other. The rest of the roster is deep with talent, some established, some emerging. If the Nets can get their All-Stars to align, they could be serious title contenders.
11. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are less talented than they were last season. Kemba Walker is taking over for Irving, and Al Horford left and was replaced by a crop of backup-caliber centers. They have some interesting young players in reserve, but youth historically doesn’t make for a consistently productive bench. I am bullish on the Celtics though because of their three forwards, all of whom can perfectly coexist with Kemba.
Gordon Hayward looked a lot more like his old self in preseason with aggressive drives to the rim and a quicker first step. I like how Brad Stevens used him in Horford’s old role by subbing him out early then putting him back in during the middle of the first quarter to run the second unit; playmaking is Hayward’s best skill.
Jaylen Brown showed off an improved knack for sharp passing, too. I remain skeptical about Brown’s scoring upside, but he’s already a very good player.
Jayson Tatum remains an impactful two-way player and is taking smarter shots on offense, which could potentially lead to a leap. Walker needs a go-to scoring partner, and Tatum is the most likely candidate. Boston needs Tatum to pop if they have any hope of being an actual contender. In preseason, Tatum was inefficient when scoring but the types of shots he took were encouraging.
Tatum would’ve pulled up for a jumper or settled for a floater before, but he’s shown more shake-and-bake getting to the rim. There was talk this summer that he was improving his attacking habits, and he’s walking the talk. He must keep it up. Shooting more 3s instead of deep 2s early in the clock is a nice bonus, too. The Celtics will need the points, especially considering their defense will be worse without Horford manning the paint. By the end of the season, Boston needs Walker-Tatum to become one of the league’s true scoring duos.
10. Miami Heat
Summer league and preseason obviously don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but I do find some value in them. Any professional game is part of the evaluation process. You can notice trends and figure out how a coach might utilize a player. You can also check in on the developmental progress of younger players. In the case of Heat rookie wing Tyler Herro, I feel confident in saying that all I need is summer league and preseason to know that he has improved since his time at Kentucky, and I was wrong about him in the draft. I focused too much on Herro’s defensive weaknesses instead of his potential offensive strengths, and I ranked him 27th like a big dummy.
Herro has been the best rookie not named Zion Williamson (or maybe Nickeil Alexander-Walker) ever since the draft happened. Shots like this give me goosebumps:
So many young players step into deep midrange jumpers, or stink at shooting from anywhere off the dribble. But Herro has clean footwork and a tight handle to side-step into 3s. It’s beautiful. Herro still has a lot to prove over larger sample size, but he’s already looking like an impact player on a playoff team. The Heat desperately needed floor spacing around Jimmy Butler, and Herro helps provide it with the added ability to do some stuff off the dribble. Butler will motor the offense, though; he’s a one-man show who can lead Miami to the playoffs as high as a 3-seed.
The Heat don’t need to overtax Butler. There’s a lot of talent on this team, from ball handlers in Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow, to floor spacers in Kelly Olynyk and Duncan Robinson, to a super switchable big in Bam Adebayo. The pieces fit together well in Miami, and Pat Riley could also get aggressive in the trade market to improve the team.
Miami Heat Salaries
|Name||2019-20 Salary||Guaranteed Years Remaining|
|Name||2019-20 Salary||Guaranteed Years Remaining|
Would Kyle Lowry make sense? What would it take for Riley to go after Chris Paul? What if Riley kicks the tires on another Thunder player, Danilo Gallinari? Gallinari isn’t a primary ball handler like Paul, but he can get buckets off the dribble. Gallo’s expiring deal would let the Heat retain their cap space for a strong 2021 free-agent class. One thing’s clear: Miami’s good now and can get better later.
9. Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn. Klay Thompson is out until at least the All-Star break, and possibly longer, as he recovers from a torn ACL. Tested veterans have been replaced by unproven youngsters. People around the league actually think the Warriors could miss the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. If Steph Curry can prove the doubters wrong and lead the Warriors to the postseason, he’ll have a strong case to win his third Most Valuable Player award, which would propel him up the all-time rankings.
Fair or not, voters typically love a good story. Curry would have a great one if he leads a team that replaced KD and Klay with D’Angelo Russell and some young guys to the playoffs. Winning it would make him only the ninth player ever to win at least three MVPs. Accolades or not for Steph, I’d bet on the Warriors being good. Russell has been a weirdly overlooked acquisition; he can both create for Curry and serve as a target. Draymond Green will play with a chip on his shoulder; if Thompson returns late in the season, and if the young kids on the team can make progress, this team has enough to compete for another championship. No matter what, just enjoy watching Steph; this year could be special.
Without Thompson and Durant, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has no choice but to lean heavily on Curry. In four preseason games, Curry averaged 26.8 points on 16.8 shot attempts in 24.4 minutes—or 39.5 points and 24.7 shots per 36 minutes. These stats are comparable to what Steph posted when both Thompson and Durant were off the floor in recent years:
Steph Curry Stats
|Without Klay or KD||Points per 36||Shots per 36|
|Without Klay or KD||Points per 36||Shots per 36|
The ingredients are there for Curry to outperform the historic numbers he posted in 2015-16: 30.1 points on 50-45-91 shooting with 6.7 assists on a 73-win team. Curry averaged 72.2 possessions per game that season; per the same amount of possessions, he would’ve averaged 33.7 points in the preseason. But as nice as projected numbers are, could Curry maintain them over a full season? The idea that he’ll be frequently double-teamed like he was in the Finals against the Raptors is probably overblown, but he will receive increased defensive attention. And can Curry’s body handle the heavy workload? Ankle and knee injuries have been a problem over his career, so durability questions persist. Even if Curry stays healthy and owns offensively, the Warriors defense is a question mark. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston helped stabilize that end of the floor, and now Draymond will need to cover for more youthful mistakes than ever.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum need a boost, and Portland has the necessary salary fillers (Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore) and the assets (Nassir Little, Zach Collins, future picks) to complete an impact trade. Dame and CJ are small, so it would make sense for that player to be a forward or a big. So far in this season-preview series, I’ve mentioned the following players as possible trade pieces: Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Marc Gasol, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Blazers fans would do cartwheels down the streets of Portland if Woj reports any of those guys are on the trade block. This is a year for Neil Olshey to go all in.
The Blazers should be a playoff team even without a deal. They have lots of talent, continuity, and a good coach. This summer, they improved their shooting by trading Evan Turner for Bazemore and retaining Rodney Hood instead of Al-Farouq Aminu or Moe Harkless. I’m also quite high on Anfernee Simons, whom I recently wrote about as a potential breakout player. Simons gives the Blazers the bench scoring spark they lacked.
|Lineup||Net Rating||Offensive Rating||Minutes|
|Lineup||Net Rating||Offensive Rating||Minutes|
|Dame and CJ||6.2||115.6||3950|
|Dame Without CJ||7.8||113.6||1558|
|CJ Without Dame||-3.7||106.2||1348|
|No Dame and CJ||-8.1||104.9||1066|
The margin for error is so slim in the West that one turned ankle or one losing streak can cause a team to miss the playoffs. But the Blazers are equipped to be good again, and they’re close to being great.
7. Utah Jazz
This is my favorite play from Utah’s preseason:
I like it because the five best players on the Jazz are all playing important roles. You have Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic both spacing the floor as knockdown 3-point shooters. Meanwhile, a trio makes the play. Rudy Gobert screens and rumbles down the lane as a destructive lob threat, then Donovan Mitchell sets a backscreen for Gobert then pops for a 3. Mike Conley orchestrates it all. Conley has long been one of the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll playmakers and scorers.
Mike Conley’s Pick-and-Roll Efficiency
|Season||Pick-and-Roll Points Per Possession||Percentile|
|Season||Pick-and-Roll Points Per Possession||Percentile|
He can hit dribble jumpers from anywhere, score at the rim, and create for others. In Utah, Mitchell will benefit the most. This preseason, 71.4 percent of Mitchell’s 3s were assisted, compared with only 58 percent last season. That’s good news: As a 40.1 percent shooter on spot-up 3s in his career, he’s much better when others feed him the ball. Conley will generate buckets for Mitchell, and head coach Quin Snyder will find more creative ways to get Mitchell the ball in more efficient positions to score.
Utah will have an elite defense once again. Their offense will be much better thanks to their new additions in Conley and Bogdanovic. Snyder is one of the NBA’s best coaches. They have depth and assets to get better. The Jazz are Finals sleepers, but maybe not for long.
6. Houston Rockets
James Harden’s step-back is the modern version of the Kareem skyhook. I love Harden with all my heart, and I don’t care that so many people hate his style. Deal with it.
Houston will only get even wonkier this year. In preseason, the Rockets attempted a ludicrous 59.4 percent of their shots from 3. They probably won’t maintain that shot distribution, but should at least beat last season’s 51.9 percent. Their offense should kick ass again, but I do have some questions.
1. Where’s the depth? They have a shallow roster with no reliable support at forward behind P.J. Tucker. One turned ankle means they’ll get crushed by forward-driven teams like the Lakers or Clippers. The same is true at center: If Clint Capela goes down, his aging backups—Tyson Chandler or Nenê—will have to combine to play more than 35 minutes. Good luck.
2. Will Mike D’Antoni survive? The Rockets fired nearly all of D’Antoni’s coaching staff, and he has only one year left on his contract. There has been no indication they want to retain him. I interviewed D’Antoni in August and he admitted that it’ll be a challenge to integrate so many new coaches, and since then he’s even openly joked about his own job security. I have doubts that D’Antoni lasts the season if Houston gets off to a sluggish start.
3. Does friction between Daryl Morey and Tilman Fertitta continue? Morey hasn’t been allowed to go over the luxury tax ever since Fertitta took over as owner. Houston previously didn’t re-sign Trevor Ariza to avoid the tax, then Morey had to simultaneously play limbo and Twister to avoid it before the trade deadline earlier this year. Fertitta’s actions suggest he cares more about the bottom line than winning.
4. How does Russell Westbrook adapt? In preseason, Westbrook looked like he was reading Houston’s sheet music, playing each note just as D’Antoni instructed. Here’s a play that illustrates Westbrook’s changing style:
Marc Gasol sagged off of Westbrook as he turned the corner, and then Westbrook backed off. I would have bet my life on Westbrook taking that pull-up 2 with 16 seconds left on the clock in past seasons. Instead, Westbrook drove and kicked it out, which resulted in an open 3. Smart play.
Westbrook is also taking analytics-pleasing shots. In preseason, he took only 11 midrange shots compared to 26 shots coming from 3.
Russell Westbrook Shot Distribution
But how long will this actually last? Will Westbrook fall back into old habits? And even if he does keep playing the way he’s told, how effective will he be really? Westbrook had nearly as many turnovers (21) as made shots (22) in preseason. He’s never been a reliable 3-point shooter and didn’t look any better in preseason. Harden is miles better than Westbrook as a playmaker. How long until D’Antoni turns Westbrook into a de facto off-ball player, and will Westbrook be happy playing that role?
I want to see Westbrook finally become a winning player. But he hasn’t changed in years, and it would be foolish to expect him to now. Fortunately for the Rockets, they’ll be great as long as Harden is on the floor because he’s so special. Maybe things click for Westbrook, too. And we shouldn’t rule out Morey trying to make an all-in move for a star like he tried to do for Jimmy Butler last season. Just as long as Fertitta approves. It might be now or never for the Rockets to make this work, or else the whole thing will blow up.
5. Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic brings so much joy to my life. I love the way he moves as if he’s wearing slippers in a bathroom. I love the way he passes the ball with the precision of Greg Maddux. I love that he’s chunky. Jokic is already one of my favorite players ever, and now he plays on a team that has a real shot of having a special season.
Look up and down Denver’s roster and you’ll find talent. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris perfectly complement each other, and they both work seamlessly with Jokic pick-and-rolls as both ball handlers or screeners. Malik Beasley is their 3-and-D backup and an emerging on-ball presence; someone will drop the bag for him as a restricted free agent next summer. Mason Plumlee is one of the best backup centers in the game.
The Nuggets are loaded at wing and forward. Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Will Barton, and Torrey Craig look like they’ll get minutes if Mike Malone’s rotation in their recent dress rehearsal was any indication of his regular-season plans. That means Michael Porter Jr. and Juancho Hernangómez probably won’t even play to start the season. It’s a good problem to have for Malone, as long as chemistry issues don’t emerge.
Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly could get clever with trades if he wants to consolidate talent and assets into one bigger piece. But more realistically, Denver will have to look within. At some point, Porter will have to be unleashed. At 6-foot-10 with hops, he showed off the same shot-creation flashes that made him a top high school prospect. He looked to be an attentive cutter, too. Perimeter shots didn’t fall for him, but he’s a proven potent shooter. Improving his defense will be the key to earning regular minutes, but once that happens he’ll offer a dynamic that could make Denver’s go-to players, Jokic and Murray, even deadlier. Jokic and the funky Nuggets are so close to breaking into the next tier.
Come back on Tuesday for a look at the final four: the two teams in Los Angeles, plus Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The season’s almost here!
This piece was updated on Monday afternoon with details of Domantas Sabonis’s contract extension.