Languishing in the middle of the pack is known as being in the NBA’s version of purgatory. The Charlotte Hornets have been residents here since 2014. Being just good enough to remain in the playoff chase the past five seasons, but nowhere strong enough to seriously contend among the league’s elite.
Back to back 36-46 finishes led to the ouster of veteran head coach Steve Clifford during the offseason. The team also offloaded future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard. Enter new general manager Mitch Kupchak and new head coach James Borrego with a mission to aid Charlotte’s ascent up the league’s hierarchy.
The Hornets will enter the 2018-19 season with major contributors up and down the roster that could hit free agency next summer. Adding this to a new front office regime while also incorporating a new coach could lead to some early turbulence and uncertainty.
Charlotte has an interesting mix of young prospects, a stockpile of draft picks and could have up to $51 million in cap space next summer. There are three ways to improve in the NBA – the draft, trade market and free agency. The Hornets are strongly positioned to take advantage in all three areas and could finally free itself from the grips of purgatory.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
There are specific things to like about the Hornets. Kemba Walker has turned himself into a lethal point guard despite being undersized. Malik Monk and Miles Bridges have upside and could become foundational players for Charlotte. They have experienced veterans who should make the team competitive on just about any given night in the Eastern Conference. But the ceiling is very limited for this roster. It’s hard to imagine Charlotte making it past the Celtics, Raptors or 76ers in the postseason and there isn’t much reason to believe this team can make any deals that substantively change this dynamic. This is an expensive roster that doesn’t have the upside to justify such a hefty price tag. This may be the season where the front office decides to start selling off its top players, even Kemba Walker, for prospects and other assets. To be clear, this team could easily be in the playoff mix this season, but making it past the first round seems less than likely.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Will we look back on the summer of 2018 as the one that signaled a changing of the tides in Charlotte? The outlines are certainly there, but there are also some contrary signs. The Hornets found new names for both their coach and GM positions, bringing in James Borrego and Mitch Kupchak, respectively. They became the latest team to move on from Dwight Howard. They also nabbed Miles Bridges in a draft day trade with the Clippers, plus are very high on early second-rounder Devonte’ Graham as a future piece. By the same token, the Hornets still have several pricey veterans on the roster, plus signed Tony Parker as a new backup point guard. All of which leads us to the elephant in the room, actually one of the team’s smallest players: Star Kemba Walker. Walker is in the final year of his contract before hitting the unrestricted market in 2019, and whether the Hornets will be able – or even willing, for that matter – to lock him up at his market price is the biggest question in Charlotte. If they get the idea the answer is no, will they look to shop Walker before the trade deadline? All eyes are on Kemba for a franchise that tops out as a middling playoff contender in the East.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Ben Dowsett
In his first year as a head coach in Charlotte, James Borrego has an opportunity to take the Hornets to the next level, which they haven’t been able to reach in the past two years. There is always playoff potential when you’re in the Eastern Conference, and with Kemba Walker entering the prime of his career, it’s more than plausible for it to happen this season. Promising upstart Willy Hernangomez is poised to have a breakout year, which will push Cody Zeller to step it up in order to keep his starting spot. Sophomore guard Malik Monk could be in for a big season himself. Veterans like Nic Batum and newcomer Tony Parker will help in the locker room. It’s only year one, but they’ll be hovering around the postseason race.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
Here’s how to describe the Hornets: To determine whether a team is good, all they have to do is compare themselves to Charlotte. If the team is better than the Hornets, then that team is good. If it’s worse, then that team is bad. That’s what the Charlotte Hornets are. The living embodiment of mediocre. Even if they wind up snagging a playoff spot, what would be the point? Outside of Kemba Walker, the roster is nothing special. The best-case scenario for them would be a competitive first-round series, and that’s if everything goes their way. Even with their coaching change and some intriguing young talent, don’t expect too much from Charlotte this season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Matt John
The Hornets are middling at best. That’s tough to say because the hiring of James Borrego was solid. They have some promising young guys, and there is enough talent on the roster to think they are good enough for the post-season in the East. The problem is there isn’t anything about the Hornets worth believing in. You want to believe Kemba Walker will break out (again), but historically he’s been injured. You want to believe the guys they invested huge contracts into are going to bounce back, but they too have either been injured or not playing to the level that got them paid. The Hornets are a mess, and it’s hard to put a lot of stock into a team that’s a mess. Maybe they bounce back … Maybe.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
First things first, Walker is the Hornets’ career leading scorer. The 28-year-old guard has missed only six games the past three seasons, has recorded back to back All-Star appearances and notched three consecutive campaigns averaging more than 20 points per contest. Walker, an unrestricted free agent next summer, is entering his prime and will be in high demand if he hits the open market. Trade rumors have been swirling around Walker for a year and it remains to be seen if the former UCONN product is truly in Charlotte’s long-term plans under Kupchak.
Walker will enter the season as Charlotte’s number one offensive option. Walker shot 31 percent from three-point range as a rookie in 2012, but hasn’t shot below 37 percent from distance the last three seasons, which is a testament of his offensive growth. The Hornets’ next leading returning scorer from last season behind Walker is guard Jeremy Lamb and he averaged nine points less in 2018. It’s safe to say as Walker goes, the Hornets go offensively.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
While their respective offensive games leave much to be desired, Kidd-Gilchrist and veteran center Bismack Biyombo have the raw talent to be defensive stalwarts. However, Kidd-Gilchrist ranked 32nd among small forwards last season in defensive real plus minus. Biyombo didn’t fare much better, landing at 73rd overall for qualifying centers.
Still, Kidd-Gilchrist is a very reliable wing defender with the ability to guard at least three positions. To put it simply, defense is Kidd-Gilchrist’s calling card and it remains his primary role with the Hornets.
Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum
Batum remains one of the most versatile players in the league. The 10-year veteran consistently contributes all over the nightly box score, but his ability to facilitate Charlotte’s offense also allows backcourt mate Kemba Walker to shoulder a heavier scoring workload. Heading into the season, Batum currently sits 10th all-time on the Hornets’ career assist list.
There has been talk of Batum moving back to his natural small forward position under Borrego and this could impact his playmaking, so it is a situation to watch heading into training camp.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
When the lead is five points or less with less than five minutes to go in regulation, the ball will be in the hands of Walker. Period. Walker averaged 3.4 points in these situations last season. The next returning Hornets player, Nicolas Batum, averaged 1.2 points.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams
Williams will never live up to the expectations of being the guy selected before point guard Chris Paul in the 2005 draft, but Williams has become one of the most consistent players in the league during his tenure. With Williams you know exactly what you’re going to get; a pinch of double-digit scoring, solid rebounding for his position and decent defense. In two of the past three years, Williams has posted 40 percent shooting seasons from three-point range, further showing his versatility. This season, assuming good health, Williams should surpass the 1,000 regular season games played mark and the 10,000 career points milestone.
Best New Addition: Tony Parker
Finals MVP. Four-time NBA champ. Six-time All-Star. Four-time All-NBA performer. What’s not to like about the signing of veteran guard Tony Parker this past summer? Sure, the Hornets aren’t getting a prime Parker and he has showed signs of aging in recent years. But Parker is very familiar with Borrego from their time in San Antonio together, which is exactly the type of safety blanket a new coach could use while getting fully acclimated.
With Walker’s impending free agency, Parker could also be used as a stopgap option if Charlotte elects to trade him before the deadline or loses him in free agency next summer. Unlike some other aging future Hall of Fame talents around the league, Parker has seemingly embraced his role as the old graybeard.
– Lang Greene
WHO WE LIKE
1. Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego
The Hornets have received criticism over the years for playing it safe when it comes to front office and head coaching hires. But Charlotte swung for the fences with their latest additions. Kupchak won four titles as a general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers and three titles as a player. Borrego broke the barrier by becoming the first Hispanic full-time head coach. Borrego served on the San Antonio Spurs’ staff the past three seasons but also was an interim head coach for the Orlando Magic in 2015. Both hires signal a new direction for Charlotte and it will be interesting to see if the franchise elects for a true rebuilding project or more of a retooling effort on the fly.
2. Stockpile of second round draft picks
The Hornets will enter the season with a payroll exceeding $120 million. With the team up against the salary cap, Charlotte has been stockpiling additional draft picks for leverage to acquire new talent. The team has six second round picks through 2021 and the needed flexibility to acquire younger and less expensive talent until the cap situation improves.
3. Malik Monk
Monk averaged 19.8 points per game in his lone collegiate season at the University of Kentucky. The guard, only 20 years old, had an uneven rookie campaign but showed flashes of potential. Monk’s upside is the most intriguing. In the Hornet’s final five games of the season, Monk averaged over 20 points per game. During this stretch, the guard shot 48 percent from the field. For the entire season, Monk’s field goal accuracy was just 36 percent. Monk has the potential to become a high volume scorer in the league. With incumbent starting shooting guard Jeremy Lamb headed to free agency next summer, Monk may have more runway this season to perform.
4. Miles Bridges
In a draft night trade, the Hornets acquired Bridges from the Los Angeles Clippers. In recent years, Charlotte’s draft history has been questionable. While Monk shows upside, forward Frank Kaminsky hasn’t panned out as the team once hoped.
Bridges holds the distinction of being one of the most explosive athletes from this year’s draft class and he has shown the ability to score, facilitate and rebound. With Lamb on his way to free agency and Batum’s past health issues, Bridges could be in line to receive extended minutes at some point during his rookie campaign.
– Lang Greene
Point guard and the wing positions are areas of strength for the Hornets. Walker is poised for another 20-plus point per game campaign and his third consecutive All-Star appearance. The addition of Parker gives the team much needed depth behind Walker and is an immediate upgrade over the departed Michael Carter-Williams. The trio of Batum, Bridges and Kidd-Gilchrist should also be productive and provides head coach Borrego flexibility in his nightly lineups.
– Lang Greene
Interior play and rebounding will be a struggle for Charlotte this season. Say what you will about departed center Dwight Howard, but he has always been a glass cleaner – averaging 12.5 in his lone season with the Hornets. The next returning rebounder in Charlotte is Cody Zeller who pulled down 5.4 boards per game in 2018. The next three rebounders were Willy Hernangomez, Batum and Williams. Kaminsky averaged 24 minutes per game and pulled down just 3.6 per outing.
The hope here may be to leverage the newly acquired Biyombo to assist on the boards, but offensively the team will struggle at times with him on the floor compared to Zeller. Biyombo has never averaged more than six points per game in his seven year career.
– Lang Greene
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling?
The Kupchak-Borrego era begins. But are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling? The answer to this question remains unclear heading into training camp. The team has enough talent to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, but they aren’t contenders by any stretch of the imagination.
The next few months will shed light on what direction Kupchak envisions for the franchise. Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The team could potentially lose their all-time leading scorer for nothing in return at the end of the season. This makes the prospect of a trade before the deadline feasible – at the very least.
Outside of Walker there are other free agency concerns brewing. Biyombo ($17M), Williams ($15M) and Kidd-Gilchrist ($13M) all have player options for the 2019-20 season and could become free agents. Parker, Hernangomez and Dwayne Bacon all have non-guaranteed deals for next season while Kaminsky could enter restricted free agency.
Charlotte has the luxury to pursue either path, but the team is up against the salary cap and another middle of the pack finish will result in another late lottery pick.
– Lang Greene
The NBA Ten Years Ago
With the season finally here, Matt John takes a look at what the NBA was like ten years before, and the implications it had on today’s league.
Here we go again!
Last year, this writer dove into what the association was like ten years before the incoming season. Now here we are again. We’re traveling back to the year 2010. Back when the iPad was first sweeping the nation, the economy was still in the toilet, and the Toy Story trilogy had concluded on a high note. Or so we thought.
Coming into the 2009-2010 season, it seemed the season itself wasn’t what everyone was paying the most attention to. What was on everyone’s minds was the upcoming free agency of one LeBron James.
Following Cleveland’s shocking playoff exit in the Conference Finals, there started to be rumblings that James’ days as a Cavalier were numbered. We all know what happened the following summer, which is worth discussing next year. At the time, however, Cleveland’s top competitor for James’ services was believed to be the New York Knicks.
Even though the Knicks hadn’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade, and were still washing off the stink of Isiah Thomas’ managerial tenure, they still had their prestige of being a legendary franchise by their side. Meanwhile, everyone else in the league was gearing up for an upcoming epic free agency period.
This may sound irrelevant now since we didn’t get our answer until after the season ended, but this hoopla all started circulating just before the 2009-2010 season started, and it would never go away. In fact, we saw several cap-clearing moves by teams in order to facilitate a potential deal for James, so how could it? As for the season itself, we still got one entertaining enough that James’ decision didn’t distract all that much.
Now last year, this started off by asking how well the team who won the championship in this specific year would do in the modern NBA. The Lakers repeated as champions in 2010 with almost the exact same team, so there’s not much use in asking if they could do it in today’s league, so we’re not going to start there.
Where we’re going to start, however, is the little change the Lakers made before they went on their road to repeating — Replacing Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest.
More Talent Does Not Equal Higher Ceiling
In the summer of 2009, we saw quite a few (declining) stars who went to new situations either to rehabilitate their career image and/or to get a ring. Ron Artest, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson all found new homes before the fall of 2009. It was so repetitive among aging stars that we were quite shocked when Grant Hill opted to re-sign with the Suns when contenders were inquiring about his services.
Because of this, the ceilings for all the teams involved — minus Memphis, who Iverson was employed with for exactly three games before his release — was projected to be even higher than they already were.
The Lakers were adding a 17-point scorer and a former defensive player of the year. The Celtics were adding a big who made the all-star the previous season that was coming off their bench. The Cavaliers were adding a reigning all-star and all-NBA center. The Magic were adding an electric 20-point scorer. The already elite teams managed to get better on paper.
But when they took the court, they weren’t. At least not really. The star-studded additions didn’t hurt the teams too much when their seasons ended, but they didn’t add any new dimensions.
Before coming to the Lakers, Artest was usually a focal point in the offense, so he was used to doing things his way. That’s what made him such an awkward fit in LA since the Lakers already had an established pecking order with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. They wanted Ron to be a 3&D wing, but he was used to being so much more. Artest would later hit two enormous shots in the Lakers’ playoff run, but he never really found his stride in Los Angeles.
Rasheed Wallace should have been a perfect third big off the Celtics bench. He had plenty of playoff experience, and his skillset alone should have made it easier for Boston to weather Kevin Garnett’s recovery following a devastating knee injury. Instead, ‘Sheed came into the season out of shape, played lackadaisical on both sides of the floor, and didn’t really try until the postseason came around. Though he gave his all when it counted, his frustrating play made him one of the least-liked Celtics in recent memory.
Of the stars that have been brought up, Vinsanity did the best for what his team asked him. Vince Carter was handed a bigger role than the previous two mentioned. He was supposed to fill in for the departed Hedo Turkoglu. He put up pretty good numbers, but he just wasn’t the same player at 33 nor could he do what Hedo did. Vince definitely tried, and he did an adequate job. In the end, Orlando acquired him just a year or so too late. Sadly, if it weren’t for Nick Anderson, these two free throws would have been the most infamous in Orlando Magic history.
As for Shaq’s time with the Cavs, well that deserves a conversation on its own, which leads us to our next topic.
Less (Shaq) Is More!
When Orlando proved in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that they could handle whatever LeBron and the Cavs threw at them, it was clear they needed someone who could stop them, or more specifically Dwight Howard, in their tracks. The recently resurgent Shaq could definitely suffice.
Shaq was coming off of his best season in years, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while also staying on the court for 75 games. Even at 37, it looked as if Shaq had some juice left after all. Sure, the Suns didn’t make the playoffs, but he looked like a valuable asset to have nonetheless. Cleveland thought as much when they traded for him and, best of all, he was traded for spare parts.
Unfortunately, he didn’t bring the same production as a Cavalier. In fact, Shaq was probably the last player you’d want on that team. The early James years in Cleveland were a team that relied on running the floor. A younger Shaq would have been just fine in a system like that, but the 38-year-old iteration? Not so much. He wasn’t useless when paired with James, but he could not keep up with him.
The Cavs still had the best record in the entire league, but they actually won five fewer games with Shaq than the previous year. In the end, it was all for naught because the Cavaliers never got their rematch with the Magic in the playoffs. A few months later, Shaq would leave Cleveland for the team that eliminated them — the Boston Celtics
As for Phoenix, many thought this was the end for them. Steve Nash wasn’t getting any younger, Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract was up soon and selling off Shaq for basically nothing made it seem like the Suns were Run-n-Done.
But that wasn’t what happened. With Shaq gone, Phoenix re-discovered its style. Nash and Stoudemire were free to run their pick-and-roll game again, while Hill, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley were excellent complementary pieces on the wing. Add Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, youngsters Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez and, suddenly, the Suns had an elite squad again.
With a fully healthy season from almost everyone, Phoenix worked its way to a 54-28 record, placing them third in the Western Conference. The team managed to get past the Trail Blazers in the first round, then stunned the Spurs in a sweep in the second round. The Lakers later stopped the Suns in a hard-fought conference finals.
It’s just amazing how, when you look back at both the Cavs and the Suns in 2010, Shaq, one of the greatest players of all-time, affected both of their seasons because of how badly he fit with both of them.
It’s also depressing to note that ten years later, the Suns have yet to reach the playoffs again.
About The Label “Future Star”
The 2009 draft had some studs coming out of the woodworks. They still have plenty of basketball left in them, but Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Blake Griffin have all done enough in their careers to earn a place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Even players below their tier, e.g. DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday, have had pretty impressive careers in their own right.
But, back in 2010, not much attention was put on any of those five. To be fair, Blake was out for the season was a fractured patella, while Harden was a mere bench player for the Thunder and Curry had a satisfactory rookie campaign on a crappy Warriors squad. Holiday was just a rotation player for Philadelphia, and DeRozan was highly regarded for his highlight-reel dunks and not much else.
When the 2009-2010 season came around, the players who were believed to be the future stars from the group were Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings.
Evans had one of the best rookie seasons the NBA had ever seen, averaging 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Those were numbers repeated only by the likes of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James in their respective rookie seasons. A team like Sacramento, who needed any kind of excitement after giving away Ron Artest to the Rockets the year before, needed someone who could promise a good future. Evans was exactly what the doctor ordered.
But sadly, that first year was Evans’ peak. Injuries sustained over the years halted his progress as a player and he never approached the status of a future star ever again.
In Brandon Jennings’ case, his status as a future star was even more short-lived. Jennings, who created controversy when he decided to forego college to go play overseas before the NBA, exploded when he first arrived in Milwaukee.
His first full month in the league, Jennings averaged 22.1 points on 42/49/78 splits, which included a 55 point explosion against the Warriors. Because of that, it seemed as though that Jennings would become the player we now see in Stephen Curry.
But, as it turned out, those numbers were just a flash in the pan. Jennings didn’t come close to matching those numbers throughout the remainder of his rookie season. He had a fine year, and even finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, but Jennings failed to match the hype.
No matter how good or bad a rookie may look, we never know a young player’s future until we truly see it for ourselves. It may sound odd now, but there was a legitimate belief that Evans and Jennings were future superstars because of their performances. We now know that’s not the case but, because of their stories, patience is now preached as far as player development and growth are concerned, for better or worse.
What Could Have Been
We talked about how Phoenix and Cleveland did during the 2009-2010 season. But did you know that they almost agreed to another deal at the trade deadline in which the Cavs would have acquired Stoudemire for JJ Hickson?
James and Stoudemire would have been an interesting pairing as both were set to enter free agency. Stoudemire was an offensively stout rim runner who absolutely could have dominated the fast break with James much like he did with Nash. The Cavs opted to take a half measure by trading for Antawn Jamison and retaining Hickson’s because they believed in his potential. But we’ve already gone over what happened after that.
That wasn’t the only almost trade that could have changed a lot. Before Jamison was traded to Cleveland, Washington had discussed trading both him and Caron Butler to the Boston Celtics for Ray Allen and cap filler. Jamison and Butler would have given the Celtics a lot more scoring depth. Plus, at the time, NBA players could go back to the teams that had just traded them, so adding them and getting Ray back could have pushed them over the top. As we’ve previously established, more talent does not lead to a higher ceiling.
But enough about mega-trades that fell through. What about teams that failed to reach their potential because of unfortunate circumstances?
People forget how good the Bucks were during that season. Brandon Jennings’ strong rookie campaign helped them, but Andrew Bogut coming into his own as one of the league’s best all-around bigs as well. Add newly acquired John Salmons, and Milwaukee was a team nobody wanted to face.
That was until Bogut suffered a freak elbow injury just before the playoffs started. Before that, Bogut was on his way to All-NBA honors because of his excellent play on both offense and defense. With him gone, the Bucks never recovered. Bogut himself was never quite the same. Had that injury never happened, the Bucks could have had something special on their hands, which probably would have led to a lack of Giannis Antetokounmpo for them now.
Every year, we wonder what could have been had certain things gone the other way, and the 2009-2010 season was no exception.
There were other storylines that were going on. The NBA suffered a PR crisis after the Wizards had a gun standoff between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden. As awful as that was, it inadvertently won them the John Wall sweepstakes. Looking back, who knows how the landscape of the NBA would look today had that not happened?
We talked about stars joining good teams, but one that falls under the radar was when San Antonio traded for Richard Jefferson. Many believed the Spurs were going to take it to a whole new level when they acquired him in the offseason, but Jefferson was bizarrely awful with Gregg Popovich. Thus, the Spurs fell apart and were swept by the Suns in the second round.
The last thing to note was that the 2009-2010 season was when Kevin Durant and the Thunder finally put it together to earn their first playoff berth. While the Lakers eliminated them in the first round, we knew that it was just the beginning for them.
Of course, everything mentioned here culminated in the infamous summer of 2010. But that will be tabled for next year.
50 Predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Season
Drew Maresca and the Basketball Insiders team offer their annual 50 predictions for the NBA season.
Thank god, basketball is back. And with it comes Basketball Insiders’ latest attempt to throw down 50 bold predictions. Even better, it’s this writer’s second go-around with predictions. And with that familiarity comes unwarranted confidence. So, as always, get ready for red hot takes – significantly hotter than last years – from everybody, yours truly and the broader team included.
Over the summer, the site added some new members to the team. Thusly, we’re expanding the “Predictions from Insiders” section of the article to accommodate all of our brilliant minds. Unfortunately, that means fewer picks for me — but on a positive note, bonus predictions for you! Spoiler alert: Some of my teammates’ predictions contradict mine. One of us will be right and only time will tell.
As always, we’ll revisit our predictions following the season. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@DrewMaresca) about any of the predictions — and do so with all of our staff, as well. The more feedback, the better. And with that, let’s commence with some predictions.
Awards + Other Individual Predictions
1. Stephen Curry leads the league in scoring. This is a pretty popular one. He’ll have so many more opportunities without Klay Thompson (knee surgery) and Kevin Durant. Sure, D’Angelo Russell will take some shots; Draymond Green too. But who else is going to get buckets? Curry might need to average 40.
2. And Curry will also win the 2019-20 NBA MVP. This one’s a little less common. And it hinges on my confidence in the Warriors team as a whole. But let’s be honest, the MVP race will be between Curry, Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis – and maybe Damian Lillard. Russell Westbrook and James Harden probably play themselves out of contention given the inherent stat sharing. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
And that’s literally all of the favorites. I don’t see a world where Nikola Jokic wins MVP even though he will deserve serious consideration. Joel Embiid could get in on the fun, but I expect him to get his share “load management” with the team prioritizing winning over personal glory.
3. Rudy Gobert will repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. It’s just really hard to anticipate anyone outperforming him. I believe that Draymond Green will be asked to do a little too much in terms of guarding bigs this season. And he’s another year older. And he just got paid. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverly are all very impressive, but they’ll split the burden of defending an opponent’s best wing so it will water down their efforts. Of course, that leaves Gobert as the obvious choice.
4. But Mitchell Robinson will lead the lead in blocks. This isn’t really a hot take when you look at last year’s results, right? Robinson finished fourth last season and he played less than two-thirds as many minutes as any as the three guys ahead of him. He looked more patient in the preseason, which allowed him to remain on the court for longer periods of time. And if he can continue that, he’ll be a defensive force.
5. Spencer Dinwiddie will be named Sixth Man of the Year. It’s not that I don’t love Lou Williams. But the league tires on handing the same guy an award over and over. Williams was the winner for the previous two seasons and in three of the last five. And Williams isn’t getting any younger, either. Ultimately, it may be somebody else’s turn.
6. Jonathan Isaac wins MIP.
7. Luka Doncic is named to a 2019-20 All-NBA team
8. Trae Young will lead the league in assists. The competition will be too tight at point guard for Trae Young to qualify for an All-NBA team like fellow sophomore Doncic, but he’ll have a wildly impressive second season.
And what’s more, Young will average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game. He’ll shoot 36 percent from three-point range — up from 32.3 percent — and he’ll break his own record for made 30-plus foot shots. This feels like multiple predictions tied into one and I got myself in trouble with these types of predictions last year… oh well.
9. Zach LaVine will be an All-Star. Look, I predicted LaVine as MIP last year – and I was wrong. So I’m doubling down. I really like LaVine’s game. He’s dynamic and super athletic, but with just enough polish. And with the Eastern Conference’s lack of All-Star-level guards, LaVine may be a shoo-in.
10. Zion Williamson will play less than 70 games. Williamson’s unique combination of speed and power are among his best attributes. But they’re also going to be his biggest hindrances, too – at least until he’s able to lose a few pounds. Williamson simply puts too much stress on his body, enough that this may become a reoccurring theme. He’ll miss a few games throughout the season – including to kick off the year – as he needs extra rest to recover from the wear and tear of the season.[Sorry, guys, I’m taking credit for this one because it was written at least a week before the injury was announced.]
11. RJ Barrett will win Rookie of the Year. Barrett was primed for an inefficient season following summer league. Well, fast forward a few months and he looks far more prepared for the NBA. He’s proven that he can initiate the offense, while his ability to attack the rim won’t falter as a professional. And, probably just as important, his confidence is through the roof. Already, Barrett looks like a star in the making.
12. Tyler Herro and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will both be named to an All-Rookie team.
Team + Playoff Predictions
13. The Houston Rockets will win fewer games than last season – and the highest they’ll end the year is at the No. 4 overall seed.
It’s not their fault and I’m not blaming the Westbrook-Harden pairing at all. Truthfully, injuries and depth will be the main culprits. Their starting five is actually great: Harden, Westbrook, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela. I love those five — but it falls off a cliff from there, especially after Gerald Green’s injury. Austin Rivers is a known commodity, but they’re going to struggle to generate much when they go to their bench.
14. The Philadelphia 76ers will nab the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.
15. And they win the Eastern Conference.
16. But they’ll lose in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Clippers.
17. The 76ers will be joined in the playoffs by the Bucks, Celtics, Nets, HEAT, Pacers, Magic and Pistons, in no particular order.
18. The No. 8 overall seed in the Western Conference playoff race will come down to the Mavericks, Spurs, Pelicans and Kings, decided by 1.5 games or less. And the Mavericks will prevail.
19. The Clippers and Mavs will be joined in the playoffs by the Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets, Trail Blazers and Warriors.
20. For the first time in 10 seasons, there will be no 60-win teams in the NBA.
21. And there will be more than 10 teams with 50 or more wins for the first time this decade.
22. All qualifying Western Conference teams win at least 50 games – a slight uptick from last season when the eighth-seeded Clippers won 48 games.
23. All eight Eastern Conference playoff teams win at least 44 games – last season, the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons finished 41-41.
Trade + Coaching Change Predictions
24. The HEAT will trade either Justise Winslow or Goran Dragic before the deadline. Miami was already star shopping this summer when they expressed interested in Chris Paul. One or both can help them get that other star. Dragic’s contract is very tradable as it is more than $19 million and expires following this season. Winslow’s contract is even more movable at $13 million per year and a team option in 2021-22.
25. Speaking of Paul, he is not traded this season.
26. The Cavaliers finally move on from Kevin Love.
27. Andre Iguodala will be traded – but not to the Lakers or Clippers. The Grizzlies will look to collect as many assets as possible for Iguodala and the two Los Angeles-based franchises have limited draft capital left to include. The Rockets are reportedly out, too, as his salary is highly prohibitive for a team that’s already in luxury tax territory.
28. I predicted Scott Brooks would be fired during last year’s go-through, so we’re doubling down here, too. He’ll be let go before the All-Star break.
29. Despite the eventual whispers about Frank Vogel’s job security, he will end the season as head coach of the Lakers.
30. At least three teams will average more than 40 three-point attempts per game. Last season, only the Rockets surpassed the 40-plus mark at 45.1 per game. But as we’ve seen in recent years, teams have become even more smitten with the three-point shot. Hard to say with certainty who it will be, but…
31. Back to the Rockets, they will lead the league in three-point attempts with more than 50 per game. This would’ve sounded ridiculous just a few years ago; but since Mike D’Antoni joined the club, they’ve hoisted 40, 42 and 45 per game over the last three seasons, respectively. Predicting five more three-pointers per game is aggressive, but they can do it.
32. Moreover, teams continue to crank the pace. Franchises eclipsed 100 possessions per game last year and that trend will continue this season, ultimately ending the 2019-20 season with between 103 and 105 per game.
33. Spencer Dinwiddie’s attempt to securitize his “Athlete Investment Token” *(PAInT) is allowed by the NBA, breaking ground on a new era of investing in professional athletes.
34. And the NBA-China situation does not subside. Thus, the 2020-21 salary cap shrinks by at least 10 percent.
35. Pistons trade Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond
— Matt John (@MattJohnNBA)
36. Matisse Thybulle will break the starting lineup for the 76ers and be in the discussion for All-NBA Defensive Team.
37. The Portland Trail Blazers will be the No. 3 overall seed in the Western Conference and will have a third elite scoring options to end the season.
— David Weissman (@dwize04)
38. Denver is the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference.
39. Karl-Anthony Towns becomes the seventh player ever to average at least 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 65.0 or better.
— Jack Winter (@ArmstrongWinter)
40. Giannis Antetokounmpo will not be the only player in the upper-Midwest to lead his team in all five major statistical categories this season as Karl-Anthony Towns will, as well.
41. Robert Covington will creep into more trade rumors than just about anybody else in the NBA, but he will not move this season.
— Doug Farmer (@D_Farmer)
42. Lonzo Ball to win Most Improved Player in 2019-20.
43. Caris LeVert is an Eastern Conference All-Star.
— Ben Nadeau (@Ben__Nadeau)
44. The Chicago Bulls win a playoff series.
45. Quin Snyder will win Coach of the Year as the Jazz secure the top seed in the Western Conference; Mike D’Antoni will not finish the season as the Rockets’ head coach.
— Chad Smith (@Chad200)
46. The Denver Nuggets will lead the league in Net Rating.
47. The Hawks will be last in defensive rating.
— Quinn Davis (@Quinn_DavisNBA)
48. Los Angeles Lakers will not be a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
49. Ben Simmons will shoot above 25 percent on three-pointers (but on less than one attempt per game).
— Jordan Hicks (@JordanHicksNBA)
50. The Celtics finish with the No. 3 overall seed in the Eastern Conference and Gordon Hayward is an All-Star.
51. The Hawks and Bulls qualify for the playoffs, but Pacers and Warriors will miss out, despite Curry’s heroics.
52. And the Denver Nuggets finish the season as the No. 1 overall seed out and the New Orleans Pelicans squeeze into the eighth and final spot.
— Shane Rhodes (@Share_Rhodes1)
53. The Raptors start off strong, but fizzle out around midseason and miss the playoffs.
54. And they trade either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol.
— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies)
And there we have it: another year of predictions in the books. Let’s all celebrate by binge-watching basketball for the next eight or so months. Remember, we’ll reference specific tweets in our “50 Predictions: Revisited” piece following the season, so make sure to connect with us on Twitter about how good or bad you think we’ve done.
Three Takeaways From Preseason
David Weissman examines three key points from the preseason that could translate into the 2019-20 NBA campaign.
Making predictions of a player or team’s success for the upcoming year based on how they perform during the preseason is an ill-advised approach for anyone who enjoys basketball analytics. During the preseason, most teams are working different offensive and defensive strategy, while one half of the roster is focused on making the team and the other is focused on staying healthy through the season.
Of course, there is a temptation to make bold predictions before any games have been played and to highlight the storylines that come out of the preseason that seem certain to carry over into the regular season. Here are a few of those stories.
Zion Williamson: ROY Favorite
In light of Williamson’s ill-timed injury that’ll keep him out until Christmas — he’s still probably the odds-on Rookie of the Year favorite, if he plays enough to qualify, that is.
As the most anticipated first round overall draft pick since LeBron James, Zion finished the preseason averaging more than 23 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists per game, playing just 27 minutes per night through four games. Despite finishing with the highest points per game average of any rookie in the preseason in the last 20 years, the most impressive stat was that Zion went 71 percent from the field, leading the Pelicans to a 4-0 record. Williamson even posted 92 percent (12-for-13) from the field while scoring 29 points against the Bulls during his third appearance with the Pelicans.
Zion’s highest level of efficiency was his true shooting percentage, 73.7 percent, the highest of any rookie since preseason started. In comparison, Jimmer Fredette’s true shooting percentage of 70.2 percent in 2011 and DeAndre Ayton’s 65.1 percent last year were the closest ever to Zion’s average.
Watching the Pelicans play, the biggest takeaway is how the team puts Zion in a position to succeed. Head coach Alvin Gentry used Williamson’s effectively by having him catch the ball on the move, weaponizing his athleticism. Now with Lonzo Ball running the point guard position, it has been a seamless effort to feed the ball to Zion during transition or in positions where he can attack the post. Zion’s athleticism has made it difficult on the opposition, with players forced to adapt to his strength in the paint. Going forward, opposing teams will either have to risk guarding a downhill Zion with a single player or have someone come down and help, leaving outside shooters like JJ Redick open on the perimeter.
Zion has shown that he can shoot the three-pointer when possible, but has not shown success from behind the arc yet, shooting 25 percent (1-for-4) during the preseason. It can be assumed that opposing defenses will pack the paint to discourage Zion from going to the basket. However, while playing against the Jazz, Zion was able get the best of Rudy Gobert – the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year – by attacking the paint. Zion went 9-for-12 from the field, scoring eight of those field goals on the inside. Williamson was able to show during his matchup against Gobert that even elite stoppers and rim protectors won’t always be enough to deter him.
Based on Zion’s success scoring 34 of his 35 field goals in the paint, teams are going to dare him to shoot from the outside. If he returns and is as healthy as can be, Zion has shown he will not be deterred and will look to dominate from inside first, looking to capitalize on high percentage shot opportunities. Gentry and the Pelicans know that utilizing Zion in this fashion will lead to rookie year success that should make him the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.
Steph Curry Going For MVP No. 3
For the past five years, the Warriors have been the dominant dynasty in the NBA, always certain to be the representative for the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. This year, they seem to be pedestrian with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala gone and Klay Thompson recovering from injury. In the loaded West, Steph Curry may have to return to MVP form for the Warriors to earn a decent seed.
Steph Curry finished the preseason like it was 2015, averaging 26.8 points (second most in the NBA), 4.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game. What was especially noticeable was that Curry maintained a 43.2 shooting percentage from behind the arc, a percentage down from previous years, but on a three-point attempt total that went up by three attempts per game from last season. While the Warriors went just 2-3 in the preseason, Curry showed why many believe he could lead the NBA in scoring this season, especially with an increase in scoring opportunities via Durant’s departure and Thompson’s injury.
To make the most of Durant’s departure, Golden State traded for, and signed, Nets guard D’Angelo Russell to a max deal. Until Thompson returns to the starting lineup, the Warriors will rely on Russell to be an offensive presence and support Curry in the backcourt. Russell has shown to be capable in his new role by closing the preseason out with 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting (47.4 percent) and 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc (54.5 percent) against the Lakers. With Russell showing that he can be a second option for the Warriors, Curry will be the first option and could lead the league again in scoring, making him an immediate front runner for MVP.
With a revamped roster that has less experience than in years past, the Warriors might need Curry to make a run at MVP number three if they are going to compete in the ultra-tough Western Conference. Look for Curry to continue with the momentum he amassed in the preseason and become an immediate contender for MVP.
Matisse Thybulle Bound For An All-Defensive Team
Matisse Thybulle has emerged as one of the dark horses from this year’s draft to make a significant name for himself, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With only a five-game sample size, Thybulle has amassed a fairly impressive stat line, averaging 7.2 points, 1.4 assists and 2 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game. Even with those impressive numbers, one stat stands out the most – his steals per game. Over five games, Thybulle has amassed an incredible 13 steals, averaging 2.6 steals per game (the second most during the preseason).
NBA scouts were concerned how Thybulle’s defensive game would translate to this new level of competition after coming from Washington’s zone in college, but the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year has earned his way into meaningful NBA minutes during the preseason. Thybulle actually averaged 3.5 steals a game over his final season at Washington, graduating with the 19th highest average in NCAA history.
Thybulle’s defensive awareness has secured him a role in Brett Brown’s early-season rotation. By impressing the coaching staff with his length, versatility and his ability to consistently disrupt opponents with his quick hands and reflexes, Thybulle has already established a place for himself on the team. Fortunately for the 76ers, projecting Tybulle as an elite NBA ballhawk will make him a sleeper, but a viable candidate for an All-NBA Defensive Team.