The NBA entered an arms race this summer the likes of which had never been seen. An unprecedented amount of player movement has blown open the league’s title picture and given so many new storylines to follow.
For once, the NBA’s future champion doesn’t seem preordained. That didn’t stop our writers from making some predictions on how this year is going to unfold. Also be sure to read the comprehensive SB Nation NBA preview for the 2019-2020 season.
Who’s winning MVP?
Mike Prada: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Anthony Davis is the early narrative favorite, Stephen Curry has the most 2017 Russell Westbrook potential, James Harden still exists, and Joel Embiid looms as an interesting dark horse if he can stay healthy. But the Bucks should still be the East’s best team, and Antetokounmpo will be motivated to add to his game after his postseason failures last season. This is the safe pick, though possibly a boring one.
Whitney Medworth: Anthony Davis. This is contingent on two things: He stays healthy and LeBron James continues to play as a distributor who lets the offense flow through Davis. It’s only preseason and James is getting older by the minute, but I think the James and Davis combo could be more lethal than we’re prepared for, with Davis being the biggest benefactor. Also, he’s just really freaking good at basketball.
Michael Pina: Steph Curry. For reasons outlined here, Curry has an open runway to his third MVP trophy. With Klay Thompson hurt and Kevin Durant gone, Curry is Golden State’s first and second option on every possession, and with so many doubting his team’s chance to even make the playoffs there’s a built-in narrative he’s primed to overcome. It’ll be weird if Curry doesn’t lead the league in scoring.
Ricky O’Donnell: Steph Curry. I am of the opinion that Curry is the best player in the NBA, which now feels like a contrarian view I’m desperately clinging to after the Raptors washed his Warriors in the Final last June. If Curry can remain healthy, if Draymond Green stays in shape all season, and if Golden State’s depth shows signs of development around him, my guess is it won’t seem like such a hot take a year from now. Curry doesn’t have the luxury of blending in anymore — with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson rehabbing a torn ACL, the Warriors need his scoring outbursts more than ever. This really feels like it’s going to be the year of Steph.
Tom Ziller: James Harden. Harden is clearly one of the best players in the world, and we suspect his team will win lots of games — it might even be the No. 1 seed in the West, depending on how the LA teams gel and manage players’ loads. Curry is a safer pick because we know he’ll be the clear top scorer on what should still be quite a good team, and the media, who votes for MVP, (rightly) loves him. The same applies to Giannis. But Harden scored 36 points per game efficiently last season! Even if Russell Westbrook takes a slice of that, Harden is just as likely as Curry to win the scoring title (Harden has won two straight and averaged at least 29 points per game four straight seasons) and the Rockets are likely to be better than the Warriors. What’s the case against Harden then?
Matt Ellentuck: James Harden. I think he’s the best scorer in the world, the most unstoppable offensive force in the world, and for now, I want to believe he and Russell Westbrook are going to work. Steph Curry is an obvious choice, but I’m not convinced he’s going to be able to carry his team past a bottom seed in the west. Giannis could repeat, but after a year of watching, teams are bound to find ways to better exploit his weaknesses shooting the ball. Meanwhile the bearded one is out hoisting one-footed threes just to spice things up. MVP.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Giannis Antetokounmpo. My heart says to pick Steph Curry or James Harden, but I think we’re about to see Giannis go to another level that we didn’t anticipate this season. The East isn’t exactly stacked, and he’ll be able to run through teams for yet another year. Unless the Bucks somehow drop off this season, this feels like a smart pick.
Zito Madu: Thanks to the wonderful precedent set by Russell Westbrook’s MVP win, that certain individual performances can be so overwhelming that it supersedes the idea that the MVP has to be on one of the best teams, I think this will be the year that Steph Curry showcases the extent of his abilities. Which is incredible to think about considering how he performed when he won his previous MVPs.
Which player will make the All-Star Game for the first time?
Mike Prada: Pascal Siakam. It boggles my mind that folks are still skeptical that he can be a top scoring option. Kawhi Leonard missed a quarter of last season, and in that time, Siakam was the Raptors’ fulcrum, not Kyle Lowry. He and the Raptors were brilliant in those games, and I see little reason why that won’t be the case over a larger sample this season.
Michael Pina: Jayson Tatum. It’s Year 3 now and Tatum is in line to average at least 20 points on one of the Eastern Conference’s better teams. A leap is coming. He can score at all three levels but in the preseason has already started to shift a majority of his shots from the mid-range to the rim and behind the three-point line. The Celtics have Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown, but it’s Tatum who needs to break out if they want to be the best team they can possibly be. His first all-star appearance will be a big step towards getting there.
Ricky O’Donnell: Luka Doncic. A year later, I’m still not over Doncic slipping to the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft despite, like, every smart person agreeing he was the top overall prospect available (and I say this as the president of the Jaren Jackson Jr. fanclub). Doncic’s second season is when he’s really going to start making the Suns and Kings look silly for passing on him. Don’t be surprised if he averages 25 points per game this year.
Tom Ziller: Pascal Siakam. You really have to pick an Eastern Conference player for this category because the West continues to increase in star power. Siakam wasn’t too far off the mark in 2018-19, and with Kawhi Leonard gone, Siakam will get credit for much of Toronto’s success as he likely takes on a larger role. Aaron Gordon is another player I think has a strong shot to be a first-time all-star, especially if the Magic live up to their billing. Others worth consideration here: Spencer Dinwiddie and Trae Young.
Matt Ellentuck: Zion Williamson. He’s missing two months to a torn meniscus but I don’t even care. He’s one of the most popular players in the world at age 19, unarguably the most popular social media teenage basketball player of all time, and one of the most unique, incredible rookies we’ve ever seen. Through preseason, aside from injury, we haven’t been provided any evidence that adult athletes can contain his physical force off the dribble any better than college ones could. His stats will be all-star-esque. And the fan support will be there, too.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Pascal Siakam. With Kawhi Leonard gone, it’s Siakam’s show. Like Ziller said, the West is stacked with star power, and it would be easier for somebody to slide in on the East. I don’t think Siakam is going to have to “slide in” though, he’s going to have a big year.
Zito Madu: Pascal Siakam. Barring a freak injury, it seems destined for Siakam to continue to become one of the better players in the league. Last season, especially in the finals, was a good display of just what he is capable of, as he himself seemed to be figuring those things out in real-time as well. The more comfortable and refined he becomes with his abilities, as I think he will be this season, the easier it will be to just acknowledge his burgeoning greatness.
The best non-Zion rookie will be ...
Mike Prada: Tyler Herro. I’m in after watching him light it up in the preseason. The Heat desperately need perimeter shooting and secondary playmaking to give Jimmy Butler breathing room, and Herro provides both while also being big enough to maintain Miami’s length advantage on defense.
Michael Pina: Ja Morant will average 16 and 8, regularly dunk on people, and do his part to accelerate Memphis’ rebuild.
Tom Ziller: Coby White. The Bulls are exciting (!) and White is going to drop jaws out there. Honorable mention to Tyler Herro and Rui Hachimura, who might be the Wizards’ second-best active player by Christmas.
Ricky O’Donnell: Brandon Clarke. Somehow slipped to the No. 21 pick in the draft after putting together one of the great college seasons we’ve ever seen at Gonzaga. Morant will get most of the attention, but Clarke will have a bigger impact, especially as a rookie.
Matt Ellentuck: I can’t stress this enough, but nobody will be close to Zion. Ja Morant should be solid with total authority to rule the Grizzlies offense with Jaren Jackson Jr. though.
Whitney Medworth: No one is coming close so I’m going to pick Jordan Poole’s pregame fashion game.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Ja Morant. That is all.
Zito Madu: I’ve seen the Tyler Herro highlights. I believe. I’ve fallen head over heels. But Ja Morant said that his dad was his first hater, and there’s no way I can turn my back on a man with that kind of attitude.
2020 NBA Finals picks
Mike Prada: Philadelphia. The 76ers won’t win the most regular-season games: they have too much unique new talent to integrate and the Bucks’ well-defined system around a superstar is tailor-made to pile up wins in January and February. But in a seven-game playoff series, I have trouble seeing how the Bucks can possibly score on the 76ers’ combination of size and speed. The Raptors discovered how much of an impact the 76ers’ devastating combination can have in a seven-game playoff series, and Philly is even more physically imposing now.
Michael Pina: Philly. They’re too big, and will make every possession in crunch-time of a seven-game series feel like it’s being played inside a panic room. Joel Embiid is a serious MVP/DPOY candidate who carries an intimidating aura not seen since Shaquille O’Neal retired. Ben Simmons—faulty jumper and all—will impose his strengths on both ends. Al Horford enters the frame as a glorious glue guy. This team is thin and a tad awkward, but nobody in the East can match up with their best five-man lineup.
Tom Ziller: Philly. It’s tough to pick against Giannis and the Bucks, but I’m trying to imagine Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and George Hill generating offense against the Sixers defense and I don’t see it. Giannis is the best player in the East, but Joel Embiid isn’t far behind him, and the supporting cast is pretty imbalanced in Philly’s favor, from Ben Simmons to Al Horford to Tobias Harris to Josh Richardson. What a roster!
Matt Ellentuck: Philly. I don’t say this too enthusiastically. The Sixers got better ... at least I think they did? Adding Al Horford to Joel Embiid’s offense is going to take time and might get clunky, but the Sixers are definitely going to be good. I’m just not sure they’d be a top-four team in the West. The East just didn’t get better.
Ricky O’Donnell: Philly. The Sixers’ offense devolved into a series Jimmy Butler pick-and-rolls and isolations in last year’s playoffs, which means they’ll need to come up with a new way to manufacturer points in the halfcourt this season with him in Miami. That’s okay. Embiid should accept the challenge of getting himself in better shape longer into the season and Simmons will want to quiet critics who point to his disappointing numbers in the seven-game series against Toronto. If that happens, the Sixers should be a healthier, more balanced unit that puts a wall of size around the rim when Giannis comes barreling through the lane in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Mike Prada: LA Clippers. It’ll be hard to pick against LeBron James and Anthony Davis if the Lakers make it through the regular season unscathed, but the Clippers are significantly deeper, more balanced, and have plenty of starpower where it matters most in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Apologies to Utah (too small on the wing), Denver (too limited defensively), Houston (too combustable), and Golden State (too much lost talent to overcome).
Michael Pina: Houston. It’s so hard to pick against teams that employ Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Paul George, and Anthony Davis, but I’m rolling with this team for three reasons (the first two of which happen to be in direct conflict with each other): 1) Continuity still matters and—Russell Westbrook aside—they’ve been through the fire two years in a row as a group that knows exactly how it wants to play, 2) with his back against the wall Daryl Morey will be especially restless heading into the trade deadline, and 3) James Harden is a magician.
Tom Ziller: Lakers. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but Lakers. Why? Anthony Davis hasn’t been in the playoffs much, but when he has, he’s been exemplary. Ask Portland. LeBron is famously an entirely different player in the postseason these days. Defense is a concern, but Dwight Howard hasn’t looked awful in the preseason, Davis can be an All-Defense talent and Danny Green is around to help on the perimeter. Kawhi is a classically frustrating defender for LeBron, but who on the Clippers can slow down Davis? The Clippers feel like the smart pick, but the Lakers feel like a gut pick, despite huge depth issues and LeBron’s age.
Matt Ellentuck: Clippers. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is a dream duo, and they’ll have ample support from the guys around them like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. The Lakers with Anthony Davis and LeBron James should also contend for this spot, but I don’t trust their bench. The Rockets are a total wild card and tough to bet on in October. The Nuggets are good, but did they get much better? Will Mike Conley fit seamlessly with the Jazz like everyone suspects? There are a lot of questions out West, and the Clippers have the most answers for now.
Ricky O’Donnell: Clippers. The most talented roster in the league from top-to-bottom and the betting favorite for a reason. Leonard and George are going to do their best Michael and Scottie impression as two lockdown defenders and go-to offensive options who leave opponents with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The depth is really what sets them apart from their challengers in the West. Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, even Mo Harkless and JaMychal Green give the Clippers not just a team that can survive load management but the ability to mix-and-match so many different looks in the playoffs.
Mike Prada: LA Clippers. Kawhi Leonard eventually busted the 76ers last year, and this Clippers team possesses more offensive talent up and down the roster than even last year’s champions. I expect that to happen again, though a healthy Joel Embiid is a major problem for the size-deficient Clippers.
Michael Pina: Houston. This is my third year in a row picking Houston to win it all. Obviously, third time’s a charm.
Matt Ellentuck: Ditto, TZ. Lakers. Clippers will be the best regular-season team, and then LeBron gets (maybe) his last title. It’ll be ugly. It’ll require midseason trades. And team meetings. Maybe a coach firing. But in the words of our Queen Rihanna, “King is still King, [redacted.]”
Ricky O’Donnell: Clippers. Kawhi’s third title would tie him with LeBron and Curry in the middle of his prime and start to build the case that he’s the greatest winner of this generation of players.
Zito Madu: It has to be the Lakers, for my own sanity. I plan to be very obnoxious this entire season as a fan, and the prospect of all the trash talk coming back to haunt me is too heavy to even consider.
Other NBA predictions for the 2019-2020 season
Team that fails to meet expectations
Mike Prada: Brooklyn. “Expectations” is a funny word here, because this is a transition year for the Nets until they get Kevin Durant back from injury. But if the hope internally is to build on last year’s low playoff seed and win a first-round series, I fear they will fall short. Replacing D’Angelo Russell with Kyrie Irving is a talent upgrade, but not necessarily an output one given Irving’s durability issues. Meanwhile, I fear Irving’s desires will stifle the development of Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Joe Harris, the latter two of whom emerged last year in large part because the former was injured. If they can’t all thrive at the same time, Brooklyn’s gaping hole at power forward and combustable center rotation become bigger issues.
Michael Pina: Milwaukee. If you think they’ll be better than last year, chances are they won’t be. Malcolm Brogdon will be missed.
Tom Ziller: Denver. As the Nuggets showed last season, they have some fantastic players and they are well-coached. Nikola Jokic is incredible. But the West is tougher, and while Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. are nice additions to the rotation, the overall star power compared to Denver’s rivals is striking. Jamal Murray is quite nice, and proved it in the playoffs. But he’s the Nuggets’ No. 2 player. Other No. 2 players on West contenders right now: LeBron James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, D’Angelo Russell (and eventually Klay Thompson). Denver has depth and upside — they could very well threaten for the No. 1 seed again. But maybe that was a bit of a mirage.
Matt Ellentuck: Denver. Like TZ said, the lack of starpower is striking. And does Nikola Jokic replicate what he did last season. They’ll make the playoffs, but how deep do they actually go? The West got better, and they stayed pretty complacent.
Ricky O’Donnell: Lakers. There’s just such a huge load for LeBron to carry, not only in terms of shot creation but also defensively, especially in the playoffs. The depth on this team is not impressive once you get past Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma. For as unstoppable as LeBron and AD should be in the two-man game in the postseason, there isn’t enough around them for me to believe they can live up their championship-or-bust aspirations.
Zito Madu: Milwaukee. I really don’t think they replicate what they achieved last season, and I think teams will be smarter in how to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo, after seeing how he was stymied in the playoffs.
Most surprising team
Mike Prada: Miami or Toronto. Surprise is relative, since I think most have these two teams firmly in the East playoff picture. But assuming Toronto doesn’t blow up its roster, I think both they and the Heat are actually be playoff locks and possibly closer to the 76ers and Bucks than they are to the rest of the pack. Toronto was still an excellent team when Kawhi Leonard didn’t play last year, and Miami’s funky roster has a ton of upside with the arrival of star Jimmy Butler, the continued development of Justise Winslow, a bigger role for Bam Adebayo, and the emergence of rookie off guard Tyler Herro.
Michael Pina: I think Dallas can make the playoffs. That would be pretty surprising.
Tom Ziller: Orlando. My pick for the No. 3 seed in the East, Aaron Gordon should be an all-star, Jonathan Isaac should make the All-Defense team, Steve Clifford will be in Coach of the Year running with Brett Brown, Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel, and Doc Rivers.
Matt Ellentuck: Dallas. It won’t surprise me, world’s largest Luka Doncic stan, but the Mavericks will scrape a bottom seed in the playoffs. The Slovenian adult-child is good enough to get them there, and the addition of Kristaps Porzingis makes one of the most lethal one-two pick-and-roll punches in the league.
Ricky O’Donnell: Bulls. From 22 wins last year to the playoffs this season. Chicago’s eternally maligned front office changed their processes this offseason and came away with great group of free agents that will complement their young core. Jim Boylen’s shtick will seem a lot more endearing when the team isn’t terrible.
Team that gets left out of the Western Conference playoff picture
Mike Prada: This’ll be a bold pick, but I’m gonna say the Golden State Warriors. I want to believe that Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have enough left in the tank to stage a two-person revenge tour on the league. I want to believe Klay Thompson can return from his torn ACL and turn back the clock to 2015. But that roster is sooooooo thin, and I suspect it’ll be too much to ask Curry to carry the entire offense and Green to do the same on the other end for a full 82-game season.
Michael Pina: The Blazers have the coolest backcourt in basketball, intriguing young talent, and one of the league’s most respected coaching staffs. They just made the Western Conference Finals and enter the season with a monstrous $140 million payroll. But after years of baked in continuity through and through, Portland’s roster has quietly been made over in several key areas. I’m not sure if it’s fair to say they’ll be “screwed” in the Western Conference—a playoff appearance should still be in the cards—but their floor is lower than a lot of people think.
Tom Ziller: The Kings. They should claim their first winning season in more than a decade, but a winning record isn’t enough in the West, where it might take 47 or so wins to get into the playoffs. How cruel, to improve so much on the strength of young players only to fall short because NBA franchise owners are too cowardly or greedy to approve all-league playoff seeding.
Matt Ellentuck: San Antonio. Eventually this franchise has to succumb to not having enough talent. Gregg Popovich’s wizardry needs a break. And Luka Doncic is going to give one to him.
Ricky O’Donnell: Spurs. I just can’t believe San Antonio’s diet of midrange jumpers from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge is going to work as effectively as it did last year. I’m excited to Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker, but I think this team ultimately falls short of the playoffs.
First starter quality player to get traded
Mike Prada: Andre Iguodala. The market for Iguodala’s services will heat up quickly. Someone is going to get off to a worse-than-expected start and get antsy about their wing defense. Someone is going to make an aggressive move to stop one of the LA teams from sliding Iguodala in as a buyout guy in mid-February. A team to watch, for Iguodala or someone else: the Bucks, who recouped two extra draft picks and a trade exception from the Malcolm Brogdon sign-and-trade and have plenty of incentive to maximize their window this season before The Free Agency That Shall Not Be Named.
Michael Pina: He can’t be dealt until Dec. 15, but when you combine the dearth of power forwards around the league with New York’s crowded frontcourt and eventual desire to lose games on purpose, Marcus Morris shouldn’t get too comfortable in a Knicks jersey.
Tom Ziller: Andrew Wiggins. I don’t know who is taking Wiggins, but the Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade proved there is no such thing as an unmovable contract in the NBA (something we already knew based on league history). With a new front office in place and the need for a clean break to vault a Karl-Anthony Towns team forward, the Wolves need to find a new home for Wiggins.
Matt Ellentuck: Devin Booker. He’s got his money secured and can’t really lose by demanding out, right? I don’t Booker making it through a fifth straight year of awfulness in Phoenix, especially with there being little reason to buy into the future of the franchise. Maybe he’s the piece that’s used to move Wiggins from Minnesota.
Whitney Medworth: Kevin Love. I think it’s all smoke and mirrors that he wants to stay in Cleveland, be The Guy, and work things out there. At some point, Love is going to want to win basketball games again and I think a team will find the money to make it work. He’s not really going to live in Cleveland forever, right?
Ricky O’Donnell: Marc Gasol. The Raptors have both Gasol and Serge Ibaka on expiring deals. One feels likely to get moved to a contender before the deadline. Can we fit Gasol on the Clippers?
Harry Lyles Jr.: Devin Booker needs to demand his way out of Phoenix. I don’t know that he would, but he should, so I’m going with Book.
Zito Madu: This seemed to be an easy pick with Domantas Sabonis, until whatever happened just happened. But now beyond that, there’s just no way that Chris Paul remains on the Thunder, is it?
The first Lakers team meeting will come on ....
Mike Prada: March 1. I expect a quick start that slowly descends into midseason apathy before a resurgent playoff run.
Michael Pina: Is “the morning after they get blown out by the Clippers on opening night” too soon?
Tom Ziller: Nov. 27 or 28, after a loss to Lonzo Ball and the Pelicans drops LA to 8-10.
Matt Ellentuck: LOL — the week of Thanksgiving right after they lose to the Warriors and Kings at home.
Whitney Medworth: There won’t be one! They’re going to be fine.
Ricky O’Donnell: January, when Rajon Rondo writes a lengthy Instagram post defending his younger teammates from two stars.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Non-existent — LOL.
Zito Madu: Immediately after the Christmas game.
How many threes will Ben Simmons make?
Mike Prada: 15, which is about one every five games if he plays a full season. That sounds about right.
Michael Pina: Two.
Tom Ziller: Zero in the regular season, three in a single close-out game in the playoffs.
Matt Ellentuck: Four. On like 26 tries.
Ricky O’Donnell: Three. On like 15 tries.
Whitney Medworth: I hope like ... 100 ... so everyone stops talking about this one day :)
Zito Madu: None at all. The screenshots of him being given acres of space to shoot will live on forever.