The NBA: What to Expect

John Orzechowski, Head Writer

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The first game of the NBA regular season is slated for Tuesday, October 16th, when two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference face off. The Celtics, an overwhelming Finals favorite, play host to the Philadelphia 76ers, a young team with superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid ready to challenge for the title of Eastern Conference champions. Here’s a preview for all thirty teams, from the wallows of the league in Sacramento to the title favorite Warriors.

Atlanta Hawks: They suck. Over the past couple years, they’ve lost the roster that took them to nine straight playoff berths. They basically put the nail in the coffin when they traded underrated point guard Dennis Schroeder to Oklahoma City for Carmelo Anthony, whom they released within two weeks. They’ve put a ton of faith into Trae Young, the rookie from Oklahoma that has extreme potential. He’ll be good, but give him a couple years. Don’t expect much from Atlanta.

Boston Celtics: They’re the overwhelming favorite to face Golden State in the NBA Finals in June. Their roster is stacked, and they’ve got two stars returning from injury in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. This is a team that pushed the Lebron- led Cavs to seven games in the ECF last year — and that was without Irving or Hayward. Their young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown play at all- star levels and have been in the league a combined three years. Brad Stevens might be the best coach in the league. Expect big things from this team.

Brooklyn Nets: They overperformed last year and their point guard Spencer Dinwiddie went from a G League regular to the winner of the skills challenge during All- Star Weekend. Despite this, they still aren’t that special. They’ll be a lottery team again, but they’re a young team. They’re going to have huge cap space next summer, but their challenge will be trying to find stars that want to come to Brooklyn.

Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker is one of the top point guards in the league, but they’re kind of weak otherwise. They lost Dwight Howard, who showed brief flashes last year of the monster he was in Orlando. Tony Parker will be fine as a backup, and will be able to help develop rookies Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham. If everything goes right (mainly Walker staying healthy and posting his normal numbers), expect them to either be a low playoff team or just miss out.

Chicago Bulls: They’re a little better than Atlanta and Brooklyn, but don’t expect much. They picked up Jabari Parker from the Bucks over the summer, but paid him way too much. He’s good, but not 40 million good. Their brightest spot is sophomore Lauri Markkanen. He’s got a bright future. The players that they got in the Jimmy Butler trade aren’t on the level of Butler or Markkanen, but Kris Dunn and Zach Lavine are young and have decent careers ahead of them. Mix these personalities with their 7th overall pick Wendell Carter Jr, and this team has a future, not a present. They just need to figure out how to mesh.

Cleveland Cavaliers: They’re going to miss Lebron. He dragged them to four straight NBA Finals (especially last year, when Kyrie was gone and Isaiah Thomas, the jewel of that trade was out from injury and eventually traded), but it will be a shock if they even make the playoffs this year. Kevin Love is the new face of the franchise, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’s up for it. He was the third option when Lebron and Kyrie were there, and the second option last year. They’ve got some young talent that they acquired when they traded Isaiah Thomas to the Lakers, and rookie Collin Sexton is going to be a star. They’re not awful, but they won’t get back to the level they were on with Lebron for a long time.

Dallas Mavericks: If it was the eastern conference, I’d expect them to be a low seeded playoff team, but they’re in the west, so it’ll be another lottery season for them. Dennis Smith Jr. looked really good in his rookie season last year, and they drafted preseason Rookie of the Year favorite Luka Doncic. They’ve also got Harrison Barnes, so that’s some veteran talent. And who can forget about Dirk? He’s debatably a top 20 player of all time. He’ll be there to help the young guys but won’t contribute too much on the court. Deandre Jordan is a really good center that they picked up over the summer, and he’ll get them some wins. It’s a solid team, but they aren’t enough to compete with even the mid-level talent of the conference.

Denver Nuggets: They’re a good, young team. Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are two super talented, young guards. They also drafted Michael Porter Jr with the 14th pick. He’s one of the best players in the rookie class, but he fell in the draft because of injury. And they signed Isaiah Thomas to a one-year, minimum contract. People have forgotten that two years ago, Thomas was fourth in MVP voting. He’s back from injury and has a huge chip on his shoulder. Nikola Jokic is their best player, and a monster center. They’ll make the playoffs and might get to the second round.

Detroit Pistons: Oh, the Pistons. I love them, so it pains me to say this: they’re a disaster waiting to happen. Their three stars, Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson are all injury prone. The last two years, they’ve completely tanked both times Jackson has gotten hurt. Pistons fans have been waiting for Stanley Johnson to blossom into that elite defender that gave Lebron trouble in the first round of the playoffs three years ago in his rookie season, but he hasn’t looked that good since. The best thing about the offseason was signing reigning coach of the year Dwane Casey. If all goes well, expect them to be one of the better teams in the east. But don’t hold your breath.

Golden State Warriors: Wow. We didn’t think this team could get any better. Then they went and signed Demarcus Cousins to a minimum contract. Demarcus got overlooked after he went down halfway through the season last year and Anthony Davis performed like he did, but he’s a monster, and maybe the best center in the league. Once he comes back, their starting five could go toe to toe with the best five players you could round up out of the entire league. There’s talks of Kevin Durant leaving next summer, but that’s next summer. The roster is so well built. So many teams would kill to have Shaun Livingston starting for them, and he’s a bench role behind the, dare I say it, underrated Steph Curry. This season will be considered a failure if they don’t win their third straight title.

Houston Rockets: This is still the most realistic team to challenge the Warriors in the west. James Harden is an animal on offense, and his defense isn’t as bad as people say. He doesn’t really play defense because he’s their first offensive option. Chris Paul is getting kind of old but is still a top fifteen player. Clint Capela is a really solid center. They’re lucky he re-signed with them this summer. This isn’t the same team that took Golden State seven games in the western conference finals, but they’re still really good. Carmelo Anthony is old and not even close to the level he once was on. But he’s still a weapon. I don’t know how much he’ll contribute, but I doubt he’ll hold them back. They’ll return to the Western Conference Finals, but they’ll lose to the Warriors again.

Indiana Pacers: They were considered the losers in the Paul George trade last year, until Victor Oladipo started performing like he did. Victor led that team to the playoffs and took Lebron seven games in the first round. I’m not sure if that says more about the talent of the Pacers or the disfunction of that Cavs team, but it’s undeniable. They’re pretty good. Myles Turner is a really good center. Most people predicted he’d carry them last year before Oladipo showed up. And they signed Tyreke Evans over the summer. He was the one bright spot in Memphis’ disastrous season last year. The Pacers could go far into the playoffs this year.

LA Clippers: This team has lost everyone that they had that made them so popular, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With Chris Paul in Houston, Blake Griffin in Detroit, and Deandre Jordan in Dallas, they don’t have that “Lob City” culture that was so talked about. But that team didn’t ever show up when it mattered. Chris Paul couldn’t get them anywhere. This roster isn’t going to have much more success, but what matters is that it’s a fresh start. Lou Williams is so good; he’s one of the best offensive players in the league. Paired with Patrick Beverley, it’s a good starting backcourt. Tobias Harris, the journeyman, is another offensive animal. He’s a really good third option behind Beverly and Williams. This team doesn’t have nearly enough to match up with Golden State, but they’ve got enough to slide into a low seed if all goes right.

LA Lakers: They have the best basketball player in the world and arguably ever. Lebron’s signing ushered in a new era of the Lakers. They’re no longer going to wallow at the bottom of the league. But there’s still work to do. Lonzo Ball needs to step up. They used the second overall pick on him and while he showed flashes of excellence last year, he largely underperformed. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are two bright, versatile future stars and Lebron is going to love Josh Hart. They’ll work well together. The rest of the offseason was weird, though. Last summer, Paul George told reporters he wanted to go to LA. He instead got traded to OKC. LA probably figured he still wanted to come there, so they didn’t pursue him aggressively. He re-signed with OKC. I feel like this might happen with Kawhi Leonard next summer, another star who voiced interest in the Lakers and ended up somewhere else. So to make up for this, the Lakers signed center Javale McGee, forward Lance Stephenson, and veteran PG Rajon Rondo. And the west is so stacked that this team will have to be near flawless to live up to Laker fans’ expectations. Kuzma, Ball, Ingram, and Hart are all future stars, but if they want to win now, Lebron has a task ahead of him.

Memphis Grizzlies: Last year is in the past and this year looks bright. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, their two best players and some of the most underrated players in the league, both went down with injury last year, leaving the load on Tyreke Evans. Plus, they had dysfunction in their coaching department. It was just a bad year. But they got the fourth overall pick out of it, and drafted Jaren Jackson. If Jaren Jackson performs from the get-go, they could be a second-round playoff team. If he doesn’t, they’ll struggle more but still have a realistic chance to get to the postseason. Along with a healthy Conley and Gasol, they picked up jack of all trades Kyle Anderson and role player Garrett Temple. Losing Evans might hurt, but I can see them back in the playoffs this year.

Miami Heat: Every Heat fan is sick of Hassan Whiteside. He’s so inconsistent. He’s so good when he’s on and a waste of money when he isn’t. If he shows up to play this year like he did two years ago, maybe his huge contract won’t be such a mistake. Goran Dragic is a really solid point guard, but I think it was a stretch to throw him into the All- Star Game last year. Their roster is full of “talent” but no talent that can push them past the first round of the playoffs. They need to pull off a trade for Jimmy Butler without giving up Dragic or Justise Winslow. Winslow isn’t anything super special, he’s just a solid role player. Unfortunately, they botched a trade attempt last week. They should try again because Butler could be just what they need.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo is key. And he’s so good. Unfortunately, the team around him isn’t that impressive. Khris Middleton is a good role player but isn’t a really special shooting guard. Malcolm Brogdon isn’t as good as he should be, same with Thon Maker. These guys are underperforming. Jabari Parker was definitely the second option behind Giannis. For any other team, this is a recipe for disaster. But I have faith in Giannis. He’s unstoppable. Once he develops his jumper, he could lead this team deep into the postseason. He’s going to be a consistent MVP candidate for the next five to seven years unless something goes seriously wrong. He’ll drag the Bucks to the playoffs, but I’m not sure how successful they’ll be if they get a lower seed and have to face off against the Raptors or the Celtics.

Minnesota Timberwolves: They’ve got such a solid roster. They even had Derek Rose looking decent in the playoffs last year. But this team has some serious problems. Andrew Wiggins is a season or two away from being considered a bust. He just isn’t producing and hasn’t his whole career. Karl Anthony-Towns is really good but isn’t producing wins. Nobody doubts his talent, but he needs to step up. So that leaves Jimmy Butler, who has voiced how much he wants to leave. He’s sick of Towns and Wiggins lacking intensity. For anyone who doubts the impact of team chemistry, take a look at last year’s Wolves. They were expected to be one of the better teams in the west. They barely slid into the 8 seed. If they’re smart, Butler is gone within the first month of the season through a trade to Miami or Houston. He’s got a cloud over them that is ruining any chemistry this team has. I doubt they’ll even make the playoffs this year.

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he was the best player in the NBA. This is his season to prove it. He showed flashes of the beast that he is last year after Demarcus Cousins got hurt and he led this team to not only upset the Trailblazers in the postseason, but to sweep them in four games in the first round. They even won a game against the Warriors in the second round. All this was without Cousins due to injury. Now Demarcus is gone and this is 100% AD’s team. Jrue Holiday is a really underrated point guard, so he’ll provide support to Davis. But Anthony is going to have to play with the intensity and on the level he played with for the second half of last season all the way through this year. If he can, they’re a playoff team, but he’s injury prone. Pelicans fans’ faith in him is warranted, but they’re in trouble if he gets hurt.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis is a toned-down version of Anthony Davis, but he’s still super good. Unfortunately, he’s hurt, so Knicks fans will have to settle for Tim Hardaway Jr. and rookie Kevin Knox at least for the first couple months. Hardaway is good, and Knox put on a show during the Summer League, but the one with the biggest load on his back is center Enes Kanter. He’s starting the first season of his career where it’s his team to lead. He’s been behind Russell Westbrook and Porzingis until this year. Kanter is a nightly double-double machine, but it’ll be interesting to see how many wins he can get them. If Porzingis can come back early enough and play on the level he was playing on before his ACL injury last year, they could make the playoffs as a low seed. If he can’t, it’ll be another lottery season for the Knicks.

Oklahoma City Thunder: They had a really solid offseason. Credit GM Sam Presti. A year ago, OKC fans were convinced the only way Paul George would stay with them was with a championship. He was still vocal with the idea of going to LA. Well, they were eliminated first round of the playoffs by the Jazz, but Paul is there for four more years. And they dumped Carmelo Anthony for point guard Dennis Schroeder. Now nobody’s really panicked that Russell Westbrook is hurt for the first few games, because they’ve got a backup who plays on the level of half the league’s starters. The Westbrook-George duo is going to work. They had a year to figure the kinks out last season. They’ll make it to the playoffs, and could even advance a round if they live up to their potential.

Orlando Magic: Their best player is known for his dunks. The rest of the Magic is underwhelming. Aaron Gordon is a pretty good power forward, and can put on a spectacle when he throws down. He’s growing into a better all-around player, but I’m going to hold off on saying this is his year until I see it. Fans have been saying that the last couple seasons. Evan Fournier is a decent shooting guard; he can huck threes and play tight D. Nikola Vucevic is solid on offense. He just can’t defend. Magic fans are most excited for sophomore Jonathan Isaac and rookie Mo Bamba. They’re both future superstars. They played really well together during the summer league, and if they can tap what they showed then they’ll win some games. The Magic really just need a point guard. Luckily, they’ll be able to get one pretty high in the draft next summer because they’ll probably be a lottery team.

Philadelphia 76ers: Hats off to everyone that trusted the process. It was a really rough five years from 2012 to 2017, when they won an average of eighteen games a year. All that led up to last year, when they made the second round of the playoffs with center Joel Embiid and power forward turned point guard Ben Simmons as their stars. Even with injury prone Embiid out the last couple weeks of the regular season, Simmons carried that team like a veteran. But it was his first season of NBA action. He’s a mini Lebron. And for those disregarding Markelle Fultz because he sat out his rookie year, take a look at Ben. Let’s see what he does this year. I think he’ll have a chip on his shoulder. Their first game of the year is against the Celtics, and I think they’ll end the season against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Phoenix Suns: It seemed like the Suns were copying the Sixers pattern of tanking continuously to secure good draft picks and build up a good young roster until this offseason, when they went and acquired a bunch of veterans. Trevor Ariza, a really underrated forward came to them during free agency, but they traded young prospect Marquese Chriss for 30- year- old Ryan Anderson. So they’ve got a “win now” mentality, but they don’t have nearly enough to actually win. They’ve got their eyes set on Devin Booker blossoming into a top five shooting guard this year, but they might have to run him at point because they don’t have anyone to really fill in that spot. And Booker is a scorer, but his passing ability is questionable. They need Josh Jackson to improve substantially from last year, when their fourth overall pick didn’t look like he was ready for the league. And above all, they’re praying Deandre Ayton, their first overall pick this year, immediately develops into the next Shaquille O’Neal. If all this happens, they’ll get some wins, but it’s not going to be a surprise when they tank again.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard is one of the best players in the league. And CJ McCollum is another top five shooting guard. This is one of the best guard duos in the NBA, probably third behind Golden State and Houston. But they aren’t producing when it counts in the postseason. Because when you look at the rest of the team, they’re really young and inexperienced. Over the summer, they lost two essential veteran bigs to free agency, leaving them with a roster full of players in their third- or fourth-year playing minutes that players with more experience should be. It’s got to be infuriating for McCollum and Lillard, two stars in their prime who aren’t going anywhere. I’d give them one more year. If they can’t make a deep playoff run this year, it might be time to look at the roster more critically.

Sacramento Kings: They’ll be bad again. Probably the worst team in the league. They just can’t get any player to make an impact. Even when Demarcus Cousins was there, his performance didn’t lead to wins. Now, their roster has nobody even close to his level. De’aaron Fox didn’t do anything last year, and he was supposed to be the future of that franchise. He’s not a bust yet, but let’s see what he does or doesn’t do this year. Buddy Hield, considered by many to be the jewel of the Demarcus Cousins trade two years ago, is nothing but inconsistent. He’s getting closer and closer to bust status. Marvin Bagley III, their second overall pick this summer, has got to give them life this year. If not wins, just a reason for people to watch. The best-case scenario for this team is Fox sprouting into his role as a starting point guard and Bagley winning Rookie of the Year and becoming a solid piece in an otherwise dysfunctional lineup. They still won’t win thirty games.

San Antonio Spurs: No disrespect to Demar Derozan, but they could have done better in the Kawhi Leonard trade. Leonard voiced his desire to leave San Antonio early this summer, and the Spurs organization scrambled to get something for him before he left in 2019. So they sent him to Toronto in exchange for star shooting guard Demar Derozan. Derozan will be good dynamic talent for them, but San Antonio must have forgotten how dominant Leonard is when he plays. He’s probably a top five player. Personally, I wouldn’t have traded him for anything less than Steph Curry. But this team will be fine, because they always are. Lamarcus Aldridge took over last year when Leonard was out, and pairing him with Derozan will create an offensive powerhouse. The rest of the team, for the first time in a long time, is centered around young talent and not Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. And no matter what, they’ve got coach Gregg Popovich. They’ll be in the playoffs again.

Toronto Raptors: On the flip side, Toronto needs Leonard to be healthy for this trade to benefit them. And I think he will be. Now they just need to convince him that Toronto is where he wants to be so he can give them effort because he has the chance to take this team really far. He’s essential to them because he’s probably the best two-way player in the game and they’ve got to deal with defending stars like Kyrie, Simmons, and Oladipo regularly. They totally messed up the chemistry that Derozan had with point guard Kyle Lowry, but that’ll come back soon enough. They’ve got some solid role players in Fred VanVleet and Jonas Valanciunas. If Kawhi shows up to play, this team has the opportunity to do some damage in the Eastern conference.

Utah Jazz: This is a super solid roster, and to think fans were angry when Gordon Hayward left for Boston last summer. Rudy Gobert is the best defensive player in the league; he can lock down anyone. And while Derrick Favors isn’t blocking the rim like Gobert, he’s a really elite defender who can step into Rudy’s shoes at any moment. Donovan Mitchell wasn’t just a pleasant surprise in his rookie year, he was their star. He wasn’t just a top rookie, he was one of the best players in the league last year period. The roster just works. It’s balanced, and the bench players are all going to get their due playing time. Expect to see this team as one of the top four in the west.

Washington Wizards: And that takes us to the Wizards. This team will either be an elite contender in the east or a dumpster fire. It all depends on how John Wall’s fiery personality meshes with the other fiery personalities of Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers. This team already doesn’t like Wall, it was pretty obvious when he was out last season. This team does like Bradley Beal, and for good reason. Beal is one of the best offensive players in the league. And Otto Porter is super underrated. He isn’t much of a scorer, but he produces in just about every other way. They’ve got a solid roster, but it all comes down to chemistry. John Wall will either rely on his pure skill enough to take them into the second round of the playoffs, or his ego will get in the way of things and they’ll struggle for a low seed.