The 2019-20 season is almost here, so it’s time to be bold about what we think will actually happen. For some, these predictions may not seem incredibly bold while they may be preposterous to others.
But basketball is back, and that in itself is worth celebrating:
1. Ben Simmons makes 11 three-pointers
Let’s dive right into the whacky minutia, albeit with a topic many are watching closely: Simmons’ jump shot. He’s a career 0-17 shooter from three, plays with the ball in his hands and is the second-best player on a team whose top scorer does damage fifteen feet and in. The Sixers lost their top shooter in JJ Redick, added another big man in Al Horford and are experimenting with a massive roster.
Simmons needs to develop that jumper at this point. My prediction is rooted in volume as much as optimism about its efficiency. He is going to have to start shooting them with the way this roster is constructed, but more on the Sixers later…
2. Ja Morant leads the league in turnovers
Last season, no players had more turnovers than James Harden (387) and Russell Westbrook (325). Their volume and the amount they’re asked to create dictated those metrics. Now united in Houston with the Rockets, both Harden and Westbrook figure to see a decline in overall turnovers.
Who does that open the mantle for? A season ago, rookie Trae Young was third in giveaways. A season prior, Ben Simmons made the top-five as a rookie. High-volume youngsters always find themselves atop this list, and Ja Morant should have the opportunity to join. First-year Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins has noted a high-octane offense will be directed by Morant, which should lead to plenty of opportunities to see the rookie point guard turn it over.
3. Trae Young makes the All-Star Team
In 23 games after the All-Star Break, Trae Young averaged 24.7 points, 9.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds on 44.2 percent shooting and 34.8 percent shooting from three. Even if this season falls short just a tad and those numbers dip, he’s still producing at an All-Star level. Now he’s flanked by another shooter and complementary playmaker in Cam Reddish, has another year under his belt and already has good chemistry with John Collins.
The Atlanta Hawks aren’t going to be bad. They have a few strong, young shooters, a foundational player (Young) and a system that is built around their youth. The Hawks will sneak up on people sooner than later.
4. Lauri Markkanen also makes the All-Star Team
A few months ago, I wrote about Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. as a blossoming frontcourt tandem, and I’m doubling down on it. Markkanen is ready to explode; 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds after the All-Star Break came while dipping far below his normal three-point percentage. If those numbers come up to average, he’s north of 20 per game.
What makes Markkanen even more intriguing is the breadth of shooters the Chicago Bulls now possess. If Markkanen needs to do damage inside, he can. If he needs to be out on the perimeter, he can. The Bulls will be much improved this season and have some tricky pieces, but Lauri figures to be the focal point of such an attack this year.
5. Robert Williams starts the most games at the 5 for the Boston Celtics
In his recent podcast with Kevin Arnovitz looking at the most fascinating teams this season, ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted what is fairly obvious to league insiders: Enes Kanter doesn’t belong in Boston’s starting lineup.
As a scorer, pairing Kanter with the second unit maximizes their output and staggers him with a more ball screen-oriented point guard in Kemba Walker. Expect Kanter and Marcus Smart to spend a lot of time together on the second unit, while Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum flank Kemba in the starting group.
That begs the question: who does start at the 5? It may be the season of the Timelord in Beantown. Daniel Theis and Vincent Poirier are more niche role players than starters, so that leaves Robert Williams, the second-year pro out of Texas A&M. He has reportedly impressed with his work and improvements this summer, and while I don’t usually trust these reports, they’re coming from Brad Stevens himself so the expectation is high.
Williams’ tool kit fits well in theory with the first group: Screen and roll, catch lobs and protect the rim while they switch 2 thru 4. He’s a mega athlete and a great dunker that, if all goes well, will have some sort of role in 2020. He may not play more than 18 or 20 minutes a night, but putting Williams with that starting group makes a lot of sense.
6. Kemba Walker has below a 35 percent usage in the pick-and-roll
Walker was deployed in the pick-and-roll as a ball-handler 46.8 percent of the time last season in Charlotte. Nearly half of his offense was ball screens! The Celtics fought hard against the Kyrie Irving isolation and don’t want their offense to turn into another one-man show. There’s too much talent in Boston for Brad Stevens to let that happen. Thus, look for Stevens to limit Walker’s pick-and-roll usage, and for the team to employ an offense similar to that from Isaiah Thomas’ days in Boston:
7. The Indiana Pacers actively shop Domantas Sabonis by the trade deadline
Make a note: this does not mean the Pacers necessarily trade Sabonis, but his name will be a popular one in February. The long-term pairing of Sabonis and center Myles Turner, whom the Pacers recently signed to a $72 million extension that runs through 2023, would commit Indy to paying and playing two bigs that cramp the team’s spacing.
Sabonis is currently extension eligible and will be a restricted free agent in July 2020. He and Turner only shared the court for 429 minutes a season ago, or less than seven minutes per game. The Pacers will reportedly experiment with both in the starting lineup, but this two-big experiment could be brief. Back in January, I wrote about this pairing and the potential issues the Pacers would run into trying to make it work.
Logistics of a trade would hinge upon the success of contract negotiation discussions. If Sabonis and the Pacers ink one, his outgoing salary would change under the Poison Pill Provision within the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Why am I so steadfast on the need for an eventual departure for Sabonis? Well…
8. The Pacers 5-Man Unit of Brodgon-Oladipo-Lamb-Warren-Turner is a top ten five-man rotation
I love this group for the Pacers. They have everything. Everybody 1 thru 5 shoots it. Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon are the perfect backcourt complement since they both handle and create but space the floor effectively. They’re also an elite defensive duo. Turner protects the rim and allows them to guard more tightly.
The offense should have improved spacing with a shooter like T.J. Warren at the 4, and that will only enhance the ability of Turner and Oladipo:
Sabonis fits well with this group, but doesn’t maximize their utility. We’ll get to a point by mid-January where this five-man unit is so potent on both ends that Sabonis has to get squeezed. Pay attention to the rotation patterns and lineups in Indianapolis, particularly down the stretch of close games.
9. LuKa Doncic-Kristaps Porzings-Seth curry is a highly-rated trio analytically
Most elite analytical lineups belong to the league’s best teams. Their on-court metrics carry them to victory. But that statistic is fairly empty because of how intuitive the knowledge is: The teams that have success also have the pairings of players with the best on-court metrics. Duh.
What can be more exciting is to pay attention to either three or four-man groups that far outpace the overall record of their team. In other words, some teams aren’t very good, which makes strong on-court plus-minus numbers from three-man units on those teams even more impressive.
A dark horse for that distinction this season could belong to the Dallas Mavericks, with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Put those two with the outside sniping work of Seth Curry and this is a potent offensive trio. What could drag their numbers down is the frequent need for tinkering the players around them, starting with Dwight Powell. He and Porzingis are a curious fit on offense because Porzingis can play inside and out, but Powell can really only do the former—and that’s off slashes, dump-offs and glass cleaning.
Curry returns to Dallas, where he enjoyed a career season in 2016-17 under Rick Carlisle and shot 42 percent. He’ll enjoy the combined attention that goes onto Porzingis and Doncic while they’ll applaud the extra spacing he provides both.
10. Kyle Lowry finishes the season with the Toronto Raptors
A trendy pick to be traded mid-season, Kyle Lowry just signed a one-year $31 million extension and has a current cap hit of $34.9 million with the Toronto Raptors. That team is a bit of an enigma after losing Kawhi Leonard, though they still should be good enough to push for, if not make, the playoffs. How well they do in the early part of the season could dictate what moves they make by the deadline.
Regardless of their record, moving a $35 million contract at the deadline is a bit of a nightmare. There are deals that could work and give the Raptors something of an asset, but likely not one that would help them remain in the playoff race.
Pascal Siakam is pretty dang good, they still have shooting bigs in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and will be aided by the return of OG Anunoby. Writing the Raptors off too soon should be done at your own risk.
11. Luke Kennard finishes third on the Detroit Pistons in scoring
Few teams have surprise potential like the Detroit Pistons. The Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond pairing up front proved explosive a season ago. (Griffin is likely now the NBA’s most underrated star.) Bruce Brown is a pretty good defender on the perimeter, and the addition of Derrick Rose gives them plenty of scorers and playmakers in their backcourt based on the matchup. Tony Snell is a solid 3-and-D wing that fits with this group.
What they need, desperately, is outside shooting. Welcome Luke Kennard, the Pistons’ top chance to construct a strong offense. Much hinges on Kennard’s development as he enters his third pro season. A below-average athlete that doesn’t shoot well off screening actions and possesses a negative wingspan is not ideal at the 2-guard spot.
But there’s hope. He finished last season shooting 42.7 percent from three after the All-Star Break, and was 9-15 in the playoffs from deep. There’s a chance he just got hot at the right time, so it’s a stretch to say the Pistons will vault into the top-to-middle tier of the East because of him.
What is reasonable, however, is predicting another strong step forward. 15 to 16 points a game, around 38 percent from three and a lot of minutes with Drummond on a pretty good team is a bold but realistic and necessary prediction for a guy that has yet to average ten a game in his career.
12. Markelle Fultz starts 20 games for the Orlando Magic
I’m rooting hard for Markelle Fultz. He’s been struck with a very strange affliction, whether you believe the cause is physical or mental. A former top overall pick has lost his shooting form, and it’s so drastic and game-changing that he’s barely able to be effective without it.
I’m neither saying Fultz’s shot is fixed, nor that he’ll be a great shooter. But the guy is going to have an opportunity with the Orlando Magic and will make plays when he’s on the floor. DJ Augustin, the incumbent starter, provides much-needed three-point shooting and journeyman steadiness to their lineup. But he is begging to be replaced by a break-the-defense playmaker like Fultz—if he plays close to the potential he flashed at the University of Washington.
13. Raptors, Bulls, Pistons and magic battle for the East’s final playoff spots until the Season’s final week
Injuries notwithstanding, there are a few teams that seem like playoff locks in the East: The Milwaukee Bucks, 76ers, Celtics and Pacers. The Miami Heat retooled with Jimmy Butler and should be safely in playoff territory. How the Brooklyn Nets adjust to life with Kyrie Irving will be something to monitor, but they’re talented enough to be in that final group.
That’s six of the eight playoff teams right there.
The final two slots will be fought over by four teams: the Bulls, Pistons, Magic and Raptors. The defending champions and the Magic have elite defensive tendencies. The Pistons have the best player of the group and a solid supporting cast. The young team in this mix, the Bulls have the potential to surprise if enough players mature at the same time.
I’ve teetered back and forth every other day over which of these four will make the postseason. If I’m forced to make a prediction, I’ll go with the Raptors and Pistons, but the separation between them all is very slim.
14. L.A. Lakers Perform as a 58+ win team with Anthony Davis as center and a 43-win team with him at the 4
We assume the Los Angeles Lakers will fix their issues with talent alone, as the combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is too powerful and dangerous to bet against. This Lakers team still lacks shooting, however, even though they’ve brought in a lot of guys who can hit threes, including Danny Green and Jared Dudley. But a premier outside snipers isn’t among the group yet, though that simply means the team will operate best with more than one of its floor-stretchers out there.
Unfortunately, surrounding LeBron and Davis could be Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, two aging and below-average three-point threats. Davis has long held an aversion to playing at the 5, and the statistics of his impact indicate that if he’s to play the 4 on a team with LeBron and a rim-bound center like JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, the spacing quickly disappears for both superstars.
The Lakers’ best lineups will likely feature James, Davis at the 5 and Kyle Kuzma at the 4. With those three and one shooter like Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers could be dominant offensively. Change their spacing with James, Davis and McGee, however, and this team looks drastically different.
15. Scott Brooks is the first coach fired
A new regime is in the nation’s capital, and Scott Brooks was never its guy as coach. We’ve seen changes already start to take root, particularly with the naming of analytics guru Dean Oliver as an assistant coach. Such a move is indicative of an organizational shift, and Brooks—a player’s coach whose teams have never fully embraced the three-point shot—may be in line to clash with the Washington Wizards’ direction.
Combine that with the multiple injuries and impending rebuild this franchise faces, and it becomes unlikely Brooks makes it beyond this season. If we’re saying this already in early October, he isn’t likely to make it through the holidays.
16. Michael Porter Jr. is the Denver Nuggets’ second-best player
Believe the hype…
Michael Porter Jr. was a top talent out of high school, and his skillset is tailor-made for the current game. He shoots, runs, defends, has size, playmaking and finishes above the rim. He quite literally is an All-Star talent.
Porter hopes to be healthy, and if he is, look for him to push the Denver Nuggets to heights they have yet to see. He could even join the starting rotation quickly if he plays as well as the buzz around his summer was. He’s my pick for Rookie of the Year.
Let’s get bolder and more wild than just the individual accolade. On a talented Nuggets team, he’ll emerge by the holidays as the team’s second-best player behind Nikola Jokic. He’s an outstanding shooter and has size, which will earn him trust and minutes before he is an offensive focal point.
That reminds me…
17. The Nuggets trade for Bradley Beal
A match made in heaven is bound to happen when the Wizards take themselves out of competition by Christmas and the Nuggets follow the blueprint set forth by the Raptors and Masai Ujiri a year ago. Making a competitive trade mid-season for an All-Star veteran would push them over the hump in the Western Conference and give the Nuggets a uniquely talented team.
The Nuggets certainly have the trade assets to pull it off. With Beal on the roster, one of Gary Harris or Jamal Murray would be expendable. Paul Millsap could get bumped out of the lineup if they love Porter, and other interesting pieces like Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt could be attractive for a Wizards rebuild.
Now is the time for the Nuggets to make that push. Their salaries dictate it, and the longer they wait, the more time the teams in Los Angeles get to build their supporting casts. Expect an aggressive move, and perhaps an overpay, from the Nuggets to get their team to championship caliber.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of October 15 2019.
READ PART 2 HERE:
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.