50 Important Predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Season: Part 2

If you didn’t read Part 1, do it now. We hit big trades for the Denver Nuggets, the optimal usage for the Los Angeles Lakers and some thoughts on the race for eighth in the Eastern Conference.

So let’s keep this thing rolling and get bolder than before.

18. The Brooklyn Nets do not trade for a third star

With Kevin Durant injured and out for likely the entire season, the Brooklyn Nets are going to rely heavily on Kyrie Irving to create offense. While their roster is deep enough to qualify for a postseason appearance without Durant, there is no secret they’ll eventually want to add a third superstar to maximize the championship potential.

The question is, why add that player now when Durant is out?

None of the Nets’ high-salary players are on expiring contracts, save Joe Harris, who is signed for a modest $7.6 million. Caris LeVert, the next best trade prospect, recently signed an extension, so he is only trade eligible under the Poison Pill Provision, which complicates his outgoing salary. Players like Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan have much more enticing contracts a year from now when they are closer to their expiration date. In essence, it appears purposeful with the way Sean Marks managed the Nets’ transactions to set them up for a big trade during the 2020-21 season.

Brooklyn has enough talent in a shallow conference to make the playoffs without forcing a deal right now. Instead of selling the farm before the harvest can be reaped, why not grow their crop a little longer?

19. Jeff Teague finishes the season outside of Minneapolis

If there is one veteran I’m confident makes a move, it’s Jeff Teague. The Minnesota Timberwolves are likely to finish on the outside of the deep Western Conference playoff picture (again…), and their cap situation is a bit strange in future years. They already have $109.3 million in salary committed for the 2020-21 campaign, and they’ll still need to find a starting point guard. It’s likely they’ll have to swallow their Gorgui Dieng contract, so how do they create a starting point guard out of that small an amount of cap space?

The easiest answer is to sell Teague at the deadline, save some money now and absorb a young point guard they can give an audition to next year.

It’s clear the Timberwolves are moving in a different direction under Gersson Rosas: They are super long at all positions, and likely want a long-term replacement for Teague that is going to be more switchable against wings. Even if the long-term cap ramifications indicate an opportunity to sign Teague above the cap, the long-term build of this roster is trending differently. He’ll be 32 at the end of the season and likely ready to find a contender as his last shot at a title.

At this point in time, no contending team is in desperate need of a veteran point guard to come in and play that role, but the right opportunity could present itself as the season drags on. For Teague’s sake, let’s hope he makes it out of Minnesota and their middling outlook. He is a vastly underrated point guard who has proven himself a high-level playmaker if not called on to do to much.

Plus, he’s a career 35.6 percent three-point shooter and has been above 8.5 assists per 36 minutes over the last three seasons.

20. Andre Roberson is an impactful late-season pickup for a playoff team

Speaking of mid-season trade candidates, another expiring contract could help alleviate tax concerns for the Oklahoma City Thunder. A month ago, I wrote a piece on Andre Roberson and how the right team could find value in him as a defensive-minded role player that screens and cuts when surrounded by shooters.

He’s missed most of the last two seasons while the NBA has experienced a shooting boom. Such offenses could do wonders to mask many of the offensive limitations he holds.

Few people are better at making impromptu backdoor cuts when the defender ignores him:

First, Roberson must prove his health and value in Oklahoma City, however. That may be difficult in a shooting-challenged lineup anchored by center Steven Adams and combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But if someone thinks outside the box and sees his value as a defensive-stopper, Roberson will find a new home.

He is owed $10.7 million this year while the Thunder are sitting $4.1 million above the luxury tax. They could easily trade him, get a long-term asset or project and avoid the luxury tax. If they’re out of the playoff race by mid-January, this would be a very Sam Presti move to make.

21. Darius Garland finishes third in Rookie of the Year voting

Michael Porter Jr. (Denver Nuggets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans) and Darius Garland (Cleveland Cavaliers): No three rookies will have more of a chance to make immediate on-court impact and be a large part of their team’s offense. Cam Reddish (Atlanta Hawks) is a bit too auxiliary, and Jarrett Culver (Minnesota Timberwolves) doesn’t project as a numbers-getter.

Garland shoots and drives it, so he’s hard to take away in all facets. Plus, he has an already-elite handle and change-of-pace dribble:

Garland is seriously good. He was the No. 2 overall prospect on my big board, will certainly get opportunity to score with the Cavaliers and is being slept on quite a bit. Rookie guards that have the ball in their hands tend to go high in Rookie of the Year voting, and I think Garland’s efficiency and shooting help him beat out Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies. Plus, he may shoot over 40 percent from three.

22. Zion Williamson shoots below 28 percent from three

Speaking of rookies, Zion is going to find himself cramped when it comes to spacing in the New Orleans Pelicans offense. Derrick Favors, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are not the ideal fits next to him until they prove their catch-and-shoot value. Nobody is going to give Zion driving lanes, either. He’s going to be dared to shoot. A lot.

This isn’t to say he’ll have a poor season or struggle with the adjustment. Williamson shot well at Duke; he just didn’t stretch that far behind the college line.

He’ll have some adjusting to do this season.

23. Brook Lopez shoots below 33 percent from three

But when we talk about shooting regressions, nobody is primed for a bigger drop than Brook Lopez. His percentage from three stood at 36.5 last season, which is very good from a stretch big. But it wasn’t all sunshine and daisies.

Lopez finished January with a shooting percentage of 38.4 from deep, then tanked and went 18-71 (25.4 percent) in February. He rebounded with an incredible March, hitting an asinine 43.0 percent and making forty three-pointers. Then the cold streak came back to stay.

From April 1st through the end of the playoffs, Lopez was 25-95 (26.3 percent) and kept firing away. What a roller-coaster season.

As such, it’s hard to think that Lopez will be immune to such shooting woes once again. Perhaps, his initial ascent and hot-shooting March saved him from a number much closer to his lower marks? Consider me a Brook Lopez fan, but not a believer that his shot will reach these heights again.

24. Anthony Edwards becomes firmly entrenched as the top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft by January 15th

Have you seen the guy?

Nothing against Cole Anthony, the other top playmaker prospect, but Edwards is a special type of athlete. His combination of that and his savvy will attract NBA scouts, making him the prize of this year’s draft class.

As a side note: My initial thoughts are that this 2020 class is fairly thin of high-level talent, and there’s a cliff outside of the top three or four that is pretty large. I actually like the depth of the top-end talent and the top-ten guys, but am not as thrilled with the back-end of the first round.

25. No team wins fewer games than the Charlotte Hornets

If the chase for Anthony Edwards begins today, the Charlotte Hornets appear in pretty good shape. They are an NBA team in The Year 2019 whose top scoring options are Terry Rozier and, uh, I guess Nicolas Batum?

It’s going to be a long season, Hornets fans. The last over-under I saw for their season win total was 22.5

Hammer the under.

26. Julius Randle single-handedly leads the New York Knicks to… 24 wins

Can we talk about how good Julius Randle is?

Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 23.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 54 percent from the field. The only other player to hit those marks over the same timeframe? Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Randle’s also been in the top ten percent in league-wide free throw rate each of the last two seasons. Those are important traits of an alpha player, particularly when they shoot above 70 percent from the charity stripe.

Whilst hidden on fading teams in New Orleans and Los Angeles, Randle has quietly been an All-Star-quality player the past two seasons. He may fly under the radar again on a New York Knicks squad likely to miss the playoffs.

But without much talent around him, he’s going to single-handedly help the Knicks avoid the bottom few selections.

The New Orleans Pelicans went 8-18 last season without Anthony Davis as Randle led the way. Such a pace from an arguably more-talented Knicks team would get them to 24 victories.

27. The Knicks have the NBA’s Worst Defense

Mar 15, 2019; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Bryn Forbes (11) shoots the ball over New York Knicks small forward Kevin Knox (20) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Now the bad news for Knicks fans: There are some really strange player combinations on this team. There are like, twelve point guards and sixteen power forwards. It’s very odd.

Frank Ntilikina seems to always find his way glued to the bench, even after his great FIBA performances this summer, and the presence of shot-blocking pogo stick Mitchell Robinson won’t enough for the Knicks to post high-level numbers.

Kevin Knox, Marcus Morris and Ignas Brazdeikis are all slow-footed and clunky to play the 3 for long stretches. Julius Randle at the 4 means defensive issues abound, despite all the nice things I wrote about him above. Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock have their own deficiencies, Dennis Smith Jr. falls asleep more than an actor in a MyPillow infomercial and rookie RJ Barrett has a long way to go before he’s reliable.

There’s a lot of offensive talent here, but don’t fall in love with it. They’ll bleed points at the other end.

28. Brandon Ingram leads the New Orleans Pelicans in scoring

Back to the Pelicans for a second because, well, they’re incredibly fascinating. Zion is going to initially struggle a bit with the intricacies of NBA defenses. I’m still not sure what to make of the Lonzo Ball-Jrue Holiday-JJ Redick combinations, and I know somebody talented up front will get squeezed if they all play together.

What I do know is that I still believe in Brandon Ingram, quite a bit. He averaged 18.3 points per game a season ago and was actually super efficient from two-point range. (Ingram was 52.1 percent from inside the arc, including 68.1 percent at the rim.)

He’s gotten a lot stronger and fixed those deficiencies in his game. And for a guy that is always considered a plus shooter, there’s room for him to take more threes. Last year, his shot distribution hit a career-low from deep, with only 12.9 percent of his attempts coming from deep.

He’s a big-time scorer that is overlooked on this Pelicans core. Over the course of his final 25 games last year, Ingram put up 20.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and shot 36.6 percent from three. Some of his games were sensational:

He’s going to lead them in scoring this year. It may not be north of 20 a night, but he’ll have a large impact.

29. Carmelo Anthony signs with the Los Angeles Lakers

He’s going to play somewhere this season, can’t you feel it?

30. DeAndre Ayton puts up All-Star-caliber numbers when sharing the floor with Ricky Rubio

Analytics can be tricky at times, particularly on-off stats. They are so dependent on a great number of variables: the replacement players, the success of the team overall, fit of a player in a scheme, etc. But over a large sample, where one player continually rates high by an analytical measure year after year, it’s pretty easy to tell if someone is a key piece to their team’s success.

Enter Ricky Rubio, the newest signing of the Phoenix Suns and the on-off king, as shown by Cleaning the Glass:

Seriously, Rubio has been a positive on the floor for seven of his eight professional seasons, particularly during his time in Minnesota. Think about the defensive metrics and how important the increase in turnover rate will be to a Suns team that has struggled to generate stops the last few years.

Rubio will especially be able to facilitate easy buckets for DeAndre Ayton out of the pick-and-roll, which is the whole point of his signing.

The Spanish point guard simply has a knack for making his bigs better. He should do the same with Ayton, who put up respectable numbers as a rookie. With another playmaker at the 4 in Dario Saric and a premier scoring threat in Devin Booker, some teams may not have the luxury of focusing on the Rubio-Ayton pick-and-roll as their top priority. Look for a really good year out of Ayton.

31. The Sacramento Kings regret firing Dave Joerger in favor of Luke Walton

Dave Joerger is one hell of an offensive coach. The Sacramento Kings were a pleasure to watch a season ago, running super fast amid some unique offensive sets. Joerger didn’t blow anybody away with the drawing up of masterful plays, but everything in his playbook flowed together well and utilized the tools he had.

It was a master class in deception by keeping his plays all blended and fused from the same few formations.

Ultimately, Joerger didn’t win over the front office and failed to make the postseason. He was fired, and Luke Walton took over. While I’m not a Walton pessimist, I think they’ll quickly find out the value of the coach they used to have roaming the sidelines. Joerger is a damn good one, and that will come to be seen if Sacramento struggles out of the gate.

32. Chris Paul ends up in a Miami Heat uniform

Okay, time to break out the big guns…

Once the rumor about Chris Paul joining the Miami Heat came out this September, there was nothing that was going to stop it. More than anything, that statement is a testament to Paul’s tenacious personality and incredible belief in himself. He’s the master at leveraging scenarios to get his way into the situation that benefits him most.

Regardless of whether he is owed almost $200 million over the next four years, Paul is not going to finish this season as a member of the Thunder.

With Paul, Jimmy Butler and the upstart Bam Adebayo, the Heat suddenly become a really intriguing team. How the cap mechanics of this trade, (and whether Pat Riley would yield Justise Winslow in the trade), are certainly barriers. But the Thunder are approaching a rebuild and don’t need to eat CP3’s deal in order to do so. If someone, anyone, should want him, Presti should pick up the phone and make it happen.

33. The Heat finish with a top-three defense

I’m a big believer in the Heat, with or without Cliff Paul’s twin. They’ve got a lot of strange but talented pieces. Jimmy Butler can be the alpha in town and carry the Heat to the playoffs on his own. He’s that good, and it gets forgotten because of how stubborn a persona he gives off.

Offensively, I really like the potential for Butler and rookie Tyler Herro to fit together in Erik Spoelstra’s offense:

The presence of those two and Kelly Olynyk should open the floor for guys like Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo to play to their optimum roles.

But the highlight of this team is that they have virtually no holes on defense. Herro, Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic are all sub-par, but none are incredibly disqualifying on their own. Winslow and Butler have the size and versatility to cover any backcourt weaknesses, and Bam is a really freaking good defender. He tested out very well according to most Cleaning the Glass metrics: When he was on the floor, the Heat gave up 106.4 points per 100 possessions. Across a whole season, that rating would vault the Heat to the third-best defense statistically.

Last season’s top five defenses were Utah, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors. Toronto is drastically different without Kawhi Leonard, the Thunder took a hit by losing Westbrook and the Pacers underwent some roster changes. Who was sixth? The Miami Heat.

They now have an alpha and a star. They have a super mobile and athletic big man upfront. They have some specialty shooters. The pieces are weird, but this team could be really, really good.

Read Part 3 here:

50 Important Predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Season: Part 3

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of October 5, 2019.