Before the first game of the season, I threw out 50 fairly bold predictions for the NBA season, all of which were rooted in optimism and belief. As always, one subtle action can change how the dominos fall, whether it’s an injury (here’s looking at you, Stephen Curry) or the unforeseen ascension of talent.
We’re not interested in moving the goalposts here. Accountability is demanded of every team, and so I’m ready to hold myself equally accountable for the notable hits and misses from those 50 predictions.
Where I was Right
KLAY THOMPSON DOES NOT PLAY A SINGLE MINUTE
Things in the Bay Area are much worse than originally thought.
The 2019-20 edition of the Golden State Warriors is almost nothing like the team that made five consecutive NBA Finals. Draymond Green is the only healthy Warrior while his teammates are a glorified collection of G-League All-Stars. The franchise is capped out, last in the league and struggling to remain competitive. Their -9.2 point differential is last in the Western Conference.
Stephen Curry’s injury has strongly contributed to the start, as has an injury to D’Angelo Russell, who is just no reworking himself into the rotation. The Dubs may be content to make this their 1996 San Antonio Spurs “tank-for-Duncan campaign.” Saddle a healthy Curry, Russell, Green, a top-four pick and Klay Thompson together, and this band has far more than just a reunion tour coming next season.
As such, there’s little to no reason to push Thompson back. He’s been a delightful personality with his appearances on commentary, acting like a 19-year-old on a gap year. Let him refresh his legs and his mentality, staying distanced from this lost cause of a season. I’ll be shocked if Klay suits up at all this year.
Trae Young makes the All-Star Team
28.8 points, 8.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds on 46.2 percent shooting and 38.8 percent from deep? Screw the fact the Atlanta Hawks are struggling, Young is definitely an All-Star.
His case is aided by the injuries to Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, although the fan vote could make Irving’s absence irrelevant. Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics) and Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards) are the only guards in the Eastern Conference clearly ahead of Ice Trae. Young was once the #2 prospect on my 2018 Big Board, and he’s playing like a surefire All-Star on an annual basis.
Only an injury can derail his case now.
BRANDON INGRAM LEADS THE NEW ORLEANS PELICANS IN SCORING
Ingram is doing us one better: He’s a borderline All-Star candidate with 24.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and a career-high 41.8 percent shooting from 3-point land as numbers that definitely sniff the weekend in February.
To all the naysayers who doubt his stats would be this high if Zion Williamson were healthy: You’re probably right. He’d be closer to the 19-20 point range. Regardless, he’s the most polished scorer on this roster.
Zion won’t topple that production on a nightly basis when he returns.
KYLE LOWRY FINISHES THE SEASON WITH THE TORONTO RAPTORS
For all the rumors that swirled around Lowry and his contract status before the season, the Toronto Raptors have doubled down. Not only did they pay Lowry a one-year extension, but they’re also still a legitimate top-tier team in the Eastern Conference. Lowry isn’t going anywhere.
ANTHONY EDWARDS BECOMES FIRMLY ENTRENCHED AS THE TOP PICK IN THE 2020 NBA DRAFT BY JANUARY 15TH
I mean… is he not already?
LUKE KENNARD FINISHES THIRD ON THE DETROIT PISTONS IN SCORING
Luke Kennard (16.4 points per game) is just ahead of Derrick Rose (15.8 points) in this category. Reggie Jackson has played just two games this year, so his return could eat into Rose’s scoring production at the point, but Kennard has established himself firmly in the pecking order.
BROOK LOPEZ SHOOTS BELOW 33 PERCENT FROM THREE
He’s at 27.9 percent right now, but if there’s one thing he’s proven, it’s that he gets streaky from month to month. If he shoots 36 percent the rest of the way, he’s there, and that’s certainly possible. But he’ll need to shoot that well to even get that far—and do so without decreasing his volume. This is looking like a pretty safe prediction as well.
MARKELLE FULTZ STARTS 20 GAMES FOR THE ORLANDO MAGIC
He’s at 17 through 22 games.
*Knocks on wood to avoid the injury jinx.
Where I was Wrong (and sometimes really wrong)
MICHAEL PORTER JR. IS THE DENVER NUGGETS’ SECOND-BEST PLAYER
Okay, I was… really, really wrong here.
Porter is battling for even a reliable role in the rotation. He’s barely played 100 minutes, and he’s been lackluster at best in those few appearances. He’s not shooting it consistently, hasn’t been a great defender and isn’t moving the ball.
Porter’s natural defensive position is likely at the 4, so on a roster with polished veterans Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant, his minutes are squeezed if he’s not incredibly dynamic on offense.
That doesn’t mean Porter’s season is lost. Nothing about his numbers nor his on-court production has been a disaster; It simply hasn’t been perfect. Head coach Michael Malone very recently talked about how, in regards to expanding Porter’s role, he “thinks about it every day.”
Porter hasn’t played in five of Denver’s last nine games. They’re 1-4 in those last five and struggling on offense. Porter’s time may thus be coming. When it gets here, we’ll be excited for him, but understand he’s still nowhere close to approaching the top two or three players on this Nuggets team.
THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS FINISH AS THE 8-SEED
Poor Steve Kerr.
As discussed above in regards to Klay Thompson, the work done by Golden State out of the gate has all but guaranteed a push for the top pick in 2020. Nobody could have foreseen the rash of injuries to the returning roster that robbed them of a retooled run. Instead, the Warriors are likely to be basement-bound and awaiting the arrival of the Splash Brothers next year. Bye-bye, playoffs.
NO TEAM WINS FEWER GAMES THAN THE CHARLOTTE HORNETS
Kudos to James Borrego, who is coaching his butt off every night. Devonte’ Graham can score and has improved over the last two years more than perhaps anyone. PJ Washington is every bit the stud our draft team thought he would be. Graham, Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges have shot the crap out of the ball.
They run great stuff, play to their strengths and sneak up on every team they play.
The Hornets aren’t good, per se, but they’re much more functional than the talent level would indicate on paper. Their players mesh well, and they’re a feisty bunch that lives and dies behind the 3-point line. So long as they live there, they can beat anybody on any night. There are plenty of teams with more dysfunction than them…
SCOTT BROOKS IS THE FIRST COACH FIRED
David Fizdale took the honors here after the New York Knicks out-Knicked expectations and became an even more hilarious laughing stock. There’s been no shortage of articles rightfully dismantling their organizational structure in the wake of making Fizdale the fall guy, none better than what colleague Bob Bajek wrote here at The Basketball Writers.
Push the Knicks aside for a second and turn your attention away from the coaching carousel and towards Brooks, who is leading the Washington Wizards’ onslaught.
What we got right in that preseason column was how the Wizards must play to their strengths: outside shooting. They haven’t shied away from that and are third in NBA scoring with 118.2 points per game, along with third in pace. They’re also fourth in offensive rating, second in assists and, well, dead last in defensive rating.
The team doesn’t fit the traditional Scott Brooks mold of stingy defense, deliberate offense and tight rotations on youngsters. This year, Brooks is letting things fly in Washington and adapting to his roster. That’s not a development we saw coming, and hopefully, it’s one that lets Brooks see this rebuild through. There are still painful days ahead in our nation’s capital.
THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS WIN 48 GAMES AND MAKE THE PLAYOFFS… AGAIN.
DEJOUNTE MURRAY IS THE SPURS’ ONLY ALL-STAR
Neither of these are one-hundred percent out of the question. But man, are they looking pretty grim.
Let’s deal with Murray first. He’s been excellent. 15.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.5 steals per 36 minutes, and he’s one of the few Spurs actually playing defense. His are two-fold, however:
He still can’t shoot. Murray is 5-for-26 from 3-point range and hasn’t made two in a game yet. Second, he isn’t playing large enough minutes to be considered for All-Star candidacy.
Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and Derrick White are all receiving more minutes, and that eats into Murray’s share of the pie. Playing true frontcourt, non-stretch bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl—Aldridge is shooting 3s more, but still not a lot—means the Spurs’ backcourt must keep defenses honest. That’s where Murray fails when in an off-ball role.
Things aren’t well in the Alamo. San Antonio is bottom-third in defensive net rating, a cardinal sin for a Gregg Popovich team. You’d think that he would err on the side of defense with Murray and White at some point, or even stretching Lonnie Walker’s minutes.
Regardless, the damage is close to already done. The Spurs are 9-14, which means they’d need to go 39-20 the rest of the way to get to the 48-win plateau.
Are playoffs still in view? Probably. But 48 wins? Yeah, we missed the boat there.
CARMELO ANTHONY SIGNS WITH THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS
RIP Banana Boat fantasies.
‘Melo exploded out of the gates with the Portland Trail Blazers after signing there in mid-November. He’s been predictably Carmelo since joining them, killing the mid-range and taking over the offense. His production there is eerily similar to his numbers with the Houston Rockets, so let’s not call this an amazing comeback story. All it means is that he’s not a Laker.
Still, no rings for ‘Melo.
Lauri Markkanen makes the All-Star Team
Another massive disappointment in my book, Markkanen just hasn’t gotten it going. Perhaps he’s a victim to the overall circumstances in Chicago, where Zach Lavine and Jim Boylen are torpedoing the efforts of talented youngsters like Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter. Or perhaps Markkanen isn’t as good of a high-volume shooter as we thought.
Either way, he’s not an All-Star, the Chicago Bulls are a trainwreck and, for some reason, I can’t stop watching them.
Robert Williams starts the most games at the 5 for the Boston Celtics
Long live Daniel Theis!
Seriously, he’s been perfect for the C’s so far. He plays more than 20 minutes a night and barely takes five shots a game. His ability to do the dirty work and not care about the numbers has made him the ideal fit in the first unit. The Timelord, though solid in his stretches, doesn’t have the veteran savvy that Theis possesses.
Not only should Celtics fans be happy I was wrong, but I’m happy, too. No young players should be thrown to the wolves on a contender before they are ready.
The C’s have a legitimate chance in the East. They’ll need Williams to have some sort of role, but if Theis can take the main minutes and log a healthy 20 per night? Boston is in good shape.
The Jury Is Still Out
THE HOUSTON ROCKETS DO NOT FINISH WITH A TOP-FOUR RECORD IN THE WESTERN CONFERENCE
There’s a lot of separation left to be made in the bloodbath atop the Western Conference, but two things are clear. First: The Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers are clearly the league’s two best, most well-rounded teams. Second: Russell Westbrook hasn’t been a smooth addition in Houston.
He was supposed to be a massive upgrade talent-wise over the ancient, decrepit Chris Paul…
Chris Paul has hit 12 *more* threes than Russell Westbrook on 11 fewer attempts.
Paul has turned the ball over 52 fewer times than Westbrook, playing only 5 fewer minutes.
Net rating on/off differential:
OKC w Paul: 6.2
HOU w Westbrook: -11.5
— Josh Eberley ???????? (@JoshEberley) December 9, 2019
I’m not a big CP3 guy in every way, but I’m certainly not a Westbrook stan either. Nor can I believe I just typed that sentence.
Look, Houston’s gameplan is and forever will be simple: Get the ball to James Harden, surrounding him with enough shooters to punish teams that double him, a big that can finish, and some defenders that keep you competitive on that end. Other than that, a players’ job is to get the hell out of the way when they’re in Houston.
Paul didn’t work great because he wants to be the conductor. Westbrook wants to be the freight train. Instead of having one guy orchestrating and pulling the levers, Daryl Morey swapped that out for a bulldozer that goes off the rails on a nightly basis.
Neither work well and, for that reason, I’m sheepish on the Rockets as a legitimate contender this year.
The emergence of the Dallas Mavericks as a ready playoff group could be what this prediction hinges upon. We know Houston will talent their way to 53 wins. Whether the bar for home-court advantage in the first round is above that or not remains to be seen.
THE MILWAUKEE BUCKS FINISH WITH THE EASTERN CONFERENCE’S TOP RECORD, BUT NOT ALL IS WELL
Milwaukee is 21-3 with the league’s best point differential, riding a 15-game winning streak. It’s looking like this prediction will be flat-out wrong. Their defense once again tops the NBA. They’re taking a ton of 3-pointers and making all of their 2s.
But here’s the thing: Giannis has been, well, superhuman. He’s averaging 30.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks. Those are unfathomable numbers.
The rest of the Bucks have been so-so. We documented the shooting woes of Brook Lopez, but vets like George Hill and Wesley Matthews are playing above their head. This isn’t a team that’s faced any adversity at all. Until some hits, it’s hard to say that all will continue to be well. It’s a prediction rooted in February analysis, so let’s withhold judgment.
THE NUGGETS TRADE FOR BRADLEY BEAL
It’s looking unlikely, but you never know…
JEFF TEAGUE FINISHES THE SEASON OUTSIDE OF MINNEAPOLIS
The consummate teammate and professional, Jeff Teague would make any team happy at the trade deadline. Minnesota’s start to the season was strong, with Karl-Anthony Towns playing like a borderline MVP candidate and the Wolves scrapping their way into the playoff picture.
But if they fall out, Teague is a candidate to leave, and the rumblings have already begun with a recent Wolves slide under .500, players’ only meetings and this happening.
THE PACERS 5-MAN UNIT OF BRODGON-OLADIPO-LAMB-WARREN-TURNER IS A TOP TEN FIVE-MAN ROTATION
Without Victor Oladipo, we’ll have to wait to find out. My hopes are high, particularly knowing how well Malcolm Brogdon and TJ Warren have played on offense to start the year.
DARIUS GARLAND FINISHES THIRD IN ROOKIE OF THE YEAR VOTING
Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies) and Zion Williamson have been hurt, so there really isn’t a runaway in this category. But Tyler Herro (Miami Heat) is making the strongest claim to jump into the race.
Morant and Zion could get there with strong second-halves. Even RJ Barrett (New York Knicks) and Eric Paschall (Golden State Warriors) are volume-producers that could bulldoze their way into the running. Garland has been hit-or-miss—mostly “miss” when he’s on defense or at the rim—but he’ll need a strong second-half to get there.
THE HEAT FINISH WITH A TOP-THREE DEFENSE
The 17-6 Miami Heat are a darling to many but shouldn’t be much of a surprise. They have a ton of shooters around three really good players: All-Star Jimmy Butler, young prince Bam Adebayo and bizarro point guard Justice Winslow.
All three can finish and are physical specimens, but more than anything, they’re all superb defenders who seem to be on the same page. All Miami needs to reach elite defense (particularly in the offensively-challenged Eastern Conference) is a few of the other guys to step up.
As of this writing, the Heat are seventh in defensive net rating. They’re also aided by the most volatile statistic for defensive measurement: opponent 3-point percentage. It’s a fool’s errand trying to figure out what the stat tells. Are the Heat really great at defending the line, even though they give up the fourth-most attempts from distance each game? Or are they recipients of a great deal of luck in that regard?
There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, so there’s time for the Heat to improve, and also time for these metrics to regress towards league averages.
TERRY STOTTS (FINALLY) WINS COACH OF THE YEAR
This one hinges on a drastic turnaround for the Portland Trail Blazers. All the ingredients are there if they make the playoffs through their injury-plagued season. Without Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins or Rodney Hood, Stotts will have the opportunity to prove his worth, but that’s not gonna happen if the Blazers keep scraping under .500.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS WIN 75 PERCENT OF THE GAMES THEY PLAY WHEN JOEL EMBIID SITS
They’re 3-2 right now without Joel Embiid.
THE LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS BEAT THE PHILADELPHIA 76ERS IN THE NBA FINALS
Let’s stick to our guns here. Clippers in six.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, basketball-reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 10, 2019.
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.