Now that the dust has settled on a wild summer in the NBA, it is time for me to call my (ten) shots for the 2019-20 season. Let the craziness begin.
The Knicks are in the playoff race until the end
Instead of thinking about what the Knicks do or don’t have, think about what typical 8-seed teams are composed of. Some 8-seeds will have one or two big names on their rosters, but most do not. Instead, they have a rotation full of capable role players. That is how I would describe most of the Knicks’ roster. Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Allonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, and Taj Gibson are all players who would serve as key bench depth on the league’s best teams.
RJ Barrett is joining a young core of Dennis Smith Jr, Kevin Knox, and Mitchell Robinson. While Barrett’s translation to the NBA is unknown, it is his exciting potential that the Knicks are adding to their slew of high-potential players. No, potential does not guarantee anything, but isn’t that what makes the Knicks, and really any young team for that matter, exciting? Potential can be a gift and a curse — an unknown can burst onto the scene or sink like an anchor. Right now, the Knicks have three young players who have showed flashes of how great they can be, and one rookie with tremendous skills that just need to be developed. I’m buying that, with four players of such high potential, at least one of these youngsters will have an eye-opening season.
Finally, a transformed Julius Randle is leading the Knicks. The 24-year-old posted a career-high 21 points per game and converted 34% of his triples (a mind-blowing 8.7% improvement on his percentage through his first four seasons) in his lone season in New Orleans. Mind you, he did that on a bad Pelicans team in the West. Having slimmed down, grown more confident in his game, and moved to the bottom-light Eastern Conference, Randle could prove to be one of the more underrated signings of this summer. Now, I ultimately think the Knicks will fall short of the East’s final playoff spot, but they’ll have the right combination of capable talent and high-level role players to play competitive basketball into April.
Blake Griffin is traded to the Boston Celtics
The Pistons’ trade for Blake Griffin never made much sense. An often-injured superstar approaching 30 years old to a team that a) didn’t have the pieces necessary to build a legitimately good roster around him and b) seemed to need a rebuild. It became even more difficult to read the franchise when they hired Dwane Casey, a head coach ready to win a championship, at a time when they should’ve hired a coach with the patience for a rebuild. The Pistons made the playoffs, but ran Griffin into the ground just to get the final seed in the East. With no direction for the franchise’s future and no reason to keep a star like Griffin who can only take them so far, it only makes sense for the Motor City club to move Griffin to a contender for assets.
Enter the Boston Celtics, who managed to salvage what would’ve been a nightmare of a summer by acquiring Kemba Walker in a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets. With a few fine pieces to provide the foundation for the Celtics’ future, one substantial trade could take them from a non-threatening playoff team to one of the three best squads in the East.
Factoring in that Griffin has three years left on his contract and the Celtics have very little cap space to work with in the next few summers due to the Hayward contract, and trading for Griffin suddenly makes a lot of sense. Danny Ainge can likely keep Ed Stefanski on the phone by beginning the conversation with Jayson Tatum. He’ll need to include Gordon Hayward to match salaries, and then sweeten the deal by adding rookie lottery pick Romeo Langford and a protected first round pick. Stefanski throws in Langston Galloway to even the money out, and we have ourselves a Woj bomb.
Scott Brooks is fired midseason
The Wizards pushed the 1-seed Celtics to the brink in the Eastern Conference Semis in Brooks’ first season as the lead sorcerer. Had it not been for the game of Kelly Olynyk’s life in the series’ ultimate contest, the Wiz would’ve pulled off the huge upset. Washington has regressed epically each of the past two seasons since that showdown with the C’s. Yes, the Wizards were without John Wall for most of the 2018-19 season. But, with Bradley Beal still leading the way, they profiled better than a 32-win club.
With Wall out for all of 2019-20 and the franchise without any light at the end of their tunnel, a Beal trade and rebuild feels inevitable. As a casualty and what seems like a formality of rebuilding, the Wizards will go in a different direction with their coaching staff. But terminating Brooks won’t be as much about rebuilding as it’ll seem. It will be about Otto Porter, Jr. never being the player he should’ve been under Brooks, the team’s diminished chemistry despite a consistent nucleus, and exponential regression at a time when the future looked so bright.
Ja Morant, not Zion Williamson, wins Rookie of the Year
With the Pelicans turning a large portion of their roster over via trades and free agent signings this summer, they have more young talent on their roster than ever before. Brandon Ingram, who will have a fresh contract on his mind, is going to do everything he can to maximize his value on the free agent market. With veterans like Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick having a never-ending green light, there will be fewer touches for Zion Williamson than there are for most first-overall picks. Sure, Zion will have numerous unbelievable highlight reel plays that will be magnified by the national media, but his numbers won’t be impressive enough to win the Rookie of the Year vote.
Meanwhile, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson, Jr. are the clear future of the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are not pulling the incredible one-summer rebuild that David Griffin pulled off for the Pels. They are not going to be in the playoff mix and their prized rookie and sophomore hold the entire intrigue of their roster.
Morant will have the ball in his hands at all times and, like most rookies, will have the freedom to succeed and fail for the sake of learning. With that freedom, Morant will showcase his dynamic offensive game–using his court vision to dime Jackson, Jr. in the pick-and-roll, his quickness to create space to get off his jumper, his shooting touch to connect on said jumper, his incredible athleticism to beat any man in front of him, and his focus to finish at the rim in traffic. Morant will put up 19 points, 7 assists, and only 3 turnovers per game en route to winning Rookie of the Year.
Ben Simmons will average a near triple double
With Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick gone, the Sixers will have to find a way to supplant roughly 37 points per game. Seeing as it is unreasonable to expect a notable jump in the production of 33-year-old Al Horford, the Sixers will need Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Ben Simmons to step their games up a bit in order to replace that scoring.
With a summer of documented emphasis on developing his jump shot, Ben Simmons appears poised to make a leap in his scoring. If Simmons comes back with a more aggressive mentality and a more confident stroke from outside the paint, he could push 20 points per game. But that feels a little heavy for his third season. We need baby steps, and baby steps looks like 19 points per game (that 1-point difference is dramatic when considering the average over an 82-game season).
Ben’s size, strength, and quickness will usually favor him in the battle for rebounds. Had he not left a game in the middle of the first quarter against the Magic early in the 2018-19 season with back tightness, Ben might’ve broken the 9 rebounds per game plateau, and this prediction wouldn’t feel like as much of a reach as it does. Ben’s back won’t tighten up this time around, and he’ll be more aggressive when fighting for rebounds. Forget the 9’s, let’s go straight to the 10’s.
With more time to build chemistry, better-fitting pieces around him than last season, and more talent around him than in 2017-18, Ben will reduce the turnovers a bit and raise the assists. If Redick or another sniper were on the roster, I’d feel much more confident in thinking the Fresh Prince will pass out 10 dimes per night. Poised to average close to 35 minutes per game, Ben will be featured in lineups with the second unit. When that time comes, the offense will run through him. When the starters are in, Ben will be feeding Harris, Horford, and Embiid. There will be endless opportunities for Ben to pass the rock, but, without knock-down shooters, he’ll have to settle for 9 assists per game.
The Sixers will have 3 all-stars
We can probably pencil Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons into the all-star game for at least the next five seasons. A handful of teams each have a pair of all-stars almost every year. The rarity is sending three players to an all-star game. With the Sixers likely a top-two seed in the East this season, Al Horford and Tobias Harris will enter the mix of names garnering all-star consideration as reserves. While Horford will have a heavy hand in the Sixers’ success, it is Tobias Harris whose production we can reasonably predict to rise enough to turn heads.
As a Clipper, Harris’ production skyrocketed because he was one of the team’s two primary options to score the basketball and constantly had the ball in his hands. He averaged over 20 points per game on better than 40% on three-point field goals before being traded to Philly. With Embiid, Butler, and Redick all solidified as the Sixers’ go-to scorers, Harris had to adjust to a less-featured role with fewer touches. That, along with adjusting to the unfamiliar power forward position, caused Harris’ production to fall.
With Butler and Redick gone, Harris will be given more opportunities to score the rock. Specifically with Butler gone, Harris will become the team’s primary shot-creator and secondary ball-handler when Simmons is on the court (meaning that Ben Simmons is the primary ball-handler when he’s on the court, but Harris will receive ball-handling duties to create shots or run the pick-and-roll if Ben passes and moves off the ball). With more touches will come more looks. More looks will equal more confidence. With more confidence will come increased production. Increased production will lead to more wins. With more wins will come all-star consideration.
Thinking outside of a more featured role and increased production, it is important to survey the competition. Kevin Durant will be sidelined rehabbing his torn achilles and Kawhi Leonard went out West. That means Blake Griffin, Khris Middleton, and Pascal Siakam are the main competition. Siakam may earn a selection for carrying the load for a Raptors team fighting for 40 wins. With Blake Griffin comes an important caveat. With Kawhi heading out West, the East will be down a starting forward. While Ben Simmons would make an interesting case to replace him as a starter, he qualifies as a guard. With Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker likely occupying the starting backcourt, Ben might end up as a reserve as a technicality of being a guard. If Griffin is voted in as the starter, it will open up a forward spot for the East reserves.
While Khris Middleton will make a case, his all-star status was inflated by the Bucks being the one-seed in the East last season. If the Bucks are the two-seed by the time February rolls around and Middleton’s numbers are around the 18 points and 6 rebounds he averaged last season, Middleton probably shouldn’t be in the world’s greatest pickup game because Tobias Harris will average 22 points (on 47%/38%/85%) and 8 rebounds to help pace the top-seeded Sixers. With Siakam needing to go above and beyond to keep the Raptors afloat and garner consideration and Middleton needing the help of team success to even be a candidate, Tobias can earn his first selection just by being the player he’s been each of the last two seasons (and with some help from the Sixers’ standing in the East to capture some extra attention from the people around the NBA).
Tyler Herro will earn All-Rookie 2nd Team honors
If the Miami Heat are going to be a respectable playoff team in the East, they’re going to need a star to lead them and be an above-average three-point shooting team. Last season, they didn’t have a star and they shot 34.9% (placing them 21st in the NBA) from deep. The Heat got their star when they acquired Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade with the Sixers, but they lost one of their best shooters in Josh Richardson in the process.
Rewinding to the 2017-18 season, the Heat were a tough playoff team in large part due to the spacing created by sharpshooter Wayne Ellington. That spacing allowed the Miami wings to drive, pressure the defense, and kick to the likes of Ellington, Richardson, Goran Dragic, and Tyler Johnson. With Ellington, Johnson, and Richardson gone, the Heat are going to need to identify a sniper to create space for Butler to work.
The Heat drafted sharpshooter Tyler Herro with the 13th overall pick in this summer’s draft. His consistent, quick, fluid load-up and release give every reason to believe he’ll be able to get his shot off at the next level. His efficiency at Kentucky and his dazzling display in summer league leave little doubt that his game will translate at the next level. It’s his ability to play on and off of the ball and be a credible ball-handler that makes him one of the more dynamic shooters in the NBA today.
Of course, Coach Spo doesn’t really care about that if you can’t defend–but Herro can defend one through three. Well, young guards can’t hang against bigger opponents and supersized lineups–but Herro is a credible rebounder. While the Heat have a number of players projected to get touches in front of Herro, none of them have the prolific shooting ability that Herro has. None of them have a reputation of being healthy for 82 games. So, it is almost inevitable that Herro will be forced to play a bigger role than expected at some point. And when that time comes, Herro will make his case for All-Rookie Second Team.
That might seem bold, but not when you dig deep. Landry Shamet and Kevin Huerter defied expectations and turned heads last season. Shamet was a key piece of the trade that sent Tobias Harris to Philly and was a starter for the Clippers in the playoffs. Huerter identified himself as one of the premier young shooters and shot-creators in the game. They both averaged over 9 points per game while connecting on approximately 40% of their looks from beyond the arc. Both were taken considerably later in their draft than Herro was in his. For a team in Miami that will need to create space for Butler to attack, the stage is set for Herro to average around 10 points per game on 40% efficiency from the perimeter. It will be an upset if Herro isn’t an easy selection for All-Rookie Second Team.
Gary Harris wins Most Improved Player
A groin injury sidelining him for all of December was brutal for Gary Harris’ progression this past season. While Harris has fallen under the radar in his five seasons in the NBA, he was showing linear growth every season until 2018-19. Harris enters his age-25 season with full possession of the starting shooting guard spot for one of the best team’s in the West. Speaking of the Nuggets, their below-average three-point shooting cost them a trip to the Conference Finals last season, and they will need Harris’ outside touch to help give them that extra push to rise to the NBA’s semifinal round. While Harris isn’t a marksman from downtown, he is an above-average shooter who provides scoring as a ball-handler.
In an offense that runs Nikola Jokic in pick-and-rolls incessantly, Harris’ near-45% conversation rate on attempts as the ball-handler in that pairing with Jokic is excellent. If the Nuggets want to move Murray off-the-ball for some spot-up opportunities, Harris can take control. If they are running the offense through Jokic, Harris can spot up and wait for the dynamic big man to find him with an absurd pass. Denver’s offense is built for a dynamic backcourt and a superstar big man. Harris is athletic and skilled enough to benefit from and capitalize on every opportunity Michael Malone’s system has to offer.
Surveying the criteria for ‘Most Improved Player,’ most players are given legitimate consideration for the award if they increase their scoring output from their career-high season by at least 5 points. In his best season, Harris averaged 17.5 points. So, do I think Harris can push 23 points per game? Yes, and the Nuggets will need him to in order to remain elite in a more-insane-than-usual Western Conference.
Quin Snyder wins Coach of the Year
There are two criteria that I believe will play to Quin Snyder’s favor in the upcoming season. First, he will need his Jazz to beat out one of the Clippers and Nuggets for the 2-seed in the West. Second, he will need to put together the league’s best defensive team.
Anchored by 2-time Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, the Jazz will present one of the most versatile, athletic, and deep rosters in the NBA. With numerous wings who can switch onto and credibly guard 1 through 4 and have the athleticism to help, recover, and stay in front of anyone they face, the Jazz should have little issue establishing themselves as the league’s top defense. When you have the league’s best defense, you collect wins like quarters on the sidewalk. And when you collect wins, you become one of the two best teams in the West. The second criteria will take care of the first criteria.
The Sixers hoist the O’Brien trophy
Think not of what the Sixers lost this summer. Instead, consider how their additions help them match up with every other team in the NBA. Joel Embiid is a matchup nightmare, Al Horford is consistently one of the toughest assignments for opposing bigs on both sides of the ball, Ben Simmons’ dynamic skills and athletic gifts make him problematic for most 1-on-1 matchups, Josh Richardson is one of the most underrated wings in the NBA, and Tobias Harris is standing in line waiting to get into the all-star club on his 21st birthday.
There will be times when the buckets aren’t coming easy for the Sixers. But it is hard to imagine a time when their defense appears vulnerable. They can match up with any team in the NBA, and defense wins championships. Combine that with the memory of Kawhi Leonard’s jumper from the far corner in game 7, and Embiid, Simmons, and Harris have unfinished business to which they must tend. Brett Brown will surely have the best speech at the championship parade.