COME ONE, come all. Folks, the NBA is officially back in full gear!
You know it's been an uncommon year when we’ve sat through two seasons and witnessed the coronation of two NBA champions in the space of just 12 months.
With preseason in the books and teams currently carving through their season openers, we’ve rounded up the teams that we think will finish in a better position than they did last season.
We’ve taken a look at these teams based on how they’ve retooled during free agency, their performance on the hardcourt thus far, and their overall health heading into the NBA’s 75th year.
Now, these projections aren’t gospel, but we’re willing to put our money that these teams are ready to make some noise this season.
Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Record: 42-30 (7th Seed)
Playoff Finish: Lost to Phoenix Suns in Round 1 (4-2)
The greatest criticism the Lakers got this offseason was their roster’s age. Objectively, that is a very valid argument when we think about the marathon of an 82-game season.
But, the Lakers’ revamped supporting cast are the ideal compliments to the three-headed dragon in LalaLand of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. The likes of Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and Carmelo Anthony have embraced their life as role players. They know what is expected from them in this team: space the floor, be in the right spots, make their shots and play within the defensive scheme.
This did not translate well in the preseason where the Lakers finished with a winless 0-6 record. Come opening night, despite strong performances from LeBron and AD, they were seemingly absent as the Warriors ran away with the opening night win. The Lakers bench was badly beaten 55-29 and the team was outscored 68-55 in the second half of that game. There’s definitely no cause for alarm yet, but there’s work that needs to be done.
The most important thing for L.A’s resurgence this coming season is the health of their stars. This team will go as far as their big 3 will be able to carry them. After a first round loss to the Suns, LBJ and AD got a much needed lengthy offseason to heal and just focus on recovery. Expect them to be out for blood this season. The addition of Russell Westbrook is a clunky fit, but he alleviates some of the lead orchestrator responsibilities from LeBron so they keep LBJ fresh for when it matters most.
Assuming that everything breaks right, no way will they finish anywhere close to a 7th seed and see a repeat of a first round exit this season.
Regular Season Record: 40-32 (6th Seed)
Playoff Finish: Swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (4-0)
The Miami Heat were demolished in the playoffs by eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. It was a wake-up call to the front office that bringing the band back together was not enough. They needed more.
And so, the Heat picked up the most coveted free agent this offseason in Kyle Lowry, a player they’d already wanted since the trade deadline. The addition of Lowry gives the Heat a true floor general that pushes the pace of the team and gets people in the right spots. He unlocks their offense by allowing Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to focus on being offensive weapons rather than facilitators. They brought in other championship pedigree players in PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris, and added them to their core.
The Heat was able to run their dress rehearsal over the preseason and it showed during their opening night with a dominant 137-95 win over Milwaukee. The chemistry already seems to be there and the defense is already looking good. Tyler Herro will be a key cog as the lead man off the bench and so far, he’s been looking really comfortable as the sixth man.
The Heat are a grind-it-out defensive team, a nagging headache for anyone come playoff time — if they stay healthy. Currently, only Victor Oladipo is on the injury list, but it won’t be a surprise if Jimmy or Kyle would be late scratches for games later on in the season for rest. The Heat are one of the oldest teams this season; an injury or two and a couple of games missed for one of their stars can make a huge difference in the win-loss column.
Coming from a rest-filled offseason, this Heat team may be able to go further than the first round regardless of where they finish in the standings come summer time.
Golden State Warriors
Regular Season Record: 39-33 (9th Seed)
Playoff Finish: Lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Play-In Tournament
The Golden State Warriors have been out of the playoff picture for two straight seasons. If it wasn’t for the play-in tournament last year, they wouldn’t have had a chance to sneak in into the postseason. It wasn’t too long ago when this organization reigned over the NBA, but then again, a lot happened in the past year.
Back to basketball. The Warriors’ offseason wasn’t very loud and flashy. They drafted promising prospects in forward Jonathan Kuminga and guard Moses Moody, picked up a solid 3-and-D in Otto Porter Jr, a stretch 4 in Nemanja Bjelica, and brought back Andre Iguodala into the fold.
Over the preseason, Jordan Poole was a standout, averaging 23ppg on 51.5% shooting from the field, 40% from downtown, 3.5rpg, 3.5apg and 1.2spg. If he can replicate anything close to those numbers consistently throughout the season, Golden State has something there. Stephen Curry is looking revitalized as he led the Warriors with a triple double over the Lakers on opening night as well as a monstrous 45-point outing against the Clippers to start their season on a good note.
With James Wiseman, and Klay Thompson still out with injuries, Golden State will rely on their supporting cast to be consistent and make a big difference this year. As long as Steph and Draymond are healthy, this team will be able to keep their heads above water and rack them wins.
If Steph has another MVP-level year and the rest of the team can keep holding their own as they await for reinforcements, you can count on the Warriors to find relevance again and secure a spot in the West’s playoff picture when all is said and done.
Regular Season Record: 31-41 (11th Seed)
Playoff Finish: No appearance
Ever since the end of the D Rose era in the Windy City, the Bulls seemed destined to be a lottery team for the foreseeable future. However, Zach LaVine's transformation from just a high flyer to All-Star changed the trajectory of the organization.
Things are looking bright for this storied franchise as they still have Nikola Vucevic from last trade deadline and added major talent to their team over the offseason with the signing of Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan. They swiped Alex Caruso from L.A and traded for the athletic Derrick Jones Jr., while still keeping their talented lottery picks in forward Patrick Williams and guard Coby White.
If there’s one thing that preseason has shown us about the Bulls, it's that they’re going to be an offensive powerhouse. Through four games, they averaged a whopping 118ppg. With the amount of scoring threats and athleticism in this group, fans can expect a show every damn night. Don’t be fooled by their 94-88 win against the Pistons — this team looks to rack up the points as the season goes on.
The biggest question mark for this team will be on the defensive end, given that their stars aren’t really recognized as defensive stalwarts (except for Lonzo Ball). Williams, Caruso and Jones Jr. could fill in the gaps, but they won’t be the ones consistently on the floor when things are on the line. Perhaps their game will rely on sheer firepower alone.
The Bulls have a lot to prove before they can call themselves contenders in the East. But if things shake out their way, they are winning more than 31 games this season and are talented enough to see the daylight of the playoffs once more.
Regular Season Record: 34-38 (9th Seed)
Playoff Finish: Lost to the Washington Wizards in the Play-In Tournament
The Indiana Pacers aren’t a team that jumps off of the page but they’ve always found a way to stay competitive. Injuries derailed them last season but make no mistake, this is a talented team when healthy.
The Pacers drafted an NBA-ready talent in Chris Duarte, but their biggest pick-up this offseason is a person who will never step on the hardcourt and play for the team, Rick Carlisle. After ending his long stint with the Dallas Mavericks, the championship coach wasted no time in reuniting with the Pacers franchise, an organization he coached for four seasons from ‘03 to 07.
There’s not much to glean from their preseason, which was so-so. They also started their season with a one-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets. But so far, Chris Duarte delivers what on his promise with a 27-point performance on 60% shooting in that game while Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, and Malcolm Brogdon are still playing up to standard.
Dealing with the nagging injuries of their key players will be critical to the success of the team. If the oft-injured Brogdon can raise his ceiling for games played, and Caris LaVert being cleared and ready to play, this team will have a bounce-back year.
Their continuity and a boost from a winning coach like Rick Carlisle can help them squeeze themselves above the Play-In threshold this season. There may be no superstars over in Indiana but make no mistake, this organization has a knack for success.
Regular Season Record: 23-49 (13th Seed)
Playoff Finish: No appearance
No cap, the Minnesota Timberwolves is one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the league. Outside of their lone return to the playoffs this decade when Jimmy Butler was still around, the Timberwolves picked up where they left off as cellar dwellers in the top heavy West for the past couple of years. What happened this offseason that garnered them a spot in this list? Their blossoming crop of talent.
Outside of Patrick Beverley, there were no major headliners that arrived to the state of Minnesota. But what the Timberwolves can look forward to is that they will be able to finally see how their young stars and the rest of this roster will come together. The triad of Karl Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell is a talented bunch. Pat Bev, Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels will bring the defensive tenacity and Malik Beasley can carry the offensive load off the bench.
The preseason and their first game back has given us a taste of what this team looks like when it's healthy: flashy. Their star trio scored a total of 81 points in their convincing 124-106 win against the Houston Rockets. Now, it's all a matter of consistency and further building on that chemistry together on the floor. Hopefully, the front office and coaching staff can find stability amongst its ranks to finally see things through.
The star talent alone on this team should help them win more than 23 games this year.
If all things go according to plan, it's realistic that they have a whiff of the Play-In tournament at the very least. This team can be better but with a very talented Western Conference, they have a fighter’s chance to lock-in a spot in the Playoffs and that’s not bad for an up and coming team.
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