NBA Preview 2019: Rankings, projections and big questions for all 30 teams

The 2019-20 NBA season tips off Tuesday, and for the first time in (checks calendar) … forever, the league doesn’t have a bona fide virtual lock to make the Finals.

What about the Warriors? Well, the Golden State Warriors watched Kevin Durant change coasts and Klay Thompson go down with an ACL tear.

Both L.A. teams are stacked, though! Sure, the Los Angeles Lakers reloaded with Anthony Davis joining LeBron James, while the LA Clippers pulled off the summer’s biggest blockbuster in landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. But plenty of questions — King James in Year 17 and PG-13’s surgically repaired shoulder among them — could hover over Staples Center this season.

C’mon! There’s no stopping Giannis this year! Tell that to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers, who are ready to take down the reigning MVP.

All in all, upwards of 10 teams can make the case they’re worthy of a trip to the Finals. On the eve of the 2019-20 season, we’re running through the elite, the contenders and the dreamers to get you set for what should be a thrilling new year. Buckle up!

Note: Our 1-30 rankings are based on where voters — more than 40 ESPN NBA reporters, insiders and editors — think teams belong heading into the 2019-20 season. Title odds and Vegas win totals for 2019-20 were provided by Caesars Sportsbook. “Best-case” win-loss records were provided by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Jump to a team:
ATL | BOS | BKN | CHA | CHI | CLE
DAL | DEN | DET | GS | HOU | IND
LAC | LAL | MEM | MIA | MIL | MIN
NO | NY | OKC | ORL | PHI | PHX
POR | SAC | SA | TOR | UTAH | WAS

1. LA Clippers
2018-19 record: 48-34
2020 title odds: +400

From punchline to penthouse. The Clippers enter the season looking to put years of frustration behind them and break through that second-round wall that Lob City never could.

What they did this summer
The Clippers shocked the NBA world in free agency when they not only landed the most coveted free agent in Kawhi Leonard, but also traded for Paul George on the same night. They gave up a small fortune to do so, sending promising point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks and the right to two more first-round pick swaps to Oklahoma City for George in order to convince Leonard to sign. It will be a small price to pay, though, if Leonard and George can take the Clippers to the NBA Finals. Lawrence Frank and his talented staff also made an underrated move in adding Mo Harkless to a team already filled with grinders who know their role and love to defend. Rookie Terance Mann has impressed in camp thus far and could see consistent minutes at the point.

Best-case scenario (62-20) and how they get there
It’s something that not even Clippers superfan Billy Crystal could have ever dared to dream: the Clippers finishing a season with Doc Rivers hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy and Leonard next to him holding another Finals MVP award. In order for the Clippers to win 62 games and go to the Finals, that means Leonard and George are able to stay healthy — George may not return from surgeries on his shoulders until November — and that the Clippers’ outstanding chemistry and top-line bench play from a season ago carries over with Doc masterfully meshing it all together.

One big question: Keeping PG and Kawhi healthy
Leonard and the Raptors load-managed their way through the regular season to save him for a long playoff run. The Clippers have been cautious with Leonard in the preseason, and that shouldn’t change when the games start to matter. There’s also the issue of George’s surgically-repaired shoulders, although Rivers said the All-Star looked great while working out on the side during camp. No matter when George returns, it’s likely the Clippers will also play things safe with their other All-Star forward.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

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With the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers are poised to take over Los Angeles.


2. Milwaukee Bucks
2018-19 record: 60-22
2020 title odds: +600

It’s the Final(s) countdown! With Kawhi Leonard’s departure from Toronto and the 76ers losing Jimmy Butler, the Eastern Conference might be the Bucks’ to lose.

What they did this summer
Malcolm Brogdon was the biggest loss of the Bucks’ offseason. The 2017 Rookie of the Year, who was a restricted free agent, signed with Indiana after the Bucks’ front office declined to match the Pacers’ $ 85 million offer. Milwaukee replaced Brogdon with Wesley Matthews. After summer signings, the Bucks’ roster boasts two sets of brothers: Thanasis and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook and Robin Lopez. The Bucks also brought back backup guard George Hill, who was a key bench player for Milwaukee in the playoffs.

Best-case scenario (63-19) and how they get there
The Bucks don’t need to achieve their best-case 63 wins for the season to be considered a success. Last season, the Bucks won 60 and made it to the Eastern finals. This season, it would be reasonable for the Bucks to give up a few regular-season wins in exchange for resting Giannis and other key players. Milwaukee will be vying for the No. 1 or 2 Eastern Conference seed, but heading into the postseason healthy and rested should be prioritized over regular-season win totals. Milwaukee’s best-case scenario has everything to do with the postseason and making it farther than they did in 2019.

One big question: The Giannis extension
The Bucks’ big question has already come up a handful of times: Will Antetokounmpo sign an extension with Milwaukee next summer? General manager John Horst has already said that he plans on offering Antetokounmpo the max (he was then fined for that comment). Antetokounmpo said at media day that it wouldn’t’ be fair to his teammates to discuss his upcoming decision, but Milwaukee can calm speculation by performing well, dominating in the playoffs and making the Finals. Still, there is only one person who can answer Milwaukee’s biggest question and that is Antetokounmpo. At this point, it is a waiting game.

— Malika Andrews


3. Philadelphia 76ers
2018-19 record: 51-31
2020 title odds: +900

Can this team win the title? The Sixers are one of the two favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference, alongside the Bucks, making Philly one of the handful of teams with a realistic shot at holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June.

What they did this summer
Few teams were as active as the Sixers during the offseason. They executed a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat, sending Jimmy Butler there in exchange for Josh Richardson, while landing Al Horford to play alongside Joel Embiid in the paint. Philadelphia also re-signed Tobias Harris to a $ 180 million deal, signed Ben Simmons to a five-year maximum contract extension, and made several moves (signing Kyle O’Quinn, Trey Burke and Raul Neto; re-signing Mike Scott, James Ennis and drafting Matisse Thybulle) to overhaul their bench.

Best-case scenario (61-21) and how they get there
Let’s start with Joel Embiid staying healthy, playing more than 70 games and fulfilling his stated goal of winning both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Awards this season. Add in Simmons taking another step forward and becoming a clear-cut All-NBA selection, Harris continuing to round out his game, avoiding Horford’s knee — which bothered him at times last season in Boston — being an issue and slotting Josh Richardson seamlessly into Philadelphia’s system. That starting five also could easily be the best defensive unit in the NBA. If the Sixers win anywhere near 61 games, it likely will be.

One big question: Who’s the closer in Philly?
A year ago, people were asking the same question — and the Sixers responded by trading for Butler. With him gone, where will the ball go in the final minutes of a close game? Embiid is the best player, but historically it is tough to put that responsibility on a player who needs someone else to get him the ball. Can Simmons expand his shooting range to be that player himself? Can Harris, fresh off earning that massive new contract, take yet another step forward? Will the Sixers make another in-season deal to solve the problem? For Philadelphia to reach its championship potential, a solution will, in theory, have to emerge somewhere along the way.

— Tim Bontemps


4. Denver Nuggets
2018-19 record: 54-28
2020 title odds: +1200

The burden of expectation can be heavy, but it’s always welcome. The Nuggets were the surprise NBA darling last season, so there’s no shocking anyone this season.

What they did this summer
All the Nuggets did was add to a team than won 54 games last season, while also gaining some priceless experience and another year of age. They picked up Paul Millsap’s option and extended Jamal Murray. They added Jerami Grant, an elastic stretch 4 who can switch and guard basically all five positions, from the repositioning Thunder, which might be one of the best moves of the offseason (non-star division). But maybe their biggest acquisition is a player they already have on the team. Michael Porter Jr. missed all of last season but is primed and ready, and he could give the Nuggets a lift in a scoring area they sorely missed in the postseason.

Best-case scenario (60-22) and how they get there
For any young team, building is a procedural grind, but after a season like the Nuggets had, the accelerator gets punched. Windows open and shut quickly in the NBA, and the Nuggets are trying to take advantage of theirs. They expect to compete for the top seed in the West and use last season’s playoff experience to correct mistakes that cost them a Game 7 on their home floor against the Trail Blazers. The Nuggets’ future remains bright, but they aren’t thinking about contending in two or three years. They’re thinking about it right now.

One big question: Is Jamal Murray ready?
The Nuggets signed Murray to a max extension in late July, making him an official co-face of the franchise with Nikola Jokic. Murray had his moments last season, but as coach Mike Malone detailed often, it was about consistency. And when you’re getting paid like Murray, the string gets tighter and expectations rise. Jokic is the team’s best player, but Murray is probably the key to their next level. When the games get important, it will be Murray at the wheel, deciding their fate. Still just 22 years old, is Murray ready for it?

— Royce Young


5. Los Angeles Lakers
2018-19 record: 37-45
2020 title odds: +300

LeBron James’ first season in Los Angeles couldn’t have gone much worse: losses, drama and the worst injury of his career. Enter Anthony Davis, a superstar on the rise who not only wanted to be in L.A., he wanted to be in L.A. with LeBron. Can they save the Lakers together?

What they did this summer
Davis came, but at a hefty cost. L.A. leveraged its future, completely overhauling its team from the youth movement of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart (and that No. 4 pick they lucked into on lottery night, plus other assets) to create their two-star system. The Lakers were able to keep some continuity by shielding Kyle Kuzma in the trade and bringing back JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as free agents. But overall, free agency wasn’t as fruitful as they hoped after they whiffed on Kawhi Leonard and their gamble on DeMarcus Cousins busted when he tore his ACL. They did manage to add some experienced role players in Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard and Jared Dudley.

Best-case scenario (58-24) and how they get there
Las Vegas has the Lakers as the title favorites for a reason. It’s not too farfetched to imagine James having a bounce-back season after all that time off to rest, Davis mounting an MVP campaign, Kuzma fast-tracking his development, and shooters like Green, Caldwell-Pope, Dudley, Caruso and Troy Daniels making far more of the open 3s that last season’s Lakers failed to convert. Oh, and getting off to a great start would help, too, to quiet any Frank Vogel-Jason Kidd power-struggle talk.

One big question: LeBron in Year 17
Can James keep up his dominant run? L.A.’s hopes and dreams are all dependent on James, who will turn 35 on Dec. 30, continuing to defy the odds and stave off signs of aging. Without that, the Lakers are just Davis and a bunch of complementary pieces, and we all know just how far that got the New Orleans Pelicans the last seven seasons.

— Dave McMenamin

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Dave McMenamin previews the 2019-20 Lakers and asks if the team’s offseason signing of Anthony Davis might just be the missing piece LeBron needed to bring another championship back to L.A.


6. Houston Rockets
2018-19 record: 53-29
2020 title odds: +700

Nothing less than a championship would be considered a satisfying season for the Rockets, especially now that the Warriors no longer enter the season as obvious favorites in the West. If Houston doesn’t manage to at least make the Western finals, odds are the Rockets will move on from Mike D’Antoni, the rare NBA head coach to enter a season in the final year of his contract.

What they did this summer
Internal drama dominated the early-summer Rockets headlines. They never did get a deal done with D’Antoni after way-too-public extension talks fizzled twice. They surprisingly found a solution to whatever friction there was between James Harden and Chris Paul, pouncing on the opportunity to flip Paul and a package of picks for longtime Harden BFF Russell Westbrook. The Rockets kept the rest of their core together and managed to add some playoff-tested, high-character vets (Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha) while staying under the luxury tax.

Best-case scenario (59-23) and how they get there
Can the Rockets’ starting five, which features four players in their 30s, stay healthy? That’s a critical element of Houston’s hopes for chasing the West’s top seed. It should be noted that Westbrook, despite knee issues that caused the Rockets to take a cautious preseason approach with him, is much more durable than the departed Paul.

One big question: Houston’s MVP partnership
How will a reunion of the NBA’s two most ball-dominant players work? Sure, they played together in Oklahoma City, but that was when Harden was a sixth man — he’s a perennial MVP candidate now. Westbrook wanted to come to Houston, surely understanding that he’d be Harden’s sidekick. Both recent MVPs say they’re willing to sacrifice individual glory to maximize their chances to finally win a championship. Actions speak louder than words — and in this case, a lot of folks around the league are curious about Westbrook’s actions when he doesn’t have his best friend Spalding in his hands.

— Tim MacMahon


7. Utah Jazz
2018-19 record: 50-32
2020 title odds: +1500

There are several West teams with more glitz and glamour than the small-market Jazz. However, after a summer of roster renovation, Utah has a legitimate chance to be the last team standing in a loaded conference and perhaps finally bring a championship parade to Salt Lake City.

What they did this summer
The Jazz modernized their roster, making major changes after shooting woes doomed their chances of pulling off a first-round upset of the Rockets. They pulled off the Mike Conley trade they tried to get done before last season’s deadline, acquiring a perfect complement for Donovan Mitchell: a savvy veteran point guard equally capable of running the offense or playing off the ball. They moved on from Derrick Favors, a quality starting center they played out of position (in this era) at power forward, to allow them to sign knock-down shooter Bojan Bogdanovic. With Rudy Gobert as the anchor, the Jazz should be a dominant defensive team again. They might be at that level offensively as well now.

Best-case scenario (60-22) and how they get there
Patience isn’t necessarily a virtue for a team trying to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs in the West. The Jazz dug themselves a huge hole at the start of the last two seasons and can’t afford to do so again. The revamped Utah roster didn’t have the luxury of working together much before camp opened, because the top three returning Jazz players (Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles) were representing their countries in the FIBA World Cup. To venture anywhere near the 60-win club this season, the Jazz will need to find a way to click, and fast.

One big question: Can Mitchell make the leap?
For all of head coach Quin Snyder’s emphasis on team, it’s almost impossible to win an NBA title without a bona fide, bucket-getting superstar leading the way. Mitchell showed flashes of that type of potential during his first two seasons, but he hasn’t been consistent or efficient enough to be considered elite. With the Jazz’s offensive upgrades, Mitchell should have less burden and much better spacing, perhaps allowing the former Slam Dunk Contest champ to make a major leap.

— Tim MacMahon


8. Portland Trail Blazers
2018-19 record: 53-29
2020 title odds: +2800

Coming off a surprise trip to the Western Conference finals, the Blazers aspire to more this season after the Warriors team that beat them sustained heavy personnel losses. Yet statistical projections, including ours based on ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, suggest Portland might be due for regression.

What they did this summer
With four of their top seven players in playoff minutes hitting free agency, the Blazers turned over their roster more than the typical conference finalist. Al-Farouq Aminu (Orlando), Seth Curry (Dallas) and Enes Kanter (Boston) signed elsewhere, though Portland was able to re-sign Rodney Hood. To fortify the wing rotation, the Blazers sent Evan Turner to Atlanta for superior shooter Kent Bazemore, and they dealt for Hassan Whiteside. Perhaps most importantly, Portland extended the contracts of All-NBA guard Damian Lillard (a supermax deal through 2024-25) and backcourt-mate CJ McCollum (through 2023-24).

Best-case scenario (55-27) and how they get there
How would Portland get here? The leadership of Lillard and McCollum revitalizes Whiteside, whose shot blocking also fits perfectly in Terry Stotts’ defensive system. Zach Collins becomes the latest Blazers player to break through in his third season, solidifying the power forward spot by providing both floor spacing and rim protection. Anfernee Simons becomes a potent scoring threat when Lillard and McCollum are on the bench and Nurkic returns after the All-Star break to give Portland a strong 1-2 punch in the middle. Add it up and the Blazers celebrate their 50th anniversary with their most wins in two decades.

One big question: Can Portland exceed expectations … again?
Pessimistic predictions are nothing new for the Blazers, pegged as a fringe playoff team entering last season after getting swept out of the playoffs by the Pelicans in the first round in 2018. Instead, Portland won 53 games and claimed the No. 3 seed. During Terry Stotts’ seven seasons at the helm, the Blazers have gone under their preseason wins over/under total only once, beating their line by an average of 6.6 wins per season. With an over/under of 46.5 wins this season, similar overperformance would put them back at last season’s total.

— Kevin Pelton

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Massive roster shakeups across the league have caused a seismic shift in the NBA and don’t forget about the Jazz, Blazers and Nuggets.


9. Brooklyn Nets
2018-19 record: 42-40
2020 title odds: +4000

This Nets season is all about integrating the team’s newcomers. Away from the games, Kevin Durant’s rehab hangs over Brooklyn’s season.

What they did this summer
Last season the Nets won the equivalent of the lottery. After years of being known as the gritty and starless team, the front office landed a trio of superstars. They added Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan to their roster. They also signed Garrett Temple and Taurean Prince. Meanwhile, they lost All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell to Golden State and locker room favorite Jared Dudley.

Best-case scenario (55-27) and how they get there
Winning 55 games is a tall task for Brooklyn. In order for that to happen, a convergence of good fortune must come to fruition. Irving needs to be both a positive locker room presence and an All-NBA-level player. Last season, he managed to be only one of those things. Caris LeVert must play at an All-Star level. Jarrett Allen needs to take a significant step forward. Health would be a factor. Irving has already missed three preseason games because of a facial fracture he sustained during a pick-up game.

One big question: All about Kyrie
The Nets’ biggest question centers around one person: Irving. How will he assimilate with the team? Will he be the wrecking ball force that he was in Boston? Can he be more of a leader? In Boston, when challenges arose during the season, Irving tended to become sour and blame his teammates. Will things be different in Brooklyn? There are some factors that could make this season different: Two of his close personal friends, Jordan and Durant, are now his teammates. Unlike when he was traded to Boston, Irving chose to be in Brooklyn. Perhaps that could work in the Nets’ favor.

— Malika Andrews


10. Golden State Warriors
2018-19 record: 57-25
2020 title odds: +800

How are the Warriors going to compensate for the loss of Kevin Durant? Trying to replace an all-time great player is difficult for any roster, even one that includes Stephen Curry.

What they did this summer
Aside from losing Durant, the Warriors also lost veteran stalwarts Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, and now the locker room is filled with young players trying to make a name for themselves in the league. The key for the Warriors will be integrating D’Angelo Russell into the offense. He was acquired in the Durant sign-and-trade with Brooklyn and should provide a big offensive boost as Klay Thompson — out until at least the All-Star break — works his way back from an ACL tear.

Best-case scenario (54-28) and how they get there
There are plenty of people in the league who believe that if the Warriors can hold down the fort until Thompson gets back — then they can still push for their sixth straight NBA Finals appearance. In order to do that, Russell has to fit in smoothly and Golden State must get some production from several unproven players at the end of the rotation.

One big question: The bigs, or lack thereof
Simply put, the Warriors don’t have a lot of depth down low. Kevon Looney has proven to be a stabilizing presence and has earned Steve Kerr’s trust. Willie Cauley-Stein figures to get plenty of opportunities to showcase himself in the Warriors’ system, but he remains out because of a left-foot injury. After that, Draymond Green may get some time at the center spot, but the Warriors lack depth in that area for the first time in several years. Maybe training camp surprise Marquese Chriss can give the group the lift it needs off the bench. but if they don’t find the answer, this team will get crushed in the paint.

— Nick Friedell

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Nick Friedell previews the Warriors’ upcoming season, saying the perennial contenders are embracing their newfound role as an underdog.


11. Boston Celtics
2018-19 record: 49-33
2020 title odds: +2200

Kyrie Irving’s stunning about-face, from telling Celtics season ticket holders he planned on re-signing with Boston to bolting to Brooklyn the moment free agency commenced, could have been catastrophic — except the team quickly inked the congenial Kemba Walker, also a high-volume scoring point guard, who immediately eased the sting of losing a combustible, yet gifted star.

What they did this summer
For the Celtics, the real hit came when the team’s glue guy, Al Horford, spurned Boston for longtime rival and division foe Philadelphia. His departure, coupled with the trade of veteran center Aron Baynes, a Brad Stevens favorite, decimated a Boston lineup that held teams to 44.6% shooting (5th best in the league) last season. Enes Kanter will be an upgrade on the offensive glass, but the Celtics are thin when it comes to bigs, and their draft day haul of Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards and Grant Williams didn’t address that gaping hole.

Best-case scenario (57-25) and how they get there
Shamrock Nirvana would mean that Jayson Tatum becomes as comfortable behind the 3-point line as chillin’ in a chaise lounge, and Gordon Hayward drives to the basket without fear, shooting and dishing and morphing back into that indispensable vet Utah hated to lose. It would mean Jaylen Brown takes a big leap forward on both ends and Kanter proves his defensive metrics from his spirited stint with Portland in the playoffs are not an aberration. Nirvana is Kemba refining his All-NBA chops, the rookies finding ways to chip in, Vincent Poirier shocking us all as a key rotation player and Robert Williams III discovering there are actually other virtues besides blocking shots.

One big question: Boston’s new anchors on D
Much of Boston’s identity has centered on its defensive moxie, where both Horford and Baynes excelled. Can Kanter, Poirier and Daniel Theis hold the line in the paint? Last season, Kanter finished 59th out of 60 eligible centers in ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus Minus with a minus-1.46 rating. If preseason is any indication, Stevens won’t have any qualms about going small — we’re talking Lilliputian — and experimenting with Walker off the ball to set him up for less claustrophobic looks at the basket. The team’s resident bulldog, Marcus Smart, returns to serve as a defensive catalyst, emotional lynchpin and undisputed leader, but can he match — or surpass — his 36.4 percent 3-point shooting from a year ago? Perimeter scoring, at times, was an excruciating problem. This time around, the equally worrisome fear is stops at the other end.

— Jackie MacMullan


12. Indiana Pacers
2018-19 record: 48-34
2020 title odds: +4500

Who are the Pacers both with and without All-Star guard Victor Oladipo? Obviously, he meant so much to the team and they were still able to reach the postseason without him, but was that just an inspired effort on his behalf? We’ll have to wait and see.

What they did this summer
In comparison to most of the league, the summer of 2019 was pretty low-key in Indianapolis, but it was also effective. Former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon was acquired as part of a three-team deal with Miami and Phoenix. The Pacers also signed Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday and T.J. Warren but lost Bojan Bogdanovic to the Jazz. Indy drafted Georgian center Goga Bitadze 18th overall in June.

Best-case scenario (56-26) and how they get there
Indy’s best-case projection depends on the health of Oladipo, who still doesn’t have a timetable on his return from last season’s knee injury. The frontcourt pairing of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis is a partnership that needs to shine in order for the Pacers to be successful, plus all of the new pieces learning their roles. Turner insists his game benefited from his Team USA experience this past summer during the FIBA World Cup, but now it’s time to show it.

One big question: Brogdon’s job promotion
How will Brogdon produce as a full-time point guard for the first time in his career? Taking on his four-year, $ 80 million deal was a huge move for the Pacers this offseason, but Brogdon has never averaged more than 30 minutes and also missed 21 combined games in the regular season and playoffs in 2018-19 with a right-foot injury.

— Eric Woodyard


13. Toronto Raptors
2018-19 record: 58-24
2020 title odds: +5000

Who wants to talk about last season? The Raptors, fresh off their thrilling run to their first NBA title last season, will be a competitive team in the Eastern Conference, but the loss of both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will make repeating that feat a near-impossible dream.

What they did this summer
The Raptors, like everyone else, waited for Leonard to make his decision. When he chose to join the LA Clippers, Green quickly followed him to Los Angeles and signed with the Lakers. Marc Gasol picked up his player option to return, while Toronto’s front office took chances on a few young, athletic wings (Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) to see if they can find a diamond in the rough. The Raptors also resigned Patrick McCaw and inked intriguing undrafted free agent Terence Davis off an impressive Summer League debut. The biggest moves Toronto made, however, came during training camp, when they agreed to a one-year contract extension with Kyle Lowry and a four-year, $ 130 million deal with Pascal Siakam.

Best-case scenario (53-29) and how they get there
For starters, the Raptors need to hang on to their veterans through the trade deadline. Beyond that, Siakam becoming an All-NBA candidate, OG Anunoby establishing himself as a bona fide NBA starter and veterans like Gasol, Lowry and Serge Ibaka all impressing in the final years of their respective contracts might give the Raptors hope for a 50-plus-win campaign.

One big question: Champs at a crossroads
The Raptors have large expiring contracts in Gasol and Ibaka — along with Lowry’s now two-year deal — that they could choose to move elsewhere in exchange for assets to expedite the re-tooling of the roster around Siakam. Or, Toronto could instead try to be as competitive as possible this season, and give as strong a defense of the franchise’s first-ever title as it can. Either way, Toronto will have an impact on the East’s playoff picture yet again.

— Tim Bontemps


14. Miami Heat
2018-19 record: 39-43
2020 title odds: +7500

Can newcomer Jimmy Butler work his magic with a Heat team that has won just one playoff game over the past three seasons?

What they did this summer
Miami added Butler on a four-year deal worth $ 142 million through what was actually a four-team trade. The Heat also picked up center Meyers Leonard in the deal that included Philadelphia, Portland and the LA Clippers. With Miami shedding Hassan Whiteside in the deal, it opens up playing time for Bam Adebayo at the center spot. Another pickup was selecting Tyler Herro — all he did was average a team-best 14.2 points in the preseason while shooting 51.9 percent from deep.

Best-case scenario (51-31) and how they get there
That mark would match what Butler’s 76ers did last season, and it should give the Heat the higher seed in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. For that to happen, Miami will need more than just Butler being Butler. Justise Winslow needs to continue to shine at point guard, Herro has to continue to shoot lights out, and Adebayo, who nearly averaged a double-double in the preseason, has to continue to develop into Miami’s center of the future.

One big question: Is Miami done making moves?
Does president Pat Riley make any moves to add to the roster? Getting Butler is one thing, but Miami was a long-rumored spot for Chris Paul and supposedly had major interest in Bradley Beal. Riley won’t hesitate to make a move to help get Miami over the hump, but in the meantime, how coach Erik Spoelstra handles the rotation will be key. A starting five of Winslow, Herro, Butler, Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk leaves Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Derrick Jones Jr., Leonard and possibly Kendrick Nunn on the bench.

— Andrew Lopez

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Jimmy Butler thinks some people have the wrong idea about him and clarifies that he doesn’t care who the Heat build around.


15. San Antonio Spurs
2018-19 record: 48-34
2020 title odds: +4500

If you think this might be the season for the bell to finally toll on Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, stop and remind yourself that the Spurs are still the Spurs, and they will almost assuredly continue to Spurs.

What they did this summer
Probably the splashiest thing San Antonio did involved a player it didn’t sign. Marcus Morris agreed to a deal and then backed out of it to take a bigger offer from the Knicks. The Spurs tried to recover by adding Trey Lyles, taking a flyer on a still-young player. DeMarre Carroll was added to bolster wing depth, Rudy Gay was re-signed, and they drafted two players in the first round in Luka Samanic (No. 19) and Keldon Johnson (No. 29). Dejounte Murray’s full return is probably the second-biggest offseason development, the first being an even more seismic return: Tim Duncan is back … as an assistant coach.

Best-case scenario (51-31) and how they get there
The Spurs won 48 games last season despite missing critical rotation players for basically the entire campaign. They did it the way they almost always do: playing fundamentally solid, defensively strong and identity-driven basketball. Now with Murray back, a full season for 2018 first-round pick Lonnie Walker IV, extra depth on the wing and a second season in the system for DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs are more balanced than they were last season. Other teams in the West made bigger moves and have more star power at the top, but the Spurs keep on churning and 50 wins is within their aim again.

One big question: The Spurs’ place in a new West
On a micro level, the injury to Murray last season gave way to an opportunity for Derrick White, which leads many wondering if the two can play together. On a macro level, it’s about how the next step gets taken for the Spurs. They’re solid, they’re capable, they’re going to win regular-season games. But they have been stuck in the back half of the Western playoff class and are left questioning how they can return again to the elite of the conference. Can DeRozan elevate to another level? Can LaMarcus Aldridge carry a team? The Spurs will win games — that’s what they do — but where do they find that next level?

— Royce Young


16. Dallas Mavericks
2018-19 record: 33-49
2020 title odds: +7000

With two young stars, the Mavs are a franchise with a bright long-term outlook that desperately wants to taste the playoffs again after a three-year drought. Playoff seasoning is an important element in the development of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and they’ve both declared earning their way into the postseason as the primary goal this season.

What they did this summer
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Mavs whiffed on the proven stars in free agency despite entering the summer with room to add a maximum contract. Dallas kept its young core players (Porzingis, Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith) and added some quality role players (Delon Wright, Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic).

Best-case scenario (49-33) and how they get there
Porzingis, who the Mavs will manage cautiously as he comes back from a 20-month layoff due to a torn ACL, will have to quickly return to All-Star form. Doncic would need to take the leap from historically elite rookie to superstar. And at least a few other players on the roster would have to make significant progress to prove they can be contenders on a playoff team in an ultracompetitive conference.

One big question: Luka, KP and … who?
How good is the rest of the roster after the young stars the Mavs are building around? It seems like Dallas has a lot of quality bench depth. Unfortunately for the Mavs, three of those players will have to join Doncic and Porzingis in the starting lineup on a nightly basis. Dallas is banking, literally and figuratively, on Powell and Wright rising to the challenge.

— Tim MacMahon


17. New Orleans Pelicans
2018-19 record: 33-49
2020 title odds: +10000

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s dance! (Exact start time to de determined). The Pelicans are being cautious with Zion Williamson’s right knee injury, so New Orleans heads into the season with its superstar rookie on the sideline.

What they did this summer
While it’s easy to remember the Pelicans drafting Williamson, they made plenty of other moves as well. In addition to selecting No. 1 overall, the Pelicans added center Jaxson Hayes and guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the draft. They signed JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli in free agency and dealt for Derrick Favors. And by the way, they traded former face of the franchise Anthony Davis to the Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram.

Best-case scenario (47-35) and how they get there
First and foremost, the best-case scenario here involves New Orleans getting Williamson back sooner rather than later from his right knee injury. Once that happens, it’s all about making the right moves in the crowded Western Conference. Jrue Holiday has to continue to play as a top-tier shooting guard and New Orleans needs key contributions and growth from Ball, Ingram and Hart. But even in a best-case scenario, New Orleans is fighting for a spot at the back end of the playoff field, as last year it took 48 wins to crack the West’s top eight.

One big question: Only so many minutes to go around
Have we mentioned Williamson’s injury yet? Oh, we have? Good. Then the other big question is how coach Alvin Gentry figures out how to use his rotations. Gentry has stated he wants to use a nine- or 10-man rotation but has a lot of quality guys to play. Someone’s going to be unhappy with their lack of minutes. Another issue: Where does the shooting come from? In the projected starting lineup with Ball, Holiday, Ingram, Williamson and Favors, it’s not exactly one that strikes fear in opposing defenses from deep. The progression of Ingram and Ball as shooters and the help of Redick, Melli and Alexander-Walker off the bench will be key.

— Andrew Lopez

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Stephen A. Smith reacts to the news that Zion Williamson will miss “weeks” with a knee injury, meaning his debut will be delayed.


18. Orlando Magic
2018-19 record: 42-40
2020 title odds: +15000

Orlando — and former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz — tries to improve on last season’s 42-40 mark to try to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2011 and 2012.

What they did this summer
While the Magic’s offseason mostly revolved around re-signing All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams, Orlando did add Al-Farouq Aminu from Portland in free agency. Markelle Fultz came over in a trade-deadline deal in February, but it’s almost a new acquisition since he never suited up in Orlando. The former No. 1 pick averaged 6.7 points and 4.0 assists in the preseason, showing flashes of the player he was coming out of college.

Best-case scenario (48-34) and how they get there
Fultz struggled from the floor (17-of-54 overall, 0-of-6 from 3) in the preseason, but for the Magic to reach their best-case scenario, he has to be more efficient to give Orlando a boost off the bench with Ross. Aaron Gordon (34.9% from deep in 2018-19) and Jonathan Isaac (32.3%) both need to continue to develop from 3-point range. And another All-Star-like performance from Vucevic — 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.0 steals per game — wouldn’t hurt, either.

One big question: Forward progress
Aside from the question of whether the Magic and Knicks can have a lineup featuring 10 forwards on the court at the same time, Orlando has to figure out how to get the most out of multiple players perhaps better suited as small-ball 4s. Gordon and Isaac will likely share starting duties with Vucevic — meaning Isaac is the small forward. As for the backups, Aminu and Mo Bamba have better fits at the 4 and 5. But Gordon or Isaac — or both — have to get better at shooting from beyond the arc.

— Andrew Lopez


19. Oklahoma City Thunder
2018-19 record: 49-33
2020 title odds: +100000

“Reposition and replenish,” have been the buzzwords as Oklahoma City embarks on its first rebuild. But really for this specific season, it’s ambiguity and unfamiliarity. It’s hard to project who will be on the team throughout the season, and it’s an uncharted path for the franchise to play basketball without Russell Westbrook.

What they did this summer
Paul George: gone. Russell Westbrook: gone. Jerami Grant: gone. The prodigal son Chris Paul has returned to OKC but potentially on a temporary basis as the Thunder reorganize the roster. Mike Muscala was signed during free agency with an expectation of joining George and Westbrook, and he decided to stick around after the trades when the Thunder offered him an opportunity to reconsider. Darius Bazley was selected in the first round and could play a part in the rotation this season. It’s certainly more about the losses than the gains for the Thunder, though. A team that felt like it wasn’t far off from contending — despite consecutive playoff disappointments — is without a likely All-Star for the first time in a decade.

Best-case scenario (37-45) and how they get there
Most projections for the Thunder have more to do with an expectation of more transactions than they do what’s actually on the team. Because the roster as it is now — particularly the starting five — is pretty good. But the wonder is how long that group sticks together. Assuming it does, the Thunder can be a dark horse playoff contender, especially if Paul is as motivated as everyone says he is. Health has always been a top concern for him, but when he’s on the floor, his teams are good.

One big question: The awkward phase is here
Everything about the Thunder is about the transition they find themselves in, with one foot in this season while knowing an eventual complete teardown is on the horizon. There will be trade inquiries for just about every player on the roster, and if the price tag is met, the Thunder won’t hesitate to take advantage. But it’s probably more likely players like Paul and Adams finish the season with the Thunder than not, with a reevaluation coming next summer. The Thunder don’t know how good this group is yet, and they’d like to give it a shot first.

— Royce Young


20. Sacramento Kings
2018-19 record: 39-43
2020 title odds: +15000

How big of a jump will the Kings be able to make now that Luke Walton is running the show? Led by speedster guard De’Aaron Fox, this young group looks primed to take another giant step.

What they did this summer
The Kings gave Harrison Barnes an $ 85 million dollar extension and added veteran voices Trevor Ariza and Cory Joseph. The franchise also hired Walton and has stood by him amid an ongoing civil suit brought by Kelli Tennant, a former host on Spectrum SportsNet LA, the Lakers’ regional sports network. Tennant said in the lawsuit filed in April that Walton assaulted her in a Santa Monica, California, hotel room in 2014.

Best-case scenario (45-37) and how they get there
The optimism surrounding this group is palpable around Sacramento. They play fast and have young talent like Fox and Buddy Hield to push the pace. If they improve alongside Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III, the Kings will be able to run up and down the floor with anybody.

One big question: Buddy Hield’s future
The biggest question surrounding this team, aside from Walton’s legal issues, is whether or not the Kings will come to terms with Hield on an extension before the deadline. Hield has turned himself into one of the better shooting guards in the league and has been public about the fact he wants more money than what the Kings are currently offering. If they don’t come to terms soon, the organization runs the risk of alienating one of its core pieces.

— Nick Friedell


21. Minnesota Timberwolves
2018-19 record: 36-46
2020 title odds: +50000

The Timberwolves were able to snap the NBA’s longest postseason drought, but the franchise is still sorting through the Jimmy Butler-Tom Thibodeau wreckage of last season. New president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas has yet to mold the flawed roster to his liking.

What they did this summer
During his first summer on the job, Rosas focused his attention on swinging a sign-and-trade deal for free agent D’Angelo Russell, a close friend of Minnesota star Karl-Anthony Towns. When Russell instead chose a sign-and-trade to Golden State, the Timberwolves regrouped and went bargain shopping to fill out the frontcourt with free agents Jordan Bell, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh. In the long term, Minnesota’s biggest move was dealing Dario Saric to jump up from No. 11 to No. 6 in the draft and select Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver.

Best-case scenario (44-38) and how they get there
Hopeful Timberwolves fans can point to the team’s 12-10 record in the 22 games forward Robert Covington played between the Butler trade and a season-ending bone bruise in his right knee. Over that span, Minnesota’s 107.2 defensive rating ranked 11th in the league according to NBA Advanced Stats data, as compared to 25th thereafter. Head coach Ryan Saunders is expected to start Covington at power forward this season in lieu of departed bigs Saric and Taj Gibson; if Covington’s ballhawking has the same impact over a larger sample, Minnesota can reasonably aspire to a low-end playoff seed.

One big question: More changes for Minny?
What does Rosas have in store? It’s likely there are more changes to come for the Timberwolves. It’s possible Minnesota could still trade for Russell after Dec. 15 if he doesn’t fit well with the Warriors. Even if not Russell, the Timberwolves will have options. Starting point guard Jeff Teague, in the last year of his contract at age 31, is an obvious trade candidate. And adding Culver to a wing rotation that includes 2018 first-round pick Josh Okogie and former No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins probably means one of the incumbents is headed out.

— Kevin Pelton


22. Detroit Pistons
2018-19 record: 41-41
2020 title odds: +25000

Can Blake Griffin stay healthy? For a player that’s as big and explosive as he is, that style of play comes with wear and tear on his body. Detroit will go as far as he leads them in an Eastern Conference that’s seemingly up for grabs.

What they did this summer
Much of the same roster from last season’s team that reached the opening round of the playoffs is intact with Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard. Signing former MVP Derrick Rose could be a key addition if he lives up to expectations. Pistons coach Dwane Casey was highly impressed with Rose’s play during training camp, but the staff will be careful to manage his minutes. Detroit also signed Markieff Morris and Tim Frazier after drafting Sekou Doumbouya with the 15th overall pick in the draft.

Best-case scenario (46-36) and how they get there
The East is open, but Detroit will still have to compete with Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana, Boston and Brooklyn as serious contenders. If the big men in the middle, Drummond and Griffin, continue to thrive Detroit could possibly crack in the top 5 of the East with a second straight playoff appearance.

One big question: The health of Blake Griffin
The All-NBA forward was able to play in 75 games last season, his most since 2013-14, but the second full season of the Griffin and Drummond pairing will be interesting to watch. Griffin underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in April, but he enters this season at full strength.

— Eric Woodyard


23. Atlanta Hawks
2018-19 record: 29-53
2020 title odds: +30000

Youth movements are exciting and idealistic by nature, but they can go in any number of directions. The Hawks enter Year 2 of their movement with a lot of promise — they finished strong and added even more skilled young players this offseason to bolster their nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter. Will that influx of talent vault them to greater heights, or will it produce more questions than answers as the Hawks try to graduate from selling hope to selling success?

What they did this summer
The Hawks had a busy offseason engaging in their two favorite pursuits: drafting promising talent (De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Bruno Fernando) and stockpiling future assets by taking on castaways (Allen Crabbe). They also took a flyer on Jabari Parker, traded Kent Bazemore for Evan Turner, acquired Damian Jones for Omari Spellman, swapped two onerous medium-sized contracts (Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee) for a colossally bad one (Chandler Parsons) and brought back Vince Carter for the 22nd and final season of his historic career.

Best-case scenario (45-37) and how they get there
Few organizations in the NBA are more measured about their expectations this season than Atlanta, and the Hawks would regard any flirtation with a playoff berth and 40 wins as a wildly successful season. That would mean Hunter arrived and immediately provided defense and effective shooting, Reddish handled the pace of the NBA game while succeeding as a secondary playmaker and jump-shooting threat, Young continued to hone his transcendent skills as a scorer and playmaker, Collins and Huerter developed new skills, Turner served as an effective backup point guard and the overall defense improved.

One big question: Can the defense take a step forward?
The Hawks are engaged in a gradual multiyear rebuild focused on integrating 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds into the flow of the grueling NBA season. The Hatchlings showed real promise in the latter half of last season, ranking 11th in offensive efficiency behind Young’s pick-and-roll mastery. But the gap between “fun young team” and “future contender” in the NBA is bridged with team defense, to which neither Young nor Collins has demonstrated a consistent commitment … yet. That’s why Hunter, selected No. 4 overall in June, is such an important addition to the youth movement. He’s a high-IQ, tireless, multi-positional stopper who can serve as a fulcrum for a Hawks’ team defense desperate for a leader.

— Kevin Arnovitz

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Star point guard reveals his goals for the season, including taking his team to the playoffs


24. Chicago Bulls
2018-19 record: 22-60
2020 title odds: +20000

A full year of head coach Jim Boylen, who signed a contract extension in May, will be fascinating to watch. One things for sure, Boylen will hold guys accountable. Some players in the past weren’t able to adjust to his demands, but now it seems as though everyone is adapting, especially the younger guys.

What they did this summer
After a record-setting one-and-done season at the University of North Carolina, scoring guard Coby White landed with the Bulls at No. 7. Chicago also added free agent Thaddeus Young and traded for Tomas Satoransky, who is projected to thrive as the lead guard in Boylen’s system. The former Wizards second-round pick is entering a new role with extended minutes after coming off a career-best season in Washington with averages of 8.9 points, 5.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds on 48.5 percent shooting.

Best-case scenario (40-42) and how they get there
Chicago is a trendy pick to surprise in the East, but going from 22 wins to the postseason won’t be easy — even in a watered-down East. Seeing immediate development in White, plus more established players such as Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. taking their games to the new heights, might be the Bulls’ only path to 40 or more wins.

One big question: Was extending Boylen the right move?
The hard-nosed coaching tactics of Boylen weren’t well-received when he took over as head coach following the firing of Fred Hoiberg. But after agreeing to a multi-year extension, Boylen is the man for the job and players are getting used to his style as he tries to bring Chicago back to relevancy. Whether or not players truly buy into his system will shape the identity of this season.

— Eric Woodyard


25. Washington Wizards
2018-19 record: 32-50
2020 title odds: +100000

At last, change came to the nation’s capital when the Wizards fired general manager Ernie Grunfeld after 16 seasons at the helm. With John Wall expected to miss the entire season following Achilles surgery, replacement GM Tommy Sheppard is operating with a limited payroll, but he signed All-Star guard Bradley Beal to a two-year extension.

What they did this summer
After pursuing Denver’s Tim Connelly and Toronto’s Masai Ujiri, Washington promoted Sheppard, who will lead a revamped front office that integrates owner Ted Leonsis’ other basketball teams (G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, WNBA champion Mystics and 2K League entrant Wizards District Gaming). Sheppard continued the process of creating more salary flexibility around large contracts for Wall and Beal that began by trading Otto Porter Jr. at the deadline. Washington added just one veteran (Wall replacement Ish Smith) on a multiyear deal. The Wizards’ biggest commitment was the Beal extension, which makes him ineligible for a trade this season.

Best-case scenario (37-45) and how they get there
Of the league’s bottom echelon of teams, the Wizards have the best centerpiece in Beal, a two-time All-Star whose 25.6 points per game ranked 11th in the NBA last season. If he gets a running mate, Washington could be in the mix for a playoff spot. Newcomer Isaiah Thomas, just two seasons removed from making the All-NBA Second Team in Boston, offers the most upside. Before undergoing thumb surgery, he was able to work out after spending the previous two summers rehabbing hip injuries. The best-case scenario for Washington also includes center Thomas Bryant and wing Troy Brown Jr. taking big steps forward.

One big question: Who steps up at the forward spots?
After dealing Porter in February, the Wizards saw four forwards (Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis) leave in free agency. They will be replaced by a younger, cheaper group that includes the team’s last two first-round picks (Brown and Rui Hachimura). Washington also added 2018 Lakers draft picks Mo Wagner and Isaac Bonga, who have started at the forward spots during the preseason. Veterans Davis Bertans and C.J. Miles, both acquired via trade, give head coach Scott Brooks more experienced options and additional floor spacing.

— Kevin Pelton


26. Phoenix Suns
2018-19 record: 19-63
2020 title odds: +50000

New coach Monty Williams wants the Suns to do everything fast this season — as in shoot, pass or drive all in “0.5 seconds.” Let’s just hope ownership stops swiping through head coaches and commits to giving Williams more than half a second to stick around after the last coach, Igor Kokoskov, lasted about a minute.

What they did this summer
The Suns had a head-scratching summer. They got the hottest name among available coaches in Williams. They filled their point guard hole with Ricky Rubio but added him on a three-year, $ 51-million deal. They gave up on former No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson and shipped him to Memphis along with De’Anthony Melton and two future second-rounders to clear cap. Perhaps even worse was shipping the solid T.J. Warren, who had three years and $ 35 million left on his deal, and the No. 32 pick to the giddy Pacers in a cap-clearing deal. The Suns added Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, Cheick Diallo and Frank Kaminsky while drafting Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome. And they re-signed Kelly Oubre Jr. to a two-year, $ 30 million deal.

Best-case scenario (36-46) and how they get there
If this happens, Williams might receive Coach of the Year votes. The Suns won only 19 games last season and haven’t won more than 24 games since 2014-15 when they finished 39-43. In order to win 17 more games from a season ago, the Rubio move will have to pay off, with the point guard providing the leadership and playmaking the Suns need for Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton while allowing Booker to concentrate on just being a shooting guard. Saric, Oubre Jr., Tyler Johnson, Mikal Bridges and the Suns’ plethora of big men would also all have to show that they are the right complementary pieces.

One big question: How dynamic is the Suns’ duo?
Williams has his plate full establishing stability, a new culture and getting the Suns to defend. But his top task will be to oversee the growth of Booker and Ayton. If the Suns are going to do anything, those two have to flourish. More than anything, the Suns need to look like an organization with a sense of direction, a plan and a purpose. Phoenix has averaged 22 wins the past four seasons. The Suns hired Williams, committed to GM James Jones and named Jeff Bower as senior VP of basketball operations. Now we see if this regime can revive the Suns.

— Ohm Youngmisuk


27. Memphis Grizzlies
2018-19 record: 33-49
2020 title odds: +100000

Goodbye, Grit ‘n Grind. The Grizzlies are officially in rebuilding mode. Memphis does at least have a potentially strong foundation in place with recent high lottery picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant.

What they did this summer
Owner Robert Pera made drastic changes in the franchise’s leadership and allowed the new regime to fully commit to a long-term plan. Zach Kleiman was promoted to executive vice president of basketball operations, becoming the youngest personnel decision-maker in the league. He hired relative unknown Taylor Jenkins as head coach, tasking the rookie with developing the Grizzlies’ young talent. The Mike Conley trade represented a commitment to rebuilding, with the return including two first-rounders as well as Utah’s 2018 first-rounder Grayson Allen. Kleiman also shrewdly acquired Golden State’s 2024 first-rounder for taking Andre Iguodala’s salary — and still hopes to flip Iguodala for another pick. Oh, and lottery luck allowed Memphis to move up to No. 2 and take Morant, a potential franchise centerpiece point guard.

Best-case scenario (35-47) and how they get there
Perhaps 35 wins would be the most the Grizzlies could squeeze out of this roster, but a strong argument can be made that it would hardly be the best-case scenario. The Grizzlies, whose first-rounder is owed to Boston but top-six protected, would surely like to add another high-lottery talent. (The pick, which Boston acquired in the long-ago Jeff Green trade, would be unprotected in 2021.) If vets like Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder help create a good culture and the young kids live up to the hype, the Grizzlies could be competitive in a lot of games.

One big question: What strides can the kids make?
Everything about the Grizzlies’ season must be viewed through a long-term prism. The goal is to give the franchise a path back to the playoffs in a few years — and a chance to be competitive for a decade-plus window. The clear priority is the development of baby-faced franchise pillars Jackson and Morant — who could emerge as an elite homegrown duo down the road — and youngsters like first-round rookie Brandon Clarke, who could become high-caliber role players for the foreseeable future.

— Tim MacMahon


28. New York Knicks
2018-19 record: 17-65
2020 title odds: +50000

The theme this season for the Knicks? Growth. Again.

What they did this summer
This summer was supposed to be when glory returned to Madison Square Garden. The Knicks were confident they were the frontrunners to land marquee free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Knicks owner Jim Dolan went on national radio and boasted, “We’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.” Durant and Irving ended up signing with the other borough: Brooklyn. The Knicks then moved quickly and signed Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, Taj Gibson and others. They drafted RJ Barrett with the third pick in the 2019 draft.

Best-case scenario (36-46) and how they get there
The Knicks winning 36 games could be challenging, but not impossible. In order for it to materialize, New York would likely have to prioritize veteran minutes over younger players’ development — more of Morris, Portis and Randle and sacrifice the developmental minutes of players like Barrett and Kevin Knox. Another plausible scenario is Barrett has an explosive season and puts himself in the running for Rookie of the Year, while big man Mitchell Robinson takes another step forward defensively.

One big question: The road ahead
The Knicks must sort out which players are cornerstones of the franchise’s seemingly perpetual rebuild and which players are transient. Who will be in New York for years to come? How about just next year? This turnover must slow down.

— Malika Andrews

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Jay Williams says the Knicks can turn it around, but their problems may be linked to owner James Dolan.


29. Cleveland Cavaliers
2018-19 record: 19-63
2020 title odds: +100000

Cleveland is an Ohio State town, so much so that when opponents shoot free throws during games, the Cavs show images of the University of Michigan athletics on the jumbotron to get the fans riled up and booing. Will crossing that collegiate rivalry to hire John Beilein get their rebuild off the ground?

What they did this summer
Cleveland created one of the smallest backcourts in the league when it drafted Darius Garland to pair with last season’s first rounder, Collin Sexton. Draft night also brought two more rookies into the fold in Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. The franchise shed two more links to its championship team, letting JR Smith walk in free agency and wishing Channing Frye well in retirement, leaving Kevin Love as the lone holdover from the glory days of 2016.

Best-case scenario (34-48) and how they get there
If Love returns to All-Star form, Garland makes some Rookie of the Year noise, Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. keep progressing and everyone buys into Beilein’s family-like approach then the Cavs … oh, heck, who are we kidding? It’s going to be a long year in Cleveland.

One big question: Kevin Love on the trade block?
Will the Cavs pursue a deal involving Love, and if so, what kind of package will they go after? Will the young core show enough promise that general manager Koby Altman would consider moving Love for several win-now pieces or even cause him to keep him? Or will the best option be shipping Love out for future assets and turning on the tank?

— Dave McMenamin


30. Charlotte Hornets
2018-19 record: 39-43
2020 title odds: +100000

To borrow a phrase from the Brooklyn Dodgers: “Wait ’til next year.” With Kemba Walker departing for the Boston Celtics, the Hornets are all but certain to be among the NBA’s worst teams this season and are staring a very lengthy rebuild squarely in the face.

What they did this summer
Charlotte had two years to decide what it wanted to do with Walker, the greatest player in franchise history. The Hornets repeatedly declared they wanted to keep him and thus didn’t trade him. Then they subsequently offered him a lowball contract in free agency, and he then joined the Celtics. Charlotte responded to this by signing Terry Rozier to a three-year, $ 58 million deal to replace Walker. The Hornets also lost Jeremy Lamb in free agency, as he signed with the Indiana Pacers, and drafted P.J. Washington, a Kentucky forward, with their lottery pick.

Best-case scenario (34-38) and how they get there
Good luck. Yes, the Hornets have Rozier, who will be on a mission to prove he can shine with big minutes, a roster featuring several quality NBA veterans — including Marvin Williams, who could be an interesting trade candidate for contenders thanks to his expiring contract, size and shooting ability — but Charlotte’s offense seems destined to be one of the league’s worst. Thus, the Hornets will be fighting with the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Washington Wizards to see who will finish lowest in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

One big question: They’re in the endgame now
What is this team trying to do? Charlotte could’ve gotten a significant return back for Walker at some point in the past two years if it chose to trade him. Instead, the Hornets did nothing with him, failed to make the playoffs twice and then watched him leave in free agency for nothing. Miles Bridges is a nice young piece, but outside of him the roster is bare of any potential long-term building blocks. Given Charlotte isn’t exactly a major market, it’s hard to see this team being remotely competitive anytime in the near future — bleak news for a team that’s been to the playoffs three times and failed to win a single playoff series in 15 seasons since being rebooted in 2004.

— Tim Bontemps

www.espn.com – NBA

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