Historic Offseason Brings Balance, Competitiveness Back to the League

Jackson Bezdek, Sports Editor

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Wow, what an offseason.  Just a couple months after breaking the NBA landscape and taking down the almighty Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard set the basketball world into a frenzy of confusion and excitement, by restoring order in the NBA galaxy.  Leonard, a 6’7 all-star forward, won his second NBA Finals MVP this past June (his first being with the San Antonio Spurs), bringing the city of Toronto their first NBA title. The Raptors beat the Warriors in six games on the shoulders of Leonard’s amazing performance, as “The Claw” averaged 28.5 points per game, 9.8 rebunds per game, and 2.0 steals per game (all of these numbers led the team).  Not only was he awarded the Finals MVP, but Leonard asserted himself as one of the league’s best, if not the best, all-around players. Toronto was on top of the world, but was soon faced with a franchise-altering dilema: would Kawhi stay or go? NBA media members were convinced that Leonard would either stay in Toronto or join LeBron James and the Lakers in Los Angeles. As the day of the announcement approached, the answer seemed to be clearly pointing to Leonard becoming a Los Angeles Laker.   That was 50% true. Leonard shocked everyone by taking his talents to Los Angeles, but to play for the Clippers. Not only did he join the Clips, but all-star forward Paul George left all-star point guard Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City to join Kawhi. Leonard and George were just two of the many all-stars who changed teams this past off-season. To be exact, seven of last years twenty-five all stars are now on a different team. Not only is this an absurd number, but it caused a tectonic shift in teams between starters and role players in the league as well.  Predicting specific records of each NBA team is near impossible, so I will be looking at the over/under win totals set out by Westgate Las Vegas Superbook to give an insight into each team, and who on each team will make a positive or negative impact for their squad.  Listed next to each team is their records from last year, and where they finished in their respected conferences.

The Western Conference

Dallas Mavericks (33-49) 14th in West- Over/Under: 40.5 wins; Dallas is led by their 20 year-old phenom out of Slovenia, Luka Doncic.  Doncic was the 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year after averaging 21.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, and 6.0 assists per game.  He will be paired up this year with young 7’3 Latvian star Kristaps Porzingis, who has already made an All-Star team in his young career.  Porzingis was acquired when the Mavs sent Dennis Smith Jr. over to the Knicks last season. Kristaps, when on the floor, is one of the best young big men in the league.  However, he hasn’t played a game in 20 months. If he can be healthy, the Mavs can probably reach this 41 win number. I think Luka will continue to emerge as one of the league’s future stars, and will have another crazy season with All-Star numbers.  The problem with this team is their lack of any other talent besides the two Europeans. There really isn’t much there to help them other than Seth Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr. If Seth Curry (Seth, not Steph. Steph is Chris Evans, and Seth is his less talented brother Scott Evans) is the third best player on an NBA team, then said NBA team will probably not be very good.  Seth’s a good shooter, but not good enough to accompany Kristaps and Luka into the playoffs. I don’t think the Mavs win 40 games unless Luka puts up MVP-type numbers.

Denver Nuggets (54-28) 2nd in West- Over/Under: 53 wins; The Nuggets are the same team as they were last year with the addition of Jerami Grant, and now they get their lottery pick from last year back from injury, Michael Porter Jr.  Jamaal Murray will need to step up his game to a 22+ ppg game scorer in order to bring this team over the 50 win hump. I think they will get there, but I don’t know if they can win 54 games again. If they do, it wouldn’t surprise me because I absolutely love Nikola Jokic.  I think Jokic will be top 3 in MVP voting this year, and could average near a triple-double with 20+ ppg. That is absolutely unheard of for a center. He is just that good. This team could make another run for the 1 seed in the West, but there is already so much firepower in the West that somebody between them, the Jazz, and the LA teams have to underperform, and I think the Nuggets are slightly the worst out of those four. 

Golden State Warriors (57-25) 1st in West- Over/Under: 48.5 wins; The Warriors dynasty could now be over.  They lost to the Raptors in 6 after losing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to injuries, and relying to heavily on Steph Curry.  KD ended up leaving to join the Brooklyn Nets, which was no surprise to the Golden State front office. However, they were able to work out a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn, and acquired young All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell.  This Warriors offense will have no problem getting buckets behind the starpower of Curry and Russell, but their defense and depth will suffer greatly. Not only did they lose Durant, but they also lost former Finals MVP Andre Iguadola and steady-handed backup point guard Shaun Lvingson.  They will also be without Thompson until around the playoffs as he nurses the injury he sustained in the Finals. They did pick up talented big man Willie Cauley-Stein to solidify their center position, which has been the team’s one weakness over their run of 5 consecutive Finals appearances.  I do think this team is good enough to sneak into the playoffs as a 6,7, or 8 seed because I think Steph Curry is going to have an MVP-like season, and Steve Kerr is still one of the best coaches in the league. However, I do not see them winning more than 48 games with just Steph and Draymond Green as returning starters.

Houston Rockets (53-29) 4th in West- Over/Under: 54 wins; The Rockets finally got rid of old man Chris Paul in exchange for “Mr. Triple Double”, Russell Westbrook.  They lost a lot of draft picks in the trade, but that doesn’t matter for this year. They retain their talented and veteran core from last year, led by Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, which almost knocked the Warriors out of the playoffs in the second round.  I don’t think the Rockets can go far in the playoffs because of how hard it will be for Westbrook and 35 ppg scorer James Harden to coexist, being as they have the two highest usage rates in basketball history. This will be a problem in the playoffs, but not in the regular season.  Harden and Westbrook both will play with a chip on their shoulder, trying to prove that they are the best team in the West. This is not like the Lakers where they are going to kinda coast through the regular season, then turn up in the playoffs.  James and Russ will play with high energy and effort night in and night out.  I think if they can figure out how often each get the ball, Houston should have no problem reaching 60 wins with Westbrook averaging a triple-double for the 3rd year in a row, and another 30+ ppg season from Harden. 

Los Angeles Clippers (48-34) 8th in West- Over/Under: 53 wins; The Clippers had the best offseason in the league in my opinion.  They picked up both Kawhi Leonard, Finals MVP, and Paul George, 3rd in MVP voting. Their roster last year was very young, and they still pulled out 48 wins.  They were one of the more surprising teams last year, and now they have a roster that can compete for a championship. They did lose Danillo Galinari and Shae Gilgeous-Alexander in the Paul George trade, but their core from last year is still there.  This is a roster that I believe can win an NBA championship, and should have no problem winning above 53 games. Even if George and Leonard rest for a couple games every once in a while, they still have very talented players like Landry Shamet and Montrez Harrell to keep them in the “W” column.

Los Angeles Lakers (37-45) 10th in West- Over/Under: 50 wins; LeBron James is on the Lakers.  Anthony Davis is on the Lakers. If this team tries, they will win 65 games.  Unfortunately, this team will not play hard for 82 games because LeBron is 34 years old and Anthony Davis has had injury problems in the past.  These two guys’ chemistry has been so good so far in preseason and in practice, that I genuinely don’t think anyone can stop them except for Kawhi.  I get that it’s preseason, but LeBron was not messing around. Last year was the first time since his ROOKIE SEASON that he missed the playoffs. Mr. James is on a mission.  And everyone wants to talk about the role players and how much they matter to LeBron and AD. LeBron is the 2nd greatest player of all time (if you think he’s better than MJ, stop and rethink your decision), and Davis is a top 3 player in the league when healthy.  I’m telling you, all they need is each other and a couple of 3-and-D guys, and the two LA teams are going to run the league this year.

Memphis Grizzlies (33-49) 12th in West- Over/Under: 27 wins; This team won’t be anything special, but I think they can get to 30 wins.  Rookie Ja Morant is a candidate to win Rookie of the Year if Zion can’t stay healthy, and sophomore center Jaren Jackson Jr. is going to be a great pair with Morant.  This team will be fun to watch, especially with the return of young sharpshooter Dillon Brooks from injury. I think this team can squeak out a couple wins they’re not supposed to get behind their young talent and veteran leadership of Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder.  The Ja and Jaren connection will be cool, but the Griz are nothing more than about a 32 win team.

Minnesota Timberwolves (36-46) 11th in West- Over/Under: 35.5 wins; Nobody knows what’s going on up in Minnesota.  Wiggins scores a lot of points, but it feels like he’s only on the court for half the time.  Karl Anthony-Towns wants out but doesn’t want to hurt the front office’s feelings so he’s not directly saying it.  Jeff Teague is boring to watch. Other than that they have a bunch of below average guys, except for rookie Jarrett Culver, who I think will have a solid rookie season.  They will be one of the worst teams in the West, and will struggle to win 30 games in my opinion. I don’t know why the front office keeps trying to force things to work with Wiggins and Towns when they clearly do not play well together.  Maybe Towns will finally get traded, and the Wolves can start over, but for now, they are stuck in this rut of playing boring, below average basketball. 

New Orleans Pelicans (33-49) 13th in West- Over/Under: 39.5 wins; With the news of rookie sensation Zion Williamson being out for 6-8 weeks to start the season, I think that is enough to keep the Pels out of the playoffs.  I think they’ll eventually win 40 games, but the playoffs are up in the air for me. I like their new and improved starting 5 with the guys they acquired in the Anthony Davis trade, and the pick up of JJ Redick.  Jrue Holiday is still there, and he has been the heart and soul for that team and city for the past couple of years. This will probably be my favorite team to watch throughout the year when Zion is healthy. Between him, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans are going to be good for a long time, and it may start as early as this year.  Count them in for 40 wins, but don’t look for them to pop into the playoffs quite yet, especially in the extremely tough Western Conference.

Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33) 6th in West- Over/Under: 32 wins; The Thunder may be the team with the biggest drop off in the NBA.  As of now, I think Chris Paul can lead a team to more than 32 wins, especially with some of the guys on this team.  Shae Gilgeous-Alexander and Danillo Galinari are legit players that OKC fans should be excited about. They also still have Steven Adams who can potentially lead the league in rebounding this year now that Westbrook is gone and can no longer steal rebounds from him to pad his stats.  Their starting 5 is solid enough to win about 35 games, but I honestly have no idea who their bench players are. This team will not be good, but a little better than 32 wins. While this year will not be a little unfortunate for Thunder fans, the future is bright. They have a lot of draft picks for the future, and will be led by Gilgeous-Alexander and Galinari for years to come.

Phoenix Suns (19-63) 15th in West- Over/Under: 29.5 wins; This team is bad, and will not win very many games this year.  I really don’t see them getting to 30 wins. Yeah, they picked up Rick Rubio who is a good point guard, but they’re still a couple years away from really competing for a playoff spot.  This team will be fun to watch, especially as Devin Booker gets better and better every season, but it won’t amount to very many wins. They can’t guard anybody on defense, and the front office is probably still in tank mode since they keep making terrible draft picks.  Phoenix, call me in 2023 when Booker is an MVP candidate and Deandre Ayton plays to his potential and stops stat-padding.

Portland Trail Blazers (53-29) in 3rd in West- Over/Under: 46.5 wins; Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are year in and year out one of the best backcourts in the league, but they never have winning teams.  Last year was the first time the Blazers actually looked like they could compete with good teams and come out with wins. Then they got swept by the Warriors without Kevin Durant.  They picked up Hasaan Whiteside, who seems like the NBA media’s most hated player.  They lost a couple of good rotation guys in Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu.  I think they will still make the playoffs because I still really like their backcourt and young big man Zach Collins.  I think they’ll win around 44-47 games, and just sneak into that 7 or 8 seed behind another insane year from Lillard.

Sacramento Kings (39-43) 9th in West- Over/Under: 38 wins; De’Aaron Fox is going to be one of the best point guards in the NBA in a couple of years.  For now, he will just have to be a fringe All-Star who is super fun to watch. He’s surrounded by other offensive stars like sharpshooter Buddy Heild, rising sophomore Marvin Bagley, and consistent 20 ppg scorer Harrison Barnes.  Their defense is lackluster at best, but their offense is good enough to win them some games down the stretch in April. Their over/under is tough for me because I think it entirely depends on their health. If Bagley and Fox stay healthy, they could compete for a playoff spot.  If one goes out, their lucky to get to 35 wins. I think this is a 40 win team when healthy, but don’t be surprised if the Kings shoot their way into the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs (48-34) 7th in West- Over/Under: 45.5 wins; The Spurs are the toughest team to predict year in and year out because of head coach Greg Popovich.  Last year he had no real talent outside of Lamarcus Aldridge and Demar Derozan, and still managed to win 48 games. They pretty much bring back the same team as last year, and they get back their best defender in Dejounte Murray.  I don’t see them winning 45 games. It is partially because Aldridge is a year older and slower, and partially because somebody from the playoffs last year has to lose and make room for the Lakers. Not everybody can win over 40 games it’s literally impossible.  I would think they’re going to be around a .500 basketball team, but I would never bet against the best coach of this generation in Popovich. He’ll somehow make this team good, again.

Utah Jazz (50-32) 5th in West- Over/Under: 53.5 wins; The Jazz are a better team than they were last year, which was a 50 win team.  The addition of Mike Conley was one of my favorite offseason moves because I think he compliments their young star Donovan Mitchel perfectly.  Rudy Gobert is an elite center, and this team is tired of “coming close” every year. This is my sleeper team in the West to make the Finals. This team is going to win a lot of games, maybe 60, and be really fun to watch at the same time.  Mitchel will continue to improve, Gobert will continue to block shots, and Joe Ingles will continue to be the best player in the league named Joe. The Mike Conley led Jazz are here to stay.

The Eastern Conference

Atlanta Hawks (29-53) 12th in East- Over/Under: 34.5 wins;  Trae Young is really fun to watch, and John Collins is a talented young big man, but other than that there isn’t much to say about the Hawks.  They drafted De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, and picked up Jabari Parker in free agency. This team might be able to win 35 games this year because they have good offensive potential, but they are not good defensively.  This team will be very similar to the Chicago Bulls, but I think a bit worse record-wise, and especially defensively. I think this team is more of a 30 win team than 35 because of how bad they are on defense. They will put on some shows on offense, but I don’t think they are good enough to outscore teams night in and night out.

Boston Celtics (49-33) 4th in East- Over/Under: 49.5 wins; Kyrie Irving is gone.  The Celtics are coming off a season where their team’s chemistry was at an all-time low.  Kyrie is one of the best point guards in the league, but he was the wrong guy to lead that Celtics team.  Irving tried to be a veteran leader, and he was just plain terrible at it. Instead of taking the young guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown under his wing like he said he would, he called them out to the media.  This threw off team chemistry for a team that was supposed to compete for the title, and forced Irving out of Boston. To replace Kyrie, the Celtics signed All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who everybody seems to love so far.  Kemba will fix the chemistry problems this team had last year while providing great offensive numbers, but their bigs are not great. Boston lost Al Horford, who was the anchor for the Celtics defense. I think this can be a 50 win team if Tatum and Brown can play to their All-Star potential, and Enes Kanter can prove he can get 8 rpg and provide an energy spark when the team needs it.  These are big ”ifs”, but don’t be surprised if the Celtics are back atop the East come April. 

Brooklyn Nets (42-40) 6th in East- Over/Under: 45 wins; The Nets had a huge offseason, picking up both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.  However, Durant will be out all year with his Achilles injury. This team looks better on paper this year, but I don’t see a record improvement.  Yeah, Irving is one of the most talented guys in this league, but he also just destroyed the chemistry of a young Celtics core with a lot of potential.  The Nets are also a team with a solid young core with talented guys like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. We could see a similar fate with this team if Kyrie decides to use the same tactics, but I hope he learned his lesson for his sake.  I think Brooklyn will win anywhere from 43-46 games, behind another great offensive season from Kyrie, and a solid defense anchored by Allen and free agent pick up DeAndre Jordan. 

Charlotte Hornets (39-43) 9th in East- Over/Under: 24; This team could be one of the worst teams in the league this year.  They picked up Terry Rozier from Boston in the Kemba sign-and-trade, and he may be their only capable player on a consistent basis.  This team is going to be so boring to watch, bad on offense and defense, and I don’t want to talk about them other than to acknowledge that Rozier is there instead of Kemba, meaning they will be bad.

Chicago Bulls (22-60) 13th in East- Over/Under: 32.5 wins; The Bulls are not a great team, but they will probably be fun to watch.  They have a lot of potential offensive firepower in Zach Lavine and Coby White, but this team will be terrible defensively.  Their frontcourt will be really good in a few years with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., but they still need to develop their chemistry after only playing 21 games together last year.  I think the Bulls will win anywhere from 30-35 games because I think their offense is good enough to win games, especially if Otto Porter can get back to being one of the best shooters in the league.  This team will be exciting to watch develop for the next couple of years, but don’t expect them to start competing for another 3-4 years.

Cleveland Cavaliers (19-63) 14th in East- Over/Under: 24.5 wins; The Cavs are one of the worst teams in the league, and will probably trade their only proven NBA player in Kevin Love at the trade deadline for some draft picks.  The future of this team is good with a talented backcourt of Colin Sexton and Darius Garland, but right now I can’t see the Cavs getting over 25 wins. There’s just not enough talent past Love, Sexton, and Garland to compete night in and night out.

Detroit Pistons (41-41) 8th in East- Over/Under: 37.5 wins; I think this Pistons team will be about the same as they were last year.  Blake Griffin is still really good at basketball, and he and Andre Drummond should continue to play well together.  I don’t like Reggie Jackson running their team because he’s not a true point guard. He needs to be playing off the ball to where he can get buckets when he needs to.  This team probably won’t make the playoffs because of their lack of guard depth, but Derrick Rose can potentially win them a couple of games. He’s not able to be a great point guard in this league anymore, but he’s still able to go off for 30 points every once in a while.  Detroit is still stuck in mediocrity, and will be until they find a young, talented player out of the draft who could lead their team in the future. 

Indiana Pacers (48-34) 5th in East- Over/Under: 47.5 wins; The Pacers are one of the best teams in the East when Victor Oladipo is at full strength.  However, Oladipo will still be out for two more months from an injury he sustained LAST season. I think they will for sure win less than 47 games.  They lost their leading scorer in Bojan Bogdanovic, but added Malcom Brogdon to run their offense, which may not be a good thing. Brogdon is good when what he is adding to the team is frosting, but he can’t be the cake of a team that is trying to make a playoff run.  Their frontcourt of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis is not bad, but I just don’t see where on this roster the Pacers even have a shot at winning more than 48 games.

Miami Heat (39-43) 10th in East- Over/Under: 43 games; The Heat have been painfully mediocre since LeBron left them.  They’ve made the playoffs a few of those years, and even had good records in the past.  I think this team is going to thrive in this weak East, especially if Jimmy Butler can continue his play he’s had the past couple of years.  They still have their core guys in Dion Waiters, Goran Dragic, and Justice Winslow, and potentially had the NBA Draft’s biggest steal in Tyler Herro.  I think if they can figure out chemistry with Butler, this team can win up to 48 games. This may be the first time Butler will be happy on a team since the 2015 Chicago Bulls days.  They also got rid of Hasaan Whiteside, who was turning into a cancer for this entire franchise. He kept complaining about playing time, and he wasn’t even producing on the court. The team chemistry in Miami will be much better now that he is in Portland.  I think this Heat team can win some games and possibly cause some havoc in the playoffs if Butler goes off like last year. 

Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) 1st in East- Over/Under: 57.5 wins; The Bucks were the best regular season team in the league last year, led by MVP Giannis Antetokounmp, who averaged 27.7/12.5/5.9 last year.  Between him and Embiid, they will be not only competing for the East title for years to come, but also the MVP trophy. Giannis should be able to bring this team to at least 55 wins, but their roster is not as good as last year.  They have most of the same guys, but they have a bunch of mediocre guys that I don’t like other than Giannis and Kris Middleton. Eric Bledsoe is decent, and the Lopez brothers play hard, but I don’t think they can reach 60 wins again.  They will regress slightly in the regular season, but I still think the Greek Freak will carry them to challenge the 76ers for the Eastern Conference crown.

New York Knicks (17-65) 15th in East- Over/Under: 28 wins; The Knicks are a mess, and everybody knows this.  This team will not more than 28 games. They signed some really random guys like Marcus Morris and Elfrid Payton that don’t exactly fit the youth route this team should be going in.  They need to be in tank mode to pick up more early first round draft picks, but the best way to tank is to fill your team with young players to develop them so you can establish a culture and be competitive again in 3-5 years.  You’re not supposed to sign a bunch of 30 year-olds to multi-year deals while you have a young star in R.J. Barrett you need to develop. This franchise is a disaster, and will continue to be until owner James Dolan sells the team, because nobody talented wants to play for him.

Orlando Magic (42-40) 7th in East- Over/Under: 41.5 wins; This is the same team as last year, which is a good and bad thing.  It’s good because they will probably make the playoffs again, but bad because they probably won’t compete past a couple of games in round 1.  Nikola Vucevic is still the best player and leader of this team, but Orlando knows what they are going to get from him. The x-factor for this team is none other than Markelle Fultz.  Fultz is looking better after seemingly having his jump shot broken by shoulder surgeries. His shot is still off, and his confidence is still not 100 percent. If he gets his confidence up and remembers what it was like to run an offense like he is capable of doing, this team could win up to 45-46 games.  If he still plays a bit scared, the Magic will probably stay around a .500 team, and won’t be incredibly fun to watch.

Philadelphia 76ers (51-31) 3rd in East- Over/Under: 54.5 wins; In my opinion, I think the 76ers will be the team to come out of the East.  I think they have the potential to win 60+ games because they have the best starting lineup in the East, and it’s not close.  Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are stars, and they have no weaknesses on their bench. They lost JJ Redick, but then picked up Josh Richardson, who is just a younger and more athletic version of Redick.  The only hole I see on this team is can Embiid and Simmons figure out how to play with each other and bring out the best in the other, especially if Simmons is playing point guard. The past couple of years, this has been the main problem with stunting their growth as players, because they have yet to figure out their spacing on the floor.  Once they figure this out, this team will have a chance to compete for the NBA title, especially with how strong their defense and bench are.

Toronto Raptors (58-24) 2nd in East- Over/Under: 46 wins; Congratulations Toronto, you finally have an NBA championship, and you should really enjoy it, because this team is no longer a championship contender.  They will still probably make the playoffs because the East is weak, and Pascal Siakam is going to be a star in a couple of years. Losing Kawhi will obviously hurt this team a lot, but they still have their core from last year outside of him.  When Kawhi was hurt, this team still won a lot of games and stayed atop the Eastern Conference without him. Kyle Lowry has lead this team to the playoffs consistently with another go-to guy, and I think Siakam is ready to be that guy. I think they will be a mid-40s win team, and make the playoffs for the 7th year in a row.

Washington Wizards (32-50) 11th in East- Over/Under: 27 wins; The Wizards are similar to the Hornets, but are better simply because they have Bradley Beal.  Beal is an All-Star who deserves better, but he will have to wait until he is traded to be on a competitive team. They did add Isaiah Thomas in the offseason, which would’ve been cool 3 years ago, but not anymore.  Other than Beal, this Wizards team will struggle to do anything on offense, and won’t be good on defense other than league-average center Thomas Bryant. I don’t know what the deal with John Wall is, but he will not be playing this season once again, as he has another surgery.  This team won’t be the worst in the league as long as they have Beal, but they will be another painful team to watch this year.

At the end of the day, there will be 4, maybe 5, teams that can compete for the NBA title this upcoming season.  The Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, 76ers, and maybe Bucks could win it all and are the teams to watch for throughout the year.  These are also the teams where 6 of my top 7 MVP candidates come from: Kawhi Leonard from the Clippers, Giannis Antetokounmpo from the Bucks, Nikola Jokic from the Nuggets, Joel Embiid from the 76ers, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis from the Lakers.  The good news about this season is that there is balance in the league once again. The playoffs will be super fun to watch without just penciling in the Warriors for the Finals this year. The competitiveness in the NBA is back and hopefully here to stay.