This Is It: Which NBA playoff teams face uncertain futures?

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NBC Sports

This Is It: Which NBA playoff teams face uncertain futures?

It took five postseasons without a title before Masai Ujiri had seen enough. 

With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan anchoring the backcourt, the Toronto Raptors had seemingly tapped out. In five seasons from 2013-14 to 2017-18, the Raptors won more regular-season games than any other Eastern Conference team, but the Raptors saw more first-round exits than trips to the Eastern Conference finals, never reaching the NBA Finals.

And so, last July, Ujiri made his move. The Raptors traded DeRozan -- the leading scorer in franchise history at the peak of his career -- along with Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and cash considerations. The Lowry-DeRozan backcourt was broken up, the Coach of the Year Dwane Casey was let go after seven seasons, and a new era in Toronto had begun.

The results have, so far, been positive. Despite Leonard missing about a quarter of the season, the Raptors currently have better championship odds than they did at this time last year. As such, Ujiri’s home run swing effectively put the rest of the league on notice. If DeRozan isn’t safe, who is? Just like Miami’s Big Three sparked the era of player agency, the Raptors could have broken the seal for other perennial underachievers to follow suit.

Here are “this is it” teams who could be due for a shake-up of the status quo:

Boston Celtics

Who would have thought they’d find themselves on this list back in September? Not many. League executives can’t agree on much, but there’s a general consensus that this Celtics team could look very different come next season, especially if they get bounced early in the playoffs. 

Danny Ainge is not one to prioritize emotional sentiment over cold rationality. Ask Isaiah Thomas. If Ainge feels like the team is better off without Kyrie Irving, they’ll have a Plan B in place to move on from the All-Star, should Irving leave as a free agent this summer.

Irving hasn’t been the most galvanizing leader. Some outsiders believe that his lukewarm approval rating in the locker room might give the Celtics some pause before handing over a long-term max deal. Said one league executive of Irving: “You’re offering that guy back on a humongous deal? That’ll be interesting to see.”

The Celtics are 11-3 this season without Irving in uniform and were one game away from reaching the NBA Finals without him last postseason. It’s tempting to think there’s some Ewing Theory at work here, that the Celtics are actually a superior team without Irving. But that 11-3 record is misleading once you account for the lopsided schedule. The Kyrie-less Celtics are 2-1 against teams currently with winning records and 9-2 against everyone else, including three wins over the hapless Cavs. That’s far less convincing. Watch the 2016 Finals if you need a reminder about Irving’s power in the playoffs.

The interesting thing from the Celtics’ perspective is that Irving is seen as something of a package deal with Anthony Davis. If Irving stays, the Celtics could shoot up to the top of the Davis sweepstakes in New Orleans due to their appealing collection of young talent and draft assets. The Celtics might be more willing to part with their prized youngsters if they can flaunt an Irving-Davis partnership and rule the East. If Irving leaves, though, the Celtics might continue with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the faces of the franchise. 

Few teams have had their long-term assets sour more than the Celtics’ this season. Tatum and Brown haven’t taken the leaps expected of them, respectively. Their 2019 Sacramento first-round pick almost assuredly won’t be in the top-10. The Clippers went on a tear, meaning their 2019 pick owed to the Celtics is less valuable than Boston’s own first-round pick. On the other hand, Memphis’ top-eight protected pick is likely to roll over to next season, making it top-six protected in 2020 and fully unprotected in 2021. That could be a extra tasty pick in 2021 if the age limit is lowered to 18 years old by then.

If the Celtics disappoint this postseason, they could be in for a reshuffling, a la the Raptors. But  if the Celtics reach the Finals, it’s hard to imagine Irving leaving, especially when Davis is on the trade block. Then again, if he really is listening to LeBron James’ wisdom, reaching the Finals in 2014 didn’t exactly seal the deal for James to stay in Miami.

Portland Trail Blazers

This is Raptors West. Since C.J. McCollum became the full-time starter next to Damian Lillard in 2015-16, the Blazers’ backcourt has won the second-most games in the NBA (161), only trailing the Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (219) among starting backcourts. The Lowry-DeRozan tandem comes in third at 140, which still ranks high despite not even playing together this season. That’s how rare these consistent backcourts are.

Like the Raptors, the Lillard-McCollum duo has also come up short in the playoffs, going 5-14 in the past three postseasons, including two disheartening first-round sweeps. A Portland supporter might argue that two of those postseason exits came at the hands of perhaps the most unbeatable team in NBA history -- the Golden State Warriors. But the Raptors had an excuse, too: they ran into LeBron James in three straight postseasons. Ujiri still decided to make a change.

If the Blazers disappoint again, is the Lillard-McCollum partnership due for a backcourt breakup a la Toronto? 

Don’t bet on it. If anything, the Jusuf Nurkic injury probably delays any potential shakeup. It might also buy some more time for Terry Stotts, who is reportedly under contract only through next season.

But there is at least some uncertainty here after longtime owner Paul Allen died in October, putting a possible sale on the horizon. Though unlikely, a tightening of the belt could be in store for a team that paid the luxury tax this season and is right up against the luxury tax line in 2019-20. 

It’s a surprising plane of existence for a small-market team like Portland. The Blazers have ranked among the five-highest payrolls in the league in each season since the 2016 spending spree that saw them ink Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless to deals that totaled over $225 million. But a potential cost-saving teardown probably wouldn’t come this offseason. The Blazers are still competing at a high level and generating playoff revenue, even if it’s only been a couple home games the last two postseasons.

Said one rival league executive: “As they’re built, is it championship-caliber? No. But they’re fighting for a top-four seed every year. In a small market, that, in some ways, is good enough.”

Lillard could be eligible for the four-year, $194 million supermax extension this summer if he lands on the All-NBA team, which is basically a lock. Averaging a torrid 25.9 points, 9.6 assists and 5.1 rebounds since McCollum got injured last month, Lillard ranks second among all guards in total win shares and RPM wins this season. He is the gold standard of durability, having played more games than any guard since he entered the league in 2012-13. He deserves every penny that the collective bargaining agreement allows.

The late Paul Allen would almost certainly be willing to commit that money to the face of the franchise, and it’s likely his successor would, too. A professional like Lillard is hard to come by and he’s said all the right things about being a Portland lifer. Most around the league don’t see him jumping ship from a small market like James in 2010 or Kevin Durant in 2016.

“[Lillard] is more likely a Dirk thing,” said one West executive. “He’s more likely to stay there and hopefully they get one title one day. If you hang on and get one [in Portland] eventually, as opposed to asking out, it’s more valuable than the three (titles) that KD got.”

Lillard and McCollum are under contract through 2020-21. If Allen was still steering the Blazers, there wouldn’t be any chatter about breaking it up. But with question marks lingering around ownership and the trickle-down effects of a potential new regime, there’s a bit of unsteady ground here, enough for power-brokers in the league to keep tabs on. 

Toronto Raptors

Again. Most executives think Kawhi Leonard has one foot in Canada and one in ClipperLand. At least that’s the buzz from the NCAA tournament. One plugged-in executive told me that Leonard’s preference is so strong that barring an unlikely title run for the Raptors, “the Clippers believe they have it in the bag.”

Of course, few around the NBA expected Paul George to re-up with OKC, but that might be the exception, not the rule. The Raptors could be retooling again if the Leonard experiment falls flat. Both Leonard and Marc Gasol could walk away by turning down their 2019-20 player options and go into free agency. If that happens, the Kyle Lowry era could also be over one year after Toronto cut ties with DeRozan.

It won’t be an easy contract to unload. Lowry is due $33.5 million next season and turns 34 years old next March. (Would Memphis take on Lowry’s expiring deal (a Beale Street reunion!) to swap with Conley’s remaining two years at a similar number?) Many around the league expect the Raptors to hit the restart button and build around Pascal Siakam, who has emerged as a star in the making. For those who doubt Siakam’s starpower check this: In the last 10 games that Leonard hasn’t played, the 24-year-old Siakam has averaged 22.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 54.3 percent shooting from the floor and 39.5 percent from downtown. There are no Kawhi proxies in the NBA, but that’s as close as you’re going to get.

Like Boston, the Raptors could look a lot different next season if things don’t go their way. Danny Green, who might be the best role player in the NBA, can be a free agent and will likely generate a hefty pay-raise from his annual $10 million he signed in 2015 with the Spurs. There’s a realistic scenario where the Raptors punt on their six-year title pursuit and build around their youngsters with an eye for the top of the draft. Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet are a solid foundation and none of them were lottery picks. What if they get some swings at the top of the draft? That day might come sooner than many think.

The Others

It may not be a make-or-break postseason for Golden State, Philadelphia or Indiana, but each of these teams could look very different next season regardless. If the Warriors win the title, many executives believe that Durant may be more included to leave. It’d tie a bow on a powerful narrative of Durant as the Warriors’ savior.

They lose to Cleveland without him. Durant comes to the rescue and voila, they three-peat. He’s the alpha. The reason they overcame LeBron James. End of story.

If the Warriors are somehow knocked out before claiming their third title in four years, it’s expected that Durant could still leave anyway. Klay Thompson is also a free agent this summer, but there's no buzz that he's going to leave, regardless of what happens this postseason.

As for Philadelphia's long-term prospects, a deep playoff run matters to a degree but don't expect a blow-it-up scenario where they punt on the Joel Embiid-and-Ben Simmons partnership. Tobias Harris, J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler -- all can be free agents -- will be expensive to retain, if they want to come back. But the Sixers aren't primed to break up Embiid and Simmons like the Raptors did with Lowry and DeRozan. Elsewhere at the top of the East, six of Indiana's rotation players, including Bojan Bogdanovic, who is averaging 22.0 points per game since the All-Star break, will be unrestricted free agents. But the young core of Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis should still be in place.

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Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

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USA Today Sports

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

The 1,230-game NBA schedule has arrived. While fans start to plan out which games to attend and which marquee matchups to watch, teams will be doing some planning of their own: 

When to sit their stars during the 82-game grind.

Like it or not, this is the NBA we live in. After years of employing strategic rest programs, coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs used to be the face of the “DNP-Rest.” But Kawhi Leonard’s season -- winning the Larry O’Brien trophy on the heels of an aggressive resting program in Toronto -- could represent a watershed moment for the league. 

In 2018-19, Leonard did not play a single full back-to-back set in the regular season and wrapped up a postseason so dominant that many now consider him to be the top player in the NBA. To him, there should be no debate: All that load management helped him stay healthy and peak at the right time.

Whether the rest of the league copies the Kawhi plan is a mystery. Some of the game’s brightest stars, including LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis, took games off to rest last season, although not to Leonard levels. Nonetheless, the DNP-Rest scourge has grown to such an extent that embracing load management has found its way into free agency pitches.

“It’s not enough to prove you can win,” said one GM. “Now you have to prove you can prolong their career.”

As the DNP-rest strategy rises to unseen levels, the NBA isn’t sitting idly on the sidelines. Back-to-backs are at an all-time low. In April, commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of taking a small chunk out of the regular season in order to fit in a midseason tournament. In June, ESPN reported that NBA and team executives have been exploring such a cup-style tournament as soon as the 2020-21 season.

But as we get ready for marquee matchups in an open championship race, some of those high-profile games may fall victim to load management. Which stars and which games are most at risk? 

* * * 

Vijay Shravah knew there had to be a better way. As a NASA engineer in Silicon Valley, Shravah and his buddies used to buy tickets to watch the Golden State Warriors only to find out last minute that Stephen Curry and other stars weren’t playing that night. They weren’t injured. They were healthy scratches. Even on national TV games.

“The more it happened, the more it baffled me that there was no recourse,” Shravah told NBC Sports.

Shravah felt like it was a breach of trust. No other pro team sport depends on its star power like the NBA, and suddenly, it seemed healthy stars weren’t as dependable as he thought. As the DNP-Rest took hold among the best players, the problem only got worse for ticket buyers and home viewers. In October 2017, Shravah founded Fansure, an analytical start-up company that helps protect fans by offering reimbursement plans for tickets to games in which star player(s) sit out due to either rest or a last-minute injury. 

It takes some real brainpower to make it work. The company has employed two NASA scientists to create algorithms that predict the likelihood of a star player sitting, accounting for several factors, including a player’s rest history, days off heading into a game and quality of opponent. A fan can purchase a 50 percent reimbursement or 100 percent reimbursement package for a small variable fee separate from their ticket purchase. Should the star player sit, the fan gets its money back -- not unlike when airlines offer ticket protection plans before checkout.

Teams are resting their players, or at least being honest about it, more than ever. One of Fansure’s findings should worry fans and executives alike: Top players are taking off games 3.5 times as often as they did in 2012-13. Top 10 players, on average, rested about seven percent of its games last season (every six games or so) and most often at the end of the season in preparation for the playoffs. (The company’s top 10 criteria is based on their internal metrics). That figure is disproportionately represented by Leonard last season, when he sat 22 of 82 games to rest and protect his bothersome knee.


With an open championship race, Shravah expects stars like Embiid, James and Leonard to take games off when it makes sense in order to maximize postseason performance. 

“There’s no reason to believe why the trend won’t continue,” Shravah said. 

Of course, not all players are risks for load management. Fansure has identified 10 players who are most likely to be a healthy scratch. At the top of the list is the 34-year-old James, who played a career-low 55 games last season dealing with a significant groin injury that forced him to sit for precautionary reasons. After crunching the schedule that was released on Monday, Fansure expects James to miss 17.9 games this season due to rest.

That might seem like a lot, but James has played over 56,000 minutes in his NBA career (playoffs included), which is more than Stephen Curry and his father Dell Curry combined. With the Lakers vying for a championship and Anthony Davis being able to shoulder the load in his absence, it’s possible James takes a Leonard-like conservative approach in the regular season.

Following James, Leonard, Embiid, Paul George, Curry and Davis were highlighted as likely sitters considering their injury risk, rest history and respective team’s championship contention. Fansure also sees a strong probability that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Damian Lillard will miss several games to recover from the 82-game grind.

Which games are most likely to fall victim to load management? Fansure has uncovered six factors that raise the rest probability for the LeBrons and Kawhis of the league:

  • Last game of the season (14.9 times more likely)
  • Second game of a back-to-back (6.5)
  • Single-game road trip (5.2)
  • First game of a back-to-back (4.8)
  • Three games in four days (4.4)
  • Away games (3.5)


The single-game road trip is a hidden pothole. On March 27 last season, the Lakers were set to play the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back. Making matters worse for Jazz fans hoping to see Lebron, the single-game road trip was sandwiched inside a four-game homestand. Sure enough, James took the night off and didn’t travel with the team. The same went for Leonard on March 3 when he rested during the team’s one-game road trip to Detroit even though it didn’t come on a back-to-back.

Shravah realized it’s not just ticket buyers who are affected when James abruptly decides to sit out even on a non-back-to-back. TV advertisers and gambling sectors aren’t jumping for joy either. This past year, Shravah hired the eighth member of the Fansure team, Scott Kaplan, who is an economics PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and winner of the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics poster competition for his research on the economic impact of star players on NBA ticket prices.

Using Kaplan’s insight and the team’s engineering intel, Fansure is now assessing quality of matchups and risk of injury/rest to help advertisers and fans pick which games to lay down big money for and which to avoid.

Looking through that lens, there are several high-profile games that project to have the highest chance of being a load management game. 

First is Nov. 7 when Lillard and the Blazers come to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on TNT. The Clippers will have played Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks the night before on ESPN. Will Leonard and George play that second night of a back-to-back and third game in four nights, especially if George is coming back from double shoulder surgery? 

On the Blazers’ side, it’s the front end of a back-to-back before they fly back up to Portland for a home game against Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Will Lillard and CJ McCollum, fresh off the deepest playoff run of their career, give it a go?

Another early DNP-Rest possibility is the first Warriors-Lakers matchup of the season on Nov. 13. The Lakers will be playing the second night of a back-to-back, after playing in Phoenix the night before and flying overnight to Los Angeles. The highly anticipated game will, of course, be nationally televised.

James and Davis may decide to play in that marquee game, but the previous night in Phoenix is a game that may fall victim to DNP-rest. It’s a single-game road trip for the Lakers, with two home games before and four home games after the trek to the desert. If Phoenix fans don’t get to see James that night, then they might not see him all season. The other time they host L.A. is the Lakers’ season finale, a game in which James has sat 11 of his last 12 years.

For those outlining the season, here are 10 games that Fansure has red-flagged for load management risk:

  • Nov. 7: POR at LAC
  • Nov. 12: LAL at PHX
  • Nov. 27: LAC at MEM
  • Jan. 23: LAL at BKN
  • Feb. 11: LAC at PHI
  • March 1: LAL at NOP
  • March 12: BKN at GSW
  • March 14: NOP at LAC
  • March 19: PHI at CHA
  • April 15: LAL at PHX
     

Kevin Durant’s “return” to Golden State is on the list for a more subtle reason. Irving, who took games off ahead of the playoffs last season, is also on the load management radar for that late-season game. The trip to the Chase Center is the first night of a back-to-back, but more importantly, it’s bookended by games in Los Angeles. Will Durant travel during his Achilles rehab or will he stay in Los Angeles? 

For what it’s worth, the NBA chose not to put that game on national TV, underlining the sheer unlikelihood of Durant making an appearance at the Warriors’ new arena in the 2019-20 season.

* * * 

Don’t expect every team to have a hard-line rest schedule until the season starts and signs of fatigue begin to show.

Last month, Houston GM Daryl Morey made headlines when he responded to a question about load management on “The Dan Patrick Show,” saying the team will have “a very put together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.” But sources told NBC Sports that no decision has been made to rest James Harden and Russell Westbrook entire games. Neither Westbrook or Harden have gone that route before, but it must be noted that Harden will enter his 30s, joining the 31-year-old Westbrook, later this month.

It remains to be seen how often Leonard will rest this season. At his opening press conference in Los Angeles, Leonard indicated that this season he would take the load management on a “day-by-day” basis and that he intends to play out the season. Part of Toronto’s load management program was a response to Leonard only playing nine games in the previous season with the Spurs. Leonard has hinted that he feels healthier entering this season.

“Resting on back-to-backs is becoming a more and more accepted practice around the league,” said one top executive. “But Kawhi didn’t invent this.”

Still, Leonard’s success last season will influence at least some decisions across the league. Embiid, in particular, seemed keen on the idea of strategically resting more next season.

“Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi last season,” Embiid said after losing to the Raptors in the playoffs, “obviously I don’t want to miss that many games, but when you start thinking about back-to-backs and all that ... definitely got to take a better approach.”

It’ll be interesting to see how the Philadelphia 76ers handle Embiid’s rest regimen. The team signed big man Al Horford to start next to him and potentially start at center in Embiid’s place if he needs a night off. Those decisions will come down to Embiid and new members of the medical staff after the team parted ways with two major voices -- vice president of athlete care Dr. Danny Medina and director of performance research and development Dr. David Martin. 

The schedule-makers have taken extra precaution when booking the Sixers for primetime. Of the 13 second nights of a back-to-back on Philadelphia’s schedule, none of them were handpicked to be on national television (ESPN, TNT or ABC).

* * * 

Privately this summer, representatives from the league office have reached out to team brass to strongly convey the importance of the availability of its stars, especially on national TV games. While player health remains the top priority, teams have been told to keep in mind that the NBA is uniquely positioned to showcase its stars. With no facemasks, helmets or walls to shield fans from seeing the stars, it is the most intimate league in America.

“Let’s not kill the golden goose,” relayed one team executive who spoke to the league office this summer.

The NBA has tweaked the schedule to account for the rise of the DNP-Rest. In 2017, the league office lengthened the season by two weeks to squeeze in more rest days and reduce back-to-backs. After a series of high-profile healthy scratches, the NBA no longer schedules an ABC game in a back-to-back set -- but even building in additional off days sometimes isn’t enough.

The NBA isn’t just competing against Netflix and the NFL for eyeballs. It’s competing against NBA 2K, which, according to its parent company, has sold 90 million units worldwide. Video games are increasingly becoming so life-like and compelling that there is real expectation in league circles that fans could prefer the video game over the real thing, especially in the load management era.

If James, Leonard or George sit to rest, fans might tune out the actual Lakers-Clippers game in order to play as LeBron against Kawhi and PG-13 on their favorite gaming console.

Said one GM: “There’s no load management in 2K.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Locks on the over/unders for the 2019-20 NBA season

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NBC Sports

Locks on the over/unders for the 2019-20 NBA season

Rosters are set. Players are in the gym. Hope is in full tilt.

As I wrote last month, optimism is abound in the NBA. Super teams, for now, are a thing of the past as the Golden State Warriors and reigning champions Toronto Raptors lost their Finals MVPs in Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, respectively. Right now, all 30 teams are undefeated.

Even though the NBA is wide open this year, the league is still a zero-sum game. Sadly, every team can’t exceed expectations and there will be some teams that we look back on in April that make us wonder what the [blank] were we thinking in August. 

At the risk of looking dumb later in April, here’s what I’m thinking in August. Here are my three locks on the over (teams to exceed expectations) and three locks on the under (teams to miss expectations) compared to their projected win totals at the Westgate Superbook. 

Sixers over 55 wins

Can you be a sleeper team when you’re pegged for 55 wins? I think so. The Sixers have the best shot at being a 60-win team in the regular season. This defense has a chance to be historically good and most people overlook that side of the floor when they assess team projections.

Following the blueprint of the NBA’s top defending team last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers will boast a massive frontline of 6-foot-9 Tobias Harris, 6-foot-10 Al Horford and 7-footer Joel Embiid -- not to mention 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons and 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson. 

The Sixers underperformed defensively last season with the 14th-best ranking in defensive efficiency. But with the core’s continuity, a full training camp and the addition of Horford, it’s a good bet that this team will jump into a top five defensive unit. Assuming full health, I see the Sixers having the No. 1 defense just like the Bucks did after fielding the 18th-best defense in 2017-18. 

Offensively, I like Harris’ chances of a breakout season, filling Jimmy Butler’s role as closer. Horford’s presence will keep Embiid fresh in his age-25 season and I’m a fan of Richardson as the do-it-all role player. Some might feel queasy about the reliance of rookies Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle, but I think the Sixers finish the season with the East’s top seed. If Simmons adds a jump shot, they’re championship favorites.

Nuggets over 52.5 wins

On the free-agency wrap-up Habershow episode with ESPN’s Amin Elhassan, we discussed how the Nuggets’ continuity is quietly making them winners this offseason. In a summer defined by player movement, the Nuggets retained every rotation player from a 54-win team while adding Jerami Grant and red-shirt rookie Michael Porter Jr. to the mix. 

Another reason to be optimistic? This was the fifth-youngest team in the NBA last season, per Basketball Reference. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are still under 25 years old and Gary Harris turns 25 in September. Paul Millsap, 34, remains the only rotation player in his 30s. For the bulk of the roster, the best is yet to come.

While the top of the West figure to need time to figure out their chemistry, the Nuggets will be able to hit the ground running. If they somehow stumble out of the gate, I think they’re a sneaky candidate to make a play for Chris Paul. As the Oklahoma City Thunder look to unload payroll, Millsap’s expiring $30.5 million contract matches up nicely with Paul’s big contract and now they have Grant to fill in for Millsap. Even if the Nuggets get off to a slow start, they have ways to upgrade for a title run. Take the over.

Pelicans over 39 wins

If you’re going to have Zion Williamson, you better load up on shooting. And that’s what executive vice president David Griffin did this offseason. He landed perhaps the best shooter on the market, JJ Redick, and brought in Italian sharpshooter Nicolo Melli to further space the floor as well. 

Where I think this team will really surprise is on the defensive end. Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors could realistically make one of the 2019-20 All-Defense teams, while Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart could join them soon. Some numbers to back that up: Favors, Ball and Hart ranked inside the top five in defensive real plus-minus at their position while Holiday checked in at No. 8 among point guards (Holiday’s better than that in my book).

Williamson has the size and skill to be the rare above-average player in his rookie season. With veteran leadership, a revamped medical staff and stout defense, I think the Pelicans will be in the playoff mix next season. A 39-43 record seems on the low end.

Clippers under 54.5 wins

I hate to throw cold water on Steve Ballmer’s woo!-fest, but I’m still worried about Paul George’s short-term health. After undergoing surgery on both of his shoulders this summer, George stayed mum on his return timetable at the Clippers’ introduction presser. There are also murmurs that he won’t be back until November. For regular-season win projections, that’s not good news.

Beyond George’s return from double shoulder surgery, I think coach Doc Rivers will prioritize the postseason just like the Raptors did last season with Kawhi Leonard. While he may not miss 22 games like he did last season, I would expect the Clippers to be conservative when handling the face of their franchise. If Leonard plays half the team’s back-to-backs I’ll be stunned.

Yes, the Clippers won the offseason by getting two MVP candidates, but questions about their health make me nervous in the regular season. Postseason is a different story. I’m bearish on the Clippers, but that changes in May.

Nets under 43.5 wins

Boston fans will nod their heads as I say this: Development isn’t linear, especially with a Kyrie Irving team. Yes, the youthful Nets surprised everybody by landing Irving and Kevin Durant this summer after a Cinderella run to the playoffs. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if they missed the playoffs next season.

The health of Irving’s right knee worried many executives this offseason; and that’s before we mention this relevant fact from Basketball Reference tracking: Irving’s teams have collectively fallen 34 wins short of their over/under projections since 2012-13 season, hitting the under on five of their last seven seasons (settle down, Celtics fans).

I don’t see Irving as a significant upgrade over D’Angelo Russell to balance out the injury risk; Irving has missed an average of 16.5 games per season over the last four seasons. If he misses 15-20 games next season, this season could go south quickly (Durant likely won’t come to the rescue until 2020-21.) Getting Irving and Durant was a big victory for the franchise, but I don’t see actual wins piling up until Durant comes back.

Hawks under 33.5 wins

The Hawks’ State Farm Arena scoreboard will need some load management days next season. Trae Young and John Collins are studs on the offensive end. Defensively, though? Yikes. 

This team is my pick for the worst defensive unit in the NBA next season. They were 28th in the league last season on defense, and that was with solid rim protector DeWayne Dedmon in the fold. Now he’s in Sacramento, which leaves Alex Len to clean up the mess in front of him. They also added Jabari Parker, who is famously not too interested in playing defense.

When your two top defenders may be a rookie (De’Andre Hunter) and a 42-year-old (Vince Carter), that’s not a good sign. This will be a League Pass must-watch team because of Young and Collins, but I don’t see them jumping up the standings until they add some defensive muscle.