Stephen Curry's chase for perfection and the wild world of shot analytics

Stephen Curry's chase for perfection and the wild world of shot analytics

Stephen Curry stepped to the foul line and looked at the rim. It was early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals and the Golden State Warriors were trailing the Portland Trail Blazers 101-92 on the road. Curry, one of the greatest shooters ever, was readying himself for the first of three critical free throws. The Warriors needed all three if they wanted to really make it a game.
 
Instead, Curry’s first free throw clanked off the back iron. The Portland crowd erupted in gleeful cheer. Curry began to laugh, with his mouthpiece jutting out of his mouth. 

Curry missing a late-game free throw is the rarest of occurrences. On the ABC broadcast, announcer Mike Breen told the audience just how rare: It was Curry’s first missed free throw in the fourth quarter and overtime of a postseason game since Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals, ending a streak of 81 consecutive made free throws in that situation. That’s right, 2015.

But if you ask him, Curry’s laugh was a front. The two-time MVP was genuinely mad at himself.

“Yes, because I knew about that streak,” Curry told NBCSports.com after a recent Warriors practice. “The perfectionist in me takes over. You hear something like the streak and you want to keep it going for as long as I can. I just don’t like missing free throws in general.”

Undeterred, Curry stepped up to the line and swished the next two free throws, both with a grin on his face. He may not have known it at the time, but that final free throw had made him a blistering 94-of-100 at the line this postseason. 
 
History is within reach. Ahead of the 2019 NBA Finals, Curry is making a run at the best free throw postseason run ever. The only person in NBA history to shoot better on at least 100 free throws in a postseason is Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 when he made 175 of 186 (94.1 percent). Curry is at 94 percent.
 
To understand how obsessive Curry is at the free-throw line, you have to first realize that making them isn’t good enough. Curry needs to swish them. This is the game within the game. To see that, you have to go back to one particular free throw two days before.

* * *

Curry’s chase for perfection at the free throw line begins with almost unflinching repetition. Every NBA player has a free-throw routine, but Curry takes it a step further.
 
First, the quirky mouthpiece. Curry clenches it in his jaw a certain way so that it juts out of the left side of mouth and points to the sky. Not the right side of his mouth, always the left. Not at a 45-degree angle, almost always pointing vertical.

Once that’s in place, there is the approach. Curry catches the ball from the referee and steps to the line, with the ball on his left hip. He looks down and taps just behind the nail of the line with his right toe (every gym has a nail on the free-throw line that marks the center of the hoop) and then sets up his feet so the nail is in the middle of his stance. His right foot is a couple inches in front of his left. His right arm dangles limp for a moment. 
 
Then he gathers the ball, dribbles once and shoots it, holding his follow through with his right hand, all in one fluid motion. Every single time.
 
There’s a post-shot routine as well. If it’s his first attempt, he daps up his teammates, make or miss. If it’s his second, and he makes it, he taps his chest with his right hand and points to the sky as he retreats back on defense.

Everything is consistent. Except for when things go wrong. 

Like early in the third quarter of Game 3 against Portland after Curry got fouled and made his first free throw. Except this time, Curry appeared to get mad. As he reached out his hands to high-five his teammates, he shook his head side-to-side as he stared at the rim. Then, a detour: He walked toward the rim and pointed at it like the rim had committed some sort of crime. Something went wrong.

It turns out Curry was mad because the ball grazed the back of the rim as it swished through the net. It wasn’t a clean swish. Curry was getting mad at an inanimate object for being slightly in the way.

This bothers Curry because of the post-practice drill he started years ago. After every practice or workout, when he’s physically and mentally fatigued, Curry forces himself to make 10 free throws in a row -- but with a catch: At least five of them have to be swishes. If he makes 10 in a row, but four were swishes, he has to start from scratch. He can’t go see his kids. He can’t sit down. He can’t get on with his day until he swishes five out of 10 makes in a row.

That’s why he got mad at the imperfect make in Portland.

“That’s part of my routine when I practice,” Curry said. “I have to make five swishes out of 10 to end every workout. It’s like you set a bar for how you want to see the ball to go through the basket every time. Even ones that go in but don’t feel right, as a shooter, it doesn’t feel good.” 

Curry’s long-time skills trainer Brandon Payne, founder of Accelerate Basketball training outside Charlotte, said Curry is so good that Payne will change the game to what he calls “Sixty,” as in swish 60 percent of 10 straight makes. 

“If it’s a day when he’s shot the ball exceptionally well, then I’ll change it to 70,” Payne says. 

On some occasions, Curry will challenge his coach, Steve Kerr, to a free-throw-shooting competition where makes count for one and swishes count for two points. The idea is to challenge Curry but also to simulate the pressure-cooker environment of the playoffs. It’s forcing Curry’s brain to focus on the smallest of details -- not if the ball goes through the rim, but how it goes through the rim. That requires laser-like concentration that comes in handy during high-pressure moments.

* * *

It’s hard to be surprised by anything Curry does anymore. A season with 400 made 3s, five runs to the Finals and three championships will do that. But if you’re interested in watching the mastery of the basketball shot, this run of free throws is the purest distillation of that.
 
Curry’s playoff percentage of 94 percent hints at a perfected craft, but this fact hammers it home: Curry swished 84 of his 100 attempts this postseason. Eighty-four percent. Curry’s father, Dell Curry, was one of the greatest shooters ever and he made 84 percent of his free-throws for his career.
 
Even more remarkable is how dead-eye straight his free throws are. His free throw bounced off the right or left side of the rim just once in 100 postseason attempts. The other 21 bounces were either at the front of the rim, the back rim or the backboard. In fact, he needed the backboard just three times on 100 shots, all of which led to makes.

At this level of precision, work ethic isn’t enough. Superstars need an obsessive attention to detail. For the better part of the last decade, Payne has charted thousands of Curry’s shots using various ball-tracking gadgets and cutting-edge software. One of them, the Noah machine, uses a camera built into the wall to track shot trajectory -- software that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade used in its early stages back in 2012 when it was installed at the Miami Heat practice court. 

Curry and Payne have also leaned on RSPCT, a shot-tracking company that uses a small camera behind the backboard to detect where the ball enters the rim. That same company, just this month, partnered with player-tracking program Kinexon, which is used by about a third of the NBA. RSPCT recently publicized that Kawhi Leonard’s series-ending shot against the Philadelphia 76ers had just a three percent chance of rattling in, given its arc angle and landing spot. 

Payne considers shot-tracking technology an essential part of his training with Curry and other athletes across all levels of the sport. The tools help take the guesswork out of training. Payne declined to make Curry’s private workout data public, but he said it has helped finetune Curry’s workouts, especially when it comes to fatigue.

“Extremely useful,” Payne said. “If you don’t have tracking data, it’s hard to see when the point of diminishing returns hits. The analytics provide the info to make those determinations. For some players it’s 100 shots. For others it might be 700.”

The insights are vast. When do athletes fatigue? Do they shoot shorter on the left side versus the right side? How does fatigue manifest itself in the shot?

Shot tracking is big business. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment Ventures (which owns the Philadelphia 76ers), former 76ers president Sam Hinkie and Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash have invested in HomeCourt, an iPhone app that uses AI technology to help basketball players improve their shot and dribbling mechanics with instant video review. Curry is one of the many NBA players who have used the HomeCourt app to track his makes and misses while he’s practicing on the road without a Noah or RSPCT tracker installed in the gym.

Toronto Raptors guard Jeremy Lin is one of the key investors in HomeCourt’s $4 million funding round last year. The 30-year-old told NBCSports.com that the machine learning technology built into the iPhone app didn’t just track his makes and misses simply by setting his phone on a bleacher gym; it has helped him identify shot imbalances, brought on by a prior injury, that went undetected by the naked eye. 

On jumpers on the right side of the floor, Lin found his shot percentages were way down. The Shot Science analytics detected that his hips swung at an abnormal rate and he landed with excess force on his left side, potentially a red flag for weakness in his right knee and ankle. His leg angles and vertical were also off, helping him identify areas of improvement and training.

“Once you get all that data, you can do so much with it,” said Lin. “I couldn’t even begin to fathom what I’d do with that information if I had access to this back in the day.”

According to HomeCourt, it has tracked over 20 million shots and over 17 million dribbles across the world in over 160 countries. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are two teams that have paid subscriptions to the shot-tracking technology and its suite of analytics. In the future, teams may not need to fly all over the world to find the next Stephen Curry with a perfect jump shot. They may just have to open up an app.

For Curry, all the grueling training sessions and his obsessive attention to detail have led to this moment. With three titles, two MVPs and a scoring title to his name, the only trophy that seems to be missing on his shelf is an NBA Finals MVP. 

Staying on this incredible free-throw run could go a long way to adding that elusive honor. With Kevin Durant sidelined with a calf injury, Curry has shouldered more of the scoring load in his absence. Against the Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Curry averaged 36.5 points per game, thanks in part to a greater emphasis and proficiency at the line.

In the five full games that Durant has missed this postseason, Curry has averaged 8.6 free-throw attempts per game, up from his previous average of 5.2 attempts per game. With a 94-percent conversion rate, that’s no small thing. It has become one of his go-to weapons.

Curry’s free-throw trips may be the difference between a Warriors series win and a series loss. In Curry’s playoff career, the Warriors are 11-1 when Curry takes double-digit free throws, winning 10 straight. When he takes one or zero free throws, the Warriors are a more pedestrian 10-7 in playoff games. At this level of the postseason, the margins are incredibly slim and the luck of a bounce could decide the champion.

“You’re always searching for perfection,” Curry said, “even though it’s probably unattainable.”

Probably. 

But last Finals, Curry did make all fourteen of his free throws in the four-game sweep. This time, fourteen may not be enough to get past these Toronto Raptors. Just like a rimmed-in free throw, perfection isn’t enough when you’re Stephen Curry.

Ahead of his fifth NBA Finals, Stephen Curry is chasing history. Inside Curry's incredible run at the free throw line, his chase for perfection and the emerging world of shot analytics.

NBC Sports Bay Area's Monte Poole contributed reporting to this story. Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

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

190814-load-management-haberstroh.jpg
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

haberstroh-web-image-3.jpg
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.