NBA preview: 10 bold predictions for the 2019-20 season
With a new season upon us, the USA TODAY Sports NBA team has made its predictions for awards and championship winners. Now it’s time to take a deeper dive and plant our flags for the upcoming year.
Who will emerge as a surprise title contender? Which rising young star is primed for a big breakout? What blockbuster trade can we expect at the deadline?
To celebrate the start of a new campaign, Jeff Zillgitt, Mark Medina, A.J. Neuharth-Keusch and Matt Eppers offer 10 bold predictions for the 2019-20 NBA season:
1. Denver will win the Western Conference
The Nuggets have improved record-wise in each of coach Mike Malone’s four seasons from 33 victories to 40 to 46 to 54. Can they take the next step? They have an MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic and a talented, deep roster that includes Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, Juan Hernangomez, Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr.
2. The Spurs’ incredible playoff streak will end
It’s getting repetitive at this point, but the Western Conference is loaded. Really loaded. Again. As many as 12 or 13 teams could be legitimate playoff contenders. Some good teams are going to be left out. The Spurs have made countless predictions look foolish during their 22 consecutive postseason appearances, but a lack of offensive firepower catches up to them this season. Matt Eppers
3. Boston will be better without Kyrie Irving
Think addition by subtraction. Boston will no longer have to worry about Irving’s drama. The Celtics’ young players will also feel more empowered to navigate through their development. After all, the Celtics managed just fine during Irving’s injury-plagued first season. Mark Medina
4. New Orleans will make the playoffs
Yes, they looked great in preseason. Yes, they’re super young and super inexperienced. And yes, in the East, this prediction wouldn’t be all that bold. But this is the West, where essentially 12 teams are fighting for eight spots. With the Anthony Davis distraction gone, top pick Zion Williamson in the fold, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram out of the bright lights of Laker Land and seasoned veterans poised to take on leadership roles, the Pelicans could be playing basketball until late April. A.J. Neuharth-Keusch
5. The Raptors will trade Kyle Lowry
Coming off his first championship, Lowry recently signed a one-year, $31 million extension through 2020-21, which makes his contract valuable for the Raptors and a team trying to acquire him. If the Raptors are struggling come trade deadline, don’t be surprised to see contenders in need of a quality point guard make a run at Lowry. It also gives the Raptors a chance to get something (maybe a young player and draft picks) in return. Jeff Zillgitt
6. Steve Kerr will win Coach of the Year
Without four All-Stars, Kerr will finally receive his due as someone who can also develop players. Beyond relying on Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Kerr and his Warriors coaching staff will maximize developing his team’s role players and putting them in positions to succeed.
7. Trae Young will lead the league in assists
Young is already a terrific passer with stellar court vision and the ability to create shots for others. He was fourth in the NBA last season as a rookie with 8.1 assists per game, and then Atlanta added young talent around him in the draft. If he and the Hawks make the progress they’re expected to, Young should easily boost his assist numbers above double figures per game
8. Tobias Harris will be a first-time All-Star
The Sixers forward has been on the cusp of making the All-Star Game, and one could argue he should have made it last season. He averaged 20 points and 7.9 rebounds and shot 48.7% from the field, 39.7% on 3-pointers and 86.6% on free throws. Harris isn’t far from a 50-40-90 player, putting him in All-Star territory on a talented team
9. No more tanking for ping-pong balls
With increased league-wide parity, the last month of the regular season will actually center on playoff positioning as opposed to teams worrying about the NBA lottery. The league will be so competitive that the No. 4 seed will only have a two-game cushion over the No. 8 seed
10. Gordon Hayward will average 18 points
For a former All-Star, this may not seem like much, but Hayward only put up 11.5 points per game last season, never returning to form following his devastating leg injury. But he’s now two years removed from that, and the early reports out of Boston have been encouraging. Danny Ainge says Hayward is “back” and Enes Kanter says he’s going to “shock the world.” Preseason hype should always be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but maybe not in this case