Basketball season has arrived.
After a long and exciting offseason, the NBA is back, starting Tuesday with a doubleheader featuring the Boston Celtics hosting the Philadelphia 76ers and the Golden State Warriors raising their championship banner before playing the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Here are our predictions for each division and the two conferences (conference seeding in parenthesis).
1. Boston Celtics (1)
2. Toronto Raptors (2)
3. Philadelphia 76ers (3)
4. Brooklyn Nets
5. New York Knicks
The Celtics won 55 games last season despite being devastated with injuries. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are back and healthy, and they’ll lead a loaded and deep roster featuring the likes of Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier. Even with an injury or two, Boston should win this division and secure the No. 1 seed. Toronto needs a full and healthy season from Kawhi Leonard to have any chance of finishing ahead of the C’s. Second-year forward OG Anunoby also needs to make a leap, and point guard Kyle Lowry cannot begin to regress at 32 years old.
The 76ers didn’t make any impactful additions over the summer, and their 52-30 record last season was bolstered by a 16-game win streak to end the season that came against mostly average or bad teams. The 76ers should approach 50 wins again, but there are too many question marks (health, Markelle Fultz, etc.) to pick them ahead of Boston and Toronto.
The Nets will be tough to play against and well-coached, while the Knicks should go into full tank mode with Kristaps Porzingis recovering from a torn ACL.
1. Indiana Pacers (4)
2. Milwaukee Bucks (5)
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (8)
4. Detroit Pistons
5. Chicago Bulls
The Pacers were the surprise team in the East last season and they are bringing back mostly the same roster, plus Tyreke Evans. The Bucks are a popular pick to make a leap, especially after upgrading their coaching with the hire of Mike Budenholzer. Still, the Bucks need to prove they are a premier team before we pick them to win the division. Boston’s injuries presented Milwaukee with a tremendous opportunity to finish with a high seed and make a deep playoff run, and the Bucks accomplished neither.
Don’t be surprised if the Cavs make the playoffs, especially if Kevin Love is not traded. Collin Sexton should be a tremendous rookie, and there are too many veterans on this team for it to be among the conference’s worst.
The Pistons will be better, particularly on defense, under new head coach Dwane Casey. It’s going to be another long, painful season in Chicago.
1. Washington Wizards (6)
2. Miami Heat (7)
3. Charlotte Hornets
4. Orlando Magic
5. Atlanta Hawks
The Wizards talk a lot of trash, so it’s put up or shut up for them. John Wall needs to stay healthy for this team to reach its goals, and he missed half of last season (41 games). If Wall and Bradley Beal play a full season, and Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre take another step, the Wizards could make some noise.
The Heat are tough to predict. We know they’ll play hard and Erik Spoelstra will do a tremendous coaching job, but there’s no real No. 1 scorer on this roster — just a collection of good to very-good-but-not-great players. A trade for Jimmy Butler would make them the favorites in the division.
The Hornets should be an improved team with a new coach and the possibility of Miles Bridges being among the best rookies after a strong preseason. Kemba Walker’s looming free agency could be a distraction, though.
The Magic have a lot of intriguing young players but not enough talent to compete for a playoff spot. The Hawks should do everything possible to tank and get a top pick to surround Trae Young, Taurean Prince and John Collins with another talented teammate.
1. Utah Jazz (4)
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)
3. Portland Trail Blazers (7)
4. Denver Nuggets (8)
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Jazz are no fluke. They basically replaced Gordon Hayward with Donovan Mitchell last season, and they have a deep roster with one of the four or five best coaches in Quin Snyder. They should get to 50 wins.
The Thunder — if Russell Westbrook is healthy — will be very good, and possibly better on offense without Carmelo Anthony taking too many mid-range shots.
The Blazers will go as far as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum take them. They don’t have a reliable No. 3 and losing Ed Davis could be huge. The Nuggets have a healthy roster and a lot of talent, so it’s time for them to finally make the playoffs or coach Michael Malone could be fired. Paul Millsap is healthy again and third-year guard Jamal Murray is primed for a breakout campaign.
We have the T-Wolves in fifth place under the assumption Jimmy Butler will not finish the season in Minnesota.
1. Golden State Warriors (1)
2. Los Angeles Lakers (3)
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Phoenix Suns
5. Sacramento Kings
The Warriors will earn the No. 1 seed if they want it. Last season, they finished behind the Houston Rockets and it didn’t matter that Game 7 of the Western Conference finals was in Houston and not Golden State. The most important thing for the Warriors is being healthy come playoff time. They know they can win anywhere.
The Lakers will be better than people think. Yes, LeBron James will make an MVP-caliber impact, but Brandon Ingram is primed for a huge breakout, and the team’s other talented young players should take a step forward as well. That group includes Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart.
The Clippers will be in the mix for a playoff spot, especially if rookie guard Shea Gilgeous-Alexander makes the kind of impact many are predicting. The Suns have a ton of talent with Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and reigning No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, but they still don’t play any defense. The Kings need no explanation. Celtics and 76ers fans will be more interested in the Kings’ performance than people in Sacramento.
1. Houston Rockets (2)
2. San Antonio Spurs (5)
3. New Orleans Pelicans
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. Memphis Grizzlies
The Rockets remain the clear favorite in this division. Not much more needs to be said.
The Spurs added DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to a team that didn’t have Kawhi Leonard for nearly all of last season, which makes 50 wins a very real possibility for Gregg Popovich’s squad. Losing Dejounte Murray for the season hurts, but second-year guard Derrick White should be able to step in.
The Pelicans and Mavericks both have a chance to reach the playoffs. For New Orleans, Anthony Davis must be a top MVP candidate and Jrue Holliday needs to stay healthy. For Dallas, Luka Doncic must make a huge impact as a rookie.
The Grizzlies could be competitive if they don’t trade Mike Conley Jr. or Marc Gasol. Jaren Jackson Jr. could win Rookie of the Year with enough playing time. He was one of the most NBA-ready prospects in the 2018 draft class.