Basketball is a game of numbers and statistics, but can one number sum up a team’s outlook for an entire season? The Crossover attempted to give you the most important number for all 30 teams as the 2019-20 NBA season begins.
Chicago Bulls: 21
It’s unreasonable to expect young big men unaccustomed to the rigors of the NBA to never miss time, but last season Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. played only 21 games together. Any path to relevance for the young Bulls involves their 2017 and ’18 lottery picks joining forces on the court.
As a rookie Carter had the fourth-worst offensive rating (97.8) among players 6′ 10″ or taller. He barely took threes (32), didn’t make them when he did (six) and generally looked the 19-year-old kid he was. But he did have the second-best defensive rating on the team, was solid as a rebounder and, with a season of experience, is sure to improve. Markkanen, 22, lived up to his reputation as an offense-first, defense-optional player. He might never be able to switch onto smaller guards, but if he is anything close to the next Dirk, the Bulls won’t mind any defensive shortcomings, especially with Carter’s play on that end. —Joe Wilkinson
Cleveland Cavaliers: 3
Collin Sexton’s defensive rating last season was 118.1. The good news: There were two players who were worse. The bad news: They were both teammates (Cedi Osman and Tristan Thompson). Yes, the Cavaliers had the three worst defenders in the NBA, which goes a long way to explaining Cleveland’s team rating of 117.6, the worst in history.
In May the Cavs hired coach John Beilein, a 66-year-old with no pro experience. What he does have is a reputation, burnished at Michigan, for leading teams with stifling defenses. Last year’s Wolverines gave up 58.3 points per game, second best in the nation. Sexton had the misfortune of playing point guard, the league’s most star-stacked position. This year he’ll share that spot with another newcomer. For the Cavs to avoid the cellar, Beilein’s system will have to translate—and No. 5 pick Darius Garland will have to have a smoother transition to the NBA than Sexton. —Joe Wilkinson
Washington Wizards: 36.9
It’s the only intriguing question about the team: Will Bradley Beal finish the season in Washington? He clocked a league-high 36.9 minutes per game in 2018–19 while his backcourtmate, John Wall, played just 32 games due to multiple Achilles injuries. Despite Beal’s best efforts—he set career highs in points, rebounds and assists—the Wizards missed the playoffs two years after a 49-win season.
Beal, 26, is both the Wizards’ only hope at achieving respectability and their only means to reap valuable assets for a rebuild. Rookie GM Tommy Sheppard is in a tough spot. Wall will likely miss all of this season, and his massive contract (he’s owed $171 milion through 2023, when he will be 33) limits the team’s flexibility. Giving up on Beal, who is signed through 2020–21, wouldn’t be easy, but unless Sheppard can find a way to get out from under Wall’s deal, it could wind up being the only move he can make. —R.N.
Miami Heat: 6.4
As evidenced by the 6.4 points per fourth quarter he scored last season—even on a star-studded Sixers team—Jimmy Butler is a bona fide No. 1 option, a role that is neatly carved out for him on the less top-heavy Heat. Miami missed the playoffs last season in large part because it needed a closer: The Heat outscored their opponents by an average of 0.5 of a point in the first three quarters but had a deficit of 0.7 in the fourth. Butler’s fourth-quarter output was the 12th-best in the league; the Heat’s leader, the since-retired Dwyane Wade, was 45th (4.6 per game).
With Butler as the clear frontman, Erik Spoelstra won’t have to tinker with the rotation as much as he did last season. The 6′ 8″ veteran will also make life easier for his teammates, who won’t be asked to play above their station. Butler brings a lot to the Heat, but at the start of the season, simply balancing the roster could be his biggest contribution. —R.N.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Boston Celtics: 30.8
A large share of criticism surrounding Kyrie Irving last season was his ball dominance. Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s development slowed after a breakout postseason in 2017–18, when Irving was out injured. Boston’s secondary scorers spent much of the season isolated on the wing waiting for a catch-and-shoot opportunity. As Irving cooked, Boston watched.
Irving is now in Brooklyn, replaced by former Hornet Kemba Walker. Does that mean Boston will feature a more egalitarian offense in 2019–20 under Walker? Don’t assume so. Walker’s usage rate of 30.8 was actually higher than Irving’s 28.6. And it was especially pronounced late in games. His 126 shots in clutch situations (within five points in the final five minutes) led the league. Charlotte’s dreadful roster is at least partly responsible for Walker’s late-game volume, but don’t assume a marked change in Boston’s offense to close games without Irving. —M.S.
Portland Trail Blazers: 167
The most successful ride of the Damian Lillard era was marked by 53 wins, playoff theatrics (Oklahoma City would never be the same) and a trip to the conference finals. There’s little question that the backcourt tandem of Lillard and CJ McCollum has been the driving force behind the Blazers’ success. In turn, much of the defensive responsibilities had fallen to their workmanlike wings: Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and Jake Layman, who combined to start 167 games last season. All three are gone, and their roles will be filled by the inconsistent Rodney Hood; 21-year-old Zach Collins, who’s better suited playing center than power forward; and bargain-bin additions of Mario Hezonja, and Anthony Tolliver. This suggests a defensive regression for a defense that was just in the middle of the pack. Is Portland still a playoff team? Probably. But in the West, there are few guarantees. —Jeremy Woo
Brooklyn Nets: 40.3
Kevin Durant hasn’t publicly explained his decision to join the Nets, but as general manager Sean Marks recalled, after Durant signed, he told the organization, “I love the system. I love how you guys play.” What’s to love? Perhaps it’s this: Brooklyn took a three-pointer on 40.3% of shot attempts last season, the fourth-highest mark in the league. The Nets’ three-point frequency in 2015–16 was 23.1%, the third-lowest.
Kenny Atkinson took over as coach one year later, and Brooklyn has now finished in the top five in three-point frequency for three consecutive seasons. Atkinson’s run-and-gun approach will also appeal to Kyrie Irving, who made the 13th-most pull-up jumpers last season. Irving’s quick (and accurate) trigger will elevate Brooklyn’s offense, and it will only get better in 2020–21, when Durant should be healthy following his Achilles injury. —M.S.
Los Angeles Lakers: 27
Through last Christmas the Lakers had the NBA’s ninth-best record, LeBron James was meshing well with his new teammates, and on Dec. 25, L.A. blew out the defending champion Warriors. During the game, though, James injured his groin, causing him to miss the largest chunk of time of his career and sending the Lakers into a tailspin.
All in all, James sat out 27 games. After giving up much of their depth to acquire Anthony Davis, the Lakers obviously can’t afford many nicks and bruises this season. A more pressing concern, however, is the consistent availability of the 34-year-old James. The mileage on his body is absurd: Counting the playoffs, he has played 7,760 more minutes than 42-year-old Vince Carter. Logic would dictate that at some point LeBron will start to wear down. If that happens soon, then the pressure shifts to Davis, who never took New Orleans past the second round. —R.N.
New York Knicks: 161
There’s no greater misery in the NBA than Knicks fandom: six straight losing seasons, a 20-year Finals drought and an endless stream of p.r. disasters. Last summer brought a double whammy of pain, as New York missed out on both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. The franchise may be at its nadir.
Now, a dash of optimism. The Knicks drafted RJ Barrett of Duke with the No. 3 pick, then signed Julius Randle in July. Yet it may be a former -second-round center who will have the Garden buzzing. Last season 7′ 1″ Mitchell Robinson blocked 161 shots in 66 games (a league-high 5.6 per 100 possessions). Only Pau Gasol has swatted more as a rookie this century, and that was in twice as many minutes. Another miserable season awaits, but Robinson, who also showed signs of being a weapon around the basket, serves as a reminder that it’s not only big-name players who can make big impacts. —M.S.
Toronto Raptors: 104.1
Expectations are reset in Toronto after Kawhi Leonard’s departure to the Clippers, Stanley Jackson though the Raptors won’t need to undergo a full makeover to remain competitive. They weren’t just functional without Leonard—they went 17–5, a 63-win pace (albeit with a favorable schedule). Toronto’s superstar exodus won’t cause a collapse into tankdom.
Surprisingly, Toronto’s D shone brightest when missing one of the best stoppers in the game. Without Leonard, the Raptors had a defensive rating of 104.1, a mark that would have ranked first last season. Toronto should hover near the top five in defensive rating again. Pascal Siakam anchors a crop of long, switchable wings, including OG Anunoby, who didn’t play in the postseason. Marc Gasol is a former Defensive Player of the Year. And Kyle Lowry is perhaps the smartest point guard in the league not named Chris Paul. —M.S.
Milwaukee Bucks: 1
From Brook Lopez to Trevon Duval to Christian Wood, all 24 players who suited up for Milwaukee last season made at least one three-pointer. Mike Budenholzer won Coach of the Year partially because he turned the Bucks into the second-most fearsome long-range shooting team in the league (after the Rockets). Milwaukee hit 53.9% more treys than in 2017–18, which helped spread the floor and allowed Giannis Antetokounmpo to terrorize opposing defenses.
Milwaukee’s proficiency from behind the arc lifted it to the top of the regular-season standings, but it’s no lock to earn that spot again. While the team’s three-point volume was impressive, its percentage was a pedestrian 14th in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe, Pat Connaughton
and George Hill can get buckets attacking close-outs, but with Malcolm Brogdon now in Indiana,
those shaky-shooting guards will be in the spotlight even more. —Joe Wilkinson
Indiana Pacers: 106.0
The Pacers were dismissed as a postseason contender on Jan. 23 when All-Star guard Victor Oladipo went down with a right-knee injury, but they battled to the fifth seed in the East. How’d they do it? Well, not with their 18th-ranked offense. It was with a defense that had a rating of 106.0, third best in the league. Indiana forced turnovers on 15.8% of possessions, the second-highest rate, yet allowed free throws at the sixth-lowest rate (.243). And all without Oladipo, the team’s best defender.
Oladipo will miss the first couple of months, but the Pacers could still improve defensively. Their two biggest departures were Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young, and the team’s defense was better when they were off the court. Indiana added Malcolm Brogdon, a workmanlike stopper at either guard spot. The Pacers may not be a lot of fun to watch, but their efficient and tenacious D should keep them in the playoff picture. —Joe Wilkinson
Oklahoma City Thunder: 15
During the most hectic NBA offseason ever, no team underwent a more profound sea change than the Thunder. Forced to trade All-NBA forward Paul George, then iconic point guard Russell Westbrook, they needed to squeeze out every possible drop of value. Enter GM Sam Presti, whose shrewd feel for negotiating and timing yielded not only veterans who will keep Oklahoma City relevant in the short term but also the best long-term assets imaginable. After sending George to the Clippers for Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul, the Thunder own the league’s richest treasure chest of draft choices: as many as 15 first-round picks in the next six drafts, Stanley Jackson Jersey Signed plus a pair of swaps. With all those selections there’s no need to tank, and Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams will keep things competitive. Presti has turned what looked like a no-win situation into something resembling a W. —Jeremy Woo