It's that time of year again, folks. We're a week away from the start of the 2020-21 NBA season, and with it, answers to the questions that have been bubbling throughout the entire (admittedly truncated) offseason. Predictions will start to become either distant fantasies or firm realities when the ball finally tips, so with the offseason coming to a close, we're going to go out with a bang -- one bold prediction for all 30 NBA teams, starting with the Eastern Conference.
These predictions are meant to be ambitious. They won't all be right. They wouldn't be bold if they were. They are logical if perhaps somewhat exaggerated endpoints to preexisting trends and information. In other words, they are the extreme examples of either your worst fears or brightest dreams about your favorite team, starting with the offseason's busiest franchise.
Atlanta Hawks -- Rajon Rondo doesn't finish his contract in Atlanta
In giving Rondo $15 million over two years, the Hawks are firmly paying for his postseason production. The problem is that Atlanta's goal for the season is simply to reach the playoffs, not win anything once they're there. Reaching the playoffs means winning regular-season games. Rondo, by virtually any metric, didn't help the Lakers do that over the past two seasons. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus ranked him 56th out of 95 points guards in basketball last season, while Basketball Index's PIPM slotted him at No. 71. Considering Atlanta's outrageous depth, Bogdan Bogdanovic's comfort as a backup point guard and the hefty workload Trae Young is used to, the Hawks are eventually going to realize that it doesn't make sense to keep Rondo if he's going to jog his way through the regular season as he did in Los Angeles. Whether it comes at the deadline or in the offseason, don't be surprised if the Hawks move on from one of their big offseason investments.
Boston Celtics -- Gordon Hayward trade exception won't be used until the offseason
Danny Ainge is perhaps the NBA's most patient general manager. The man who let Paul George and Jimmy Butler slip away isn't going to waste his best remaining trade asset on the wrong player. He seemingly already turned down Myles Turner to create it. In all likelihood, that means he's waiting for someone he views as a possible star for Boston, and such a player that fits within that $28.5 million exception does not currently seem to exist on the market. If that's the case, his best shot will probably come in the 2021 offseason, when he can use it either to acquire a player already under contract with another team or in a sign-and-trade for a top free agent. Waiting would mean weakening his chance at the 2021 title, but every move Ainge has made as Boston's general manager suggests a willingness to do so. The cherry on top? It would help keep Boston from paying the luxury tax this season.
Brooklyn Nets -- Fall short of top-four seed in the Eastern Conference
When the playoffs come and basketball boils down to one-on-one shot-creation? The Nets will be just fine. Until then? It's going to be a bumpy road. Brooklyn's defense is average at best. Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, both below-average 3-point shooters, will now have to adjust to tertiary roles offensively that they aren't particularly well suited for. Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen are both playing for contracts, and they're both probably coming off the bench. Kyrie Irving isn't exactly known for his durability. A rookie head coach in Steve Nash will have to manage two of the league's more mercurial superstars in the nation's biggest market, and if you think there won't be any clashes between the superstars and the players that recruited them to Brooklyn, I'd refer you to what happened to the Clippers last season. Superteams tend to have growing pains. We are going to hear stories about players-only meetings and role-related frustration. None of this precludes the Nets from eventually becoming a contender. Irving and Kevin Durant alone make them well-suited to the postseason. But this isn't going to be a regular-season juggernaut.
Charlotte Hornets -- LaMelo Ball shoots below 40 percent from the field
This is bold in name only. Last season's No. 3 overall pick, RJ Barrett, shot only 40.2 percent from the field and he came into the league a more advanced scorer than Ball, who went scoreless in his first preseason game and is known for his poor shot selection. Teams don't expect rookies to shoot particularly well. It's not as if the Hornets have championship ambitions. Ball will make his flashy passes and improve as a whole over the course of the season, but the shooting numbers are going to be ugly.
Chicago Bulls --Zach LaVine is traded by the deadline
Every core Bull is on a rookie-scale contract ... except for LaVine, who is two years away from free agency. New regimes tend to want to put their stamp on organizations, and getting out ahead of LaVine's free agency is Arturas Karnisovas' simplest way of doing so. It would shift further shot-creation duties onto Coby White, who needs the reps, and his 20 shots per game could be spread around to the rest of Chicago's young players. Karnisovas comes from Denver. His center averaged more assists than LaVine did last season. If he plans to import any of his former team's style, having two shoot-first guards probably isn't ideal, and LaVine's contract situation and age make him the likelier trade candidate.
Cleveland Cavaliers -- They'll have the worst defense in basketball for the third year in a row
Tristan Thompson was one of Cleveland's few worthwhile defenders last season, and now he plays for the Celtics. The Cavaliers spent the No. 5 overall pick on a player they expect to upgrade the defense in Isaac Okoro, but even high-upside rookies tend not to be particularly valuable defensively. There's still far too much Kevin Love and far too many young players finding their place in the NBA to expect real defensive improvement. Cleveland will remain at the bottom of the NBA on that end of the floor.
Detroit Pistons: They'll have the worst offense in the NBA
The only group more consistently negative than rookie defenders is rookie point guards. Killian Hayes might one day be a very good player. He probably won't be this season, and that serves the Pistons just fine. They're in no rush. Blake Griffin's return might help the offense when he's healthy, but history says he won't be very often. Detroit built its offseason around pillaging Denver's front court, but it still managed to come away with two of the worst offensive members of it. Mason Plumlee was a backup for a reason. Jerami Grant did little to prove he deserves the bigger role offensively he seemingly sought out in Detroit. Derrick Rose is a prime trade candidate. With Luke Kennard, Tony Snell and Langston Galloway gone, Svi Mykhailiuk is the last remaining reliable 3-point shooter. This is going to get ugly.
Indiana Pacers -- Myles Turner takes at least six 3-pointers per game
Nate McMillan's Pacers finished in the bottom five in 3-point attempts four years in a row, and until last season, Turner took more mid-range jumpers than 3-pointers in every season of his career. He finally took a step in the right direction last season in getting up to four 3-point attempts per game, but new head coach Nate Bjorkgren comes from Toronto, where big men shoot 3s as comfortably as layups. Indiana's team-wide volume is going to rise, and if Bjorkgren even manages to turn Turner's 1.7 mid-range attempts per game from last season into 3-pointers, he's nearly at six already. If he convinces Turner to embrace his destiny as a pure floor-spacer on offense? That number could climb even higher.
Miami Heat -- No superstar will be added in the next calendar year
The Heat have the ammunition to land a superstar. They have the ambition to do so as well. But do they have the need? Will they put every last asset on the table to land James Harden knowing how bright their future already is? Would they be willing to punt away a chance at Giannis Antetokounmpo to acquire a slightly lesser player now? Odds are, the answer is no, and if they fall short on Antetokounmpo, the likeliest outcome is that the Heat continue to build organically rather than pursue a consolation prize. After their Finals appearance, that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Superstars will always want to play in Miami. Pat Riley will always be able to find a way to get them. But he doesn't have to be in a rush to do so considering what he already has, and if he can't get someone as good as Harden or Giannis, he isn't going to go out of his way to form a trio.
Milwaukee Bucks -- They'll finish in the bottom five in the NBA in bench scoring
Milwaukee finished eighth in bench scoring last season, but think about where those points came from. George Hill, Kyle Korver and Ersan Ilyasova are all gone. Donte DiVincenzo is presumably a starter. Almost the entire bench scoring load now falls on DJ Augustin and Bobby Portis, and if a starter gets injured at any point, one of them would seem likely to move into the opening five. Mike Budenholzer's steadfast refusal to overwork his starters tends to lead to bench volume, but on such a thin roster, blowouts will be rarer, and with Budenholzer likely coaching for Giannis Antetokounmpo's future, he may be forced to take a more aggressive, playoff-style approach this season.
New York Knicks -- They'll be the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA
There is no technical definition here. After all, the Hawks had the lowest team 3-point percentage last season, but finished eighth in volume. Predictably, the team that came the closest to the bottom on both fronts was the Knicks, who finished 27th in 3-point percentage and 29th in volume. Seven Knicks made 50 3-pointers last season, and four of them (Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Damyean Dotson and Wayne Ellington) are gone. Alec Burks and Austin Rivers will both help make up some of that lost volume, but they are roughly league-average shooters for their careers. The Knicks are on the right path, but they don't have nearly enough spacing in their present state.
Orlando Magic -- Finally admit defeat and trade veterans
It's time. After years of hovering in the middle of the standings, the moment for Orlando to bottom out again is finally at hand. Jonathan Isaac is out for the year. Without DJ Augustin, they lack any consistency at the point guard position. Evan Fournier is on an expiring contract. There's less of a reason to push for the playoffs when attendance is limited or forbidden outright. This is the year for the Magic to start shopping players like Fournier, Terrance Ross and Aaron Gordon. Depending on the sort of offers they get, Nikola Vucevic could be in play as well. That might be a bit aggressive for the milquetoast Orlando front office, but some combination of Fournier, Ross and Gordon is finally going to get dealt this season. The Magic simply have no reason not to move them.
Philadelphia 76ers -- They'll finish as second seed in the Eastern Conference
The five-man lineup of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric had the best plus-minus in the NBA during the 2017-18 season as they outscored opponents by 268 points across 601 minutes. Daryl Morey recognizes that this isn't (pun intended) rocket science. Put shooting around Simmons and Embiid and good things happen. Seth Curry fills in for Redick as one of the league's best shooters. Danny Green slots into Covington's position as the 3-and-D maestro. Tobias Harris is a better version of Saric. The backup center problem has seemingly been filled by Dwight Howard. Matisse Thybulle is perhaps the best bench defender in basketball. Yes, there are holes. Philly could use another ball-handler if Tyrese Maxey is overwhelmed as a rookie. The bench is a tad light on shooting. But the 76ers have finally embraced their proper identity. Milwaukee's incumbent status makes them the likeliest No. 1 seed, but Philadelphia's reoriented lineup is going to be the Eastern Conference's next best regular-season group.
Toronto Raptors -- They'll have the best defense in the NBA
This has more to do with the top of the defensive standings than it does the Raptors. Milwaukee lost Wesley Matthews in free agency and most of its bench to the Jrue Holiday trade. The Lakers will rest their starters as much as possible. Boston played above its head statistically last season. There isn't an obvious top defense, and the Raptors lost the bulk of their rim protection with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka bolting for Los Angeles. Aron Baynes replaces a chunk of it, though, and the Raptors should probably expect a health bump after losing practically everyone at some point or another last season. All four returning Raptors starters are All-Defense candidates, and if such an honor existed for coaches, Nick Nurse would win perpetually. This is going to be a season of attrition. The now-Tampa Bay-based Raptors know that better than anyone. They weathered the storm without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green a year ago. Why should the 2020-21 campaign be any different?
Washington Wizards -- Russell Westbrook and Co. will lead the NBA in pace
Washington finished fifth in pace last season, and the Houston Rockets finished second. This is relevant because, a year prior, the Rockets finished 29th in pace. There were other differences, but all of them were driven by Russell Westbrook. If he's enough to push a pathologically slow Rockets team up 27 slots, he should be more than enough to take a Wizards team already in the top-five all the way up to No. 1. Scott Brooks learned firsthand in Oklahoma City what issues Westbrook presents in a half-court setting. He is going to encourage his team to run as much as humanly possible to compensate.