NBA Preview 2019: Rankings, projections and big questions for all 30 teams

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Updated: October 21, 2019

The 2019-20 NBA season tips off Tuesday, and for the first time in (checks calendar) … forever, the league doesn’t have a bona fide virtual lock to make the Finals.

What about the Warriors? Well, the Golden State Warriors watched Kevin Durant change coasts and Klay Thompson go down with an ACL tear.

Both L.A. teams are stacked, though! Sure, the Los Angeles Lakers reloaded with Anthony Davis joining LeBron James, while the LA Clippers pulled off the summer’s biggest blockbuster in landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. But plenty of questions — King James in Year 17 and PG-13’s surgically repaired shoulder among them — could hover over Staples Center this season.

C’mon! There’s no stopping Giannis this year! Tell that to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers, who are ready to take down the reigning MVP.

All in all, upwards of 10 teams can make the case they’re worthy of a trip to the Finals. On the eve of the 2019-20 season, we’re running through the elite, the contenders and the dreamers to get you set for what should be a thrilling new year. Buckle up!

Note: Our 1-30 rankings are based on where voters — more than 40 ESPN NBA reporters, insiders and editors — think teams belong heading into the 2019-20 season. Title odds and Vegas win totals for 2019-20 were provided by Caesars Sportsbook. “Best-case” win-loss records were provided by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Jump to a team:
ATL | BOS | BKN | CHA | CHI | CLE
DAL | DEN | DET | GS | HOU | IND
LAC | LAL | MEM | MIA | MIL | MIN
NO | NY | OKC | ORL | PHI | PHX
POR | SAC | SA | TOR | UTAH | WAS

1. LA Clippers
2018-19 record: 48-34
2020 title odds: +400

From punchline to penthouse. The Clippers enter the season looking to put years of frustration behind them and break through that second-round wall that Lob City never could.

What they did this summer
The Clippers shocked the NBA world in free agency when they not only landed the most coveted free agent in
Kawhi Leonard, but also traded for Paul George on the same night. They gave up a small fortune to do so, sending promising point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks and the right to two more first-round pick swaps to Oklahoma City for George in order to convince Leonard to sign. It will be a small price to pay, though, if Leonard and George can take the Clippers to the NBA Finals. Lawrence Frank and his talented staff also made an underrated move in adding Mo Harkless to a team already filled with grinders who know their role and love to defend. Rookie Terance Mann has impressed in camp thus far and could see consistent minutes at the point.

Best-case scenario (62-20) and how they get there
It’s something that not even Clippers superfan Billy Crystal could have ever dared to dream: the Clippers finishing a season with Doc Rivers hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy and Leonard next to him holding another Finals MVP award. In order for the Clippers to win 62 games and go to the Finals, that means Leonard and George are able to stay healthy — George may not return from surgeries on his shoulders until November — and that the Clippers’ outstanding chemistry and top-line bench play from a season ago carries over with Doc masterfully meshing it all together.

One big question: Keeping PG and Kawhi healthy
Leonard and the Raptors load-managed their way through the regular season to save him for a long playoff run. The Clippers have been cautious with Leonard in the preseason, and that shouldn’t change when the games start to matter. There’s also the issue of George’s surgically-repaired shoulders, although Rivers said the All-Star looked great while working out on the side during camp. No matter when George returns, it’s likely the Clippers will also play things safe with their other All-Star forward.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

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With the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers are poised to take over Los Angeles.


2. Milwaukee Bucks
2018-19 record: 60-22
2020 title odds: +600

It’s the Final(s) countdown! With Kawhi Leonard‘s departure from Toronto and the 76ers losing Jimmy Butler, the Eastern Conference might be the Bucks’ to lose.

What they did this summer
Malcolm Brogdon was the biggest loss of the Bucks’ offseason. The 2017 Rookie of the Year, who was a restricted free agent, signed with Indiana after the Bucks’ front office declined to match the Pacers’ $85 million offer. Milwaukee replaced Brogdon with Wesley Matthews. After summer signings, the Bucks’ roster boasts two sets of brothers: Thanasis and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook and Robin Lopez. The Bucks also brought back backup guard George Hill, who was a key bench player for Milwaukee in the playoffs.

Best-case scenario (63-19) and how they get there
The Bucks don’t need to achieve their best-case 63 wins for the season to be considered a success. Last season, the Bucks won 60 and made it to the Eastern finals. This season, it would be reasonable for the Bucks to give up a few regular-season wins in exchange for resting Giannis and other key players. Milwaukee will be vying for the No. 1 or 2 Eastern Conference seed, but heading into the postseason healthy and rested should be prioritized over regular-season win totals. Milwaukee’s best-case scenario has everything to do with the postseason and making it farther than they did in 2019.

One big question: The Giannis extension
The Bucks’ big question has already come up a handful of times: Will Antetokounmpo sign an extension with Milwaukee next summer? General manager John Horst has already said that he plans on offering Antetokounmpo the max (he was then fined for that comment). Antetokounmpo said at media day that it wouldn’t’ be fair to his teammates to discuss his upcoming decision, but Milwaukee can calm speculation by performing well, dominating in the playoffs and making the Finals. Still, there is only one person who can answer Milwaukee’s biggest question and that is Antetokounmpo. At this point, it is a waiting game.

— Malika Andrews


3. Philadelphia 76ers
2018-19 record: 51-31
2020 title odds: +900

Can this team win the title? The Sixers are one of the two favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference, alongside the Bucks, making Philly one of the handful of teams with a realistic shot at holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June.

What they did this summer
Few teams were as active as the Sixers during the offseason. They executed a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat, sending
Jimmy Butler there in exchange for Josh Richardson, while landing Al Horford to play alongside Joel Embiid in the paint. Philadelphia also re-signed Tobias Harris to a $180 million deal, signed Ben Simmons to a five-year maximum contract extension, and made several moves (signing Kyle O’Quinn, Trey Burke and Raul Neto; re-signing Mike Scott, James Ennis and drafting Matisse Thybulle) to overhaul their bench.