Sam Smith's 2019-20 NBA Playoffs Predictions

This could be one of the more intriguing NBA seasons in recent memory because there isn’t a presumed dominant team favored for the championship, writes Sam Smith.
Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine at 2019 Bulls Media Day
by Sam Smith

Body

Sam Smith makes his predictions on the Eastern and Western Conference standings for the 2019-20 NBA season, projecting a Clippers vs. 76ers NBA Finals.

Say it ain't so, Zion. Say it ain't so.

But alas it is as the most anticipated NBA rookie in a decade, Zion Williamson, already is out of action for several months following Monday knee surgery.

It's a setback as much for the NBA and its fans as the celebrated 19-year-old.

Everyone wanted to see those dunks!

Certainly the NBA was ready with Zion's New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday scheduled to open the 2019-20 season in Toronto, the traditional ring ceremony game without also the Raptors best player, Kawhi Leonard. He's now with the Los Angeles Clippers who host the "visiting" Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the highlight opening night game.

The Bulls in Charlotte are among 22 teams who begin their seasons Wednesday.

Bulls vs Charlotte in the 2018-19 NBA Season

And it could be one of the more intriguing NBA seasons in recent memory because probably for the first time in this century, there isn't a presumed dominant team favored for the championship at the start of the season. First it was the Lakers to open the 2000s with the Spurs evolving to LeBron's Miami Heat and then the Golden State Warriors.

This season there are perhaps a dozen teams who could make a case for being in the NBA Finals. After all, who picked Toronto last season? This NBA season seems as wide open since the debacles of the Rockets/Knicks Finals of the mid-1990s when the Finals teams, especially in 1994, could claim just one All-Star each.

Dynasty teams have been the standard in the NBA from the 1950s and 1960s Boston Celtics through the 1980s Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the 1990s Bulls and the recent runs. Perhaps a team emerges from this season's group, though none seems to actually fit the definition. Which both should enhance the interest of many of the fan bases because you too may be able to wave a No. 1 foam finger.

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman of the 1990s Chicago Bulls

There seems to be storylines aplenty with the aforementioned LeBron and AD, Leonard with Paul George and the internecine LA rivalry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook joining in Houston, though still with one basketball, the Warriors with mostly Stephen Curry for now, the 76ers with a star-studded but hoping not to be star crossed lineup, the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets grinders who could top everyone, the anticipated trade of Chris Paul and departure of Andre Iguodala and whether Carmelo can get a farewell tour without a team.

Here's one overview and projected order of finish:

Eastern Conference:

1. Philadelphia 76ers. Their starting lineup looks the most complete with the addition of Al Horford, who has been pining to get back to power forward. They're not deep, Ben Simmons shooting is probably not there quite yet, and the fear is always the health of Joel Embiid and how many games he plays. But with LeBron and Kawhi gone west it should be enough. And then if Giannis leaves next year they're really going to have a good chance.

2. Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis is said to be on a mission. Which doesn't involve brats and cheese. He was exposed some by the Raptors in last playoffs the way they played off him. It didn't help for spacing that the Bucks let go Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana. You sense Eric Bledsoe and George Hill have had their career years. Can Robin Lopez be the difference? Still, they and the 76ers seem to be at a different level from the rest of the conference.

Bulls vs. Bucks during the 2019-20 NBA Preseason

3. Indiana Pacers. Obviously a lot depends on the return to good health of Victor Oladipo. They're not big, but they're dynamic with good scoring additions with Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. Is it Doug McDermott's time? They resigned Domantas Sabonis and play a rugged, if not overly physical, game.

Bulls vs. Pacers during the 2019-20 NBA Preseason

4. Miami Heat. Talk about rugged, that's Miami and Pat Riley. And that's not counting the Jimmy Butler/Dion Waiters confrontations. They figure they did an addition by subtraction with the trade of the laconic Hassan Whiteside and appear to have a good rookie in Tyler Herro and the full-time return of Goran Dragic. Plus, they don't have to prop up Dwyane Wade's statistics anymore.

5. Chicago Bulls. Hey, why not? It's not like skipping past the '27 Yankees. Ooops, wrong sport. The '86 Celtics? No, the '96…It would be a massive jump for the Bulls, but why not with the usual if-they-stay-healthy disclaimer. The roster after two seasons of injuries and lottery priorities stacks up well with everyone beyond the 76ers and Bucks. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen may be the most talented duo anyone has after the 76ers. With Kevin Durant out, of course, and if they actually play more than 50 games. Both have continued to insist they are only about 82 games. And finally for the first time since the Deng-Noah-Rose group there are adults in the room with Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter Jr. and Thaddeus Young. Plus, Kris Dunn is a heck of a luxury as a reserve. Just because a team hasn't win doesn't mean it cannot win.

Bulls huddle before a game

6. Boston Celtics. So much for all those draft picks and The Third Dynasty. They've also had some bad luck with injuries, got unlucky in the lottery and weren't as appealing to free agents as they believed. So now they're a small team with as many small forwards as the Knicks have power forwards. They basically lost their two most productive players in Kyrie Irving and Horford. And for everyone pointing at Irving as the problem, every time they needed a play they also pointed to him. They'll miss him more than they're willing to admit.

7. Brooklyn Nets. Wait 'til next year? It was the familiar refrain of the old Brooklyn Dodgers year after year when losing in the World Series. For the Nets, it's at the start of the season waiting for Kevin Durant and his Achilles. They were the feel good story of the league last season built in large part on a one-for-all chemistry that will take a hit not only for the addition of Irving, but loss of D'Angelo Russell, Jared Dudley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. They've got enough for now to compete, if not be special.

8. Orlando Magic. If Markelle Fultz becomes the No. 1 pick again, watch out. This is the year Aaron Gordon breaks through. Really. No really. OK, maybe next year. But they're the most stable team in the conference among the others with an ascending Nikola Vucevic. If the exceptionally long-armed Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac develop they could reach beyond this spot.

9. Toronto Raptors. Thought I forgot someone, eh? Hey, the 98-99 Bulls missed the playoffs. It can happen when a really good player leaves. Though I'm projecting more here. Left to their current roster, they're probably a playoff team. But what would be the point with the aging Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka? They've got the most unexpected of NBA championships as currency. So what a great time to offload their veterans and get into an expedited rebuild when the community remains so enamored with the accomplishment.

Watch Zach LaVine score 26 points against the Raptors in preseason

10. Detroit Pistons. They have enough talent to be a playoff team again, and the right driven coach in Dwane Casey. But they're another of those teams seemingly caught in the middle and perhaps ready to offload. Plus, can Blake Griffin remain healthy and continue with Andre Drummond being an inside force when so many teams don't realize there's still a painted lane area below the free throw line.

11. Atlanta Hawks. They have the young talent to be a playoff team with Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter, but probably not enough of those appropriate veterans with the retiring Vince Carter and the curious Jabari Parker. Young makes every game interesting with his shooting and passing, and they've got two more interesting rookies in De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. But they're still doing position tryouts.

Bulls vs. Hawks in the 2019-20 NBA Preseason

12. New York Knicks. This begins the rest of the East stage with the four teams which have no chance to make the playoffs unless its extended to 15 teams. The Knicks should lead that group with the addition of Julius Randle, who legitimately is an All-Star caliber player, Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis. Rookie R.J. Barrett is going to get most of the shots if he wants, and they're lining up now for Giannis in 2021.

13. Charlotte Hornets. It's Terry Rozier's time! North Carolina turns its lonely eyes to him. They've still got the makings of sort of an NBA team with Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller and Malik Monk. So they can steal some games, but losing Kemba Walker could be the larger crime.

14. Washington Wizards. Can Bradley Beal be an All-Star with that group? Whomever it may be. Well, someone has to score. And Beal may have to average 35 for them to have much of a chance. John Wall isn't expected back this season and who knows if Isaiah Thomas gets through his issues. Washington has had enough sports success this year. The Wizards are a fair offset.

Bulls vs. Wizards in the 2018-19 NBA Season

15. Cleveland Cavaliers. Is anyone burning Channing Frye jerseys. This is how rebuilds go. They drafted their point guard of the future in Collin Sexton. Until they liked another one better and drafted Darius Garland. Then they hired a college coach to relate to the youngsters, and the coach is confident of health, at least, since he's on Medicare. Hey, Kevin Love? You still there?

Western Conference:

1. Los Angeles Clippers. Clippers and winning pretty much have never been in the same sentence except something like, The Clippers are never winning anything. The league's most forlorn franchise looks like its best with the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to go along with one of the surprise teams of last season. And the rumors continue once he gets a buyout Andre Iguodala will join the league's best defense. Plus they have the LeBron stopper. LeBron is like the biggest kid in the playground who runs over and intimidates everyone. Not the physical Leonard.

2. Denver Nuggets. They might actually win more games than the Clippers because the Clippers likely will be a "load management" team with George and Leonard. It's the only reason to root against them. But when else would one have a chance to list the Clippers first? The Nuggets looked like they took a late season detour to scratch out a better bracket last season, which was another reason to root for Portland. Though if Klay returns late watch out. They made a good pickup with Jerami Grant and have perhaps the best talent among the non All-Stars and grinders. They may be an athletic version of Memphis's grit and grind guys. And Michael Porter Jr. is back. OK, let's see what that was all about.

3. Utah Jazz. It looks like they finally filled the spots they were missing with an actual point guard in Mike Conley and a shooter in Bogan Bogdanovic. Donovan Mitchell doesn't have to take all the shots as much as he may not like that. And as grinders go if they and the Nuggets make the conference finals, it may be the most contested series no one wants to see.

4. Los Angeles Lakers. As Mark Twain said, reports of LeBron's death as a player may have been highly exaggerated. LeBron's the point and at point back running the show with Anthony Davis to lob to. Maybe even Dwight Howard, who's never going to be humble, albeit humbled. The Pelicans took over their rebuilding project, so they are patching it together with former names like Rondo, Bradley and Green. But never underestimate the greatest ones.

Bulls vs. Lakers in the 18-19 NBA Season

5. Houston Rockets. This shouldn't work with James Harden and Russell Westbrook, though it didn't seem like it would with Chris Paul and that was only a hamstring away. Mike D'Antoni is a master of fixing offenses, though the last time Westbrook listened to anyone likely was, well, probably never. They've still got their perimeter shooters and rim roller, and they're going to remain the curiosity of the season. Adding former Bulls like Tyson Chandler and Thabo Sefolosha means something. Or not.

6. Portland Trailblazers. How dare they get into the conference finals and mess up everyone's bracket? They're usually the guys who get most discounted and somehow keep finishing third. Until Jusuf Nurkic returns, it's Hassan Whiteside and Pau Gasol. That's interesting, but Lillard and McCollum are the steadiest backcourt and Zach Collins could be ready for a breakout. Rookie Anfernee Simons is on many surprise lists.

7. Golden State Warriors. They've still got Steph and Draymond, and D'Angelo Russell. And if Klay returns after the All-Star break as he says…Could be a lot of matchup maneuvering in April to avoid them in the first round. So perhaps it's just a reset season for their dynasty. DeMarcus Cousins departed also. Yes, we finally do feel sorry for him.

Bulls vs. Warriors in the 18-19 NBA Season

8. San Antonio Spurs. No, not yet. Many are saying they finally miss the playoffs after this amazing run of not missing since 1997 when they lotteried up to the top past the tanking Celtics for that Duncan guy. They're on the verge, but not easily discounted with the return of point guard Dejounte Murray and adding players like Trey Lyles and DeMarre Carroll. Oh, and All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are there with Rudy Gay. Hey, maybe No. 7.

9. Dallas Mavericks. If any other team cracks the eight, it should be the Mavs with the return from injury of Kristaps Porzingis and the Luka love that is sweeping the league. They're suddenly a heck of a one/two punch in a league with fancy duos and not threesomes. Bulls vs. Dallas Mavericks in the 18-19 NBA Season

10. Oklahoma City Thunder. Since they're in rebuild mode with the loss of the rest of their Hall of Fame wing with Westbrook to Houston—joining former Thunders Harden in Houston and Durant in Brooklyn—there's uncertainty as they'll probably try to deal Chris Paul. With his contract that could be difficult, so then it looks like an interesting team with players like Dennis Schroder, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari. Who also could be traded, by the way.

11. Sacramento Kings. Now? Well, they're getting closer. They're the yang for the Spurs yin as they haven't made the playoffs sine 2006. They finally got close last season with the emergence of De'Aaron Fox. A healthy Marvin Bagley could be big this season and Buddy Hield certainly believes he's big. Harrison Barnes, Trevor Ariza. They have some guys. The West, however, is as strong and deep as the East is as weak and thin.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves. They've got a star in Karl-Anthony Towns, and no indication yet that Jimmy Butler will demand a trade back to them. It's mostly been all about awakening Andrew Wiggins, though they're probably again more in a stripping down mood after dropping all the former Bulls player and coaches and waiting for the contracts of Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng to expire.

13. New Orleans Pelicans. Looks like there are going to be a lot of boring national TV games. Zion is out probably two months, and then you know he's not going hard the rest of this season. Too bad. Everyone was looking forward to this team. So it becomes the Lakers rebuilding project with Ingram, Ball and Hart. Jaxson Hayes was an alluring prospect in the draft, but the other guy really was, too.

Bulls vs. Pelicans in the 19-20 NBA Preseason

14. Phoenix Suns. Well, it's progress. They finally got a point guard in Ricky Rubio after moving on from the likes of Rajon Rondo, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas, Elfrid Payton and Seth Curry. Old friend Frank Kaminsky is trying to resurrect his career there, and they have some players now with Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric and Kelly Oubre.

15. Memphis Grizzlies. They have two of the best young talents in the NBA in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson. And fellow first rounder Brandon Clarke could be a surprise. Other than that it's Graceland and the Peabody Hotel ducks to look at.

Conference Finals:

76ers defeat Bucks
Clippers defeat Nuggets

NBA Finals:

Clippers defeat 76ers.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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