It’s a must this time of year: Let’s break out the crystal roundball to share eight more (almost) fearless predictions for the N.B.A. in 2020.
Zion Williamson will make his official N.B.A. debut by the end of January — or else sitting out his entire rookie season becomes a real possibility.
Although the initial projection of a six-to-eight-weeks absence passed two weeks ago, Williamson has been gradually ramping up his on-court activity behind closed doors. He was even captured on camera throwing down a pregame dunk over the weekend.
These are hopeful signs.
The reality, though, is that Williamson has yet to participate in full-speed N.B.A. drills since undergoing surgery Oct. 21 for a torn meniscus in his right knee. He will surely have to get through a few sessions, with contact, before he is cleared to return. (The aforementioned dunk, for the record, was powered by his left knee.)
The Pelicans would naturally love to see Williamson back on the floor for at least a portion of his maiden season after he averaged a tantalizing 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds on 71.4 percent shooting from the floor in four exhibition games. The team is also amazingly still in playoff contention in the weaker-than-usual West, thanks a four-game winning streak and the most favorable second-half schedule among the eight sub-.500 teams in the conference.
If Williamson were able to play during the next few months, furthermore, it could only help New Orleans as it evaluates how players such as Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday fit beside him. Big decisions are looming in the near future for the Pelicans when it comes to committing to the five-year maximum contract extension that Ingram will be seeking this summer — and whether they should keep or trade Holiday.
But if Williamson goes another full month without playing, it gets increasingly easier to picture all parties electing to just delay his return until next season. Don’t forget that missing Year 1 through injury has worked in the recent past for Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Blake Griffin.
The next few weeks should tell us a lot.
Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon and the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie will break through to earn their first All-Star selections from the Eastern Conference.
Brogdon’s summer arrival and ensuing excellence have enabled the Pacers to establish a 52-win pace despite the ongoing injury absence of the All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. And Dinwiddie has found a new level to help the Nets maintain a top-eight slot even though Kyrie Irving has only been healthy enough to appear in 11 games.
Of course, Indiana fully expects Oladipo to return for the second half of the season. The Nets, by contrast, still don’t know when they’re getting Irving back. Irving’s first season in Brooklyn has been shrouded in mystery; he has missed the Nets’ past 21 games and last spoke to the news media on Nov. 14.
Kawhi Leonard will fall short of the 60 games he played for Toronto last season.
My forecast coming into the season: Leonard and Paul George would play in fewer than 60 games together. Turns out that was too optimistic. My instinct now is that Leonard, as he continues to avoid playing in back-to-backs to reduce the demands on his vulnerable left knee, won’t even reach the 60-game mark on his own.
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers knows he must grudgingly cope with such inconveniences, no matter how much they could affect L.A.’s playoff seeding. More continuity heading into the playoffs would obviously be handy, but letting Leonard prioritize his health, on his terms, has proved to be the surest way to keep him content.
The Milwaukee Bucks will fall short of 70 wins.
It would be a fun statement of intent from the Bucks to see them become just the third team in league history to reach the 70-win plateau — especially after they have been subjected to pundit after pundit proclaiming the regular season to be largely meaningless in Milwaukee.
The problem: Milwaukee needs to go 40-7 for the rest of the regular season to get there. The amount of focus and energy that would require figures to be difficult to muster in late March or April if the Bucks, as expected, have clinched the East’s top seed by then.
Those pesky pundits, mind you, really aren’t wrong. As impressive as the Bucks have been, surging to a 30-5 start that includes a ruthless 21-0 mark against teams that currently sport sub-.500 records, nothing less than an N.B.A. finals berth is paramount for this franchise before Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes eligible in July for a five-year contract extension worth nearly $250 million.
The N.B.A. will pass measures in April that greenlight an in-season tournament and a play-in tournament for the final two playoff spots in each conference for the 2021-22 season — but the league’s proposal to reseed the final four without regard to conference will not pass.
There is a tangible level of opposition in various corners of the league to many of the proposed tweaks to the schedule for 2021-22, when the N.B.A. commemorates its 75th anniversary.
One example: Implementing an in-season tournament, with the results of eight regular-season divisional games per team feeding into an eight-team knockout field, would require each of the league’s 30 teams to surrender two home dates. The potential lost revenue from that alteration alone has generated strong pushback.
Commissioner Adam Silver, however, is determined to push through some of these new concepts. He understands that interest in the regular season is waning, even after the wildest off-season in terms of player movement in league history, and is prepared to take a gamble or two to try to address the decline.
Resistance from various front offices has been strongest to the idea of reseeding the four teams which reach the conference finals based on regular-season record, due partly to the potential for significantly increased travel one round earlier than the N.B.A. finals. So look for Silver to ultimately scrap that element of the proposal to focus on securing the needed approval for the soccer-style “cup” competition and the playoff play-in games.
Miami’s Pat Riley will be named N.B.A. Executive of the Year by his peers for the second time.
The Clippers were widely regarded as the champions of the off-season after clinching the signing of Kawhi Leonard by swinging a trade for Paul George. The Heat, however, have since emerged as this season’s foremost Cinderella team.
Without cap space, Riley still managed to swing a sign-and-trade to acquire the difference-making Jimmy Butler. Riley and his staff have also unearthed and developed a number of gems, from the late lottery picks Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro to the undrafted trio of Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Derrick Jones Jr.
As predicted by essentially no one, Miami entered the final day of 2019 just percentage points out of the No. 2 spot in the East. Riley or Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, or maybe both, are sure to be rewarded if the Heat can stay up there.
LeBron James will play in the 2020 Olympics.
James has made it clear that he doesn’t even want to entertain the idea of making a fourth trip to the Olympics until after completing his second season with the Lakers. Yet the hoops romantic in me remains convinced that James, along with his Lakers teammate Anthony Davis, will ultimately be swayed by U.S.A. Basketball Coach Gregg Popovich to play in Tokyo.
Rest assured that the U.S. roster, no matter what, will be infinitely stronger than the star-shy group that finished seventh under Popovich at the World Cup in China last summer.
Gregg Popovich will retire from coaching after the Olympics.
Popovich turns 71 on Jan. 28. It’s purely my gut feel that, even though the Spurs would naturally let him keep coaching as long as he likes, he will bid farewell to the bench after a triumphant send-off at the Olympics in Japan.
He might even find a way steer the Spurs to the playoffs for an N.B.A.-record 23rd consecutive season; San Antonio awoke Tuesday in the West’s No. 8 spot despite its underwhelming 13-18 start. But I suspect it will be too tempting for Popovich, after a gold-medal summer in Tokyo finally brings a halt to a succession of national-team disappointments, to pass on the chance to make a storybook exit.
When has Pop ever cared about storybooks? Fair question. But I repeat: Just my gut feel.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
LaMarcus Aldridge’s $24 million salary for next season becomes officially guaranteed tomorrow — Jan. 1, 2020 — after the Spurs agreed in October to move the date up from June 29, 2020
Also: Golden State is actively exploring ways to create the needed flexibility to keep Damion Lee on the roster after the 45 days on his two-way deal soon expire. The Warriors have made it clear they want Lee next season but remain hopeful they don’t lose him for long this season.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: The Timberwolves are regressing back to their old selves. Do you think the recent 11-game losing streak will lead ownership to think about trading Karl-Anthony Towns? And, if so, do you think he could fetch as much as New Orleans got back for Anthony Davis? — Abdul Jama
Stein: Sorry, Abdul. I know there have been various reports in recent days about teams “monitoring” Towns, in hopes that the losing somehow prompts the All-Star center to seek a trade, but legitimate trade discussions over the next month involving Minnesota’s best player are unlikely in the extreme.
The Wolves have been adamant, in every conversation I’ve had with them, that they are building “everything” around Towns. The swift fall from Minnesota’s promising 10-8 start to 12th in the West entering Tuesday’s play is undeniably alarming, but I’ve been advised that the idea of trading Towns is pretty much the last thing the Wolves are thinking about.
Don’t forget that Towns is in Year 1 of a five-year, $190 million contract extension. The Wolves also have a new front-office regime headed by Gersson Rosas. Rushing into a trade of that magnitude makes little sense.
Rival teams will always expect the Wolves to be active, but that’s largely because Rosas hails from Houston and one of the most aggressive organizations in the league. You’ll be wiser to monitor this instead: There continues to be external interest in the veteran Minnesota swingman Robert Covington now that trade season is in full flow.
Q: As a lifelong Celtics fan living in the Bay Area, I couldn’t help but compare the two 30-point performances I watched on Christmas Day from Boston’s Jaylen Brown (10-for-13 shooting) and Houston’s Russell Westbrook (11-for-32). It made me question whether the great Rockets experiment of the 2019-2020 season can really succeed. Although the “make anyone but Harden shoot” defense has been tried before, it seems like it is more effective this season because Westbrook is on the floor. Your thoughts? — Noel MacDonald (Petaluma, Calif.)
Stein: If we cherry-pick what ranks as the low point of Houston’s season to date, sure, it’s difficult to mount a counterargument. The Rockets were plainly dreadful in their Christmas loss at Golden State.
But they have also been a top-four team in the West all season. That’s with Westbrook shooting only 23.4 percent from 3-point range and sporting a player efficiency rating of just 18.4, after nine successive seasons in the 20s.
I was as skeptical of the Harden/Westbrook reunion as anyone, but you have to remember: It was no longer a realistic option for Houston to keep Chris Paul and try again with that group. Paul’s relationship with the Rockets was irretrievably broken after last season. And there simply wasn’t a long list of trade partners willing to take on Paul’s massive contract.
Houston, in other words, had to try this great experiment. No one is predicting a huge postseason for this version of the Rockets just yet, but Coach Mike D’Antoni is making it work largely thanks to another M.V.P.-caliber season from James Harden — and with Westbrook giving a jolt to some of the Rockets’ lineups when Harden rests.
Q: Steph had arguably the best M.V.P. season ever and he’s hands down the best shooter ever. But the player of the decade has been LeBron and it’s no competition. None. This is an insult to the name of The New York Times. — @ischmail from Twitter
Stein: This tweet was emblematic of the tangible social media outrage that greeted our staff round table last week in which a majority of Times scribes surveyed — including yours truly — chose Stephen Curry over LeBron James as the standout player of the decade.
Rail against the selection of Curry as much as you wish, but don’t expect any backtracking in this corner. I applied Most Valuable Player Award voting principles in making this pick — my choice, in other words, was not about who is perceived as the most talented individual force or who you would choose first in a pickup game or who ranked as the decade’s runaway leader in win shares. The nod here went to the player whose accomplishments, objectively and subjectively, added up to the best decade.
James certainly had a sensational one, thanks largely to those eight successive trips to the N.B.A. finals. But the 2010s for me will be remembered, above all, as a decade dominated by the Golden State Warriors — and a decade defined by the way more N.B.A. teams than not grew to value the 3-point shot above all. Curry, who has palpably changed the notion of what constitutes an acceptable shot in professional basketball, was the most pivotal figure in both of those developments.
In my answer in last week’s piece, I noted how excruciating it was to pick between them, because LeBron’s decade also featured considerable cultural and off-court impact to go with his on-court achievements. You’ll recall that I created separate categories for my decade-in-review rundown — King of the Decade and Revolutionary of the Decade — to sidestep an either/or choice.
But please spare me the insult-to-our-name stuff. From the moment he uncorked those unforgettable 54 points at Madison Square Garden in February 2013, through last season’s finals, Curry’s presence has loomed over the entire league, even amid the various spells of dominance from the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and, of course, LeBron.
Mark Cuban’s reign as team owner of the Dallas Mavericks will reach the 20-year mark Saturday when the Mavericks play host to Charlotte. Cuban reached an agreement to purchase the team from Ross Perot Jr. for $285 million on Jan. 4, 2000. Dallas has a regular season record of 980-646 (.603) since Cuban’s takeover, including a run of 11 consecutive seasons with at least 50 wins that culminated in 2011 with the first championship in franchise history.
The last season in which a Western Conference team reached the playoffs with a losing record was nearly 23 years ago in 1996-97, when three sub-.500 teams advanced to the postseason. Minnesota and Phoenix qualified at 40-42 — as did the Clippers at a lowly 36-46.
Starting with the Knicks (37-45) and Celtics (36-46) in 2003-04, 12 Eastern Conference teams have reached the playoffs with losing records over the past 16 seasons.
Through the Clippers’ previous 41 seasons in California, including six in San Diego and their first 35 in Los Angeles, they have never faced the Lakers in a playoff series. The Clippers moved to 2-0 in the season series against their Staples Center co-tenants with a Christmas Day victory over the Lakers — with the teams widely expected to meet in this season’s Western Conference finals.
LeBron James, who turned 35 on Monday, ends the 2010s at No. 4 on the N.B.A.’s all-time scoring list with 33,347 career points, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kobe Bryant (33,643). As noted in this fine piece from my Associated Press colleague Tim Reynolds, James began the decade in 124th place.