NBA regular season predictions: best of the East and West

Student journalist and basketball enthusiast Zach Short foresees each Eastern and Western Conference team’s records and who will make it to the playoffs.

The East

Milwaukee Bucks 58-24 (60-22)

The Bucks are good, but I don’t believe they will improve their record from last season. I see them overall as roughly the same level of contender as they were; it just depends on how they can approach the Playoffs mentally, because they psyched themselves out in playing Kawhi. Their record will still be stellar, as they are a genuinely good team in the worst conference. They’re still a contender for the cup, but I wouldn’t pick them as a favorite to win.

Brooklynn Nets 50-32 (42-40)

The Nets are going to be a good team; there’s no question about that. The only question is how good will they be, and the quickest answer is that they will be shy of spectacular, despite the hype surrounding them. With Durant, Irving and Jordan, they’re guaranteed to be an above-average team. They will win against teams that aren’t potential Finals contenders and they will compete with the best. The problem is that they won’t consistently win against the best; they will keep it close and blow it. Neither Durant nor Irving are the type of player to take control and dominate game-to-game. They’ll have break-out games and they will put up good numbers, but there will be no one worth comparing to LeBron as far as absolute control. Don’t expect a Finals appearance from these guys.

Indiana Pacers 50-32 (48-34)

They’re a good team with good team chemistry and they’re back and ready to play, and, not to sound like a broken record, but the East has a bottom group of teams who are just that: the bottom. With a slew of conference games, they’ll destroy the worse teams and will likely even pick up a few wins against formidable teams as well. They’re mostly the same team with a little more experience and maybe a little worse competition against them for the Finals spot. Who knows? Maybe they’ll make it and get obliterated by whatever Western team reigns supreme.

Philadelphia 76ers 48-34 (51-31)

Losing Jimmy Butler hurts, but I never got the sense that he was getting along well with everyone anyway. I only expect Joel Embiid to be better, but I just don’t know if they’re really good enough to knock some heads. I say it’s about a 50-50 shot that they hit the 50-win mark, 48 just seemed to be a good round projection for this group. However, this team is starved for a Finals appearance. They are not, by any stretch, the best team in the East talent-wise, but they may pull it together and play their best to make an appearance.

Toronto Raptors 46-36 (58-24)

If anyone felt the pain this offseason, it was the Raptors. They held their breath to see if Kawhi would stay, and he left them as enigmatically as he arrived. If that had been their only loss, I would’ve probably been kinder to them in my prediction of their record. However, they lost some of their depth as well and that’s going to hurt just as badly. In fact, I still worry a bit that I might have been too generous with the wins, but it’s still the East after all.

Boston Celtics 45-37 (49-33)

The Celtics will win less games with Kemba Walker. While he may be a better asset to the team than Kyrie was, they lost the supporting cast that kept them thriving last year. They’re a playoff team without a doubt, but they will struggle to find a lot of success. While I see them as a lower seed in the Playoffs, I don’t think a first-round upset is impossible for them. Yet, I still don’t see them as a Finals team. Sorry Boston fans.

Detroit Pistons 42-40 (41-41)

Not much to say here. There wasn’t a lot of offseason change for the Pistons, so nothing really pushed them up or down from where they were last year. With an overall pathetic lower half of the conference, I still see them in the Playoffs. Don’t expect too much out of them. Maybe a scary win over a top seed so that they don’t get swept.
Miami Heat 41-41 (39-43)

The Heat are too good of an organization to miss the Playoffs again. Spoelstra is a good coach, and he’s going to the Playoffs this year. However far above .500 they are at the end of the year, if they even are above .500, depends solely on how well the Magic and the Hawks do. They will do what they have to to get into the Playoffs.

Out of the Playoffs

Orlando Magic 40-42 (42-40)
Atlanta Hawks 38-44 (29-53)
Washington Wizards 28-54 (32-50)
Chicago Bulls 24-58 (22-60)
New York Knicks 18-64 (17-65)
Charlotte Hornets 18-64 (39-43)
Cleveland Cavaliers 17-65 (19-63)

The Magic and the Hawks are the only teams who can even set their sights on a Playoff contention. I see the Heat claiming the spot over the Magic, and I just don’t see the Hawks team being able to pull off a spot in any scenario, but I do see them as improving greatly from last year. I think Trae Young will be a tremendous second-year player and that he will be able to win some of the tight games that were just close losses last year. The rest of the conference, not to be unprofessional, just sucks. The Knicks, Hornets, and Cavaliers are in a brawl for who gets to be the worst team in the conference.

The West

Los Angeles Clippers 60-22 (48-34)

Not to hop in on the hype or anything, but the Clippers are good. Like, really good. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were both dominant players last year, that much is undeniable. And unlike other star players, I think these two can really mesh together well. They are not out to be liked, a fact that is clearly evident by their surprise moves, and they are not famished for attention, evident in the way Kawhi has spoken a grand total of maybe 78 words in his entire NBA career. There are no explosive or dramatic interviews, there is only good basketball, and it is going to reign supreme this season. These guys are my favorite for rings. Did I mention they have great roster depth too?

Los Angeles Lakers 58-24 (37-45)

The Lakers will be a dominant force in the NBA this season. Whereas Demarcus, ahem, “Boogie” Cousins seems to be a little too dramatic for a clutch performance and AD will have to adapt to the possibility of actually winning something, LeBron will be back with a vengeance after missing the Playoffs last year. They will, without a doubt, win an impressive amount of games this year and could easily make a Finals appearance. In fact, the only thing really standing in their way is a mostly unpredictable Rockets lineup, the Joker in Denver, and the crosstown rival. Who will establish themselves as LA’s team?

Houston Rockets 56-26 (53-29)

Westbrook and Harden will be good teammates. They know each other, they played together on a Finals team once upon a team, and they are both starved for a championship. The big criticisms seem to be that neither one of them ever appear too eager to share the ball, but I think that might mostly be because of who they were playing with. Westbrook had no genuinely good teammates other than Paul George and Steven Adams. Adams picked up rebounds and played solid defense, got his points on post passes from less important players, and I never noticed George not getting the ball enough. Therefore, other than George, to whom should Westbrook pass it with the reasonable expectation of scoring? In Harden’s case, he was supposed to be sharing outside shooting and driving with Chris Paul, who has had a tremendous decline in efficiency since his glory days as a Clipper. The Rockets now have two guards who can trust each other to deliver, they’ll be a good team and a potential contender.

Denver Nuggets 55-27 (54-28)

The Nuggets are good, but they haven’t undergone a whole lot of change. I can’t really see them surging upward record-wise, but they should certainly be a dynamic force in the West again. I expect to see some scary thumpings on the elite teams in the league, but a few tragic losses to complement them. It’s almost a guarantee that they’ll have a Playoffs spot, and probably even a safe bet that they’ll be in the top half of the seeds (a good accomplishment in the West), so I expect a second round appearance from them. As for where they go from there, it just depends on whether or not they’re a mature enough team to upset the league’s biggest stars.

Utah Jazz 53-29 (50-32)

From what I have seen, the Jazz are scary and unpredictable. While I thoroughly expect them to trounce most games with teams from the lower half of the league, I find that it’s really anyone’s guess if they’ll win in games against legitimate competitors. If they want to go somewhere in the Playoffs, they’ll have to learn to be the better team on a consistent basis, which I don’t think is at all out of the question.

San Antonio Spurs 50-32 (48-34)

Gregg Popovich is a good coach and has the longest current postseason streak in all of professional sports with the San Antonio Spurs. That being said, I think the safest bet a person can make in all of the NBA is that the Spurs will secure a spot in the Playoffs. They may make it there and get immediately swept or they may pull out some surprises and upset one or more of the most favored teams in the league. I won’t claim to know how they’ll do in the Playoffs, I just know that they’ll be there.

Golden State Warriors 50-32 (57-25)

If they’d just lost KD, I might’ve put them higher. However, I think the loss of Iguodala is going to hurt worse. While KD is a phenomenal talent, they have Curry, and he can keep the points on the board. It’s Iguodala’s defense and hustle that pushes them far ahead of other teams in all the ways that most people never even see. If nothing else, he was the veteran on a fairly young team for a while. He was the experience and the know-how for the game of basketball; he was their Yoda. While I expect a good season from Curry, I think this will be a rough transition year, especially with the potential for Klay to miss the whole season. Mark my words though, they’ll be back next year out for blood.

Portland Trail Blazers 50-32 (53-29)

Damian Lillard is the same player as Russell Westbrook, he’s just a little bit better at it when it comes to clutch moments. If you haven’t noticed yet, I have these bottom three teams with the same records while still having a nine-game lead on the next team in line. I am confident that these teams will make it, but the order they fill these bottom slots is anyone’s guess. The West is just a very competitive conference at the top right now. Honestly, I think all of these teams have the potential to make a Finals appearance, it’s just a matter of who will keep their heads together and not psych themselves out on a chance to beat the Warriors out of their usual spot. Of course, I said anyone in the West could do it, so the Warriors could still thump everybody again and go on to face an indeterminate Eastern competitor. After all, Klay could be back for some postseason fun.

Out of the Playoffs

Dallas Mavericks 41-41 (33-49)
New Orleans Pelicans 40-42 (33-49)
Sacramento Kings 40-42 (39-43)
Minnesota Timberwolves 37-45 (36-46)
Memphis Grizzlies 35-47 (33-49)
Oklahoma City Thunder 31-51 (49-33)
Phoenix Suns 15-67 (19-63)

The biggest changes here are the Mavericks, the Pelicans, and the Thunder. I expect the Mavericks to see huge improvement and for Luka Dončić to lead the way. They should start setting their sights now on a 2021 Playoffs spot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they picked up a big talent from a rebuilding organization (cough, cough Steven Adams). The Pelicans are in the same boat. They should have an experimental year now to figure out where they are, and they should come back in force next season. Zion will be good and potentially a great help in the coming years, but let’s not ignore that there are some other names there as well. The Thunder, on the other hand, are going to have a tough season this year. While Oklahoma fans are probably a little bummed to see their two superstars leave, it was the right thing to do. Neither George nor Westbrook were going to win a championship there, so it was best to send them to very competitive organizations where they could and start looking to the next phase for OKC. Problem is, this year will be the worst one in a while for the Thunder.

Post Author: Zach Short