Additions: Jerami Grant, Vlatko Cancar, Bol Bol
Losses: Tyler Lydon, Trey Lyles, Isaiah Thomas
2020 Projected Cap Space: None. $87 million over.
2018-19 Record: 54-28, lost in Western Conference Semifinals
Analysis: After a surprisingly successful regular season that nearly resulted in Denver securing the top seed in the Western Conference, the Nuggets are largely bringing back the same roster. Denver picked up Paul Millsap’s $30 million team option and signed 2017 second round pick Vlatko Cancar. The Nuggets’ big addition was forward Jerami Grant, who was acquired from the Thunder for a top-10 protected first round pick. Grant adds an athletic option the frontcourt that Denver had been missing the last couple of years. He’s also become a good shooter as Grant hit 39.2% from behind the arc on 3.6 attempts per game.
None of the Nuggets’ losses will have much of an impact as Isaiah Thomas, Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon were all non-factors last season. With Millsap, Grant and Plumlee all potential free agents next summer, Denver is in win-now mode while also being built for sustainability. Jamal Murray agreed to a maximum contract extension and joins Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Will Barton as signed for at least the next three seasons. Pair that foursome with young forward Michael Porter Jr., who the team has hopes for after he missed his rookie season due to a back injury, and the Nuggets have an impressive core. Additionally, Denver drafted and signed Bol Bol to a two-year, Two-Way contract. Bol was a highly touted prospect, but a knee injury caused him to drop in the draft. He’s clearly a project, but he has enough talent to warrant monitoring his development.
In a deep Western Conference, this could be a season where Denver makes strides on the court, but it doesn’t show up in the Win-Loss record or in terms of their postseason result, but their future remains as promising as any in the NBA.
Additions: Jake Layman, Jarrett Culver, Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, Jordan Bell, Jaylen Nowell, Naz Reid
Losses: Jerryd Bayless, Mitchell Creek, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Tyus Jones, Cam Reynolds, Derrick Rose, Dario Saric, Anthony Tolliver
2020 Projected Cap Space: None. $53 million over.
2018-19 Record: 36-46, 11th in Western Conference
Analysis: The Minnesota Timberwolves missed the playoffs in 2019 after snapping a 13-year postseason drought in 2018. The Jimmy Butler saga sank the Wolves season almost before it even got started. This season is about starting fresh.
That starts with Karl-Anthony Towns beginning Year 1 of his five-year maximum extension. With Butler a thing of the past, Towns is every bit the Timberwolves franchise centerpiece. With Andrew Wiggins still an inconsistent performer as he enters Year 6, Towns has to be the guy for Minnesota. The good news is that Towns is up for the challenge. His 45.4 Win Shares are already third on the Wolves all-time list, behind mainstays Kevin Love (47 WS) and Kevin Garnett (139.8 WS).
Around Towns, the Wolves return Wiggins, Robert Covington, Jeff Teague, and surprising 2019 rookie Josh Okogie. Continuity could help Minnesota get off to a good start as so many other teams changed out large portions of their roster.
The Wolves did lose a few contributors as backup guards Derrick Rose and Tyus Jones are gone, along with big men Dario Saric, Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver. Rose, Jones, Gibson and Tolliver left as free agents. Minnesota wasn’t in position to overpay to retain bench players. Saric was a potential starter, but he was traded on draft day as the Timberwolves moved up to draft Jarrett Culver.
Culver should immediately fit in as the Wolves’ third guard off the bench. He’s more of a natural two than a pure point guard, but as the league continues to shift away from traditional positions, Culver will be just fine. The hope is that he’ll eventually team with Okogie to give Minnesota their backcourt pairing for several years.
To replace some of the frontcourt production, the Wolves added low-cost veterans that have low-risk, high-reward potential. Jake Layman may end up starting, but will at least play a key role off the bench as a big with range alongside Towns and Covington up front. Noah Vonleh had a quietly solid season for the New York Knicks and is already the best backup big on the roster. Jordan Bell has flashed in his first two years with the Warriors, but has never consistently put it together. Maybe a change of scenery helps him reach his potential.
Minnesota is probably a year away from making another run at the playoffs. Unless Towns puts together an MVP-caliber season, and Wiggins becomes a consistent second option, the Timberwolves just don’t have enough to get to the postseason in the West. A year of development for Okogie and Culver, along with Towns’ continued dominance and that might change in 2020-21.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Additions: Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Muscala, Just Patton, Darius Bazley
Losses: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton, Markieff Morris, Patrick Patterson
2020 Projected Cap Space: None. $47 million over.
2018-19 Record: 49-33, lost in Western Conference First Round
Analysis: Three high-end starters all gone from Oklahoma City: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant. That alone signals a rebuilding season. But it’s not about rebuilding, but how that rebuild is handled, and Sam Presti has set up the Thunder for an auspicious future.
When Kawhi Leonard was choosing his next team, he got with Paul George and decided that their best bet was with the Los Angeles Clippers. Presti acquiesced, but got a massive trade package back from the Clippers in exchange for George. The Thunder acquired budding young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran forward Danilo Gallinari and a never before seen package of as many as five first round picks, with swap rights in two additional years.
After trading George, Presti turned around and traded franchise icon Westbrook to the Houston Rockets. He further added to his cache of picks with two more first rounders and two more sets of swap rights, as well as veteran point guard Chris Paul.
And before all of this, Presti had already added a first round pick from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Grant.
When the dust cleared, the Thunder had a stash of as many as eight additional first round picks and four sets of swap rights over the next seven years. Now, Presti has to turn all of those assets in to the contender Oklahoma City once had with Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden.
This year probably won’t be the year that happens. Paul, Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander, along with holdovers Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, make for a solid starting five. The depth? Let’s just say the starting five is solid. Dennis Schroder is fine as a veteran backup guard. With him joining Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s likely the Thunder will play most of their minutes with two point guards on the floor. The rest of the reserves are a collection of youngsters and veterans who have yet to find an established role.
Looming over everything is another expected trade that sees Paul traded elsewhere. It’s been reported that was Presti’s plan all along, but the right deal hasn’t come together. Once the season gets rolling, some contender will need a point guard and the Thunder hope that team will talk themselves into Paul and the $85.5 million he’s owed in the two years following this one. That trade won’t return the massive haul that George and Westbrook did, but it’s all about piling together as many assets as possible for the Thunder as they rebuild from the ground up.
Portland Trail Blazers
Additions: Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver
Losses: Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Maurice Harkless, Enes Kanter, Jake Layman, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner
2020 Projected Cap Space: $17.5 million
2018-19 Record: 53-39, lost in Western Conference Finals
Analysis: In a summer where they needed to add reinforcements but were capped out, the Portland Trail Blazers made several moves that cost them depth, but shored up a couple of positions where the team had an immediate need. Unfortunately this maneuvering created other holes that have yet to be filled.
With Jusuf Nurkic expected to miss most, if not all, of the season, Portland needed to add an established center. They pulled off an unexpected trade for Hassan Whiteside, as they shipped out Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard to bring in the big man from Miami. If properly motivated, Whiteside will bring the Blazers some shot-blocking, rebounding and rim-running that they didn’t have at the position previous. Considering it’s a contract year, bet on Whiteside to be focused and put together a good season.
Portland then swapped out Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore. Turner never really found a role with the Trail Blazers, as he was all too often relegated to the corner, playing off the ball while Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum did their thing. Bazemore is a better defender and far better suited to playing the spot-up shooter role than Turner.
In addition to Harkless, Portland lost two other starters in Al-Farouq Aminu and Enes Kanter. Aminu was a starter for most of the last four years, while Kanter had been an admirable fill-in for Nurkic after being added for the stretch run. Both found richer offers elsewhere, as the Blazers needed to create some cap flexibility and free up minutes for younger options.
It’s those younger options that Portland is banking on being ready for bigger roles. Without a pure power forward option, third-year big man Zach Collins is tabbed to start at the four. Collins has shown good development over his first two seasons, but his best position still seems to be center. Without any other viable options, Collins gets the nod to begin the year next to Whiteside.
Another young player the Blazers are hoping will break out is second-year guard Anfernee Simons. Simons is a combo-guard who can play alongside either Lillard of McCollum, or with both in some three guard alignments. He brings more of an off-the-dribble game to Portland than his predecessors as the third guard. But for all his potential, Simons is just 20 years old and has played all of 20 NBA games.
Portland re-signed Rodney Hood to help anchor the second unit, or to potentially start at the three. And they added Mario Hezonja and veteran bigs Pau Gasol and Anthony Tolliver as well. The Trail Blazers are hoping that at least two of those players can fill spots in the rotation, or they’ll be searching for help throughout the season.
It’s become somewhat of a tradition to underrate Portland and then to be surprised when they outperform their expectations to be a playoff team. It’s never smart to bet against Lillard and McCollum, who both inked extensions this summer that will keep them in Portland for the foreseeable future. That said, while the Trail Blazers might make it back to the playoffs, a return to the Western Conference Finals is unlikely.
Additions: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Miye Oni, Nigel Williams-Goss
Losses: Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, Kyle Korver, Raul Neto, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh
2020 Projected Cap Space: None. $11 million over.
2018-19 Record: 50-32, lost in Western Conference First Round
Analysis: The Utah Jazz have been teetering on the brink of being a true contender for a few years now. They navigated losing Gordon Hayward without losing a step because Donovan Mitchell has emerged as a blossoming star alongside Rudy Gobert. But there has always been that something missing to put the Jazz over the top from good team to great one. With the additions of Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and some solid veteran role players, Utah finally appears poised to make the leap.
Conley gives the Jazz their best point guard since Deron Williams. He’s a playmaker, both for himself and others. His creation ability will be a boon to a Utah offense that has been overly reliant on Mitchell’s skills in that arena. The Jazz tend to run some of the crisper sets in the NBA, but when you get to the playoffs and see the same team for a couple of weeks, you have to be able to score when those sets break down. Conley can take some of that burden off of Mitchell.
Bogdanovic is another player who can capably get his own shot, while also being a solid player off the ball. He overlaps a bit positionally with Joe Ingles, and neither fills the power forward void with Derrick Favors gone, but Quin Snyder seems to have a plan for that. Ingles will start the season as the Jazz sixth man, with Bogdanovic starting. That will bring some balance to both lineups that would have been lacking otherwise.
With Favors gone, Utah is the umpteenth team to talk themselves into relying on Jeff Green. That’s a downgrade, but during meaningful minutes, Utah is now better positioned to go small with the Bogdanovic/Ingles combo up front next to Gobert. Favors was also the de facto backup to Gobert, but the Jazz more than replaced that by snagging Ed Davis. Davis will bring defense and energy to the second unit, as well as superior offensive rebounding.
Even with the upgrades, the Jazz will go as far as Mitchell and Gobert take them. Stars drive success in the playoffs. Both players have shown glimpses of being at their best when it counts the most. With the additional help, both Mitchell and Gobert should be able to finally capitalize on their considerable potential. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Utah in the Western Conference Finals or even the NBA Finals if everything breaks right.