This is the most intriguing NBA season in years. Last year, the Eastern Conference was wide-open after the departure of LeBron James. But this season, but conferences are ripe for the taking and the NBA landscape is more different than ever before.

That’s mostly in thanks to the dismantling of the existing Golden State Warriors. In reality, only Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala left the team, but Klay Thompson is also unlikely to play this year. The Warriors are still one of the last teams I’d want to run in to in the playoffs, but they’re no longer the overwhelming favorites in the West.

In the East, there’s no real shot of a title defense, as Kawhi Leonard’s departure from the Toronto Raptors strips them of their contender status overnight.

The story of the season will be electrifying duos:

  • Can LeBron James and Anthony Davis lead the Lakers back to the playoffs, and hopefully even further than that?
  • How will high-usage James Harden and Russell Westbrook mesh? If it works out, the Rockets could be title contenders.
  • Can Kawhi Leonard and Paul George lead the Clippers to the best record in LA?

Ahead, I predict the standings for all 30 teams, which gives us our playoff matchups. From there, I fill out the brackets to predict the NBA Finals matchup and winner. Along the way, we’ll also take a look at a loaded MVP race.

Eastern Conference Standings

Image result for bucks
(Photo: Benny Sieu, USA TODAY Sports)

 

  1. Philadelphia 76ers (56-26)
  2. Milwaukee Bucks (55-27)
  3. Boston Celtics (47-35)
  4. Indiana Pacers (46-36)
  5. Brooklyn Nets (45-37)
  6. Toronto Raptors (43-39)
  7. Miami Heat (43-39)
  8. Detroit Pistons (40-42)
  9. Orlando Magic (38-44)
  10. Chicago Bulls (35-47)
  11. Washington Wizards (33-49)
  12. Atlanta Hawks (26-56)
  13. New York Knicks (25-57)
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers (22-60)
  15. Charlotte Hornets (16-66)

The Philadelphia 76ers may or may not come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs, but during the regular season, I see them taking the best record in the conference. Perhaps their potential ceiling is lower without Jimmy Butler, but Al Horford and other additions will keep them competitive in every game.

The Milwaukee Bucks roster is still pretty great, if not just a little top-heavy with a huge drop-off after Giannis. They’ll jockey for position in the conference standings, earning one of the top two spots. The Bucks will be a dangerous team in the playoffs and have a real shot of representing the East in the Finals.

After the top two, the next tier of teams includes the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and Brooklyn Nets. While none of these teams will win consistently enough in the regular season to earn a Top-2 seed, they are capable of beating any Eastern Conference team in the playoffs. We could see the Celtics young core finally break through to the Finals, or Kyrie Irving lead his own team to the NBA’s biggest stage without LeBron (and possibly against him.)

After that, the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, and Detroit Pistons are pretty likely to make the playoffs, but shouldn’t be expected to make much noise there. The Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, or Washington Wizards could compete for a 7th or 8th playoff spot, but personally I don’t see it happening. I’m especially low on Washington.

The bottom-dwellers will be familiar faces from last year: the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, and Charlotte Hornets. I see the Hawks and Knicks taking ever so slight steps forward, adding a couple wins from their 2018-19 totals. I predict Charlotte will have the worst record in the NBA: by a 6-game margin.

Western Conference Standings

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(Photo: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images)
  1. Los Angeles Clippers (62-20)
  2. Houston Rockets (58-24)
  3. Portland Trailblazers (53-29)
  4. Los Angeles Lakers (51-33)
  5. Golden State Warriors (50-31)
  6. Denver Nuggets (49-32)
  7. Utah Jazz (48-34)
  8. San Antonio Spurs (46-35)
  9. Dallas Mavericks (44-38)
  10. New Orleans Pelicans (43-39)
  11. Sacramento Kings (37-45)
  12. Minnesota Timberwolves (34-48)
  13. Oklahoma City Thunder (32-50)
  14. Memphis Grizzlies (30-52)
  15. Phoenix Suns (22-60)

The Western Conference is loaded this year, and there’s no clear-cut favorite. The defending champions and de-facto favorites for years, the Golden State Warriors, will be without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (for this season.) They are still firm competitors in a mix that includes the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, and to a lesser-extent, the Portland Trailblazers.

Portland is a good bet to finish with a Top-4 seed, but of the five teams just mentioned, I think they would have the 5th-best chance to represent the West in the Finals.

The Clippers are built for both a strong regular season and deep postseason run. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are an absolutely terrific tandem at the top, and the Clippers roster is deep. Their in-town rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, also have an explosive duo between LeBron James and Anthony Davis. I’m a bit worried about the Lakers depth and what would happen if one of the two stars missed any games. That’s why I have the Clippers holding the NBA’s best record (62-20) and the Lakers finishing 4th in the West at 51-33.

But when the playoffs roll around, the records are thrown out the window and both teams are equally dangerous.

The Houston Rockets are also primed for a great season, adding Russell Westbrook to a multi-dimensional roster. Yes, the offense is very Harden-centric, and adding Westbrook to the mix could make or break Houston’s chances this year. But besides these top two, the Rockets have pieces in place that should leave them with many regular season wins.

After those five, the only five I see with title aspirations, I have the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, and San Antonio Spurs rounding out the playoff field. All three are balanced, all-around teams that should finish with winning records in the Western Conference. But I don’t think any of the three would make it past the second round of the playoffs.

I’m tempted to think the Dallas Mavericks and/or New Orleans Pelicans could each make a playoff push, but who would be knocked out? The Nuggets, a year after claiming the 2nd seed, with virtually the same roster? The Jazz, a high seed last year behind Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell? Or the Spurs, who have made the playoffs for 22 STRAIGHT YEARS?

So unfortunately, Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Zion Williamson, and Lonzo Ball are kept out of the playoffs.

The Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Memphis Grizzlies won’t be putrid, but won’t make much noise.

Devin Booker is phenomenal but the Phoenix Suns still need more pieces to be able to compete.

Regular Season MVP

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(Photo: Via NBC Sports)

The field is potentially loaded for MVP, with the unique wrinkle that most of the NBA’s best teams have more than one superstar/MVP candidate. Could this hurt those players chances? This includes:

  • Lakers: LeBron James and Anthony Davis
  • Clippers: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
  • Rockets: Russell Westbrook and James Harden

Davis, James, Harden, and Leonard would all be cut-throat candidates as the only superstar player on a team. But could sharing the spotlight mean less of a shot at the award?

This would leave a few players leading their team as the undisputed best player:

  • Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Warriors: Steph Curry
  • Nets: Kyrie Irving

From an individual standpoint, Curry, Harden, and James will likely have eye-popping statistics. Leonard, Davis, and Westbrook offer more all-around games that could contribute to many wins for their teams.

The race is loaded and too close to call until we see the results. But here is my top five MVP candidates for the 2019-20 season:

  1. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
  2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
  4. James Harden, Houston Rockets
  5. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Eastern Conference Playoffs

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(Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
  1. Philadelphia 76ers (56-26)
  2. Milwaukee Bucks (55-27)
  3. Boston Celtics (47-35)
  4. Indiana Pacers (46-36)
  5. Brooklyn Nets (45-37)
  6. Toronto Raptors (43-39)
  7. Miami Heat (43-39)
  8. Detroit Pistons (40-42)

Round 1

  • #1 Philadelphia 76ers over #8 Detroit Pistons in 5 games
  • #2 Milwaukee Bucks over #7 Miami Heat in 5 games
  • #3 Boston Celtics over #6 Toronto Raptors in 6 games
  • #5 Brooklyn Nets over #4 Indiana Pacers in 6 games

Chalk holds for three of the four first-round matchups, as the 76ers, Bucks, and Cetics advance with relative ease. I see the 4-5 matchup between the Pacers and Nets falling in Brooklyn’s favor.

Round 2

  • #1 Philadelphia 76ers over #5 Brooklyn Nets in 6 games
  • #2 Milwaukee Bucks over #3 Boston Celtics in 7 games

Kyrie Irving leads the Nets to the second round of the playoffs, as he has in Boston. But again, he falls short, to a talented 76ers squad. Philadelphia has gained playoff pedigree over the past few seasons, and are able to dispatch Brooklyn in six games.

The Celtics give the Bucks a great fight, pushing them to seven games. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker lead a balanced attack to duel with Giannis’s high-flying antics. But the Bucks outlast Boston to advance to the conference finals.

Conference Finals

  • #1 Philadelphia 76ers over #2 Milwaukee Bucks in 6 games

This series could easily fall either way, with two talented teams squaring off. Home-court advantage will play a key role, as these teams jockey for position in the regular season.

I think the Bucks run in to their inevitable problem: once the 76ers defense hones in on Giannis, the other four Bucks players on the court won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities created.

Philadelphia advances to the NBA Finals for the first time since the Allen Iverson era: behind a dominant big man and a point guard without a jumpshot.

Western Conference Playoffs

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(Photo: Via NY Post)
  1. Los Angeles Clippers (62-20)
  2. Houston Rockets (58-24)
  3. Portland Trailblazers (53-29)
  4. Los Angeles Lakers (51-33)
  5. Golden State Warriors (50-31)
  6. Denver Nuggets (49-32)
  7. Utah Jazz (48-34)
  8. San Antonio Spurs (46-35)

Round 1

  • #1 Los Angeles Clippers over #8 San Antonio Spurs in 6 games
  • #2 Houston Rockets over #7 Utah Jazz in 5 games
  • #3 Portland Trailblazers over #6 Denver Nuggets in 6 games
  • #4 Los Angeles Lakers over #5 Golden State Warriors in 7 games

The higher seed wins in all four of these matchups, but these series are anything but easy to call.

Even in the 1-8 matchup, I wouldn’t count out Greg Poppovich’s Spurrs to upset the top-seeded Clippers and his former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. I have the Clippers winning in six games, but it could be a hard-fought series.

The Rockets take care of the Jazz behind a Westbrook-Harden onslaught, and the Trailblazers take out the Nuggets in the first round for the second straight year.

Then we have one of the most electrifying first-round matchups in recent history: LeBron James and Anthony Davis lead the Lakers against a Warriors squad still very capable of making noise in the postseason.

Either team could even represent the West in the Finals, but only one can make it out of the first round. If everyone is healthy, LeBron James defeats the Warriors in the playoffs for the second time in his career, despite heroic efforts from Steph Curry.

Round 2

  • #1 Los Angeles Clippers over #4 Los Angeles Lakers in 7 games
  • #2 Houston Rockets over #3 Portland Trailblazers in 6 games

After playing the Warriors for seven tough games, the Lakers get to face the top-seeded Clippers. They bring this series to seven games as well, but the Clippers roster, headlined by Leonard and George, outlast James and Davis in an all-time great playoff series. I’ll say later that the Finals winner will be determined in the Western Conference Finals, but this series may also hold the key to who eventually hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy.

The Trailblazers give the Rockets a good effort as well, but Houston is able to outplay and outshoot Portland to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

Conference Finals

  • #1 Los Angeles Clippers over #2 Houston Rockets in 7 games

After playing 13 games in the first two rounds, as compared to Houston’s 11, the Clippers will be vulnerable in the Western Conference Finals. The series should be back and forth, with each team looking in control over the course of different games.

I’d love to say the addition of Westbrook puts the Rockets over the top and in to the Finals, but if I’m being honest, I have to go with the best roster in the NBA. The Clippers win in 7 games and reach the NBA Finals after three tough tests.

NBA Finals

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(Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Philadelphia 76ers (56-26, 1st in East) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (62-20, 1st in West)

Kawhi Leonard leads his 3rd team to the NBA Finals, this time to face a 76ers team that got over the hump to reach the NBA’s biggest stage.

The past few seasons, it’s been “whoever comes out of the East is losing to the Warriors.” Well, that was the story before Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant’s injuries allowed the Toronto Raptors to capture their first NBA title.

The gap between the 76ers (or Bucks) and the best teams in the West isn’t insurmountable this year. But it’s a gap that still exists. The best playoff series next spring will be held in the Western Conference Playoffs, with the Western Conference Finals likely deciding the title winner.

Again, the 76ers, or another team that earns it’s spot in the Finals, won’t be a complete push-over. But if all goes well and there are no major injuries in play, the Western Conference winner will take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid make their NBA Finals debuts in a vein possibly similar to Oklahoma City’s lone appearance against the Miami Heat. The burning question for Philadelphia will be: can they keep the core in place long enough to get back to the Finals and potentially win it next time.

Leonard wins his 3rd Finals MVP and etches him self a special spot in the NBA history books. Of course, if it’s the Lakers instead of Clippers, LeBron James could say the exact same thing.

Los Angeles Clippers defeat Philadelphia 76ers in 5 games

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NFL

Be sure to follow Sak Sports Blog on Twitter for more NBA and NFL updates, or to debate my picks.

Header photo via NY Post

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