TrueHoop 2019-2020 NBA East Preview

David Thorpe's brain + machine learning = this preview

We put David Thorpe’s special basketball brain to work assessing the upcoming NBA season for all 30 teams. With help from machine learning experts at Kensho, and the good people at Axios, there’s also a sophisticated, interactive projection of every NBA player. Here are our Eastern Conference team-by-team previews, in order of predicted finish.

East #1: MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Projected record: 57-25

BY DAVID THORPE

TrueHoop subscribers know that I believe the Bucks’ fortunes come down to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s willingness to take and make enough 3-pointers. There’s a problem with how he takes the shot--and he can fix it with fearless repetition, which he should get out of the way in the regular season--because they’ll need his shooting in the playoffs. The Bucks have enough defensive power and offensive weapons to still be a top two seed even if Giannis misses 70 percent of the time. 

No matter how confident Khris Middleton has grown from his Team USA experience, Giannis needs the game’s ultimate weapon in his pocket for the Bucks to have great title chances. Otherwise, NBA defenses will take a page out of Brazil’s book in upsetting Greece in the World Cup this summer (and from the Raptors last May): They will assign a long, tough defender to Giannis and then crowd the paint with four guys. The 76ers are perfectly built for it: 6-foot-6 stud athlete Josh Richardson; 6-foot-9 athlete Tobias Harris; 6-foot-10 elite athlete Ben Simmons; 6-foot-10 All-Star defender Al Horford; and 7-foot All-NBA defender Joel Embiid. All can take turns guarding Giannis in a single game, while making his paint forays crowded and inefficient. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Kyle Korver gives Giannis and his brother shooting tips.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • TrueHoop’s projected BPM rates Giannis Antetokounmpo at 9.06, which is ridiculous, second-best in the league.

  • The numbers are bullish on Eric Bledsoe (2.26), Pat Connaughton (0.62), and Khris Middleton (0.14), although it’s worth noting that Middleton once had one of the league’s highest ratings in stats like this. 

  • George Hill is a 33-year-old point guard. These projections sniff doom, with a -4.5 drop to -0.92. 

East #2: PHILADELPHIA 76ERS 
Projected record: 55-27

BY DAVID THORPE
  • The Sixers are huge. Their starting five is, collectively, the league’s tallest. 

  • Bench play is the team’s key weakness. 

  • If Ben Simmons develops a perimeter game, they become the favorites in the East, unless of course Giannis Antetokounmpo does too, and then the teams are basically on par with each other.

  • JJ Redick will be sorely missed. Very few men on earth can shoot off screens like Redick can, so that won’t be a part of the offense anymore. 

  • Josh Richardson can help; he can live off plays made by Ben Simmons and the gravity of Joel Embiid inside. 

  • Al Horford is a Swiss army knife, capable of pretty much anything. He can operate on the perimeter and help feature Embiid inside, which is where the Sixers know he is most effective. Horford, as a shooter and passer, joins Simmons to give Coach Brett Brown two elite playmakers for their positions. And the Sixers have the antidote for when they rest Embiid--Horford has anchored elite defenses for nearly a decade.


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Ben Simmons hits his first career 3


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • The advanced stats predict more production from Ben Simmons (5.04) than Joel Embiid (3.78) this season.

  • Al Horford, projected at 2.4 is a huge signing. That number almost matches Jimmy Butler’s (2.5) projected production for the Heat this season.

  • Interestingly, Josh Richardson projects to be barely in positive territory, but Kyle O’Quinn comes in at a solid +0.99.

East #3: BOSTON CELTICS
Projected record: 52-30

BY DAVID THORPE

From opening day the Celtics will struggle to cobble together the collective production that Al Horford brought them the past few years. They will miss him on offense, they will miss him on defense, and they will miss him between plays. Since he will be playing for a key East rival--it will hurt even more.

The hope is that Kemba Walker can provide some of that leadership. He has the kind of “It’s about we, not me” demeanor that can hopefully get the best out of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They will form a dynamic trio on offense. 

On defense, coach Brad Stevens will have to earn his money. Enes Kanter is not known for his work on that end; Horford’s shoes are hard to fill. Stevens has proven he can scheme up ways to keep his team in the league’s top 10 on defense; this may be his toughest test. Perhaps the morale boost that comes with Kemba, instead of Kyrie Irving, can invigorate some team-centric spirit. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Here is Jayson Tatum defending his usage of the mid-range shot, explaining, “Kobe didn’t teach me anything bad.”


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • Gordon Hayward is terribly overpaid if the numbers are right, and he’ll have a BPM of 0.01 this season. That’s 0.46 behind Robert Williams III, whom you might have to Google.

  • The news is that neither Jayson Tatum (0.56) nor Jaylen Brown (-0.79) are projected to rock the world. That doesn’t mean they won’t. That means expecting them to is like expecting your friends to delight you with a flash mob, or your boss hand you a fat bonus. 

  • Just because I know you care: Yes the numbers say the departed Kyrie Irving (5.12) will be way better than Kemba Walker. Walker nevertheless projects to be excellent at +1.93.

East #4: INDIANA PACERS 
Projected record: 48-34

BY DAVID THORPE 

The Pacers are quiet contenders, thanks to elite defense. In recent years, their offense has killed them. But they signed sharpshooters in Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren this summer, who should both fit in well. The first comes from a contender and earned the nickname “Mr. President” for his high character. The latter is fresh off the Suns and must be thrilled to join a good team; he will do anything to win. Both new players should embrace the strong culture there quickly. Victor Oladipo is the best Pacer by far, and is very much a leader. This is something that can’t be stressed enough: The Sixers and Nets are built for drama; the Pacers are built to be Team Harmony


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Suns GM Ryan McDonough says the Suns strongly considered trading up to draft Victor Oladipo in 2013. How would Oladipo’s career have played out if he was drafted by the Suns?


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • Everything David wrote up there will be tough as hell if the machine is correct that Victor Oladipo (projected BPM of 1.61) will be a shadow of his former self. He’s 27 and coming off knee surgery. The reports are he looks great, but the numbers don’t see that.

  • T.J. Warren is a good pick to improve. But the harsh numerical analysis, which knows not the joy of leaving the Suns, projects him to be -1.44.

  • The projections pick Domantas Sabonis (2.55) and Myles Turner (2.52) as the team’s most valuable players.

East #5: TORONTO RAPTORS
Projected record: 47-35

BY DAVID THORPE

It’s a good thing the Raptors extended Pascal Siakam’s contract; he has accelerated tremendously through his early career and likely has one more level of his game yet to emerge. The reigning Most Improved Player of the league after a big regular season, Siakam scored 20 points in his first NBA Finals game before the third quarter was even half over! He finished with 32 in that game, had 26 in their closeout road win, and averaged 20 points and eight rebounds per game for the Finals. He shot a dismal 19.5 percent from three in those Finals, but that is a little bit of the point--he can get better. For instance, he has a beautiful looking shot that suggests nothing but great long-term shooting talent. Can this be the year he is a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year while also scoring 20 or more points per game? That kind of development could make Siakam an All-Star, and give the Raptors a chance to climb higher than fifth. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

The Raptors-Rockets pre-season game in Japan featured an exquisite hype video in anime style.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • With the departure of Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors with BPM projections in positive territory: Kyle Lowry (2.5), Pascal Siakam (2.47), and Marc Gasol (1.7). And that’s it. These are the reigning champs.

  • These projections abhor aging point guards. Kyle Lowry is an aging point guard, you might note, with the team’s best projected rating. But would you believe his rating in recent years has been as high at +6.6?

  • OG Anunoby often stirs excitement, but not on spreadsheets! His projection is -0.95.

East #6: ORLANDO MAGIC
Projected record: 46-36

BY DAVID THORPE 

Keep an eye out for Jonathan Isaac, one of our top “likely to accelerate” players, to become an elite defender this year. Isaac and Aaron Gordon could very well become a top-five forward tandem in the league--if that happens, would that be enough to incite Chris Paul to see the Magic as a destination?

The Magic are a “star” short. Consider their starting line-up, which is younger than the Bucks, Raptors, and Sixers teams last season: Nikola Vucevic, is 28 years old—fully in his prime. Isaac is oozing with talent as a forward, can be an impact player at both ends, and is just turning 22 when camp opens. Gordon has emerged as a two-way impact player who also rebounds, and he just turned 24. The crafty Frenchman Evan Fournier has made at least 37.6 percent of his 3s in five different seasons, and is just 26. 

Throw in a truly elite physical specimen in 7-foot-1, 21-year-old Mo Bamba, and two 28-year-old, very experienced wings in Terrence Ross and Al-Farouq Aminu, and you can see how this young team also has quality veterans to form a balanced squad. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Do what the internet does! Examine Markelle Fultz’s shooting form


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • Quite a few players on this roster are projected to improve (Markelle Fultz -2.3), Aaron Gordon 0.8, Wes Iwundu -2, Mo Bamba -0.1) and still not sniff of star status.

  • Khem Birch is tied with the team’s second-highest projection at 0.83. He trails Nikola Vucevic (4.03), who kills in basically every advanced stat.

  • Michael Carter-Williams projects to be perfectly fine -0.66 (better than league average), but a little off for a 28-year-old former rookie of the year. 

East #7: BROOKLYN NETS
Projected record: 43-39

BY DAVID THORPE

Like the Clippers, the Nets broke up something promising. And it might not work. Kyrie Irving’s comments suggest he may have turned over a new leaf as a leader in Brooklyn, but it did not go well last year in Boston. 

Once Kevin Durant returns (likely next season), watch for two early signs to predict this roster’s long-term potential:

  • Can the team handle some early season losing streaks without drama?

  • Is Caris LeVert emerging as a star?

If the answer is yes to both of those things, the team will be well positioned whenever Durant can play again. If things start slowly, Kevin Durant’s injury gives them a perfect excuse—every critic will include in their piece, “we will see what happens when Durant returns.” But they will need to live up to high expectations eventually. 

On the court, Kyrie is not hard to play with, and has similarities to D’Angelo Russell: ball dominant, gifted as a passer, and packed with skill. Irving is enigmatic off court, though, and his leadership will be tested. Being a better player than Russell means he will be expected to help his team win more. That hurt him in Boston, when they couldn’t find a winning groove. His recent comments taking the blame for what happened in Boston last season seemed completely genuine. The Nets culture might already be moving Kyrie in the direction he needs to go.


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Here is Jarrett Allen flashing a new hook shot.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • The machine doesn’t know Kevin Durant is unlikely to play this season. It doesn’t know about the long odds of being elite after Achilles injuries. But merely based on things like last year’s performance and his age, it projects him to decline mightily, to about 2.69. Presumably next year it would project a further drop. 

  • The numbers say Kyrie Irving is a star, expected to play at 5.12 level this year. They also love Jarrett Allen, at 2.55.

  • If the Nets are going to be great, Caris LaVert and Joe Harris are due to be part of it. But the numbers project each to have mild declines, to -0.54 and -0.53 respectively.

East #8: MIAMI HEAT 
Projected record: 39-43

BY DAVID THORPE

Erik Spoelstra is an elite coach. The Heat have a system to get every player in great shape. And now they have Jimmy Butler. That’s probably enough to squeak into the playoffs.

The Heat aren’t ready to be a very good team, though, and now they probably won’t be rebuilding, either. This is a team—in the middle of the road—that just got a little older and more expensive by adding a top-20 NBA player in Jimmy Butler. Without help, they could waste Butler’s peak years. 

So, best plan? Get Justise Winslow into All-Star status. His main issue: In a league that features so many ball screens (pick and rolls or pops), Winslow just does not yet read the game well enough to produce efficiently. College players play the game, pros read it. He is still struggling with that. They can keep trying to teach it to him or move on to a different strategy--the Warriors have famously run fewer ballscreens than most teams and fared brilliantly. 

If Winslow doesn’t emerge, other candidates include Bam Adebayo and rookie Tyler Herro. Herro was among the best rookies in the preseason, and has the potential to be a Klay Thompson-like shooter. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, off and running.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • At his projected BPM of 2.5 Jimmy Butler would be a rock-solid 30-year-old NBA player … but a far cry from the +6.9 stud he used to be.

  • 22-year-old big man Bam Adebayo projects to be about as productive as Butler, at 2.47. That’s the good news.

  • The bad news is that Goran Dragic is projected to fall a mighty 4+ BPM points to -1.43. The other bad news is that the numbers essentially suggest Justise Winslow is unlikely to ever be the star to replace Dragic--based on his performance thus far, and yes, including his defense. Winslow is projected for a ho-hum season of -0.87, down 0.77. 

East #9: DETROIT PISTONS 
Projected record: 35-47

BY DAVID THORPE

No Eastern team better represents the classic “stuck in the middle” conundrum than Detroit. Superstar Blake Griffin and rebounding monster Andre Drummond form a good enough duo to keep the Pistons playoff-relevant all season. But that’s about all, unless a trade happens or one of their young players makes a big jump forward. 

Outside of Derrick Rose’s return, most Detroit thoughts center on when they will move their two stars and begin again. That said, any new close-to-All-Star player they can obtain via trade definitely puts them into a decent spoiler spot come springtime. 

Keep an eye on Luke Kennard. He could become the consistent shooter/scorer the Pistons need to win a playoff spot.


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Derrick Rose still has incredible speed. Blake Griffin still has incredible interviews


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • Andre Drummond has always been a stud of advanced stats, and he’s still projected to be good at 3.75, in the neighborhood of Blake Griffin’s 3.17.

  • But otherwise, hope is not a plan. Derrick Rose is projected to hurt the Pistons badly, at -2.99. Side note: even in his healthy youth, Rose has never excelled in stats that include defense. Age compounds that problem.

  • Markieff Morris is one of the more solid performers on the roster … and is slated to be below average for an NBA player, at -2.18.

East #10: CHICAGO BULLS 
Projected record: 31-51

BY DAVID THORPE

Few teams pack as much mystery as the Bulls. They might be absolutely awful again. They could also sniff the playoffs. 

Can Tomas Satoransky help stabilize a truly lost franchise? Yes. Is Zach LaVine ready to convert production into wins? Maybe. Are Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen the future for this team, talented enough to fortify playoff runs for years? Absolutely possible. But will any of those things happen? Who knows? Beyond Satoransky’s play for the Wizards and in the recent World Cup, those other questions just can’t be answered definitively. No team has a bigger range of possible outcomes.


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Coby White can score.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • It’s perfectly fine that Otto Porter is projected to slide a little, to have a Box Plus-Minus of 1.15. What’s not perfectly fine is that it’s the highest number on the team.

  • The highest BPM of Zach LaVine’s career: zero. This year’s projection: -0.4.

  • Best Bulls news of all these projections is young big man Wendell Carter, keeper of one of the NBA’s biggest BPM leaps, +0.78 to 0.3.

East #11: ATLANTA HAWKS
Projected record: 30-52

BY DAVID THORPE

John Collins, Trae Young, De’Andre Hunter, and Cameron Reddish all have All-Star potential. Few teams have that kind of young talent. That will be important to remember as the losses pile up. This season is about building on their ability to play well together while making skill improvements. 

There will be losses, though. Five of their likely top-10 rotation guys are 22-and-under. They finished last season well. Once 2019 hit, the Hawks became solid on offense, finishing 16th in offensive efficiency from January 1 on, even though rookie Trae Young ran the team. The team knows it has to improve greatly on defense, and will have to fight to be nearly average on that end. If the offense grows just a little more, this Hawks team could be a season away from being a solid playoff team. There is reason for genuine optimism in Atlanta. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

The Hawks are good at Twitter, as demonstrated by this video riffing on the FX show Atlanta.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • Our model of Box Plus-Minus loves John Collins. It liked him last year, and it expects him to get better this season. So that’s great. The bad news? It likes … basically no other Hawks.  

  • We are not making the case these projections capture everything that matters about hoops. It’s totally possible that Brandon Goodwin (-6.2) will help the Hawks win some games this year, despite his atrocious projections. It’s likely Trae Young (-0.2) will have transcendent performances, despite projecting to be fairly average. However, the model captures enough that it is just incredibly unlikely this roster will take the league by storm. There are just a lot of players who are not likely to be great. Especially sad: Sure, Chandler Parsons rates terribly at -3.2, but Evan Turner projects to be almost as bad at -2.9.

East #12: NEW YORK KNICKS
Projected record: 29-53

BY DAVID THORPE

The Knicks have finally collected some interesting young talent. Julius Randle is a proven starting-level talent. RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, perhaps even Frank Ntilikina, have the potential to make real progress. Even if the team loses a lot, it will be a step forward if those players develop. 

Big picture, though: There is little reason to be optimistic that the franchise is finally turning a corner. Any real success will be a surprise. 

As we outlined in June though, the franchise has not proved capable of nurturing positive culture. That’s going to have to change or we’ll see a complete mess in Madison Square Garden. Every name listed above can be much worse in a bad climate except Robinson, who should be an elite defender, no matter what. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

The Knicks face the tough questions, like “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” 


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • At 21, Mitchell Robinson already has BPM’s prize as the MVP of the Knicks, at 3.87 this year. That’s in part because BPM loves big men who grab rebounds and block shots, and in part because there aren’t any great players on this team.

  • Julius Randle is widely seen as this team’s go-to star. Projected BPM: 0.12.

  • Kevin Knox was -6 last year, and thus is fighting for his basketball life.

  • So many middling guards! Elfrid Payton, projected at -0.21 seems to be BPM’s favorite, over Dennis Smith Jr.’s -1.52, Allonzo Trier at -3.4, and Frank Ntilikina, who is projected at -3.8. 

East #13: WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Projected record: 22-60

BY DAVID THORPE

Fresh off a wise extension for their All-Star guard Bradley Beal last week, the Wiz have put together some solid months of transactions after a few years of misses. They are still a foggy team to project. Talented rookie Rui Hachimura is too young to peak alongside Beal. The overpaid and enigmatic John Wall is likely out all year, with his giant contract hanging over the franchise--he’s guaranteed over $160 million over the next four seasons. 


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BY DILLON SHAIN

Here is a 2007 video of Gilbert Arenas beating DeShawn Stevenson in a 3-point shooting contest despite Arenas’s having to shoot flat-footed and one-handed while Stevenson gets to shoot normally. And “bring your dog to work day.”


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • Bradley Beal is really good, and projects to have a BPM of 2.0. Thomas Bryant rates very well, too, at 1.2. As a rebounding rim protector, he fits the model of player this statistical model favors. But he’s also an active, productive, 22-year-old big.

  • The stats don’t predict that any Wizard will be both good and improved this year. Bummer.

  • The machine doesn’t know John Wall will be out injured all year. Not shocking. More shocking: the stats imagine he is healthy--and project that he’ll be only marginally helpful anyway, at 0.4. He’s due to make $38 million this year.

East #14: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS 
Projected record: 21-61

BY DAVID THORPE
  • Can their small, young, and talented backcourt, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, become a the Blazers of the Midwest? 

  • Will Kevin Love be moved, and when? 

  • If they trade Love early in the season, will they set the NBA’s all-time record for losses? 

The Cavaliers, without Kevin Love, might be worse than the Charlotte Hornets, whom many project to be the league’s worst team. The Cavs have a young, diminutive backcourt and two bigs who play below the rim. They were the worst defensive team in the NBA last season by a long shot and won just 19 games. And as they try to turn the franchise around, Love is the only bona fide asset. 


SOCIALIZE 

BY DILLON SHAIN

Remember LeBron? His high-school jersey from the infamous “Chosen One” Sports Illustrated Cover recently sold at an auction for $187,500.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • At 31, as a strong guy who can shoot, I think we assume Love has a lot of life left in him. But BPM--which generally loves big men who fill stat sheets--projects Love to be middling player, at -0.58.

  • BPM also wants to break hearts in Cleveland with acid projections for Collin Sexton (-3.12), Brandon Knight (-3.96), and Matthew Dellavedova (-4.89).

  • Larry Nance Jr. is the only Cavalier projected to have a positive BPM, at 2.67.

East #15: CHARLOTTE HORNETS
Projected record: 19-63

BY DAVID THORPE

This might hurt. The hope is that Terry Rozier can prove to be more than a role player, and that PJ Washington might show potential that will matter in the long run. But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Though I like coach James Borrego, I don’t see any exciting young players here. They drafted an undersized forward in 6-foot-7 Washington in June’s lottery (#12 overall) to supplement the undersized power forward they drafted last year in 6-foot-7 Miles Bridges (#12 overall). Charlotte’s most exciting players are former second-round pick Dwayne Bacon (7.3 ppg last season) and the disgruntled guard from the Celtics, Terry Rozier, who now gets the minutes and shots he wanted in Boston. Will it prove to be a happy marriage? Maybe, but he has already complained about being compared to Kemba Walker. The Hornets might trade away veterans who don’t want to stick around and lose most nights. If they do that by Thanksgiving, they have a real chance at the worst record of all time.


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BY DILLON SHAIN

The Hornets recently signed undrafted rookie Caleb Martin, meaning he will rejoin his brother Cody, whom he played with at the University of Nevada. The last time two twins played together was the Morris twins on the Suns in 2015.


THE NUMBERS

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Lessons from TrueHoop’s Box Plus-Minus projections, as published by Axios.

  • Terry Rozier was excellent at times in Boston. He’s only 25, and now he gets to run his own team. MAYBE he is about to explode. In the cold, hard analysis of Box Plus-Minus, though … he’s about to fall off a cliff into the mediocrity of -0.18. That hurts. The numbers suggest that at athletic positions like point guard, aging-related NBA decline starts earlier than we ever thought.

  • Does “Cody Zeller will be almost as good as last year” (with a projected BPM of 1.19) sell tickets? 

  • Miles Bridges is only 21, and has one of the team’s best projected BPM’s at 0.03.

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