Eric Walden’s peerless NBA predictions for the 2019-20 season

Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard stands during the national anthems before the team's NBA preseason basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)


Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

It feels a bit open this year, doesn’t it? Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 24, and his team should dominate the East. Can you avoid giving him the award again if he adds a consistent jumper to his already stocked arsenal?

Perpetual bridesmaid James Harden could garner his second bit of hardware if his pairing with Russell Westbrook works out. Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis could be in line if the Lakers finally return to contention.

Thing is, though, fresh off of carrying the annually underachieving Raptors to the Larry O’Brien trophy, a narrative started to formulate that The Fun Guy had laughed all the way to “best player” status.

There are potential impediments to Leonard claiming the trophy: How much will “load management” be part of the vernacular? Might the results be muted a bit by teammate Paul George’s recovery from surgery?

If the Clips come anywhere close to living up to it all, it seems unrealistic that Leonard won’t, in the end, be feted as the new Best in the World.


Mike Malone, Nuggets

He was a top-three finisher in this category a year ago, owing to unexpectedly guiding Denver all the way up to a Northwest Division title and the second seed in the Western Conference. So, here’s the question: Are the Nuggets due for a regression? It wouldn’t be a complete shock. Then again, as one of the few franchises that didn’t make wholesale changes this summer, their continuity could yield exceptional results once again.

Denver Nuggets head coach, Mike Malone, calls out to his players in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in Denver on Sunday, April 10, 2016. (Cliff Grassmick/Daily Camera via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT


Mike D’Antoni, Rockets

On its face, this one seems a bit out there — the guy’s got an incredible track record of success in recent years, after all. However, it’s telling that owner Tillman Fertitta has yet to grant D’Antoni the contract extension he is seeking. With the lingering perception that D’Antoni can’t get the Rockets over the top, if Houston should get off to a slow start, maybe Fertitta orders Daryl Morey to pull the plug.


L.A. Clippers

It’s pretty simple — a team that was already pretty sparky in pushing the Warriors during the opening round of last year’s playoffs just added Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. And third-place regular-season MVP finisher Paul George. And Maurice Harkless. And they kept free agents Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green. And should get more out of late-season additions Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac. And they’ve still got stellar bench contributors Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.

FILE - In this April 15, 2019, file photo, Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley celebrates during the second half of Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif. No more watching other teams go deep in the playoffs. The NBA's balance of power has shifted to the Clippers, who have never advanced beyond the second round let alone won a championship. The Clippers are favorites to win it all, a stunning shift for a franchise that has spent much of its existence as a punch line. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)


Denver Nuggets

Doesn’t Denver feel like it’s just been overlooked all offseason? While other teams were playing, “Oooohhh, look at the shiny new thing!” (Kawhi, PG13, The Brow, Russell Westbrook, et cetera, et cetera), the Nuggets brought back their entire core, then went out and added springy big man Jerami Grant from OKC, and saw the talented Michael Porter Jr. return from injury. So, they should be able to avoid the growing pains that will plague many of their competitors.


New Orleans Pelicans

We’ve all heard someone say that the Pellies are their NBA League Pass team this year, right? There’s a good reason for that. This team should be plenty of fun to watch. Pairing superstar-in-the-making Zion Williamson with an excellent two-way guard in Jrue Holiday, and young floor-running types such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Jaxson Hayes should provide no shortage of transition highlights, and a relentless pace to make many opponents uncomfortable.

New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson walks upcourt during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)


Boston Celtics

There certainly is a case to be made that this team could feature addition by subtraction, simply by swapping out the mercurial Kyrie Irving and inefficient Terry Rozier for low-key scoring machine Kemba Walker. But you probably couldn’t make the same argument for replacing Al Horford and Aron Baynes with Enes Kanter. Having Kemba and Kanter in the same lineup will pose huge defensive issues. Also, are we sure yet if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are a thing?


Jimmy Butler, Heat

A year ago, Miami tried to add Butler and came away empty-handed. This year, they pulled it off with a summer sign-and-trade, but his game and his personality both have enough unflattering flaws to make us wonder if it was such a great idea after all. While Butler does have some two-way talent, he also has a history of knee injuries and of immolating locker rooms, to say nothing of being an inefficient deep shooter.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles the ball against San Antonio Spurs forward DeMarre Carroll (77) during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)


Steven Adams, Thunder

Yes, he is exceedingly well-paid for what he does, but that isn’t the point. While Russell Westbrook hyper-driven personality burned with the intensity of a thousand suns, Adams was quietly doing the dirty work in the background. He remains an imposing presence in the paint, his rebounding average has gone up in each of his six seasons, and he’s become elite on the offensive glass — averaging more boards there than on the defensive end each of the past two seasons.


Trae Young, Hawks

You could make the argument he’s already there, but I’ll make the argument that many casual fans can’t yet identify the bedheaded one. That shouldn’t be the case after this coming season. His fearless deep shooting and flashy passing are tailor-made for this era of basketball. If Young can become a more efficient gunner, chances are he’ll populate enough highlight reels that the uninitiated can’t help but recognize him sooner rather than later.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) dribbles against Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)


Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Isn’t it funny that a year ago, Williamson wasn’t even the most hyped player on his own college team? Zion is now so ubiquitous, even my mother-in-law recognizes him by name (though she does still mispronounce it as “Zi-un”). He’s not just a hype beast, either. While there are definite holes in his game, he is such a physically imposing and intelligent player already, it would take some catastrophic event for him to be surpassed.


Atlantic Division

While I have my doubts that Philly’s extra-large lineup (Embiid/Horford/Harris/Richardson/Simmons) will actually fit, considering the not insignificant dearth of perimeter shooting, there’s no doubting that, on talent alone, the Sixers are the best here. Flawed Boston and Brooklyn squads will battle it out for second billing. Toronto, after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, is headed for inevitable regression, but can live with that while still basking in championship afterglow. And the Knicks are still the Knicks.

1. Philadelphia 76ers

2. Boston Celtics

3. Brooklyn Nets

4. Toronto Raptors

5. New York Knicks

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid (21) shoots as Detroit Pistons' Tony Snell, left, and Luke Kennard defend during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 106-86. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Central Division

No, the Bucks losing Malcolm Brogdon to their biggest division rival will not be enough to swing the balance of power. While the defection hurts, Milwaukee remains sufficiently stacked to be the focal point of the Central. Indy, meanwhile, should get a bump from Victor Oladipo’s eventual return. The rest of the division is a whole lot of nothing to see here. Blake Griffin’s career evolution remains wasted in the wasteland of Detroit. Chicago has some compelling pieces but lacks chemistry among them yet.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

2. Indiana Pacers

3. Detroit Pistons

4. Chicago Bulls

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz's Ed Davis during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

Southeast Division

This quintet remains the most uninspiring in the league. Can any of these teams legitimately be counted among the NBA’s true contenders? Nope. Jimmy Butler’s addition should improve the Heat, anyway — at least right up to the point where he inevitably tears them apart. The Hawks have a promising young core, but remain a few years away. It will be curious to see if Markelle Fultz can find his form among all the bigs in Orlando.

1. Miami Heat

2. Atlanta Hawks

3. Orlando Magic

4. Washington Wizards

5. Charlotte Hornets

Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) dribbles against Atlanta Hawks forward Jabari Parker (5) during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)


Northwest Division

Nuggets or Jazz? Jazz or Nuggets? I went back and forth so many times before ultimately settling on Denver one and Utah two, owing to the continuity factor. The Jazz may simply dig themselves a bit of a hole while their defense rounds into form. Meanwhile, though I love Damian Lillard’s game (if not his silly rap beefs with Shaq), I can’t see roster moves highlighted by the additions of Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore really moving the needle.

1. Denver Nuggets

2. Utah Jazz

3. Portland Trail Blazers

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, drives toward the basket as Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell defends during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Southwest Division

You could talk me into the Pelicans eclipsing the Spurs, but I’m not buying either as a legitimate threat to the Rockets. Thing is, while a core of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Clint Capela should be great, the supporting cast in Houston is probably worse now than it was last season. As for the Mavs and Grizz, each should have enough intriguing young talent to at least make us avert our eyes.

1. Houston Rockets

2. San Antonio Spurs

3. New Orleans Pelicans

4. Dallas Mavericks

5. Memphis Grizzlies

Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook screams before the start of the team's NBA preseason basketball game against the Toronto Raptors Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Saitama, near Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Pacific Division

While LeBron James and Anthony Davis are more talented than Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers’ superior depth should tip the scales in their favor. Golden State challenging for a title is no longer a fait accompli, but their demise has been exaggerated. The Kings will be fun, owing to De’Aaron Fox, but they’re not making that big a leap. And Phoenix surrounding Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton with savvy vets like Ricky Rubio won’t be enough to prevent another last-place finish.

1. LA Clippers

2. Los Angeles Lakers

3. Golden State Warriors

4. Sacramento Kings

5. Phoenix Suns

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James dribbles during the first half of the team's preseason NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)