When spring training opens in baseball and training camp begins in football, every team can, to some degree, dream of finishing that season as champions.
In the NBA, that kind of parity doesn’t exist in a normal season — and certainly doesn’t this year, with the Warriors massive favorites to take home the title after convincing Kevin Durant to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join them as an unrestricted free agent this summer. But no matter how long the odds are for the other 29 teams, all are going to play an 82-game regular season, and the playoffs will be held as they are every other season.
Here, then, are the best and worst scenarios for how the upcoming season will play out for all 30 NBA teams — the top outcome they can realistically dream of, and the fiery abyss that awaits them if the season falls off a cliff.
Best case: Dwight Howard fits in seamlessly and makes the all-star team, Paul Millsap remains at an All-NBA level, Dennis Schroder succeeds in taking over for Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver bounces back from a down year. Atlanta wins 55 games, and makes it to the Eastern Conference finals – where the Hawks are swept by Cleveland in the playoffs for a third straight year.
Worst case: Like what happened to him with the Lakers and Rockets, Howard’s personality will mess with Atlanta’s chemistry, leading to in-fighting within the locker room. Millsap remains angry at the organization after trade rumors this summer, and the free agent-to-be is dealt at the trade deadline, while Korver continues to miss shots and Schroder proves he can’t be relied upon to run a team. The Hawks win 38 games, and miss the playoffs completely.
Best case: Al Horford makes the expected positive impact, pushing Boston’s offense from the middle of the pack into the top 10. At the same time, the Celtics become the league’s best defensive team. For the first time since Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were playing there together, Boston wins 60 games, advances to the Eastern Conference finals and — after losing to Cleveland — lands the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft thanks to the trade with the Brooklyn Nets that keeps on giving.
Worst case: Boston’s plethora of stockpiled young players stagnates, and General Manager Danny Ainge once again teases the possibility of making a big trade at the February trade deadline — but, once again, doesn’t. The result is the Celtics remain a team stuck in the mid-40s in wins, exiting the playoffs in the first round for a third consecutive season, slowing the canonization of Brad Stevens.
Best case: Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez become an effective offensive fulcrum, new coach Kenny Atkinson begins to develop young talent like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Chris McCullough and the Nets get to the low 30s in wins, removing some of the pain of swapping first-round picks with the Celtics as part of the Pierce and Garnett trade.
Worst case: Lin struggles, Lopez hurts his foot again — both keeping him from playing and torpedoing his trade value — and the young players struggle. To make matters worse, after losing 70 games, the Nets send the No. 1 pick to the Celtics and get one in the late 20s in exchange, the most crushing blow yet from the ill-fated trade with Boston in 2013.
Best case: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist finally stays healthy for a full season, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams maintain their production after getting paid and Marco Belinelli returns to the player he was in San Antonio after being rescued from Sacramento. The Hornets win 50 games and advance in the playoffs for the first time since re-joining the league as an expansion franchise before losing a hard-fought second-round series.
Worst case: Kidd-Gilchrist again gets hurt, and Michael Jordan again curses the lottery gods for missing out on Anthony Davis in 2012. Meanwhile, Batum and Williams both play like guys who just got massive contracts and are totally content with that. Belinelli can’t erase the stink of Sacramento and Kemba Walker’s newfound efficiency was a fluke. The Hornets win 33 games and head back to the lottery.
Best case: Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade find a way to co-exist and create enough shooting to erase the team’s spacing concerns. Nikola Mirotic becomes a legitimate NBA power forward, Fred Hoiberg’s hands-off approach is lauded and he earns Coach of the Year votes as the Bulls make the second round after reaching 50 wins.
Worst case: It all goes up in flames. Rondo, Wade and Butler build a new housing complex on Madison Avenue with all of the bricks they put up, while Chicago’s young players all fall on their faces. Hoiberg completely loses control of the locker room, and the Bulls struggle at both ends as they finish with 30 wins and turn up the heat on an already under-fire coaching staff and front office — all while former coach Tom Thibodeau cackles with glee a few hundred miles away in Minneapolis, where he has total autonomy and one of the best young teams in the league.
The floor for the Cavs is still probably and Eastern Conference title. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Best case: Fresh off winning the city’s first championship in a half-century, the Cavaliers walk through the Eastern Conference once again. Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love all make the All-Star team, Cleveland wins 60 games and James wins another MVP trophy. After cruising through the Eastern Conference playoffs, James leads the Cavaliers past the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for a second straight year and further adds to his incredible resume.
Worst case: What initially seems like indifference because of pacing themselves through the regular season becomes an inability to produce the team’s previous magic. Cleveland tries to give Kevin Love a bigger role, but he can’t live up to it. Irving looks more interested in filming his latest Uncle Drew commercial than playing. James manages to get the Cavaliers back to the Finals again, but Golden State smashes them to bits, sweeping Cleveland and ensuring Love gets dealt at the NBA draft.
Best case: Andrew Bogut gets Defensive Player of the Year votes as he puts in a stellar season playing for a contract, while Harrison Barnes proves his doubters wrong and thrives after signing a max contract with Dallas this summer. Dirk Nowitzki remains effective and Wes Matthews reverts to pre-Achilles tear form. The Mavericks win close to 50 games and lose a good first-round series, once again showing Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle know some sort of voodoo through which to keep Dallas competitive year after year with bizarre mixes of players.
Worst case: The Mavericks rely on Nowitzki and Carlisle one year too long. Mark Cuban spends most of his season on the set of “Shark Tank” and getting into Twitter fights with Donald Trump as Bogut and Nowitzki look old, Barnes looks like a bust and Matthews shows he’ll never be what he was before his Achilles injury. Dallas wins 30 games, heads into the lottery and waits to see if Nowitzki will come back for another season.
Best case: The darlings of statistical projections entering the season, the Nuggets prove computers are taking over the world. Behind healthy seasons from Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, steps forward from young talents Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, the Nuggets make the playoffs. Jamal Murray gets Rookie of the Year votes after an impressive first season.
Worst case: Denver’s young players struggle, Gallinari and Chandler are either traded away or struggle once again with injuries, and Denver doesn’t come anywhere close to the playoffs, winning 30 games and remaining a distant fourth, in terms of fan interest, among Denver’s professional sports teams. Oh, and those promising preseason computer projections are revealed to be the result of a Russian hack.
Best case: Stan Van Gundy’s team continues to take steps forward as he puts his imprint on the roster. Andre Drummond becomes a truly dominant big man at both ends, Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope make strides and Detroit’s bench pays back Van Gundy’s faith in the free agents he’s added the past couple seasons. The result is Detroit getting into the low 50s in wins, reaching the Eastern Conference finals and giving Cleveland another tough series before finally going home for the summer.
Worst case: Reggie Jackson’s knee issues linger throughout the season, putting too much pressure on the rest of the team to create offense without him. Van Gundy’s bench signings flop, from Ish Smith to Jon Leuer, leading to people making fun of Van Gundy’s dual roles as the coach and lead basketball decision maker. The Pistons win 40 games, and once again get swept by the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.
Golden State Warriors
Best case: The NBA’s worst nightmare comes true. Kevin Durant fits in seamlessly, and the Warriors cruise through the regular season. Even while being mindful of resting players, the Warriors win 74 games, waltz through the playoffs and handily dispatch the Cavaliers to win their second title in three seasons. Durant and Stephen Curry then re-sign, and the NBA’s next dynasty is born.
Worst case: Drama follows Durant to the Bay Area, and the Warriors get off to a slow start. There is infighting internally over who gets shots and touches between the team’s stars, and veterans Andre Iguodala, David West and Zaza Pachulia all take steps back. Golden State has a hard-fought path through the West and, after reaching the finals, falls short to Cleveland for a second-straight year, much to the rest of the league’s delight. Durant then leaves in free agency in the summer, and what seemed like a dynasty suddenly dissolves.
Best case: With Mike D’Antoni in charge and James Harden running the offense, the Rockets become a scoring machine, finishing second only to the Warriors in offensive efficiency. That, combined with a slightly below average defense and continued good health for Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, allows them to get north of 50 wins and make a surprise run back to the Western Conference finals for the second time in three years.
Worst case: Harden becomes the latest star D’Antoni can’t mesh with, while Anderson, Gordon and Nene all spend significant time injured. Clint Capela proves to be a bench player rather than a starter, and the Rockets remain an ongoing soap opera, finishing with 35 wins and leading to widespread changes between the front office and coaching staff, including longtime general manager Daryl Morey.
Best case: Larry Bird’s gamble to get smaller, faster and add more scoring punch pays off. The arrival of Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young takes their opponents’ focus off Paul George, who finishes in the top five in MVP voting, while Myles Turner becomes a stalwart at center in his second season. The Pacers finish with 55 wins and advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
Worst case: Bird’s gamble busts when the Pacers struggle mightily on defense, specifically Teague and Monta Ellis in the backcourt, and Turner doesn’t progress. Indiana finishes in the high 30s in wins, misses the playoffs and George — desperate to get back to a winning team — demands a trade elsewhere, forcing Indiana to completely hit the reset button and start over.
Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul and the Clippers may be the Warriors’ steepest competition. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Best case: The Clippers get All-NBA seasons from their Big Three and J.J. Redick remains a top-flight shooting guard as this team pushes close to 60 wins and claims the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. After five years of failing to break through, the Clippers finally do, reaching the Western Conference finals and losing a hard-fought series to the Warriors.
Worst case: The team’s veteran guards – Paul, Redick and Jamal Crawford – begin slowing down, while Griffin doesn’t regain his explosion from prior to last year’s injuries. In addition, the cheap bench solutions fail to work the way they have in prior years. That all leads to the Clippers winning 45 games and losing in the first round. Then, in the summer, Paul, Redick and Griffin all leave as free agents, and Doc Rivers follows them out the door as the Clippers suddenly become an NBA doormat once again.
Los Angeles Lakers
Best case: After last year’s awkwardness, D’Angelo Russell makes significant strides, and looks like a potential franchise player. Brandon Ingram grows into a contributor, Julius Randle builds on last year’s performance and the Lakers get to 30 wins – finally showing signs of an optimistic future in their first year under coach Luke Walton. Jim Buss shows he deserves to stick around for at least another year.
Worst case: The struggles in Lakerland continue. Russell looks lost, and the fallout from his misguided rookie-year social media prank follows him. Ingram fails to make any kind of meaningful contribution, while Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov look over the hill in the first year of four-year, big-money contracts. The Lakers finish with the worst record in the league, and the rumors about Phil Jackson’s return grow louder by the day as Jeanie Buss sends her brother packing.
Best case: The Grizzlies stay healthy, specifically Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons, and Memphis regains its status as one of the top four teams in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies get back to the second round of the playoffs before losing a hard-fought series there to the Warriors for the second time in three years.
Worst case: Memphis’s big bet this summer winds up being a disaster. Conley gets hurt again, Marc Gasol suffers yet another foot injury and the knee trouble that saw Dallas pass on Parsons never goes away. Suddenly, Memphis has a team full of veterans on long-term contracts who don’t look like they’ll be healthy, and after missing the playoffs will lose their draft pick as part of the ill-fated Jeff Green trade from a couple years ago, as a painful rebuilding period looks imminent.
Best case: With Dwyane Wade out of the picture, Goran Dragic looks like the all-star he was in Phoenix with the ball in his hands all the time, and forms a dynamic pick-and-roll partnership with Hassan Whiteside. Justise Winslow improves offensively, Josh Richardson slides into his starting lineup and the Heat are a surprise playoff team before exiting in the first round.
Worst case: After 13 years of contending, Wade’s departure ushers in a new rebuilding period in Miami. Dragic is dumped to clear more salary cap space, while Whiteside lets the massive contract he just received go to his head and impact his preparation. Winslow, meanwhile, fails to take a step forward offensively, and the Heat become a lottery team — and look like they could remain there for some time.
Best case: Giannis Antetokounmpo develops into a next-level star, excelling once Head Coach Jason Kidd puts the ball in his hands full-time. Jabari Parker takes a significant step forward in his second full season back from a torn ACL and Milwaukee sneaks into the playoffs as an eight seed before losing to Cleveland.
Worst case: The Bucks find it impossible to make up for the loss of Khris Middleton to a serious hamstring injury. Antetokounmpo flops as a full-time point guard, and Parker remains inconsistent. Milwaukee’s defense fails to recover and the Bucks finish with fewer than 30 wins and a trip to the lottery.
Best case: Karl-Anthony Towns becomes a top-five MVP candidate in Year 2, Andrew Wiggins takes the leap, Zach LaVine is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player and Tom Thibodeau wins Coach of the Year as the Timberwolves win more than 50 games as they advance to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Worst case: Towns is the only one of the young players to make a jump, while players chafe under Thibodeau’s autocractic style. Ricky Rubio gets moved before the trade deadline, and rookie Kris Dunn plays like a rookie in his place. Minnesota wins 35 games and misses the playoffs for a 13th straight season.
New Orleans Pelicans
Best case: Anthony Davis is once again an MVP candidate, Jrue Holiday returns from his family situation and stays healthy and Buddy Hield is the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. The Pelicans make it back to the playoffs and lose in the first round, but finally give everyone around the franchise a sense the team is moving in the right direction.
Worst case: Davis goes through yet another injury-plagued season, and Holiday is forced to miss much of it because of his family situation. Hield struggles, as do big-money free agent signings E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill, and the Pelicans once again end the season with around 30 wins and another lottery pick. Questions about Davis’s future — and whether he’ll demand a trade — grow louder; ownership, however, makes no changes, as it remains focused solely on its other team, the New Orleans Saints.
New York Knicks
Best case: Carmelo Anthony remains at an all-star level, and Kristaps Porzingis joins him there. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah look closer to their best selves from their time in Chicago, everyone stays healthy and the Knicks win close to 50 games and reach the second round of the playoffs, validating Phil Jackson’s bet on bringing in some veterans to speed up New York’s rebuilding process instead of finding players closer to Porzingis’s age.
Worst case: Rose, Noah and Anthony all look their age, and can’t stay healthy, straining the Knicks’ already suspect depth. Porzingis doesn’t take as big of a leap as expected. The Knicks finish with a high 20s win total, Jackson leaves and — much to the horror of Knicks fans — Isiah Thomas is brought back by owner James Dolan to run the franchise.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook is now a one-man show in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Best case: Russell Westbrook wins the MVP award – meaning the Thunder have won over 50 games and Steven Adams makes the all-star team. Sam Presti looks like a genius for trading Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, who both become long-term starters in Oklahoma City, and Enes Kanter wins Sixth Man of the Year. The Thunder make the playoffs and advance to the second round, where Oklahoma City plays an epic series with old friend Kevin Durant and the Warriors before losing in six games.
Worst case: Westbrook tries to do too much to the detriment of the team, Oladipo doesn’t improve, no one on this team can shoot and whenever Adams isn’t on the court the Thunder can’t guard anyone. Oklahoma City finishes with a bottom-10 defense, its shooting woes hurt the offense and the Thunder finish with 35 wins. Meanwhile, Durant runs roughshod over the league with the Warriors, and in a season the Thunder could have been co-favorites to win the title with Golden State and Cleveland had Durant stayed, Oklahoma City misses the playoffs while Durant hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the Bay Area. Everyone in Seattle cackles with glee.
Best case: Frank Vogel takes the bizarre roster he’s been handed and turns all of the length and athleticism into a top-five defense. Aaron Gordon looks more like a potential franchise player, Serge Ibaka is reinvigorated in a new setting and Mario Hezonja takes a step up as the Magic win 42 games and return to the playoffs for a first-round exit.
Worst case: The Magic can’t improve enough defensively to make up for the league’s worst offense. Gordon looks like a player with lots of tools but no way to implement them all. Ibaka looks over the hill and then leaves as a free agent, making the price of Oladipo and Sabonis even more painful. Elfrid Payton still looks overmatched at the point — another indictment of trading Oladipo — and Bismack Biyombo doesn’t play up to his massive contract. Orlando wins 30 games, and the front office gets cleaned out.
Best case: Joel Embiid stays healthy all season and looks like a potential franchise center, winning Rookie of the Year again, and Dario Saric makes the All-Rookie teams as a playmaking forward. Ben Simmons comes back from injury after missing the first 6-8 weeks of the season and makes a huge impact, as Philadelphia wins 30 games and becomes the next “it” team in the league.
Worst case: Embiid breaks his foot again, and his career is over. Meanwhile, Saric looks overmatched and Simmons misses more than half the season then looks rusty when he comes back. The 76ers spend the season dealing with rumors surrounding trade possibilities for Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, leaving both players unhappy, win 15 games and people in Philadelphia wonder if this rebuilding process is ever going to get off the ground.
Best case: Devin Booker builds on his strong second half of his rookie season and looks like he’ll become an all-star shooting guard. Eric Bledsoe looks like the top-10 point guard he’s shown flashes of being, and Brandon Knight embraces being a sixth man. Alex Len takes a step forward, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss show promise as rookies and the Suns scrape the low 30s in wins while showing promise for the future.
Worst case: Booker makes the second half of his rookie season look like the exception, rather than an expectation for what he’s going to be. Bledsoe looks like a diminished player after a series of knee injuries, Knight demands a change of scenery instead of accepting a bench role, and the three young big men — Len, Bender and Chriss — all struggle. Phoenix wins 20 games, and this franchise remains a disaster with little sign of that changing anytime soon.
Portland Trail Blazers
Best case: Last year wasn’t a fluke. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum remain one of the most potent backcourts in the league. The addition of Evan Turner allows them more freedom to score and the continuity from last year allows Portland to push north of 50 wins and make a second straight trip to the second round of the playoffs.
Worst case: Oops. Maybe last year was a fluke. With teams no longer taking them lightly, Lillard and McCollum struggle to replicate their production, while Turner looks out of place, Festus Ezeli can’t stay healthy and Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard fail to live up to their big-money deals. Portland finishes .500 and gets routed by the Warriors in the first round.
Best case: The Kings mercifully end their 10-year playoff drought behind another superlative season from DeMarcus Cousins. New coach Dave Joerger brings stability, Ty Lawson looks rejuvenated and a roster flush 10-deep with NBA rotation players is enough to get the Kings the eighth seed and a Northern California showdown in Round 1 with Golden State.
Worst case: Nothing changes. The Kings remain a disaster, leading to Cousins getting traded at the deadline with a year and a half left on his deal. Chaos again grips the front office, leading to shake-ups there, and Joerger becomes the latest coach to realize what a circus the franchise is. Sacramento then wins the lottery – only to have to swap picks with the Sixers, the consequence of a horrendous and unnecessary trade the two teams made in the summer of 2015 to clear cap space the Kings wound up not needing anyway.
San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard is likely on the MVP short list this season. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Best case: Kawhi Leonard wins MVP, LaMarcus Aldridge remains an all-star, Pau Gasol fits in seamlessly and eye surgery helps Danny Green put last season’s shooting woes behind him. The Spurs win 62 games, get to the Western Conference finals and then fall to the Warriors in six games.
Worst case: Leonard looks terrific, but everyone else regresses. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Spurs trade Aldridge at the deadline in February, while Green’s shot doesn’t recover. Gasol, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all look to be on their last legs, and after the season Ginobili follows Tim Duncan into retirement. The Spurs win 45 games, bow out in the first round and, after the season, Gregg Popovich decides he’s had enough and steps aside, as well.
Best case: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan follow up career years and Olympic team selections by again making the all-star team. DeMarre Carroll recovers from last year’s knee troubles and looks like the player he was supposed to be, and Jonas Valanciunas finally plays at a near all-star level for a full season. Toronto wins 60 games, and earns the No. 1 seed in the East after the Cavs shut it down late in the season. They then lose to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals, but are more competitive throughout the series than last season.
Worst case: Lowry begins to decline and DeRozan takes a step back after getting a hefty contract. Carroll’s injury lingers and Valanciunas doesn’t make the long anticipated leap in ability. Toronto wins 45 games and goes home after the first round for the third time in four years. Lowry leaves as a free agent, coach Dwane Casey is let go, and general manager Masai Ujiri has a lot of decisions to make.
Best case: After two years of promise, everything finally comes together. Gordon Hayward makes the All-Star team, Dante Exum looks like a potential long-term star, George Hill is a perfect fit at point guard and the Jazz win 55 games and make a surprise run to the Western Conference finals, where they actually win two games before falling to the Warriors.
Worst case: The Jazz once again fail to live up to expectations. Hayward takes longer than expected to recover from his broken finger, Rudy Gobert doesn’t improve offensively, Hill struggles to run the offense and Exum still looks a long ways away from realizing his potential. Utah wins 40 games and once again misses the playoffs, and Hayward leaves as a free agent — meaning the slow rebuild the Jazz put in place over the past few seasons now must completely start over.
Best case: John Wall and Bradley Beal both stay healthy for more than 70 games, and both make the all-star team. The Wizards benefit from improvement by Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre, Jr., a full season with Markieff Morris and their increased depth to win 50 games for the first time since 1979 and make it to the Eastern Conference finals, where they lose to the Cavaliers in five games but show the franchise is finally headed in the right direction.
Worst case: It’s the same old, same old in Washington. Wall and Beal fight when they are on the court, and Beal misses over 30 games due to injury in the first year of a five-year, $120 million-plus contract. Porter and Oubre both disappoint, Marcin Gortat declines and the depth pieces the Wizards signed this summer fail to produce as expected. Washington wins 40 games again, misses the playoffs, Ernie Grunfeld is finally shown the door and the summer is dominated by rumors about possible trades of both Wall and Beal as a new general manager considers a total rebuild after deciding this group isn’t going anywhere.