Which teams are best positioned to threaten the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers as we head into a season unlike any in NBA history?
After a whirlwind offseason that saw massive trades, free agency and the NBA draft take place within a week's span, rosters are mostly settled with opening night just three weeks away. Now it's time to take stock of how teams project for the 2020-21 season.
Over the five seasons we've been publishing RPM projections, they've outperformed Las Vegas over/under win totals.
What do RPM projections tell us about the upcoming campaign? Let's take a look.
How do the projections work?
Our real plus-minus (RPM) projections utilize the multiyear, predictive version of RPM as a starting point. They're adjusted for typical player aging and then regressed toward the player's projected offensive rating and defensive rating from my SCHOENE projection system, based solely on box score stats. (For players without RPM projections, including rookies, the SCHOENE ratings are used instead.)
Games played are projected based on time missed over the previous three seasons. I then make a subjective guess at minutes distributions for each team. Multiplying those minutes by players' offensive and defensive ratings yields team ratings that translate into expected wins. I used those projections to simulate the season 10,000 times and record the average number of wins as well as how often each team made the playoffs.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Average wins: 44.5 (for the 72-game season)
After the past two campaigns, it would be surprising if the Bucks weren't the East's best team in the regular season. Acquiring Jrue Holiday -- in exchange for draft picks, swap rights, Eric Bledsoe and George Hill -- cost the Bucks depth, as did the losses of Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews in free agency, but the Bucks remain the favorite to claim home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs for a third consecutive season.
2. Toronto Raptors
Average wins: 43.7
Losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka didn't dramatically change the Raptors' projection. It's worth noting that Toronto got experience playing without both players for extended stretches last season due to injury, going 18-10 (.643) without Gasol and 13-4 (.765) without Ibaka. Winning 50-plus games for a sixth consecutive season could be challenging in a 72-game schedule, but the Raptors should remain near the top of the East.
3. Boston Celtics
Average wins: 40.2
The Celtics surely will miss Gordon Hayward, whose departure leaves the team with just one reserve (young center Robert Williams III) with an RPM projection better than league average. Still, Boston's starting five is strong enough to lift the Celtics to the top of a crowded second tier in the East projections.
4. Miami Heat
Average wins: 39.9
The Heat might be hard-pressed to play as well over 72 games as they did during last season's surprising run to the NBA Finals. Replacing Jae Crowder with Maurice Harkless causes a slight dip in Miami's projection, while newcomer Avery Bradley has never rated particularly well by RPM.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Average wins: 39.4
By trading for Seth Curry and Danny Green, the Sixers are betting on shooting and fit over size and sheer talent. That won't be reflected in their RPM projections, which don't account for fit and which rate Green (minus-0.3) and Curry (minus-1.1) worse than departed Al Horford (plus-0.9) and Josh Richardson (minus-0.8).
6. Brooklyn Nets
Average wins: 38.9
Because of the uncertain health of stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, both coming off injury, the Nets might be the league's single most difficult team to project. Should Durant stay healthy, he is a great bet to beat his plus-1.7 projection. Even without assuming good health, Brooklyn tops the league in projected offensive rating -- but projects just 26th in defensive rating.
7. Indiana Pacers
Average wins: 38.9
Continuity should be a plus for the Pacers, the only team in the league projected to have 100% of their minutes played by returning players. Inevitably, some new reserves will get playing time, but Indiana brings back everyone who saw more than 250 minutes of action in 2019-20.
8. Atlanta Hawks
Average wins: 36.0
Here come the Hawks! After loading up on talent using cap space this offseason, Atlanta is favored to finish eighth in the East on the strength of a top-tier offense. The Hawks have the league's sixth-best projected offensive rating, offsetting the league's worst projected defensive rating.
9. Washington Wizards
Average wins: 33.1
The return of John Wall and internal improvement should make the Wizards more competitive, though they still project to finish ninth, on average -- the same as last season, prior to bubble play. To surpass that, Washington must improve on a defense projected to be 27th in the league.
10. Orlando Magic
Average wins: 32.6
After two years in the playoffs, Orlando projects to take a slight step back because of the loss of veteran point guard D.J. Augustin (replaced by rookie Cole Anthony) and the season-long absence of budding forward Jonathan Isaac due to a torn ACL suffered in the bubble's seeding games.
11. Charlotte Hornets
Average wins: 31.1
Adding Hayward lifts Charlotte out of the bottom tier of teams in the East and gives the Hornets a better shot of reaching this season's play-in tournament. It's not enough to make the Hornets a favorite for their first playoff berth since 2016.
12. Chicago Bulls
Average wins: 29.9
If the Bulls are to surpass this projection, the health of forward Otto Porter Jr. could be a big factor. After missing 51 games last season, he is projected fairly conservatively for 60 games and 1,440 minutes. Given only Zach LaVine projects for more RPM wins above replacement (WAR) among Chicago players, keeping Porter on the court longer would help.
13. New York Knicks
Average wins: 24.7
As compared to foolish spending in the summer of 2019, the Knicks got better value in free agency this time around, but it might not make much difference on the court. Nerlens Noel is the lone New York newcomer projected better than league average, and he plays the same position as the team's best-rated player, Mitchell Robinson.
14. Detroit Pistons
Average wins: 23.9
Suffice it to say, Detroit didn't spend lavishly on forward Jerami Grant in a sign-and-trade with RPM in mind. Because the Denver Nuggets struggled with Grant on the court last season, his projection calls for below-average play (minus-0.7).
15. Cleveland Cavaliers
Average wins: 23.8
A quiet offseason has left the Cavaliers with the worst projection in the East, though it should be noted that 24 wins would still represent progress: They've won just 19 games in each of the two seasons since making four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Average wins: 44.3
The best offseason among contending teams has solidified the Lakers with the best projection in the West and a hair behind Milwaukee overall. In fact, the Lakers project ahead of the Bucks before accounting for the slightly easier schedule Milwaukee will get to play in the East.
2. LA Clippers
Average wins: 41.7
Losing Sixth Man award winner Montrezl Harrell to the rival Lakers might make the Clippers a better playoff team thanks to the addition of Ibaka, but it figures to hurt the Clippers' chances of claiming the top seed in the West. Of course, if the Clippers end up facing the Lakers in a long-awaited Hallway Series at Staples Center, home court might not matter much.
3. Houston Rockets
Average wins: 41.3
If -- and it's a big if -- the Rockets can keep their backcourt together, this group looks competitive for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Christian Wood projects as an upgrade from Robert Covington, and Wood also allows Houston to play a more conventional defense after last season's small-ball experiment.
4. Utah Jazz
Average wins: 40.8
It feels like people are sleeping on the Jazz, who were a Mike Conley buzzer-beater away from ending the Nuggets' playoff run in the bubble's opening round. Utah gets back injured forward Bojan Bogdanovic and solidifies the bench with the return of longtime Jazz starter Derrick Favors.
5. Denver Nuggets
Average wins: 40.0
The Nuggets have claimed home-court advantage in the playoffs each of the past two seasons in large part by winning more games than their point differential would indicate. Denver's scoring margin was fifth in the West in 2018-19 and sixth last season. Since these projections assume all teams translate point differential into wins evenly, that's the biggest reason for the Nuggets' seeming drop.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Average wins: 39.9
I'm a little surprised the Mavericks didn't move up more in the projections after ranking third in point differential in the West last season. Kristaps Porzingis' health is a big reason. He is projected for 44 games, which seems reasonable given his uncertain return date from offseason knee surgery.
7. New Orleans Pelicans
Average wins: 39.3
Even after trading Holiday to the Bucks, New Orleans is still projected by RPM to jump back into the playoffs. Bledsoe probably isn't getting notice for his ability to help during the regular season; he finished 13th among point guards in RPM last season. The Pelicans also should get more minutes out of 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson -- and at closer to 100 percent than we saw in the bubble after his return home and subsequent quarantine.
8. Phoenix Suns
Average wins: 38.6
Adding Chris Paul, along with the savvy pickup of Crowder in free agency, makes the Suns favorites to end a decade-long playoff drought this season. Phoenix hasn't won 39 games since 2014-15, and if the Suns do so this season -- as projected -- that would put them above .500 in a 72-game schedule.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Average wins: 38.2
Given their widely lauded offseason, the Blazers projecting ninth is certainly something of a surprise. It's worth remembering how compact the West projections are: Just 3.5 wins on average separate Portland from second in the conference. As a result, though the Blazers have the ninth-best projection, they're still more likely to make the playoffs than not.
In other words, they'll probably finish ahead of at least one of the eight teams with better projections. We're just not sure which one.
10. Memphis Grizzlies
Average wins: 36.0
After losing to the Blazers in the play-in matchup last season, Memphis might have a more difficult path to the playoffs in 2020-21 because of the improvement elsewhere in the conference. This projection actually calls for a better winning percentage (.500) than the Grizzlies managed in 2019-20 (.466), when that was good enough for a half-game out of eighth.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves
Average wins: 35.0
RPM projections are bullish on Minnesota's chances to be more competitive than last season on the strength of upgraded shooting and playmaking. The Timberwolves have the seventh-best offensive projection, though they project just 28th at the other end.
Remember too that Minnesota will have little incentive to lose games at the end of the season with next year's first-round pick going to Golden State unless it lands in the top three in the lottery.
12. Sacramento Kings
Average wins: 35.0
Despite losing starting shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic to the Hawks as a restricted free agent, the Kings could be in the West play-in mix by virtue of upgrading their depth. Sacramento added veteran free agents Glenn Robinson III and Hassan Whiteside on the cheap, while first-round pick Tyrese Haliburton looks unusually capable of contributing immediately.
13. San Antonio Spurs
Average wins: 33.2
Based on these projections, San Antonio's season is likely to look a lot more like the pre-stoppage portion of the 2019-20 campaign (when the Spurs went 27-36) than the seeding games, which saw them go 5-3 on the strength of their young talent, with LaMarcus Aldridge unavailable.
14. Golden State Warriors
Average wins: 31.2
Is it realistic that the Warriors might not be competitive for a playoff spot after Klay Thompson's Achilles injury ended his 2020-21 season before it started?
The first four games of the 2019-20 season suggest so. Golden State was 1-2 and on its way to a third lopsided loss in four games when Stephen Curry suffered a broken bone in his left hand that sent the Warriors into the tank.
It's certainly possible the Warriors' newcomers will outperform projections accumulated without the same kind of talent around them, but Golden State also can't count on Curry staying healthy. He missed an average of 22 games in 2017-18 and 2018-19, long before the Warriors were worried about draft positioning. Without Curry, projected to play 54 games, Golden State will again be lacking in efficient shot creation.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder
Average wins: 24.9
Projecting the Thunder's minutes for the upcoming season is difficult because it's uncertain how long veterans Horford, Trevor Ariza and George Hill will remain on the roster before being traded. Even with them, Oklahoma City has the worst projection in the West.