The four play-in teams:
The Kings have knocked on the playoff door but so far haven’t been able to push it open. They signed De’Aron Fox to a max contract and hope he can continue to raise his game. Veteran Harrison Barnes is solid and they added Hassan Whiteside, who led the league in blocked shots last season.
But their ability to make the postseason might rest on the shoulders of two others. Buddy Hield was not happy in the sixth man role last season, even though he played just about the same minutes as when he started. His negative attitude impacted the team. This season he might return to the starting lineup which could improve team chemistry.
Marvin Bagley III was limited to just 13 games last season following a promising rookie campaign. If he has recovered from injury, the team hopes he can consistently display his abundant talent and prove that he deserved to be the second pick of the 2018 draft. Then the Kings would be a dangerous team that might finally return to the playoffs.
The biggest question surrounding the Rockets is whether star James Harden will be traded. For now, we must assume he will return.
The front office and coaching staff are all new. Russell Westbrook was swapped for John Wall, who is coming back after missing much of the last two seasons due to injury. Robert Covington was also traded but Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and Danuel House all return. Newcomer Christian Wood should help but how well DeMarcus Cousins can play after two serious injuries is unknown.
Wall is very talented but both he and Harden are ball-dominant guards. How well they can play together will likely determine how good the Rockets will be. The team is wrapped in uncertainty. They could finish in the top five but they also might struggle just to make the postseason.
3. New Orleans
The Pelicans are a young team on the rise featuring forwards Zion Williamson and former Laker Brandon Ingram. They added tough center Steven Adams to form an enviable frontcourt.
The question is how well the backcourt will perform without the steady influence of Jrue Holiday, who was traded to Milwaukee. They will count on some combination of newly-acquired Eric Bledsoe, sharpshooter JJ Redick, former Lakers Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, and Nickell Alexander-Walker, who showed promise in his rookie year.
The Pels are a fun team to watch on offense, and their defense should improve under new coach Stan Van Gundy. They are also loaded with future draft picks, so should continue to improve. But they should achieve their goal this season and at least qualify for the play-in game.
4. Golden State
Before losing most of their key players to injuries last season, the Warriors made five consecutive Finals appearances, winning three NBA titles. The stars of all those five teams were Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, while Kevin Durant shined on the last three.
Curry and Green return to this year’s team. Thompson was expected back but he suffered a torn Achilles tendon and will miss the entire season. Durant, meanwhile, is now a Brooklyn Net.
In their places, the Warriors will now suit up Kelly Oubre and Anthony Wiggins. Each is a very good player but neither is as talented or experienced as the man he is replacing. Rookie center James Wiseman should help but this team is not good enough to be a serious contender. How far they can go is uncertain but they should make the playoffs.