Regardless of whether the 2019-20 NBA season can resume at some point, which teams should be far better next season than they were this year?
It remains unclear whether the NBA will be able to resume its 2019-20 season in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but some teams should already be looking ahead to 2020-21.
Although the Golden State Warriors were the only team officially eliminated from playoff contention when the league went on hiatus in mid-March, a number of other lottery-bound squads weren’t far behind. The Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks, among others, were likely only days away from clinching their ticket to the lottery dais as well.
Some of those squads figure to be right back in the lottery next season, too. But others could be on the brink of a drastic one-year turnaround.
Whether due to key players returning from injury, trade-deadline acquisitions who could make a major impact or the potential for significant offseason upgrades, the following three teams stand out as the most likely to drastically improve upon their 2019-20 win totals.
3. Atlanta Hawks
At 20-47, the Atlanta Hawks boasted the NBA’s fourth-worst record when the season went on hiatus. But there’s reason to believe they could be back in the playoff mix as early as next year.
It starts with All-Star point guard Trae Young, who has quickly cemented himself as one of the league’s most promising young players. He ranked fourth in points per game (29.6) and second in assists (9.3) while flashing nearly unlimited shooting range and dazzling passing vision. His defense remains a significant concern — he is 503rd out of 503 players in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus — but the Hawks have invested in defenders elsewhere to help account for Young’s deficiencies on that end of the floor.
Atlanta added two such wing defenders in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish with the Nos. 4 and 10 picks, respectively, in the 2019 draft. Hunter won’t light up scoreboards most nights, but his defensive versatility makes him an ideal plug-and-play 3-and-D weapon alongside Young. Meanwhile, Reddish got off to a slow start as a rookie, but he began flashing the upside that made him a highly ranked recruit as the season progressed.
In the frontcourt, the Hawks have a nightly 20-10 threat in 22-year-old big man John Collins, who also buried 1.4 triples per game at a career-high 40.1 percent clip this season. Next year, he’ll play alongside trade-deadline acquisition Clint Capela, who should help shore up the Hawks’ interior defense while serving as a steady pick-and-roll partner with Young on offense.
Depending on how the lottery shakes out, the Hawks could have another top-five pick to bring into the fold this offseason as well. They’re also projected to have the league’s most salary-cap space, which they could either spend on free-agent additions or use to acquire additional assets by taking on unwanted contracts from other teams.
Having Young, Hunter, Reddish, Collins, Capela and Kevin Huerter alone gives the Hawks one of the league’s top young cores. Throw in another mid-to-high lottery pick and the potential for significant upgrades in free agency, and it’s easy to imagine the Hawks flirting with 40-plus wins in 2020-21.
2. Brooklyn Nets
The 2019-20 season was always bound to be a transition year for the Brooklyn Nets.
They pulled off one of the biggest coups of this past offseason when they signed both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency, but Durant had just torn his Achilles during the 2019 NBA Finals and figured to miss the entire season. Swapping out D’Angelo Russell for Irving was an upgrade on paper, but Irving’s flameout with the Boston Celtics raised questions about how he’d mesh with the Nets’ young players.
Those questions erupted in mid-January after a 117-106 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, when Irving told reporters that it was “glaring, in terms of the pieces that we need in order to be at the next level.”
“Collectively, I feel like we have great pieces, but it’s pretty glaring we need one more piece or two more pieces that will complement myself, [Durant], [DeAndre Jordan], [Garrett Temple], Spence [Dinwiddie], Caris [LeVert], and we’ll see how that evolves,” he added.
Although the Nets sent Russell to the Golden State Warriors in a double sign-and-trade for Durant, they do still have a strong supporting cast that includes Dinwiddie, LeVert, Jordan and promising young big man Jarrett Allen. Sharpshooter Joe Harris is a free agent this offseason, but the financial uncertainty hanging over the NBA could convince him to stay put in Brooklyn.
Ultimately, this comes down to Durant and Irving, who played only 20 games this year because of an assortment of injuries.
Achilles injuries are notoriously difficult for basketball players to overcome, and there’s no guarantee that Durant ever will return to his pre-injury form. But if he does, he’ll give the Nets an elite, top-five player who can push Irving into his more natural No. 2 role.
The Nets may shop some combination of LeVert, Dinwiddie and Allen to find a third star this offseason, or they could decide to see how those guys mesh with Durant and Irving before making any drastic decisions. Either way, the Nets should be back in the title hunt next season if Durant and Irving can recover from their respective injuries without major complications.
1. Golden State Warriors
The 2019-20 season was also bound to be a transition year for the Golden State Warriors. They lost Durant in free agency, and Klay Thompson was likely to miss the year with a torn ACL that he suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals.
When Stephen Curry broke a bone in his hand in the fourth game of the season, it went from a transition year to an outright rebuilding campaign in the blink of an eye.
Head coach Steve Kerr trotted out 33 different starting lineups (!) in 65 games, as Russell missed 32 games and Draymond Green missed 22. Eric Paschall, whom the Warriors selected with the No. 41 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, led the team in total points scored (837), and Russell (779), Alec Burks (773), Damion Lee (621) and Glenn Robinson III (619) rounded out the top five.
The #LightYearsAhead Warriors, these were not.
Durant won’t be returning to the Bay Area in 2020-21, but Curry and Thompson will both be back in the fold. The Warriors also flipped Russell at the trade deadline for Andrew Wiggins, who should be a more natural fit alongside Curry and Thompson than Russell would have been.
The draft should provide some reinforcements, too. No matter how the lottery shakes out, the Warriors would be guaranteed a top-five pick based on the current regular-season standings. Regardless of whether they keep that pick, trade down or flip it for veteran help, the Warriors could be getting a significant infusion of talent.
The Dubs were already projected to be well over the luxury-tax threshold even prior to the pandemic, so they aren’t likely to make major additions in free agency. But the return of Curry and Thompson alone should put them right back into the Western Conference playoff picture, if not the NBA title race.