Congrats, Toronto Raptors! It barely took two days for your NBA championship to be swept into the category of “old news” by Klay Thompson’s ACL injury and the Los Angeles Lakers’ blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis on Saturday night. Pro basketball has a reputation for never having an offseason, but this past week was a whirlwind even by NBA standards.
So in that spirit of never living in the league’s present moment, let’s look ahead to what the flurry of recent news might mean for the NBA title race in 2019-20. We’ll start with the Lakers, who vaulted into first place in the betting markets’ championship odds after trading for Davis. But just how good will they be?
We ran our very own CARMELO ratings — our projections that assess each team’s strength based on its roster — on the current Lakers (that is, with Davis included and renouncing all the free agents who are likely to leave the team over the offseason). And keeping in mind that the following depth chart may bear little resemblance to the version LA rolls out in the fall, the Lakers as currently constituted are projected to have a +5.8 net efficiency rating and a full-strength regular season Elo rating of 1652. That’s good, although it doesn’t exactly guarantee the team a title — for comparison, that rating would have ranked ninth in the league at the end of this past regular season.
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Still, that’s a massive 125-point improvement in full strength Elo from the end of last season, and it sets the Lakers up in strong position to end their six-season playoff drought. That’s with LeBron James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma and a bunch of role players, too. If LA manages to snag a third star this offseason — it still has nearly $24 million in cap space to work with after adding Davis, which isn’t quite max money1 but is enough to add players from the next tier of free agency — the team would rise even further in the West’s pecking order.
The move was also a big splash for new Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, who snagged a ton of assets in exchange for parting with one of the game’s greatest superstars. Those pieces — multiple prospects and first-round draft picks — could eventually pay big dividends for New Orleans, and they represent an especially impressive return given how Davis and the Pelicans’ damaged relationship affected the team’s trade leverage.
In the short term, though, the Pelicans might not be much more than an average team. Even if we assume they hang onto Jrue Holiday, draft Zion Williamson with Thursday’s No. 1 pick and select, say, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter fourth overall (giving them another big man just for the sake of argument),2 our depth charts would give New Orleans a net efficiency of -0.8, which equates to 39 wins or an Elo rating of 1486.
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You could convince yourself that the Pelicans can push their winning percentage above .500 if you project Zion as an extra-special No. 1 pick3 — in fact, under this scenario, New Orleans now has a lot of young players who could outplay these ratings. But those players (save Zion) also carry a lot of the same flaws that kept LA from being better last year. (We’re specifically looking at Brandon Ingram, whose productivity has consistently failed to match his potential as a pro.)
Again, though, this wasn’t a short-term play for the Pelicans, so they’re unlikely to be too concerned about next season. And with Zion and all those draft picks, they look well set up for the long term.
Finally, there’s one more factor that affects the new-look Lakers’ outlook in 2019-20, and that’s the state of the Golden State Warriors. Whether Thompson and/or Kevin Durant leave the team in free agency, the team must brace for the possibility that neither will be present for the entire regular season because of their injuries. And that leaves the Warriors looking far, far more vulnerable than they have going into any season in a long time:4
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This lineup even assumes the team is able to use its Bird rights to bring back free-agent center Kevon Looney, who seems set to be one of the higher-rated players on next season’s team. Even with Looney, the Warriors have a projected net rating of +4.8, good for 54 wins and an Elo of 1629. Those are nothing to scoff at — that Elo would have ranked ahead of all but seven non-Warriors last season, including the Portland Trail Blazer team Golden State defeated in the Western Conference finals. But it’s a vastly reduced level of talent from what the Warriors have been accustomed to these past few years, particularly after Durant joined the team, and it would position Golden State below the current Lakers in the West’s hierarchy.
Again, this is so preliminary as to be almost silly. (So it’s par for the course in the reactionary modern NBA.) Neither the Draft nor free agency has even happened yet. So much can still change this summer. But in the opening salvo of the offseason, the Lakers appear to have claimed their place among the top handful of contenders in the league again — a necessary step with James going into his age-35 season and a fan base foaming at the mouth for a postseason return. But likely only a first step.