NBA Preseason Rankings For The 2019-20 Season

James Harden and the Rockets are in their best position to win a title entering the 2019-20 season (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

The NBA season is fast-approaching, which means it’s time for our annual post outlining preseason ratings.

Below you’ll find our 2019-20 NBA preseason rankings, along with information on how we rank and project teams. (For more information, including conference- and division-based projected final standings, you can also see our 2019-20 NBA preseason projections post.)

Editors Note: You can sign up for algorithmic NBA picks and predictions (game winner, point spread, over/under, and money line) for all 2019-20 games on our signup page.

The 2019-20 TeamRankings NBA Preseason Rankings

The table below shows our 2019-20 preseason ranking of all 30 NBA teams, along with each team’s associated preseason predictive rating (e.g. 5.9 for Houston).

The team ratings are expressed as points better (positive rating) or worse (negative rating) than a “perfectly average” NBA team, when playing on a neutral court.

The 4th and 5th columns show each team’s final predictive rating from the 2018-19 season, and the expected change in their rating from last season to this season. Positive “Change” values mean a team is expected to improve; negative values mean they are expect to decline.

The final two columns show info about the win total projections of the component systems that we blended in order to create our ratings. We’ll explain how that works in more detail below.

RankTeam2019-20 RatingLast Year RatingChangeConsensus Win RangeWeighted Avg Wins
1Houston Rockets5.95.2+0.753.0 - 57.055.4
2Milwaukee Bucks5.07.4-2.452.9 - 57.554.8
3Utah Jazz4.84.6+0.250.0 - 57.052.5
4Denver Nuggets4.83.8+1.047.8 - 55.052.5
5Los Angeles Clippers4.70.6+4.147.8 - 54.552.1
6Philadelphia 76ers4.12.8+1.348.3 - 54.552.6
7Golden State Warriors3.36.5-3.244.2 - 56.048.5
8Los Angeles Lakers3.1-0.9+4.043.1 - 51.548.5
9Boston Celtics2.63.8-1.244.0 - 56.048.6
10Toronto Raptors1.86.0-4.245.0 - 48.546.5
11Portland Trailblazers1.43.6-2.240.0 - 46.543.5
12San Antonio Spurs1.11.7-0.639.0 - 46.542.9
13Indiana Pacers0.92.1-1.242.0 - 46.544.1
14Miami Heat0.5-0.5+1.041.6 - 46.043.5
15New Orleans Pelicans0.3-0.8+1.139.0 - 46.940.3
16Dallas Mavericks0.3-1.2+1.537.4 - 46.040.8
17Orlando Magic0.0-0.6+0.641.0 - 43.442.1
18Oklahoma City Thunder-0.33.0-3.331.5 - 47.039.0
19Brooklyn Nets-0.7-1.1+0.435.0 - 43.540.2
20Minnesota Timberwolves-0.8-0.8+0.035.1 - 43.037.6
21Sacramento Kings-1.3-1.3+0.033.5 - 40.036.6
22Detroit Pistons-1.9-1.1-0.836.0 - 38.737.3
23Chicago Bulls-2.8-7.3+4.532.5 - 37.034.7
24Phoenix Suns-3.0-7.7+4.728.5 - 36.031.8
25Memphis Grizzlies-3.7-2.0-1.727.0 - 38.330.1
26Atlanta Hawks-4.3-5.8+1.527.5 - 34.030.8
27Washington Wizards-5.3-2.5-2.825.6 - 32.928.3
28Charlotte Hornets-6.6-1.2-5.422.7 - 32.725.6
29New York Knicks-6.7-8.2+1.520.0 - 29.025.1
30Cleveland Cavaliers-7.1-8.2+1.121.9 - 26.023.9

How We Created The 2019-20 TeamRankings NBA Preseason Rankings

For our NFL and college football ratings, we’ve done historical research to identify and properly value team-level stats that are highly correlated with success in an upcoming season. We then create models using those stats, and blend our model output with betting market info to create our final preseason ratings.

Once upon a time, we took that same approach with our NBA preseason ratings. However, we found that our projections using that approach were less accurate than the market, and less accurate than other, more advanced systems with publicly available projections.

We suspect that the main reasons for this are:

  • The relative impact of individual player skill compared to the coaching system and franchise/program history is much higher in the NBA than it is in NFL or college football. (The main exception to this is the quarterback position, which is the one position that we do explicitly adjust for in our NFL preseason ratings.)
  • The NBA analytics community has made greater strides in player all-in-one value metrics than their counterparts studying the NFL. Part of this simply stems from better data being widely available for NBA players. (Go ahead, try to evaluate NFL offensive linemen based only on box score info.)

Both of these factors make constructing NBA team-level models relatively less fruitful then player-level models.

So rather than stick with our old team-level model, we now create our NBA preseason ratings by blending several player-level models from other sources with team win total projections from the betting market. Click here for a more detailed explanation in our post discussing how we make the ratings.

2019-20 NBA Preseason Rankings Highlights

Here are some observations and notes from our preseason ratings.

No Clear Champ Front Runner

We’ve been creating preseason rankings and projections since the 2011-2012 seasons, making this the 9th year. Our No. 1 team this season is the Houston Rockets, with a rating of 5.9. That’s our lowest-rated preseason No. 1 since the 2012-2013 season, when we had the Miami Heat at No. 1 with a rating of 4.9.

Second place is the Milwaukee Bucks at 5.0, putting them 0.9 points behind the Rockets. The last time our projected No. 1 was less than one full point ahead of No. 2 was the 2014-2015 season, when we had San Antonio No. 1 at 6.3, and Cleveland No. 2 at 6.0.

The upshot here is that this season is one of the most wide-open NBA seasons in years. With the Warriors losing Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson (for most of the season, at least), they are no longer head and shoulders above the crowd. There are at least a half dozen teams, maybe more, that could win the title with nobody batting an eye.

Down On Both Los Angeles Teams

The Clippers and Lakers are currently the two betting market favorites to win the NBA title, yet we have them ranked No. 5 and No. 8 respectively. What gives?

Well, first of all, the Clippers are rated only 0.3 points behind No. 2 Milwaukee, so we aren’t as down on them as you might think from a quick glance at the rankings. But they’re still 1.2 points behind Houston, and the Lakers are even further back.

There are a couple reasons for this.

First, the non-market projections systems we incorporate into our preseason ratings are simply down on both LA teams relative to the market. If we were to create a “narrative” here about why that might be the case, we’d suggest that the huge star power moving to a city that loves stars could be driving some more big money bets toward the LA teams than is really justified by their rosters.

Second, our ratings are focused on and driven by the season win totals projections. However, in the NBA, there can be large differences between how teams perform in the regular season versus in the playoffs. “Playoff LeBron” is a real thing, in other words. And Kawhi “Load Management” Leonard is almost certainly going to miss some regular season games for rest purposes, which isn’t the case during the playoffs.

As a result, both the Clippers and Lakers have relatively more optimistic champion futures odds than regular season win totals. For example, the Rockets are favored by the market to go over 53.5 wins in the regular season, while the Lakers are favored to go under 51.5 … yet the Lakers have better title odds than the Rockets. Our projections don’t handle this discrepancy well, and for the time being we have decided to focus more on accurate season win total projections than on accurate championship odds.

Dallas Over New Orleans? It’s About the Schedule

You might notice that Dallas and New Orleans are in a virtual tie for projected rating. Both also play in the same division (Southwest). Yet, Dallas has a higher win projection total, by 0.5 wins. That is explained by their schedules. They both play the teams in their division four times, and all teams from the Eastern Conference twice. But the scheduling format means that they play some teams from the other two divisions in the West three times, and others four times.

Dallas only has to play Utah (No. 3), the Clippers (No. 5), Golden State (No. 7), and Oklahoma City (No. 18) three times each. New Orleans plays each of those teams four times, while they only get three games against Denver (No. 4), Minnesota (No. 20), Sacramento (No. 21), and Phoenix (No. 24). So basically, New Orleans has two extra games against teams we project as playoff contenders in the West. With both of these young, talented teams being on the cusp of playoff contention in the West, that’s something to keep in mind.

Teams We Think Are Underrated

While it’s not a true apples-to-apples situation, we can compare to “Vegas rankings” implied by recent NBA championship futures odds to our NBA preseason rankings. We seem most optimistic on the Jazz (No. 3 TR,  No. 7 Vegas), Nuggets (No. 4 TR, No. 8 Vegas), Thunder (No. 18 TR, No. 24 Vegas), and Suns (No. 24 TR, No. 29 Vegas).

Teams We Think Are Overrated

On the flip side, compared to “Vegas” our preseason rankings seem most pessimistic on the Clippers (No. 5 TR, No. 1 Vegas), Lakers (No. 8 TR, No. 2 Vegas), Nets (No. 19 TR, No. 9 Vegas), and Hawks (No. 26 TR, No. 21 Vegas).

Three Details About Our NBA Preseason Rankings

Before you make a comment about where we’ve ranked your favorite team and call us a bunch of no good bleepety-bleeps, please keep a couple things in mind:

  • We’re using a consensus of systematic approaches to rank all 30 teams. Because most of the systems that we include in our preseason win total consensus generalize predictive factors, they’re going to get plenty of individual teams wrong, and a few of them very wrong, for many different reasons. The goal for each system is overall accuracy across the entire set of 30 teams. Combining several systems helps dampen that effect somewhat. A quirk that may adversely affect a team’s projection in one system may not affect the others. If we wanted to maximize our odds of making the most accurate projection for only your specific favorite team, we’d likely take a different approach, with more in depth research on a single team, rather than using a consensus of broader systems.
  • Look at ratings, not just rankings. For example, this year, the difference beween No. 2 Milwaukee and No. 6 Philadelphia is 0.9 points. That’s about the same as the difference between Philadelphia and No. 7 Golden State (0.8 points). In other words, even though Philadelphia is ranked No. 6, they are just about as close to being No. 2 as they are No. 7. So it’s important to not just compare where teams rank, but how they are grouped and how closely the ratings are to each other.
  • Making futures bets requires more information. Payout odds for futures bets make a huge impact on your expected returns. In short, hunting for value in current futures odds based on our projections is a more involved process than is covered in this post. In addition, we should note that our projections do not currently account for the “shortened roster” effect seen in the NBA playoffs. This is where a “top-heavy” team like the Lakers plays their stars more minutes in the playoffs, and so outperforms their regular season rating. So playoff advancement odds, in particular should not simply be bet at face value.