The sports world is at its peak right now with the NFL and college football season well underway, and Major League Baseball in the thick of their playoffs. Hockey has begun, and now the NBA is about to tipoff Tuesday evening and has a very intriguing season in store for us.
Two years ago, the league lacked any excitement for fans, but last season was different. The Houston Rockets took the Golden State Warriors to the brink of elimination in the Western Conference and may very well have knocked the then-defending champions if Chris Paul did not miss Games 6 and 7.
But you also had the new-look Oklahoma City Thunder to keep an eye on, a young, upstart Utah Jazz team, a New Orleans Pelicans squad that finally made noise in the playoffs, a Philadelphia 76ers team that made a giant leap into a near-elite roster with Ben Simmons’ debut and Joel Embiid’s development, and a loaded Boston Celtics team. There were exciting games and storylines throughout, and the 2018-2019 season figures to be no less.
Let’s start with the obvious one: LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. If you thought you heard too much of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, wait because it will only get worse. This is the biggest name in the game joining the most glamorous and significant brand in the game. This is Alex Rodriguez joining the New York Yankees. It would be like if Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers joined the Dallas Cowboys.
His presence alone vaults the NBA’s legacy franchise back into relevancy after five seasons without playoff basketball. The question isn’t whether the Lakers will make the NBA playoffs or not, LeBron James doesn’t miss the postseason. It’s where they will finish in the standings and how deep they will go into the spring and summer.
50 wins aren’t as unrealistic as one would think. They had 35 wins last year with a 20-9 stretch at one point. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram missing a combined 53 games, and the team is extremely young, so you have to think that they will only be getting better. Getting a full season of Ingram and Ball, combined with theirs, Kyle Kuzma’s, and Josh Hart’s development while bringing in established NBA veterans would make a .500 record (41 wins) a legitimate expectation. Add in LeBron James, who has improved every team he has gone to bye double-digit wins, so 50 is possible.
High 40’s is more likely, which leads into the next point as to why they can come close to 50: The West isn’t as tough as people are making it out to be. It’s still going to be a slugfest, but not the extent as one would think.
The Houston Rockets retained Chris Paul and Clint Capela while adding Carmelo Anthony, and still have James Harden. However, they lost two quality three-and-D wing players in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute who were important reasons as to why the Rockets made such a deep run. The offense will be the first thing to stand out with this team, but the defense was the reason they improved so much in 2018. So, there’s no doubt they have taken a step back.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are full of veterans who have peaked regarding ability and production. Thinking Russell Westbrook and Paul George will be better this late in their career compared to when they were better athletes is hard to fathom. Not to mention, they have no payroll flexibility to improve upon a team that was knocked out in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The New Orleans Pelicans lost both DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo and replaced them with Julius Randle, and anyone will tell you how it’s hard to see them improving from that. The Portland Trailblazers are still the same team from the past few seasons: perennial first-round exits, but again did nothing to help bolster the squad and have no payroll flexibility either.
The Utah Jazz are young and exciting but thinking that they could be better than a LeBron James-led team with promising talent is hard to imagine. And with the drama surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves, they are a big wild-card who can flame out really quickly. The only team that improved this season is the San Antonio Spurs for the sole reason that they will be getting a full season of DeMar DeRozan instead of nine games of Kawhi Leonard.
The West will once against be competitive, but it is up for grabs after the Golden State Warriors, which cannot be said for the Eastern Conference. There is a clear-cut top-tier at the top with the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Toronto Raptors. The Celtics add All-Star Gordon Hayward and All-Pro talent Kyrie Irving to a team that was one win away from an NBA Finals appearance. The 76ers have another year of development, and the Raptors improved a roster that won 59 games in 2018.
The Milwaukee Brewers are the wild-card. How far Giannis Antentekoumpo can carry them is still up for debate. The Bucks have surrounded him with the necessary talent, or so we think, and now it’s up for the players to come together and for the Greek Freak to show us he is ready to emerge as a full-fledged superstar. But after them, there is not much to worry about.
Other storylines and questions to keep an eye on, other than how the Lakers’ youth will mesh with James, include how Kawhi Leonard will look. He’s essentially missed an entire season and is with a brand new organization. How will he respond in his contract year? Can he dominate the East as people expect him to? Or will he prove to be a product of Grep Popovich’s system?
What about the Golden State Warriors? Will they be on cruise control the entire year? Kevin Durant’s and Klay Thompson’s pending free agency will no doubt be the center of attention for much of the season. Many speculate that it is going to be Durant’s last season in the Bay Area.
Where will Jimmy Butler end up? Will he remain with Minnesota and ruin their locker room and in turn the season? Or will we finally get an end to his sweepstakes?
And that’s just the start. We will no doubt get other things to pay attention to as the season wanes on. For now, here are the playoff teams I expect from each conference.
- Golden State Warriors
- Houston Rockets
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Utah Jazz
- Portland Trailblazers
- New Orleans Pelicans
- San Antonio Spurs
- Boston Celtics
- Toronto Raptors
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Milwaukee Brewers
- Indiana Pacers
- Washington Wizards
- Miami Heat
- Detroit Pistons
Rookie of the Year: DeAndre Ayton
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard
Coach of the Year: Luke Walton
MVP: LeBron James