NBA Preview: 6 Questions and Answers for the 2018-19 Season
As we embark on the 2018-19 NBA season, here are 7 intriguing questions for how the year will play out, along with my answers.
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Question #1: How will stars fit on their new teams?
As well as can be expected.
Four stars switched teams this off-season with two being dealt for each other, another signing a prove it one year deal, and the biggest of all stars going to the city that has seen the most stars of any, both on and off the basketball court.
Beginning with one of the best players to ever play the game, LeBron James. LeBron grew tired of the Cavs roster last year and sulked until trades for more young, dynamic, and athletic talent occurred, trades that ultimately did not work out as well as I anticipated, but they did do the trick of re-energizing James. Well now he will be playing on a roster that has a plethora of good athletes along with playmakers. This will be very different than the type of team LeBron has had around him in recent history, which was predicated upon his playmaking ability operating in space due to an abundance of three point shooters around him that were largely dependent on James and one other playmaker (Wade, Kyrie) getting them shots. This Lakers team will not having as good of floor spacing, even though it should be better than what some think; rather, they will have several players who can create for themselves and others. I am curious to see how much LeBron embraces that as well as playing at pace, if he does, and he did choose this situation, then I think the wealth of passing, basketball IQ, and shot creating ability on the court will be a joy to watch and more importantly, very effective. Otherwise, I hope he and the Lakers agree on reducing his playing time along with his usage, and that in turn leads to much better regular season effort on defense by LeBron, as his effort on that end can be infectious either positively or negatively.
Demarcus Cousins fit in Golden State is a pretty clean one simply in terms of basketball, but obviously the Achilles tear and his attitude complicate matters. Purely related to fit, Boogie replaces guys like JaVale McGee and David West on the court, so even if he is not as effective once he comes back, he should be an improvement on either of those guys. His game more closely resembles West or Mo Speights than JaVale, and he easily can do what they did on offense in terms of spacing, but of course he also brings an impactful low-post game to the table. Defensively may not be as smooth of a fit, though, especially if his quickness is reduced due to the injury. Ultimately, Cousins raises the Warriors insanely high ceiling even higher and doesn’t carry as much risk as one might expect considering he is playing for a contract and is on a contract that the Warriors can easily part with if things go really bad.
As for the two players dealt for each other (with others mixed in), they are clean fits because they each go directly into the role of the player they were traded for. Of course a healthy Kawhi Leonard is easily better than DeMar DeRozan largely due to much better defense and shooting beyond the arc. Thus, the Raptors easily come out ahead on this exchange while the Spurs will continue to become more of a mid to long-range two point shooting team, which is not exactly the best way to zig when everyone else is zagging.
Question #2: Will anyone challenge the Celtics in the East?
(Boston 12/06/17) Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum celebrates a 3-pointer during the first half of the NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks at the TD Garden on Wednesday, December 6, 2017. Staff Photo by Matt Stone
Last year I answered this question with the Cavs inserted, but for a very obvious reason, they are out of the picture, but many still view one team as the clear favorite in the East: the Boston Celtics. I am not one of those people though and not because I think they are overrated, but because I think the Raptors are a great team. They should be roughly on par with Boston largely due to the aforementioned trade for Kawhi. Both teams should be great as they bring back very similar teams to those that won 55 (Boston) and 59 (Toronto) games last year, but Boston has Heyward and Kyrie back from injury, and Toronto upgraded in a big way from DeRozan. Both teams also have a great deal of depth and should benefit from improvement from young players such as Tatum, Brown, and Rozier for Boston and VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam for Toronto. I do think Boston has the higher ceiling largely due the ability and upside of Jayson Tatum easily eclipsing that of any of the young Raptors. That said, if both teams are relatively healthy, I think not only does Toronto have the best player, but the Celtics have more that can go wrong due to possible issues over how to spread the minutes and shots around a team with so many guys that are either accustomed to a major role or earned one by the time Boston took LeBron and the Cavs to 7 games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Boston certainly has a great coach to deal with just about anything, though.This could be a year where both of these teams win around 60 games and have a tremendous clash in the playoffs, and now the Raptors have a Finals MVP to help them with their playoff struggles.
Question #3: Who will be the second best team out West?
HOUSTON, TX – MAY 17: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets celebrates in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers during Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals at the Toyota Center for the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 17, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Last year I predicted the Rockets and I will stick with that pick. I do expect them to fall off some and they can be challenged, by Utah especially, but despite some changes including losing Trevor Ariza, this team is pretty close to being as good as they were last year. They also are one of the more likely teams to make upgrades during the season. They should get into at least the mid 50’s in wins, down from 65 last year, which will likely be good for second in a conference that has a lot of teams that should end up in the 45-53 range.
Question #4: Will anyone establish themselves as a likely heir apparent to the Warriors?
Here is most of my answer to this question last year before talking about the Cavs:
Outlook fuzzy, ask again later.
The team with the best chance at becoming the next super team is probably Boston because they have such a great mixture of current stars (Hayward, Irving, Horford), good young talent (Tatum, Brown, Smart), and they still have a collection of good picks. If Tatum for instance develops into a star, they could become a strong title contender in the near future when Golden State is potentially declining. They do lack a true superstar, but Irving has proven that he is very capable of being a top scorer in the postseason.
There’s also the Bucks led by the aforementioned Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as a good young supporting core in Middleton, Parker, and Brogdon. The key with Milwaukee is Thon Maker. This 20 year old (well, maybe) came into the league very raw and the Bucks were made fun of for drafting him where they did, but I expect they will have the last laugh as the athletic 7’1 player has already shown great promise and shot 38% from 3 as a rookie. He is also taking after Giannis in terms of work ethic and attitude, which is tremendous for his and the team’s future. He and Giannis have the potential to be a fearsome duo in all facets of the game due to their combination of length, athleticism, skill, and drive.
There is one other team that really intrigues me for a few years down the road. My belief in them can be summed up in three words: Trust the Process. Health is of course the biggest X factor with the Sixers, but if that works out for them, they could have the best player in the league in a few years in Embiid, along with a dynamic point forward in Ben Simmons, a very good point guard in Markelle Fultz, and whatever free agent(s) they can lure with their cap money that they have carved out going forward. There has been a lot of speculation of LeBron loving LA, but if Embid and Simmons stay healthy this year and meet or exceed expectations, the smart move might be to go to The City of Brotherly Love.
That brings up the Lakers who make the list because they have a good shot at LeBron, but also because Lonzo Ball could become an elite point guard within the next few years and they have some other intriguing pieces along with cap money (plus it’s the Lakers) that could lure another top free agent along with James.
A lot of this still looks good with the benefit of hindsight, hence why I included it!
Boston is still the team that makes the most sense for the same reasons mentioned above, but now Tatum is a star, and they are a clearer contender both now and going forward. Considering the injuries this team dealt with last year, they far exceeded expectations, and gained valuable playoff experience, especially for the young players that got more run than they would have without the injuries. They are ahead of schedule and should be great for quite some time considering the age of most of their best players and the assets they still have (most prominently next year’s Kings pick unless it’s #1 and therefore goes to Philly, which would very much change this conversation).
The Bucks still have the potential to rise into a title contender, but Thon Maker doesn’t look as promising as he did a year ago so I am not sure that they are going to be able to develop or find another star to go with Giannis and Middleton, who could leave after this year anyway. On the bright side, their coaching situation has vastly improved.
The Sixers, like the Celtics went ahead of their expected schedule last year even though Fultz was a huge disappointment. However, they missed out on an opportunity to add a star with their cap space and only have one more chance to do so, which hurts their chances of rising to the top of the league. They will need to either land a marquee free agent or see Fultz develop into the star many projected him to be going into last year. Or Embiid and Simmons could both just become top 5 players.
Now that the Lakers did land LeBron, they have a realistic chance of being the next champion not named the Warriors, which would mean that LeBron would book end X amount of Golden State championships. Like the Sixers, much of their chances are tied to landing another star with cap space next year and/or having some of their young talent bloom. Lonzo had a disappointing rookie season, but I remain high on him due to his elite passing and basketball IQ to go with very good size and better than expected defense. Obviously the jumper is crucial for him, and he did shoot it better as the year went on and has since rebuilt it so it should be improved. Brandon Ingram also has the ability to become a star and guys like Kuzma and Hart should develop into above average players, if they aren’t already.
There is one more team that could have next: The Denver Nuggets. Nikola Jokic has Bill Walton potential on offense, although his defense will hold him back from becoming that level of a player. Murray and Harris are on pathways to become borderline all-star caliber players, Millsap is a very good vet, and they have some interesting younger pieces like Trey Lyles and Michael Porter, Jr. I think Denver will win around 50 games this year, and they could easily build off that to become a legit contender as soon as next season.
Question #5: Can anyone actually beat the Warriors?
Last year I mistakenly said no to that question. I say it was a mistake despite the Warriors winning the title because despite the inevitability of a Golden State title that I felt in that moment (I shifted to thinking Houston had a real chance and actually picked them to win on the eve of the playoffs) and many others felt throughout the year, Houston clearly had a good chance at winning the Western Conference Finals.
As for this season, I still think the Warriors are the favorite, but along with the Rockets, I think the winner of the East will have a real chance of competing for the title. Both Boston and Toronto have the personnel to defend Golden State, they have superior depth by a significant margin, and they have potent offenses. These also both have former Finals heroes in Irving and Leonard.
Question #6: Who will make the playoffs and then ultimately win it all?
East in order of seeding: Boston, Toronto, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana, Washington, Miami, Charlotte
West in order of seeding: Golden State, Houston, Utah, LAL, Denver, OKC, New Orleans, Minnesota (Portland will take this spot if Butler is dealt for 50 cents on the dollar or they just internally combust)
From that point, I predict straight chalk to the Finals where the Celtics will give Golden State all they can handle, but the season will end just as the last two have, with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and the rest of the Warriors taking turns holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Golden State will struggle with motivation and will be more vulnerable than in the past two seasons, but unless Houston makes a big mid-season move or two, they won’t be as threatening as they were last year, and Boston will be close, but will probably be a year away.
Last year when I thought it was pretty much a given that the Warriors would win it all, I concluded by making the case for watching the NBA despite that, which mostly remains the same this year if you feel that the Warriors are inevitable. I think we have a better chance of seeing a new champ this year, though, and of course an injury or two can totally alter the landscape of the league. Enjoy the season and check back for my MVP pick and NBA legacy column.