After a huge NBA offseason, we are under a week away from the 2018-2019 season tipoff! A lot has went down since the Warriors won their 3rd title in the last four years; LeBron is a Laker, Kawhi is a Raptor, Melo is a Rocket, Boogie is a Warrior, PG surprised everyone and stayed in OKC, and Anthony Davis is now represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Will AD join LeBron in LA next year? Probably. This year, however, will be very interesting as franchises jockey for position in a wide-open Eastern Conference while there are arguably 12 teams in the West with a shot at the playoffs. It will be a fun season, as always, so let’s explore playoff scenarios.
1. Boston Celtics
The Celtics will have a healthy Kyrie Irving and healthy Gordon Hayward in the starting line-up at the beginning of the year. Despite their blatant overachievement last year, I think they actually improve on their 55-27 mark due to improved health and development of Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown/Terry Rozier. Eight teams have won 60 wins in a season in the past five years, so a team with three all-stars and one (or two!) future all-star(s) has a good shot.
2. Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard is on the Raptors. I will repeat that, KAWHI LEONARD IS ON THE RAPTORS!!! The Raptors won 59 games last year, and they added Kawhi without losing any key pieces. They even managed to hold on to esteemed prospects OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. The coaching change is likely a change for the better as well. A Kawhi-led 3-and-D style of play will be more conducive to the modern NBA than Demar DeRozen special (fade-away long 2-pointer as the shot clock ticks down). Due to the new coach and new roster centerpiece, The Drakes could start the season slowly but expect to see them in the conference finals. They may not threaten 60 wins again this year but they will be a close second to Boston.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Although the Bucks overpaid Ersan Ilyasova at 12:01am on July 1st, they did manage to snag Brook Lopez on a reasonable contract. However, signing Mike Budenholzer as their head coach was unquestionably the best offseason move the Bucks made – in fact it might even be one of the most impactful moves made by any team excluding the LeBron signing and Paul George/Chris Paul re-signings. Through no fault of his own, Coach Bud couldn’t do much with a talentless Hawks team last year after making the playoffs his first four years in Atlanta. With a change of scenery and the East’s 2nd best player, expect to see Bud and the Bucks snag a first round bye.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Over the last six seasons, only 12 teams have won 52 games or more in a season including last years’ sixers squad. The 2017-18 sixers only made it to 52 wins by winning their last 16 regular season games, only 4 of which came against teams with records above .500. This, along with losing a couple key rotation guys in free agency, pits them for some regression, despite possible improvements from Simmons and Embiid.
5. Indiana Pacers
Last year the Pacers were able to push LeBron James and the Cavs to 7 games in the second round of the playoffs. It took a heroic effort from The King to beat the NBA’s MIP, Victor Oladipo. Oladipo changed his diet and his body before the start of last season, and if any of those habits rub off on Myles Turner and the rest of the team then they should contend for a first round bye. This is without mentioning the smart signings of Tyreke Evans to run the second unit and Dougie McBuckets to more than fill the gap left when Lance Stevenson signed with LA.
6. Washington Wizards
Jeff Green is coming home. After playing on 5 teams over the past 4 years, Jeff Green is back in in DC. His performance won’t be quite as prolific as his college days as a Hoya but he will provide a noticeable spark off the bench. The other two moves the Wiz made were more questionable. Bringing in notorious locker room cancer Dwight Howard has not worked for his last four employers (Lakers, Rockets, Hawks, or Hornets), and with trading Marcin Gortat to the Clips for “Me-First, Ima pull this” Austin Rivers should theoretically only take shots away from Beal and Otto Porter… The good(?) news is the locker room can’t get much worse after last years’ tension between John Wall and Brad Beal. I don’t see Rivers or Dwight providing any sort of balance to the squad but a bench unit with Dwight, Jeff Green, Kelly Oubre, and Rivers at least sounds respectable on paper.
7. Miami Heat
Erik Spoelstra is, without a doubt, one of the five best coaches in the NBA. The feats the Heat have accomplished under Spo, since LeBron went back to The Land are impressive when factoring in the talent at his disposal. The Heat are the only Eastern Conference playoff team without a bona fide star, and the guy they are paying star money to (Hassan Whiteside) wasn’t even on the court in end of game situations down the stretch last year. Despite paying Whiteside and Tyler Johnson north of $44mil this year, the combination of strong play from role players, young talent, and superior coaching lands Pat Riley and the gang in the back end of the playoff race.
8. Charlotte Hornets
Looking at the bottom of the East you have the Magic, Hawks, Nets, and Bulls as teams that are penciled in for lottery appearance next year. The Knicks should probably be included in this group as well assuming Porzingis takes the typical year-long recovery from his ACL injury. That leaves the Hornets fighting for the 8 seed with the Pistons and Cavs. My Hornets pick has more to do with weakness on those other two rosters than strength on their own. The Pistons might still be too front-court heavy, with Drummond and Griffin, in a league that continues to trend towards 3point shooting. The Cavs, outside LeBron, weren’t very good last year and don’t appear poised for a winning record let alone a playoff appearance with Kevin Love and Colin Sexton as their cornerstones. This leaves Kemba and the jets as a possible slightly-below-.500 contender for a playoff spot.
Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy traded the farm for Blake Griffin with the hope that Blake would propel the Pistons to the playoffs and possibly save his job. Instead, Detroit won 39 games en route to an appearance at the back end of the lottery. Needless to say, Van Gundy was fired and Dwayne Casey brought in. Casey’s stubbornness to continue playing an old school brand of basketball was what got him fired in Toronto and is also what will keep the Pistons under .500 again.
New York Knicks: I don’t think you are allowed to write about basketball and not mention the Knicks. NYC’s franchise hopes are pinned on Kristaps Porzingis who is currently recovering from a torn ACL. When asked if the recovery would force him to miss the upcoming season, Porzingis responded “It’s hard to say”. The Knicks would almost be better of holding Kristaps out this year and taking another shot on a young lottery pick in the spring. Speaking of young lottery picks, Kevin Knox looks like he’s going to work out. The 6’9 forward out of Kentucky had a strong summer league and will get plenty of minutes to develop alongside last year’s first rounder Frank Ntilikina.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Without LeBron, the Cavs are in for a down year. Yes, this is an obvious observation – any team would get worse after losing the consensus best player in the league. Cleveland will be an interesting team to watch as they give the keys to number eight overall pick, Colin Sexton. What the Cavs do with veterans Kevin Love, Tristin Thompson, JR Smith, and Kyle Korver will be an intriguing storyline as they balance 2019 wins win building for the future.
1. Golden State Warriors
A healthy 2018 Rockets team beats a healthy 2018 Warriors team. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the two best teams of the last four years square off totally healthy, and we never will because the dubs added Boogie while the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza. It would not be surprising to see the Warriors and Rockets at the top of the West this season, but Golden State will be the team that wins 65 games if either of them do.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Call it addition by subtraction, call it the ewing theory, a Oklahoma City team wins more than 48 games. Russ stayed in rarified air last season, averaging a triple double for the second consecutive season. While he didn’t repeat as MVP, he did lower his usage rate from 41.7% in 2017 to 34.1% last season – Westbrook’s 2nd lowest mark of his last five seasons. The biggest win this offseason for the Thunder, however, is their extension with Paul George. Batman and Robin (Russ and PG13) will be running mates for the next four years, and will absolutely terrorize the West. Jeremi Grant is improving every year and is ready to start, Steven Adams is one of the best bigmen in the league, and Andre Roberson is a top five defensive wing. Expect to see OKC in the 50-55 win range.
3. Houston Rockets
In: Melo, MCW, James Ennis, and a 2nd round rookie. Out: Ariza, Mbah a Moute. A past his prime Melo and a couple JAGs can’t replace what Trevor Ariza was able to provide. Additionally, CP3 is another year older and is coming off an injury-riddled season, Clint Capela might be irritated after sitting out in free agency limbo before being brought back into the fold on an reasonable extension, and 29 other teams got an offseason to study the Morey/D’antoni three point barrage approach to offense. The good news is reigning NBA MVP James Harden is still a Rocket, and Chris Paul is coming into the season at full strength. Daryl Morey also seems to be involved in some capacity in every superstar trade that goes down in today’s NBA, and Jimmy Butler is being actively shopped. If Houston is able to pull off a trade for Butler than their offseason grade and title odds shoot up. Without Butler it’s very unlikely the Rockets see mid-60 wins again, but with him the sky’s the limit.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are going to be better than people expect this year. LeBron is still the best player in the league, and he has both veteran strength and a very young core to mold around him. Its surprising that there was very little MVP buzz for The King last season when he led the league in MPG for the second consecutive year, averaged the most assist per game of his career (9.1), tied for most rebounds per game of his career (8.6 for 2nd consecutive year), and shot over 54% from the field. We’ve clearly grown to expect greatness from LBJ every season, and he will not let his counting stats fall too far. This year Lonzo Ball came into media day looking big. Lonzo is a great natural fit next to LeBron as he is molded in the classic point guard style as a guy who does a great job controlling the flow of the game and getting his teammates involved instead of looking to score first. Luke Walton’s offense, led by LeBron and Lonzo, will be humming by Christmas after early season growing pains.
5. Utah Jazz
Unsurprisingly, the Defensive Player of the Year was on the team that gave up the fewest points per game in 2018. In fact, Rudy Gobert and the Jazz tied with the Spurs for the title of best defensive team by holding opponents to an anemic 99.8 points per game. NBA Coach of the Year Finalist Quin Snyder has the Jazz playing the NBA equivalent of an NFL ground and pound approach. They play strong, physical, defense and make a living playing the percentages – 11th best shooting percentage from 2, and 13th from 3. Two factors make Utah exciting this year. 1) Donovan Mitchell’s development; 2) The return of big 2017 free agency acquisition, Paul Millsap. Don Mitchell finished a close second in ROY voting, to Philly’s Ben Simmons, but was the most complete rookie. Despite injuries, Mitchell led the Jazz in points down the stretch and was the primary catalyst in their playoff series win over the Thunder. Millsap went down with an injury and only ended up putting on the Jazz jersey 38 times last year, so a full season of the versatile forward playing next to Donny and The Stifle Tower will be difficult for opponents to deal with.
6. San Antonio Spurs
Not sure why we aren’t hearing more offseason buzz about San Antonio.The Spurs won 47 games last year and arguably got better [on paper] in the offseason. The Spurs did lose Tony Parker to Charlotte and Manu Ginobili to retirement, so they lost part of their identity. However, Kawhi was out the majority of last season, and they added a top 20 player. DeRozen, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus, and Pau, with Patty Mills, Belinelli, and Jakob Poeltl off the bench. That could be a 50 win team, even in a loaded west.
7. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are one of the 10 teams fighting for 6 playoff slots (Warriors and Rockets are penciled in already), and you know they’ll be hungry after finishing 9th in the West last year. The good news is the nugs get Paul Milsap back healthy after missing 44 games last year, and we get to see another offseason of Jokic/Harris/Murray development. The guy I am most excited to see this year is Gary Harris. Harris put up 17ppg last season while burying 2+ triples and shooting just under 40% from three. He, additionally, has developed into one of the top backcourt/small wing defenders, and matches up with Harden/Steph/Russ as well as anyone. The wildcard for Denver is Isaiah Thomas on a one year deal. If IT is content to lead the 2nd unit and potentially play a few crunchtime minutes that could propel Denver to homecourt in the first round. If IT makes a stink about coming off the bench or not playing enough in the 4th quarter then that could sink the Nuggets to 9th or 10th and push them out of the playoff hunt.
8. Dallas Mavericks
People are sleeping on Luca Doncic. After being the biggest storyline around June’s draft, Luca flew under the radar all summer. Falling into the perfect situation, Luca gets the keys to the Mavs in the backcourt alongside springy point guard Junior Smith. He also gets to learn from fellow european, Dirk Nowitzki, as he transitions into the NBA and likely gets Mark Cuban-level forgiveness for mistakes made being a 19-year-old in Dallas. The biggest offseason storyline flying under the radar for the Mavs is the signing of DeAndre Jordan. DeAndre Jordan is a top five defensive center, and a great rim runner finishing lobs. The Smith/Jordan, Doncic/Jordan, and Barnes/Jordan pick and rolls have the potential to be NBA League Pass MVPs. Despite firmly being on the back nine of his career, DeAndre Jordan still finished 17th in win shares and has always been content on offense to just finish lobs and fight for rebounds. With the Doncic and Jordan acquisitions, the Mavs are poised to be one of 2019’s most improved teams.
Portland Trailblazers: Only three games separated 3rd place from 9th in the West last season and the Blazers essentially stood pat in the offseason while most teams got better.
New Orleans Pelicans: The Pelicans behind an engaged AD could easliy make the playoffs again and even be a threat to win a playoff series (again). Davis recently signed with Klutch Sports, the player agency that represents LeBron and is run by Rich Paul who is a member of LeBron’s inner circle. My takeaway from the agency switch leads me to believe AD makes a break for greener pastures, possibly in LA, next offseason and I could see Davis shutting himself down for part of the season or could see the Pellies try to cut their losses and trade Davis to salvage some value.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Without Jimmy Butler it will be very difficult for a Thibs-coached Twolves squad to make the playoffs again. Towns is good enough to lead a team to the playoffs but he’ll need a usage rate higher than 22%…
LA Clippers: The Clips just aren’t that good. A lineup with Pat Beverly, Avery Bradley, Galinari, Tobias Harris, and Gortat probably doesn’t make the playoffs in the East let alone the stacked Western Conference.
Stats from ESPN, Basketball Reference, NBA.com, and Forbes. Porzingis comment from Bleacher Report.