Thanks to the NBA responding to the players’ complaints about the number of back-to-back games, the regular season is tipping off tonight, about a week and a half earlier than the usual start to the season. It was one of the most active and fascinating offseasons in recent memory. The flurry of player movement has contributed to this being the most anticipated NBA season since Lebron James and Chris Bosh joined the Miami Heat before the 2010-2011 campaign. Let’s dive into what should be the top storylines to follow up through the 2018 NBA Finals in June.
Did the Rockets and Thunder do enough?
The summer was interesting in that it seemed like some perennial teams made very little effort to get better, suggesting they were punting on the season as they came to grips with the reality of not being able to compete with Golden State. On the other hand, a few of the league’s better teams brought in high caliber complimentary pieces to surround their franchise players.
The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder were far from being equipped to compete with the Warriors when the summer began. Both teams were led by elite franchise players in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who coincidentally finished 1st and 2nd in the MVP voting, respectively. But in what has been proven in the NBA, it takes more than one great player to be a legitimate title contender.
The Rockets added Chris Paul to form one of the NBA’s most lethal backcourts. The Thunder brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony on what could very well be for one year depending on how things go. Both Houston and Oklahoma City look to be the best candidates to challenge Golden State in the Western Conference.
I don’t know how either of these situations will work out. But both will be fun to watch and I give a lot of credit to the teams by recognizing they were not good enough as they were constructed at season’s end and making the necessary moves to bolster their squads.
Cavs, Celtics and everyone else in the East
There is very little if any debate who the two best teams in the Eastern Conference are. Both the Cavs and Celtics finished atop the Eastern Conference a season ago and possibly got better over the summer. The Celtics improved by bringing in Gordon Hayward and possibly got even better when adding Kyrie Irving. Or at least they think they got better by making a blockbuster trade with the Cavs this past August.
I personally think the Cavs got the better of the trade as they acquired Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round draft pick, and Boston’s 2020 second-round draft pick. But who got better for the upcoming season may be up to debate. However, the Cavs also added Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, for whatever he can still contribute at this stage of his career.
Bottom line is that barring major injury, the Cavs and Celtics look like locks for 50+ wins, the top two seeds and destined to face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals again. After that, the drop off in the East is precipitous. The Wizards and Raptors are good teams that will likely grab the #3 and #4 playoff seeds.
Next, you have your group of mediocre to above average teams that could win anywhere between 35-45 games. In this category, I’d put the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, and Detroit Pistons.
After that, you have your up and coming teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks who are likely a year or two away from making noise in the playoffs but likely have a ceiling as high as #5/6 seeds if all goes well. Both teams are similar in that they have elite, young talent but do not have quite the experience to be able to safely project where they will finish this season.
Who will win this year’s tank-a-thon?
While the NBA failed miserably in their attempt at lottery reform by evenly out the odds to acquire the #1 overall pick, there will be a competition for the rights to likely draft Michael Porter in the 2018 NBA Draft. Based on the activity of a few teams this past offseason, there appear to be a handful of teams on the quest for a top pick.
The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night, a player who was in trade rumors for about a year. In return, they acquired draft capital and young guards, Kris Dunn and Zach Lavine. The Bulls will be fortunate to win 20 games and look to be a good bet to make it to the commercial on the night of the Draft Lottery.
After what seemed like several years of being a perennially above average team with zero hope of competing for a championship, the Atlanta Hawks look like they headed for a very lean year. The positive is that Atlanta finally will get out of NBA purgatory, assuming they are able to land a top draft pick with finding their next franchise player, a role that has been vacant for way too long.
What else is there to say about the New York Knicks? They have been the joke of the NBA for the past few years and will only be worse following the departure of Carmelo Anthony. While they hit on Kristaps Porzingis at #4 overall in the 2015 Draft, there have been rumblings that he wants out of New York. Can you blame him? Assuming their best player does, in fact, get dealt before the trade deadline, the losses and ping pong ball combinations will add up quickly.
This past draft class was the most hyped since the 2003 group that brought in Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Lonzo Ball, more thanks to his helicopter father got plenty of attention before being selected by his hometown Los Angeles Lakers at #2 overall. Lavar Ball possibly put even more pressure on his son and the expectations will be extremely high in his first NBA season.
Markelle Fultz, who the Sixers traded up for with their long-time bitter rival Celtics, was the top pick in the draft. Even with being the #1 overall pick, Fultz looks like a project who we may not see blossom until his third or fourth season. I don’t expect a lot from him in his rookie year. I’m more intrigued by his teammate, Ben Simmons as a “Rookie of the Year” candidate. Simmons missed his entire first season due to injury and has received rave reviews from scouts and coaches around the league. Some have suggested his skillset is a blend of Lebron James and Magic Johnson.
The darkhorse candidate may be Dennis Smith Jr., who was selected ninth overall by the Dallas Mavericks. His flashes of brilliance during the NBA Summer League have ignited the conversation that he may have been the steal of the draft. Smith was an explosive, exciting player at N.C. State who arguably would have been drafted higher if not for his injury history. He should be fun to watch and I wouldn’t rule him out to take home the award.
Top Trade Candidates
I’m very skeptical that DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis can co-exist in New Orleans. Talent-wise, they could form the most formidable frontcourt in the NBA. But they have a big, uphill climb in a very tough Western Conference. If the Pelicans get off to a rough start and if it’s starting to look like they’ll miss the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years, I could either guy getting moved before the deadline.
I already mentioned Kristaps Porzingis when making the argument for the Knicks being one of the teams to watch in this year’s tank-a-thon. When you combine the report of KP wanting out of New York due to the front office dysfunction along with the Knicks likely headed for a bad year, he looks like a prime trade candidate.
Despite re-signing with the Clippers in the offseason, I still won’t rule out Blake Griffin getting moved if the team struggles in the first half. By trading Chris Paul over the summer, I took that as a sign of waving a white flag on the 2017-2018 season. Given the Clippers’ lack of cap space and draft capital, I could see Griffin being moved if there is an offer that could jumpstart their inevitable rebuild.
The Final Four
I’m going chalk for the Eastern Conference, anticipating a rematch of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. But I do not anticipate quite the drama that the networks will hype up leading into the series. I like the Cavs’ playoff experience and I think Kyrie Irving may end up eating his ungrateful remarks about playing with Lebron James when he discovers how much of a dropoff it will be in Boston. I go Cleveland 4-2.
It may take some time for Russell Westbrook to establish chemistry with newcomers, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. But they’re talented enough to be a Top 4 seed. I am going to bet on the Oklahoma City Thunder getting to the Western Conference Finals either by the conventional standards of getting the #2/3 seed and facing the Golden State Warriors or struggling initially, grabbing a lower seed, forcing an upset and getting there. Either way, I like them to give the Warriors a scare before losing in seven games, 4-3.
Cavs and Warriors, again. How boring. Unfortunately, while parody is common in the other three major sports, it is completely absent in the NBA. I don’t have any reason to believe it will be Golden State again, but I like the series to go seven, giving them the 4-3 win.
Source Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nodUYAWcgDs