It’s almost the start of the season, so here’s some random thoughts I have about it:
1. Stephen Curry finishes in the top three of the MVP race
Curry was injured for a significant portion of last year’s regular season, but his game shows no sign of stopping. Even though he’s not as accurate from long range as he was in his unanimous MVP season (one of the true outliers in modern NBA history), he’s improved his foul rate, midrange game, and efficiency since. I predict Kerr will let Curry roam freer this regular season to keep the team motivated, and Curry will shine with the ball in his hands.
2. The Warriors finish first in the Western Conference
The Warriors won 58 games last season, behind the Houston Rockets for the second seed, in large part due to injuries. Given the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, and likely dips in production from James Harden and P.J. Tucker, I see the Rockets falling a little in the standings. The Warriors should win about 60 or 61 games, and that should be enough to win the West.
3. Luka Doncic wins Rookie of the Year
The Euroleague phenom has impressed during the preseason with his outside shooting, advanced ballhandling, and ridiculous vision. Even though he’s not the most athletic player, he is quick and crafty enough to get to the places he needs to be, and can handle defensive pressure because of his outside shooting and nifty passing. He’s the real deal.
4. The Spurs miss the playoffs
For the first time in forever, the Spurs will be heading to the lottery. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are not enough to offset the lack of talent on this roster. Given injuries to Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, and Derrick White, San Antonio will severely lack playmaking. Their spacing will be terrible, and many of their crucial players are aging fast. They’ll need to rebuild sooner rather than later.
5. The Nuggets take the next step
The Denver Nuggets barely missed the playoffs last year, but due to expected declines from the Trail Blazers, Spurs, and Timberwolves, I think they’ll be comfortably in the playoffs this year. Led by Nikola Jokic, they’re already a top five offense, and can expect internal improvement from their young core. If Paul Millsap stays healthy, he’ll do enough to keep their defense passable.
6. The Thunder mildly disappoint again
The Oklahoma City Thunder had a good offseason, keeping Paul George, adding a few defensive specialists over the offseason, and jettisoning Carmelo Anthony. But they’re still missing Andre Roberson, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, due to injury, and his return to full health is in doubt. Without him, the defense likely won’t be elite. If the offense does not diversify beyond Russell Westbrook’s heroics, another first round exit is likely.
7. The Lakers are eliminated in the first round
The Los Angeles Lakers’ roster construction is flawed: they don’t have the shooters to surround LeBron James, and have no reliable options at center. The team is young, and there will definitely be growing pains as they get used to playing around the best player in the league. If they face the Warriors or Rockets in the first round, they’ll have little chance of winning. Even the Jazz and their elite defense could be favored over the Lakers.
8. The Hornets return to the playoffs
The final spots in the East are wide open, and a simple .500 record might be enough to sneak in. Under new head coach James Borrego, the Hornets could make it back to the playoffs after two years of disappointment. Kemba Walker is one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and they have just enough talent around him to compete.
9. The Wizards do not fall apart
With John Wall, Bradley Beal, Austin Rivers, Markieff Morris, Jeff Green, Kelly Oubre, and Dwight Howard in tow, the Washington Wizards have a bunch of personality in their locker room. But they are talented, and that should be enough to push them into the playoffs. I don’t expect them to make the second round, but who does?
10. Jimmy Butler is traded by 2019
The situation in Minneapolis is simply unsustainable. Although he’s expected to start the year in a Timberwolves uniform, Butler should be traded as soon as possible. I still think he ends up on the Heat, but anywhere is possible. Despite his irascibility, Butler is still an elite player who can make a good team great. He’s worth the gamble in the right situation.
11. The Grizzlies turn over a new leaf
The Memphis Grizzlies’ offseason was about immediate improvement: they’re trying to make the playoffs despite calls to rebuild. Their acquisitions of Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Shelvin Mack fit well within their “Grit and Grind” mentality. But Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are older, and their bodies are showing it. I think it’s much more likely they break down, and the Grizzlies are forced to start over, than everything comes together and they return to the playoffs.
12. Giannis Antetokounmpo makes the next step
Giannis is one of the scariest players to guard in the NBA, and he still has so much to learn. In the preseason, he’s shown off an improved jump shot, and under new coach Mike Budenholzer, I expect the Bucks to make major strides offensively. He looks ready to join the most elite echelon of stars.
bucks fans watching preseason giannis pic.twitter.com/QQyCM5YbfQ— Justin's WI Sports Memes (@justinsuperbuck) October 15, 2018
13. Aaron Gordon is traded midseason
The Magic retained Gordon in restricted free agency this season, but their frontcourt is crowded: with Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba displaying incredible potential, it might be time for them to part ways. Gordon could greatly benefit with offensive talent around him (the Magic have very little of that), and teams likely wouldn’t have to part with too much value to acquire him.
14. The Jazz finish with a top-five record in the NBA
Everybody knows about Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. But the Jazz have a vast supporting cast that includes the underrated Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Thabo Sefolosha. They’ll be a top defense throughout the season, and they have enough versatile wings to experiment with offensively. Their young players should develop further, and they’ll be a menace in the playoffs.
15. The Trail Blazers almost miss the playoffs
The Trail Blazers finished third in the Western Conference last year, surprising mostly due to Damian Lillard’s stellar play. But they outperformed their point differential and stayed surprisingly healthy compared to other teams in the West, and their flaws were exposed embarrassingly by the Pelicans in the playoffs. After losing important bench pieces in Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis, the Trail Blazers should take a step back this year.
16. The Knicks perform too badly to land marquee free agents next summer
Every time they have cap space, the New York Knicks are supposedly free agent destinations. Next offseason, they should have space for two max contracts. But the team is sorely lacking talent: Kristaps Porzingis has yet to return from an ACL tear, and may never retain the same athleticism at his size. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina are years away, and the rest of the supporting cast is nothing special. If the Knicks fail to crack 25 wins, it’s hard to see an elite free agent signing there.
17. Victor Oladipo regresses
The Pacers were the most surprising team in the league, comfortably making the playoffs and almost knocking off LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the first round. Most of that was due to Victor Oladipo’s emergence to stardom, which earned him the Most Improved Player award. Next year, I don’t think Oladipo will sustain his outside shooting, and teams will double-team him more consistently. Somebody else on the team, maybe Tyreke Evans, will need to support him with scoring and playmaking.
18. The Toronto Raptors come out of the East
The Celtics and Raptors are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, and a playoff series between them should be close. Ultimately, I expect the swap of Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan to be a huge factor in the playoffs, ending the Raptors’ curse of broken postseasons. If Kawhi returns to being a top-ten player in the league, the Raptors should have the advantage in the playoffs.
19. DeMarcus Cousins is an average starting center
Coming back from an Achilles injury is difficult, especially for a big man: even if Cousins is able to return to full health, it could take a few years. That said, Cousins is so skilled a center that he impact the game offensively right away. It remains to be seen how good he can be defensively in a playoff setting, but an average starter is still a very valuable piece for a contending team.
20. The Warriors achieve the three-peat
The Warriors are the favorites to win the championship, and given Houston’s probable decline. The Raptors could be their most potent threat to finishing off the three-peat, but the Warriors have more experience and star talent. The Warriors should win their fourth title in five years.
Bonus: Kevin Durant stays for one more season
There is a lot of buzz right now about Kevin Durant’s future. I don’t think he leaves this offseason, unless the perfect opportunity develops for him to both contend and be featured as the star player. It’s probably more likely he leaves in 2020, after his fourth season in Golden State. Nevertheless, I believe he does leave sometime in the future.