I spent all summer intending to pick the Celtics to win the championship. This has become a trendy choice, and it’s not that much of a stretch. With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back alongside defensive stalwart Al Horford, plus another year of development for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the C’s are loaded with talent.
They’re also deep. Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart could both contend for Sixth Man of the Year honors while salty vets like Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes are perfect plug-and-play rotation players depending on the matchup. We know they’ll be well coached and prepared.
The Celtics have the kind of talent that should win the Eastern Conference now that LeBron James is out West. Even accounting for a transition phase as all the pieces coalesce, anything less than a trip to the Finals would be a disappointment.
They also have the kind of talent that could beat the Warriors at their own game with long, switchy, athletic dudes at every position. That’s the theory anyway, and it almost had me convinced except for one thing. Well, two things.
Kevin Durant and Steph Curry still play for the Warriors. Picking the Celtics is a hedge that either KD or Steph will be banged up, beat up, or otherwise worn down by an arduous trek through the Western Conference postseason. As long as those two are reasonably healthy and sharp, the championship stays in Oakland for one more season.
There’s a dozen different things that could go wrong for the Warriors this season. Injuries to Draymond Green and Klay Thompson would upset their balance even more than losing one of their two superstars. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are another year older and there’s no telling how DeMarcus Cousins will fit in once he’s able to play. There’s also drama with rumors of KD’s imminent departure running throughout the league.
It’s that last part that solidifies this pick. If the Warriors know in their hearts that this is the end of an era, all of that potential for disaster becomes a perverse kind of motivation. It may even spur Durant into putting together his most complete season as a pro.
Ever since they chased 73 wins, the Warriors have been playing for history. Three championships in a row and four in five years would put them in elite company, no matter how they were constructed. It’s really up to them. As strong as the Western Conference is, there’s only one team that legitimately pushed the Warriors last season.
It’s too easy to sell low on the Rockets. It’s true that Chris Paul is another year older, their depth took a hit in the offseason, and Carmelo Anthony’s never-ending battle with his own mortality threatens to be an ongoing storyline.
Some of those concerns are overblown. CP3 may be the most snakebit player in the league, but he’s due for a break. Under Daryl Morey, the Rockets have consistently built complementary rosters on the fly. In the grand scheme of things, Melo just needs to be a better Ryan Anderson.
The key, as always, remains James Harden. With an MVP finally on the shelf, now’s the time for Harden to dial it back just a little with an eye on remaining strong throughout the entire postseason. Home-court advantage and another MVP chase are worthy enough goals, but Harden and the Rockets have nothing left to prove in the regular season.
It’s the postseason that will define them and their iso-heavy style of play which is so unique that they are a matchup nightmare in a long series. Few teams can score with them, and fewer still can keep their big men on the floor against them.
That’s what makes me uneasy about Utah. Rudy Gobert is Utah’s best player and we saw in the playoffs what happens when teams like Houston run him off the court. That’s unfortunate because it wouldn’t be a shock if Utah made a legitimate run at the top seed in the West.
The pieces — from Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt to Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Favors up front — fit so well around Gobert that last year’s 29-6 run to end the regular season doesn’t feel like an aberration. Neither does the postseason.
The Raptors and Kawhi Leonard are the league’s X-factor. The most likely scenario is a top-2 seed in the East and a solid playoff run. When have things ever gone according to plan in Toronto? No outcome would truly surprise anyone, not even a trip to the Finals.
An awful lot of things have to go right for that to happen and everyone knows the list, from Kawhi Leonard’s future to Kyle Lowry’s mindset to Nick Nurse’s coaching debut. From a basketball standpoint, which is the point of all this, the Raps are a 60-win team waiting to happen. An Eastern Conference championship series with the Celtics would be delightful.
You can make the case for a handful of other teams, but as of mid-October that’s the consensus contender pack.
LAKER EXCEPTIONALISM GETS ITS OWN SECTION
The most compelling team in the West is the Lakers. That’s what you get when you add LeBron James. Throw in the promise of developing youth along with a bizarro collection of veteran eccentrics and the Lakers are once again appointment viewing. How that talent blends around LeBron is enough to keep bleary East Coasters up past their bedtimes.
This is also a fascinating spot for James. He’ll be putting on a show every night in the league’s premier showplace without the burden of championship expectations. Talk of missing the playoffs feels like a reach. Haven’t we learned not to underestimate LeBron by now?
THE SORT OF MAYBE CONTENDERS IN THE EAST
I’m honestly not sure what to make of the Sixers yet. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, they should belong with Boston or Toronto in the contender tier. More than a few people around the league think they’re closer to Indiana and Milwaukee in the next batch of teams in the East. As good as Embiid and Simmons can still become, there’s a lot riding on Markelle Fultz’s development for them to take the next step.
Everyone likes the Pacers, and I like them more than most. If Victor Oladipo can build on his breakout season, they have the tools to win 50 games. Much depends on the development of big man Myles Turner. Now in his fourth season and still just 22 years old, Turner needs to turn the flashes of potential into prolonged periods of success. (I will never give up the ghost on Turner.)
The question for the Milwaukee Bucks as they enter Year One with Mike Budenholzer is how much do you believe in coaching? Coach Bud’s Atlanta teams were known for pace, space, and the realization of the beautiful game. Milwaukee doesn’t have four all-stars, but it has Giannis Antetokounmpo. This is a huge year for all involved. The Bucks have yet to make it out of the first round after three attempts in four years, and the clock is ticking.
LOOK OUT..— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 13, 2018
Air Greek Freak incoming!! pic.twitter.com/4kTKaZy0Sk
THE GREAT WESTERN PLAYOFF CHASE
Speaking of ticking clocks, Anthony Davis is finally a center. With that comes an MVP season. (In order: AD, LeBron, KD, Giannis, Kawhi). Is that enough to push the Pels deeper into the postseason and convince AD that a future in NOLA is worth pursuing for the remainder of his prime years? The whole league waits for a resolution to that eternal question.
I’d like Oklahoma City a lot better with a clean bill of health, but too many people are sleeping on the Thunder. They’ll be good, maybe even great, if Russell Westbrook’s knee injury doesn’t linger and Andre Roberson can wreak havoc defensively again. We saw glimpses of that last season, but consistency was an issue. Now that Westbrook and Paul George have solidified their partnership, OKC will be a very tough out.
Like everyone else, I’m bullish on the Nuggets. Just stay healthy, listen to Paul Millsap, play a little bit of defense, and everything will work out fine. We need Playoff Jokic in our lives.
I’ll believe the Blazers will miss the playoffs when Damian Lillard plays for another team, and I don’t believe that will ever happen. I’ll believe the Spurs will miss the playoffs when Gregg Popovich is no longer coaching. One of these teams will probably miss the playoffs and my faith in humanity will be shook.
I’m going to assume that Jimmy Butler doesn’t play for Minnesota this season. Even given a nice haul of ready-to-play vets in exchange for Jimmy Buckets, the young Wolves have not inspired a great deal of optimism. The potential for implosion is high.
The Clippers can totally make the playoffs, but they’ll have to jump over several teams in their path. The Mavericks may not make the playoffs, but they’ll be in the race and Luka Doncic will be worth the price of admission. The Grizzlies might be good. They might not be good. The Grizzlies are what you make of them.
THE NOT SO GREAT PLAYOFF CHASE IN THE EAST
The Heat will play hard and be stout defensively. Give them Jimmy Butler and they’ll give the Eastern Conference six legitimately good teams. (This is the only way this should end, by the way. Butler was born to play for Pat Riley.)
The Wizards are a walking chemistry experiment. When you add Dwight Howard you are acknowledging that you’ve run out of ideas.
You could make a case for Detroit, Charlotte, or Cleveland sneaking into that last playoff spot and no one would really argue. Give me the Pistons, with a shot at sneaking up the ladder if Andre Drummond breaks out for real under Dwane Casey and Blake Griffin finds his groove.
Kemba Walker and Kevin Love would make a dynamite pair. As solo acts, they’re enough to keep their teams in contention.
If the Knicks stay the course through their rebuild, this could be one of those fun seasons when low expectations are balanced by promising development opportunities. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I’m optimistic about New York’s future. With cap space, another lottery pick to go with rookie Kevin Knox, and a (hopefully) healthy Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks are positioned for an actual summer free agency push.
Exceeding low expectations with promising development was a good first step for the Bulls last year. Now comes the hard part of identifying the real core and figuring out where everyone fits. Just don’t develop too fast, guys. There’s another lottery pick to chase.
With their length, youth, and athleticism, the Magic are weird enough to hold my attention for a few months. Good luck to the Hawks and Nets and godspeed to Lloyd Pierce and Kenny Atkinson. The Kings and Suns stay the Kings and Suns.