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The 2018-19 NBA season cheat sheet

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The offseason was wild, as usual. But now it’s over. Here’s everything you need to know about the new season.

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The new NBA season starts on Tuesday. Thus begins eight months of high-level pro basketball with nightly heart-stoppers and laugh-out-loud moments and cringes. If you haven’t been paying too close attention since the last season ended, we’re here to catch you up and prepare you for opening night. Dig in.

The Warriors have won back-to-back championships, and three of the last four titles, and didn’t lose any of their core players this summer. They are totally winning the NBA Finals again, right?

Right.

Who are the biggest challengers?

The Houston Rockets have to be the No. 1 challenger if only because the Rockets took the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals last season. Houston, however, appears to have lost some juice in the offseason, watching Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute leave the team.

The Boston Celtics are considered by many to be the best team in the East and, thus, the most likely Finals opponent for Golden State. The Celtics got within a game of the NBA Finals last year with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward out. Both appear to be healthy now. That’s pretty scary, especially since Boston kept all of its key young players (many of whom should improve based on typically player development patterns).

Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Some might also list the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, and, uh, Los Angeles Lakers as potential challengers. I wrote about these teams (and the Indiana Pacers) earlier this offseason.

Are any of these teams real challengers to the Warriors or are we just puffing them up to drain the season of some inevitability?

You can’t say there’s no way the Rockets will beat the Warriors — they almost beat them last year! It could absolutely happen. Now, Houston moved further away by the common consensus because of player movement. That common consensus could be proven wrong if Brandon Knight comes through, or James Ennis is every bit as good as Ariza, or Carmelo Anthony fits perfectly into his role.

The other path for Houston here is one no one likes to talk about: injury for the Warriors. Unplanned unavailability is a huge equalizer in the NBA — you could argue Draymond Green’s unplanned unavailability for a game in the 2016 NBA Finals cost the Warriors their four-peat.

Oh yeah, where are the Cavaliers — four-time defending East champions — in this conversation?

Well, well outside of it.

Are they going to make the playoffs without LeBron?

Maybe. Probably? Kevin Love is still really good, and they’ll all have something to prove. But losing LeBron James is tough, even in the East.

So, LeBron. Are his Lakers a threat to the Warriors?

Probably not. The Lakers are weird, and not just in the sense that every LeBron team is kind of weird. L.A. has a collection of eccentric veteran role players — JaVale McGee (an erratic rim protector and lob finisher), Michael Beasley (a retro iso scorer who does little else but shoot), Rajon Rondo (a savant passer and ultra-high IQ leader), and Lance Stephenson (a weird agitator and playmaker).

But then the Lakers also have a bunch of promising young players acquired through the multi-year tank L.A. has been on. These include Brandon Ingram (a talented scorer and high-potential defender who is just incredibly long — so many smart people are excited about him), Lonzo Ball (a creative playmaker unafraid to take shots), Josh Hart (a tough, tough guard with a lion’s heart), Kyle Kuzma (a springy stat-stuffer who maybe shoots a little too loosely), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who actually isn’t all that young but he’s also not an eccentric veteran — other than B.I., he’s the most likely to benefit hugely from LeBron).

This mix of odd veterans and raw youngsters is so abnormal that it’s really hard to gauge how good the Lakers will be. Once Luke Walton figures out a rotation and LeBron decides who he trusts, we’ll have a better sense of what the team is capable of. Ingram, Ball, and Caldwell-Pope are pretty critical in that determination.

All that said, even in L.A.’s wildest dreams being a top challenger to the Warriors this season seems like a stretch.

Anything else we need to know about LeBron going into the season?

Zendaya is Meechee, and LeBron James is Gwangi.

Thanks.

You’re welcome.

Other than LeBron, what were the biggest moves of the offseason that will impact the pecking order?

The Warriors picked up DeMarcus Cousins, an All-NBA center coming off a ruptured Achilles. So, there’s that. Once he’s back, Golden State can run out a lineup featuring five players age 30 or younger, each with at least three All-Star nods.

That seems unfair.

You think?

Okay, what else?

The Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. This is actually the second most important summer development for Toronto after LeBron leaving the East. If Leonard is healthy and plugged in, and Kyle Lowry stays, well, this is a really good team that could absolutely make the Finals after coming not-all-that-close the last couple of seasons. And there is some intrigue around the Warriors and Kawhi — the Spurs were once up 20 at halftime over the Warriors in Game 1 of the West finals before Zaza Pachulia slid under Leonard and knocked him out of the series.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

We discussed Boston already. Keeping Marcus Smart was huge.

There’s one more big tree to fall or not — Jimmy Butler. He requested a trade in late September and told the Timberwolves he would not re-sign with them next summer. So far, Minnesota is acting super weird (with the franchise owner and coach/GM disagreeing on whether to move him or ride out the season). Once a trade is made, the calculus of the Western playoff race will change. But Butler’s saga wouldn’t affect the championship race unless the Rockets actually land him, which seems unlikely.

Who will be the best rookies?

This is a pretty good rookie class. Luka Doncic is the best European prospect ever, having been named Euroleague MVP last season at age 19. The Mavericks landed him. Doncic (pronounced Dawn-chitch) will figure heavily in whether Dallas makes a run at the playoffs. Deandre Ayton was the No. 1 pick, and will have every opportunity to put up numbers with Devin Booker in Phoenix. Trae Young will likely be your rookie high scorer as Atlanta is giving him the keys.

Is Markelle Fultz a rookie since he didn’t play much last year?

Nope. He played more than one second of NBA basketball, so he’s officially not a rookie. Chill out, Utah.

Is Markelle Fultz BACK, though?

Yes, and he’s giving the Sixers some additional hope. Even if Brett Brown is breaking up one of the best lineups in the NBA (according to the data) to make Fultz a starter.

That seems weird.

Yep.

Any notable coaching shifts?

We had a lot of coach movement this summer. There are really three big ones. The Bucks hired Mike Budenholzer (who left the rebuilding Hawks), and given Bud’s success in Atlanta, hopes are pretty high. Some are thinking Milwaukee may leap into that top East tier given Giannis Antetokounmpo’s excellence.

The Raptors fired Dwane Casey and elevated assistant Nick Nurse. We’ll see how that goes.

The Pistons then hired Casey, who is the reigning NBA Coach of the Year. He might be the right guy to unlock the full potential of what should be a potent troika of Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson.

The other teams that changed coaches were and probably still will be bad. Sorry, Knicks.

Is the East vastly weaker than the West still?

It depends on how you’re looking at it. Most would agree that the East has three of the top five teams in the league going into the season — Boston, Toronto, and Philly, to go with the West’s Golden State and Houston. Some might quibble on the margins (for instance, I’d probably make this a 7-team group to add Utah and Oklahoma City) but most agree that the East’s top three teams heading into the season are on par with the West teams other than the Warriors.

That’s where the East is actually better or on par with the West — in that soft middle. The West’s No. 3 seed last season, the Blazers, had 49 wins and was swept in the first round. The East went four deep with top-flight squads. The West went two deep.

Another area where conference imbalance can be judged is at the low playoff seed range. This is where the East gets its bad reputation historically. That bore out last season (the East No. 8 Wizards had 43 wins, the West No. 9 seed Nuggets missed the playoffs with 46 wins) and is absolutely in play again this season, especially since the Lakers, Grizzlies, and maybe Mavericks will be climbing into the playoff conversation.

The final area we’d look at here is the bottom of the barrel. The West has just two teams destined to be awful. The East could legitimately have five.

Is tanking still a thing, or did the NBA fix that?

The NBA addressed it with rules that go into effect this season, but it’s doubtful that it is fixed. The odds of winning a top-3 pick have been decreased for the very worst teams, diminishing some incentive to be terrible. But the calculus on fighting (perhaps fruitlessly) for a low playoff seed vs. trying to end up the seventh worst team or so might have changed enough to affect teams’ decisions. Stay tuned in February.

What will be the biggest surprises this season?

They wouldn’t be very big surprises if we could call them out before the season begins!

Fine, what about a few things to watch closely early this season?

Here are 10.

  1. Are the Rockets and Raptors good enough to challenge the Warriors?
  2. Is everyone who matters on the Celtics happy? (If so, they are good enough to challenge the Warriors.)
  3. Are the Lakers an actual threat to miss the playoffs?
  4. Is Anthony Davis now the best player in the world not named LeBron?
  5. Has Budenholzer unlocked the Bucks?
  6. Do the Jazz and Thunder come out smoking hot?
  7. Who will be the shocking East team, the Pacers of 2018-19? (Note: it could be the Pacers again.)
  8. Is Doncic so good he makes the Mavericks legit?
  9. How many West playoff-ish teams start slow?
  10. Are the Warriors locked in or bored from Day 1?

Anything else I need to know before opening night?

Yes, you need to know everything we wrote about in our NBA season preview. Check it out!