Today is Wednesday, October 11th and that means somehow, we are just 1 week away from the tip-off of the NBA season. It does not feel like it has been all that long since Lebron James told Kyrie “we will be back” after the Cavs lost game 5 to Golden State in the NBA Finals, but a whole lot has gone down since.
The question is whether or not any of these moves will make a serious impact on the NBA landscape, or will we have to settle for Cavs v Dubs round 4. Either way, it was one of the busiest and most action packed off-seasons in recent memory, with more star players teaming up to ring chase and a few back stabbing trades by franchises looking to take the next step.
Let’s kick is off with a look at the ever dominant Eastern Conference. Over the last 18 NBA seasons, the Eastern Conference has had a better record as a whole than the Western Conference a whopping ONE time. (2008-2009 season shout out KG) If you north easterners are hoping that this will be the year it turns around, you are shit out of luck and your Knickerbockers aren’t helping out cause. With players like Jimmy Butler and Paul George shipping out West, the East will sink even further. And no, I am not grouping Melo with those two guys just because he is really good at shooting with a hoodie on the court by himself.
The top two contenders in the East remain the same teams who finished 1-2 last year, yet each squad boasts a completely different (revamped maybe?) roster. Boston finished last year as the #1 seed, and has a good shot to do so again this year despite having just 4 holdovers from last season. (Smart, Horford, Rozier, and Brown) The team was carried all season long thanks to an all-time offensive performance from 5 ft 9’ Isaiah Thomas who took them as far as his body would allow, before dropping in Game 2 of the ECF with a brutal hip injury. IT gave the franchise everything he had in the tank, and was preparing to cash in with a Max deal from Boston in 2018. Danny Ainge had other ideas. Ainge’s busy summer also consisted of signing an All-Star wing player in Gordon Hayward to give this team another legitimate threat to score 25 ppg. Not hurting matters is the fact that Hayward played and thrived under Celtics HC Brad Stevens while the two were at Butler. In order to get Hayward the pay-day he desired, Ainge was forced to make some other moves, including cutting ties with the longest tenured Celtics, Avery Bradley. This move was most definitely overshadowed with everything else going on this summer, and underrated as far as the negative impact it could have on this team. We know Avery Bradley can lock down with the best of them, but he had also developed into a knock down 3-point shooter, and a major helping hand on the glass. It remains to be seen how big of an impact his departure will have on the green this season. Easing his loss is the addition of #3 overall pick Jayson Tatum, who Danny had his eye on all along despite “experts” assuring us Markelle Fultz atop their board. Tatum comes in as seemingly the most NBA ready prospect the draft had to offer, which is crucial for a team ready to contend right now. Avery’s exit also means more minutes for Marcus Smart who cut some much needed weight this summer, and Jaylen Brown who continues to develop nicely and is coming off a strong playoff run last spring.
The big move however, was of course the trade that was and then wasn’t and then was again between the Cavaliers and the Celtics. When all was said and done, the Celtics ended up shipping IT, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the highly valued 2018 Brooklyn pick, which screams top 3 potential, to Cleveland for All-Star PG Kyrie Irving. Consider Zizic a throw in, and while Crowder could be a nice piece in Cleveland, this trade was clearly centered around IT and the BK pick. Considering that Kyrie demanded his way out of Lebron’s shadow, this trade was a win-win for both sides. The Celtics got the best player in the deal in Kyrie, who has thrived in big moments and is still only 25 years old. Irving is the best pure scoring PG in the league right now, and giving him the keys to this Celtics roster allows them to contend more seriously than last year. Of course it was tough to see IT treated so poorly by Celtics management, but as cliché as it is, this is a business and Danny is in the business of improving the Celtics roster. This trade did that, especially when taken into account that Isaiah may be out half of the season as he deals with the injured hip. With a core centered around Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and the continued development of Smart, Brown and Tatum, this team is in a really good place heading into the season under the genius of Brad Stevens. I actually think people are underestimating how good this team can be, as Stevens has never coached with this many weapons on his roster. A 53-win team last year, I think this bunch has a realistic shot of winning somewhere in the 56-58 range this season.
As for the other team involved in that trade, no one dominates the headlines quite like Lebron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Whether it’s rumors of another upcoming Lebron departure, or an attempt at adding some of his All-Star buddies, we haven’t gone a day this off-season without some kind of LBJ chatter. I think Kyrie’s trade demand took a lot of people by surprise, except for maybe every one of his teammates. Rumors that he didn’t even speak to his locker mates for the entire postseason are wild, and make it clear that a change was needed. To replace their #2 option, Dan Gilbert is hoping for a blast from the past in bringing in the likes of Derrick Rose to run point to start the season. With IT down for the foreseeable future, the Cavs will rely on Rose to stay healthy, something he has seemingly not been able to do since cheating his way through Memphis. Next to Rose in the backcourt is Lebron’s best bud D-Wade, who casually stole 20 Million or so from his hometown Bulls to reunite 2/3rds of the Banana Boat Crew. Cleveland will likely go with Crowder at the 4 and Love at the 5 which gives them a small ball lineup that matches up well with Golden State and Boston. The unknown is the health factor. Will D-Rose revive his career and does Wade have another good year left in the tank? How long until IT is able to lace em up again, and how effective will he be when he idoes? Upon taking a look up and down this roster, if this were 2012, this Cavs team would have a shot at 82-0. In addition to those geriatric ballers, the Cavs bench will feature Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, JR Smith, Shump, Kendrick Perkins and Jeff Green. Another unknown to us all is what the Cavs want to do with the Nets pick they received from Boston and whether or not they look to trade it for another star player at the deadline, to bolster the Roster. What we do know is that as long as Lebron is in the lineup, this is the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. James is going on an absolutely ridiculous 7 consecutive trips to the NBA finals, and it is going to be a tough task to stop him from getting there again. This team may take it slightly easy during the regular season in order to keep the old guys fresh, but come playoff time, Lebron will take them as far as he can, and that is at least until the middle of June. I expect 50-52 regular season wins from them.
The third best team in the East has to be the Washington Wizards. This team took the Celtics to the brink last spring, falling in game 7 thanks to a miracle performance by Kelly Olynyk of all players. John Wall stole the show in that series, and has fully established himself as a superstar in this league. If we do get a Celtics/Wiz rematch, he and Kyrie will be a duel for the ages. I think John Wall’s dominance gives them a slight edge over Drake’s Raptors but the issue remains, his supporting cast. Other than Bradley Beal who is an all star in his own right, this team is lacking big time. Not for lack of trying to add a piece via trade or free agency, but the Wiz had to settle for resigning Otto Porter Jr. to a Max deal. It was an absurd contract for a player of his caliber, but something that had to be done. Once again, this team is going to struggle with Wall off the floor and will only be able to go as far as he can take them but things could get interesting in the District if they are able to add a piece at the deadline. This is likely to be a 3 seed and another second round exit, but I look for this team to have a good regular season and win almost 50 games.
The top half of the East should remain similar to last year, meaning the Raptors come in at the 4 spot. This team also looks similar to last year, and actually I think upgraded at the 3 spot by replacing the oft-injured Demare Carrol with CJ Miles. Kyle Lowry returns on a max deal and Demar Derozan continues to grow as a scorer and an all around player that may be one of top 3 SG’s in the league. With Ibaka and Valanciunas up-front, this team is never easy to score against, but again depth will be an issue especially with the loss of Corey Joseph and Patrick Patterson, both contributors last year. I also see them winning around 50 games this season and battling Washington for that 3 spot. Wherever they end up, I think they would like to see the Celtics in the 2nd round. This Raptors team has given the Celtics trouble over the last few years and will have a huge size advantage if healthy in that matchup.
While that is where most people think the list of Eastern Conference contenders finishes, there is one team that could surprise some people and make a second round series unexpectedly interesting. If healthy, the Milwaukee Bucks will be a very good team this year. They are young and well coached by Jason Kidd, and have a bona-fide Superstar player in Giannis Antetenekunmpo. This dude has an MVP in his future and has been getting better each year in the league. If he takes another step forward this year, the Bucks will be a team to be reckoned with and if he can develop a consistent jumper…forget about it. No player led his team in more statistical categories than Giannis last season. Alongside “the Greek Freak” Jabari Parker is an All-star if healthy, reigning rookie of the year in Malcolm Brogdon, an emerging Thon Maker and a slew of good players coming off the bench. This is a team that could really surprise some people and I look for them to win at least 45 games.
Is this the year that Philadelphia finally puts it all together? After tanking and stockpiling lottery picks since Allen Iverson retired, many think they have enough fire power to make some noise this year. Ben Simmons will take the floor for the first time along with #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. Despite neither of them being able to shoot a basketball, that could be a potent back-court. Joel Embiid has proven to be completely unstoppable when healthy, and the Sixers brass is banking on exactly that, to the tune of by $150 Million they paid him, despite having played only 30 or so games. Of course if we are talking Twitter, the dude is already first team All-NBA. One move I think makes a big difference for this team, is the addition of JJ Reddick. He brings an experience and leadership element to the young, talented group and his shooting ability will really help this group. Always a big IF in Philly, but if they can stay healthy, I like the Sixers to stay out of the lottery for the first time in a long time, and sneak into the postseason.
As for the rest of the playoff picture, Detroit with the addition of Avery Bradley to go along with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond should be in the mix. Pat Riley always has his team hanging around, but again will be relying far too heavily on Dion Waiters and MJs Bobcats should be good enough to conr an 8 seed..
West coast, best coast. I don’t know about that, but it is certainly true in the NBA. The rich got richer and this conference is going to be a battle all season. While it is still the Warriors and then everybody else, there are some teams that were able to close the gap this summer. For starters, giving Russ some help with Paul George was huge, and adding another scorer in Melo will really take some pressure of last years MVP. This team will return to the top of the conference and has the best chance at hanging with Golden State. The other team adding a major piece was in Houston, who will pair Chris Paul with the NBAs best scorer, James Harden. It was an interesting move, especially after Harden had a career year after the switch to point guard, but these two are friends and they wanted to make a run at a title together. CP3 will definitely take some of the ball handling responsibilities away from Harden, and it will be interesting to see if there are any rifts this season about who gets to pound the rock until the shot clock expires. And of course, the Spurs, always a contender with Pop at the helm and with Russ and Harden having to share the spotlight, this could be Kawhi’s best chance at an MVP award. There are some other good teams out west, and here is how I think it will shape up.
Golden State is still miles ahead of everyone in the league. Durant and Curry are two of the 5 best players in the league, Klay Thompson is elite, and as much I hate Draymond Green, he is a really good all-around player. I guess part of what makes him so good is how much he can get everybody around the league to hate him, in a way we have not seen since Keven Garnett. There are simply zero flaws with this squad, offensively, defensively, they are well coached and have a deep roster with a mixture of young and vets looking to win a title. I would not be shocked at all if this team breaks their own regular season wins record of 73 and I would be completely shocked if they don’t win an NBA title this year. It is hard to imagine anybody knocking them off this year barring any freak injuries.
Mark Oklahoma City down as the 2nd best team in the West this year. With Russell Westbrook Coming off a historic season the Thunder add two Hall of Fame talents to a roster that is desperate to beat KD and the Warriors. We know how angry Russ played last year, and I think while he keeps that same fire, this is the first year where he has a realistic shot at revenge. He will have even more open lanes to the bucket, as defenses will not be able to sag off of Melo or Paul George and a 1-3 pick & roll with Russ and PG is as dangerous as it gets. He may not put up triple double numbers, but that is only because he will not have too. No longer will the Thunder need to rely on Andre Roberson to knock down corner 3’s as that job will belong to the likes of Carmelo and Paul George. There is a lot Billy Donovan can do with this roster, and we will see how he puts it together. One thing is for sure, a Thunder v Warriors Western Conference Finals would be fun to see.
The three seed I think belongs to San Antonio. Kawhi Leanord has gotten better every year in the league, and as I mentioned has a legit chance to win MVP this year. Lamarcus Aldridge was down last season, but I think bounces back nicely as he gets more comfortable playing next to a superstari. The guy to really keep an eye on is 2nd year PG Dejounte Murray. Murray was forced into major minutes when Tony Parker went down, and at just 19 years old performed admirably. The Spurs are the best franchise when it comes to developing their young guys so his growth should continue to skyrocket. The same can be said for Kyle Anderson. San Antonio also added Rudy Gay who can come off the bench with good minutes when healthy. Kawhi is the man though, and him and Poppovich will have the Spurs back in contention for the 25th year in a row.
The first big move of the offseason was Chris Paul moving from LA to Houston. This had everyone extremely high on the Rockets, especially had they been able to add another piece. Unfortunately for Daryl Morey, they could not and I don’t like them to be as good as people originally thought. You know what they say, there is only one basketball and Chris Paul and James Harden both like to dribble it, a lot. They gave up a lot for CP3 who is a hall of fame player, but has never had much post-season success. Their front court will struggle, and they don’t necessarily match up very well with the other 3 teams we have mentioned in the West. That said, it seems like Harden and Paul have a very good connection and genuinely enjoy playing together. Paul will definitely take some of the pressure off the beard and give him some more room to operate, which is a dangerous thing for anyone guarding him. Harden will lead the league in scoring and the Rockets will be good enough to get bounced in the 2nd round of the playoffs by the dubs. As a side-note, James Harden calling Kevin McHale a clown is obscene on so many levels. Just because he got a front row seat of you playing no defense for three years does not give you the right to chirp at a guy who has earned a spot in Springfield.
Still seemingly flying under everyone’s radar is a team with a legitimate chance to finish as a top 4 seed in the West, and that is the Minnesota Timberwolves. Thibs’ group had a major major offseason, swinging arguably the best player on the trade block on draft night in Jimmy Butler. Butler is one of the best two-way players in basketball and also gives this young group some toughness and leadership. Even without Jimmy, this roster has loads of talent with two former #1 picks in K.A.T and Andrew Wiggins. Throw in Jeff Teague to run the show while also being more than capable of knocking down open looks, and this team is scary. If Thibs can get Towns to play some better defense, this team will be a force and should hover around the 50 win mark.
There are still so many good but not great teams out west we have yet to mention. Memphis is always tough with Mike Conley, everyone’s most underrated player and Marc Gasol, the best center in basketball. The Clippers lose Chris Paul, but pick up a truck load of Rockets that can contribute along with a good scorer in Danillo Galinari. Blake Griffin is back and will be able to play more Point Forward, an area in which he thrives. Portland has the second best backcourt in basketball with Lillard and McCollum and the addition of Nurkic at the end of last season has them on the cusp. New Orleans adds Rondo, seemingly in order to help mediate between Demarcus Cousins and whoever he is upset with. It will be really interesting to see how Cousins and AD play together after having an offseason to work out some of the kinks. Denver has a good young team as well, and just picked up an All-star in Paul Millsap. Those are all potential playoff teams in the West and with apologies to Lavar Ball, that list does not include the Lakers. Although all bets are off when Lebron hits the free agent market next year.
Eastern Conference Western Conference
1) Boston 1) Golden State
2) Cleveland 2) Oklahoma City
3) Washington 3) San Antonio
4) Toronto 4) Houston
5) Milwaukee 5) Minnesota
6) Detroit 6) Portland
7) Charlotte 7) LA Clippers
8) Philadelphia 8) Memphis