Basketball is almost back! The NBA opens its 73rd regular season on October 16 with a pair of marquee matchups: the Philadelphia 76ers face the Boston Celtics in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, while the Oklahoma City Thunder (possibly without star guard Russell Westbrook) take on the defending champion Golden State Warriors. In honor of a brand new season of basketball, here is a quick rundown of the most interesting teams, players, and situations in the league.
The Los Angeles Lakers made perhaps the largest move of the summer, signing superstar forward LeBron James to a 4-year, $153.5 million on the first day of free agency. Even at 33 years old, James has shown no indication of slowing down, and his mere presence on the previously floundering Lakers makes them an immediate factor in the Western Conference. After signing James, the Lakers confused many by handing out a series of short-term deals to a group of players who make no sense on a LeBron James-led team. After striking out on forward Paul George (OKC) in free agency, and failing to swing a trade for disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard (TOR), Los Angeles signed guard Rajon Rondo, whose shooting woes make him a serious liability next to James. The franchise added guard Lance Stephenson, forward Michael Beasley, and center JaVale McGee, all players better known for their personalities than their skills on the court. If the Lakers are looking for a second star next to James, they will have to count on the development of young talent, including forwards Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, as well as guard Lonzo Ball.
Can Anyone Beat the Warriors?
No. Nobody can. After defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the franchise’s third title in four years, the Warriors only went out and signed All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins, coming off an Achilles injury, found his market severely depressed, and opted to sign a one-year “prove-it” deal with the defending champs for only $5 million. Achilles injuries are notoriously difficult for basketball players to recover from, and there is a possibility that Cousins never reaches the heights he once reached with the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans. If he does make it back to 100%, the Warriors will be able to trot out a starting lineup of all-stars and would possess one of the greatest collections of talent in modern NBA history. The team is well on its way to another title and dynasty status.
The Top of the East
The Eastern Conference is still dramatically worse than the Western Conference. The bottom five playoff spots are wide open, and impossible to predict at this point. Will forward Giannis Antetokounmpo finally lead the Milwaukee Bucks to postseason success? Can the Pistons, with a full year of forward Blake Griffin, improve off a disappointing finish last year? Can the Washington Wizards overcome their chemistry issues and find a way to succeed with both John Wall and Bradley Beal?
It’s a lot easier to predict the top three teams in the East, which in all likelihood will consist of (in no particular order) the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Toronto Raptors. Outside of the Lakers, the Raptors made the most notable move of the summer, trading guard DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl, and a first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for forward Kawhi Leonard and swingman Danny Green. When healthy, Leonard is one of the best players in the league. He’s a fearsome, game-changing defender with a smooth and efficient offensive game. Leonard spent last year in a dispute with his former team, the Spurs, about the health of his quadricep: the Spurs and their doctors believed that Leonard was healthy enough to play, while Leonard felt uncomfortable stepping back on the court and sat out most of last season. If Leonard returns healthy, the Raptors will easily improve on their record from last year, which was good for the top seed in the East. However, the team also took on enormous risk; the cost of acquiring Leonard, even with only one year left on his deal, was beloved star DeMar Derozan. If Leonard bolts in free agency after one year, the Raptors are headed for a long rebuild.
Both the Celtics and Sixers return largely the same teams they had last year, the Celtics by choice and the Sixers through their failure to acquire a top-tier free agent. Either way, both teams stand to substantially improve this year. The Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals despite losing stars Kyrie Irving (guard) and Gordon Hayward (forward) to injury. Their return, along with the development of Boston’s spectacular young core of forward Jayson Tatum, swingman Jaylen Brown, and guard Terry Rozier, should leave the Celtics as close to challenging the Warriors as any team can be next year. Despite swinging and missing at elite free agents this summer (perhaps because of their still open GM position after the embarrassing Bryan Colangelo saga), the Sixers still two possess two of the best young players in the league, All-Star center Joel Embiid and reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons. They will be a serious force in the regular season and playoffs, but seem to be a star player away from true championship contention. Keep an eye on guard Markelle Fultz: the former number one overall draft pick has a lot to prove as he returns from an injury-plagued rookie season.
Other Things to Watch For
Don’t sleep on the Phoenix Suns. Although they were the worst team in the league last year, they’ll be pairing star guard Devin Booker with the number one overall choice in last year’s draft (center DeAndre Ayton), in addition to an intriguing young core in forwards Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges. They’ll make some noise, even in a loaded Western Conference.
The Houston Rockets might have finally been the team to knock off the Warriors if not for an unfortunate injury to guard Chris Paul. Houston re-upped Paul on a mammoth 4-year, $160 million deal and added a washed-up former star in forward Carmelo Anthony, yet lost useful role players in Trevor Ariza (to the Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute (to the Clippers). Their window to catch the Warriors may have already slammed shut.
My Rookie of the Year pick? Guard Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks. The 19-year old Slovenian played at the highest level of competition short of the NBA in the Euroleague last year, and was named MVP. He turned heads around the league and earned glowing praise from teammate and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, who remarked “He’s an incredible talent. His court vision and passing for his size, at his age, is something I’ve never seen in my 20 years.” Also keep an eye on Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III and Cleveland guard Collin Sexton, who could put up big numbers on bad teams.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were another big winner of the offseason, signing forward Paul George to a 4-year, $137 million deal despite the entire world expecting him to sign with the Lakers. The Thunder underachieved last season, but another year to build chemistry between George and Russell Westbrook, without the stress of George’s impending free agency, could work wonders.
Drew Kushnir can be reached at email@example.com.