It's about damn time. This is what I live for. Every year when the Finals wrap in June, I just wait in a purgatory of basketball-lessness. Thankfully social media has come along for me to get addicted to, as the NBA news cycle is a full year, and it seems as if everyday there's a new storyline for NBA Twitter to beat off to. I'm guilty of joining in on the breaking news circle jerk and admittedly pay way too much attention to what's happening in the league. I've now gone through a full box of Kleenex and better organized my thoughts, so here's what I think is going to happen this year in the Association.
The Lakers are going to get off to a hotter start than expected.
I know the preseason doesn't mean much, but the Lakers look like they're going to be one of the most fun teams in the league to watch. It's definitely too early to dub them as the latest "Showtime" iteration, but the potential is clearly there. Through three preseason games, their ball movement has been incredible, and everyone is getting involved. The more they play together, the more chemistry they're going to develop, and that's going to be scary for the league. With LeBron leading the charge, this team is going to mesh well, as it seems like the young guys (Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram) got along well last year.
Speaking of chemistry, the LeBron-Brandon Ingram connection is looking absolutely fucking delicious so far. LeBron is one of the best, if not the best, passer in the game, and Ingram is already feeling the love from his powerful tosses. This is going to be Ingram's breakout year, and after averaging 16.1 points a night on 47% from the field (and 39%! from three), I see Ingram as potentially being a 20+ points per game scorer this year. (Keep an eye on him for Most Improved Player.)
One thing that has confused me is how open the Lakers have been about expecting a slow start to the year, as LeBron, Magic Johnson, and Luke Walton have all expressed expectations of a less-than-stellar beginning. This narrative has seemed to follow LeBron every time he's switched teams, and it holds true, as the Heat and second-stint Cavs both got off to slower-than-expected starts. This year is different; really different. The Lakers are going to have to battle to make it into the playoffs this year, and the first month of the season presents a few challenges. The need for chemistry and individual successes is going to have to be fulfilled fast, as the Lakers have to play the Trail Blazers, Rockets, Spurs, Nuggets, and Raptors over the course of the first month. These are teams with great cores that (excluding the Nuggets) were featured in the playoffs last year.
Bottom line, I believe the Lakers are a playoff team this year. They can fall anywhere between the 4-8 seeds in the West, and can compete to move out of the first round (unless they play the Warriors. Bastards.) The young core is going to learn a lot from guys like LeBron and Rajon Rondo, and in a few years they'll be a force to be reckoned with. Once Lonzo comes back from his knee injury they'll be at full force, and I can almost guarantee Magic Johnson is going to hit the market and add another shooter. Also, LeBron is winning MVP.
Carmelo Anthony is going to be a good fit on the Rockets.
Is this a bold statement? Melo isn't fully washed up yet, and there wasn't really a shot he was going to fit in on the Thunder. If Russell Westbrook couldn't win with Kevin Durant, the second best player in the world, there was no way in hell he was going to win with Year 14 Melo.
Based on what Melo has been saying to the media about his willingness to come off the bench and his desire to win, last season seems to have humbled him. He's not the dominant offensive superstar he once was, and I think he's come to terms with that. He's going to have the opportunity to play with two top players/guards in James Harden and Chris Paul, and will almost always be on the floor with at least one of them. Harden and CP3 averaged a combined 16.7 assists per game last year, and if Melo can become a spot up catch-and-shoot killer from three, he's going to thrive. If he can get the Rockets 13-15 points a night at a 35% clip from the arc, the Melo experiment in Houston is going to be a success.
The Bulls will sneak into the playoffs in a weak East.
This is more of a pipe dream than anything. After getting to witness the rise of the Derrick Rose Bulls from 2008-2012, it's been more tiresome than fun being a Bulls fan. After being stuck in a purgatory of Rose injuries and endless "What ifs?", the Bulls finally hit the reset button after trading Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves during the 2017 Draft for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen.
This is a young core to get excited about. Before tearing his ACL in Minnesota, LaVine was a 20 point per game scorer and won two Slam Dunk championships. When fully healthy, LaVine can fuck up just about anyone with a vicious dunk in the lane and can thrive in a fast-paced Fred Hoiberg offense. Kris Dunn, the fifth pick in 2016, was able to shake off potential bust status after a solid first year with the Bulls, showing that he can be a great facilitator and lockdown defender after posting 6 assists and 2 steals a game. Both LaVine and Dunn are solid building blocks for a young, emerging team, but Markkanen is the true golden boy in Chicago. Lauri came into the league with a couple question marks, mostly about his rebounding and toughness. (I wasn't thrilled with the pick at first. I wanted Malik Monk. Yeah, I'm dumb.) The negative buzz went away quick, as Markkanen showed that he was going to be a player to build around. He put up averages up 15.2 points (43% FG/36% 3FG) and 7.5 boards a night and was named to the All-Rookie First Team. He's going to be an All Star in the league, I have zero doubt in my mind.
While the Bulls are usually pretty disappointing when it comes to their front office, John Paxson and Gar Forman actually had a pretty damn good summer. They added another building block in Wendell Carter Jr. after selecting him with the seventh pick in this summer's draft. Excluding Dunn, there are still a lot of questions regarding LaVine and Lauri on defense, and Carter Jr. is going to help take defensive pressure off both. After averaging 2.1 blocks and about 9 boards a night at Duke during his lone season, Carter Jr. showed that he's not to be tested down low. At only 19 years old and getting the chance to grow alongside the other young guys, Carter Jr. is going to cement himself as a starter pretty early in the season and will (hopefully) make minor noise for Rookie of the Year.
The move that (maybe) put the Bulls in playoff contention was the signing of the second pick of the 2014 Draft and Chicago native Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40 million deal. After dominating at the high school and college levels with Simeon and Duke, Parker seemed like a surefire star for the NBA. He has since torn his ACL twice since entering the league, and nobody has really been able to see what he can truly do. The closest peak at his skills was during the 2016-17 season, as Parker was putting up 20 points a game for the Bucks and was getting a lot of noise for a potential All Star Game reserve role. That all ended with his second ACL tear, and he came back for a 31 game stretch last season. After a somewhat-tumultuous exit from the Bucks, he came back home for a final shot to show people what he can do. Fully healthy, there's no reason why Parker shouldn't be a dynamic scorer for the Bulls. It's not looking great right now, though, as he's already been moved to the bench during his less-than-impressive play in the current preseason. If he can figure it out and put some points on the board for the Bulls, this is going to be a FUN team to watch, and if shit goes sideways, the deal has a team option and the Bulls can let Parker walk after this season.
There's still a lot of uncertainty about what this team can do, as there hasn't been a chance to see the full team play together. IF the young core can develop quickly and Jabari can get back to near-All Star level, the Bulls can definitely sneak into the seventh or eighth seed in the East.
The Boston Celtics will be crowned champions.
With the exception of a LeBron Jame's miracle in 2016, the Golden State Warriors have been absolutely dominating the NBA for the last four seasons. They've appeared against the Cavs in the last four Finals, winning three, and had the best regular season record of all-time in 2016, going 73-9. In the same timeframe, Stephen Curry has won two league MVPs, Draymond Green won Defensive Player of the Year, and they've signed Kevin Durant, who won two Finals MVPs with them in 2017 and 2018, and added All Star Demarcus Cousins this summer. Their reign on the league has been nothing short of ridiculous and they're in the conversation for the best team to ever be assembled. Times have changed, however, and there's a new challenge in the East that will dethrone the Warriors in June 2019.
The Boston Celtics lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018. The Cavs had LeBron James (GOAT) and Kevin Love (All Star) on the court for the entire series. The Celtics hadn't had their two best players, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, for the entire playoffs and rookie Jayson Tatum was the best player for Boston throughout the playoffs. They also had to rely heavily on guard Terry Rozier, who proved his worth as a starting-caliber player after never really playing meaningful playoff minutes. Both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are back fully healthy for the start of the season, and with Irving all-but-confirming his intentions to re-sign with the Celtics this summer, the team is riding high and ready to take over the league.
The biggest advantage comes from the Celtics' depth. They're the deepest team in the league and are being led into battle by one of the best coaches in the league, Brad Stevens. Their starting lineup projects to be Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford. This group matches up great against the Warriors, as the overall skillsets of the lineups are fairly similar. Everyone in the lineup can stretch the floor and shoot threes (even Al Horford) while playing at a high pace. Kyrie, Hayward, and Horford have all been All Stars, and Jayson Tatum is looking like he could make the jump this year to becoming one of the best forwards in the league. The East is so bad this year that Jaylen Brown could probably be an All Star if he puts up enough big games and highlights.
What's really going to set the Celtics apart from every other team is their bench. They have Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis, and rookie Robert Williams III coming off the bench. The front half of the bench could be a formidable starting lineup, which really says something about this team's depth. Injuries are apart of the game and if one of the starters were to go down, the Celtics don't have to worry too much. Boston is going to be able to put out a stacked lineup at all times, and they're going to be able to take advantage of this come playoff time. Toronto with Kawhi Leonard and Philly with another year of Embiid and Simmons will be competitive come playoff time, but neither team has the depth to compete with the Celtics.
I truly feel that the Finals will be between the Warriors and Celtics this year. Both teams are clearly the best in their respective conferences, and both have organized stellar teams. This would be the fifth straight Finals appearance for the Warriors, and that can take a toll on a team. They've played a lot of extra games over the last few seasons and are one injury away from becoming vulnerable. The Celtics are a young team with fresh legs and with the exception of Kyrie Irving, nobody on the roster has played in the Finals. This is going to be the year that a new dynasty arises, as the Boston Celtics will defeat the Golden State Warriors in six games to win the 2019 NBA Finals, and will start the beginning of the end for the Warriors.
MVP: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Rookie of the Year: DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Sixth Man of the Year: Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls
Most Improved Player: Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Note: I think it's kind of ridiculous to speculate where players are going next year so early into the season, but whatever. I also have absolutely zero sources, so I'm pulling all of these out of my ass.
Kyrie Irving: re-signs with the Celtics on a five-year, max deal
Kawhi Leanord: re-signs with the Toronto Raptors on a five-year, max deal
Kevin Durant: signs with the New York Knicks on a four-year, max deal
Klay Thompson: re-signs with the Golden State Warriors on a five-year, max deal
DeMarcus Cousins: signs with the Lakers on a two-year/$42 million deal
Jimmy Butler: signs with the Brooklyn Nets on a four-year/$155 million deal