The NBA season is finally here!
The 2018-2019 season kicks off today with a pair of games between the Thunder and Warriors, and the 76ers against the Celtics. Both matchups feature playoff teams from last year and all very likely to represent their conferences in this year’s playoffs as well. The offseason brought a lot of headlines, and many have carried into the start of the year. So, let’s address some of the biggest questions.
How will LeBron’s Lakers fare this year?
The Los Angeles Lakers had a lot of cap space this offseason to work with, and with all that space, they were the most active team in free agency, signing the likes of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Javale McGee, and Michael Beasley. However, they also made the biggest splash in the offseason, signing this year’s prized jewel in LeBron James to a 4-year, $153.3 million deal. The Lakers have a lot of young, promising pieces in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. But, it will be interesting to see how well LeBron gels with this young group mixed with some ball dominant players like Rondo, Ball, and Stephenson. It could be argued that this year’s Laker’s roster features a better, more complete team than James’ Cavs did last season; who were defeated by the Warriors in the NBA Finals. However, he also switched conferences, where it could also be argued that the Western Conference is a lot tougher than the Eastern Conference.
So what are the expectations for the Lakers this year?
Well fellow Bench writer Alec Bradley noted in his Lakers Season Preview article that the Lakers are putting themselves into contention with the LeBron signing, though he doesn’t see them coming out of the West. Personally, I think the expectation is to make the playoffs. That much can almost be guaranteed with any roster featuring LeBron. Bradley also noted that the Lakers signing LeBron to a four-year deal gives them four years with a chance at the title. I think this year LeBron will just feel out who he likes and doesn’t like playing with, and then make the necessary changes to the roster at the deadline this year and make another splash in next year’s offseason. The Lakers will have the cap space to add another super star and have some young trade chips to go for another star at the deadline this year. Expect the Lakers to make a few more moves in the next year to really put themselves into contention, but as the team stands now, their expectations end at making the playoffs.
Who comes out on top out of the East?
There were a couple key transactions and acquisitions this offseason that may have shifted the balance in the East. First and foremost, LeBron leaving the East opens that top spot to numerous teams. The Pacers, Wizards, and Bucks each made a few tweaks to their roster that may improve them, but probably are on the outside looking in when it comes to the number one seed. The three teams that I see having the best shot at the top spot are the Celtics, Raptors, and 76ers. Last year’s top dog, the Celtics actually improved this year without really signing anyone new. Gordon Hayward returns from a season-ending injury he suffered at the beginning of last season, and Kyrie Irving looks to return from his injury he suffered that forced him to miss the playoffs. The Raptors made the biggest trade in the offseason, dealing DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. I also wrote about how this trade needed to happen for both teams. Kawhi coming to the Raptors may make him the best player in the East, but we will see how driven he is to play out his last year on his contract. Finally, the Sixers look to take the next step forward with their young and promising roster to claim their stake at the top. Can Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz make that leap from young and promising to serious contenders? I think the Celtics come out on top of the East. They did it last year after battling some serious injuries, and if they can stay healthy, and if guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can keep improving, this is a team that I believe should repeat as the top team in the East.
Will the Timberwolves trade Jimmy Butler?
In recent weeks, we’ve seen a lot of chaos and turmoil in Minnesota’s locker room, with Jimmy Butler requesting a trade. Initially, he requested to get traded to either the Clippers, Nets, or Knicks. Those three teams will have the most cap space to sign him and potentially another star in next year’s star-studded free agency class. Fellow Bench writer Nick Dowd highlighted a few potential trade ideas in his piece, while Jordan Fisher, another Bench writer, wrote about why the Knicks need to trade for him now. However, things may have taken a turn for the better for the T’Wolves, as Butler has been practicing with the team and is expected to play in their season opener. In their first practice, Butler was reported to have been very animated towards his teammates, challenging them and even exclaiming that the team is nothing without him. This fiery spirit may have motivated him and teammates, which may have put a hold on trade talks. However, whether this attitude can stay like is remained to be seen. I don’t think Butler will want to stay in Minnesota after this year, and the sooner that management figures that out, the sooner they’ll be able to move on from him and focus on winning with their newly signed centerpiece in Karl-Anthony Towns. Where he gets traded is up in the air, but the Timberwolves asking price has been reported to have been too high for teams, specifically the Miami Heat, but the longer they wait, the more their leverage in trade talks continues to diminish.
Which rookie takes home the rookie of the year award?
Last year’s rookie class saw a lot of great talent emerge in one of the deeper draft classes in recent memory. Guys like Donovan Mitchell, Ball, Tatum, and Kuzma all performed very well along with numerous others from last year’s class. However, someone not even in last year’s class won the Rookie of the Year award in what a controversial vote. Philadelphia’s Simmons took home the hardware, in what is technically his first season playing, though two years removed from when he was drafted (a season ending injury kept Simmons from playing his first year). This year’s draft class will have a lot to live up to if they wish to match the way last year’s rookies played. The top of this class features young talent like DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, and Marvin Bagley. Each one of these guys will be inserted right away to the starting lineup and will be expected to carry a hefty load in their rookie campaign. However, the player I expect to win Rookie of the Year this year is Trae Young. I believe that since he’s the point guard, and he’s playing on potentially the worst team in the NBA, he will have a lot of volume this season to put up some solid stats each night. He might not be very efficient this year because of this, but I think he will rack up a lot of assists and chuck up a lot of threes. If he can lead all rookies in assists and points, I think he will win the award, even if his turnover totals and efficiency ratings are bad.
Which team(s) will sneak into the playoffs?
Each year, there’s always a handful of teams that find a way to sneak into the playoffs, whom at the beginning of the year weren’t really seen as a playoff team. Last year’s team was the Pacers, who after dealing away their star Paul George to the Thunder were seen being a team in the rebuilding stage. Who will be that team this year? The Nuggets didn’t make the playoffs last year, but after drafting Michael Porter Jr., signing Isaiah Thomas, and getting back a healthy Paul Millsap, this could be a team that makes the playoffs after barely missing them last year. We talked about the Lakers already as well, but both of those teams are somewhat expected to make the playoffs this year, so it’s not really like they’ll “sneak” into the playoffs. The three teams that I could see sneaking in that didn’t make it last year are the Grizzlies, Nets, and Mavericks. The Grizzlies lost Mike Conley to a season-ending injury last year, and just couldn’t recover from his loss. Returning Conley to a lineup featuring Marc Gasol and newly acquired Jaren Jackson and Kyle Anderson could bring this team back to the playoffs. The Nets will benefit from a weaker Western Conference, and the last few playoff spots appear to be wide open and up for grabs. They have a lot of young talent, and if everyone on the roster can continue to develop, this is a team that could snatch that last playoff spot. D’Angelo Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Jarrett Allen all need to step up, and this team has improved its win total each season under coach Kenny Atkinson. Lastly, the Mavericks will try to make one last hoorah for Dirk Nowitzki as he inches closer and closer to retirement. Though he’s just a mere shell of what he used to be, Dirk still offers this team plenty of value. Mix him in with rookie Doncic, the exciting Dennis Smith Jr., and newly acquired center DeAndre Jordan, this team might be battling for that last playoff spot in the West. The Western Conference looks a lot deeper and tougher than the East, so I don’t expect both Memphis and Dallas to make the playoffs but wouldn’t be surprised if one of them did.
Who will win MVP?
Last year we saw a first-time winner in James Harden win NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Will this year feature a first-time winner as well? Some players that have never won the award include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Damian Lillard. However, this year, there looks to be a lot of names that could potentially win the award. You have past winners such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and the defending MVP Harden. You also have LeBron James, who seems to always be one of the favorites to win. So, this year it’s genuinely anyone’s race. Just going through the names, I don’t think Curry or Durant will win it, just because they both will probably steal votes from one another since they play on the same team. Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the second year straight last season, following an MVP-winning season before that, but he will need to improve his team’s overall record if he wants to win his second award in three years. Same goes for Lillard, who seems to be constantly slept on out West. As mentioned earlier, it remains to be seen how well LeBron will play with his new squad, and I expect his usage rating to be significantly lower than his times in Cleveland, especially with some ball-dominant players on his team now like Ball and Rondo. That leaves The Brow, The Beard, and Greek Freak. I think one of these three will win the award and should be the favorites to do so. If I had to pick one, I would have to go with Anthony Davis. It’s always tough to repeat as MVP, and after adding another ball-dominant player in Carmelo Anthony to play alongside him and Chris Paul, I think his stats may dip just enough to get voters to sway their vote elsewhere. Giannis looks to keep improving as one of the league’s more dangerous and polarizing players. His long, lanky frame combined with his unique style of play makes him one of toughest players to guard. However, I’m casting my vote towards Davis. His play after DeMarcus Cousins went down was astonishing. In a 30 day stretch after Cousins went down with the Achilles injury, Davis averaged an absurd 33.9 ppg, 13.2 rpb, 2.3 apg, 2.3 spg, and 2.6 bpg, all while maintaining a shooting line of 50-35-82%. Those are easily MVP numbers. Now, can he maintain that kind of production? Probably not. But, Cousins is off to Golden State, and has been replaced by Julius Randle, who’s a solid player, but not the caliber of player that demands the looks Cousins had. Davis should still be able to put up fantastic numbers, and he’s still only 25 years old, so it’s scary to think that he may not have even hit his prime yet. I predict Davis will win the award over the likes of Giannis and Harden.