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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Welcome to the 2018-19 NBA regular season, basketball fans!
However, all paths lead to the games that matter, and the NBA is about to inject the nation with a dose of adrenaline as we get set for what promises to be the highest scoring season ever.
But are we destined to watch the Golden State Warriors ascend to the Iron Throne for the fourth time in five years? Or can the Boston Celtics dethrone Kevin Durant and the Splash Brothers?
Can Anthony Davis live up to the lofty standards he set for himself on The Jump with Rachel Nichols and achieve the recognition he feels he deserves as the game’s greatest?
Will James and the Los Angeles Lakers package together some of their young assets in hopes of landing a big fish before the 2018-19 trade deadline?
Join the Bleacher Report staff as they answer these questions and many more!
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
The Jazz logged 48 wins last year, played better defense than anyone for the final four months of the season and secured a playoff series victory. With a baseline like that, we have to redefine what “leap” really means.
The win total probably won’t spike up toward 60. The top seed in the West feels like a long shot with Golden State and Houston still looking strong. Nonetheless, the Jazz are primed to take a crucial step from “dangerous, disciplined regular-season foe” to “legitimate contender.” That progression matters a whole lot more than tacking on a few extra wins or juicing a net rating by a point or two—though we’ll see improvements in both areas.
Utah’s defense will be fearsome. Rudy Gobert and a litany of able wing stoppers mean the Jazz, barring significant injuries, cannot possibly finish worse than third in defensive rating. Even against the Rockets, who topped the league in offense, Utah’s Gobert-centered scheme worked. Houston scored 4.1 fewer points per 100 possessions in its playoff series against the Jazz than it did on average during the year. The reason the Jazz fell to the Rockets in five games was simple: They couldn’t score.
With another year of seasoning, Donovan Mitchell will rectify that. He’ll improve as a pull-up shooter, which will present defenders with an impossible decision: chase him over the high screen and expose the defense to a freight train heading downhill in a five-on-four, or go under and surrender a trey. Throw in expected growth from Dante Exum, a rejuvenated Jae Crowder, extra shooting and playmaking from Grayson Allen, better health for Alec Burks, Joe Ingles doing Joe Ingles things and, critically, the understanding that an offensive scheme designed to beat switching defenses is a must, and you’ve got the recipe for Utah to become a top-10 offense—one prepared for the rigors of postseason play.
The Jazz should be everyone’s dark-horse title pick.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
This is the year math wins, and the San Antonio Spurs lose.
Start with the basics of subtraction: The Spurs are already short two bodies. Breakout candidate Dejounte Murray’s season ended before it began, courtesy of a torn ACL. Rookie Lonnie Walker IV, who might have seen rotation minutes on a wing-starved team, is also out with a torn meniscus. Danny Green is gone as well, along with some guy who finished third in MVP voting two years ago. You know, the one who also owns a pair of DPOY trophies. Kawhi Leonard didn’t help much last year, but it’s safe to say he’ll help less in 2018-19, when he’s playing for the Toronto Raptors.
How about addition? LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol both added to their most meaningful numbers, tacking on one more year of age. Aldridge is 33, Gasol 38. Rudy Gay, who should only ever play the 4 in today’s game, is the young buck projected to start at the 3. He’s 32.
Finally, we’ve got the numerical concern that has sparked ideological change for every team in the league—except the Spurs. Three is more than two, but San Antonio, after ranking 27th in the league in three-point rate last season (it took only 28.2 percent of its shots from deep) will now look to Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan for its buckets. In 2017-18, Aldridge ranked in the 99th percentile in shot frequency from the mid-range area, according to Cleaning the Glass. DeRozan was in the 98th percentile. It’s almost impossible to score efficiently when your two best weapons prefer to shoot from areas of the floor that yield such low expected value.
It’s possible to appreciate the Spurs for zigging when everyone else is in love with the zag, but this contrarianism has crossed over from sneakily admirable to folly. Scoring is going to be hard.
It’s long been a mistake to predict a lottery finish for the Spurs. For the first time in over two decades, that bet is looking pretty good.
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Jim Mone/Associated Press
With seven coaching changes in the East since last season (and only two in the West), the chances are statistically better for the Western Conference hot seat to heat up first. And there couldn’t be more signs of tumult than there are for Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves are one of at least 12 teams in the West that are trying to make the playoffs, and all of them can’t make it. Add the Jimmy Butler fiasco to the mix—with owner Glen Taylor pushing for a trade and the front office resisting—and it leaves Thibodeau in a precarious place.
According to a recent report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Taylor told fellow owners at the board of governors meeting in New York that he’s open to trading Butler (despite Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden rebuffing inquiries from teams) and added that teams should go to him if they have trouble dealing with the front office on Butler. Ouch.
Thibodeau’s dual coach-president titles in Minnesota stand in stark contrast to the league trend, with owners becoming increasingly unwilling to convey that much power to one person (other than themselves). The Butler situation is a classic example. If it continues to spiral out of control and/or the Wolves underachieve, Butler may not be the only person headed out of the Twin Cities by February (if not sooner).
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Gary Dineen/Getty Images
The time for the Greek Freak is now in the Eastern Conference.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has married otherworldy athleticism and size with steady improvement and diligent work. From minutes to field-goal attempts to points to efficiency, Giannis has improved in every aspect of his game dating back to his rookie season in 2013-14.
As his game continues to ascend to the levels of the elite, Giannis has gradually increased in the aforementioned departments in each successive year. Should the statistical trends continue, he could finish with averages north of 30 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 53 percent from the field and 33 percent from three.
Giannis’ health isn’t a concern, as he has missed but 16 of 410 games. And Giannis’ role in the Milwaukee Bucks offense should only further intensify his impact on the game. His 29.4 percent usage rate finished fourth in the NBA among players who had played 50 games or more, first in the East (now that LABron is gone).
Giannis will have challengers in Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto, but none of the players in contention will have the opportunity or the physical gifts to make the level of impact in each game that Giannis can.
Per Bovada, Giannis is already in the discussion for the game’s Most Valuable Player, with odds currently sitting at 5-1. While upending Anthony Davis, James Harden and LeBron James may be a tall task even for the 6’11” Giannis, overtaking the East will be a nice consolation prize.
Honorable Mentions: Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving
—Preston Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonEllis
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Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
PJ Tucker’s sneaker collection is the stuff of legend. Like, Michael Jordan once asked him where he copped a certain rare pair of…Jordans. Seriously.
With the NBA now allowing players to wear kicks of any color at any time, the Houston Rockets forward is a good bet to go wild. Personally, I have so many questions. How ridiculous will he get with the colorways? Will he wear the same shoes more than once? Can I have a tour of the mansion he obviously owns to store all of his kicks?
Others are going to gravitate toward stars for this unofficial honor—specifically the ones with signature shoes. That’s fine. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, et al. are all bound to get wild. Anyone endorsed by Puma is a sleeper, too.
But Tucker is the NBA’s king of kicks. And his collection, from what we’ve seen, is hardly about playing it safe.
Honorable Mentions: Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Kelly Oubre Jr.
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Michael J. LeBrecht II/Getty Images
Is picking anyone other than Joel Embiid for this faux award even allowed?
Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart are social media treasures, but you have to believe Grandpa LeBron’s own discipline will be infectious at some point. Enes Kanter’s act of recruiting players for a Knicks team that will never re-sign him next summer will tire out at some point. Kevin Durant has too many accounts for us to effectively monitor. The Jimmy Butler-Andrew Wiggins beef probably isn’t forever.
And so, we have Embiid, a social media loose cannon in the best possible way.
We can count on him for great postgame locations in his Instagram posts, never-ending streams of “Trust The Process” tweets and just generally expert troll jobs from whom no one is spared. Just ask his former team president, Bryan Colangelo, or the only-been-in-the-league-for-a-second Mo Bamba.
Here’s hoping Hassan Whiteside avoids being relegated to the bench long enough for him and Embiid to rekindle their rivalry for the digital age.
Honorable Mentions: Enes Kanter, CJ McCollum, Ben Simmons
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Randy L. Rasmussen/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the most intriguing franchises this coming season. Will their young core of players, including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, provide enough support for LeBron James for a lengthy playoff run in the Western Conference?
How will veterans like JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson fit in?
The answers may change the Lakers’ path over the coming year, but the plan in place is a conservative one.
Currently, the team will have enough room under next season’s salary cap to add a star to play next to James like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard in July. The Lakers appear to be ready to wait.
Should the team struggle in the standings, a change in philosophy might happen. If so, perhaps it will look to be more opportunistic before the February trade deadline.
One name to keep a serious eye on is Anthony Davis. If he became available via trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles may feel compelled to change course.
Don’t expect a big midseason trade. Both the Lakers front office and James appear pleased with the current squad’s potential. Why sacrifice young potential stars when they can simply wait, keep them all and then add a star next offseason?
The answer would be Davis, should the opportunity arise. The upside is too high and the wait too long since he won’t be a free agent until the summer of 2020.
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Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
The Los Angeles Lakers are going to be very good this coming season. Why? Because LeBron James is very, very good.
Yes, the team has flaws. JaVale McGee is the only true impact center on the roster. The outside shooting is suspect. The young stars in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart may cap the Lakers’ upside with their inexperience.
But James is still the best player in the league, and as Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes pointed out, the Lakers roster may be better than the Cleveland Cavaliers squad that went to the NBA Finals last season.
If the Lakers stay healthy and find a workable center rotation, they should be much stronger than Cleveland was defensively.
Instead of chasing the Golden State Warriors with shooting, Los Angeles brought in a dynamic playmaker in Rajon Rondo to both mentor and play alongside Ball, and with wild-card scorers Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley.
But it’s the team’s young legs in Ball, Ingram and Hart that will make the Lakers a difficult team to score on once the team builds chemistry.
As opponents try to deal with James’ dominance, the rest of his teammates will benefit from more open looks than they’ve ever experienced before.
While not every player will be consistent nightly, the Lakers have enough on the roster to win 53 games. That might be enough for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs as a third or fourth seed in the competitive Western Conference.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Jimmy Butler is too obvious a selection here, so let’s be a little more creative than just focusing on the drama happening in Minnesota.
Nikola Vucevic has been plugging away for some years now, putting up quality numbers for subpar Orlando Magic teams after originally arriving from Philadelphia in the deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers.
Howard is on his fourth team since the Lakers. Meanwhile, Vucevic has stayed put, despite his name annually surfacing in trade rumors. Vucevic is in the final season of a four-year, $48 million extension and hasn’t made the playoffs in six seasons with the Magic.
Orlando drafted Mo Bamba sixth overall and presumably view him as its center of the future with hopes to develop him through playing time. This is the season when a playoff contender in need of frontcourt help makes the call and Orlando finally agrees to trade Vucevic. The team has too many gaps to fill elsewhere.
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Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press
While the ghosts of 2016 still haunt the NBA, the ugly four-year deals signed by players like Evan Turner, Chandler Parsons, Ian Mahinmi, Timofey Mozgov and Joakim Noah (to name just a few) will each expire after the 2019-20 season.
Unfortunately, teams continue to make questionable decisions. The Toronto Raptors gave Norman Powell a four-year, $42 million extension and then dropped him out of the rotation. Perhaps he’ll work his way back in under new head coach Nick Nurse.
The Phoenix Suns owe TJ Warren $47 million over the next four years but acquired Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, who are both expected to start with Warren pushed to the bench.
Perhaps the worst of the bunch is the $48.7 million owed to Gorgui Dieng. The Minnesota Timberwolves are facing a significant implosion with Jimmy Butler demanding a trade. Butler wanted the team to restructure his contract over the summer but with too much invested in Dieng (along with Andrew Wiggins), Minnesota didn’t have the flexibility to get below the NBA’s $101.9 million salary cap.
In part, by overpaying a role player, the T-Wolves will likely lose their star in Butler.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Lakers may have two of the best contracts on their books in second-year players Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. The pair project to be significant sidekicks to LeBron James while earning just $14.3 million in total combined over the next three seasons.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Grayson Allen won’t have enough minutes to produce top-10-pick numbers. He’ll still earn a role at various points throughout the season for his confident shot-making and threat as a secondary playmaker.
Inconsistency has been the issue for Allen, who went No. 21 overall and may have fallen much further had the Utah Jazz not been interested. However, his knack for catching fire and scoring in bunches is ultimately suited for a spark role off the bench. And when he’s on, Allen can be potent for stretches, more so than backups Dante Exum and Alec Burks.
Explosive, 23 years old and dangerous from three, Utah’s first-round pick has the chance to contribute immediately and emerge as a valuable offensive reserve, especially if Exum and Burks have trouble staying healthy.
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What can we predict about Markelle Fultz this season?
Short answer: Who the hell knows?
Describing something as a roller coaster is a bit of a cliche, but also, I can’t think of a more apt time to apply this phrase. We know Fultz is explosive and athletic and that he’s going to get minutes. That’s pretty much all we know. We think he’ll be starting, but Sixers head coach Brett Brown is already sort of hedging on that (he moved Fultz to the bench for the start of the second half of the Sixers’ final preseason game).
We think Fultz’s shot isn’t as broken as it was last year, but the jumpers he’s launched during preseason haven’t exactly brought to mind Steph Curry’s stroke. Or, for that matter, the version of Fultz that dominated college basketball and propelled up NBA draft boards. Speak off the record to people inside that building, and they’ll tell you his jumper is not as hiccup-free as the team would like us to believe.
Yet Fultz will still likely show flashes this year. He’ll probably put up some decent numbers at times too. He could probably get close to, like, eight points and four assists per game on fast breaks alone. But will he be someone the Sixers can rely on come crunch time? And will the Sixers be able to survive with him and Ben Simmons, another non-shooter, on the floor?
The answer here, sadly, is no.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
Though LeBron James has a lengthy history of pushing his squads to extreme levels of success, he hasn’t always teased production out of young players brimming with untapped potential. He’s typically demanded excellence right away, and that often runs counter to proper development.
Brandon Ingram, however, is different.
“In the two years that I’ve been in the NBA, I don’t think I’ve played to my ability,” he told Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader. “Even just me being comfortable and playing my game. I don’t think I’ve ever been on the floor, comfortable.”
That’s changing. The shift began in 2017-18 with Ingram starting to take better shots and put together more efficient scoring performances. It continued when he was able to mix together offensive production with hounding defense. And it should only keep rolling along when he’s able to learn from firsthand experience alongside James, a man upon whom he can reasonably model his burgeoning game.
Ingram won’t need to fill the featured role into which he’s been thrust during his first few seasons. Not with James leading the charge. But that’s a blessing, one that will allow him to work on the other facets of his game and continue harnessing the all-around play that once got Kevin Durant to say he was looking in the mirror when watching the Duke product.
The jump to stardom is imminent, even if that increased efficacy will come while he draws less of the Tinseltown spotlight.
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Marvin Bagley III will be the most disappointing rookie based on where he was taken and who the Sacramento Kings passed on, specifically Luka Doncic.
He’ll pick up his fair share of easy baskets by tapping into his bounce and energy on drives to the basket and offensive rebounds. But he’s going to struggle to create his own quality scoring chances, especially from the 4 alongside Willie Cauley-Stein. Bagley isn’t a sharp shot-creator when catching the ball outside the paint, nor is he ready to make jumpers at a respectable rate.
He’ll still score around 10 points per game, but it won’t be efficiently for an athletic, 6’11” big man. So far in preseason, Bagley has been clearly outplayed by teammate and fellow rookie Harry Giles, who didn’t suit up once last season.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
The Phoenix Suns haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, back when Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson led them to an unsuccessful Western Conference Finals battle with the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers. That drought won’t end in 2018-19.
But again, give them one more year.
In spite of the general-manager shuffle and reports, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, of interference from above, the Suns are so tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. Even if it doesn’t happen while Devin Booker’s hand is frustrating his ability to catch fire early on in the campaign and Deandre Ayton is learning how to operate as a rookie big in the Association, growth feels inevitable. The desert-based organization is now swimming in enough talent (with an extra first-round pick potentially coming via the Milwaukee Bucks in 2019) to inspire some semblance of confidence.
Sure, the Suns need a point guard upon whom they can rely. Maybe it’s Elie Okobo or De’Anthony Melton. Perhaps the floor general of the future isn’t yet on the roster. Teasing out production from Dragan Bender and/or Marquese Chriss would also help, as would getting T.J. Warren to showcase some defensive developments.
Nonetheless, the Booker-Ayton combination is a promising one, especially if the duo is joined by the version of Josh Jackson we witnessed more frequently during the second half of his rookie go-round. They’ll build chemistry together in 2018-19, aided by veteran presences such as Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza, then look to make the proverbial leap in 2019-20.
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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
We could get bold and call it for Kyrie’s Celtics, or Harden’s Rockets. We could hijack the Philly bandwagon and go with the Embiid-Simmons Sixers. We could overdose on purple Kool Aid and predict a parade for LABron and Co.
But no. Let’s not get silly or issue one of those “look-at-me” contrarian takes just for the sake of being different. The Golden State Warriors remain the only logical pick for at least one more season—stipulating all the usual caveats (injuries, boredom, acts of God).
It will not be easy. Indeed, this should be the Warriors’ most challenging run since they launched this dynastic run four years ago.
No team has made five straight Finals since the 1960s Celtics. The Warriors’ core group—Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston—has logged a ton of minutes. At some point, fatigue—mental and/or physical—may derail them.
But the Warriors are still, by far, the most talented team in the NBA, even if newcomer DeMarcus Cousins never plays a minute. (And if he does, the gap only widens.) The Rockets took their best shot last spring, lost and then lost some key pieces. Utah and Oklahoma don’t have the firepower.
The greatest threat to the Warriors? The team best constructed to end their run? That would be the Celtics, who have all the talent, depth, versatility and defensive prowess to stress out Steph and Co.
But the Celtics are still young in key spots and untested on the grand stage. They’ll give us a good show next June. But it will be the Warriors —with Curry finally clutching a Finals MVP trophy—who once again dance through the confetti.