Ground Floor Zero: 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

Game over man, game over. Warriors three-peat, the NBA is rigged, and parity is dead. Why watch when one team is certain to dominate the entire association? The other storylines mostly, and the possibility of an insane upset perhaps?

After LeBron’s big move to Los Angeles, the Warriors upstaged everyone by signing arguably the most dominant center in the league, regardless of his Achilles tear that led to him accepting their $5.2 million contract. Some would argue that Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid are better options at the five then DeMarcus Cousins, but really, does it matter? He averages 21.5 points a game for his career on 46% shooting, and when you realize that he’s still averaging 11 rebounds when his career 16.7 shots attempts per game aren’t coming exclusively at the basket, it paints a better picture of the type of dominance Cousins exudes on the court. The Warriors weakness has always been a thin post presence, and this more than rectifies that. Where’s the weaknesses in this team now?

A thin bench could be the only aspect of their game you could call a weakness, but their starting five has officially assembled the perfect group of players to perfectly encapsulate Kerr’s system that’s singlehandedly overtaken the NBA. I don’t see anyone overthrowing this team, but heavy is the head who wears the crown, and no one certainly wants to see them three-peat, so expect to see teams playing harder against them this season than ever before, especially before Cousins returns from his Achilles injury from the season prior. Last season saw the Warriors go seven games in the Western Conference Finals, and saw them dip below 60 wins in the regular season for the first time under Kerr’s tenure. Yes, they won 58 games, so it’s not like they completely fell off, but tensions and expectations grew while attempting to repeat, and sweeping the Cavaliers in the Finals was likely the easiest challenge they had in the season.

That’s not to discredit the effort LeBron put forth in the Finals, but it didn’t really seem like the Warriors had to exert nearly as much effort on beating the Cavaliers as they did on the Rockets. That team lost their wing-switching scheme this offseason, and the Warriors added more star power to their already-overpowered starting five. Once again I ask, how do you beat that? Sometimes you just have to wait a bad situation out and allow the natural order of life to reset the playing field.

In the meantime, it’s important to scope out the surrounding landscape, in order to determine who will take the next step forward, and which franchise is making the moves necessary to contend for future championships. The Warriors won’t exist forever, and neither will LeBron. Future dynasties and superstars are on the horizon, it’s just a matter of time before one decision alters the current chain of events and leads to a complete overhaul in the hierarchy of the NBA as we know it.

I’ve written six articles this offseason, each one about a different franchise. Four of those teams made the playoffs last year, and this upcoming season should see every one of those teams return to the postseason since Jimmy Butler demanded a trade from the Timberwolves1. This is where the other storylines come into play, as these loose ends need to be tied up, and events are always manipulated or play out in such a way that the circle will always complete itself.

Damian Lillard will likely stay with the Blazers this season, and if he does, then their management is delusional. He came out this summer to shut down rumors of his unhappiness2 in Portland, but he also posted his workout videos3 to prove that he works out in the offseason; he says all the right things to not upset the fan base, or to please his fans. If the Lakers can find a way to trade for Lillard, they absolutely should, as it’s been proven LeBron’s system works best with a ball-dominant guard who can put up points as the complimentary piece to his all-around game, and despite my proclamation that Kawhi Leonard would be the piece that could help change the Lakers culture due to his defensive abilities4, it’s impossible to read into how he feels about staying with the Raptors long-term now that he’s come out on more than one occasion to say he has had thoughts about staying in Toronto. The both of them with LeBron would be lethal, but I don’t think that is a reality this season, and probably not any season going forward. If Leonard never becomes an option, then you go with the player whose play-style you know already meshes with your superstar forward.

Filler often bores and upsets people looking for action, and that’s what many view this season as being. If no one can beat the Warriors, and all their greatest challenges are in the same conference as them, how can they not win the Finals? The real question is, can they win four consecutive Finals? They stacked the deck and loaded the chamber for 2018-19, but champions are bred in the kiln of competition, and the fiery emotions surrounding this team won’t be forgotten. When they become weakened, and they will as all champions do, teams will pounce; yearning for blood. I’ve already hinted that DeMarcus Cousins or Kevin Durant may leave after this season, but they may not also be the only superstars leaving their current franchise.

Rumors have circulated incessantly about Butler and Kyrie Irving having interest in playing with each other on the Knicks, but rumors such as these circulate every year. Superstars nowadays can leave their environment and team up with whoever they please, as long as one franchise can accommodate their costs. Butler heading back East to team up with Irving could swing more power to the opposite conference and make things more interesting than they are now, and have been in years. Even if Cousins and Durant did stay for 2019-20, that still results in one less pretender out West, and one more contender for the East.

Philadelphia’s dynamic duo seeks to improve their standing and talent after being ahead of schedule last season, and yet, I don’t believe that will be this year. The logical step would be an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, or a Finals appearance; not for this team though. Leonard’s Toronto sabbatical could last only one season, but I believe the team is mature and cohesive enough to ingratiate a new coach and superstar player to take that next step in the playoffs, especially now that LeBron resides in L.A. full-time. The Celtics can’t be relegated to side players, as it really is their conference to lose, and if I had to make that prediction right now, I’d bet on them to be the representatives for the Eastern Conference in the Finals this upcoming season. They won’t win, but even against that starting five, they won’t be swept. Brad Stevens is too great of a coach to let that happen, and his players are too prideful to allow it as well.

A Conference Finals match-up consisting of Boston and Toronto then? That’s the likely outcome, as I believe the Raptors would beat the 76ers in the Semifinals, where they should be meeting each other. The opposite conference should see Golden State matching up with L.A., because if you read my articles about the Lakers and the Rockets, you’d notice I already stated I believed that this Lakers team would improve as the season went along, and thus earn themselves the right to not face the Warriors until the Conference Finals, and that this young team would be hungry enough to topple an offensive-heavy Rockets squad that replaced the two floor-spacing defensive wings vital to their system with an eroding Carmelo Anthony.

The MVP for this season has been an afterthought for me, because after awarding it to Harden last year, I’ve burned myself out on witnessing star players pretend to be superstars by inflating their stats on offensive-centric systems in an era that heavily favors offense already. LeBron is a popular choice this year, considering the narrative he’s built for himself going into L.A., but I don’t believe we should consider him just yet when his second-place finish last season was his first second-place finish since 2013-14. They wanted to give him Finals MVP in 2015 despite losing, and certain personalities on television unworthy to be labeled analysts have wanted to reward his regular season efforts with another MVP even though his teams have underachieved every year since returning to Cleveland. Moving to Los Angeles has taken a lot of that pressure off, but in my view, you must perform up to your standards of excellence, and when you’re a top-5 player of all time, especially when some try to argue that you’re still in your prime, then you have no business having the type of January the Cavaliers had during last season. That’s not to discredit his tremendous talents, but when your team falters that way, you can’t win MVP, as everyone already knows by now that the criteria used to vote for MVP is not based purely on skill and value to your team alone, as narratives will always impact legacies, so yes, other variables come into play.

You could argue then, that the narrative of LeBron going to lead a young Lakers squad would make him the early favorite, but I will then ask you to flip that perception on its head and look at the Leonard situation. He asked for a trade, reportedly for the Lakers, and was traded to a different country instead. Remember in 2011 when Derrick Rose won a deserved MVP partially due to the public perception of LeBron at the time? I do, and it’s exactly why it favors Leonard, because the best Raptors squad under the DeRozan-Lowry-Casey era won 59 games; the best in their franchise’s history. That coach is gone, as well as half of the duo that put together that five-year stretch of playoff basketball; he’s sitting pretty in the driver seat now. I did state in my article on the Raptors that I don’t believe this team will win 60 games, but if they do, expect Leonard to be rewarded with his first MVP; adding some conspicuous hardware to an understated resume. Admittedly, it would make him a transitional MVP, but I’d argue that Russell Westbrook and James Harden were as well.

Leonard should also win Defensive Player of the Year should the Raptors fifth-ranked defensive rating from last season jump to first, especially if the pace remains the same or picks up, as the Raptors have always struggled on that end of the floor until last season. His return is highly anticipated, and if he returns without any rust, then his only competition should be Gobert, as I don’t believe Draymond Green will receive the votes he deserves, much like last season when he finished at a disrespectful seventh place in the award voting. Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man and Most Improved are awards I don’t make predictions on, and that’s not to say they are less important, as I did cover these awards with the same respect I did for MVP and DPoY in my article following the 2018 NBA Awards5, it’s just nigh impossible to tell what will happen with these particular awards on a yearly basis unless you watch college basketball, which I do not, then you can probably predict which rookies will be great. Coach of the Year should be Brad Stevens, but we can just wait until the end of the season and just see which team either did exactly what they were supposed to, or greatly improved.

We have another season of purgatory upon us, but without the meme of a Golden State-Cleveland Finals this season, we as a basketball community should celebrate, and appreciate every single little thing we can for this next season. The Golden State machine has reached optimal potency, I think. Who knows, another superstar could sign for the veteran minimum and come off the bench for them the season after, but this has to end at some point right?

2018-19 Conference Standings Predictions

              Western Conference

  1. Golden State Warriors – 63-19
  2. Houston Rockets – 57-25
  3. Los Angeles Lakers – 49-33
  4. Utah Jazz – 49-33
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder – 48-34
  6. New Orleans Pelicans – 48-34
  7. Portland Trail Blazers – 47-35
  8. Denver Nuggets – 46-36
  9. San Antonio Spurs – 45-37
  10. Minnesota Timberwolves – 38-44
  11. Los Angeles Clippers – 35-47
  12. Dallas Mavericks – 32-50
  13. Phoenix Suns – 30-52
  14. Sacramento Kings – 24-58
  15. Memphis Grizzlies – 20-62

            Eastern Conference

  1. Boston Celtics – 61-21
  2. Toronto Raptors – 58-24
  3. Philadelphia 76ers – 56-26
  4. Indiana Pacers – 50-32
  5. Milwaukee Bucks – 48-34
  6. Miami Heat – 45-37
  7. Washington Wizards – 43-39
  8. Detroit Pistons – 41-41
  9. New York Knicks – 37-45
  10. Charlotte Hornets –  35-47
  11. Cleveland Cavaliers – 30-52
  12. Chicago Bulls – 29-53
  13. Brooklyn Nets – 26-56
  14. Atlanta Hawks – 21-61
  15. Orlando Magic – 18-64

Editor’s Notes

  1. I originally thought the Blazers wouldn’t make the playoffs, and still had them penciled out up until Butler first demanded a trade.
  2. Damian Lillard on Portland Trail Blazers: ‘I’m not unhappy. I love where I am.’
  3. 9/16/18 tweet
  4. Havarti – 7/23/2018 – “LeBron’s Lakers”
  5. Havarti – 6/29/2018 – “Roger’s 2018 NBA Awards”
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