2018-19 NBA Regular Season Analysis

Being wrong is often a chastening experience, but a necessary one, as it keeps you humble and reflective. Oftentimes, it allows you to step back and look at the bigger picture; understand how something went wrong. My prediction of the conference standings1 was slightly off in some aspects, terribly in others, but I believe I captured the overall landscape of this recently completed NBA regular season fairly well, so let’s focus on what I got wrong.

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

Allow me to address the elephant in the room and announce with great disappointment that the Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James, failed to even make the playoffs. My 49-win prediction is almost hilarious considering all the shenanigans that went on behind closed doors at the executive level in the Staples Center. Kevin Durant called out the mass media’s obsession with LeBron James2, and while his approach was rather abrasive, someone had to be the one to hold one of the greatest players of all time to a standard he set for himself by choosing to play for a young core in Los Angeles in the midst of what many tried to still consider his prime years. Remember all those arguments for LeBron getting better as he ages that people kept floating around last season and this? What happened?

2018-19 Conference Standings

              Western Conference

  1. Golden State Warriors – 57-25
  2. Denver Nuggets – 54-28
  3. Portland Trail Blazers – 53-29
  4. Houston Rockets – 53-29
  5. Utah Jazz – 50-32
  6. Oklahoma City Thunder – 49-33
  7. San Antonio Spurs – 48-34
  8. Los Angeles Clippers – 48-34
  9. Sacramento Kings – 39-43
  10. Los Angeles Lakers – 37-45
  11. Minnesota Timberwolves – 36-46
  12. Memphis Grizzlies – 33-49
  13. New Orleans Pelicans – 33-49
  14. Dallas Mavericks – 33-49
  15. Phoenix Suns – 19-63

            Eastern Conference

  1. Milwaukee Bucks – 60-22
  2. Toronto Raptors – 58-24
  3. Philadelphia 76ers – 51-31
  4. Boston Celtics – 49-33
  5. Indiana Pacers – 48-34
  6. Brooklyn Nets – 42-40
  7. Orlando Magic – 42-40
  8. Detroit Pistons – 41-41
  9. Charlotee Hornets – 39-43
  10. Miami Heat – 39-43
  11. Washington Wizards – 32-50
  12. Atlanta Hawks – 29-53
  13. Chicago Bulls – 22-60
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers – 19-63
  15. New York Knicks – 17-65

His leadership certainly must be questioned, but by this point it’s a valid argument that LeBron is not the type of player who can galvanize his teammates. He’s limited to one play-style, and despite all the tremendous talent he possesses, his teams have proven to be unsuccessful unless he’s surrounded by shooters and another lethal ball handler. I believed the Lakers would attain the third seeding due to LeBron’s acceptance of a different on-court role, as well as the role of a mentor to a developing young core with potential. Instead, he insisted of playing his brand of basketball, which is why I do not understand why Magic Johnson made the moves he made in the offseason if the team wasn’t going to commit to a different type of play-style. Chemistry was shot once rumors of the entire team being available in a trade for Anthony Davis went public, Luke Walton has proven himself unworthy of being a head coach, and Magic Johnson stepped down as the Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations after not enjoying the job much or even without consulting owner Jeanie Buss because he thought she would talk him out of it3. What a disaster of a season.

However, the overall landscape of the NBA is an exciting environment right now with a surprising amount of parity. I believed the playing field would display a level of equivalence unseen since the beginning of the decade, and possibly since the 1970’s, but that’s an unfair assertion to make as it’s looking far too deep into the past to make a comparison. Although half the league has a losing record, the point remains, as virtually every contending team plays roughly the same brand of basketball, and it’s a rather intriguing environment to witness and live through. The talent disparity between the Warriors and the rest of the league isn’t as large as it used to be, and plenty of other people have noticed4 as well. I’m still unsure if anyone in the East will beat them this year, and since that statement also carries the implication of another Warriors appearance in the Finals, I’m also uncertain if anyone in the West can either, but the more interesting developments are happening in the East right now.

I was wrong about where the Celtics and the Bucks would end up in the standings, but it was pretty close to being a case of a simple flip-flop. The Bucks surprised everyone by finally realizing their potential, and all it really took was a coaching change. I thought Budenholzer would mix things up for the team and improve their advanced numbers, but I didn’t believe it would actually start resulting in wins and deep playoff runs until at least next season. I should have given him more credit, as the talent on the team is undeniable, and he’s clearly adept at reinvigorating a culture and redeveloping overall team systems in a short amount of time. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the obvious MVP, but if this team cannot overcome the Celtics in the second round, assuming both teams beat their first-round matchups, then the season will be a disappointment due to their accelerated development.

However, even the surprising season the league-leading Bucks put together isn’t the most exciting thing to happen in their conference, as the offseason should provide more excitement to a conference looking to add star power to their rosters. Kawhi Leonard fortified the Raptors, but will he stay? After the Finals, will Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving really team up with potential first overall pick Zion Williamson in New York5? According to statements recently unearthed in a 2017 video made while Durant was out in public6, that’s never going to happen. The video was recorded during the season where the Warriors had just signed him and were looking to win their first championship with Durant in the line-up, but things change fast, and a sudden shift in conferential power balance could be the driving factor to force Durant out East, as well as a large payday.

Rumors have circled Anthony Davis incessantly since he expressed his desire to be traded from the losing Pelicans, who were another one of the three teams I had projected to make the playoffs, largely due to the hype prior to the season where the NBA media made us fans believe Davis would be putting together an MVP-worthy season. Unfortunately, Davis was unable to secure a postseason spot for his team, and despite possessing all the talent in the world, Davis’s game is unable to translate to wins, and it’s become more obvious that his role is that of an exemplary supporting piece on a contending team. That infamous deal with the Lakers fell through, which destroyed all the chemistry on that team, but it would be foolish to believe the trade had no effect on the Pelicans as well; they must put together a trade package by next season’s trade deadline or risk losing Davis for nothing, as his final year (2020-21) is a player option. There’s plenty of other teams that would love to have him, and any contender who is able to secure his services will almost certainly be rewarded with a trip to the Finals, which is why fans and media pundits have long speculated Boston as a possible destination for the 26-year-old star.

Before I mention anything else though, it’s only right I also discuss the disappointing season the Wizards put together, as they were the other predicted playoff team that failed to reach the postseason. The Nets surprised everyone and took the Wizards’ spot essentially, and it forces this writer to reconsider John Wall and his impact on the game. D’Angelo Russell was able to lead a roster of similar talent to a .500 record and a sixth seed in the East, something John Wall should have been doing consistently the last several years, especially when Bradley Beal has been his backcourt mate for the past seven seasons. The Wizards have never possessed enough depth or cap space to fortify their bench, and due to this poor management, their starting five has suffered the consequences.

However, even though Wall’s field goal percentage and points per game are the third and second-highest of his career respectively, his usage rate is the third-highest of his career, while his assists per game only ranks sixth out of his nine seasons. His assist percentage is the lowest it’s been since his sophomore season, and it’s also the first time his assist percentage has dipped below 40% for the first time since his aforementioned sophomore season. His turnover percentage is roughly the same it’s always been, and when you also factor in that the Wizards were 11-21 with Wall in the line-up, and 21-29 without him, well, you start to understand that Wall’s play style is far too domineering to translate into team success. If John Wall truly was a top-five point guard in the East, let alone “the best point guard in the East”7, then he’d be accomplishing feats that D’Angelo Russell accomplished this season on a regular basis. Should the Wizards trade him? Yes, but I doubt anyone will take on his contract at this point. However, with Beal repeatedly proving himself to be a lethal scoring option and a reliable leader in a career-best season across the board without a decent roster surrounding him, the Wizards still have a chance at developing a franchise centerpiece.

With that out of the way, let me ask, what else is out West other than a developing Nuggets squad? The Warriors might keep Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson, or any combination of at least three of those players, but I have serious doubts they retain all four of their services, and although it doesn’t eliminate them from postseason contention by any means, it certainly does weaken the team. Harden’s Rockets are the only other viable contender until further evidence is provided that another team can hang with the Warriors in the playoffs, and their window of opportunity likely already passed last season. What exactly are we banking on then going forward in the Western Conference?

James Harden put together an admirable season, carrying his team with insane scoring numbers while Chris Paul was out with injuries, and although Paul has returned, his efficiency and overall game has visibly diminished. Harden almost single-handily brought his team from the 14th seed on December 8th, 2018 with an 11-14 record to a top-four seed in the West while the team was in a dire situation with restructuring the team’s entire system; extremely worthy of MVP, and yet, it will still lead to his team being eliminated prior to the Finals. Paul will be 36 by the time his contract is up, and with Harden and Clint Capela being the only other players locked up until 2021-22, it certainly gives Harden, who will be turning 33 that offseason, the possibility of declining his $46,872,000 player option in 2022-23, the final year of his contract. In fact, this trio are the only players signed past 2020-21, meaning although the Rockets front office has flexibility in surrounding their trio with talent, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to utilize any combination of supporting pieces to lead this team to a championship.

Once again, as I stated in my preview of this season, sometimes all you can do is wait until the playing field levels itself out. If Durant leaves, we have a young Nuggets squad that has greatly improved on defense without sacrificing the slow pace their head coach Mike Malone prefers his squad to play at, and their explosive offense still has enough firepower to duel with the Warriors for their core’s remaining championship years. Durant shot 7-for-19 in their first of four meetings with the Nuggets this year, and since this was the only loss the Warriors suffered to the Nuggets, only coming by a margin of two points nonetheless, it signals a vulnerability that this Nuggets team can exploit in future seasons or potential playoff series if Durant is no longer a Warrior after this season. The other three meetings between these teams would see the Warriors win by an average of 20.6 points, and it’s important to note Durant shot 11-for-15, 10-for-15, and 9-for-13, and that first shooting performance of the trio was also without Cousins playing, much like the first meeting between these two teams.

A vulnerable Warriors team gives the Rockets a short window to capture a Finals appearance, but unless Harden is putting up numbers similar to something he would achieve during the regular season, I don’t see the Rockets being able to overcome the Warriors at any point during that short window, giving the Nuggets the best chance after this year to pass up the Warriors as the Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals. It’s not to disparage good teams like the Jazz or the Thunder, but they’re just not good enough to overcome these teams, or they’re just simply lacking the firepower necessary to put up enough points to overcome a shootout with the top-four teams in the West. The Trail Blazers can also be included in this group, but like most fans of the NBA, I don’t take the team seriously enough to advance past the First Round, as I do have the Thunder overcoming them in six games for their upcoming First Round matchup.

Hopeful fans are looking out East for a challenger to the crown then, and they do have good reason to do so. Kyrie departing from the Celtics would leave them vulnerable, but not completely out of the picture. The Davis trade keeps things intriguing, and it has to keep Kyrie up at night considering all his options, but playing with Durant, and possibly Williamson as well, certainly is an enticing opportunity, especially when it is for the largest market in sports. The Knicks returning to the playoff picture would remove a team scraping by to get into the playoffs such as the Detroit Pistons; potentially creating even more parity than the small amount of it we’ve witnessed this season.

2019 NBA Playoff Bracket
Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles ClippersMilwaukee Bucks vs. Detroit Pistons
Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio SpursToronto Raptors vs. Orlando Magic
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City ThunderPhiladelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets
Houston Rockets vs. Utah JazzBoston Celtics vs. Indiana Pacers

This year’s playoff matchups aren’t the most imaginative, but the straightforward nature of the matchups does excite me for the Finals. I don’t expect any upsets out East, as every one of the top-four seeds should overcome their First Round matchup in five games or less, except for the Celtics, as I believe the Pacers will give them a good six-game series. Had Oladipo not gotten injured for the entirety of the season back in January, I do believe this series would go seven games with the strong possibility of an upset, but that’s a fantasy world at this point. The Eastern Semifinals should be much more interesting, as the Bucks will be forced to prove themselves against the Celtics while the Raptors and 76ers battle for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The 76ers starting line-up is amongst the deadliest in the NBA, as their floor spacing and defense provides matchup nightmares for teams without the ability to switch or defend taller ball-handlers such as Ben Simmons or Jimmy Butler, and unfortunately for them, the Raptors do possess that ability. Until Ben Simmons can start hitting jump shots at a frequent rate, this team will be unable to overcome the other elite teams of their conference, and I see the Raptors taking this series in no more than six games. Unless the Bucks choke, they should also beat the Celtics in roughly six games, but Brad Stevens coaching ability should never be questioned, so don’t be surprised if that one goes seven. In any case, we should be looking at an Eastern Conference finals matchup of the Milwaukee Bucks going against the Toronto Raptors.

Who would’ve guessed the top two teams in the East would be my picks to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals? Many are betting the Bucks reach the Finals this year; signaling the beginning of 24-year-old Antetokounmpo’s reign as the best player in the world. I have already admitted I was surprised by the Bucks rapid development, and although it appears to be rather illogical, I’m going to once again retain my modest expectation of the Bucks, and bet that the Raptors beat them to advance to the Finals.

This core succumbed to playoff pressure every season for the past four years, and yet, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri continued to up the ante with a trade for Kawhi Leonard, and then a follow-up trade at the deadline for Marc Gasol. They’re all in on winning a championship this season, or at least reaching the Finals, and with Lowry now not having the pressure of taking the final shot due to the presence of Leonard, who does appear to want that responsibility, along with a young athletic core made of players willing to defend as well as a mix of savvy veterans; this team is better poised to reach the Finals. We’ve seen this formula in the past, it’s a proven method that’s tried-and-true, and we’ve also seen dominant regular season teams built around the dominance of their star player succumb to well-rounded teams in deep playoff runs. Of course, this is the Raptors, so they could still somehow choke it all away, but I think the team has gelled enough over the course of the season that they are ready for anything thrown at them in the East.

The ironic part of the East owning more excitement than the West during the regular season is that the Western Conference playoffs are much more intriguing than the East. Despite the Trail Blazers being a higher seeding than the Rockets, we all know who the better team really is, which is why I have the Thunder wearing them down with their defense in six games. The Rockets then, get a matchup that’s better suited for them, and after what I believe will be a quick five-game dispatch of the Jazz, will be a battle with the Warriors. Obviously I believe the Warriors will sweep the Clippers, but it would be disrespectful of me to not at least mention their First Round competition. Now that we’re back on the more interesting angle of having last season’s Western Conference Finals matchup in this year’s Semifinals, let me unsurprisingly predict a Warriors victory in six games.

I predicted the Nuggets would be the team responsible for making sure the Spurs didn’t reach the playoffs, and they greatly overachieved on that end, but now they get to take what I predicted and ratchet it up to the next level, and eliminate the Spurs in the First Round of the playoffs. I’m still unsure of the Nuggets overall ability to perform when most needed, so I’ll predict this one goes the full seven games, and I’ll bet that the Nuggets will have to go seven with the Thunder as well. However, despite all that, I do believe this team will be the one facing off against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and there’s nothing exciting about that; Warriors win in five at most.

An NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Raptors probably isn’t the first thing most people are hoping for, but it makes the most sense. Nobody out West is toppling the Warriors, and even though I believe the Warriors are three-peating after a hard fought six-game series, at the end of the day, no one out East can overthrow them either. There’s a lot of people holding out hope that the Bucks will be the ones to represent the East and beat the Warriors, but that’s wishful thinking, and quite frankly, not their time yet.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Havarti – 10/15/2018 – Ground Floor Zero: 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
  2. USA Today – 12/5/2018 – Kevin Durant thinks a ‘toxic’ media environment keeps players from joining LeBron
  3. ESPN – 4/10/2019 – Sources: Magic exit stuns LeBron; Pelinka to stay
  4. Youtube/JxmyHighroller – 3/18/2019 – Are We Witnissing The End of A Dynasty?
  5. Business Insider – 3/10/2019 – The Kevin Durant-Lyrie Irving free agency hype is reaching a fever pitch and rumors, reports, and more have created a trail of bread crumbs to follow
  6. The New York Post – 3/24/2019 – Unearthed video shows Kevin Durant is ‘never’ coming to Knicks
  7. SLAM – 10/2/2017 – John Wall; ‘I Am The Best Point Guard in the Eastern Conference’
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