Around the quarter-point of the 2018-19 NBA regular season is when I realized the Toronto Raptors would be the ones to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals. My pick to win it all remained the Golden State Warriors, as they had been since before the season started, and that belief did not waver upon Durant’s initial injury in Game 5 of their Western Conference Semifinals match up with the Houston Rockets. Fortunately for the basketball community, the intrigue of uncertainty was restored upon the Raptors six-game series win.
That uncertainty was carried over into the off-season, as the entire structure of the NBA as we previously knew it has been upended. No team has a distinct advantage over the other; hilariously leading to Twitter dubbing Kawhi as the Thanos of the NBA for restoring balance to the association. The conferential imbalance unfortunately hasn’t really evened out, with the two great L.A. teams serving as the primary reason the West will be stronger this upcoming season, but there are a few teams out East that could still potentially make trades to strengthen their roster. Many in the community favor the Lakers this upcoming season to represent the West in the Finals, and with the two L.A. teams being the most likely to advance to the Finals out West, let’s instead first take a look at said Eastern Conference.
Kawhi Leonard left Toronto while simultaneously weakening the Oklahoma City Thunder by recruiting Paul George to join him, leaving Giannis Antetokounmpo as the unquestionable best player out East. I got a little ahead of myself in my 2018-19 regular season wrap-up by hinting Antetokounmpo was already the best player in the NBA1, and even if he did win last season’s MVP, it didn’t really mean much, as Leonard ended up proving me wrong by leading his team past Antetokounmpo’s and to a championship. Antetokounmpo will have another opportunity to surpass his competition this upcoming season, but he will have to lead his team to a Finals appearance this season, and actually winning it all would certainly would help cement that fact. This is a tall order to ask, as his team did not retain Brogdon’s services and instead chose to give Khris Middleton a near-max, while re-signing Brook Lopez and George Hill to $9-$13 million dollar contracts. They also signed Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez to contracts comparable to mid-level exceptions, which I know hopeful fans will argue is strength by reduction, but I’ll argue it’s just a cheap move to avoid paying the luxury tax.
He will certainly have an easier path this year to accomplish those goals however. The Bucks are capable of beating the 76ers, who despite signing Al Horford, may have actually gotten worse themselves. Jimmy Butler left the 76ers to be the leader of the Miami Heat, and maybe if that team gets another superstar it would be a different story, but as currently constructed, the Bucks would make quick work of the Heat in a seven-game series. The Bucks already proved they were better than the Celtics last season, and with the Celtics also getting worse on paper this upcoming season by replacing Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker, it remains unlikely the Celtics would edge them out in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Speaking of which, what a fall from grace the Celtics have had in just the past ten months. This team had a quick turnaround from the Big Three era after trading away Rajon Rondo, the final piece of that team, during the 2013-14 season; Brad Stevens’s first as Celtics head coach. Their 25-57 record that season was improved upon next season to 40 wins, and the genesis of this once-vaunted young core began to form with the Celtics 2014 first round draft pick Marcus Smart, at sixth overall. Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge has infamously been known for his shrewd tactics, signing free agents like Al Horford when necessary, or even trading for someone like an Isaiah Thomas, only to trade them away when the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. The only problem is, as some have pointed out for years now, perhaps Ainge wasn’t shrewd enough when he still had the last of the Nets picks during the last couple seasons.
Selecting Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum with those Nets picks isn’t the worst outcome of holding onto the picks and seeing it through, but when your conference is on the verge of potentially being taken over by another superstar, one you’ve already beaten in a playoff series once before, then one must begin to wonder if perhaps Ainge doesn’t regret trading the picks and a few core pieces for a superstar; considering their current circumstance. Their young core was unable to gel with Irving, who seemed to be unable to properly lead a team, and although the East was much weaker when Irving went down with a knee injury on March 11th, 2018, the truth is, it’s still incredibly disappointing that the team performed better when it was just the young guys and a few veterans gelling together to beat the Bucks and make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. It only took one more year for the rest of the teams everyone expected to become contenders eventually to finally realize their potential, and we all witnessed how the Celtics plateaued this previous season just as the field got more competitive. It’s unfortunate they never hit their rhythm at an opportune time, because although Tatum and Brown are still young, it’s also unlikely they will be able to lead this franchise to a Finals appearance.
The Nets shoved the Knicks aside by signing the two players long rumored to join forces together in New York, which, as everyone loves pointing out, is still technically the truth. I don’t expect them to be a serious threat this upcoming 2019-20 season, as they should win around 48 games without Durant, but they won’t be getting far in the playoffs without him as well. When he returns, if he isn’t too far removed from his skill set the last time we saw him play, the Nets will be a scary team for the foreseeable future, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if this partnership is broken up after several disappointing playoff runs. Their personalities may clash and cause the team to flame out, but head coach Kenny Atkinson has already laid a solid foundation for his two stars to follow, so I can only assume the players and organization will do everything necessary to mutually ingratiate themselves.
Therefore, without any real threats to oppose them this season, the Bucks can realistically make the Finals this season. As I said, it will be a tall order, as the team will not be as strong as the previous season, but it is certainly a doable task. This team had the best defensive rating of any team in the NBA last season, and they continued to have the best defensive rating in the playoffs; I fully expect them to achieve that same feat this upcoming season. Perhaps the Clippers will overtake them, what with their absolutely deadly defensive front court of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and their point guard Patrick Beverley, but the Bucks still have the defending MVP in an efficient system implemented by a great head coach in Mike Budenholzer.
Mentioning the Clippers is a perfect way to transition to the Western Conference, which, as usual, is the deeper conference. Not only do the Clippers and Lakers both have a great chance at making the Finals, but the Jazz should also prove to be a contending team next season. It sounds laughable when you just briefly consider the sheer star power of both L.A. teams compared to the solid all-around makeup of the Jazz, but teams built like the Jazz have proven to be capable of sneaking out a championship when the stars align, just like the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, or even last season’s Toronto Raptors, to a lesser extent.
I lambasted Russell Westbrook in my previous article2, and for some inexplicable reason, often-mentioned on this blog Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, decided it would be a great idea to trade away four first round draft picks in 2021, 2024, 2025, and 2026, as well as Chris Paul, but that was actually the best part of the trade for this team. Sam Presti continuously proves his merit as Thunder GM, as he seemingly came to the same conclusion that I did in my aforementioned article; you cannot win a championship with Westbrook. Morey will soon come to that same realization, and who knows if he’ll realize it by the time Westbrook inevitably accepts his ridiculous $46,662,000 player option on the brink of turning 34 before the 2022-23 NBA season. What do the Rockets do with this ball dominant duo? My guess is that they end up doing the same thing they allowed James Harden and Chris Paul to do the previous two seasons; isolation, pick and rolls, drive and kick. The only difference is that Westbrook is infinitely more athletic than Paul, so now instead of one player chasing insane scoring numbers and collecting triple-doubles, they’ll have two ego-driven players concerned primarily with chasing stats.
I realize I have a pessimistic view on next season’s Rockets, but if I’m being objective on the trade, it was the best they could do. The doubt many in the community had early on about Paul and Harden coexisting in a back court together eventually came to fruition3, which really just makes the initial sign-and-trade4 for Paul all the more baffling. It’s not so much that the trade for Westbrook is some appalling, grave-digging move, it’s really more about the fact that they took a one-year flyer on Paul, and then made a horrific financial decision in giving Paul a max deal at 33-years-old5. I realize Morey probably views a majority of those first round picks as worthless, and perhaps for the time being they are, but who knows, maybe this team flames out and is a dumpster fire by 2022-23; I already mentioned the fact Westbrook will be turning 34 that year, while Harden will also be 33. What do you think the chances of the team still being good by then are, or even the chances that the team will still be together?
I’m actually hoping my playoff seeding ends up panning out, because that would give us a first round match up of the Rockets and the Trail Blazers, and a rematch of the Lillard-Westbrook rivalry that was on full display during last postseason’s first round match up of the Trail Blazers and the Thunder. I don’t expect the Trail Blazers to maintain a high seeding this upcoming season, or the Nuggets for that matter, but I actually do expect the Blazers to beat the Rockets if they meet in the postseason. I know that Harden has been capable of leading his team past the first round even in seasons where he was the sole star on the team, but with Westbrook on the roster, and with D’Antoni as the head coach, I can easily see this team succumbing to bad habits in pivotal moments.
2019-20 Conference Standings Predictions
- 1. Los Angeles Clippers – 59-23
- 2. Los Angeles Lakers – 58-24
- 3. Utah Jazz – 55-27
- 4. Houston Rockets – 54-28
- 5. Portland Trail Blazers – 51-31
- 6. Denver Nuggets – 50-32
- 7. Golden State Warriors – 47-35
- 8. San Antonio Spurs – 46-36
- 9. Sacramento Kings – 43-39
- 10. Dallas Mavericks – 40-42
- 11. New Orleans Pelicans – 35-47
- 12. Minnesota Timberwolves – 33-49
- 13. Oklahoma City Thunder – 26-56
- 14. Phoenix Suns – 24-58
- 15. Memphis Grizzlies – 21-61
- Milwaukee Bucks – 62-20
- Philadelphia 76ers – 55-27
- Indiana Pacers – 52-30
- Boston Celtics – 48-34
- Miami Heat – 48-34
- Brooklyn Nets – 48-34
- Toronto Raptors – 43-39
- Detroit Pistons- 41-41
- Orlando Magic – 40-42
- Atlanta Hawks – 37-45
- Washington Wizards – 35-47
- Chicago Bulls -32-50
- Charlotte Hornets – 25-57
- Cleveland Cavaliers – 20-62
- New York Knicks – 16-66
What else is there to look forward too then? It may take some readers back for me to state this, but I’m actually looking forward to the development of the Atlanta Hawks this upcoming season. Trae Young and John Collins are both young, developing players with a lot of potential, and if their front office actually surrounds them with the necessary pieces, I can see them becoming a serious contender in the next four years. Collins upped his scoring average and shots attempted, nearly doubling both, as 10.5 points per game on 7.4 field goal attempts per game in 24.1 minutes per game turned into 19.5 points per game on 13.6 field goal attempts per game, in 30 minutes per game. Sure, his overall shooting percentage went down, but his three-point shooting improved in both attempts and percentage, and when you’re still shooting at an absurd 56% from the field, it really doesn’t matter.
For the Hawks to actually become contenders though, Trae Young will have to become the superstar this team needs to compliment Collins’s crafty game. His interior presence, rebounding, and progressively improving ability to stretch the floor are all instrumental components to the team system, and Young must be the ball-handler that take guys off-the-dribble, penetrates the defense, passes well, and shoots insanely efficiently from outside. He certainly can do that, but this duo also must improve their defense, as the team’s 27th-ranked defensive rating last season is simply unacceptable if they wish to improve going forward. Their 23rd-ranked offensive rating also needs to be improved upon, but I do have faith they will gradually improve upon that.
There’s also the opportunity for big trades going forward, for instance, maybe a struggling, middle-of-the-pack team in the East makes a trade for Paul in an effort to gain some veteran leadership and talent; no matter how much of it may be fading. I’m also excited to see what the Jazz are capable of, as I fully expect this team to finally grab a top three seeding in the West, as this defensive-minded team finally added the playmaking help at the point guard position they’ve so desperately needed. Mike Conley, even at 32-years-old, is one of the better overall point guards in the NBA, and with his help, the Jazz offense should be more fluid, potent, and efficient. Donovan Mitchell is often, and unfairly, criticized for shooting 43% from the field, but if you look at his rookie season, when everyone was so impressed with his abilities right out of the gate, he really proved that it wasn’t a fluke this previous season.
Sure, he did shoot 43.2% this previous season, a little worse than his 43.7% shooting from his rookie season, but who else did he have to help him create offense? Who else was facilitating and scoring on the Jazz like him? His shot attempts went up from 17.2 to 19.9, his points per game jumped from 20.5 to 23.8, and his usage percentage went up from 29.1%, 17th in the NBA overall, as a rookie, to 31.6%, good enough for sixth in the entire NBA. However, as I pointed out, his field goal percentage virtually remained the same. It’s worth mentioning that everyone was more prepared for him in his sophomore season than his rookie season, so I ask, how is this not impressive? He proved himself as a star last season, and now with more help, we should only see his efficiency numbers increase.
A lot of people would like to see his assists per game increase as well, especially considering his 11th and 16th place finishes in total turnovers with 215 and 218 respectively, but he’s actually not the one-dimensional scorer that people paint him out to be. His turnover percentage actually decreased from his rookie season, from 12.6% to 11.3%, which actually placed him ahead of guys like Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry, and it makes sense when you consider how much more he was handling the ball. Not only that, but his assist total, per game, and percentage all increased from his rookie season as well. Now you tell me, how is he not going to improve when the core of this team has remained intact, while also adding the perfect complimentary piece to head coach Quin Snyder’s domineering defensive system?
As for the defending champion Raptors, well, I want to feel bad for them, but I can’t. GM Masai Ujiri deserves all the praise he’s received for the one-year flyer on Leonard, and I owe the man an apology for the way I initially dismissed his move in my initial piece on the DeRozan-Leonard trade6. I quickly assumed at that time that they would be unable to win the championship, and that Leonard would leave, and although that ended up being true, the franchise ultimately succeeded in reaching the mountaintop; all due to the moves Ujiri made in the off-season, and at the trade deadline. It’s hard to feel bad for a franchise that knew they had a window, and capitalized on their chances to put themselves in the best position to win a championship. It will be interesting to see how the franchise rebuilds itself in the wake of Leonard’s departure, but with defensive ace Pascal Siakim, the winner of the Most Improved Player this previous season, and a solid core of veteran players, this franchise really is only a couple moves away from being back in contention in a few seasons, if Ujiri continues to play his cards right.
I’m not expecting Paul to stay on the Thunder all season, so we will have to keep an eye out on the Thunder, and any teams who desperately need to fill their point guard position; likely a team with the cap space to make that move. Another point guard who may be traded from his team soon is John Wall, and if Bradley Beal does accept their max offer7, then it will be interesting to see what moves the Wizards make with the inapt roster around him. It may actually be more interesting for the NBA if Beal signs elsewhere, because then the Wizards’ front office finally has to look itself in the mirror and realize it’s time to start over. We could see this duo shipped off to teams in need of their play styles, and even if it means my conference predictions would become superannuated, I would gladly accept more player movement that bolsters the parity, and unpredictability, of the NBA.
- Havarti – 4/13/2019 – 2018-19 NBA Regular Season Analysis
- Havarti – 6/14/2019 – Thunderous Dissent: A Fall from Stardom
- Yahoo Sports – 6/18/2019 – Sources: Chris Paul wants out as relationship with James Harden deemed ‘unsalvageable’
- SBNation – 6/28/2017 – Chris Paul traded to Rockets in blockbuster move before NBA free agency
- CBS Sports – 7/1/2018 – NBA free agency 2018: Chris Paul, Rockets agree to four-year, $160M max deal, per report
- Havarti – 7/20/2018 – Do the Raptors Finally Have a Claw?
- ESPN – 7/23/2019 – Wizards to offer Beal 3-year, $111M extension