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Kaboom! Magazine.com 2018 NBA Season Preview

Kaboom! Magazine.com 2018 NBA Season Preview

LeBron is in Los Angeles. The Celtics are contenders. But the Warriors are still the Warriors. Golden State have won three of the past four NBA titles and added All-Star DeMarcus Cousins on a one-year deal this offseason. It has given the 2018-19 NBA season an air of predetermination that has been present since Kevin Durant joined them — that the title is Golden State’s to lose. It might seem like last season was a cakewalk for the Warriors, but they were still one game away from the Rockets eliminating them. They are the favorites this year to be sure, but there are a bunch of intriguing storylines to watch as the season opens Tuesday, but today we will going through our list of team previews and predictions as nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, even if it seems Warriors inevitable.

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The NBA Championship Contenders:
These teams have the coaching, star power, and championship experience to bring home the NBA championship in 2019.

Golden State Warriors:
The Warriors made some changes around the edges of the roster, while returning each of their star players. Basically, the Warriors enter the upcoming season as the overwhelming favorites to win the championship and could be more dangerous than ever with Cousins working his way back from his injury.

Houston Rockets:
The Houston Rockets proved a year ago that they were as formidable a challenger in the West as we’ve seen in a while. Although the roster has evolved, the question remains, did they get better? Bringing up what the Rockets lost this summer is pretty much beating a dead horse at this point, so let’s summarize it like this: While Houston kept its star power, it lost players who brought intangibles to the table. Who they replaced said players with has brought much doubt as to whether Houston can repeat last season’s performance, much less win a championship. No matter what setback(s) they may have faced this off-season, the Rockets’ goal remains unchanged. They want their next title. Though the roster has gone through a little shakeup, the Rockets should still be one of the league’s best teams.

Boston Celtics:
The Boston Celtics didn’t make any blockbuster acquisitions this summer, but they are still getting some serious reinforcements this season. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward collectively missed most of last season due to injuries, but are now on track to start on opening night. Boston was a dangerous team last season without those two star players. With Irving and Hayward back in the fold, it’s hard to not like Boston’s chances of making it out of the Eastern Conference. Head coach Brad Stevens will have to manage his players’ minutes and find a balance that keeps his stars and role players happy. With Irving, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart on the roster, Stevens will have to figure out how to balance the minutes at point guard. The same issue applies at the forward positions, with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris all looking for heavy minutes. It’s a nice problem to have and if anyone can manage it, it’s Stevens. With high-end talent, solid role players, a strong team culture and a top-notch head coach, the Celtics are primed for a deep playoff run and possibly a trip to the NBA Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers:
The Sixers will benefit just from their prospects being more seasoned. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons only have 175 career appearances between them. Dario Saric has two NBA years under his belt. Fultz didn’t even top 280 minutes over the regular season and playoffs combined.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors

Almost NBA Championship Contenders:
Here are some teams that want to put the world on notice with their own NBA championship ambitions.

Toronto Raptors:
Theoretically, free agency treated Toronto well by moving its biggest road block out of the conference (LeBron James). But that only matters if the Raptors are still operating with a win-now focus. The season they just had says they should, but how many other win-now clubs are gauging the market of their entire roster?

Oklahoma City Thunder:
Once they cut ties with Carmelo Anthony, they should find a fifth Beatle who helps improve their defense and increase their tempo. There are enough gaps (support scoring and shooting) to keep them out of the top four, but few clubs have a higher ceiling.

San Antonio Spurs:
When you look past the legacy aspect of who they lost, the Spurs didn’t have that bad of an off-season. Ginobili and Parker were basically rotation players last season who, at their age, were impressive. Losing them at that stage in their careers isn’t that big of a loss. As for how they resolved that bizarre Kawhi situation, the Spurs may have lost an elite player but at least they got a more than proven commodity back for him in DeMar DeRozan. Plus, who knows where Kawhi’s career goes from here?

Indiana Pacers:
After a 2017-18 season where they were almost certainly the league’s most pleasant surprise compared to preseason projections, the Indiana Pacers will try to avoid the trap of outsized expectations the following year – and they’re well-positioned to do so. They made smart but understated signings over the summer in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, guys who may not make them title contenders but will absolutely help in several areas. They’ll hope for another year of development out of big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, the former in particular. But especially given the still-low quality of the East’s playoff picture after teams like Boston and Toronto at the top, it feels like the only thing that could truly lead to a real regression for the Pacers is a big drop-off from Victor Oladipo, who became a full-blown star last season. If he holds his level and stays on the floor, it’s hard to imagine Indiana doing much worse than their fifth-place finish in the East last year.

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Dangerous Playoff Teams:
They may not have the championship pedigree of say a Golden State, but these teams have playmakers that you do not want to get stuck dealing with in the early rounds.

Washington Wizards:
The Washington Wizards are here to play solid but not spectacular basketball, reach the playoffs, win a series and then graciously bow out — just as they have in three of the last five years. More or less, the Wizards sport a former All-NBA point guard with an All-Star-minded sidekick and compete in the weaker conference, but they’ve never managed to defeat their massive second-round hurdles. To their credit, however, Washington keeps trying to improve wherever they can each offseason instead of fruitlessly blowing it all up.

Portland Trail Blazers:
The Portland Trail Blazers surprised many last season when they ended up with the third best record in the Western Conference behind only the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a New Orleans Pelicans team that was probably a bit better than their record and sixth place finish indicated. Despite that, the Blazers should feel good about themselves. They’ve got an All-Star backcourt with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Sure they may not be on the same level as the Rockets or Warriors, but after that, the West is seemingly wide open. And with a little luck, maybe an injury here or there, anything can happen once the postseason rolls around.

Los Angeles Lakers:
The new look Los Angeles Lakers have arrived. While the team sports a number of new players, none compares to LeBron James. King James arrives with what appears to be monumental pressure on his shoulders. Like another all-time great, Wilt Chamberlin, James will be wearing purple and gold as a veteran having already accomplished much in his career. James also comes to a Lakers team that has suffered through an abnormally long postseason drought, having not made the playoffs since the 2012-2013 season. Unlike other players his age, James is playing basketball at the highest levels and is positioned to lead the team back to renewed levels of success and visibility.

Cleveland Cavaliers:
The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the talk of the town in the Eastern Conference. The King has left his post for a venture westward and the organization he was the face of is now on its own. With a mixture of veterans and inexperience, it’s going to be a roller coaster season for the wine and gold, but they’ll be better prepared this time around for the departure of LeBron James.

Milwaukee Bucks:
With LeBron James departing Cleveland, the Central Division is up for grabs. Many are predicting Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the new face of the Eastern Conference. If any franchise can use stability to take the next step, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks. Budenholzer can provide that, which is exactly why the Bucks could be primed for a big season.

New Orleans Pelicans:
Even though the New Orleans Pelicans lost 40 percent of their starting lineup —DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo — this was far from being a worst-case scenario summer. By quickly pivoting to Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, New Orleans might further embrace an identity that worked wonders for this club down the stretch.

Utah Jazz:
The Jazz are really good. They should get even better as Mitchell gets more experience, Grayson Allen joins the equation, Jae Crowder becomes better acclimated and Rudy Gobert puts his injury problems behind him.

Minnesota Timberwolves:
The Timberwolves enter this season with a lot to look forward to, coming off a weirdly successful 2017-18 season. Its franchise player, Karl-Anthony Towns should continue to mature and develop. Jimmy Butler is still in tow as the team’s most dependable star on both sides of the court. Andrew Wiggins has yet to realize his full potential, but still possesses incredible upside. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s assumed desire to reconstruct his 2010-11 Bulls team is mildly entertaining – so much so that some in the media have taken to calling the team the Timberbulls – but what’s really interesting is that the 2017-18 Wolves team were a subpar defensive unit despite being coached by a defensive guru. What’s even more surprising is that the team was successful with that style of play. So much so that it entered its February 24th contest against the Rockets in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference – a game in which Butler was injured, forcing him to miss the next 17 games and do serious damage to its playoff standings. Still, the Wolves talent wouldn’t allow them to implode entirely. The team ended the season with 47-wins and the eighth seed in the playoffs.

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MVP Candidates:
2017 was a runaway win for James Harden, but 2018’s race is wide open and should be very fun to watch all season long.

Lebron James (Lakers):
James will always have the stats to win an MVP, and he’s still the league’s best player. A fifth MVP would like nice on that mantle and tie him with Jordan and Russell for second on the all-time list, so he’s got the career-achievement narrative in his favor.

James Harden (Rockets):
Harden is a strong contender because he’ll once again fit the best-player-on-the-best team mold. If Houston is the only 60-game winner, Harden will have a shot at another MVP. But he was actually better statistically two years ago, and this season’s win was on the basis of team achievement and maybe some makeup votes. Will voters make him just the twelfth player in history to win back-to-back MVPs?

Russell Westbrook (Thunder):
Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the second straight season and that’s always going to put you in the MVP discussion. It’s tough to see voters buying back into the Russ narrative and giving him a second MVP, but what if there are no real standout regular season teams and the Thunder fight all the way to the West 1-seed?

Anthony Davis (Pelicans):
Davis averaged a gaudy 30/12 with 2 steals and 3 blocks once Boogie hit the IR, and now he gets a whole season at center in an up-tempo offense so the numbers should rain. He will be a top pick on many preseason MVP ballots, and he’s the favorite at many betting outlets. But MVPs need to play all year and win a lot of games, and we might have just seen Davis’s best shot at MVP in a Pelicans uniform.

Steph Curry & Kevin Durant (Warriors):
Put it this way: if one of these two missed the entire season to injury, the Warriors would still be the favorite and would probably still win the title. On top of that, this team has no regular season incentive and doesn’t seem to care about regular season awards. Don’t be surprised if one or both end up on a lot of ballots again, but the media isn’t going to get behind one of these two enough for either to win it.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks):
Antetokounmpo’s stat chart is a wonder. Over five years in the NBA, he’s increased by at least 4 points and 1 rebound per game every season, a remarkable level of improvement. If he does that again, he’d finish with a 31/11/5, and you better believe that’ll get him into upper echelon of the MVP race. Greek Freak might be this year’s Anthony Davis, an absolutely deserving candidate with the numbers and the whole package whose team just doesn’t win enough to get him the votes.

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Breakout Stars:
With the 2018-19 NBA season approaching, here are noteworthy players poised to burst onto the scene with breakout years.

Brandon Ingram (Lakers):
Ingram was arguably one of the worst players in the league for much of last season, struggling to make an impact at either end. But he saw an uptick in his numbers toward the end of the season and has come into training camp with a boost in confidence and strong public votes of confidence from team leadership – including Magic Johnson. Now he’ll get the chance to prove that the confidence in him was warranted, as he enters the season as the clear starter at small forward.

Aaron Gordon (Magic):
This is counting on Gordon playing the position power forward – after he’s proven to be ineffective at the small forward spot. Gordon is an athletic freak and showed why people have thought power forward might be his best position by playing well after a full-time switch there last season.

Thon Maker (Bucks):
For much of last season, Maker was a token starter, playing a few minutes to begin each half but nothing else. That wasn’t the case in the playoffs, though, as he wound up playing bigger minutes and making a real impact in a first-round loss to the Toronto Raptors. Now entering his second season, Maker should get more minutes and the chance to grow into a regular contributor.

Buddy Hield (Kings):
Buddy Hield quietly pieced together a strong sophomore campaign. If the preseason is any indication, he looks poised to deliver a quality follow-up performance. Nothing about his game is particularly flashy, which is sort of the point. He didn’t do anything last year that suggests he was playing above his head. He improved without exploding. He offered offensive consistency outside of sudden stardom.

Jamal Murray (Nuggets):
He has struck a balance between complementary scoring and conventional attack mode. His effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot looks last season (62.2) was in line with Klay Thompson’s mark (62.4), and he banged in more than 36 percent of his pull-up threes over his final 15 games.

Domantas Sabonis (Pacers):
Sabonis arrived in a big way for the Indiana Pacers last season after an unremarkable rookie go-round with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He dominated the glass at both ends, set back-breaking screens and emerged as a go-to hand-off partner for his guards. He’ll have to do even more than that to facilitate another appreciable jump.

Julius Randle (Pelicans):
Randle will have a significant impact on a winning team for the first time in his career. The team’s up-tempo offense is a perfect fit for a bully off the bounce like Randle, who can use his quickness and strength to rack up easy points at the rim. This Sixth Man of the Year candidate might not post career-high numbers, but he should still enjoy his most impressive season yet.

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Rookie of the Year Candidates:
Which young star will shine the brightest this year? Here are explosive incoming rookies we think have the best shot of taking home the hardware in June 2019.

Kevin Knox (Knicks):
With Kristaps Porzingis still out, Knox will have a chance to shine right away. He’s got the size and outside touch to make a mark at Madison Square Garden and become a starter and building block for the Knicks.

Luca Doncic (Mavericks):
Doncic is just 19 years old, but thanks to his experience playing in Spain, many see him as the favorite to take home Kia Rookie of the Year honors. And it’s not hard to see why. The Slovenian playmaker comes to the league with a reputation as a ballhandling floor general in the mold of Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, but with outside range to match. So far in the preseason, that range and passing ability has been on display. At 6-foot-7, Doncic is a tough matchup for opponents. Slower defenders can’t handle his ballhandling or 3-point range, and he has the size to bully smaller defenders.

DeAndre Ayton (Suns):
All eyes will be on the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft immediately, and not just because of his size. Ayton, at 7-foot-1, has the size and athletic ability to make an instant impact on a franchise that doesn’t have a long list of dominant centers. Through the Suns’ first three preseason games, Ayton is averaging 21.3 points and 12.7 rebounds in 30 minutes per game. He’s finished several alley-oops off pick and rolls and shown the ability to knock down the mid-range jumper. He likely won’t approach those numbers – especially when Booker returns — but about 15 points and 10 rebounds a night isn’t hard to imagine.

Grayson Allen (Jazz):
Is there really anyone out there who thinks Grayson Allen is going to suck in the NBA? Sure, he has a tendency to play dirty, but there should be no question about his ability. Allen was a stud all four years at Duke and accepted whatever role Coach K asked him to accept. As a sophomore, the Blue Devils needed scoring, so he put up 21.6 points per game. As a junior and senior, they needed leadership, so he took a backseat and let Jayson Tatum and Marvin Bagley III shine. Allen’s team-first mentality will be perfect in Utah, and he seems to already have chemistry with former ACC foe Donovan Mitchell. In Summer League, Allen posted averages of 16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. He should be an off-the-bench spark for the upstart Jazz.

Trae Young (Hawks):
Young will have every chance to prove his worth right away as the starter for a team lacking a superstar but filled with unsung young, athletic talent. John Collins has breakout potential, giving Young a big man to connect with — Young is averaging five assists per game in the preseason — but there’s not much else to get excited about. It ultimately will be Young’s ability to knock down shots that will determine his future.

Collin Sexton (Cavaliers):
He’s a scoring point guard more than a distributor, averaging 19.2 ppg (compared to 3.6 assists per game) in his lone season at Alabama. Sexton, of course, was the primary scoring option for the Crimson Tide, who relied on him to be a playmaker who could get to the rim — which is how he scored most of his points. The knock on him entering the Draft was his outside shooting, so if he can improve in that arena, he could find himself making a name for himself.

Mo Bamba (Magic):
Bamba will make his mark this season on the defensive end, which should please new coach Steve Clifford. Bamba has the size and athleticism — and wingspan — to give Orlando a true rim protector (alongside Jonathan Isaac) down low. He won’t likely put up big offensive numbers, but he should be top five among rookies in rebounding and blocks.

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors

NBA Season Awards & Playoff Predictions:
2018 NBA MVP: Anthony Davis (Pelicans)
2018 NBA Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis (Pelicans)
2018 NBA Rookie of the Year: DeAndre Ayton (Suns)
2018 NBA 6th Man of the Year: J.J. Redick (76ers)
2018 NBA Most Improved Player of the Year: Brandon Ingram (Lakers)
2018 NBA Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens (Celtics)

Western Conference Playoff Seedings:
1. Houston Rockets
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Golden State Warriors
4. San Antonio Spurs
5. New Orleans Pelicans
6. Portland Trail Blazers
7. Los Angeles Lakers
8. Utah Jazz

Eastern Conference Playoff Seedings:
1. Boston Celtics
2. Toronto Raptors
3. Philadelphia 76ers
4. Indiana Pacers
5. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Washington Wizards
7. Cleveland Cavaliers
8. Chicago Bulls

2019 Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets (Warriors Win Series 4-3)

2019 Eastern Conference Finals: Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers (Celtics Win Series 4-2)

2019 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Boston Celtics (Warriors Win Series 4-2)

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