Here are some of the bullet points I hope shape the upcoming NBA campaign into its best possible form:
THE WILD WILD EAST
With LeBron James leaving Cleveland (again), many believe the Eastern Conference is mostly cannon fodder. While the Celtics, Raptors, and Sixers are clearly the class of the NBA's little brother conference, any sort of hiccup could allow that second tier to close the gap quickly.
Let me start in the crappiest way possible by giving you the team with no chance of contention, even if half the league contracts a flesh eating disease: the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks have taken blowing it up to another level. The 60 win team of 2014-15 has been completely dismantled and then some. Atlanta's draft strategy has left people much smarter than I scratching their heads. I have no qualms with saying that the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks could be one of the five worst teams in NBA history. Too bad the Falcons ripped all remnants of Hotlanta fan empathy from my brain, because you guys are going to need plenty of hugs and hard liquor this year when Trae Young finishes his fourth consecutive 4-for-22 shooting night causing Vince Carter to pull a Vontae Davis and retire at halftime of a game.
Other than the Hawks, I wouldn't be surprised to see any team occupy the 4-8 spots in the Eastern Conference's playoff bracket. There are teams on the cusp of being taken seriously (Wizards, Pacers, Bucks) and the fading old guard (Heat, Cavaliers). If my bachelor's degree is worth anything, my math says that those five teams fill out the final spots. But as we've learned with the East, volatility is king in the middle. Youth may not get you all the way to the title in the NBA, but if a team like the Bulls grows up faster than expected or the Magic finally figure out what the fuck to do with all their athletes, there are upsets to the balance of power to be had. Hell, even the Knicks could sneak in. (Hey, that's something positive you said!)
ANY USURPERS TO GOLDEN STATE'S THRONE?
No matter how much ESPN wants you to believe that the Lakers are going to be instant contenders with just LeBron James, the only answer to this section's question is Houston.
The Rockets are a club that knows they aren't as good as Golden State, but think they can beat them with their particular brand of basketball. It looks as if they plan to outgun the champs rather than try to contain them. Letting two of the team's best perimeter defenders (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute & Trevor Ariza) go and bringing in Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams illustrates that point.
These new additions won't change how the Rockets attack offensively though. No team scored more points off threes last year than the Rockets. Even with all that launching (no pun intended), the Rockets were the most efficient offense in the NBA, just edging out Golden State and Toronto. Mike D'Antoni prides his teams on being able to maximize possessions. Consistency and continuity are two things that make that possible.
That is why re-signing Chris Paul and Clint Capela, even though it cost them $230 million, were two moves that needed to be completed if Houston were serious about not wasting James Harden's prime. Paul may not be the same player by the end of his deal, but if they can win a title in the interim his $40 million yearly price tag won't be a completely sunk cost. The same can be said for Capela who is already an upper crust NBA defender, but will be a steep purchase if his work on the offensive end of the floor doesn't continue to trend upward.
In the end, I don't think Houston has enough to best the Dubs, but they are the only team I believe has a puncher's chance.
LOCO FOR LUKA
Normally, I am quite trepidatious about European prospects. Ask my friends how I reacted when the Knicks drafted everyone from Frederic Weis (justified anger) to Kristaps Porzingis (immediate eating of crow). But Luka Doncic is a player I've been wanting to see in the NBA since I first saw him in the Euroleague a couple years ago.
At just 16 he didn't look out of place as one of the first men off the bench for Real Madrid, one of the biggest clubs in Europe. It has always been hard to tell with many a European prospect what they can do because the stat sheets can sometimes lie to you. 3.5 points and 2 assists per game elicit many a "Yeah, he's REAL good" sarcastic responses from fans who only see basketball in that light. Anybody with a basketball brain could see that the Slovenian wonderkid was wise beyond his years. He never got ahead of himself. Never saw him not get back on defense after a bad miss. Can you remember playing basketball at 16? Now put that in an arena with hostile fans waiting for you to fail.
Doncic has grown immensely since that introduction (obviously) and was my #1 pick all along, no offense to DeAndre Ayton. Seeing the Suns and Kings pass on him didn't surprise me, because those organizations have proven under current ownership to be two of the most incompetent franchises in all of professional sports. But oh the Hawks, you had him. You had him! And now you wonder why I say you have the chance to be one of the worst teams that professional basketball has ever produced?
My tears at watching Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. develop will be half of joy, because I enjoy great basketball, and half of sadness. The Knicks could have Smith in 2017 and...who am I kidding the Knicks would have probably traded them both by now. (Be positive...woo sa...woo sa)
THE JIMMY BUTLER SOAP OPERA
This has been beaten to death by all corners of the sports mediasphere, so I'll keep my comments to a minimum. The Timberwolves were a flawed team without this distraction, but this may take them out of the playoff picture unless Butler is shipped out of town sooner rather than later. Giving into a player's ransom demands isn't always the best way to do business, but when you are a team as young as Minnesota, sometimes you need to rid yourselves a cancer before it spreads.
As for Butler, while I admire his tenacity on the court, his motives off seem to not fit his narrative. He craves a winning environment yet cites New York (a shitshow), Brooklyn (a recovering shitshow), and the Clippers (perennial choke artists) as his preferred destinations. I know a team in the NBA's upper echelon would have to move mountains to take on his salary. But fuck Jimmy, at the absolute least aim for the middle.
THE 2019 NBA DRAFT
I know I am getting way ahead of myself with this last one, but I just love the Draft. I love that I flip out at every Knicks pick, even if I end up getting behind it down the road. I love following the college (and now European more and more) game all season and trying to figure out which of those players would fit best where. Folks in the know are calling the class of 2019 weak, but compared to what? Looking at this class with what limited knowledge base I possess, the first ten picks could all be solid NBA players for quite some time. Looking forward to whoever is running the Knicks front office by then missing out on any of the Duke trio of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cameron Reddish. I might as well start scouting Eurotrash now.
What are you looking forward to this year? Is your favorite team going to challenge for the crown? Who is going to be the next player to break out? Leave a comment below or yell at me with great prejudice @TREVORutley on Twitter. Happy Basketball Everybody!