A new NBA season is upon us, and that means we are in for another year of brilliant performances, Twitter beef and breakout seasons from some of the association’s up-and-coming stars. Join the Highlander’s sports section in breaking down what to expect for the 2018-2019 season.
Most Improved Player
Ricardo Garcia: Brandon Ingram: The third-year swingman out of Duke has greatly improved his shooting in his sophomore season, while also adding to his scoring numbers. Playing next to seasoned veterans like Rajon Rondo and LeBron James should help Ingram’s skill-set and basketball IQ. Also, with the addition of James, Ingram will no longer need to hold the burden of carrying the Lakers offensively night in and night out. Ingram should now be able to focus on playmaking ability, and with the spacing that James’s presence brings on the court, the third-year player should be the recipient of a lot more open looks and improve his scoring numbers yet again.
Jaryd Bongcaras: Markelle Fultz: After only appearing in 14 games throughout the entire 2017-2018 season, Fultz showed flashes of the potential he has as a playmaker. However, the main thing that still has to be addressed is his jump shot, which has been tweaked greatly from what I’ve seen during preseason. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid becoming household names, teams will often focus on those two, allowing Fultz the opportunity to really thrive as a rising third-option on the team.
Rookie of the Year
RG: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: The Atlanta Hawks will regret trading away Doncic in exchange for Trae Young, as he has already shown potential of what he can do on the basketball court during his time in Europe. Already a Euroleague MVP and Champion, he will benefit from being in Rick Carlisle’s system and is surrounded by plenty of capable veteran players. In other words, he is immediately put into a situation that hinges on a high basketball IQ, and those veteran players will help him develop into an elite playmaker. He probably won’t put up the same numbers as Ben Simmons in his rookie year, but his statistics will lead to meaningful wins. If the Mavericks manage to stay within striking distance of a playoff spot in a loaded Western Conference, it should help Doncic’s case.
JB: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: My only concern with picking Doncic as ROY is that he could end up being like this season’s Jayson Tatum. I mean this in the sense that Doncic is probably in the best situation amongst all rookies, and people will most likely look to his surrounding cast as the reason why he’s thriving. Personally, regardless of his situation, I think that makes him even more of a ROY candidate than anyone else since he’s performing at a high level on a playoff contending team. I think more pressure will be put on Doncic as other rookies like Ayton and Young are practically going to be succeeding during garbage time since both the Suns and Hawks will be well under .500.
Most Valuable Player
RG: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: The Greek Freak put up freakish numbers last season, and even with a new head coach to work with, he may still just be scraping the surface of his potential. It is quite certain LeBron James will not win MVP due to the fact that he is now in a situation where he may not win the “prerequisite” number of games, which is usually around 50 or so wins. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, is now working with a system that will be built around him and if his jump shooting improves, this award is all but his. At just 23 years of age, he may be the frontrunner for this award for years to come.
JB: LeBron James, LA Lakers: Now that James is in the West, I can actually envision him trying harder in the regular season. I think it was smart of him to coast during his time in the Eastern Conference, but the West is a much different story, and he knows that. James doesn’t have the best supporting squad, but we’ve seen him maximize the potential out of teams that were less talented than this season’s roster. I also think that he went to LA to try to win in a third city, and what would also help his legacy is securing a fifth MVP award, tying him with some guys named Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.
Western Conference Sleeper Team
RG: Denver Nuggets: The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of a standoff with Jimmy Butler. The Portland Trail Blazers did not add ample bench support to their roster. The San Antonio Spurs just lost Dejounte Murray to a torn ACL. These teams are candidates to fall out of the playoff picture and open three potential playoff spots in the West. The Lakers are sure to get one of them and the Denver Nuggets are the other team that should be able to snag a spot. The Nuggets finished last season with a 46-36 record, which would have been good enough to finish as high as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, but was only good enough for ninth in the West. A healthy season for Paul Millsap, a breakout year from Jamal Murray, and a bounceback season for former MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas should help propel this team to their first playoff appearance since 2013.
JB: Dallas Mavericks: When I think of a sleeper team, I think of a team that really gets overlooked. If Butler stays, the Wolves are expected to make the playoffs – the same goes for the Nuggets and the Jazz. The Dallas Mavericks are not being mentioned in that same light, despite their youthful core of Dennis Smith Jr and Luka Doncic, along with veteran players in Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan. The West has always been stacked and will continue to be for a while, but something about this oddly-formed Mavericks team really jumps out at me. The Pelicans don’t have Boogie or Rondo anymore, the Blazers need to blow up their black court and will probably be at the brink of playoff eligibility Dallas Mavericks. The Nuggets and the Jazz are teams that are both poised to improve this coming season, so they’re not really being slept on. I personally think not many analysts are talking about the potential the Dallas Mavericks can reach this season. I’m not saying they’ll be higher than the eighth seed, but having a young core of Dennis Smith, Jr. and Luka Doncic, combined with seasoned veterans in Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan really paves the way for the Mavs to make some noise for the first time in years. Though the team won’t be securing a championship in what will be Dirk Nowitzki’s last season, the team will be well-equipped for years to come in the post-Nowitzki era.
Eastern Conference Sleeper Team
RG: Indiana Pacers: The Pacers were an underrated team last year. After trading Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, not many analysts picked them to even make the playoffs. Their defense was ranked fourth in the league, led by rising star Myles Turner. Victor Oladipo, a key piece of the trade, had a breakout season, establishing himself as a legitimate all star while setting a career best in points per game. Another fantastic year from Oladipo, as well as LeBron James’ departure from the conference should help them attain a top four seed in the East.
JB: Milwaukee Bucks: It seems as if people have only started raving about the Raptors now that they have Kawhi and the Sixers who have promising talent in Simmons and Embiid. But people tend to forget that the Bucks took the Celtics to seven games last postseason and the Sixers fell in a mere five games. The Bucks really should’ve secured that first round matchup, especially considering the matchup problems Antetokounmpo causes, but that’s besides the point. I see the Bucks being the No. 2 seed behind the Celtics this season because: 1) I don’t trust Kawhi to carry Toronto in the playoffs (Lowry is nonexistent in the postseason) and 2) I don’t believe the hype of the 76ers.
Eastern Conference Champions
RG: Boston Celtics over Toronto Raptors: The Philadelphia 76ers were good but they were almost swept by a Celtics team with no Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The two Celtics All-Stars impending returns would make things more difficult for Philadelphia and therefore they will not make it past the second round. The Raptors will actually be better next season thanks to the addition of Kawhi Leonard, a former Defensive Player of the Year and a former Finals MVP to replace Demar DeRozan. DeRozan was good, but Leonard is much better as an all-around player. Unfortunately for the Raptors, the Celtics’ youthful depth and the IQ of Brad Stevens will likely be too much for them to handle, and they will bow out in seven games.
JB: Boston Celtics over Milwaukee Bucks: I don’t believe the 76ers hype at all, and adding Kawhi to the Raptors makes them better than last season, but not over to the top. The Celtics will take the East most likely over the Milwaukee Bucks, who I see really elevating their team to the next level if Giannis does his fair share. like I said, the Bucks should’ve beat Boston last season and I think they know that, too. I see Giannis going on an absolute tear throughout the regular season, barring injuries, in vengeance of last year’s first round exit, and he’ll help secure the Bucks as the consistent number two team in the East. The Celtics were limping in the postseason and still came six minutes away from upsetting LeBron and clinching a Finals appearance. Now they’re actually poised to be healthy and it’s scary just thinking of the potential Brad Stevens can reach with a full lineup.
Western Conference Champions
RG: Golden State Warriors over Los Angeles Lakers: The Golden State Warriors are almost a lock to reach the NBA Finals. Anything less with their current roster would mean their season is a failure. They will probably sleep-walk through the regular season once again only to show up like they did in the postseason last year. The Lakers would have to get past several juggernauts to even get to this point, but with LeBron James’s recent postseason play, they certainly can make it. However, their West Finals appearance will end in a sweep because the Warriors are too strong of a team for the Lakers to beat even once and James’s streak of consecutive NBA Finals appearances ends at eight.
JB: Golden State Warriors over Houston Rockets: The Rockets really were a healthy Chris Paul away from knocking off the Warriors but now the Warriors got even better. I think Mike D’Antoni will actually utilize Carmelo in the same way he was used at the Olympics, playing a lot off the ball and as a spot-up shooter. The Lakers probably reach the third seed at best just because the West is stacked and LeBron doesn’t have as much talent to deal with despite the hype. Rockets beat out Lakers in seven in semi-finals then fall to Golden State in five or six games.
RG: Golden State Warriors over Boston Celtics: These two teams are stacked with talent and this should be anything but a short series. The Celtics are the biggest threat to the Warriors’ dynasty and they may very well pass the Warriors within the next few years. However, the Dubs’ championship pedigree will likely be too much for the Celtics who have few players with any Finals experience. The only way the Celtics win this series is if they hold home-court advantage for a game seven and that may still not be enough to dethrone the Warriors. Expect the Warriors to three-peat and hold off the Celtics in six games.
JB: Boston Celtics over Golden State Warriors: Call me delusional (I am a die-hard Celtics fan after all) but if anyone has a chance to knockout the Dubs in seven games, it’s the Celtics. Something about each out of bounds play mattering in the waning minutes of a Finals game screams out at me that Brad Stevens has everything under control. If the C’s stay healthy, there’s a decent shot that they’ll win in seven especially if they have home court advantage. In terms of head-to-head matchups by position, the Warriors probably are better, but you could have said the same about the Celtics when they played the Cavs in the conference finals and see how close they were to winning. I trust Kyrie in the clutch against Golden State, I trust Brad to maximize as many mismatches as possible.