NBA preview: Golden State will win, but here's why you should watch anyway
Another Golden State-Cleveland Finals is coming, but everything else is up in the air
Kyrie Irving is a Boston Celtic. Chris Paul is a Houston Rocket. Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are in Oklahoma City.
In the end, none of it matters.
That's because Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson remain Golden State Warriors, and LeBron James, at least for one more year, plays in Cleveland.
Which is to say: Expect Warriors-Cavaliers 4.0 in the NBA Finals. And expect the Warriors to win, again. Why wouldn't they?
The Golden State juggernaut scared the NBA into one of the craziest off-seasons ever. After the Finals, Rockets GM Daryl Morey told ESPN, "We are used to long odds. If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile." Morey then went and traded for Paul to join MVP runner-up James Harden in Houston's high-variance offensive system.
The thinking: We can't beat the Warriors based on talent, so let's increase our ceiling and hope to get lucky in a seven-game series. There's no playing it safe when you have to conquer one of the best teams ever.
Last season's MVP, Russell Westbrook, averaged a triple-double while racking up the highest usage rate in NBA history. The Thunder bowed out in the first round to Morey's Rockets, and it wasn't particularly close. So Oklahoma City went out and added George and Anthony.
Both players, like Westbrook, excel with the ball in their hands, making for a tough fit in theory. Whether it works depends on how much the trio is willing to sacrifice and share. It won't shock anyone if they don't get along and George ends up in Los Angeles as a free agent after the year. It also won't shock anyone if the Thunder take the Warriors to seven games in a playoff series.
Last season's biggest threat to Golden State — the San Antonio Spurs — mostly stood pat. We wouldn't expect anything less from Gregg Popovich and the gang. Remember how they were up 25 points in Game 1 of their series against the Warriors before Zaza Pachulia undercut Kawhi Leonard, taking out San Antonio's best player? The Spurs don't need reinforcements — in fact, they are reportedly in agreement on an extension with forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Crossing enemy lines
Meanwhile, the top of the East was shaken up when Kyrie Irving requested a trade to get away from LeBron James, and last year's No. 1 seed, Boston, pounced.
Never let another ride your wave 🌊!!!—@KingJames
Cleveland now boasts Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. Thomas is out with a hip injury and the Cavaliers expect him back by January, but other reports suggest the injury could be more serious. Assuming Thomas is healthy and the Cavaliers are rolling come April, all will be fine. But if the injury takes a bit longer to heal, and the new core doesn't click right away, they could be in tough with Irving's Celtics.
The Celtics finally dipped into their stockpile of assets this off-season, making a series of moves to clear the cap space needed to land Gordon Hayward in free agency before the Irving trade. Boston sacrificed last season's roster depth in exchange for star power, and it should pay off with head coach Brad Stevens at the helm. Expect a slow start, though, as the Celtics look for chemistry with their rebuilt rotation.
Cleveland and Boston are your likely Eastern Conference finalists, with a healthy Cleveland the favourite in that match-up. The Toronto Raptors, Cavs playoff fodder for two years running, could conceivably sneak into the third round too — if their new, pass-happy offensive approach pays dividends.
In any case, it's doubtful any of those three teams stand a chance against Golden State.
The fun middle class
So, then, why bother with the NBA this season if it's so hopeless? Well, the Joel Embiid/Hassan Whiteside Twitter beef should be enough.
If somehow it's not, then what about Embiid's team, the Philadelphia 76ers? They're done tanking, and they're ready for "The Process" to yield results. The 76ers will be incorporating both 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons and 2017 counterpart Markelle Fultz into their rotation. If Embiid stays healthy for enough games, don't be surprised to see the frisky Sixers squeak into the playoffs.
The only team that could contend with Philadelphia's young talent is the Minnesota Timberwolves. Led by former first-overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Canadian Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves disappointed last season. Then they went and traded for Jimmy Butler and signed Jeff Teague. Defence was their biggest liability last year, with Wiggins especially not living up to his potential on that end. Now, improvement is mandatory in Minnesota.
Other fun young teams include Giannis Antentokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks and Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets. Like the Wolves, those teams are expected to make a leap this year — into the second round for the Bucks, and the playoffs for Denver.
On the experimental side, focus your attention to New Orleans, where big men Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have teamed up to significantly raise the Pelicans' risk profile. Is it plausible that a huge lineup punishes the Warriors' death lineup? Sure — especially when the players are as athletic as Davis and Cousins. New Orleans enters the season with perhaps the highest variance of any team.
Individual talent, marquee teams
Not intrigued by the NBA's middle class? Maybe you prefer individual talent.
Lonzo Ball will command lots of attention purely from his pedigree and last name. But he could be a star. The Lakers' rookie point guard is already an advanced passer who will put up lots of hockey assists (the pass that sets up the pass that sets up the score). He's got a wonky, but effective, shot. He shone in Summer League. He's ready for showtime.
The league's other premier city will feature Kristaps Porzingis taking the reins in New York after Anthony's departure. The Knicks, lacking talent, will be leaning on their large Latvian to shoulder the load, although injury questions have already arisen for the seven-footer. Still one of the league's unicorns, Porzingis needs to prove that he can carry a team on his own.
The NBA is a fun league. We may already know the ending, but who hasn't watched their favourite movie more than once? With so many changes outside of Golden State, there are plenty of storylines worth watching.
Those begin in earnest Tuesday night, with Irving's Celtics taking on James and the Cavaliers, followed by the risky Rockets facing off with those Warriors.
It couldn't have been scripted better.