Dearly beloved, the NBA season is once again upon us, beginning with a doubleheader featuring Celtics/76ers and Lakers/Trail Blazers on TNT Tuesday night. It felt like centuries ago that Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors disposed of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second NBA Finals sweep of LeBron’s career, and that we all took it with a benign shrug because the sun was corrupted, and the walls were falling in anyway. James Harden, the reigning MVP, lost grip of a 3-2 Western Conference Finals lead that could’ve been his own coronation. People were rioting in the streets over the definition of the word “rookie.” It was anarchy.
You may remember that, once upon a time, many centuries and heartless regimes ago, there was a simple game that giants played involving one round, orange object, two baskets and 94 feet of freedom. It was a simpler time, even though the stats were already advanced.
Below, there will be no “Which NBA team most closely mirrors your favorite airline perk,” or “NBA All-Star candidates-as-Wu Tang Clan affiliates.” Flashy graphics are limited because we spent the entire budget on donating to a GoFundMe for Joakim Noah’s stretch provision. As a small favor to you, I also promise to spend the absolute least time here on the Golden State Warriors, who will almost undoubtedly win the forthcoming NBA championship for the fourth time in five years. So, without further ado, let us basketball.
Atlanta Hawks: The most dominant personality of the last three years of Atlanta Hawks basketball, Dennis Schroder, has left for the sixth man job in Oklahoma City. In his place, Jeremy Lin looks for another new beginning after suffering from a ruptured patella on opening night last year, causing him to miss the entire season. Vince Carter continues rolling along, and he will be a guiding force yet again for a cast of young players such as Taurean Prince, John Collins and, especially, Trae Young, on whose shoulders perhaps rest the future of the Hawks. Atlanta has one of the youngest rosters in the league, and it will be up to new head coach Lloyd Pierce to instill some of what he learned in his time in Philadelphia with The Process to foster his team’s development.
Boston Celtics: Isn’t it too much? I mean, the Danny Ainge Mannschaft pushed LeBron James to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year without two of their projected starters. It’s a testament to Al Horford, a perpetually-underappreciated player who deserves as much credit as Brad Stevens for slicing their way to 55 wins last season; his defensive positioning directly informs his excellence and challenges those around him to get better. Speaking of which: Jayson Tatum had an unbelievable rookie year that would’ve won him an award in most other seasons. Jaylen Brown was do-everything magnificent. Scary Terry Rozier made himself a brand against Milwaukee in the first round, and then he continued right along against Philadelphia in the second. Marcus Smart doesn’t even have to know how to shoot! Something is going to give eventually for the Celtics, between minutes distribution and contract considerations, but for now, with Kyrie Irving having verbally committed long-term and Gordon Hayward on the expected revenge tour, Boston is the toast of the East yet again.
Brooklyn Nets: It is high time the Nets contended for their first playoff berth since 2015. Between Spencer Dinwiddie’s sly game, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s blanket defense, Allen Crabbe’s shooting and Jarrett Allen’s rim protection, the Nets have every reason to believe they will be fighting for a playoff spot on the last day of the season (if they haven’t locked one up by then already). Allen, by the way, is the guy to watch in his age-20 season. There will be ups and downs, but he has incredible poise at times, and when he locks in, he can put on a show by himself. Joe Harris is an absolute hoss and should continue to establish himself as such with a starting spot. DeMarre Carroll figures to be a stabilizing force, as does a rejuvenated Kenneth Faried, whom Brooklyn finally managed to wrangle from Denver in the offseason. Deron Williams is somehow going to be paid by this team through 2020, its own mini-Bobby Bonilla.
Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets are a ticking time bomb. Kemba Walker has to – has to – leave, right? Michael Jordan said he would only consider trading Kemba, an All-Star, for another All-Star, but Kemba’s clock is ticking too: he’ll be an unrestricted free agent as a 29-year-old point guard next summer. James Borrego is the first Latino head coach in NBA history, which deserves a shout-out. He comes from the Spurs coaching tree, via (going backward) the Magic<-Hornets<-and, again, the Spurs. He was the Magic’s interim head coach in 2015, post-Jacque Vaughn, and had been Monty Williams’ lead assistant in New Orleans. If ever a man was to bridge the gap between the Hornets’ conflicted history in the league, it is Borrego, and what he turns out is bound to be worthwhile.
All great questions! a) Ask Jerry Reinsdorf; b) a lot of people, including, but not limited to: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Horace Grant, George Gervin and Artis Gilmore; c) In 1995-’96, they won 72 games. That is the second-best regular season in franchise history, and they actually won the championship that year, unlike the only team ever to win 73; d) Justin Holiday. He’s pretty good! The Bulls are the quintessential Eastern Conference team in that they should be interesting without, really, being any good whatsoever. Mayor Hoiberg has divested himself of the last vestiges of the Thibs era (more on that below, in Minnesota), and he has a go-to offensive weapon at his disposal in Jabari Parker. Lauri Markkanen figures to build upon his magnetic freshman year, and Denzel Valentine has at times shown veteran savvy becoming of a guy who spent four years in college. Wendell Carter Jr. is obviously the biggest question mark here in terms of his adjustment this season, but he should get plenty of time to hone his craft. By the way: don’t forget about Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 15.4 points over the last nine games he played for the Nets last season, including a 24-point effort against Boston and a 20-point show against these very Chicago Bulls.
Cleveland Cavaliers: After decades of futility, the Cavaliers landed their homegrown son. After failing him once, he took his talents elsewhere. Upon his return, they made the Finals four years in a row before he departed again, having fulfilled his promise. Cleveland will be borderline-playoff contenders the year after they were swept in the NBA Finals. Whether “Minnesota Kevin Love” will ever exist again is largely immaterial because he has grown as a player and, more importantly, as a person; he’s the leader of a team with approximately 1% of the pressure on it as compared with any time in the past four years. George Hill needs to be consistent, the zombie Lakers need to show up in order to become trade pieces and Collin Sexton has a most unfortunate appellation in the year of our LORD 2018. God help that guy if he ever gets caught unwittingly sliding into someone’s DMs. Sam Dekker is somehow on this team. Good luck.
Dallas Mavericks: The Luka Doncic-Dennis Smith Jr. partnership is one of the most intriguing in the league, and having a finally-enticed DeAndre Jordan on board will spur some of the transition back to relevance. Rick Carlisle remains as clever a coach in the league as any. Cherish every single Dirk Nowitzki shot, no matter how your dad on the driveway hoop it looks.
Denver Nuggets: If – if – Nikola Jokić shows signs of life on defense, the Nuggets immediately become a dark horse threat to non-Warriors teams in the West. Jokić may already be the best passing big man in the history of the NBA; the fewest assists he had in any of the last ten games of Denver’s season last year came in what was essentially the play-in playoff game against Minnesota. After averaging over seven per game, he turned in only three in what ended up being a six-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. By no means does Jokić need to step up his passing, which is already world-class, but being that the offense will likely flow through him, as well as Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and (a hopefully healthy) Paul Millsap, it will be vital for Jokić to be decisive in tight spots in an extremely tight Western Conference.
Detroit Pistons: A full season of Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond-Blake Griffin is what this team, and its new coach Dwane Casey, deserves. Unfortunately, over the past four years, Griffin has only averaged 55 games played per season. Partly as a result, he hasn’t been an All-Star since 2015. Drummond’s rebounding has been the most consistent thing in Detroit since Berry Gordy was making his staff weigh sandwiches against singles, and his free throw shooting improvement last year made him a not-automatic foul candidate. The sample size on Jackson-Drummond-Griffin is obscenely small – only four games and 44 minutes played together total last year – but encouraging, as that lineup managed a net rating of 12.3. Throw in Ish Smith’s bizarre habit of electrifying random lineups and Zaza Pachulia’s penchant for being in the wrong place at the right time, and you’ve got an Eastern Conference playoff team.
Golden State Warriors: Title #4 in five years is soon arriving (barring a truly unprecedented amount of injuries not including the one to All-NBA center DeMarcus Cousins, who, again, is somehow on this team). What else is there to say? NEXT.
Houston Rockets: Oddly, maybe the worst thing that could happen to this version of the Rockets, now that both Chris Paul and Clint Capela have re-upped to stay in Houston through 2022 and 2023, respectively, is the Warriors losing this year to anybody else. That would provide some minimal, abstract incentive for Kevin Durant to stay. Imagine these Rockets actually knocking off Golden State, and then everybody except for DeMarcus Cousins (or even including DeMarcus Cousins, still playing with a chip on his shoulder) sticks around to eke out that fourth title together. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute may not end up being as big a deal as some think, but the Rockets are going to have to absolutely be on their Ps and Qs defensively to make up that ground, and even then it may not be enough. If Carmelo Anthony ends up starting for this team instead of throwing in 12-15 a game leading the bench unit, Daryl Morey has been a liar all along.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo is not about to back down from last year. Now that he is the disciple of the Temple of Westbrook, he knows what he has to do in order to keep improving. Whether the gathered many around him – Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner chief among them – follow is the big question. Tyreke Evans maximized being non-traded trade bait in Memphis last year, to the tune of 19 points, five assists and four rebounds a game, and his ability to defend across three or four positions will be an underrated commodity come April.
Los Angeles Clippers: Doc Rivers has something of a task before him. He loves cozying up to his point guards, and Patrick Beverley may get that treatment this year after his right knee sidelined him for all of last season. The Clippers benefit from having eleven or twelve players that can actually play in the NBA, right now. The development focus may end up being largely on first round pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But also: Boban Marjanovic is on this team! It’ll never be a bad time to tune into the Clippers this season.
Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma will all improve out of necessity. LeBron’s lazy eye is an underrated aesthetic in 2018 because everyone focuses on his hairline. Head coach Luke Walton was in LeBron’s draft class and is now, ahh, coaching him. The Lakers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013, which, to them and their [alleged] fanbase, is an eternity – in fact, it’s the longest playoff draught in Lakers history. Is it considered a franchise-defining turn if LeBron leads these Lakers to the playoffs after five years without? It is very much a Mexrrissian proposition. There are brighter sides to life, and younger Lakers fans should know because they’ve seen them, but not very often.
Memphis Grizzlies: Without Mike Conley last year, Marc Gasol should’ve been an All-Star for his effort alone. Going into his age-34 season, Gasol is at a distinct crossroads in terms of his legacy, which seems to rest solely with Memphis given the way things with David Fizdale played out. He did manage to average his highest rebounds per game since 2012 last year. Chandler Parsons’ letter to the city was heartfelt, and Slo-Mo Kyle Anderson now belongs to the ranks of the Griz. Memphis deserves another playoff run with this core, just in case Conley-Gasol-whomever else can make the Grindhouse proud one more time.
Miami Heat: So much of this depends on whether they get Jimmy Butler. Then again: they pulled one game off the 76ers in the first round last year without, erhm, Dion Waiters or Dwyane Wade. There may be hope? Hassan Whiteside is an annually-frustrating player who struggled with injuries last year and was essentially a non-factor in the series against Philadelphia; he may be the key to the Heat’s fortunes this season. Otherwise, the Wade County Retirement Tour is going to be a sight to behold, alongside continued flashes of truly incredible basketball from the likes of Justise Winslow, still figuring himself out; Josh Richardson, responding to Twitter’s calls without its admiration; Tyler Johnson, trying to untangle himself from the webs of; James Johnson, trying to untangle himself from the webs of; Bam Adebayo, whose capacity for awe-inspiring greatness is perhaps only matched by his misunderstanding of what NBA basketball in 2018 is supposed to resemble, but I don’t care. The Heat are going to be great to watch in any game, on any night, and it would be a disappointment, Butler or no, if they did not make the playoffs this year.
Milwaukee Bucks: The Giannis MVP campaign begins right here, right now. Mike Budenholzer has arrived from Atlanta, a team he helped bring 61 wins once upon a time, and he is likely planning to maximize the Greek Freak to an extent that neither you, nor I, nor any of us walking this planet have ever seen. I’d prefer to look at this like Giannis’ scorched earth-Westbrook campaign of 2016-’17, but the talent around him is a bit off, in that it’s better – Khris Middleton, who played all 82 games last season and was actualized in doing so; Eric Bledsoe, who didn’t want to be there, so he’s here; and Malcolm Brogdon, in a second-year campaign bound for disappointment but relentless in its “here, now, and doing things” quality. Jabari Parker is gone; Thon Maker is on the precipice of 21. Some Matthew Dellavedova defense and Tony Snell cunning could do these Bucks some good.
Minnesota Timberwolves: [As of this writing, Jimmy Butler is the only Minnesota Timberwolf, the Lone Wolf, and his future, whether it be in Minnesota or elsewhere, is far more interesting than the current-standing of, at least, Andrew Wiggins, who is fine enough but has never charged into a practice, media crew in tow, and shown up an entire franchise. That may be good; it may be bad. It’s pretty fucking punk rock, in any case.]
New Orleans Pelicans: The Anthony Davis MVP campaign begins right here, right now. Last year may have been the most important season in the history of this franchise, but this season as, if not more, important. After finally recruiting a running buddy for talisman Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins hit the bricks with an Achilles injury. Cousins split for more golden pastures; the Pelicans nabbed the perpetually-underrated Julius Randle to fill his place. If Nikola Mirotic, Davis and Randle mesh well, and Jrue Holiday can replicate most of his outstanding last season, then the Pelicans will have shown themselves worthy of placing a solid supporting cast around one of the most unique talents the NBA has ever seen.
New York Knicks: First things first, pour one out for Kristaps. He is the greatest representation of Knicks fandom in the Dolan era because he deserved better and got dealt the rawest hand at the worst time possible. Then again, “the worst time possible” was always bound to be whenever the next thing went wrong. Drafting Kevin Knox has been a thus-far up and down experience for Knicks fans, but the preseason means nothing, and the more time that young players get to develop – which is something new head coach David Fizdale has emphasized – the better. Not starting Frank Ntilikina should be illegal, though. He is already the Knicks’ best perimeter defender and someone who has exhibited signs of piecing it together over last season and this preseason. Trey Burke is fine, but undersized; Enes Kanter can score and rebound on offensive and not do much else. Courtney Lee is marvelous and undervalued, and he is also trade bait. Tim Hardaway Jr. is nice, but he will never live up to his contract. The focus must be on young players, and, most importantly, Three-Six-Latvia’s recovery and return.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George arrived in OKC not knowing exactly what to expect; he played out a season alongside Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony that was billed more heavily than it delivered. He re-signed anyway, and Anthony went to Houston. This feels like a sign of human progression on Westbrook’s part. I won’t even relegate this to a footnote: I love Russell Westbrook as a basketball player. Not to yet again break fourth wall, but you’re here, so you likely know this. He knows this because I told him to his face; my friends know this; the people closest to me know this and accept it as a facet of my own human nature which sometimes, to my own detriment, helps dictate my own decision-making in non-basketball situations. Regardless, Westbrook is an anomaly in basketball, a once-ever player whose galaxy is so absorbing that defenses cater four men, five men to him at a time. His usage rate declined last year, and it ought to decline again if he is to be best served. What serves him best, you may ask? Why, figuring out a way through one or two daunting Western Conference playoff series into a matchup with an unnerved Kevin Durant staring at him from across the court. It is Westbrook’s dream; it is my nightmare. If they are to do that, it will have to come from the likes of Dennis Schroder, in a Sixth Man of the Year-worthy performance, and somebody among Nerlens Noel, Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo. Steven Adams may put up a darkhorse All-Star campaign, but he may not get enough raw rebounds per game to satisfy people’s expectations. T’would be a shame, given everything else he does in and around the basket. He may be the flat-out strongest man in the league.
Orlando Magic: Steve Clifford has arrived to relate the concept of defense to an 18th-ranked defensive team in the NBA. The Magic haven’t been to the playoffs since they traded Dwight Howard, and it would be mighty fine if they angled toward that instead of taking a Rite Aid-style approach to The Process, which is essentially what they’ve done since. They’ve averaged 26 wins since 2012! They peaked at 35 wins! Mid-Florida is a weird subsect of Florida, itself an already-weird place! Who is Aaron Gordon? Who is Evan Fournier? These are reputably useful NBA players, in some capacity or another; neither has distinguished himself as someone you’d jump at the chance to have on your team, unless you love gratifying dunks or disturbing Google searches in your portfolio. D.J. Augustin was the Magic’s best three-point shooter last year. Discernable, modern basketball skills are at a premium, but only one at a time, it seems.
Philadelphia 76ers: An unfair amount of pressure remains atop Markelle Fultz’s shoulders. So much of me wants to say that he’s had a year to figure it out, and he’s looked good in spot minutes. But man, is it hard to judge what he might look like in game with playoff implications against, say, the Pacers in mid-March. Embiid has taken to embodying The Process; Ben Simmons was a borderline All-Star candidate last year. They lost a bit of spacing, but they still have JJ Redick, who is one of the best shooters and spatially-aware defenders in the NBA. If the Celtics are to be knocked off of their switchy throne, and perhaps against my better judgment, I believe it will come at the Sixers’ behest.
Phoenix Suns: EVERYTHING IS GOOD AND NORMAL IN PHOENIX. FIRING YOUR GENERAL MANAGER RIGHT BEFORE THE SEASON STARTS IS PERFECTLY FINE, JUST LIKE FIRING YOUR HEAD COACH THREE GAMES INTO A SEASON THE YEAR BEFORE. THE STAR PLAYER HAD HAND SURGERY AND WON’T PLAY UNTIL NOVEMBER AT THE EARLIEST. THIS IS ALSO GOOD. Just four seasons ago, the Phoenix Suns had an embarrassment of riches at point guard, to the tune of three NBA-ready . Then, they traded Goran Dragic to Miami, where he became an All-Star; on the same day, they traded Isaiah Thomas to Boston, where he became an All-Star; and last year, they lost Eric Bledsoe to a barber for 20 games of Greg Monroe and a couple of likely low, partially-protected draft picks. Now – *cue Curb Your Enthusiasm music* – the Suns do not have a point guard. Devin Booker is a star-quality player, but again, he’s out to start the season. For some reason, Phoenix signed Trevor Ariza and still have Tyson Chandler, neither of whom especially fits the age window of the target Suns. Deandre Ayton has looked good in the preseason, and Mikal Bridges will get some time to ride, perhaps as a 3 in a smaller Phoenix lineup. The Suns figure to be burnt burek, but they should put on some entertaining basketball under new head coach Igor Kokoskov.
Portland Trail Blazers: They chose not to break up the Dame-CJ backcourt after the Pelicans unceremoniously swept them out of the playoffs. That’s their prerogative and, given the Warriors’ immediate dominance, probably the right move in the short-term. I do wonder if they wonder if they’ve already hit their ceiling, though. We know Damian Lillard is fearless; we know CJ McCollum stands down from nothing. What we don’t know is where Jusuf Nurkic goes from here. While he didn’t quite carry over his incendiary post-trade performance from the season before, Nurkic was nevertheless much better in a full season in Portland than at any point in his two-plus years in Denver. The Blazers overachieved, snagging the 3-seed, before falling into Anthony Davis’ warpath. They are at least one move away from the next realm of “true contention,” and it may very well take a Raptors-esque dissolution of their All-Star-caliber guard duo to get there.
Sacramento Kings: Remember former All-Rookie First Teamer and 2016 NBA Champion Iman Shumpert? Perhaps you remember just his haircut? He’s still in the NBA and on this Kings team. He, Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufos are the three players who have more than five years of experience in the league (Ben McLemore, also still in the NBA, is entering his sixth season). Aside from that, there are a bunch of tykes scurrying around, learning to walk before they run. If Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley are any bit as good as they’re projecting post-injuries, the Kings will be delightful League Pass fodder, which is what they were inching toward last season. Buddy Hield is not yet the patron saint of trade surprises, but he’s been mostly good in his year and change in Sacramento, especially from the three-point line. De’Aaron Fox’s development will be something to watch here, too, and all of it under the iron fist of Dave Joerger.
San Antonio Spurs: An already midrange-heavy team just acquired the patron saint of the Jordan->Kobe brand of midrange excellence, DeMar DeRozan, alive in an era when he is, perhaps, underappreciated. Abetting that is the fact that midrange artists LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay stand next to him. Gregg Popovich is capable of miracles, and the general narrative that he is adding DeRozan to a 47-win team is flawed, but DeRozan is a peak artisté, and Danny Green will surely funnel away some three-point opportunities. Many are bear-ish on the Spurs, but I cannot believe a Pop-coached team with this much talent wouldn’t make the playoffs. Their ceiling? Best of luck with that.
Toronto Raptors: Speaking of which, it’s advantageous that Toronto is alphabetically after San Antonio. Does anyone have any idea if Kawhi hauled his ’97 Tahoe north of the border? Do they have WingStop there? WHAT IS THE MANGO HABANERO EXCHANGE RATE?? Sad Kyle Lowry will be a sight to behold, the kind befitting a Drake album, but Kawhi Leonard(‘s health) is the obvious key here.
Utah Jazz: With all apologies to Anthony Davis and Draymond Green, the Jazz sport the best interior defender in the league. Rudy Gobert flies around like an automated Pong paddled possessed, switching onto what should be unfavorable matchups and cleansing them with his soulful palette of possession-erasing maneuvers. He’s slightly less fearsome on offense, despite being perhaps the best pure roll man in the league, but Donovan Mitchell’s preeminence stands to reach Dame Lillard-lite heights this season. Gobert, Mitchell, Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles were all excellent in the series against Oklahoma City, but the hopeful question mark here lies with Derrick Favors. As the twin to Gobert’s tower in the presumed starting lineup, Favors has adapted well and become the kind of player you’d love no matter your frontcourt. He’s even started taking threes! Quin Snyder needs to make sure that Favors gets better at that in order to be able to pull defenders out of the paint and feed Gobert as a primary option, and a lot of Utah’s new and wonderful offense will depend on Favors being able to roll with these punches. Mitchell’s development in Year-2 will be intrinsic to how the Jazz do this season, as well.
Washington Wizards: A time-tested and proven way to rectify locker room issues is to introduce Dwight Howard, a walking locker room issue and (yes!) still the NBA’s biggest assclown, and treat him as though it’s 2011. Objectively, it would be cool to see the Wall-Beal-Porter trio succeed after seeing all of the stuff you know they can do from random regular season possessions, quarters or even entire games; subjectively, I’m tired of the Wizards rolling out of bed every September and proclaiming that they can beat anybody without, you know, ever actually doing it. Until the Wiz get inventive on offense – which, to their credit, they’ve sort of done in this preseason – and show they can stop anybody at all, this is just the same white noise coming from our nation’s capital to which we’ve all become accustomed.
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 And Newark, New Jersey native!
 By the way, at this point, “Minnesota Kevin Love” is apocryphal beyond his raw box score stats and general offensive prowess; those Wolves teams averaged 25.5 wins per year, despite Love’s ability to be an efficient, sharpshooting version of Andre Drummond
 With all due respect to Arvydas Sabonis, who showed up just a tad late to definitively hold that title for many more generations, and Wes Unseld, who remains an amazing and underrated figure in the league’s history
 And defending Coach of the Year—
 Offensive Rating of 112.3; Defensive Rating of 100.0 even.
 One thing that doesn’t mean anything to the Rockets’ success as of right now but ought to be noted: a Texan basketball team employs a power forward named Gary Clark Jr. who is the only player in North Carolina high school basketball history to record a quadruple-double. Bright lights, BIG city, indeed.
 Since George Shinn shilled Charlotte and ripped the franchise away, anyway.
 Again: “The French Press.” It’s that easy.
 Given they had Kawhi Leonard for all of nine games last year
 Slightly less so in the subsequent five-game shutterbug show against the Rockets
 You know. His “rookie” year.