These NBA Teams Could Dethrone the Warriors
The NBA never sleeps. Thanks to the draft, free agency, and growing popularity of the Summer League — building a championship team begins in the offseason.
A lot has happened since the Golden State Warriors knocked off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals in June. LeBron James bolted for the Los Angeles Lakers and shifted the structure of the league. Kawhi Leonard was dealt to the Toronto Raptors. And a handful of teams made some minor tweaks en route to taking the next step as contenders.
But is anyone good enough to beat the Warriors and stop them from winning their fourth NBA championship in five years?
These teams have the best shot in the 2018-19 season.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 result: 47-35 (eighth in Western Conference), lost in West quarterfinals to Houston Rockets (4-1)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Jeff Teague, SG Andrew Wiggins, SF Jimmy Butler, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
2018-19 projected finish: 47-35 (sixth in West), lose in West quarterfinals (4-2)
Key player: Jimmy Butler. The super-scoring guard is not getting along with Karl-Anthony Towns and reportedly has said he likes the idea of playing with LeBron and would be interested in leaving Minnesota for Los Angeles next year. So why is he the key player for this talented group? We’re afraid he might be dealt midway through the season, especially after declining a lucrative extension offer from the franchise this summer. If he goes, the Wolves just might be a fringe playoff team. If he stays and finds some common ground amid the turmoil, this could be the year Minnesota puts it all together.
Season outlook: As much as KAT, Anthony Wiggins and even Jeff Teague are responsible for making this offense tick, there’s so much riding on Butler and how his situation plays out.
Can we see Minnesota entering the playoffs as the third seed in the West? Yes.
Can we see the Wolves not even making the playoffs? Yes.
There’s too much talent on this team to write them off yet.
9. Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 result: 35-47 (11th in Western Conference)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Lonzo Ball, SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG Brandon Ingram, PF LeBron James, C JaVale McGee
2018-19 projected finish: 47-35 (fifth in West), lose in West quarterfinals (4-3)
Key player: Brandon Ingram. Let’s face it. LeBron can’t do it all. In order for the Lakers to come close to matching the Warriors or Rockets, the newly acquired superstar will need help — and a lot of it. Ingram took a huge leap forward as a second-year player, averaging 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He will look to take the next step as King James’ sidekick.
Season outlook: With Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, LeBron will have some semblance of a supporting cast. That is something he couldn’t always say as a member of the Cavaliers.
But no matter how you slice it, James joins a Lakers team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five seasons. Los Angeles finished 11th in the West with a 35-47 record — a whopping 12 wins short from the eighth seed.
Does this team make the playoffs if LeBron stays healthy and receives some help from younger players? Yes.
Will they get past the upper echelon of clubs in the loaded conference and crash the NBA Finals? Well, let’s just say that’d make for LeBron’s greatest feat.
Get your popcorn ready.
8. Indiana Pacers
2017-18 result: 48-34 (fifth in Eastern Conference), lost in East quarterfinals to Cleveland Cavaliers (4-3)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Darren Collison, SG Victor Oladipo, SF Bojan Bogdanovic, PF Thaddeus Young, C Myles Turner
2018-19 projected finish: 49-33 (fourth in East), lose in East semifinals (4-1)
Key player: Myles Turner. The Pacers surprised a lot of fans with a stellar 48-win season, but Turner’s inability to progress as a dominant big man was a blemish. The 6-foot-11 center averaged 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in his second year, setting up what could’ve been a potential All-Star campaign in 2017-18. Instead, Turner regressed, averaging 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds in an injury-riddled season. If Indiana plans on surpassing 50 wins and challenging the top-tier clubs like Boston and Toronto, Turner needs to reach his potential.
Season outlook: In addition to Turner showing steady improvement, Indiana needs Victor Oladipo to reproduce his outstanding 2017-18 season, in which he averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Adding free agents Tyreke Evans, who averaged 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists for the Memphis Grizzlies last year, and Doug McDermott will bolster the offensive unit, too.
Nevertheless, approaching — or even eclipsing — 50 wins doesn’t mean the Pacers are strong enough to knock off the Celtics or Raptors in a seven-game series.
7. Utah Jazz
2017-18 result: 48-34 (fifth in Western Conference), lost in West semifinals to Houston Rockets (4-1)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Ricky Rubio, SG Donovan Mitchell, SF Joe Ingles, PF Derrick Favors, C Rudy Gobert
2018-19 projected finish: 49-33 (fourth in West), lose in West semifinals (4-1)
Key player: Joe Ingles. The sharp-shooting left-hander exploded onto the scene with a career year, averaging 11.5 points, 4.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.5 3-point field goals. More than anything, he added another layer to a deep offensive unit for the rising Jazz.
Season outlook: A popular pick to continue improving upon last season's 48-win output, Utah is poised give top-tier teams such as Golden State and Houston a lot of problems.
Collectively versatile and armed with enough tools to hurt teams both inside and outside, this Jazz bunch revolves around budding star Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20.5 points in his rookie campaign.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see Utah, which allowed a league-low 99.8 points per game, finish the regular season as the third seed in the West.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 result: 48-34 (fourth in Western Conference), lost in West quarterfinals to Utah Jazz (4-2)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Russell Westbrook, SG Andre Roberson, SF Paul George, PF Jerami Grant, C Steven Adams
2018-19 projected finish: 50-32 (third in West), lose in West semifinals (4-2)
Key player: Dennis Schroeder. The Thunder acquired Schroeder, who enjoyed a career year by averaging 19.4 points and 6.2 assists for the Hawks, as part of the three-team trade involving Carmelo Anthony. He should be able to alleviate some weight off Westbrook’s shoulders and provide more punch than the aging Anthony did.
Season outlook: Don’t look now, but it seems depth might be the best aspect of the Thunder.
In addition to all-world point guard Russell Westbrook, newly re-signed star Paul George, center Steven Adams and Schroeder, OKC will welcome back Andre Roberson, who missed all but 39 games after undergoing season-ending surgery for a ruptured left patellar tendon.
We all know "Westbrook-in-Terminator-Mode" is must-see TV. Expect to see a lot of that in 2018-19.
Overall, a 50-win campaign is in the cards, but what will they do against Houston or Golden State in the playoffs?
5. Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 result: 52-30 (third in Eastern Conference), lost in East semifinals to Philadephia 76ers (4-1)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Ben Simmons, SG JJ Redick, SF Robert Covington, PF Dario Saric, C Joel Embiid
2018-19 projected finish: 50-32 (third in East), lose in East semifinals (4-2)
Key player: Markelle Fultz. The top overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Fultz endured a frustrating season that was stained by a bizarre shoulder injury. Philadelphia benched him four games into the season, and then he returned for the final 10 contests after a long recovery, averaging 7.6 points in 17.7 minutes. Is he the most important player on the Sixers? No, that distinction equally belongs to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. But Fultz is the key player here. If he can rise to his potential and offer an added punch to an already-potent offense, this bunch might be equipped to take the next step as a young, talented dark horse in the East.
Season outlook: Since 2013-14, Philadelphia’s win totals are as follows: 19, 18, 10, 28, 52. Clearly, "Trust the Process" was the correct way to go about a tumultuous rebuilding period — and now the Sixers are armed with some of the most exciting players in the league.
This team, like Toronto, will have to prove it can match Boston, though, which could be too tall of an order in a seven-game series.
Simmons must continue to improve his outside game, Embiid needs to stay healthy, and several role players need to take some heat of that dynamic duo. Without those three components, the "Process" might hit a plateau.
4. Toronto Raptors
2017-18 result: 59-23 (first in Eastern Conference), lost in East semifinals to Cleveland Cavaliers (4-1)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Kyle Lowry, SG Danny Green, SF Kawhi Leonard, PF Serge Ibaka, C Jonas Valanciunas
2018-19 projected finish: 57-25 (second in East), lose in East finals (4-2)
Key player: Kawhi Leonard. The 27-year-old left-hander’s drama with the San Antonio Spurs was well documented and, ultimately, ended with him being dealt as part of a package to the Raptors in exchange for fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan this offseason. Toronto knows it will be vying for Leonard to re-sign with the team when he hits the open free-agency market this upcoming summer, so the Raptors will be doing everything in their power to keep him happy. More importantly, Leonard has a lot to prove, too.
Season outlook: With LeBron out of the East, the new-look Raptors’ window to reach the NBA Finals may expire this year — so they better make the most of it with their new star’s assistance.
Leonard will play the biggest role on the team, while Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas will need to continue serving as consistent cogs in one of the league’s most feared offensive units.
Can the Raptors replicate their 59-win season a year ago? Can they take advantage of LeBron bolting for La La Land? Are they equipped to handle Boston in the East finals?
We’ll be asking ourselves those questions all year long. Stay tuned.
3. Boston Celtics
2017-18 result: 55-27 (second in Eastern Conference), lost in East finals to Cleveland Cavaliers (4-3)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Kyrie Irving, SG Jaylen Brown, SF Gordon Hayward, PF Jayson Tatum, C Al Horford
2018-19 projected finish: 61-21 (first in East), lose in NBA Finals (4-1)
Key player: Kyrie Irving. In late March, the all-world point guard was ruled out for 3-6 weeks upon undergoing a minimally invasive procedure to remove a tension wire in his left knee. He then was ruled out for the rest of the season after another procedure to remove two screws from his patella that were originally inserted in 2015 to repair a fracture. Simply put, Irving — who has never played more than 75 games in seven seasons — needs to stay healthy for the Celtics to take the next step.
Season outlook: It’s crazy to think Boston fell in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
With both stars healthy, several young players such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum poised to improve even more, and LeBron out of the East, it’s as sure of a bet as any that the Celtics win the conference and fight one of the Western powerhouses in the NBA Finals.
2. Houston Rockets
2017-18 result: 65-17 (first in Western Conference), lost in West finals to Golden State Warriors (4-3)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Chris Paul, SG James Harden, SF Carmelo Anthony, PF Marquese Chriss, C Clint Capela
2018-19 projected finish: 63-19 (second in West), lose in West finals (4-2)
Key player: Eric Gordon. The 10-year veteran enjoyed his best season since 2010-11, averaging 18 points and 3.2 3-pointers per contest, and serving as a sparkplug for the Rockets, whose 112.4 points per game ranked second in the NBA behind Golden State. There’s every reason to believe Houston will win 60-plus games and give the Warriors a run for their money — especially with the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony, who will provide added punch even if his best days are behind him. Gordon must stay healthy and anchor the second unit on a consistent basis for this bunch to reach the next level.
Season outlook: Fresh off obtaining Carmelo Anthony and trading Ryan Anderson for Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight, the Rockets made some solid tweaks without shaking their core that helped the team cruise to 65 wins and a trip to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
The question is, are they actually better?
"Coming off an MVP season, now you got to add Carmelo Anthony, it's going to be easy," James Harden said in an interview posted on The Players' Tribune. "The transition is easy. When you got that many talented, high-IQ guys around who love to communicate and love to figure things out, the job is easy."
Given the Warriors’ improvement, the Lakers’ acquisition of LeBron James, and the continued rise of other franchises such as the Jazz and Timberwolves, this season won’t be easy for the Rockets.
Just don’t bet against this squad reaching the conference finals and giving Golden State a run for its money once again.
1. Golden State Warriors
2017-18 result: 58-24 (second in Western Conference), won NBA Finals over Cleveland Cavaliers (4-0)
2018-19 projected starting lineup: PG Stephen Curry, SG Klay Thompson, SF Kevin Durant, PF Draymond Green, C DeMarcus Cousins
2018-19 projected finish: 69-13 (first in West), win NBA Finals (4-1)
Key player: Andre Iguodala. A former NBA Finals MVP, Iguodala has carved his niche as a valuable sixth man and bench leader in helping the team capture three championships over the last four years. This year, his role is no different. Simply put, despite the bevy of talent in the starting lineup, the Warriors aren’t the Warriors without him.
Season outlook: And you thought the Dubs were already stacked, right? It turns out the Warriors saw an opportunity to improve even more and signed four-time All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, $5.3 million deal.
The acquisition drew a great deal of controversy, especially on social media from NBA fans who didn’t want to see the league’s top team grow even stronger. Cousins is recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in January and hopes to be ready for training camp, though the team has been outspoken about bringing him along slowly.
When he returns, Golden State will add another dimension to its potent offense that relied on long-range shooting. With this added dynamic post presence, the club might challenge its record-breaking 2015-16 win total (73).
Two questions, however, stand in the way of such an accomplishment: (1) Will Cousins be OK with taking a backseat offensively, while Curry, Thompson and Durant still get their touches, and (2) can everybody stay healthy?
We’re in for quite a show.