The new NBA season is fast approaching, but for most followers of the league, the season is already a foregone conclusion. The dominance of the Golden State Warriors, having claimed their third title in four seasons in June, looks set to continue in the 2018-19 campaign. However, the threatening teams that ran them close last year have not gone away, with the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics leading the pack and the rest of the association also looking set to deliver some intriguing story lines.
The Warriors will start the season as clear favourites, and with good reason. A formidable starting line-up that includes Curry, Durant, Green and Thompson provides the combination that every team in the league is looking to replicate: the ability to shoot three pointers, defend aggressively and move the ball effectively.
If anyone is going to take the challenge to Golden State in the West, the Houston Rockets will likely be the main rivals. Having finished seven wins ahead of the Warriors in the regular season standings, this is a side that has had the consistency necessary to supplant the defending champions over the course of eighty-two regular season games. Plus, the addition of Carmelo Anthony should give the team another good shooter to complement the backcourt leadership of James Harden and Chris Paul.
“It seems unlikely that the Rockets will have a better shot at defeating the Warriors than they did in last season’s playoffs”
However, the Rockets still raise plenty of questions. During their Western Conference Finals series with Golden State last year, Houston led the best-of-seven series 3-2, and took a seventeen-point lead in the first quarter of game six, but gave the game and consequently the series away. It seems unlikely that the Rockets will have a better shot at defeating the Warriors than they did in last season’s playoffs, and the loss of the likes of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute could hinder any attempt to replicate the superb basketball that earned them the best record in the league.
Despite these two teams success, the biggest story of the summer came in Los Angeles. After months of speculation, LeBron James announced he would leave his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the second time, and join the Los Angeles Lakers. He was joined by Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley.
“These players lack the reliability the Lakers need to be serious contenders”
Whilst all these players have had moments of brilliance in their careers, with championships for Rondo and McGee and cult hero status at Indiana for Stephenson, they lack the reliability the Lakers need to be serious contenders. More positively, the young core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart are talented and developing well, giving the side some solid foundations. Although there is no doubt James’ astonishing talent will improve the Lakers significantly, whether this motley crew of players can gel into a winning team is far less guaranteed.
In the Eastern Conference, teams can breathe a sigh of relief with the departure of LeBron James to the West. With his Heat and Cavaliers teams taking the Eastern Conference title every year from 2011 to 2018, the road is finally clear for a new team to emerge out of The King’s shadow. Leading the race to succeed his sides are two teams he tormented in recent years, the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors.
The Celtics will enter the campaign as favourites after a remarkable play-off run last season. Despite losing their two highest profile players, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, to injury, Boston managed a run to the finals of the Eastern Conference, only losing out in the closing minutes of the decisive match to Cleveland.
“Boston’s versatile defence makes them, on paper, the favourites for the East”
With both back for the new season, the Celtics can look forward to a much more reliable attack, with Irving and Hayward joined by the young combo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plus seasoned veterans including Al Horford and Marcus Morris. The versatile defence that Boston boast, with players able to match up with the tallest centres or the most agile guards, makes them, on paper, the favourites for the East, if not the biggest threat to the Warriors for the championship.
Despite a chaotic off-season, the Toronto Raptors will also be hopeful of a good 2018/19. The summer began with the controversial firing of coach Dwane Casey (who would go on to be named Coach of the Year) and was followed by trading star player DeMar DeRozan for two-time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard. Both decisions were big gambles, but Leonard’s superb play at the Spurs suggests he could be the player to finally take Toronto to the finals. However, new coach Nick Nurse will have the challenge of creating a system that gets the best out of him, as well as the strong roster that achieved the best record in the East last year.
In summary, in terms of the championship race it’s the same situation as it has been for the past few years. Barring a major upset or injuries to the Warriors it’s their championship to lose. However, expect Houston and Boston to bring their strong form from next year and give Golden State a stern test. Although the likes of the L.A. Lakers and Toronto Raptors are unlikely to be contending for top honours, they will make for compelling viewing between now and the spring.