By SIMON BRADY
The NBA undoubtedly just had its most active and exciting offseason in league history. Seven of last year’s 24 all-stars signed with new teams over the summer. With the one of the NBA’s most predictable and boring playoffs last season, when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors met in the finals for a third straight time, the league needed this shake up to revive fan’s interest this season. With the 2017-2018 season’s commencement just five days away, it’s time for NBA fans to start considering where teams stand in terms of the playoff hunt.
Legitimate Eastern Conference Contenders: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers
Unfortunately for NBA fans who would like to see parity and a balance of power in the NBA, the eastern conference is the worst it’s ever been in league history. A year ago, the western conference already had a decisive advantage over the east. Since then, eastern conference all stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Millsap have all joined western conference teams. The eastern conference is officially the junior varsity in the NBA, as it continues to sadly dwindle down.
The one constant in the eastern conference for nearly a decade however is LeBron James. The king is entering his 15th NBA season, and seeking his eighth straight finals appearance. He and the Cleveland Cavaliers are again the favorites to come out of the eastern conference. After the blockbuster trade by the Boston Celtics and Cavs, Isaiah Thomas is James’ new point guard and running mate. Thomas, who finished fifth in MVP voting and averaged nearly 29 points a game a year ago for the Celtics, isn’t expected to suit up for the Cavs until early January, as he recovers from a hip injury he suffered in last year’s playoffs. His health by the time the playoffs roll around is crucial for Cleveland and their chances of getting back to a fourth straight finals.
The only potential roadblock for Cleveland is the completely redone Boston Celtics. The Celtics will take some time to jell, as they have only four returning players from last year’s team, that reached the eastern conference finals for the first time since 2012. As aforementioned, the Celtics and Cavaliers swapped point guards in a blockbuster trade back in August. Kyrie Irving, former point guard for Cleveland, is the new face of the Boston Celtics. The four time all-star’s wish was granted when he said he wanted to be “the man” on a new franchise while explaining his trade request from Cleveland. His new weapons include former Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, who the Celtics also acquired over the summer. The star forward was selected to his first all star game this past season, averaging just under 22 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, which are both career highs. Veteran big man Al Horford highlights the front court for Boston. In his first season for the Celtics, he averaged 14 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Although Horford is a skilled and effective big man, the Celtics are relatively thin in the front court this year, and Horford and the Celtics will struggle at times in the rebounding department this season.
In this likely eastern conference finals matchup, the Celtics have the better coach in Brad Stevens, the younger and healthier roster. However, the Cavaliers still have LeBron James, coming off one of his most impressive seasons. Despite turning 33 years of age this December, he still has a few elite years left in him, and with seven straight finals appearances, it’d be foolish to suggest a healthy Cavs roster led by James won’t get back again.
Legitimate Western Conference Contenders: Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite all the movement that went on this offseason around the league, nobody made any moves that could dethrone the Golden State Warriors. The defending NBA champions had a fantastic offseason after going 16-1 in the postseason on their way to the 2017 NBA title. The Warriors resigned last year’s finals MVP Kevin Durant with a favorable contract for the organization at 10 million dollars under the max. They also gave superstar point guard Stephen Curry that five-year supermax contract, and resigned veteran Andre Iguodala, when he was rumoured to potentially want out of Oakland. Last year’s Warriors team may have been the greatest in NBA history, and retaining all the assets on that roster dooms the rest of the NBA contenders for years to come.
Although the gap is pretty significant between the Warriors and the rest of the west, the Houston Rockets are a team to be reckoned with this season. Early in the offseason, the Rockets made the shocking trade, acquiring former Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. He will now be paired with last year’s MVP runner up and league leader in assists James Harden. Some believe these two will have difficulty coexisting because both need the ball in their hands to be effective. Time will tell to see if these two clash on the court, but they both have a high basketball IQ, and have an incredible ability to make plays for themselves and others. Like last year, this team will be an offensive juggernaut. Paul and Harden have a bevy of shooters at their disposal, including veterans Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and last year’s 3-point contest champion Eric Gordon. The Rockets also have a raw, athletic presence in their front court with center Clint Capela, who will live off easy layups and dunks on pick and roll plays from Paul and Harden all season long.
Lastly, the western conference contender that won the wild NBA offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Thunder general manager Sam Presty pulled off two fantastic trades to help out franchise player, and last year’s MVP, point guard Russell Westbrook. In the two trades combined, the Thunder acquired multiple time all star forwards Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott, who are all mediocre at best. Westbrook will be challenged from being the lone star on the team to getting two other stars who are hungry for touches involved from one year to the next. Also, for nearly all of Anthony’s career he’s been the go-to guy. It’ll be interesting to see how Anthony adjusts to being the third wheel for the first time in his career at age 33. There’s plenty of what-ifs like this in OKC, but it’s a team that has plenty to be optimistic about with their new big 3.
Although the offseason moves made by the Thunder and Rockets were pretty serious upgrades, Golden State simply has too much firepower to fall in the west. The only real threat to the Warriors is injuries to stars or complacency coming off such a dominant playoff run a year ago.
Above all other professional sports, the NBA is driven by captivating superstars and therefore individual regular season awards. With all the shifting of teams this offseason, it’ll be very intriguing to see who can rise above and take home the NBA’s most coveted awards this year.
Most Valuable Player Prediction: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics Point Guard
Don’t believe the ignorant NBA fans who say Kyrie Irving as “the man” in Boston definitely won’t work because he didn’t have success as the face of the franchise in Cleveland from 2011-2013. In that period, Irving was 19-21 years of age, entering the league after playing just eleven total college basketball games. Not to mention, he was also given the keys of one of the most sorry franchises in the NBA, who at the time had no titles, and was in the recovery process from James’ departure from Cleveland to Miami in 2010.
On top of Irving’s awful circumstances as the solo act the first time around, he has also played in two full NBA finals, and won one since that time. In doing so, he proved he’s the one of the NBA’s clutchest performers, scoring 41 in the critical game 5 of the 2016 finals in Oakland, and hitting the game winning 3-pointer later on in the closeout game of that series. He comes to Boston as the lone champion on the roster, and will not only be the Celtics best player, but also the most helpful locker room guy when it comes to teaching the Celtics youthful players how to handle playoff basketball the right way.
As Irving does every year, expect him to score at a high clip for the Celtics. But to earn MVP, we’ll have to see him to be the most effective distributor of the basketball possible. With James out of the picture, it’s all on Kyrie to put his teammates in the best position to score. With a great basketball mind in Brad Stevens running the show from the sidelines, and enough offensive weapons playing alongside Irving, I believe he’ll be put in the best position to do just that this season.
Rookie of the Year Prediction: Dennis Smith Jr, Dallas Mavericks Point Guard
This upcoming season’s rookie of the year race will be very compelling. There’s plenty of talent from this draft class entering the league, particularly at the point guard position, where the NBA is strongest and has the most depth at position wise. Dennis Smith Jr. of the Mavs is certainly an off the radar pick. Highly sought out top 5 picks and point guards Lonzo Ball of the Los Angeles Lakers and De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings overshadowed Smith Jr. during the draft process. The reason Smith’s Rookie of the Year odds are favorable above all is based on summer league play, he looks to be the best athlete in the draft. And with superstar point guards John Wall and Russell Westbrook being the most athletic players in the NBA, that trend bodes well for Smith. In the past summer league, Smith caught the eyes of many shooting 40 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3 point land. Smith is also on a roster where he can be the focal point right away. Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki is well out of his prime and other starting forward Harrison Barnes is talented but still limited on offense. However, both players are former champions, and will be good mentors to Smith as he matures. Look for Smith’s overwhelming athleticism and playmaking ability to carry him to Rookie of the Year honors this season.
Most Improvement Player Prediction: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers Center
Following the trade of Paul George, the Indiana Pacers are in full on rebuild mode. Turner, the versatile budding star for the Pacers is the one bright spot that this team can build off of. Last year, Turner had an impressive sophomore campaign, averaging 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds, while shooting over 50 percent from the field and an impressive 80 percent from the free throw line. Turner averaged 10.7 shots a year ago, with star forward George’s departure, expect his shot total to increase into the mid to high teens this season. With an ability to be effective in the post, and step out and hit the 3 ball, Turner is a nightmare matchup for bigs, particularly those who are slow footed and will struggle chasing him on the perimeter around the rim.
Simon Brady can be reached at email@example.com