Who will win it all? Who are the players to watch? What move does each team need to make? Find the ANSWERS in 30 scouting reports—and in the views of two podcasters and our stable of scouts
WHERE'S THE FUN IN HAVING a take if there's no one there to tell you how wrong it is? That's what makes the Open Floor podcast such good listening all year long. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED basketball writers Ben Golliver and Andrew Sharp don't always agree, but they can always make a case that's compelling, and make fun of each other while doing it. Here, they dig into the topics they've got their eyes on as we head into the 2018--19 season.
CAN BOSTON (OR ANYBODY ELSE) FINALLY TAKE DOWN GOLDEN STATE?
ANDREW SHARP: Oh, boy. Ben wrote these questions, and this feels like a trap. The past year has seen me hating the Celtics, then begrudgingly coming to accept them, respect them, and now sincerely enjoy them. Ben is hoping to capitalize on that emotional journey by tricking me into saying something truly irresponsible. I won't do it. Anyone picking against Golden State is probably overthinking it, looking for attention, or both.
Having said that.... Boston has the deepest roster in the league. Brad Stevens is the perfect coach to stagger playing time and use that depth to torture teams. The offense will go five-out and make them incredibly hard to match up against, and Kyrie Irving has given Golden State more problems than any other guard in the league. Al Horford and the wings can switch everything on defense, and they have a great chance to muck up the Warriors' offense the same way the Rockets did a year ago in the West finals. Really, throughout his time in Boston, Stevens has always done a good job disrupting Golden State's rhythm. Now he'll have even more firepower to counter them on both ends.
Bottom line, this Celtics team is the most credible threat to Golden State since Kevin Durant signed two years ago, and whether it's this year or not, they're the best bet to eventually bring that group back to earth.
BEN GOLLIVER: I can maybe buy that Boston will be the next team to beat Golden State in the playoffs, but I just don't see it happening this year. As boring as it sounds, I anticipate the Warriors' solidifying their dynasty with another cakewalk. Since Durant arrived, they're a ridiculous 32--6 in the playoffs, with a point differential of 11.6. Blowout after blowout after blowout. The Celtics' youngsters are undeniably talented, but they're not ready for the full force of Durant, Stephen Curry (above) and Draymond Green in the Finals.
O.K., SO HOW MANY WINS DO THE LAKERS NEED FOR LEBRON JAMES TO WIN MVP?
BEN: If the Lakers get to 50 wins, LeBron will be going home from the NBA awards show with his fifth career MVP trophy. In a normal year the bar would be set significantly higher: James has failed to win MVP in eight seasons in which his team won 50-plus games.
But his much-ballyhooed move to L.A. ensured that this would be no normal season. James is perfectly positioned to receive maximum attention and credit now that he's suiting up for a glamour franchise in a massive market without a Kyrie-like sidekick. What's more, he's joining a Lakers team that lost 284 games over the last five seasons, the most in the NBA. He's not just a superstar, he'll be a genuine savior.
There are plenty of other reasons to be bullish on James's MVP chances: He didn't miss a single game last season, L.A. will be playing a high-pace and stats-inflating style, and four of his major competitors—Curry, Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden—have all taken their turns winning the award. And let's not overlook what could be an award-cinching accomplishment: James enters the season just 1,254 points behind Michael Jordan's career total. It will be awfully hard for voters to resist granting James a "career achievement" MVP if he passes Mike to claim the fourth spot on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
ANDREW: I agree that 50 wins would win LeBron the MVP, but I also feel pretty confident that 50 wins is out of the question for L.A. If we're looking for MVP candidates, I would like to ask everyone to ignore the Southern California hype train driven by coastal elites like Ben Golliver and LeBron James. Think bigger. Think 6'11", 222 pounds. Think about the small forward who's shutting down power forwards and putting up triple doubles like a point guard. Think Greek. Think Global. Think Giannis (above).
WHAT'S YOUR HOTTEST TAKE ON THIS YEAR'S ROOKIES?
ANDREW: Trae Young (right) has a higher upside than Luka Dončić, and all the Hawks jokes from June will look ridiculous in five years.
Granted, if Young's three-point shooting doesn't translate at the next level, he may not even be a starter. That's the risk. But if the shooting is there, Young will pair that threat with some of the craftiest passing we've seen in years. He has moments where he looks like Steve Nash for a new generation, and that version of Young could become one of the league's most valuable offensive players. The risk is clearly worth it. Meanwhile....
Dončić will be good but not great. His intelligence and passing will make him a valuable starter no matter what. The question is how much better he can get from there. He's slow, he may struggle to create space, and while his shooting isn't bad, it's not good yet, either. Those weaknesses will make it difficult for him to dominate. Dončić believers have always answered athleticism questions by pointing out that Harden faced similar skepticism when he entered the league. Last season he won MVP. Maybe that's how this will go in Dallas, but everyone should be cautious. There's a better chance Dončić is the next Joe Johnson than the next Harden.
BEN: You were right to single out Dončić, but you went the totally wrong direction. Not only will the Slovenian Wonder Boy win Rookie of the Year just like he won numerous Rising Star and Best Young Player awards in Europe, but he'll also play so well that he will get two rival GMs fired. Phoenix's Ryan McDonough, who passed on Dončić with the top pick, was canned before the season started. Now, Sacramento's Vlade Divac, who passed at No. 2, and Atlanta's Travis Schlenk, who traded Dončić to Dallas, are both officially on notice.
SPEAKING OF IMPACT PROSPECTS, LET'S TALK BREAKOUT CANDIDATES. WHICH PLAYER 21 OR YOUNGER IS MOST PRIMED TO MAKE THE LEAP TO STARDOM?
BEN: I'm buying all available stock in Jamal Murray, a Canadian guard who leads the first wave of the Stephen Curry imitators. In his second season in Denver, Murray launched 436 three-pointers, the most ever by a 20-year-old. In addition to a smooth shooting stroke and a deep well of self-confidence, he has strong ballhandling skills and a good feel for breaking down defenders off the dribble. Murray, like Curry, can make you pay when he pushes the ball downcourt or when you turn your head and forget about him roving around the arc.
While I like Murray's offensive game in a vacuum, I love his fit in Denver, where he benefits from playing in a starting lineup with five legit scoring options. The Nuggets should enjoy excellent spacing and play at a high pace, opening opportunities for Murray as a pure shooter, a one-on-one attacker and a transition threat.
Murray might play for an off-the-radar team and he might not have been a Top 5 pick, but I see him challenging for the Most Improved Player award and playing a central role in ending Denver's five-year postseason drought. Give him a few years, and he might even join Curry in the hallowed 50/40/90 shooting club.
ANDREW: Love Jamal Murray (above), and his progress is the single best reason to buy into Nuggets this season. I'm with you. The other name I'd throw out is Brandon Ingram. He's basically the same age as Jayson Tatum, and he has one of the more well-rounded games of any young player in the league. He was already poised to open people's eyes this year, and now he's going to have LeBron James feeding him open looks all year. But hold that thought....
WHAT WILL BE SUMMER 2019'S MOST SHOCKING DEVELOPMENT?
BEN: I know the Wizards are your beloved hometown team, so I'm saying this now as a friendly warning: You better prepare for franchise-altering turbulence. After all, signing Dwight Howard (right) amounts to a kiss of death, as his recent one-year stints in Atlanta and Charlotte precipitated a pair of regime changes.
While Howard's locker room presence should keep Ernie Grunfeld and Scott Brooks up at night, I think the collateral damage from his signing could puncture the Wizards' core trio too. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all possess massive long-term contracts, but they've displayed shaky chemistry and achieved only mediocre postseason results. If Wall can't bounce back from an injury-ravaged season and deliver a playoff breakthrough, he could transform from being a franchise player into a trade chip overnight. Think of him as the Next Blake Griffin.
ANDREW: Thank you for the Wizards warning, but I've been living my life at Def Con: Dwight for several months now. Nothing can shock me at this point.
In any case, I'd like to raise your "Wizards blow it up" prediction with a "LeBron and the Lakers blow it up" prediction. I'm not sure who they will bring back or how successful the overhaul will be, but I do know that this spring will probably see LeBron lose long before the Finals begin. Once that happens, everyone will be available.
LeBron is this generation's Jordan, and in 2019 he'll be 35 years old. Ingram should be great this year, and the other young Lakers are promising. But if all this ends with a first-round playoff loss, does anyone really think LeBron is going to spend his twilight waiting for his teammates to enter their prime?
BEN: Come on, Andrew. Can't we enjoy the new Lakers for at least a month before we tear them apart? The season is just getting started.
ANDREW: Fine, fine, fine. Don't say you weren't warned.
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