First of three parts
The new season of the National Basketball Association is just weeks away and all indications point to yet another interesting run following landscape-altering moves across varying levels in the offseason.
While it is going to be tough to pinpoint how exactly things would pan out in The Association for the 2018-19 season, this space will nonetheless try to throw its take on things all NBA, beginning with how teams in the Eastern Conference would stack up.
With LeBron James deciding to take his talent to the Western Conference, which team takes hold of the East remains very open but this writer sees the Boston Celtics emerging with the best record in the conference.
Continuity and stability under coach Brad Stevens are key for this team which welcomes back erstwhile injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
The Celtics have a good mix of veterans and young players that could put up a sustained fight throughout albeit I expect them to have some hiccups here and there early in the season as they assimilate back into the system their returning stars.
The Toronto Raptors should finish second with possibly the best two-way player in the conference, if not in the NBA, in Kawhi Leonard in their fold.
Much depends on the mindset and conditioning of “The Claw.” If he is committed to playing up North and brings the tremendous skills set and motor that he showed in San Antonio then upside for the Raptors could be tremendous.
Having its core, that led the team to the second-best record in the NBA last season, intact is key for the Raptors, who are now handled by Nick Nurse. The addition of journeyman big man Greg Monroe I also like as he further shores up the team’s frontline.
The Philadelphia 76ers had a breakthrough season last year as the “process” finally bore fruit.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have proven themselves to be solid cornerstones for the team and judging from the preseason game I saw of them, this year could well see them further underscore that the future is now for the “City of Brotherly Love.”
Top rookie pick last season Markell Fultz finally gets to play after sitting out the rest of his supposed rookie year, giving coach Brett Brown another promising piece to build his team around.
Milwaukee should wind up fourth led by do-it-all forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and now coached by Mike Budonholzer.
The Bucks lost some key pieces but also got some good ones like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova but the proven record of Budonholzer of turning programs around (remember the Atlanta Hawks a couple of years back?) should do wonders for the “Greek Freak” And Company.
Washington comes in fifth for this space with the addition of big man Dwight Howard.
Howard has taken much flak for his play in the last few years but I still believe he still has it in him to make things happen given the right conditions.
Whether those conditions are in the Capital with John Wall and Bradley Beal and under coach Scott Brooks remains to be seen but with Howard and what he could potential bring I am not outrightly sleeping on the Wizards.
Indiana I expect to supplant the Wizards and the Bucks if things do not pan out for the last two teams as expected, a testament to the collective ability of the Pacers.
They have a sure identity now with All-Star guard Victor Oladipo leading and coach Nate McMillan at the helm, assuring a team with stability to compete.
This year would mark the farewell tour of Heat great Dwyane Wade but do not expect Miami to just go through the motions.
The Heat have the pieces to slug it out but need to have them working, notably Hassan Whiteside, who had a relatively down year last season.
He has to see eye-to-eye with coach Erik Spoelstra to get the needed result from him, which would go a long way in helping his team.
With Cleveland may be hard-pressed to get over the departure of James, Detroit fills in at eighth.
Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond can be solid but after them I do not see anybody steadily coming in day and day out, leaving sustained fight in suspicion.
Reigning coach of the year Dwane Casey is now manning the sidelines for the Pistons and he will definitely be tested.
The rest of the East I see Charlotte, Cleveland, Brooklyn, New York, Orlando, Chicago, and Atlanta on the basis of still lacking the needed pieces, including because of injuries, and/or still just in the process of regrouping.
Next week the Western Conference
Michael Angelo S. Murillo has been a columnist since 2003. He is a BusinessWorld reporter covering the Sports beat.