Basketball fans, rejoice. The high flyin’, slam-dunkin’, star-makin’, pragmatically commissioned, concussion-free, guaranteed-contract-having, guilt-free sweetness of the National Basketball Association makes its return this October.
It seems like only yesterday that J.R. Smith befoggedly dribbled out the Cleveland Cavaliers chance of winning another NBA title en route to getting swept by the Golden State Warriors. But one chaotic free agency window and a dramatic NBA draft later, the league is ready to grace televisions and social media feeds once again.
This NBA offseason brought many changes. A claw moved to Canada. A bromance was broken. A King moved to Los Angeles. A guy who wears hoodies to the beach signed with the Rockets. One European prodigy was drafted to succeed an aging other. The final two pieces of the Spurs dynasty left town, one for New Orleans and one for retirement. Forty-two-year-old Vince Carter, however, is still dunking. All right, let’s hit it.
A New Day in the Eastern Conference
Maybe the most bizarre storyline of the offseason was the trade demand by Kawhi Leonard. It was bizarre because Leonard is usually heralded for his stoicism, not for headline-making. Leonard was injured by Warrior’s center Zaza Pachulia in a game all the way back in the 2017 playoffs. (Although illegal, it was probably the most effective contribution Zaza made in the whole series.) But the San Antonio Spurs medical staff misdiagnosed Kawhi’s injury, beginning the slow and awkward demise of the forward’s relationship with the team. Now, Leonard begins a new chapter after his trade to Toronto.
The Raptors, who earned last year’s top seed in the Eastern Conference, took a gamble when they traded their best player—DeMar DeRozan—for Leonard. Leonard has only one season remaining on his current contract, meaning that this year the Raptors must convince him to stay once he becomes a free agent.
The next big storyline in the East is the rapid rise of the Boston Celtics. The Celtics shattered expectations last year by making it to game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals without their two best players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Hayward only played for four minutes last season after breaking his leg in the first game, so they are effectively adding an All-Star to an already deep, well-coached team.
Finally, one of the most interesting teams in the whole league to watch this season will be the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers made their return to the playoffs in impressive form last year, led by young superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Their encouraging success wasn’t without drama, though. The number one overall pick in the 2017 draft, Markelle Fultz, whom Philly traded up to get, was sidelined for most of last year with what seemed like a crisis of confidence. With Fultz’s struggles hopefully behind him, the Sixers are effectively adding an eye-poppingly athletic guard to their roster.
Philadelphia also have a new General Manager. Former player Elton Brand will replace the disgraced Jerry Colangelo, fired by the team after a cringeworthy scandal linked him with pseudonymous Twitter accounts that referred to sensitive organizational information. There are no title expectations yet for this young Sixers team, but look for them to improve as their young stars Embiid, Simmons and Fultz play their first meaningful minutes as a trio.
Cue the LAbron puns
The most consequential event of the offseason was LeBron James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans speculated wildly on his choice—dubbed by some “the Decision three”—for a year before he even made his choice to leave the Cavaliers
The move to L.A. is an inflection point in the career of James, the league’s best player. LeBron has played in the last eight NBA Finals, but, barring an immense surprise, his young Laker squad will not be expected to advance deep into the playoffs. The Lakers are composed of a motley crew of journeymen and rising stars. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma make up a core of encouraging but raw talent, while veterans Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee fill out the roster on one-year deals. There is no pressure for the Lakers this season. Their hope is to develop their young talent and attract a star from the upcoming free agent class next offseason.
How good is too good?
Last season’s NBA champs (and those from the year before that, and the year before that), return with a shiny new 270-pound weapon down low. When no one else came calling, the Warriors snatched up Demarcus Cousins, All-NBA center, from free agency. Cousins—whose brooding nature, poor shooting, lack of defensive effort and distracting locker-room presence seem antithetical to everything the Warriors stand for—is coming off a devastating achilles tear and won’t be ready until at least March. His delayed introduction shouldn’t be a problem for the Warriors though, who already have four All-Stars, including two MVPs in their starting lineup.
But will the addition of Cousins sink the Warriors’ famous mojo? Most likely not. In fact, Cousins, who has never played in a playoff game, could provide a spark for the Warriors in their battle against complacency after reaching the pinnacle of basketball three out of the last four years.
The Youth Movement
The 2018 draft yielded some of the most intriguing prospects in recent memory. Players like Marvin Bagley III, Trae Young and Deandre Ayton lit up college ball, and all went in the top five of the draft. What makes these young prospects so intriguing is their mix of old-school and new-school skill.
Ayton and Bagley are elite post-up big men, but they can also shoot three-pointers, are mobile and are freak athletes for their size. Ayton will play alongside Devin Booker, an up-and-coming shooting guard who, at only 20 years old, scored 71 points in a single game last year.
Young, on the other hand, fits more into the mold of a modern player. He’s small and doesn’t play much defense, but his shooting in college was unparalleled and he already passes at an elite level. Fans and analysts alike have compared him to twotime MVP Stephen Curry, who rose to the upper echelon of NBA players on the back of his ability to shoot and create shots off the dribble.
But the best prospect out of all of them may be Luka Doncic, a small forward hailing from Latvia. Doncic is only 19 years old, yet he has already been playing professional basketball in Europe for three years. The hype around Doncic swelled when he won MVP of the Euroleague, a competition in which many former NBAers play. Furthermore, Doncic seems like a perfect fit for the Dallas Mavericks. He will be mentored in Dallas by Dirk Nowitzki, possibly the greatest European basketball player in NBA history.
Although it feels like it never left, the NBA is back for another season. The NBA is truly a yearround league now. No other American sport can really claim that. It speaks to the rocketing popularity of basketball that, in a season where the champion seems predetermined (the Warriors are overwhelming favorites to three-peat), the buzz surrounding the league kept up throughout the summer.
The NBA season will be a marathon, not crowning its champion for another eight months, but those eight months will bring hot takes, Twitter drama and endless highlights. It’s time for basketball.