This is my last column before the NBA season starts. It is thus a moral imperative that I get off some takes. Brace yourself for a TakeQuake.
Of course, it would be boring for me to rattle off my safe, statistically aware, logical predictions (e.g. Warriors over Celtics in the Finals, Anthony Davis wins the MVP, DeAndre Ayton wins ROY). Instead, I’m going to approach this column the same way Russell Westbrook approaches a pick-and-roll: with reckless abandon. If I have a dent in my cheek by the end of it,I’ll be proud (starting early with obscure references to under-the-radar NBA moments).
If you’ve appreciated the almost nuanced discussions of the intersections of sports and politics in my previous columns, then this is probably not the article for you. If, instead, you’ve appreciated all of my bad jokes and obnoxious style of writing, welcome aboard the Take Train to Nowhere.
Take Number One: The Golden State Warriors will not win the Western Conference.
As the leaves turn a hue of yellowy-orange (I don’t notice these things, but it makes for “good” writing, I think) I am reminded that this is the fourth consecutive fall of a Warriors pseudo-dynasty. Every fall, I try to talk myself into the Warriors crashing and burning. The last three years, I’ve acquiesced to the darkness and picked the Warriors to win the West. Every spring (NBA Playoff time, baby!) hurts worse than the one before. Every spring, I look in the mirror and ask myself why I was born in Oregon, and why I couldn’t have hopped on the Warriors bandwagon back in the days of Andris Biedrins and Al Harrington.
And then I catch myself. I say, “Why would I want to join sports’ version of Elon Musk’s Twitter account?” I think back to Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” (a true middle school classic), and force myself to revel in the pain of mediocrity that the Portland Trail Blazers bring me every year. In that moment, I pray that all of that pain will eventually lead to the purest form of sports-induced joy. I think about the sheer jubilation I felt when my favorite athlete, LeBron “Father” James, rejected Andre Iguodala with 1:51 to play in the 2016 NBA Finals.
This fall is different.
For the first time in four years, I don’t feel confident that the Warriors are going to win the Western Conference. Sure, in terms of talent, they appear insurmountable. But the team showed hints of an impending demise.
Fans have begun to question the Warriors’ chemistry. A variety of Warriors (most explicitly Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala) have recently legitimized these previously mumbled concerns by emphasizing the importance of bringing in revivifying energy this offseason. The logical extension of this insinuation is simple: The Warriors must rekindle the fire beneath them that has fueled their dominance.
The spark intended to reignite this fire is Demarcus Cousins. Without digging too deep, putting your faith in Demarcus Cousins to assuage simmering chemistry issues is like appointing Antoine Walker to be Secretary of the Treasury (don’t get any ideas, Donnie).
The Warriors’ dynasty is approaching unprecedented territory. If NBA past is NBA prologue, each step they take will prove more precarious than the one before. Soon, they’ll be atop uneven ground with Rockets on one side and Lakes on the other. Perhaps there’ll even be a little Jazz playing in the background.
Take Number Two: The Oklahoma City Thunder will miss the playoffs.
It’s #FactsOnly time. Eight teams make the playoffs in each conference. Nine of the teams in the Western Conference are: the Warriors, the Rockets, the Lakers, the Jazz, the Spurs, the Pelicans, the Blazers, the Nuggets and the Thunder (some people include the Timberwolves, but given that Tom Thibodeau firmly believes it’s 2011, I’m leaving them out). One of these nine teams will not make the playoffs. Let’s run through them real quick:
Barring catastrophe, the Warriors, Rockets and Lakers are going to make the playoffs. If you don’t think that this is true, then you also probably believe that the world is flat, that melted American cheese is bad and that boat shoes are simultaneously practical and stylish.
I also feel quite confident saying that the Jazz, Pelicans and Spurs will make the playoffs. The Jazz could comfortably slot into the previous group. The Pelicans have a top-five player in the NBA (Anthony Davis, my safe pick for MVP) surrounded by a group of players good enough to make him stay in New Orleans for the rest of his career (this is a lie, I’m just making sure that you’re paying attention). Nonetheless, barring injury, I feel very good about the Pelicans making the playoffs. As for the Spurs, well, the last time they didn’t make the playoffs I was kickin’ it in my mom’s wob. [Author’s Note: I wrote this column before hearing of DeJounte Murray’s torn ACL. I still think the Spurs will make the playoffs, but Murray is a stud, and that’s a huge loss.]
That leaves two playoff spots for the Blazers, Thunder and Nuggets. I’ll get the Blazers out of the way first: I will die before I pick the Blazers to miss the playoffs. (Also, I think Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Terry Stotts get you to 47 wins almost automatically, and Jusuf Nurkic only loses you three games. Forty-four wins should be enough in the Western Conference.)
That leaves one spot for either the Nuggets or the Thunder. You can flip a coin, but the combination of Andre Roberson’s recent setback, Russell Westbrook’s brand of basketball (I love him, I really love him, but I just don’t think that he can lead a team to real success), Paul George’s inconsistency and Billy Donovan’s hairline makes me weary. Knuck if you buck? More like Nugg or you’re not bugged. [Author’s Note: This joke is bad.]
Thus, the Thunder—who famously turned Kevin Durant and James Harden into Paul George and Steven Adams—are in a “surprisingly” precarious position given the fact they have “won” the past two off-seasons, and have a guy who has averaged a triple-double in back-to-back seasons. That’s what you get for moving your team to Oklahoma City, you buffoons.
Take Number Three: Kawhi Leonard will win MVP.
I was talked into this take by two very goofy friends of mine. The logic is at least superficially sound, though, so why not throw it in this bold takes column. If it happens to be grossly wrong and Kawhi looks like a shell of his former self, I can say, “GUYS, I WAS JUST TRYING TO BE BOLD.”
Let’s speak in hypotheticals for a little while. Let’s say that the Raptors have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference for five consecutive years. Let’s say that in those five seasons, their two best players were Kyle “My Favorite Restaurant Is Taco Bell” Lowry and DeMar “Do You Need A Heavily Contested 16-Footer With 14 Seconds On The Shot Clock?” DeRozan. Let’s say that, in addition to being led by two relative misfits who improbably gained star power, the Raptors were in the same conference as a toptwo player ever in his prime.
I like this hypothetical thing. Let’s keep it going. Now let’s say that this top-two player ever left the Raptors’ conference so that he could produce 562 different TV shows. Let’s also say that the Raptors essentially flipped Derozan for a guy who was third in MVP voting two years ago, and second in MVP voting three years ago. Let’s surround that guy with a few young players ready to make the proverbial leap—O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet. Let’s keep our AllStar point guard (Lowry), let’s keep Jonas “I Was Not In Game of Thrones” Valanciunas, and let’s keep Serge “Why Did I Peak When I Was 24?” Ibaka.
Now, in this hypothetical, you’d have pretty high expectations for this Raptors team, correct? Well, I’m about to blow your mind. This was not a hypothetical exercise! All of these things are true!
Given this, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Raptors’ chances of winning 60-ish games. Other than the Celtics and Sixers, there are no real challengers to the throne that My King left unoccupied in the Eastern Conference.
The last time we saw Leonard play a full season, he averaged 26 points, five rebounds, four assists (and 28-8-5 in the playoffs) and was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. If he can replicate that kind of production on the Raptors, and the Raptors can win 60 games, then there’s reason to believe Leonard will win his first MVP. That’s a take.
Take Number Four: The Philadelphia 76ers will win the Eastern Conference.
All that stuff I said about the Raptors having the potential to win 60 games? I stand by it. But they’re still the Raptors, and until Drake is out of the first row (go get him, Khabib!), I simply won’t believe that they’re going to be effective in the playoffs.
Why are the Sixers not getting more hype? They get another year of Ben “I Can Only Shoot From Down Under” Simmons (who looks ready to put up a ridiculous statline, say, 18-8-12). They get another year of Joel “Are You Forgetting That I Can’t Stay Healthy?” Embiid. And they surround two of the four best young players in the league with JJ Redick, Markelle Fultz (I am a Markelle believer!), Dario Saric and Robert “Don’t Include Me In This List” Covington.
The Sixers did not seem ready to grab the reins of the Eastern Conference last season. But before the Celtics clowned them in the second round, they were every NBA hipster’s pick to come out of the East. Why, you ask? Because they’re the conference’s most talented team. There. I said it.
While everyone everywhere salivates over the Celtics starting three small forwards, a power forward and a point guard who has been healthy for two of his past four playoff appearances and whose history of injuries is more exhaustive than a Vassar student’s make-believe extracurricular activities list, I’ll be thinking about the fact that the Sixers have the two best young players in the East not named Giannis.
While the Sixers “Take Care,” the Celtics will be saying “I’m Upset,” and the Raptors will be saying “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” (I know you think that this joke is corny, but it’s not half of Drake’s lyrics.)
Take Number Five: The Los Angeles Lakers Win The NBA Finals
See this? This is called a take. I’m a take master. Give me a show on FS1, please.
Anyway, hear me out. In 2015, LeBron James took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the NBA Finals. His most effective teammate in the 2015 Finals was, statistically speaking, Timofey Mozgov. Let me type that sentence again. His most effective teammate in the 2015 Finals was, statistically speaking, Timofey Mozgov. LeBron averaged 36 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.
In 2016, LeBron James beat the Golden State Warriors in seven games in the NBA Finals. His most effective teammate in the 2016 Finals was Kyrie Irving. Irving played a phenomenal series. He hit what may be the biggest game-seven shot ever. He averaged 27 points per game. Who was the Cavs’ third most effective player in that series? Tristan “Dating a Kardashian Is A Smart Thing To Do” Thompson. LeBron averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.
The 2017 Playoffs and the 2018 Playoffs did not happen for some reason (maybe I’m just blacking out the memories, I’m not sure). Despite my inability to recall what transpired during these periods, I do know LeBron averaged 34 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in 40 playoff games.
So that brings us to the 2018–2019 NBA season. LeBron is now flanked by one of the more comedically rich units in the history of the league. The most boring people on #NBATwitter (lookin’ at you, Wob) have coined his supporting cast “The Meme Team.” Good one. I would never make a joke that bad.
However—and forgive me if you don’t like young, exciting basketball players—the core of the Lakers’ supporting cast is a legitimately talented bunch with a ton of upside. Brandon Ingram is undoubtedly one of the most gifted young players in the league. Despite the Lavar-induced vitriol, Lonzo Ball averaged 10-7-7 as a rookie, which hadn’t been accomplished prior to last season by anyone not named Magic or Oscar. People apparently think Kyle Kuzma is good (I’m not sold, but I’m not not sold either). And Rajon Rondo, whom people have somehow grouped in with “The Meme Team,” has averaged 11 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists in his past 11 playoff games.
What I’m saying is quite simple: If you put a top-two player ever on a team that is half decent, they are Finals contenders.
But it’s more than that. I am a true believer in the Baby Lakers and have been since before LeBron decided to go to Hollywood. I really do think that Brandon Ingram has a chance to be a top 10 guy in the league down the road. I really do think that Lonzo Ball has a generational court vision to go along with a 6’6” frame. I really do think that Luke Walton—who was the head coach during the Warriors’ historic win streak to start the 2016 season—is a good coach with a great father (Bill Walton is my role model).
Call me crazy, but I’m picking LeBron to win the 2019 NBA Finals. Because he’s LeBron.