NBA Predictions for 2018–2019
Before I get to my picks for this season, I want to provide a little background on the presumptive favorite, the Golden State Warriors.
While the Warriors are going to be the favorites for the next couple of years, they have little of the depth they had during their first three runs to the NBA Finals. Draymond Green’s poor shooting and unpredictable on-court outbursts have allowed teams to play off him to focus on Curry, Durant and Thompson. With the team no longer threatening teams from the four core positions, Andre Igoudala becomes the last key piece of the puzzle. He has to stay healthy in the playoffs, and he has to maintain his current level of defense even though he will be 36 by the time the 2020 NBA playoffs arrive.
We saw how Andre Igoudala’s injury was enough to tip the scale in favor of Houston, but the Chris Paul injury allowed the Warriors to escape. Players like Looney and Bell are keys to their small ball defense, but Houston could ignore them as outside shooting threats.
Players like Javale McGee and Nick Young were unplayable in the series, while playing the always solid Livingston 30+ minutes was their last resort.
The first question, of course, is how well Cousins recovers from his injury, and how his late season return to the court will affect the team.
The second question is if they retain Thompson and Durant when they become free agents in 2019. If the Warriors lose either of them, they fall back to the level of the other four or five elite teams in the league. But if one of these players gets distracted by those thought, it could make a difference in how well they perform in the 2019 playoffs.
The 6 Boxes to check if you want to wear the crown
There are six keys that will determine who wins the NBA Finals in 2019, and they all revolve around the Warriors system. My theory here is that whoever plays the best version of Warriors basketball, which is how the game is now played, will be the 2019 NBA Champs:
#1: Shoot at least league average on a high volume of 3-point shots, but don’t get crazy
The math of advanced analytics can actually work against a team. Let’s take a look at Houston, who ranked 19th in the NBA at 35.8%, while leading the league in attempts. For the season, they shot almost 12.5 more 3-pointers than the Warriors.
Based on their percentages last season, those 12.5 attempts equaled 4.475 ppg. But on two-point shots, Houston shot 55.2%, which could have equaled 6.9 ppg. In effect, Houston’s over reliance on the 3-point shot actually caused them to leave almost 2 1/2 point on the table.
Compare them to the Warriors who shot 55.8% on those 12.5 shots that were 2-pointers instead of 3-pointers, and that yields 6.975 ppg.
Assuming every team takes an equal number of shots, not even the Warriors (#1 in 3-point percentage) could beat the Warriors if they changed the proportion of 3-point shots to match Houston.
Houston had the highest offensive efficiency last year, barely edging the Warriors by two one-thousandths of a point per possession (1.105 to 1.103). And yet Golden State scored 1.7 more points per game than Houston. That’s because they had 1.8 more possessions per game, as Golden State was #6 in pace and Houston was #17. Of the possible contending teams, New Orleans was #1, the Lakers were #2 and Philadelphia was #4.
#2: Play elite defense when it counts.
In the 2018 playoffs, the Warriors had the #1 defensive rating at 100.5, while Utah, Philadelphia, Boston and Houston suffered big drops in their efficiency as they couldn’t pad their stats against bad teams like they did during the regular season. Only the Warriors and Pacers actually improved their defensive ratings compared to the regular season. New Orleans had almost no slide (top 10 regular season, top 5 playoffs), but it remains to be seen how they will be affected by the loss of Rondo. Toronto was #2 during the regular season, but dropped from 103.4 to 112.5 (#14 in the playoffs). Substituting a healthy Kawhi Leonard for DeRozan could make a huge difference in their defense at the end of the year.
#3: Turn good defense into some easy transition baskets.
Golden State was in the top 3 in transition points per possession throughout the regular season and playoffs. Only two teams that survived the first round, New Orleans and Indiana, had a higher frequency of transition opportunities. Toronto was very efficient but had a little lower transition frequency because of their horrible playoff defense.
#4: Maximize the value of every possession by taking care of the ball.
The Warriors reduced their turnover percentage from 15.3% (27th in the league) to 13.0% (4th best in the playoffs). Toronto had a big fall off, which might be attributable to the curse of LeBron.
#5: Have one unstoppable, high efficiency superstar.
This is where we start to see the chaff fall away from the wheat. While almost every player’s level drops a little in the face of playoff pressure, with defenses slowing down the pace, using well developed game plans, volume scorers get exposed because their teams just can’t score enough points. Westbrook, Harden, Mitchell, and Irving will all fall into this category, which is why I doubt OKC, Houston, Utah or Boston will win the 2019 title.
Outside of Curry, Durant and LeBron, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid are the two most unstoppable, high efficiency players in the league, which will give New Orleans and Philadelphia at least an outside chance.
#6: Have one or more players who can slow down the other team’s superstar.
For the last eight years, this key is reduced to one simple question: “can you slow down Durant and LeBron?” Only two teams have had the answer to this question: San Antonio in 2014 (Kawhi Leonard) and Golden State 2015, 2017–18 (Iguodala-Green). This is why I am so concerned with the health and playing level of the aging Iguodala, and intrigued to see if Leonard can regain his old form. Stephen Curry, of course, is the one challenge that no team has been able to answer. Only his injuries in 2016 slowed him down enough to make him guardable. If he’s playing at the highest level, no one’s going to beat the Warriors.
Based on the above factors, here are the top teams that have a chance, however miniscule, to win the 2019 NBA Title:
#6 New Orleans — The Pelicans check off every box, except key #6. Even with Rondo and Holiday playing great, they didn’t have a defensive threat who could also slow down Durant. With the trade for Elfrid Payton, maybe they completely fall off this list, while the addition of Julius Randle gives them a very good small ball 5 that allows Davis to play his preferred position as a stretch 4. If they can just find a point guard to play good defense, they still have a puncher’s chance.
#5 Boston — They are a great defensive team with maybe the best coach in the NBA outside of Popovich. However, they don’t check the boxes for keys #5 and 6. If they get to play a healthy Warriors team in the Finals, they won’t score enough points, especially with Irving’s shooting inefficiencies, and the young guys will not be quite good enough at ages 22 and 23 to overcome a Kevin Durant still near his peak at 31. Maybe their time will come a year or two later.
#4 Houston — What made the Rockets different from all the previous incarnations of Mike D’Antoni teams was a top 5 defense last year. People just don’t realize how much of a difference that made. But Houston lost their two best wing defenders in Ariza and M’bah a Moute, and they don’t have any two-way player that can fit in their system. No matter how well Carmelo Anthony shoots 3-pointers, he can’t play defense, which means teams will do a much better job of matching Houston in points. The other big factors that I mentioned above is the inefficiency of James Harden. In the playoffs, he doesn’t get 10 gift free throws a game for initiating contact and then flopping. He still hasn’t shown if he has what it takes to put the team on his back in a tough playoff series.
#3 Philadelphia — The 76ers had the most talent in the East last year, but fell apart due to the youth and inexperience of their two superstars, the complete disappearance of their best 3 and D guy in Covington, and horrible coaching in the Boston series which cost them two games where they led the game in the last minute. If Embiid stays healthy and Simmons learns how to shoot a free throw, they will be a bigger threat to win the East than the Celtics, with an unstoppable high efficiency player down in the post and a bunch of guys who can shoot 3-pointers. Their only deficiency is they can’t check box #6. If you can’t stop Durant, you can’t win a title.
#2 Toronto — Here’s where things get really interesting. Toronto has been the best team in the East for the last two or three years during the regular season, with one of the best benches in the NBA. But they choked badly under the spell of one LeBron James. Guess who is the only player in the NBA who has beaten Kevin Durant and LeBron James in CONSECUTIVE PLAYOFF SERIES? Kawhi Leonard. His health is a question mark, but if he regains his form, Toronto checks every box on my list.
#1 Golden State — The Warriors, of course, check every box, because they are the masters of Warriors basketball. The only questions for them are fatigue, boredom and the lack of depth as their salary cap skyrockets with each deal given to their core players. Being unable to afford to keep Klay Thompson in 2019, or losing a bored Durant who wants to start over with a team of his own are the two main reasons the Warriors could falter. Also, if Iguodala can’t maintain his playing level, the slightest door gets opened up to the wild card team I haven’t mentioned yet.
The Wild Card
#??? Los Angeles Lakers — there are so many unanswered questions about this team going into the 2018–2019 season, I don’t know how or where to list them. Starting with my original six keys to playing like the Warriors, my guess is that they will easily check off box #1, as the team shot 4.5% better after the All-Star break, while trading away all of their below league average volume shooters besides Lonzo (Thomas, Clarkson, Lopez) by the end of the season.
Based on their performances last year, Hart (.396), Ingram (.390), KCP (.383) and Kuzma (.366) should all improve as they will get more wide open shots as teams focus on LeBron, who’s also an above average 3-point shooter (.370).
They check box #3 as the Lakers were already the best transition team in the NBA in total points and frequency. They were inefficient (#22) in ppp at 1.06, but that should be much better with the addition of LeBron and the passing of Rondo.
While the Lakers were one of the worst teams in the league in terms of turnovers, Rondo and Lonzo have two of the best assist to turnover ratios in the league, so I think they will improve this season to be more in the middle of the pack.
Most importantly, the Lakers also check box #5. For now, and until time proves otherwise, LeBron James is still the most destructive force in basketball. He exerted himself for about four minutes in a preseason game against Denver that resulted in a 9–0 run and later a 10–2 run. In the half court offense, he could pass or penetrate, and when he got into transition he was like a force of nature.
In the clip below, Millsap (246 pounds) looks like the world’s biggest matador. But the most hilarious reaction is the job done by Malik Beasley. The guy had to be at least six feet away from LeBron’s trajectory, but still jumped out of the way as if he were hit by the shock waves created by the King’s supersonic approach to the rim.
I think with all the passers and play makers on the Lakers squad, LeBron will spend a lot more time off-ball. He did that for most of his minutes in the first three games, allowing Ingram and Rondo to dribble the ball up the floor and start the offense. Instead of using all his energy to create offense on every possession, there’s a good chance LeBron will rest more on offense and work on defense. That would be a huge step forward in having enough energy to harrass Kevin Durant during crunch time in a playoff series, and check box #6.
For now the big question is if the Lakers can check box 2, as a lack of defense could make them vulnerable to too many teams who could get hot and shoot them out of a playoff series.
Here are the other big unknowns:
- How well can the “meme team” come together and find a defensive identity? Last year they jumped from #30 to #13 in team defense. If they can mesh the young guys and the vets into a top 10 defense, that’s the basic requirement for a title run in 2019. From what I have seen so far in the preseason, Rondo and McGee are solid starters, and enormous upgrades over George Hill and Tristan Thompson. Even Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley look capable of making contributions as role players, as long as Luke Walton surrounds them with good defenders and a point guard to keep the offense flowing. The Lakers have three point guards who can play the same system in Rondo, Lonzo, and Caruso. Unlike last year, where the Lakers played two completely different systems because Jordan Clarkson and Isaiah Thomas didn’t have the skill sets to duplicate Lonzo’s style of play, this year’s team will have much better continuity in their offensive execution.
- Does Brandon Ingram make the jump as a consistent scoring threat this year? Ingram made a massive jump between his first and second year, leading at least some NBA executives to think Ingram will end being better a player than Ben Simmons because of his shooting versatility. After three preseason games, it looks like Ingram is ready, with a more muscular body and a quiet killer spirit to go along with it. He can get to any spot on the court he wants, and is starting to add short pull up jump shots at the foul line to go along with his ability to finish at the rim. He can play point guard if the team needs him to fill that role, and he’s is absolutely killing teams with his off-ball movement, scoring easy baskets off the great passing supplied by LeBron and Rondo. In his last preseason game against Sacramento, Ingram had one of those “quiet” games where a player doesn’t seem like they’re doing much, but somehow ended up with 31 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Add a healthy Lonzo Ball, and Ingram might sleepwalk his way through a 20 ppg season.
- Can Kuzma improve his defense to go along with his offensive skills? If so, he could be a valuable two-way crunch time player during the playoffs. Over the summer, Kuzma also worked on his body, adding a lot of muscle. For the moment, Luke Walton is asking Kuzma to practice playing as a small ball 5. This is by far the biggest ask of any player on the Lakers. LeBron could easily play the small ball 5, but the team won’t risk his body until the playoffs. As much as I admire Kuzma’s work ethic and fighting spirit, there are currently only about five players in the league who are able to guard every position, spread the floor with 3-point shooting and run the floor — LeBron, Durant, Davis, Green, and Horford — and they’re all over 230 pounds. I hope he proves me wrong, because a player with Kuzma’s immense and versatile offensive talents would be an amazing weapon to throw at the Warriors. If not…
- Can the Lakers sign a decent rim protector for their back up center at the trade deadline? That’s really the one area where the team is vulnerable. McGee will be provide about 20 minutes a game as a traditional center. The tag team of Beasley, Kuzma and possibly a Summer League find like Jonathan Williams could fill in for maybe 10 minutes against backups. And maybe LeBron closes the last 5 minutes of the occasional game as a small ball 5. But that leaves about 15 minutes a night where a good starting center is going to be throwing his weight around and dominating the game. The hope was for third year center Ivica Zubac to improve enough to take over the role played by Brook Lopez, but he’s still a work in progress and the season is only 10 days away. Moe Wagner is a rookie with potential, but he’s injured, so his development as a reliable player may be pushed back for some months while he learns the Lakers’ system in the G-League. If none of the current players can grow into the role, the Lakers will have to make a move before the trade deadline to have a chance to compete against elite centers like Davis, Towns, Jokic, and Gasol
- Is Josh Hart ready to make the case that he’s a top 10 shooting guard in this league? While Ingram looks like a true Robin to LBJ’s Batman, Hart is looking more and more like a consistent and dangerous #3 option. Over the summer and during Summer League, Hart has worked on his ball handling and passing skills to become far more than a typical 3-and-D player. Hart is one of those rare guards who has the strength and low center of gravity to battle with bigs in the post, block out on the boards, rebound and lead the break, like a smaller version of Draymond Green. But he shoots 3-pointers a lot better (39.6% last year), and has added the ability to attack off close outs and get to the rim with almost LeBron-like efficiency (1.18 ppp in transition, compared to LeBron at 1.19 ppp). He has been widely underestimated by fans and the media (one site projects him at #28 among the top 30 shooting guards). But if you look at his post All-Star splits of 15.3/6.8/2.0, he was #1 in rebounds, and #14 in scoring, #15 in 3P%. He looks a lot closer to a top 10 player at his position. Here’s a comparison with Gary Harris, a highly touted young shooting guard for Denver who was ranked #11. Hart will be more valuable in the playoffs than many higher ranked, offense-only players.
- Can Lonzo Ball stay healthy? After seeing Lonzo’s physical transformation over the summer, I think it’s clear he’s going to follow in Ingram’s footsteps and learn to absorb or create contact and finish at the rim. We’ve also seen videos of his simplified shooting motion. It’s not perfect, but if he makes a tiny improvement as a 3-point shooter (say 33%, which is still below league average) and can make free throws at the same rate he did in college, Ball is basically Ben Simmons with an outside shot. For those people not paying attention, Simmons and Ball were both in the top 10 in assists, rebounds and a wide number of defensive stats for point guards last year, with Simmons just a little higher in all categories because he is 4" taller and 40 pounds heavier. Ball may not grow, but adding 10–15 pounds of muscle will make him that much better under the boards and in defending post players. With the gravity created by LeBron‘s presence, players who see the seams and creases that will open up on the court before defenses even realize it will fill up the stat sheets with assists. The Lakers have three such players in LeBron, Lonzo and Rondo.
I don’t see anyone beating the Warriors this year, unless it’s the Warriors themselves. If Kawhi regains his form, he becomes the most unstoppable two-way force in the East. This could be the year the Raptors finally reach an NBA Final.
And pray LeBron doesn’t somehow figure out how to beat the Warriors.
More on the Lakers:
Lakers song parodies:
“Lakers on a Prayer”
Here are the lyrics I wrote to this Bon Jovi song in 2015, after the humiliation of the Lamarcus Aldridge rejection…
Special note for Lakers haters (you know who you are, Brandon): after a Warriors sweep of Toronto in the 2019 Finals leads to a disastrous drop in the ratings, Adam Silver forces through the 16-seed playoff system to guarantee another three consecutive Finals appearances by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, regardless of whether the Warriors are still the best team in the West. Even without signing Klutch client Anthony Davis (what tampering? Magic was just talking to LeBron’s agent!), Brandon Ingram becomes an All-Star, and Kyle Kuzma becomes the best small ball 5 in the NBA after Draymond Green kicks or punches one too many players in the groin and gets hospitalized by a mysterious hit and run driver.