For the first time in five seasons, the NBA Finals will more than likely not include the Golden State Warriors. The reigning World Champion Toronto Raptors also face an uphill climb. Injuries and free agency have reduced last summers participants to middle of the pack playoff squads.
In the Western Conference LeBron James will be joined by Anthony Davis as the Los Angeles Lakers anticipate a late postseason run. Across the hall, the Clippers landed Paul George and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to join an already solid roster. Teams like the Portland Trailblazers, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets made bold moves by adding Hassan Whiteside, Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Russell Westbrook, respectively.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers are all in with hopes of winning their first NBA title since 1983. The loss of Jimmy Butler allowed the Sixers to add a young scorer/defender in Josh Richardson and pry savvy veteran Al Horford from the Boston Celtics via free agency. The Milwaukee Bucks lost a key defender in Malcom Brogdon but any team with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup is in the championship discussion. The Brooklyn Nets acquired Kevin Durant, who will miss this season as he recovers from and Achilles injury he suffered in the Finals and Kyrie Irving. Former 76er Jimmy Butler signed on with a solid Miami Heat Squad. The Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors round out a competitive bottom half of the conference.
Philadelphia 76ers - Kawhi Leonard's game-winner in the Eastern Conference semifinals was the kick in the butt the young nucleus of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons needed. Embiid has lost in excess of 20 lbs., while Ben Simmons has worked tirelessly on improving his outside shooting. Tobias Harris was resigned, Jimmy Butler was allowed to walk and replaced by Al Horford and talented swing man Josh Richardson. The bench is solid but could be tweaked with a veteran at some point during the season. Rookie Matisse Thybulle is a defensive-minded, four-year collegian who will become a fan favorite.
Boston Celtics - The Celtics lost a chunk of scoring, toughness and veteran leadership in the off-season, yet they are still a top four talent in the East and should be taken seriously. Gone are Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier. Acquiring the explosive Kemba Walker to go with a fully healthy Gordon Hayward, a vastly improved Jalen Brown should make things interesting, although defending the opposition will be an issue. Jason Tatum struggled last season but worked hard this summer and should return to form. Frontcourt addition Enes Kanter definitely returns some toughness to the roster. Talented rookie Carsen Edwards fills the void left by Terry Rozier.
Toronto Raptors - The one-year investment on Kawhi Leonard yielded a miraculous return in the form of an NBA title. Leonard has since moved on with the Los Angeles Clippers while the Raptors look to remain relevant in the East. Kyle Lowry returns for another season anchoring a core of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakim. NBA Finals standout Fred VanFleet will take on a larger role in the offense. Free agent additions Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson gives head coach Nick Nurse defensive depth.
Brooklyn Nets - The Nets pulled off an unlikely coup this summer with the additions of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. Durant of course will miss the regular season due to an Achilies injury suffered in the NBA Finals. Gone is guard DeAngelo Russell who came into his own last season, Russell was traded to the Warriors in exchange for Durant. While Durant is on the mend the Nets still court a tough unit. Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert are primed to post career numbers playing alongside Irving. Center Jarrett Allen should wreak havoc as a low post defender with the addition of Jordan.
New York Knicks - This time last year the New York Knicks had visions of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and possibly the No. 1 overall pick dancing in their heads. The Knicks missed out on all three and traded talented forward Kristaps Porzingis in January. A once daring franchise has been reduced to playing it safe. The responsible team build is centered around last year's first round pick Kevin Knox and this year's pick R.J. Barrett who was taken third overall. The roster is filled out with hard-boiled veterans in Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris. Julius Randle leads the Knicks in scoring and rebounding but will need help from Bobby Portis and Dennis Smith Jr.
Milwaukee Bucks - The Bucks were two wins away from the NBA Finals when the bottom fell out against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, losing four straight games. Take away the Eastern Conference Finals collapse and the Bucks have every reason to believe they can get reach The Finals for the first time since 1974. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo anchors a strong nucleus minus defensive stopper Malcolm Brogdon who was dealt to the Indiana Pacers in a sign and trade deal. The versatile Wesley Matthews should get his share of looks in a opportunistic offense. Sharp shooter Khris Middleton returns fresh of his first All-Star appearance. Robin Lopez was a welcome surprise at center but the Bucks will struggle if guard Eric Bledsoe can't shake off his less than stellar playoff performances.
Indiana Pacers - Up until the moment guard Victor Oladipo ruptured his quadriceps tendon last January, the Pacers were a serious threat in the Eastern Conference. Oladipo will miss at least the first two months of the season. In the meantime, the Pacers will have to deal with the loss of starters Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young. Domatas Sabonis -- who has been signed to an extension -- and Myles Turner anchor the frontcourt. Incoming guards Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb are solid and should continue the flourish when Oladipo returns.
Detroit Pistons - Last season the Pistons finished with a .500 record -- good enough for the 8th seed in the East - only to be swept out of the playoffs by Milwaukee in the first round. Not having been near the top of desirable destinations for potential free agents has left the franchise twisting in the wind. The rejuvenated Blake Griffin and double-double machine Andre Drummond occupy a roster filled with journeymen looking to break through. Point guard Reggie Jackson will share the backcourt with Derrick Rose, who seems to have found a comfort zone after several injury plagued seasons. It will take nothing short of an franchise-altering trade to land the Pistons back into the postseason.
Chicago Bulls - The return of relevance for the Bulls took a huge step in the right direction with the selection of electric point guard Coby White with the seventh overall pick. White's athleticism and speed are perfect for a roster filled with thoroughbreds eager to attack the rim. Having White at the pint allows shooting guard Zach Lavine to improve on last season's career numbers. Center Wendell Carter Jr. posted modest numbers despite playing 44 games. Third year power forward Lauri Markkanen averaged nearly 19 points per game and is on the verge of garnering some serious attention around the league. Veterans Otto Porter Jr. Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young brings experience and game to a team trending up.
Cleveland Cavaliers - The Cavs are in early stages of a rebuild that will get worse before it gets better. The bright spot rests with last year's first round pick Collin Sexton and Darius Garland taken fifth overall in June. Garland played five games in his only season at Vanderbilt. Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are holdovers from the Cavs glory days who could be dealt at some point during the season. Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman will be kept on as part of the rotation.
Miami Heat - The cloud of uncertainty looming over the Miami Heat franchise after retirement of Dwyane Wade has been momentarily lifted. The acquisition of Jimmy Butler and the selection of the surprising Tyler Herro out of Kentucky has given Heat fans hope of a top four finish in the East. Center Meyers Leonard was brought in from Portland to team up with frontcourt banger Bam Adebayo. Dion Waiters and Justice Winslow give the Heat scoring off the bench. The key for the Heat is availability, most notably in point guard Goran Dragic -- who only played in 36 games last season. When healthy, Dragic is as effective as they come at the position.
Orlando Magic - All signs point toward the Magic improving on their 42-win campaign in 2018. Combination guard Markelle Fultz looks to play a large role after playing only 33 games since being drafted first overall by Philadelphia in 2017. If Fultz has truly shaken off the bugaboo which has hindered his game for two seasons, it will be a welcome addition. The Magic return a solid core of D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Issac, Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic. Last season's first round pick Mo Bamba returns after playing in 47 games last season. Veteran pickups Al-Farouq Aminu and Michael Carter-Williams round out a roster that should battle Miami for the division.
Atlanta Hawks - Point guard Trae Young fought through his NBA growing pains to finish second to Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year honors. Once Young got used to the rigors of the NBA grind, he played as good as advertised. The Hawks front office did its due diligence to surround Young with a mix of veterans and young talent. This year's lottery picks De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish were selected fourth and tenth respectively, will see immediate action in hopes of jelling with Young. Not to be overlooked is forward John Collins who averaged close to 20/10 last season.
Allan Crabbe, Jabari Parker and Evan Turner are solid interchangeable parts who will help in the Hawks youth movement.
Washington Wizards - For the first time in five seasons the Wizards missed the postseason. An injury to electric point guard John Wall limited him to 32 games, a slip and fall resulted in a ruptured Achilles, placing his season in jeopardy. Veteran guards Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas will look to stand on the gap, because John Wall isn't someone easily replaced. Wizards ownership has placed their faith in shooting guard Bradley Beal -- who was given a two-year $72 million extension. The Dwight Howard experience ended as horribly as could be imagined. Howard played only nine games before tapping out with a buttocks injury. First round pick Rui Hachimura out of Gonzaga brings much needed athleticism to the Washington frontcourt. Center Thomas Bryant finished strong and should be on the radar for one of the league's most improved players.
Charlotte Hornets - If there was one free agency transaction that was a true head-scratcher it was the Hornets decision to let All-Star guard Kemba Walker go in sign and trade with the Boston Celtics. In recent years it's become clear that the Hornets are non-committal to keeping or developing young talent. The Hornets also lost Jeremy Lamb in free agency to the Indiana Pacers, so instead of building on last season's 39-win season it's back to square one for owner Michael Jordan and GM Mitch Kupchak. The lottery picks over the last handful of seasons who remain haven't moved the needle and the result is a three-year playoff drought. Terry Rozier came over from Boston and will finally be given the opportunity to shine. Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller are the only returning starter to average double digits in points a season ago.
Utah Jazz - The Jazz may have pushed themselves to the top of the Western Conference with two subtle moves. Bringing in point guard Mike Conley and gritty forward Bojan Bogdanovic gives the Jazz and most notably shooting guard Donovan Mitchell viable scoring options at the end of big games. The Jazz return a strong nucleus led by Mitchell -- who improved on his stellar rookie campaign. The frontcourt is anchored by back to back Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Australian sniper Joe Ingles becomes that much more effective with the addition of Bogdanovic. Veterans Ed Davis, Jeff Green and Emmanuel team up with the tenured Dante Exum and Royce O'Neale should keep things going when the starters are off the floor.
Denver Nuggets - The Nuggets have the NBA's second youngest roster and are only going to get better. The guard tandem of Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are rock solid scorers. Harris is an underrated defender whose shooting consistency must improve. Nikola Jokic is a stat-stuffing machine who makes beautiful music when in sync with Murray. Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Monte Morris are reliable reserves who will have more than their share of opportunities to make an impact. The Nuggets get a exceptional defender in Jeremy Grant who also shoots nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc. The one year wait for Michael Porter Jr. to suit up for the Nuggets is over. Porter who missed the 2018 season behind two back surgeries is ready to go, The Nuggets will battle Utah tooth and nail for the division and the top seed in the West.
Portland Trailblazers - Historically, the Blazers have never been caught up in the free agent sweepstakes that captivate fans each summer, so when they brought in the moody yet talented Hassan Whiteside, it was par for the course. Whiteside will man the center position for the next 4-5 months while Jusuf Nurkic heals from leg fractures. When Nurkic returns, will Whiteside buy in or sulk like he did in Miami? Portland lost key contributors Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, Moe Harkless and Evan Turner. They re-signed Rodney Hood and added Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Toliver. Rookie Nassir Little out of North Carolina is expected to factor in the rotation. The Blazers can go from a dark-horse contender to being on the outside looking in.
Minnesota Timberwolves - The dilemma in Minnesota is finding a steady hand to guide the offense. Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins are the cornerstones of the franchise but let's face it, Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier are not the answer at point guard. Off-season additions, Jordan Bell, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleah don't move the needle when it comes to wins and losses making a spot in next spring's NBA Lottery the only guarantee in Minnesota.
Oklahoma City Thunder - It was only six seasons ago that the Oklahoma City Thunder with a nucleus of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook were in the cusp of winning an NBA Championship. In trading Westbrook, all three future Hall of Famers have moved on, leaving one of the more faithful fan bases in all of sports in disbelief. Honoring Paul George's request of a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers was a handful of salt on a gaping wound. Chris Paul came over in the Westbrook trade and could be dealt at any moment. The trade for George yielded some young talent in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. The ever improving Steven Adams will be the Thunder's emotional leader. In the two trades, the Thunder gained seven first round picks, all of which carry a protection tag. As the season goes on, I expect Paul to be dealt, triggering the restructuring of the Thunder.
Los Angeles Clippers - It's taken forever but the Clippers are finally capable of standing toe-to-toe with the Lakers making The City of Angels the epicenter of the hoops universe. NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and All-NBA forward Paul George return to their roots with hopes of planting a banned in the Staples Center. The Clippers lost Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari in the deal to land George but were able to retain three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams along with defensive junkyard dogs Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. Young sniper Landry Shamet's shooting opened eyes last season and should only improve, same goes for big man Ivica Zubac. Doc Rivers won 48 games with a relatively young roster last season. It will be interesting to see how far he can lead this group of polished veterans.
Los Angeles Lakers - With so many moves influencing the landscape of the NBA, news of the Lakers trading for Anthony Davis seemed like back page news. Davis pairing with the great LeBron James gives the Lakers their best chance at a championship in over a decade. They beauty of the Davis trade was their ability to keep young stud Kyle Kuzma while shipping off a struggling Lonzo Ball and oft-injured Brandon Ingram. One major disappointment in the Lakers off-season was the loss of center DeMarcus Cousins who tore his ACL not long after signing with the team. The Lakers bolstered their bench by signing Avery Bradley Danny Green, Jared Dudley and Dwight Howard -- who is intent on redeeming himself after a disappointing first stint in purple and gold. Howard will man the paint with JaVale McGhee. Former Golden State Warrior Quinn Cook will share backcourt minutes with the ageless Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso.
Golden State Warriors - One of the most glorious runs in NBA history came to an injury-riddled halt in the NBA Finals and the Warriors have been leaking oil ever since. If Kevin Durant rupturing his Achilles tendon in Toronto wasn't enough, watching Klay Thompson crumple to the floor of Oracle Arena with a torn ACL all but handed the Raptors the title. Durant's departure led to a exodus which included Andre Iguodala being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies, the release of Shaun Livingston and the defection of DeMarcus Cousins to the Lakers. All isn't lost as Steph Curry is still living and breathing, which makes him good for about 30 points a night. Draymond Green and Thompson were re-signed and will be joined by combination guard DeAngelo Russell who is capable of carrying the load in Thompson's absence. Wiley Cauley-Stein made strides in Sacramento last season and will give the frontcourt a lift. Kevin Looney is a year improved. The Warriors are down but not for long.
Sacramento Kings - Despite steady improvement over the last two seasons, the Kings are still bringing up the rear among California teams. Not to despair, there's hope the Kings can with a or better mark for the first time in well over a decade. Point guard DeAaron Fox is one-third of a young talented core joined by Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles and Buddy Hield. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica are talented pieces who need to remain healthy. Free agent pickup Dewayne Dedmon is a talent in the middle who will make a huge difference at both ends. The Kings are a year away from the postseason if management can keep things together.
Phoenix Suns - The new head coaching/General Manager team of Monty Williams and James Jones has their work cut out for them in The Valley. The Suns haven't made the post-season in a decade and if things don't point in the right direction soon, valuable assets will be lost. Devin Booker is an explosive scorer -- who outside of center Andre Ayton has little help. The Suns spent $51 million to bring in Ricky Rubio who is a good distributor of the ball but is a poor defender and shooter. Was Cameron Johnson out of North Carolina a reach at No. 11? Kelly Oubre Jr. is a defender who will help with his outside shooting. The Suns need to decide which direction they're moving in and fast.
Houston Rockets - You have to give the Rockets brass credit for their willingness to take chances no matter how crazy it may look. Reuniting Russell Westbrook with James Harden has the feel of a last ditch effort to bring a world title back to Houston. Sharing shots will be the least of Harden's and Westbrook's worries. The challenge comes in keeping Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and others involved and interested. Tyson Chandler was brought in as another rim protector to spell Capela. Not much else was done to address the team's defensive liabilities in the backcourt. Looks like we're in for another season of shoot-outs involving the Rockets.
San Antonio Spurs - It was business as usual for the Spurs, who only made the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season. This season's challenge is to get production from some of the younger talent on the roster. DeMar DeRozan posted 20/6/6 in his first season under Gregg Popovich. LaMarcus Aldridge continues to thrive in San Antonio's system -- nearly posting a double-double. Dejounte Murray is the focal point of young talent needed to stay competitive. Combination guard Derrick White had an outstanding postseason and that confidence should carry over into this season. Lonnie Walker IV looks ready after injuries limited him to 17 games last season. Draft picks Keldon Johnson and Croatian Luka Samanic are long term prospects who will be worked into the system.
New Orleans Pelicans - Anthony Davis suddenly outdated'Pelicans jersey barely touched the clearance rack before Zion Williamson's were flying off of them. The most anticipated rookie to enter the NBA since LeBron James was drafted by the Pelicans on the heels of the Anthony Davis trade to the Lakers. The sky is the limit for the talented forward but patience must be at a premium as Vice-President of Basketball Operations David Griffin surrounds him with an effective supporting cast. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart came over in the Davis trade and should jell nicely with Williamson. Veteran additions Derrick Favors, J.J. Redick give the Pelicans shooting and a grinder to pair with Williamson. Jrue Holiday quarterbacks a balanced roster rounded out with Jahlil Okafor and E'Twaun Moore. Williamson is slated to be out of action until December with a torn meniscus. Expect the Pelicans to play well and make a serious push for the playoffs when Zion returns.
Memphis Grizzlies - After several seasons of holding on, the Memphis Grizzlies have finally given into the youth movement. The one-time trio of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have all moved on leaving the Grizzlies brain trust with a stripped down roster and a dynamic point guard to build around. Second overall pick Ja Morant has the talent to lift a franchise the way Zion Williamson is expected to do in New Orleans. Alongside Morant is Jaren Jackson Jr. who taken with the 4th overall pick in 2018. Brandon Clarke who was selected 21st overall won MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League. Grayson Allen and Joe Crowder and a 2020 pick came in exchange for Conley. Jonas Valanciunas was basically swapped for Gasol and returns for another season. Crowder is a solid player who goes hard at both ends. Allen will get the opportunity to annoy the opposition by actually scoring the basketball. The Grizzlies march out Taylor Jenkins -- a former assistant of Mike Budenholzer to lead the Grizzlies into the next decade.
Dallas Mavericks - Even with the lure of European stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Dallas Mavericks don't seem to be a prime destination for free agents. Not until this tandem proves they can hold their own in an NBA thriving with dynamic duos. Until that time comes, the Mavs will manage their investments wisely will staying in the playoff hunt. If Porzingis is fully healed and can return to form he becomes the Mavs top scoring option. Doncic is a walking triple-double alert capable of doing his share of damage from the outside as well. Seth Curry and Deion Wright are ballhandlers who allow Doncic to slide to the two or three. The remainder of the roster is filled with salary cap fillers who could be packaged at some point
East: Sixers, Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Pacers, Nets, Magic and Pistons
West: Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, Lakers, Rockets, Blazers, Spurs and Pelicans
Champion: Sixers over Clippers in seven
Season Ending Awards:
MVP: Joel Embiid - Sixers
Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers - Clippers
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams - Clippers
Defensive Player of the Year: Patrick Beverley - Clippers
Most Improved Player: Thomas Bryant - Wizards