Warriors should win it all again, LeBron will reclaim the MVP as a Laker, and more fearless NBA predictions

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James in action during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Sacramento Kings in Los Angeles, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)


LeBron James, Lakers

Some define “most valuable” as the best player on the best team. Sometimes, it’s an athlete who puts up statistically superior numbers for a pretty good team. Others look for a player, without whom, his team would theoretically achieve far less than it actually did.

James has, at various points throughout his career, checked all those boxes.

However, after a career spent dominating the Eastern Conference landscape, he now finds himself with the far greater challenge of navigating a team through the minefield-laden West — a conference where 46-win Denver missed the playoffs last year.

Beyond the mere change of scenery, he also finds himself surrounded by a roster split pretty evenly between young-but-unproven talent (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart) and an island-of-misfit-toys supporting cast of veterans (Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley).

In the East, he’s carried and/or dragged lesser teams to the playoffs. That may not be possible in the West.

James has long been the NBA’s best player; if his unparalleled combination of scoring, rebounding and passing prowess can get one of the league’s marquee franchises back to the postseason following a five-year drought, he’ll again be its Most Valuable Player, too.


Brad Stevens, Celtics

Voters tend to like two archetypes in this category — the coach who takes a team not expected to do much of anything and elevates it into better-than-expected territory; and the coach who takes an already good team and elevates it into elite, NBA title contender territory. Stevens, whose X’s and O’s acumen and pushing-the-right-buttons demeanor have already made him regarded as one of the league’s top benchmen, is in prime position to accomplish the latter, with the return to health of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and the continued development of Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum.


Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves

How quickly the shine wore off Minnesota’s once-in-a-generation playoff appearance of a year ago. Despite the postseason appearance, there were already blaring klaxons going off around Thibs following the team’s easy postseason ouster, which have only grown in volume since. His reputation for being too dependent on veterans, his unwillingness to develop and subsequently trust young players, and a propensity for running key players into the ground via excessive minutes have all been borne out. Further, his status as a defensive guru has taken a hit with the indifference of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The public messiness of the current Jimmy Butler saga is sure to be the final nail in his coffin.

FILE - In this April 5, 2018, file photo, Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, right, argues for a call with referee Ken Mauer during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, in Denver. Veterans Mike Callahan and Ken Mauer, along with first-timer David Guthrie, are among the 12 referees who have been selected to work the NBA Finals. The league announced the group Wednesday, May 30, 2018.(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)


Golden State Warriors

This isn’t really up for debate, is it? They have won two straight championships, and three of the last four. The lone blip in there was a season in which they went 73-9 in the regular season and, but for a rare Kevin Love stop and a timely Kyrie Irving 3, likely would have ended in yet another title. OK, so the bench is not as deep as it once was. And there were stretches of apparent disinterest last season. No matter. With a core of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green back (and now DeMarcus Cousins added in), the Warriors are the favorites until either they get bored of winning all the time and break up, or someone proves otherwise.


Toronto Raptors

Everyone gets it — year after year, the Raptors post one of the best regular-season records in the league, then flame out spectacularly in the playoffs. It became enough of a pattern that Dwane Casey got fired in his Coach of the Year season. No one takes the playoff Raptors seriously anymore. So why should it be different now? How about swapping out DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard? He actually has a history of performing well in the playoffs, boosting his playoff ppg every postseason appearance, up to 27.7 in 2016-17. He also earned Finals MVP honors in 2014. If Leonard’s invested, Toronto is dangerous.


Indiana Pacers

Maybe it’s because nobody knows anything about Indiana other than “Hoosiers,” Bob Knight, Reggie Miller, the Indy 500, Indiana Jones, and that verse from that Tom Petty song. Maybe it’s because, even though he was an All-Star last year and memorably rocked a “Black Panther” mask in the dunk contest, the average NBA fan couldn’t pick out Victor Oladipo if they were alone together in the same elevator. Whatever the reason, the Pacers feel like they’re going a bit unnoticed. Not for much longer. After taking the Cavs to the brink in the playoffs last year, they’re primed to ensure a new, young generation of Pacers fan grow up right, with them Indiana boys on them Indiana nights.

Indiana Pacers' Victor Oladipo (4) shoots over Cleveland Cavaliers' JR Smith (5) in the second half of Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 29, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)


Washington Wizards

What’s the statute of limitations on an NBA team living up to its potential? Chris Paul finally figured out it wasn’t happening with the Clippers, and razed Lob City to the ground. The Wiz similarly need to find a way to return to Year Zero (though those onerous contracts are a big stumbling block). The perpetual dissension is bad enough. That management consistently handed out big money to players who just don’t fit that well together makes it worse. On paper, John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and sure, even Dwight Howard, is a solid core. In reality, this team, as constructed, isn’t going to be anything but a disappointment.


Draymond Green, Warriors

It’s not that he’s not good, it’s just that his reputation far exceeds his actual contributions. Is he a quality, versatile defender? Yes. But he also gets away with a lot of contact that players without the associated hype don’t. Does he help the offense? There’s no denying the seven-plus assists per game he’s averaged the past three seasons are exceptional for a non-point guard. But his shooting (.438 career) is subpar for a big man, and he takes far too many 3s for being so bad at them (.327). He’s also a below-average rebounder (6.9 rpg). The league-average player efficiency rating is 15.0. Draymond’s PER last year was 16.1, and his career average is 15.7. If he wasn’t surrounded by Steph, KD and Klay, he wouldn’t be a three-time All-Star.


Khris Middleton, Bucks

Giannis-Mania is in full effect in Milwaukee, and rightly so. But he’s hardly a one-man operation. Middleton is near the top of the list among the league’s premier beta players. The multifaceted second option averaged career highs last year in points (20.1) and rebounds (5.2), while also contributing 4.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game. And even though he has the outside shooting (.391 career 3-pointers) and defensive aggressiveness to be a 3-and-D master, he also has the midrange game to be much more. Perhaps new coach and offensive wizard Mike Budenholzer can scheme Middleton right out of relative obscurity.


Jamal Murray, Nuggets

While center Nikola Jokic remains Denver’s best all-around player, if the Nuggets are to finally break through after several seasons on the verge, it will be because Murray takes another huge leap. From Year 1 to 2, the Canadian point guard and Kentucky product bumped his scoring from 9.9 ppg to 16.7, his field goal percentage from .404 to .451, and his 3-point shooting from .334 to .378 (on 5.4 attempts per game). League GMs recently voted him the most likely player to have a breakout season. Given that he may be the NBA’s next great sharpshooter, it’s not hard to see why.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) shoots over Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat (13), from Poland, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, March 23, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)


Luka Doncic, Mavericks

You know what teams do that’s absolutely infuriating? Talk themselves out of simple decisions. Anyone who pays attention to the international stage has seen Doncic elevating his star power for years. His passing is otherworldly, his ability to make his teammates better sublime. He’s also shown a reliable deep shot, and the willingness to take it in big moments. But suddenly, come draft time, he’s not athletic enough? Or DeAndre Ayton is next Embiid? Or Marvin Bagley is the next Chris Bosh? Trae Young’s the next Steph? All those teams will soon regret passing on the first Luka Doncic. They should have known.


Atlantic Division

The Atlantic provides a more clear delineation of its haves and have-nots than most divisions. The Celtics, with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, are the favorites to emerge from the entire East. The Raptors, meanwhile, made a bold gamble in trading for Kawhi Leonard, and should not fall too far thanks to the “Bench Mob.” Joel Embiid and perpetual rookie Ben Simmons are a tantalizing one-two combination for the Sixers, but Philly may lack the depth yet to be a true contender. As for the New York teams, they may not be as awful as in years past, but remain the clear red-headed stepchildren.

1. Boston Celtics

2. Toronto Raptors

3. Philadelphia 76ers

4. Brooklyn Nets

5. New York Knicks

Central Division

LeBron’s return to “The Land” four years ago made the top of this division a fait accompli. Things are different now, of course. Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Tyreke Evans, Domantas Sabonis, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic give the Pacers the best collection of talent. Giannis Antetokounmpo will again be spectacular, but the Bucks did not do a ton to address their clear deficiencies in outside shooting and rim protection. The Bulls’ talented young core, with Lauri Markkanen as the centerpiece, is a work in progress. Detroit simply lacks pieces around Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. And Tristan Thompson’s bold claim that the Cavs still run the East is either laughable hubris or a stunning absence of self-awareness.

1. Indiana Pacers

2. Milwaukee Bucks

3. Chicago Bulls

4. Detroit Pistons

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Southeast Division

Arguably the worst division in basketball, none of these five teams can credibly be considered a legitimate title contender. The Heat feature a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts roster, but would have been upgraded had they pulled off the Jimmy Butler trade. The Wizards theoretically have the greatest collection of talent, but always seems overly dysfunctional and prone to underachieving, which the addition of Dwight Howard may only exacerbate. The Hornets have a lot of awful contracts for such a middling team. And Orlando and Atlanta are both in full-on rebuilding mode, and unlikely to be competitive any time soon.

1. Miami Heat

2. Washington Wizards

3. Charlotte Hornets

4. Orlando Magic

5. Atlanta Hawks


Northwest Division

Arguably the best division in basketball, top to bottom, pending the resolution of Minnesota’s catastrophic Jimmy Butler meltdown. The Thunder and the Jazz seem destined to battle it out for top honors, with OKC’s more reliable offense the potential difference-maker. The Nuggets’ impressive collection of offensive talent finally ought to take a step forward — provided Denver can improve its defense to something north of “abysmal.” Though the Blazers were third in the West last year, and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remain a formidable pairing, Portland seems likely to regress on account of its thin supporting cast. As for the Wolves, there’s too much drama not to take a step back.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

2. Utah Jazz

3. Denver Nuggets

4. Portland Trail Blazers

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

Southwest Division

Despite all the hand-wringing over the losses of Trevor Ariza and — REALLY?! — Luc Mbah a Moute, and all the equally hysterical shrieking about the addition of Carmelo Anthony, the Rockets remain the Southwest’s definitive best. Anthony Davis will be an MVP candidate for the Pelicans, though it remains to be seen how much the supporting cast aside from Jrue Holiday can provide. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge should still be enough to help the Spurs limp into the playoffs. As for the Grizz and Mavs, while fans are understandably hyped about their respective rookies, nether team is good enough to play beyond mid-April.

1. Houston Rockets

2. New Orleans Pelicans

3. San Antonio Spurs

4. Memphis Grizzlies

5. Dallas Mavericks

New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis walks back to the bench during a break in the action during the first half in Game 1 of the team's NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, April 28, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Pacific Division

Unless two out of three of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffer a long-term injury, it’s inconceivable the Warriors aren’t again the class of the Pacific. LeBron’s arrival, meanwhile, should give the previously steadily-improving-but-still-bad Lakers a pretty sizable jolt. Sorry — not buying the hot take du jour that L.A. misses the playoffs. As for the Clippers, they have a fun collection of spare parts that don’t add up to enough. The Kings at least have an intriguing big-man duo in Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles. As for the Suns … Devin Booker’s injury and a roster completely devoid of NBA-quality point guards are both serious impediments (as is the dumpster-fire ownership).

1. Golden State Warriors

2. Los Angeles Lakers

3. Los Angeles Clippers

4. Sacramento Kings

5. Phoenix Suns

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