Sat. Nov 17th, 2018

The Three Most Intriguing Storylines to Keep an Eye On During the First Half of the Season

How’d we get here? I have been waiting for this week to come since the Warriors walked off the floor as NBA champions on June 8th; but a lot has happened between then and now. Let’s recap.

The NBA offseason resulted with the King claiming his throne in LA. The Spurs sent Kawhi Leonard across the boarder for DeMar DeRozan. The Warriors added yet another all-star to their arsenal. Carmelo Anthony took his scoring ability (and lackluster defense) to Houston. Jimmy Butler STILL hasn’t been traded. Also, the NBA draft took place, and seems to have produced a class with no ceiling. It truly was an offseason of craziness… but it is all done and over with. The 2018-19 NBA season is officially underway.

The season just began so obviously each team’s 82 game destiny isn’t set in stone. However, predictions are starting to hit the surface. The Warriors come into the 2018-2019 season as back to back NBA champions, and are yet again the favorites. The Rockets and the Celtics are talented and seeking redemption, posing the biggest threats to the men of Oracle. Otherwise, just about every other team is surrounded with questions.

By the second week of June all these questions will be answered. A new (or the same) NBA champion will be crowned and the offseason process will start again… Sadly, it’s October, and if you are as excited for basketball season as I am, you probably can’t wait for the summer to have these answers. I will be watching these three storylines more than any others in the first half of the season to give me a grasp on how the rest of the year is going to play out.

The Los Angeles Lakers Supporting Cast

The Lakers are most likely going to be a season long project. The best news? Their ceiling is yet to be established. In the first couple months of the season they could either prove to be the warriors biggest threat or show that it is going to be a season long struggle for a playoff spot. Their situation is going to depend on the supporting cast around LeBron.

Every young Laker should benefit heavily from the King. LeBron’s passing abilities are unmatched. His ability to make his teammates better as the season progresses is unprecedented. I will be watching the Lakers to see who is the first player to take their game to an all-star caliber level: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, or Kyle Kuzma.

Brandon Ingram is the most likely candidate to become the Lakers second all-star. Ingram averaged 16.1 points per game a season ago, about seven more than what he averaged his rookie season. The expectations are high and Ingram needs to deliver. This will involve making the jump to the 20 points per game mark. The good thing for Ingram is that the Lakers front office wants him to be their next superstar, so they will be doing everything they can to ensure that he blossoms in this new environment.

Alike Ingram, Lonzo Ball will be a key ingredient to the Lakers success. LeBron has already made it clear that he believes Ball is destined for greatness. At just 20 years old, Ball has time to improve, but the Lakers are hopeful that that improvement will occur sooner rather than later. As a rookie, Ball was streaky, and shot just over 30% from three point range. He also averaged 2.6 turnovers per game, compared to 10.2 points and 7.2 assist.

Lonzo Ball gave Lakers fans flashes of excellence in his rookie year.  Naturally, I expect the scoring statistics and turnover numbers for Lonzo Ball to improve. The main aspect I will be watching surrounding Ball will be his team chemistry, specifically how he runs the offense alongside the King.

Kyle Kuzma was extremely impressive in his rookie campaign, yet is probably the dark horse to become the Lakers second best player. Obviously the roster has more offensive weapons; Kuzma’s goal should be to maintain the 16 ppg average he totaled last season. This would be an impressive mark for the 2nd year stretch four out of Utah.

I don’t think the first half of the season will be enough for me to tell how long the Lakers playoff run will be. However, it will tell me what type of run will take place. It could be a similar run to what transpired in Cleveland, in which we see LeBron carry his teammates through the playoffs on the verge of exhaustion. Conversely, we could see a new type of playoff run: one filled with hope, and more importantly support from his teammates.

(Just as a little prediction here is how I expect the scoring distribution to total in LA)

Lonzo Ball                     11.5 ppg
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope       06.0 ppg
LeBron James                   26.5 ppg
Brandon Ingram                 18.5 ppg
JaVale McGee                   10.5 ppg
Rajon Rondo                    05.5 ppg
Josh Hart                      07.0 ppg
Lance Stephenson               04.0 ppg
Kyle Kuzma                     14.5 ppg
Ivica Zubac                    03.5 ppg
Michael Beasley                03.0 ppg
Other Roster Members: Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Moritz Wagner,                                Isaac Bonga, Travis Wear, Alex Caruso

Luka Dončić, Dennis Smith Jr, and the Rising Mavericks

The Mavericks future is promising, but can they be a playoff in the west right now? I believe the short answer is yes. Luka Dončić is the favorite to win rookie of the year, and has the most “hall of fame potential” out of anyone drafted this summer. That said, in the first half of the season I want it to be made clear that this is Luka’s team. He needs to take an abundance of shots and get open without the ball to be a consistent dish option for Dennis Smith Jr.

The second element of the Mavericks that I will be watching for is the performance of the supporting cast. Outside of Smith and Dončić, the third scoring option will be Harrison Barnes. Barnes has averaged over 18 points in his two seasons as a Maverick and I expect to him to remain just under the 20 point mark. Barnes took more three point attempts last season (333) than any of his previous seasons and I expect that number to climb again. With so many new scorers, the shot distribution will be more widespread; but with a talented roster moving the ball around fluidly, I expect Barnes to find lots of open shots. On the post, the addition of Deandre Jordan should make a significant difference. Jordan will create more second chance opportunities and provide good defense down low. The Mavs also have two talented young players that could develop into reliable bench contributors on both offense and defense: Jalen Brunson and Kostas Antetokounmpo.

The pieces are here. The time to start a winning culture is NOW in Dallas. In the first half of the season, the storyline of the Mavericks can go in two directions. Ideally, they could play as a team that knows how to utilize their individual weapons; and ultimately pull those weapons together to create a very fluid and high scoring offense. On the contrary, good individual talent doesn’t always mesh. This could lead to an stale offense and a long season for the Mavericks.

The Team Defense of the Rockets, Celtics and Sixers

In a league that is all about scoring, the defensive aspect of NBA teams is often overlooked. In reality, the team defense is usually the difference between a team being good versus elite. The Rockets, Celtics and Sixers are all arguably elite already and have one big similarity: their defense will be the difference in their fate. Now you may be wondering why these three teams are even related defensively because the Celtics defense is among the leagues best, the Rockets among the worst, and the Sixers about as average as possible. It is correct that these defenses are playing at a very different level, but each will need to take it to the next level (whatever that level may be) to be a true competitor to the Warriors.

I am a firm believer that the Rockets got worse this offseason simply because swapping Carmelo Anthony for Trevor Ariza was a bad move. Nonetheless, they are still a top two offense in the league. This means that they should be competing for a chance at the Finals once again this season. Houston can increase their chances at accomplishing this tremendously by taking their defense from terrible to decent. James Harden is big part of this problem. As a leader, he can take his game to another level defensively as he did offensively a season ago. This could do wonders for a Houston team that fell just short of a chance at an NBA championship.

The Celtics defense is elite. I will be watching to see how elite they actually are in the first half of the season. Compared to the Warriors, the Celtics still fall short offensively; however, everyone has failed to bring up whether the Celtics defense is dominant enough to outweigh the Warriors scoring ability. The offense should reach its peak when Gordon Hayward reaches his pre-injury level of play. A series against these two in June is a likely scenario, and the Celtics’ defense will be the difference.

The Sixers defensive situation is unique, because it isn’t great, yet still ranks among the best in the East. This is partially because if their shot blocking ability and partially because the team defense in the East is down. The Sixers haven’t convinced the other teams around the league that they are as serious of a contender as the Celtics and Rockets, but have progressed tremendously in the past few seasons. If the guards in Philly take their defense to the next level and become comparable to the Celtics, then an NBA Finals appearance will become much more likely. In the first half of the season I will be watching where the Sixers’ defense falls within the league wide rankings.

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