Our 10 bold predictions for the upcoming NBA season actually began last week, when we explained why LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will miss the playoffs.
1. The Greek Freak will be the NBA’s most valuable player
At the start of each NBA season, there are generally a few obvious candidates to win the MVP award. As the season wears on, some are weeded out as narratives emerge dictating which of them will rise to the top.
This season is different. James remains the league’s best player, but his team shouldn’t be good enough for him to seriously contend for the honor. Teammates Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant likely will again cancel out each other’s candidacies. Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid are both intriguing possibilities, but injury questions cloud their chances. James Harden, last season’s MVP winner, would have to match or exceed his brilliant play to have a chance to repeat, and this Rockets team will be hard pressed to have the same level of success they did in 2017-18.
Enter Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is hitting his prime and has the potential — along with the arrival of Mike Budenholzer as head coach — to lead the Milwaukee Bucks north of 50 wins for just the second time in more than 30 seasons. That is the narrative thrust needed to take home the league’s top honor. Particularly in a season without an obvious front-runner, that should be enough to hand Antetokounmpo the MVP award.
Meanwhile . ..
2. The Bucks will win more than 50 games
If we are going to say Antetokounmpo will be this year’s MVP, we might as well double down on that prediction by saying the Bucks will ascend into the East’s upper echelon. Having Antetokounmpo is obviously a great place to start. Budenholzer’s arrival from Atlanta, replacing Jason Kidd as head coach, should have a positive impact, as well.
Milwaukee’s offseason additions of Ersan Ilyasova (though a questionable signing because he was given a multiyear contract) and Brook Lopez will give the Bucks some desperately needed shooting around Antetokounmpo. Budenholzer also will be expected to revive Eric Bledsoe’s potential after a disappointing season last year and get Khris Middleton even more involved in the offense.
The Bucks have lacked cohesion (just ask any of their legions of fans on social media, who were vociferous in their complaints about Kidd). Budenholzer should provide that, and with Antetokounmpo taking another step forward, it should result in them breaking through.
3. LeBron James won’t be named to the all-NBA first team
James has made the all-NBA first team 11 straight seasons, last missing out in 2006-07, when he made the second team.
That’s how long James has been ensconced in one of those two forward spots, and his 12 total first-team selections are the most all-time. But individual accolades also require team success. And the talent around James with the Lakers will make it difficult for him to make it for a 13th time.
While James may be the league’s best player once again, his competition for those two first-team spots is brutal. Between Durant, Antetokounmpo, Leonard and Anthony Davis, there are four top 10 players in the league who, if healthy, should have outstanding seasons. And those players should be on far better teams.
No matter how great James is, the Lakers missing the playoffs — or even barely squeaking in — will make it difficult to put him higher than all of those other stars if their teams perform as expected.
4. The Utah Jazz will finish with the second-best record in the Western Conference
Utah was the surprise team in the Western Conference a year ago, recovering from losing Gordon Hayward to free agency by gaining a new superstar to build around in Donovan Mitchell and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
Unlike last season, Utah enters this year with virtually its entire roster returning and an understanding of exactly what Coach Quin Snyder wants. That kind of continuity can go a long way over the course of an 82-game season — and over the second half of last season Utah was a dominant team when healthy. If the Jazz can rediscover that form this season, perhaps it will be hosting a the Western Conference semifinal series — or even advancing to the West finals.
5. DeMarcus Cousins and Kristaps Porzingis will combine to play fewer than 60 games this season
Two of the league’s most talented big men, Cousins and Porzingis, enter the season sidelined with significant injuries (a torn Achilles' tendon for Cousins and torn anterior cruciate ligament for Porzingis). Though there is fevered speculation over when they will step back on the court, both the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks have significant incentives to keep them in bubble wrap as long as possible.
For the Warriors, the goal is to win a title, not regular season games. With Cousins on a one-year deal and wanting to get paid next summer, taking extra time to strengthen his body and come back after February’s all-star break is the only path that makes sense.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have their eyes on free agency next summer and a high pick in next year’s draft. While there has been talk about Porzingis coming back in December, it makes no sense to rush him back for a season that will undoubtedly be going nowhere. A conservative approach is the right way to go, setting up Porzingis to be paid next summer and for New York to add one more high pick to its burgeoning collection of talent.
6. Trae Young will hit 200 three-pointers and average six assists per game
Young’s play at the Las Vegas Summer League in July made it clear there will be growing pains in his rookie season in Atlanta. But he also showed flashes of the talent that made him the No. 5 pick, including a game in which he buried seven three-pointers.
The Hawks are going to give Young every chance to let that talent shine as a rookie. The franchise is gearing its program around Young and will allow him to play through his mistakes and grow into his game.
In NBA history, a player has hit at least 200 threes and averaged six assists just 16 times. Fifteen of those seasons belong to Stephen Curry (six), James Harden (four), Damian Lillard (two), Kyle Lowry (two) and Russell Westbrook (one), which is emblematic of the way the game has evolved in recent years.
This isn’t saying Young is anywhere near the level of those players — at least not yet. But putting up numbers is as much about opportunity as anything. This season in Atlanta, Young is going to have the opportunity. Expect him to take advantage of it.
7. The Boston Celtics will have the NBA’s best record
Things are lined up nicely for Boston. Both Hayward and Kyrie Irving are back from injury. Marcus Smart was retained in free agency. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both took huge steps forward last year, as did Terry Rozier. Al Horford remains one of the steadiest big men in the league, and Brad Stevens is one of the NBA’s best coaches.
All of that, along with the soft underbelly of the bottom of the East, the murderer’s row that teams are going to have to go through out West and a general state of apathy surrounding the Golden State Warriors, and Boston should steal the regular season crown from the Houston Rockets this season.
Those factors will also lead to ...
8. Four of the top six records in the NBA will come from the Eastern Conference
There has been a lot of discussion about how horrible the East is and why the two conferences need to be abolished to allow for a 1-16 playoff system in the NBA.
While that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, that discussion has overshadowed the talent at the top of the East. Boston, Philadelphia and the Toronto Raptors are all loaded, and as laid out earlier, Milwaukee should enter their stratosphere this season.
Those teams will benefit from a relatively weak group at the bottom of the East. Their counterparts out West, meanwhile, will spend the season bludgeoning each other as they hope to scrape their way into a playoff spot.
9. Trevor Ariza will be a Houston Rocket by March 1
No, this isn’t saying Houston has some kind of prearranged deal with Ariza, who signed a one-year deal for $15 million with the Phoenix Suns on July 1. But the Suns should be one of the NBA’s worst teams this season (though the arrival of Coach Igor Kokoskov, plus the signing of Ariza and the drafting of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, should still have Phoenix getting better this year). The team, therefore, will have no reason to hang onto Ariza after February’s trade deadline — especially given that the Suns have a plethora of young wings who will need playing time.
Thus, Ariza should be one of the most logical candidates to be bought out. And, if he is, it would make sense for him to return to Houston, where he would provide Coach Mike D’Antoni another long-limbed defender and three-point shooter. This could just as easily wind up being DeMarre Carroll or some other wing player, as the Rockets will need to add depth as the season progresses. But we’ll say that Ariza will be back in Houston and part of a potential Western Conference finals rematch with the Warriors next spring.
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