- The NBA is back—and there's no shortage of storylines and drama entering the new year. From LeBron and Jimmy to Harden and Steph, here are 73 reasons to watch the 2018–19 season.
With the NBA tipping off its 73rd season on Tuesday, here are 73 reasons to watch in 2018–19, in case a potential Warriors three-peat, LeBron James on the Lakers, and the dawning of a new era for the Eastern Conference weren’t enough for you.
(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)
1. New blood in the NBA Finals. With apologies to Tristan Thompson, who isn’t quite ready to raise the white flag, the NBA Finals will enter a new chapter in 2019. The Warriors and Cavaliers made history by becoming the first pair of teams to face off in four straight Finals, but it was clear to everyone—including LeBron James—that the showdown had run its course, with J.R. Smith’s time/score gaffe driving the nail in the coffin.
The East’s new pack of favorites offers storylines galore. Boston: a blueblood franchise striving to be a modern superteam. Philly: a dream superstar duo surrounded by a devastating lineup. Toronto: a can’t-get-over-the-hump try hard infused with a franchise-changing, but mercurial, talent. Any of these three would breathe life into the 2019 Finals. Out West, Houston is lurking with the same message they delivered convincingly throughout the conference finals: Don’t pencil in Golden State for a three-peat just yet.
2. The forgotten men of the 2017 draft. While Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell led one of the highest-achieving, instant-impact rookie classes in recent memory, a bunch of fascinating prospects—De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles, Jonathan Isaac, Josh Jackson, Malik Monk—didn’t really distinguish themselves in Year One. Here’s betting that a few of those less-celebrated first-round picks will blossom as sophomores.
3. Smallball, Version 3.0. The first major wave of smallball innovation saw undersized power forwards, like Draymond Green, play center. Then came a second and more drastic version, popularized by Houston’s P.J. Tucker, with physical small forwards logging time at the five. As training camps opened, coaches hinted at the possibility of going even smaller, with a wispy wing like Otto Porter manning the middle. With any luck, point forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons will get more time in LeBron-like lineups as nominal centers with four shooters surrounding them. Bring it all on.
4. Jimmy Butler in the lineup for a Timberwolves team he requested a trade from, taunted in practice, and then showed up in a nationally televised interview. It’s clear what Butler wants at this point and clear enough what Minnesota seems to want in return via trade. What’s baffling is the fact that Butler will actually play for the Wolves this week, assuming—perhaps foolishly—that there isn’t some explosive change in his situation from the time of writing to the time of publish.
5. A center renaissance late in the playoffs? The flipside to the season-long smallball evolution is the possibility that traditional centers make a surprising reemergence late in the playoffs. DeMarcus Cousins gives the Warriors a totally different look than they’ve ever had, Clint Capela held his own in last year’s West finals, and the three major East contenders all have traditional centers at their disposal.
6. LeBronzo. The mythical pairing of legend and acolyte first took shape during the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League, when LeBron James sat courtside for a first look at Lonzo Ball. The two players then famously exchanged whispers following a regular-season game, a flirtation that hinted at James’s free-agency decision. Now the two extraordinary passers and trending-topic regulars are finally teammates and alley-oop partners.
7. Milwaukee’s offense, dragged out of the stone age. Under Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks are moving the ball and launching threes at will—clearing the way for Giannis Antetokounmpo to take over the world. If you thought Giannis was unstoppable before, just wait until you see him with all the comforts of a modern system.
8. Kevin Durant’s next move. Since his Bay Area arrival in 2016, Durant’s presence has led to some tense moments: an instructive rant from Draymond Green during a late-game loss, a million “snake” accusations, a burner-account apology tour, an extended tug-of-war for control of the offense in the 2018 West finals, and a Bob Myers joke gone terribly wrong at the championship parade.
The scrutiny will be ever greater this year, as Durant enters the season amid talk that he’s plotting a 2019 exit to the Lakers, the Knicks or some other lucky landing spot. With LeBron James locked up in L.A., it’s only natural that Durant moves to front and center in the rumor mill. As Golden State chases a three-peat, his every move will be through a LeBron-like lens: every highlight will be evidence that he’s staying, and every misstep will be proof that he’s gone.
9. Options upon options upon options for Nick Nurse. There’s a learning curve for every first-time head coach, but less of one when you have one of the deepest rosters in the league at your disposal. While most of the league frets over their wing rotations, the Raptors will roll out Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, or maybe OG Anunoby and Delon Wright, or possibly Fred VanVleet—moonlighting as an off-guard—and C.J. Miles. Norman Powell will remain behind glass in case of emergency. If Jonas Valanciunas isn’t quite on his game, Toronto could opt for Greg Monroe in his stead, play smaller with Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam at the five, or flatly reject the notion that they need a center at all. There’s a conceivable path for Toronto to make its first ever NBA Finals, and it starts with having a lineup for every occasion.
10. The Pacers, surprising no one. Even more fascinating than the breakout season is the response. How good can Indiana be when be the entire league sees them coming?
11. Houston’s KD problem. After a dream season that ended with a nightmare, the Rockets survived what could have been a summer of attrition with only one major departure: Trevor Ariza. There’s still enough firepower on hand to blitz most of the league, but Houston’s “obsession” with Golden State demands that Daryl Morey keep a close eye on his three spot all season. Matching up with Kevin Durant is no easy task, and there’s no obvious Durant-stopper candidate on the roster. Does Morey have another trade up his sleeve? Will someone shake free during buyout season? Is their best answer to take their chances by rotating through a bunch of passable options? This match-up, more than any other around the league, could determine the 2019 title.
12. The next step for Ben Simmons, whatever that looks like. Shooting range is only one way forward. What happens when Simmons becomes even more of a threat without the ball? Or when he learns to read evolving defenses even more fluently? Or when his defense more fully stifles opponents into submission?
13. Stephen Curry, healthy again. An autopsy of the 2018 Warriors would point to a team-wide lethargy and lack of urgency to help explain an unexpectedly flat regular-season showing. But there was another obvious factor that explained Golden State’s worst moments: Stephen Curry missed 31 games due to injury. Without Curry, the Warriors were without their best showman, they were forced to juggle offensive responsibilities in a way that cut into their explosiveness, and they had to decide whether it was worth killing themselves to pick up meaningless wins in his absence. (It wasn’t.)
The best reason to bet on a resurgent season from the Warriors isn’t the addition of wild card center DeMarcus Cousins, it’s the return of Curry to full health. At 30, he enters the season still in his prime, with a stacked roster around him, and facing a league that still hasn’t engineered a method for consistently stopping him. Fireworks will commence.
14. LeBron James passing Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring chart. Although he is fond of saying that “he’s not a scorer,” James will almost certainly move past bucket-getting royalty this season. The Lakers forward enters his 16th season with 31,038 points, No. 7 on the all-time list. He sits just 1,254 points shy of Jordan’s No. 4 spot, and he will likely pass MJ, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki this season. For reference: James has never scored fewer than 1,654 points in a season. As a postscript: Watch out, Kobe Bryant. James, already the NBA’s leading postseason scorer, is on track to claim Bryant’s No. 3 spot in 2019–20.
15. A stacked Defensive Player of the Year field. It’s nice to have Kawhi Leonard back for dozens of reasons, but here’s another one: the DPOY conversation just wasn’t the same without him. Leonard, a two-time DPOY, will take his place alongside fellow winners Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green, plus a pair of worthy, highlight-making candidates in Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis. When All-Stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George are viewed as dark horses, it’s a good year.
16. Orlando’s throwback blue pinstripe jerseys. The Magic are dusting off the Shaq/Penny classics as part of their 30th anniversary as a franchise. Why not soak in the nostalgia given the dreary present?
17. The best starting lineup in the NBA might be shelved by choice. Why would Philadelphia reshuffle a starting five (of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and JJ Redick) that absolutely demolished its opponents last season? See below.
18. Meaningful development in the Markelle Fultz saga. For the better part of a year, the most substantive public glimpses of the No. 1 overall pick came from distant, phone camera video from the depths of Philadelphia’s practice facility. The scrutiny over Fultz’s every jumper became obsessive. But what happens now that those jumpers actually matter? One can be sympathetic to Fultz’s personal plight—to the extent that we understand it at all—while still acknowledging its intersection with a Sixers team on the rise. Philadelphia will be asking a lot of Fultz at a time when it’s unclear what, exactly, he can deliver.
19. Houston’s response to a heartbreaking Western Conference finals. It should surprise no one if the Rockets, having come so close to the title, again blow the doors off the regular season. Yet it should also surprise no one if the Rockets, having seen their title hopes crumble when Chris Paul went down with injury, take things a bit slower in getting from Point A to Point B. The only things Houston has left to prove cannot be proven until May and June. How they choose to process that—and how seriously they take the first 82 games—is entirely up to them.
20. A higher-profile Josh Richardson, whether in Miami or Minnesota. A career grinder is getting some long overdue shine thanks to the Jimmy Butler trade talks. There’s a lot to love about how Richardson plays the game—and more specifically, how hard.
21. Gregg Popovich, with less reason than ever to bite his tongue. The only silver living for San Antonio’s injury-ravaged season of transition is that Gregg Popovich can let it rip in his interviews without concern for influencing a title chase or ruffling Kawhi Leonard’s feathers. Don’t look now, but the mid-term elections are coming up too.
22. Washington’s foreboding chemistry experiment. The NBA hasn’t seen a perennial playoff team driven by a core with such persistent personality questions since the Lob City Clippers. If the Wizards’ risky additions of Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers prove to be a bridge too far, the blow-up could have wide-ranging implications. Remember, the Clippers’ demolition created a contender in Houston, breathed new life into Dallas and plunged Detroit into an identity crisis. Could John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter make similar waves after a divorce?
23. A less extended Jaylen Brown. The return of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving will almost certainly leave fewer minutes for Brown. With that comes the opportunity for one of the most active players in the league to go all-out, all the time. Prepare for liftoff.
24. Tyreke Evans, balling out for a playoff team. Periodic injury disguises the fact that Evans, still just 29, has made impressive strides over the past few years. His play for Memphis last season was the culmination of that forward momentum: a productive, efficient campaign from the driver’s seat of an offense that badly needed his help. Indiana isn’t quite so desperate, but will welcome Evans all the same as it tries to diversify its attack. If all goes according to plan, this will be the first time we see a healthy Evans in the postseason—and just the second time he’s made it to the postseason at all.
25. The Jazz, trying to go from good to great. Utah’s incremental progress under Quin Snyder has been remarkable given numerous injury setbacks and Gordon Hayward’s departure. Last season, the Jazz established themselves as the West’s third-best team, a reliable menace on defense and an underrated, if still unfinished, offense. With its core locked in, the Jazz’s next question becomes: How high can they push their ceiling? Does Donovan Mitchell need to become a top-10 player, or can they gin up enough scoring through lights-out execution? Can Rudy Gobert adjust to high-level playoff basketball, or do they find a new method to contend with smaller lineups? Is there another tertiary player—Dante Exum, perhaps—ready to make the leap?
26. Kemba Walker marinating a defender with a smooth setup and then roasting them alive. Woe is he who parses the dribble move leading into the dribble move leading into the crossover, all so that Walker can step back into a three.
27. Who’s the new King in the East? LeBron James’s reign over the Eastern Conference is finally over, and there’s a deep field of contenders vying for the throne, including: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Of these, Antetokounmpo might be the most natural heir given his combination of size, strength, speed and playmaking. Does Mike Budenholzer’s arrival push him over the top to his first MVP?
28. Bam Adebayo, going coast to coast. There’s plenty more where this came from:
29. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, together again. The two Grizzlies mainstays haven’t played in a regular season game together since November 13, 2017. In these turbulent, divisive times, we need the comfort of the Conley-Gasol dribble hand-off back in our lives.
30. The fate of the Blazers, who have played good offense and good defense but rarely both at the same time. If Portland can’t quite pull it together, it may be time to ask some frank questions about the future of the team. This feels like a franchise hanging on a razor’s edge in a conference that offers no quarter.
31. The evolution of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. What happens if one of the Pacers’ young bigs takes the leap? Or the more interesting scenario: What happens if both do? Turner and Sabonis haven’t played together all that much (or all that well) to date, but might be pressed to work more as a tandem as the minutes crunch and their games mature.
32. Lee Jenkins as the story, rather than the storyteller. The Crossover dearly misses Lee Jenkins, former Sports Illustrated senior writer turned Clippers’ Executive Director of Research and Identity. His unorthodox move and quirky job title are cause for curiosity, both for observers and, apparently, those in L.A.’s front office. For fans of Jenkins’s riveting superstar profiles, it will be fun to track whether his fingerprints appear on the Clippers’ moves and their communications strategy. How much can a sportswriter influence a big-market, $2 billion franchise?
33. A tanking twist. Back in September 2017, the NBA announced plans to tinker with its Draft Lottery odds in hopes of curbing tanking. The new odds finally go into effect this season, with the three worst teams each getting a 14% shot at the top pick. Under the old system, the worst team had a 25% chance, the second-worst had a 19.9% chance and the third-worst had a 15.6% chance. The NBA’s hope is that flattening the odds will reduce the incentive for bad teams to intentionally become atrocious. Will it work? There should be a verdict soon, as a host of teams—Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, New York, Orlando, Sacramento and Phoenix—all enter the season with young rosters and remote chances to make the playoffs.
34. Jeremy Lin, back on the court. No one in the league quite shares Lin’s ball-handling cadence, which is just wild enough to keep his defenders perpetually off-balance. He’ll make the Hawks better, and all the more watchable.
35. Is Jimmy Butler an anomaly or a trendsetter? In recent years, stars have gotten more brazen and proactive when it comes to finding new homes: Paul George slowly pushed his way out of Indiana, Kyrie Irving quickly departed Cleveland, Kawhi Leonard snuck out of San Antonio and now Jimmy Butler has tried to strongarm the Timberwolves with a one-two punch of a holdout and a media circus. The dust hasn’t settled yet in Minnesota, but it’s not too early to wonder whether Butler’s experience will be viewed by his fellow disgruntled stars as a cautionary tale or as a new frontier for hardball negotiations.
36. Orlando’s grasp at some sort of identity. There may not be a cogent, modern fit between all three of Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba, and Jonathan Isaac within the same lineup, but there’s something fascinating between them—a dynamism that has been absent from the Magic roster for far too long. Orlando, in accordance with their annual custom, has constructed a roster that looks to be a few years away. But the early days of this trio should be instructive still, between Gordon stretching his game, Bamba stretching the floor, and Isaac figuring out, play by play, how to best put his length and mobility to use.
37. Jrue Holiday, invading the personal space of some tapped-out guard on the second night of a back-to-back. Getting free of Holiday is a chore on the best of days, and a waking nightmare for those who are aren’t fully up to speed. Pity them.
38. Dwyane Wade’s last dance. Kudos to Dwyane Wade for getting the timing and location right for his final farewell. Forgettable pit stops in Chicago and Cleveland, which saw his impact and consistency wane, will be a distant memory as Wade embarks on his retirement tour in Miami. Take it to the bank: There will be a vintage moment somewhere along the way, whether it’s a game-winner, a postseason takeover or a turn-back-the-clock poster dunk that sends Heat fans down memory lane.
39. Teams pressing the envelope in both directions toward radically different shot profiles. At some point this season, the Rockets will meet the Spurs and we will collectively wonder if they play the same sport.
40. Denver’s do-everything starting five. The best passing center in basketball, plenty of shooters, smart cutters, unselfish secondary playmakers, strong chemistry and the ability to beat defenses by playing up-and-down or executing in the half-court. What more could you want?
41. The Luka Doncic experience. In many ways, Luka Doncic is an anti-rookie: he’s played professionally for years, he’s polished, he boasts an advanced feel, and he’s hardly looked like an intimidated boy playing against men during the preseason. Need to quickly catch up on the Slovenian Wonder Boy? Cue up his highlight reel of a recent exhibition against the Hornets, which saw him toss alley-oops, hit step-back threes, sneak through the paint for a dunk, execute a high screen-and-roll, and thread the needle through four defenders for a perfectly-placed kickout pass.
42. The Raptors, free of the specter of LeBron. What has haunted Toronto in playoffs past was so specific as to now give them hope. Unburden yourself, Raps, and compete without fear of chasedown blocks, banked-in game winners, and demoralizing sweeps.
43. Oklahoma City’s leader, making a mockery of history. Here’s an insane yet completely factual and legitimate question: Can Russell Westbrook average a triple double… for the third straight season? Imagine the guffaws that would have resulted if this prospect had been raised to the basketball intelligentsia as recently as 2015.
44. Candace Parker, working into TNT’s studio mix. Parker was terrific during her pow-wows in Kevin Garnett’s Area 21 last season—so much so that it made all the sense in the world for Turner to bring her back on a more regular basis. Here’s hoping she can help redeem the Players Only format, which thus far has been a bit of a mess.
45. Sacramento’s hidden gem. Harry Giles is a rare bright spot for the down-and-out Kings. The former No. 1 ranked high school prospect suffered a pair of knee injuries that limited him to just 300 minutes in college and kept him sidelined all last season. Still just 20, Giles sparkled during Las Vegas Summer League and in the preseason, and his emergence as a rotation regular would make him one of the NBA’s most heartwarming comeback stories in recent memory.
46. Jayson Tatum with another year of seasoning. The legend of Tatum grows for good reason. Few players come into the league with this kind of balance and polish, suggesting that Tatum’s development is tracked for stardom. There will be less to do this season if the Celtics stay healthy, but all the more subtle means for Tatum to impress as he finds his way through the league.
47. Montrezl Harrell, underground highlight machine. There’s something deeply admirable about a player who tries to rip the rim from the backboard on every roll.
48. Brooklyn untangled. For five full years, the Nets lived in the shadow of a 2013 blockbuster with the Celtics that backfired badly. With just two playoff appearances and one series victory to show for its huge gamble on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Brooklyn parted with first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and swapped picks in 2017. That interminable deal gifted top-three picks Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, among others, to Boston. Finally, thankfully, mercifully, the trade is complete. Brooklyn now enters the next stage of its long-term rebuilding effort, in control of its own future and with its 2019 picks intact.
49. DeMarcus Cousins, freed from excuses and extenuating circumstances. There isn’t a single NBA player with a better opportunity to rewrite his reputation than DeMarcus Cousins. After eight topsy-turvy seasons in Sacramento and New Orleans, the All-Star center has a chance to make his long-awaited playoff debut in April and then win his first championship in June. Although a good chunk of his season will be spent working back from an Achilles injury and rehabbing his market value, Cousins has found an ideal spot to prove that he’s grown out of the emotional outbursts that have long held him back.
50. P.J. Tucker, now that the NBA has relaxed its rules regarding in-game footwear. The NBA’s preeminent sneakerhead will no longer be contained to the Rockets’ palette of red, white, black, and gray. As it was, Tucker already had an entire second locker dedicated to his shoes. Where does he even begin now that his entire collection is legal for on-court play?
51. The warm embrace that awaits Kristaps Porzingis. Last season fell to pieces for the Knicks when Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL in February, and this year is bound to open with growing pains. It’s not yet clear when the 7’3” Latvian sensation will return to the lineup, but when he does the Madison Square Garden faithful will surely welcome back their savior with a goosebumps-inducing standing ovation.
52. Cedi Osman, cult hero. The only way for Cleveland to truly get through another LeBron James departure is to let time heal the deep wounds, but thankfully Cedi Osman is on board to help dull the pain during what is sure to be a bleak retooling effort. The Turkish forward made headlines for his Waldo-like appearance at a summer workout with James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, and his high-energy play and upbeat demeanor will only further his burgeoning legend.
53. Chicago’s saving grace. The Bulls’ off-season moves didn’t make much sense, but there’s a ray of sunshine poking through the clouds cast by big-dollar deals for Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker. The hope comes packaged in a promising pair of frontcourt lottery picks: Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter Jr. While both big men are young with considerable untapped potential, they aren’t projects in the slightest. Once Markannen returns from injury, coach Fred Hoiberg should waste little time playing the lights-out shooter big minutes with Carter, a versatile, two-way center who has drawn comparisons to Al Horford. This yin/yang partnership—Markannen handles the heavy lifting on offense while Carter tackles the major backline defensive responsibilities—represents the closest thing Chicago has to a clear path forward.
54. The rise of Jamal Murray, archer and assassin. How many people predicted that Jamal Murray would surpass Andrew Wiggins as the face of Canadian hoops before he turned 22? The Nuggets’ point guard looks primed for a breakthrough season, thanks to a smooth shooting stroke, a deep well of self-confidence, a well-honed handle, a balanced and deep rotation around him, and a full year of experience starting under his belt. Look for Murray to make noise in the Most Improved Player conversation and help carry Denver to its first playoff appearance in five years.
55. Karl-Anthony Towns, under the microscope. The aftermath of Jimmy Butler’s trade request has been a tough look for the Wolves, and perhaps Towns most of all. At a time when Minnesota clearly needs leadership, the team’s best player has been casual—even dismissive—in his public assessment.
Yet with every passing day, Towns will find himself under even greater scrutiny. This was already set to be a season of interest for the 22-year-old All-NBA center, based largely on his uneven play against the Rockets in the 2018 playoffs. Now, Towns carries the added baggage of this entire predicament—one with no easy outs and no simple answers.
56. The energy and length of the Thunder bench. Oklahoma City doesn’t have a perfect roster, but flipping Carmelo Anthony for Dennis Schröder and picking up Nerlens Noel off the scrap heap adds a nice punch to the reserves. Factor in Jerami Grant (who made himself a player last season without sacrificing his activity level) and the Thunder’s collective wingspan should prove stifling to undersized and ill-equipped second units around the league. (For the League Pass deep cut, look out for Hamidou Diallo and Timothe Luwau-Cabarrot to contribute along these same lines.)
57. A new and improved California rivalry. The Warriors and Clippers had plenty of memorable moments, but Chris Paul and company never succeeded in holding up their end of the bargain. Will the Lakers have better luck? LeBron James, Luke Walton and JaVale McGee all know Golden State well, and there are family ties binding Warriors guard Klay Thompson and Lakers broadcaster Mychal Thompson. Throw in the Lakers’ clear interest in landing Kevin Durant as a free agent next summer, and there are layers to this NoCal/SoCal showdown.
58. The pull of a Trae Young-John Collins pick-and-roll. It could take some time for Collins to work his way back from an ankle injury, but the Hawks have the perfect kind of gutsy, long-range shooter to clear the runway for Collins.
59. The sweet relief of Jaren Jackson Jr. Grizzlies fans have been hit hard from all sides: Chandler Parsons went bust, Mike Conley’s injury ruined their 2017–18 season, and then Amara Baptist, the best social media voice in the league, was poached by the Blazers this summer. Enter Jaren Jackson Jr., a highly-skilled two-way big man with a long-term ceiling as high, or higher, than Deandre Ayton’s. It could take awhile for the Conley/Marc Gasol era to fully play out, but Jackson will be right in the middle of whatever comes next.
60. Dwane Casey, disgruntled star whisperer. Toronto’s recent success—which is easily the best stretch in franchise history—was launched when Dwane Casey, together with Masai Ujiri, conspired to cajole All-Star level play and consistency from Kyle Lowry. Now that the reigning Coach of the Year has landed in Detroit, he’ll need to return to that playbook to coax improvement out of Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. All three have played like stars for stretches of their careers, but they’ll need to combine their powers, and make individual sacrifices, if Detroit is going to return to the playoffs.
61. The bizarre day-to-day of the Suns, what with their rookie head coach and empty void where a point guard rotation should be. Phoenix figures to be one of the worst teams in the league this season and doesn’t seem terribly bothered by the prospect. It’s a situation worth monitoring as farce alone, or perhaps more earnestly because it gives us...
62. A first glimpse of Deandre Ayton in the NBA game. So much rides on every player chosen first overall in the draft, but Ayton—as the beacon of hope for a team that hasn’t made it to the playoffs since 2010 and just overhauled its coaching staff and fired its general manager, in that order—carries a bit more weight than most.
63. Half-Man, still amazing. Vince Carter is 41 (!), on his eighth team (!!), in his 21st season (!!!) and still throwing down 360 dunks with ease (!!!!). He’s held on so long that most people have forgotten why they nit-picked him, hated him, and questioned whether he should be a Hall of Famer, proving that longevity can be a skill in and of itself. Once he finally retires, the “Big 3” league better add a Dunk Contest.
64. More functional lineups in Dallas. The Mavericks, now that they aren’t actively incentivized to lose, can put more five-man units on the floor that make actual basketball sense. The rim running and rebounding of DeAndre Jordan offers a sturdy backbone. Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. make for a nice playmaking core. Harrison Barnes can bring balance and Dirk Nowitzki will keep the floor spread, once both return from injury. Dallas will get solid, high-energy minutes from Wesley Matthews, Dwight Powell, J.J. Barea, and Maxi Kleber. There’s just enough of everything to make Dallas a plausible playoff team, even if not a terribly likely one.
65. To find out what DeMarcus Cousins really meant to the Pelicans. There is no perfect way to isolate the value of any single player in a five-player sport, but the absence of that single player can at least be telling. This is where we find New Orleans, months removed from Cousins’ free agent departure. His choice to join the Warriors leaves behind a fascinating case study; what happens when a team with one superstar big man loses another, only to replace him with dramatically different players?
66. What could possibly be next for Mr. Irrelevant? Isaiah Thomas’s 2017 takeover was so amazing it blew away expectations. His 2018 collapse was so demoralizing it was too sad to even watch by the time he got to the Lakers. Even though the money wasn’t great, he’s backed into a decent fit in Denver, where he will try to pull his career back together with a high-powered offense and a coach who knows him well.
67. James Harden’s endless bag of tricks. The NBA’s reigning MVP is also its Most Innovative Player. Swipe-throughs, stutter-steps, rocking dribbles, step-backs, leap-backs, shuffle-backs. The list of James Harden’s patented and never-before-seen techniques goes on and on. Now he’s shooting behind-the-back three-pointers? Come on.
68. Fingers crossed: a healthy Clippers team. Last season alone, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Miloš Teodosić, and Avery Bradley (who only joined the team in late January) missed a combined 196 games for the Clips, stifling any sense of what the team could be. That L.A. made a winning season out of it regardless is commendable—and perhaps the basis for a longshot playoff berth in a West that runs 13-deep with competitive teams.
69. John Wall vs. the world. There has always been something adversarial about Wall, which in turn makes the Wizards more than a bit adversarial, too. Here’s to a year of settling scores, whether real or imaginary, after one of the most discouraging seasons of Wall’s recent career.
70. The next Oladipo or the next Indiana. Some unexpected player or team will prove shockingly good this season, and the best part is having no real idea of who it might be.
71. Aspiring stretch-fives. It’s become an annual tradition: centers launching three-pointers during the preseason in hopes of keeping up with the Joneses. Making the transition to life as a stretch five worked for the likes of Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and even Jonas Valaciunas, so now all sorts of unexpected centers are getting in on the act: Jusuf Nurkic, John Henson, JaVale McGee, Ian Mahinmi, Andre Drummond and others. Some will stick; others won’t, but this is one of those cases where there’s intrigue to be found either way.
72. Klay Thompson Beard Watch. Klay needs to let that thing run wild and take on a life of its own.
73. LeBron James’s latest running mate. Historically, LeBron James has had good taste when it comes to his handpicked sidekicks: Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving each complemented his game and ultimately helped him win titles. Brandon Ingram is the latest to ride shotgun to James, and the third-year Lakers forward became the league’s biggest X-factor as soon as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard went elsewhere this summer.
The mild-mannered No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft is long, crafty and gifted, a player who coach Luke Walton has said might get the chance to play all five positions. Throughout the preseason, James has made a point to encourage Ingram, understanding better than anyone that his growth into a full-fledged No. 2 option will be critical to L.A.’s playoff hopes and its chances to lure another superstar next summer.