With the NBA getting its game on Tuesday night, that means all “Big 4” leagues are rolling.
It is truly the most wonderful time of the year for diehard sports fans.
These first games are the apex of an off-season and pre-season that saw plenty of change in the NBA — a la LeBron James to the Lakers — and a whole lot of rhetoric and drama — hello Jimmy Butler.
Trades, like the one that brought San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, were quite shocking.
The draft didn’t have as much hyperbole as usual, but Phoenix seems content in drafting C DeAndre Ayton, while Dallas may have made the astute move of the annual event by trading up to get European star guard Luka Doncic.
A pretty interesting off-season, though, didn’t serve to tip the balance of power away from the defending championn Golden State Warriors, who got DeMarcus Cousins for virtually nothing in free agency.
That is not say they won’t be challenged, but the NBA has never been a paragon of parity.
There is plenty to be excited about going into the first weeks of the NBA season, which kicked into high gear Tuesday night with games between Philadelphia and Boston, as well as Oklahoma City and Golden State.
Like hockey and football, we are only focusing on those teams we figure will contend for playoff spots (eight from the East and eight from the West), in ascending order.
16. Miami Heat
The Heat got back to the playoffs in 2017-18, finishing sixth with a 48-38 record, only to bow out in five games to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. The Heat didn’t do a whole lot in the off-season other than sign spiritual leader Dwyane Wade. Without a draft pick, either, Miami will be going with the same line-up that got them into the playoffs, which isn’t all that bad. Besides Wade, starters still include Hassan Whiteside, PG Goran Dragic, PF James Johnson and SF Josh Richardson. The front court reserve is solid with PF Kelly Olynyk and C Bam Adebayo, who should both see plenty of court time spelling Johnson and Whiteside, respectively. Back-ups like PG Tyler Johnson, SG Wayne Ellington and SF Justise Winslow are also very capable reserves.
A look ahead: Miami has seven games in October, with three on the road. They will face close competitors right away, too, in Orlando and Washington to start (both away from South Beach), then come home to take on Charlotte, the New York Knicks, Portland and Sacramento. The Heat end the month with a visit to Charlotte.
15. Cleveland Cavaliers
It was an off-season of uncertain upheaval for the NBA finalist Cavaliers, who waved bye-bye to LeBron James for the second time and will now most likely contend with the mushy middle of the Eastern Conference for the last two or three playoff spots. Fresh off a second straight disappointing loss to Golden State in the NBA finals, LeBron James didn’t waste any time opting out of his contract and signing in L.A. with the Lakers. However, the Cavs will still be competitive, re-signing Kevin Love in the off-season and getting promising point guard Collin Sexton in the draft at eighth overall. The latter will probably get lots of looks as no. 2 to George Hill, who while still serviceable, is 32. Ditto Jordan Clarkson, the Cavaliers reserve shooting guard, who will get plenty of opportunity to shine behind starting SG J.R. Smith. Swingman Rodney Hood, acquired mid-season last year fr, will get a full season to put his evolving game on display.
A look ahead: Seven games in October feature an almost all-Eastern Conference slate, with three road contests. The Cavaliers open the season Wednesday night in Toronto then travel to Minnesota before returning home to host Atlanta and Brooklyn. A road game in Detroit is sandwiched in before they host Indiana and Atlanta to end the month.
14. Denver Nuggets
One team on the cusp of making a lot of noise in the Western Conference is Denver. The Nuggets just missed the playoffs last year and made some subtle moves in the off-season to get that much better. Their starting five is mostly very young, except for PF Paul Millsap, who is an “old man” at 33. Otherwise it’s populated with early 20-somethings like PG Jamal Murray, SG Gary Harris, SF Will Barton and C Nikola Jokic. Added to the mix in the summer was back-up PG Isaiah Thomas, who will get a good shot at redemption behind Murray at point guard. The Nuggets were also afforded the luxury of augmenting their roster with three draft picks, including no. 14 Michael Porter Jr., a power forward out of Missouri who made the team — along with 41st overall pick Jarred Vanderbilt and 58th overall selection Thomas Welsh.
A look ahead: Not a hugely busy month for Denver, which has seven games split between three on the road and four at home. They are in L.A. to face the Clippers Wednesday, followed by a three-game home stand that sees Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento come to town in the space of four days. The last three games alternate between a road trip to L.A. to play the Lakers, then home to New Orleans and lastly a trip to Chicago to tangle with the Bulls on Hallowe’en night.
13. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans, sans DeMarcus Cousins for most of the season, managed to claw their way into sixth in the Western Conference play in 2017-18. They went on to beat Portland in the first round in four straight, only to get dismantled in five by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. The Pelicans would lose Boogie in free agency (they weren’t going to re-sign him anyway) as well as Rajon Rondo. But, they made up for those losses by going on a bit of a thrifty spending spree. Among six free agents they signed Julius Randle for two years at $18 million to start at power forward, Cousins’ old position in the front court with superstar Anthony Davis. Then they signed PG Elfrid Payton to an affordable one year, $2.7 million deal to back up Jrue Holiday, as well as ink reclamation project Jahlil Okafor to the league minimum to provide depth behind Davis.
A look ahead: Not an easy remainder of October, as the Pelicans play seven, starting with a road game in Houston Wednesday and a spooky match at Golden State on Hallowe’en. In between, the Birds have four straight at home after visiting Houston (Sacramento, L.A. Clippers, Brooklyn and Utah), before hitting the road to play an improved Denver team and finally the Dubs.
12. Washington Wizards
Without LeBron in Cleveland, the Eastern Conference playing field just got a lot more level, which means the Wizards can take another big step in their evolution after losing in the first round of the playoffs to Toronto. In a bit of a reach to make their the front court more dynamic and augment back court stars Bradley Beal and John Wall, the Wiz brought in Dwight Howard to replace Marcin Gortat, who was dealt to the L.A. Clippers for Austin Rivers. Gortat averaged 8.4 points and 7.6 rebounds, numbers Howard should be able to exceed, considering he had 16.6 PPG and 12.5 rebounds in 2017-18 with Charlotte. As for the front court, Beal led the team in points at 22.6 last year, while Wall scored 19.4 points per game last season for the eighth place Wiz. Alsop front, sixth-year starting small forward Otto Porter Jr. brings enough scoring (14.7 PPG) and defence (6.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals) to the mix. Rivers will make a good reserve behind Beal and free agent addition Jeff Green gives the Wiz a solid one-two punch at power forward with Markieff Morris.
A look ahead: Washington opens the season at home against Miami on Thursday, followed by a playoff re-match with Toronto on Saturday (the Raptors took out the Wizards in six games in the first round). Then it’s all road for the Wiz, with no “gimme” games. They play in Portland, then Golden State, Sacramento, L.A. against the Clippers and finally Memphis.
11. Utah Jazz
No Gordon Hayward, no problem. After losing the premier shooter to Boston in free agency in 2017, the Jazz rallied around rookie Donovan Mitchell and returnees Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles to finish fifth in the Western Conference and then go two rounds of the playoffs. The team didn’t fiddle too much with the chemistry in the off-season, then, choosing to re-sign veterans Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, Raul Neto and Georges Niang. At the draft, the Jazz held on to their 21st overall selection, picking up Duke shooting guard Grayson Allen. The Blue Devils grad will add potent three-point shooting behind Mitchell and veteran Alec Burks. Power forward Jae Crowder will also get a full season platooning with Derrick Favors. Crowder played well in 27 games and the playoffs and is a nice addition to a team on the rise.
A look ahead: Like just about every other team in the NBA, it’s a lucky seven games in October for Utah. But, there are no guaranteed wins on the slate, especially with five games on the road. They start on the road in Sacramento, then get visits from Golden State and Memphis before venturing outside for four straight, including trips to Houston, New Orleans, Dallas and Minnesota.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
Talk about one guy gumming up the works with his own selfish agenda. The T-Wolves are actually a good team that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Houston and Jimmy Butler and his me-first attitude are doing nothing for them heading into the 2018-19 campaign. His egotistical trade demand tied the hands of Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves front office, who naturally made big demands in any proposed trade, effectively killing any hope of getting one done right now. So, for the time being, Butler will have to bite his lip and earn the $20 million plus Minnesota is paying him this year. In other T-Wolves news, the team didn’t stand pat in the off-season, adding free agent SF Luol Deng to play behind Andrew Wiggins, who, coincidentally, was accused along with budding star Karl-Anthony Towns of being “soft.” Minnesota also signed journeyman PF Anthony Tolliver, while obtaining Georgia Tech SG Josh Okogie at no. 20 in the draft, as well as Ohio State SF Keita Bates-Diop at no. 45.
A look ahead: The Timberwolves actually have eight games in October, flip-flopping the first five between road (three) and home (two) before winding up the month with three straight in friendly confines. They start in San Antonio, are home to Cleveland, visit Dallas, come back to play Indiana and then hit the road once more to Toronto. The three home games to end the month feature Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Lakers and finally Utah.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder, forever teasing their fan base since moving from Seattle, will have to do without Russell Westbrook early in the season. This, after an off-season that saw the unceremonious departure of Carmelo Anthony and the additions of Dennis Schroder (trade with Atlanta) and Nerlens Noel (free agency), to name a couple. These moves were done with the specific intention of shaking up a team that was dismantled by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, when all thought that the “big 3” of Westbrook, ‘Melo and Paul George would run roughshod over the less favored Jazz. Schroder, then, will capably fill in for Westbrook while he rehabs from arthroscopic surgery and Noel adds some rebounding and defensive capability behind starting C Steven Adams. Shooting guard Hamidou Diallo, picked 45th overall out of Kentucky by Brooklyn and then dealt to OKC, may be a good one some day.
A look ahead: The Thunder, sans Westbrook, fell to the host Golden State Warriors 108-100 in their season opener on Tuesday. George and Schroder paced the attack with 27 and 21 points, respectively. The remainder of the Thunder’s October slate includes one more road game, Friday in L.A. against the Clippers, followed by four straight at home. OKC gets visits from Sacramento, Boston, Phoenix and the Clippers in a pretty sedate month.
8. Indiana Pacers
Even after losing veterans Paul George, Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles in 2017, the “rebuilding” Pacers shocked the socks off many by finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference and then giving the Cleveland Cavaliers everything they could handle in a seven-game first round series. Shooting guard Victor Oladipo, obtained in the trade from Oklahoma City, was an absolute star, pouring in 23.1 PPG, along with 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game to lead the Packers. Fellow 2017-18 newcomers like SF Bojan Bogdanovic, PF Domantas Sabonis and PG Darren Collison also played big roles. This off-season, Indiana continued to build out, adding premier veteran shooter Tyreke Evans to the mix. He scored 19.4 points and added 5.2 assists for Memphis in 2017-18 and will play significant minutes in relief of Oladipo. Not done there, Indiana added shooting small forward Doug McDermott from the Knicks to play behind Bogdanovic. The Pacers may have also got a steal at the draft when they got guard Aaron Holiday (brother of Jrue) at no. 23 out of UCLA.
A look ahead: Indiana steps off with a first game at home to Memphis on Wednesday night. The rest of the month of October sees them play five of seven on the road, with stops in Milwaukee, Minnesota, San Antonio, Cleveland and in New York to face the Knicks. Their other home games are against Brooklyn and Portland. A good litmus test, we say.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
Just by virtue of having the Greek Freak, aka Giannis Antetokounmpo, on their roster makes the Bucks a force to be reckoned with near the bottom of the Eastern Conference pecking order. He easily led all Bucks scorers with 26.9 points per game last year, then added 25.7 PPG as the Bucks lost in seven to Boston in the first round of the playoffs. He will again be counted on to stir things up, along with veterans Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and free agent pick-up, C Brook Lopez. The Bucks added to their reserve significantly in the summer, signing SG Pat Connaughton from Portland and well-traveled power forward Ersan Ilyasova from Philadelphia. Milwaukee may have also hit the jackpot at the draft, where their lone pick at no. 17 turned out to be Villanova star point guard Donte DiVincenzo, who will back-up Bledsoe ahead of veteran Matthew Dellavedova to start the 2018-19 campaign.
A look ahead: Home cooking is on tap in October, as the Bucks play five of seven in their own barn. The start the month in Charlotte Wednesday, followed by visits from Indiana, New York and Philadelphia. They venture to Minnesota on Oct. 26 and then are home again to face Orlando and Toronto to conclude the month.
6. San Antonio Spurs
It was a solid off-season of change in San Antonio, as the team completed a huge trade that involved sending Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. That deal sent shockwaves through not only San Antonio and Toronto, but the rest of the NBA. For San Antonio, they at least get a guy in DeRozan who isn’t rusty from missing time away like Leonard. He scored 23.0 points and added 5.2 assists per game for Toronto in 2017-18 and will be an offensive leader alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay. Poeltl is an under-rated acquisition who can defend well at center. Not done there, the Spurs signed free agent swing man Marco Belinelli to give them depth at small forward and shooting guard. No. 18 Lonnie Walker IV, who was decent as a freshman with the Miami Hurricanes last year, will be a project after being taken 18th overall in the draft.
A look ahead: Aside from a home game against Indiana, it’s an all Western Conference diet for the Spurs in seven October games, with three on the road. Along with the Pacers coming to town, San Antonio also hosts Minnesota in their season opener on Wednesday, as well as the Lakers and Dallas. The Spurs road tilts take them to Portland, Los Angeles (Lakers) and Phoenix on Hallowe’en night.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
As it turned out, the Sixers didn’t need 2017 first overall Markelle Fultz all that much, anyway. The Sixers 2016 no. 1, PF Ben Simmons, took over at the no. 1 like it was nothing, even though he’s 6’10”. With Simmons running the floor, shooting and dishing like a veteran, Philly finished a surprising third in the Eastern Conference, only to bow to Boston in the second round. Yet, this is a team that is built for the future and will easily be top four in the east, if they can stay healthy. J.J. Redick, Joel Embiid and Fultz all missed significant chunks of the season to injury but are expected to do big things this year. The Sixers added some nice front court depth in the off-season, trading for Wilson Chandler from the Nuggets (he had 10.0 PPG and 5.4 rebounds last year) and getting Mike Muscala (7.6 PPG, 4.3 rebounds) from Atlanta. And despite their high finish, the 76ers still had two first rounders, taking Zhaire Smith 16th overall and Landry Shamet 26th.
A look ahead: The Sixers opened their schedule with a 105-87 road loss to arch-nemesis Boston, but the remainder of their October schedule isn’t quite as onerous. They play seven more games, three on the road, with five of them against 2017-18 non-playoff teams including Chicago (home), Orlando (home), Detroit (road), Charlotte (home) and Atlanta (home). However, the other two home games are in Milwaukee on Oct. 24 and Toronto on Oct. 30.
4. Toronto Raptors
After yet another dispiriting playoff loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-0 in the second round), the regular season Eastern Conference champion Raptors cleaned some house. First, coach Dwayne Casey was fired and assistant Nick Nurse hired, then they shipped out DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to the San Antonio Spurs for defensive superstar Kawhi Leonard and veteran Danny Green. Thus, the very fabric of the team was rendered and stitched back together in an off-season of great change. The secret sauce going forward won’t be getting Leonard to play like an All-Star — he’s in his contract year — but for Toronto to get veteran point guard Kyle Lowry to forget all the trade nonsense and hard feelings and settle into a leadership role alongside Leonard. Otherwise, the rest of the starting five is solid, with Green taking over DeRozan’s minutes. Their vaunted bench depth, which got skewered in the playoffs by Cleveland, is led by youngsters Delon Wright, OG Anunoby, Paskal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, while veteran Greg Monroe slides in at center.
A look ahead: The Raptors have eight games in October, but a soft start with just two away from Scotiabank Arena. They host LeBron-less Cleveland in their season opener Wednesday, followed by a visit from the Celtics on Oct. 19. They visit Washington, then stay home to play Charlotte, Minnesota and Dallas. The last two games of the month are back-to-back toughies in Milwaukee (Oct. 29) and at home to Philadelphia (Oct. 30).
3. Houston Rockets
They went all the way to the Western Conference final last year and lost in seven games to Golden State, but the Rockets refused to stand pat with an already very talented team, getting down to business in the off-season. Their front court was changed drastically as they added maligned superstar Carmelo Anthony at small forward in a trade and also Marquese Chriss at power forward. They replace Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, who are both now in Phoenix. The Rockets depth got a further boost with the signings of free agent PG Michael Carter-Williams from Charlotte and SF James Ennis III from Memphis. The deal that sent Anderson to the Suns also netted the Rockets a good back-up point guard in veteran Brandon Knight. Of course, the engine that runs the Rockets is the front court tandem of James Harden and Chris Paul, who has battled injuries the last two seasons.
A look ahead: The Rockets start with a bang, hosting the New Orleans Pelicans in their season opener Wednesday. After that they have just five more games, with two on the road, back-to-back affairs against the Lakers and Clippers on Oct. 20-21. After that, Houston returns home to a trio of fairly tough opponents, starting with Utah, then the Clippers and Portland.
2. Boston Celtics
After a crazy 2017 off-season, followed by a fairly successful playoff run that ended in a seven-game loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics chose to keep things on the down low this past summer. The Celtics are an excellent team as they stand and without LeBron James to look out for, are a big favorite to make it back to the Eastern Conference final and probably the NBA finals. Gordon Hayward is finally healthy and will only enhance an already deadly Celtics offence, while youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum take further steps to superstardom. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are the veteran glue guys. Boston’s bench depth is also the envy of the Eastern Conference, populated as it is by PG Terry Rozier, SG Marcus Smart, PF Marcus Morris and C Aron Baynes to name just a few.
A look ahead: Boston whipped Philadelphia 105-87 to open their season Tuesday. Jayson Tatum was a force, leading the team with 23 points and nine rebounds. The rest of the month is a mish-mash of six games, with four on the road. They go back-to-back in Toronto and New York Oct. 19-20, then host Orlando. After that, two on the road in Oklahoma City and Detroit, before coming home to host those same Pistons on Oct. 30.
1. Golden State Warriors
The Dubs did it again in June, winning a second straight title, basically in a walk over the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers. This is an All-Star team with the best starting five in basketball: Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and free agent pick-up DeMarcus Cousins (when he draws in mid-season). To a reserve unit that includes Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, the Warriors added PF Jonas Jerebko from Utah and drafted back-up shooting guard Jacob Evans 28th out of Cincinnati. Centers Jordan Bell, a second round pick in 2017, and Damian Jones, 30th overall to the Warriors in 2016, get a chance in Cousins’ absence to strut their stuff. The Warriors also locked up Kevin Durant, just to ensure that they are the favorites to win it all for years to come.
A look ahead: Golden State toyed with OKC in their season opener Tuesday, clipping the Thunder 108-100 after the banner-raising. The Dubs have the heaviest schedule of any team here, with another eight games before the curtain closes on October. Five of the eight are on the road, with early stops in Utah (Oct. 19) and Denver (Oct. 21).