It's time for our last preseason column: 35 random predictions for the season. Not all of these are bold. Any prediction roundup has to include major awards and a championship pick, and there is no way to go totally out of the box on those.
But others are designed to be a little out there. There is no fun, no risk, in picking the most likely outcome for everything. If, for whatever reason, something Vegas and various projection systems peg as a 25% likelihood seems like, say, a 35 or 40% proposition to me -- well, let's just go crazy and predict it. Let's (fake) wager on some long shots.
1. Stephen Curry wins the scoring title but not MVP
Curry last won the scoring title in 2015-16, when he averaged 30 points on 50-40-90 shooting (actually 50-45-90!) and became the first unanimous MVP in history.
James Harden averaged 36 last season, the seventh-highest single-season figure ever, trailing Michael Jordan's 1986-87 detonation and five (LOL) Wilt Chamberlain seasons. But Harden and Russell Westbrook will cannibalize their scoring averages enough for Curry -- going scorched earth in the preseason -- to reclaim the throne.
Curry averaged 41 points per 36 minutes last season with Draymond Green on the floor, and both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson on the bench. The two prior seasons: 45.2 and 37.5 points per 36 minutes, respectively. Those are not typos.
For comparison, Harden averaged 38.6 points per 36 minutes with Chris Paul on the bench last season.
That scenario represents Curry's life now. He faces an enormous burden keeping Golden State in the playoff race until Thompson (maybe) returns late in the season -- at which point the Warriors become a real contender if Thompson looks like 80% of his peak self (a big ask).
Green is a star, but not in the traditional sense. He is not going to average 20 points just because Durant and Thompson are gone. D'Angelo Russell will eat into Curry's scoring. The players around Curry and Green in those non-Durant/Thompson stretches were mostly high-IQ playmaker types -- Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston -- and not ball-dominant scorers like Russell.
But a ton of possessions will start and end with Curry, even if he gives up the ball in between.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo repeats as MVP
Only 11 players have won consecutive MVPs. Michael Jordan managed only one MVP repeat. This is a big deal.
Antetokounmpo is the alpha and omega of everything Milwaukee does -- the rare superstar with a chance (and boy did I want to predict this) to become only the third player to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Milwaukee is the best bet to finish with the top seed in the East.
Nikola Jokic is the north star of a potential No. 1 seed in the varsity conference, but Antetokounmpo is just better. It's hard to see Damian Lillard's Blazers winning enough games for him to crack this conversation.
Big twos in Los Angeles (times two) and Houston will siphon votes from each other, though Kawhi Leonard could build momentum if he carries the Clippers while Paul George recovers from shoulder surgery.
Philly's likeliest candidate -- Joel Embiid -- might be load-managed. It would take a monster season from Utah and a leap from one of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert for either to emerge as a real candidate.
Other than Curry, the biggest threats to an Antetokounmpo repeat are LeBron James and Anthony Davis -- supernovas propping up role players. They are going to put up MVP-level numbers. It will come down to one of them exceeding expectations. That is almost impossible for LeBron now -- he's never going to defend at a high level in the regular season again -- so the edge goes to Davis.
He averaged 28 points in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 before falling back to 26 last season. Nudge that up to 30, approach five assists per game, play the best defense of his career, and Davis will have a résumé that stacks up with Antetokounmpo's.
All of that is in play. At 26, Davis is at the stage where his feel is catching up with his physical gifts; he averaged four assists last season, almost double his career average. He can roast guys off the bounce. The Lakers are going to put Davis in position to make plays.
But Antetokounmpo has already done it, and he's still improving, too.
3. Rudy Gobert repeats as Defensive Player of the Year
Embiid should be the most dominant per-minute defender on the stingiest team, but load management will complicate his candidacy. Antetokounmpo and Davis are more flexible, matchup-proof defenders than Gobert is, but Davis is going to carry a huge load on offense and Antetokounmpo spends a lot of time guarding ho-hum power forwards. That is by design -- Antetokounmpo can rove and wreck stuff at the rim -- but he isn't at the inflection point of as many defensive possessions.
Draymond Green is at the center of damn near everything even when he is off to the side. He is a master of almost being in two places at once. He's in shape, raring to go. It's just hard to see Golden State ranking high enough in team defense for Green to reclaim his mantle -- even if the Warriors are miles better with him on the floor.
This is league's clearest win-now move. Portland will haggle hard over sweeteners, and they will need more of them for the high-wattage names on this list. Anfernee Simons is almost certainly off-limits. Zach Collins probably is too. That leaves Nassir Little, Gary Trent Jr. and Portland's future first-round picks.
Love has been mentioned most (guilty!), but Gallinari might be a cleaner fit. He's on an expiring deal, and more of a clear-cut power forward. Love lives between power forward and center. That flexibility is useful, especially as Jusuf Nurkic recovers from injury, but it could become awkward as Nurkic regains full health.
Portland wields the leverage of choice. The market could be flooded with rotation power forwards from blah teams: the three guys listed above; Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis; Davis Bertans; Jae Crowder; Marvin Williams; Nemanja Bjelica; Robert Covington; others. Why pay whatever Cleveland asks if you can get a decent player for much less?
Portland also surely wonders how many teams will really bid for Love. Houston will poke around, because that's what it does, but I'm not sure the Cavs are much interested in Eric Gordon and Clint Capela. Would a third team jump in? A swap centered on Love and Gordon Hayward makes some sense, but trading Hayward raises uncomfortable issues for Boston. His college coach wooed him in free agency, and then his leg snapped in half.
Cleveland would argue Love is flat better than almost every other available big, and anyone Portland will ever get in free agency. If the Blazers start slowly, they may not have the luxury of waiting for every option to become available. On the flip side, a team that knows it's a seller on the power forward market may want to jump on a good deal early -- before the market gets crowded.
Keep half an eye on Griffin. Detroit does not want to trade him. The Pistons are hell-bent on making the playoffs. Griffin is their star attraction. But if things go badly, teams will call. Griffin would be one of the few really good available players with a max-ish contract that isn't too short or too long.
Gasol and Ibaka are here in case Portland decides to pursue a center on an expiring contract.
The Blazers have the goods to make a second win-now trade if they want. You can build some intriguing deals with Memphis involving Iguodala and/or Crowder.
5. Bradley Beal signs an extension in Washington
Yeah, I'm counting it since I had it written a few days ago. So many of these are going to turn out wrong. Let me have this!
6. Toronto stands pat this season, at least with Kyle Lowry
It might be the biggest variable on the trade landscape, and the hardest to peg: How will the Defending Champion Toronto Raptors navigate the next five months? With Beal off the board through the trade deadline, Lowry could become the league's most coveted chip.
The answer gets easy if the Raptors are 15-20. At that point, you explore the market for everyone.
The Raptors should be better than that. If they are on a 46-win pace, what does Masai Ujiri do with Lowry? Toronto has taken pride in remaining competitive despite an ever-present temptation to rebuild. The team's patience (or inertia, depending on your perspective) netted a title. Perhaps that title provides leeway for a deep rebuild.
But the Raptors seem to value staying relevant. The offers matter, too. Trading a franchise icon has to be worth it. Is Reggie Jackson, Langston Galloway and a lottery-protected Pistons pick worth it? What about Goran Dragic, some unwanted Miami contract, and the earliest available Heat first-rounder?
I'm betting no -- at least not this season. Toronto could revisit the Lowry landscape in the summer.
Lowry would be perfect on both Los Angeles teams, but I'm not sure either has enough -- even if the Lakers included Kyle Kuzma -- after dealing away a gazillion combined picks last summer. Don't sleep on Minnesota; the Wolves are searching for a point guard, and Gersson Rosas, their president of basketball operations, knows Lowry from their time in Houston.
Miami makes the most sense. The problem is finding the right deal. Tyler Herro is probably off the table. A distant Miami pick along with Dragic and filler isn't enough. A combination of Dragic, Justise Winslow, and that distant pick might pique Ujiri's interest, but are the Heat trading all of that for a 33-year-old who doesn't make them one of East's two best teams?
A package of Winslow and some filler -- no Dragic, no pick, no Herro -- might be the compromise, but I could see both teams blanching. Is Winslow enough for Toronto? Does he fit alongside Pascal Siakam? Does that deal move the needle enough for the Heat to trade a (good) 23-year-old for a 33-year-old?
I'd lean slightly against a Lowry in-season trade. (I don't feel great about this one. Ujiri is a shark. He could gin up a bidding war we don't see coming.) Gasol is a different matter. He has been a Raptor for only eight months, and Toronto has Ibaka behind him.
Winslow should be one of the league's most movable players. He has the kind of positional versatility every team craves. He makes $13 million per year over the next three seasons -- with a freaking team option in the final year. He can grease any trade type. He may make for an clunky fit with Jimmy Butler, and the Heat want to win right now. Tyler Herro appears poised to play a ton of minutes on the wing. A Winslow trade makes almost too much sense on the surface.
And yet: With Beal off the market, I'm not sure I see the player Miami might target in any theoretical Winslow trade. If it's not Lowry, who is it? Most of the power forwards named above bring age or injury concerns, and Miami has a lot of power forward types already. I want to call a Winslow in-season trade. I just can't. Maybe things change at the draft.
Winslow is also a point forward, making Dragic expendable in more minor win-now gambit.
8. Utah and Dallas get All-Stars again
Given good health, eight of the 12 spots in the West are locked down: Curry, Westbrook, Harden, Leonard, Davis, LeBron, Jokic, and Lillard. Minnesota should win enough for Karl-Anthony Towns to make it nine.
Paul George would normally make 10 -- leaving two measly spots -- but the Clippers say he's going to miss at least 10 games, leaving the door slightly ajar. Even if George makes it, I'm reserving one spot each for members of the Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis and Mitchell/Gobert duos. Apologies to Draymond Green, Devin Booker, Mike Conley, Sacramento's starting guards, San Antonio's veterans, Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson, and CJ McCollum.
9. Connected: San Antonio's All-Star streak ends
The Spurs have had at least one player selected to the All-Star Game every season since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997 (not including 1999, when the lockout forced the cancellation of the game), per ESPN Stats & Information research. Not this season.
That leaves three spots. Love could snag one, but the Cavs are going to be bad. Al Horford is always in the conversation. Milwaukee could get the "No. 1 seed deserves a second All-Star" treatment. Meh. Andre Drummond is a two-time All-Star, but are we really bringing two Pistons? On the flip side, one of those nine locks could fall away due to injury or underperformance.
We could have at least three first-time All-Stars in the East. The five best such candidates: Siakam, Gordon, LaVine, Trae Young, Tobias Harris, and Jayson Tatum. (Next in line: Eric Bledsoe, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle, Caris LeVert, John Collins, Jaylen Brown.)
Siakam is a no-brainer. He has another level to hit. So does Gordon. If the Magic sustain as an elite defensive team, Gordon will get more national attention as perhaps their best all-around defender -- and probably their second-leading scorer behind Nikola Vucevic, who made his All-Star debut last season.
Chicago is good enough to hang around the race for one of the last two playoff spots in the East. I'm not sure the Hawks are there yet; they're so young. Tatum is a sexier pick -- and a more polished player than LaVine -- but LaVine is going to put up huge counting stats.
11. Nikola Jokic busts the Wilt Assist Club
Only two players listed 6-11 or taller have ever averaged seven-plus assists per game over a season: Jokic a year ago, and Wilt Chamberlain twice during the go-go 1960s. Chamberlain owns the two highest per-game assist figures on that list: 7.8 and 8.6. Jokic can make a run at that 7.8 number -- and in the process sniff the top five in assists this season. Let's make it so.
12. Denver gets the No. 1 seed in the West
The Nuggets could have snagged it last season but instead shamed themselves before the basketball gods in a naked seeding-manipulation scheme. Denver has the best home-court advantage, and it should pile up wins while its competition (Houston, Utah, and the Los Angeles teams) sorts out injuries and chemistry. The Nuggets have no obvious candidate for regression. Their first taste of the postseason should have steeled them.
13. Miami finishes third in the East
Boston is the favorite for this spot. It has more talent than any East team below Milwaukee and Philadelphia. But Boston's five best players are wings or point guards; some diminishing returns are almost inevitable. Toronto is a trade risk. If both fall short of expectations, the race for No. 3 is wide-open.
Right now, Butler is better than anyone on the Celtics. He can power Miami to a lot of regular-season wins. Miami has an interesting mix around him, including two youngish guys -- Winslow and Bam Adebayo -- on the come up.
If Pat Riley senses an opening, he will seize on a win-now trade. I was going to predict Miami hosts a first-round series -- putting its floor at No. 4 -- but that's not bold enough in the East.
14. Steven Adams sets the record for biggest year-to-year leap in defensive rebounding rate
Adams is the only player in history (minimum 5,000 minutes) to have rebounded at least 13% of his own team's misses and fewer than 16% of opponent misses. He is one of only 12 seven-footers with a career defensive-rebounding rate below 16.5%.
The largest single-season jump in defensive rebounding rate in modern league history belongs to Ian Mahinmi, who upped his total by almost 11 percentage points between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, per the gurus at ESPN Stats & Info. Adams could shatter that. He has to snare about 26% of enemy misses -- a mark that would have barely squeaked into the top 20 last season. Done.
Trivia: Nos. 2 and 3 on the "rebounding jump" list behind Mahinmi are Westbrook in 2016-17 (his first triple-double season), and Enes Kanter the next season -- when Kanter moved from Westbrook's Thunder to the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony trade.
15. Also, the Thunder trade Adams and Dennis Schroder
By the time free agency quiets in July, the bet here is both are elsewhere. It might take that long for the center market to broaden, but Adams will draw interest.
16. Indiana misses the playoffs
If (at least) Miami is going in, someone has to go out. The safe choice -- the "right" one, according to most projection systems -- is Detroit, and the Pistons are indeed at grave risk if Griffin misses 15 or 20 games.
But this column isn't about safe choices, so let's get nutty and peg the Pacers -- the third-best team in the East for much of last season -- as vulnerable. Indiana doesn't have a reliable shot-creation engine without Victor Oladipo, and it's unclear when Oladipo might return -- or if he can rediscover his peak form this season. If the answers trend in bad directions, the Pacers could be in trouble.
Malcolm Brogdon is a perfect complement to Oladipo. Without Oladipo, he is overtaxed. The Pacers aren't counting on Brogdon becoming Kemba Walker. They will ask everyone to do a little more: Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren off the bounce; Sabonis hitting cutters and beasting in the post; Turner getting more forceful against mismatches; Aaron Holiday rampaging to the basket.
Warren has played zero meaningful NBA games, and very little defense. The Sabonis/Turner partnership will have awkward moments on both ends, and could diminish each of them by maybe 10%. Can Sabonis really defend power forwards? If he can't on some nights -- leaving the job to Turner -- how much rim protection does Indiana lose?
Indiana has the talent and coaching to paper over all of this. That's why almost every projection system has them in the postseason. I'm just a little more worried about Oladipo's absence.
Maybe this isn't as off-the-wall as it sounds. The new system at 538 has Indiana finishing 42-40, with a 78% chance of reaching the playoffs.
17. The eight East playoff teams: Sixers, Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, Heat, Nets, Magic, Bulls
That's right, the Bulls. Do I have any faith in them? No. No, I do not. Their best backup wings are all point guards. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have appeared in 164 combined games. I regret this already. I am also very nervous that Blake Griffin finished last season with knee pain, and started this one with hamstring issues.
18. Robin Lopez attempts at least 75 3s
He has 51 attempts in 11 seasons. Bud Ball!
19. Indiana trades Turner or Sabonis
They can coexist, but not well enough to merit around $40 million combined per season. The question is who goes, and where. The answer might depend on whether Sabonis and the Pacers agree on an extension by the Oct. 21 deadline.
If they do, my money is on Turner. He would appear more valuable -- a center who can block shots and hit 3s. He's only 23. His feel on offense lags behind the rest of his game, but feel improves with experience.
Turner's shooting makes him a bit more malleable than Sabonis -- perhaps with a wider trade market. He could fit alongside other athletic bigs even if those bigs profile (like Turner) as center-ish: John Collins, Bam Adebayo, Zion Williamson, Jaren Jackson Jr. Some of those guys have enough potential as shooters that their teams might look at Sabonis, too. Charlotte needs big men. Washington needs everything. What do the frontcourts of the future look like in San Antonio and Oklahoma City?
Other suitors will emerge for both. Boston wing for Indiana big is the most obvious trade structure on the board, but finding the right match is harder than you'd think.
If Indiana and Sabonis reach an impasse in extension talks, I'd favor Sabonis moving at some point -- maybe as late as next season.
20. Dallas makes the playoffs, along with the Clippers, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Rockets, Blazers, and Spurs. Golden State finishes 9th
The easiest prediction -- the most likely outcome -- is to take last season's field and replace Oklahoma City with the Lakers. This column is for the wild ideas -- the gut feelings that scare you, but don't go away.
Doncic and Porzingis complement each other on both ends. The supporting cast complements them. Rick Carlisle will get the most out of this team. Some interloper is going to surprise. It might be the Pelicans; if Zion Williamson is a star from day one, he is going to dunk on every postseason projection that excludes New Orleans. It might be the Kings. I'm taking Dallas.
That puts three teams on a knife's edge: Golden State, Portland and San Antonio. The Warriors are the hardest team to project. Some systems have them winning 50-plus. Some spit out 43-45 wins. They have historically blitzed teams with Curry and Green as the only stars on the floor -- i.e., no Durant or Thompson -- but a lot of those minutes came against backups. How will that translate? Multiple team executives have told me these Warriors are one of the most volatile teams they can recall. They could miss the playoffs or win the championship.
We don't know when Klay Thompson is coming back, or in what condition -- only that he's out through at least the All-Star break, meaning he will play a maximum of 27 games. If he approaches that number, the Warriors are going to make this prediction look silly. (To repeat: This team with a healthy Thompson can win the title. They went undefeated against Houston and Portland in the Western Conference playoffs after Durant's injury. They might have pulled off their own 3-1 rally in last year's Finals had Thompson not gone down in Game 6.)
In the meantime, they have Curry, Green and Russell. They just have nothing else. Green is coming off a horrendous shooting season. No one is going to guard him. That didn't matter when he had Curry, Thompson and Durant orbiting for handoffs. How do things look when it's just Curry and Russell -- with the latter getting accustomed to a new system?
Is Curry ready to carry this kind of load after five straight Finals? Depth is of outsize importance over the 82-game slog. Golden State has little. Three grunts -- Kevon Looney, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks -- are already banged up.
Any injury to Curry or Green is a catastrophe. DeMar DeRozan could miss 50 games, and I'm not sure it would impact San Antonio's win total. The Spurs just win.
If you froze today's rosters for the season, Portland would be my pick to miss the playoffs. But they seem to feel more urgency after a conference finals run. The Blazers can pull a win-now trade (or two) almost whenever they want. Meanwhile, the Warriors keep the top-20-protected first-rounder they owe Brooklyn if they miss the playoffs.
Someone is going to win 45-ish games and miss the playoffs in the West. Full disclosure: I wavered between San Antonio and Golden State as the odd team out until hitting "send" on this column. The Spurs have depth; the Warriors have a top-five player -- the sort whose teams rarely miss the playoffs without at least a minor injury issue.
It became a coin flip. San Antonio is a safer choice for the lottery -- a vanilla team that probably can't duplicate last season's red-hot shooting (but should compensate with stouter defense). The Warriors are the 25% long shot (the 538 system now has them with a 28% chance of missing the playoffs). But sometimes it's fun to go out on limbs, and I've had a nagging feeling in my stomach about the Warriors for weeks now. Minor injuries strike every team. I'm also scarred after picking the Spurs to miss last season.
21. Giannis signs the supermax if the Bucks make the Finals, and doesn't if they don't
There's probably a middle ground: losing a toss-up, seven-game bloodbath in the conference finals might be enough. But you can't do a big predictions column without making some call on the league's next premier free agent -- I had Durant to the Knicks a year ago, so, yeah -- and this is it. Also: Not signing the supermax this summer does not preclude Antetokounmpo from re-signing in Milwaukee the following summer.
22. Chris Paul finishes the season in Oklahoma City
Toronto keeping Lowry through the trade deadline would be a huge boost to Oklahoma City's chances of moving Paul. But what's the deal? I don't see Miami -- Paul's rumored summer suitor -- surrendering anything Sam Presti might care about to light its 2021 cap space on fire. The one wild card: the possibility, slim as it might be, that Paul agrees to decline his $44 million player option for 2021-22 as a condition of any trade. (Stop laughing.)
Is Paul Milwaukee's panic move? Would Antetokounmpo be on board? Milwaukee would have to send out almost exact matching salary -- about $38 million -- to avoid the luxury tax, and that requires trading lots of players. One of them would have to be Eric Bledsoe, and teams are wary of taking on that contract until Bledsoe finds his groove in the postseason.
Detroit? A Paul-Blake Griffin reunion seems ... fraught.
Minnesota seems hungry to win now, and taking on Paul could be their get-out-of-Andrew-Wiggins-jail-for-not-quite-free card. But Wiggins' deal runs only one season longer than Paul's, and I'd be surprised if the Wolves see that swap as being worth their while -- especially if the Thunder demand a draft pick as sweetener.
23. Milwaukee makes a splashy-ish win-now move
Even if it's not Paul, Milwaukee could risk something splashy -- on the level of last season's Nikola Mirotic deal, or splashier -- at the slightest sign of trouble.
24. Utah extends one or both of Royce O'Neale and Joe Ingles
O'Neale might start as Utah's nominal power forward, and is sneakily eligible for an extension starting at up to 120% of the league's average salary -- about $11.4 million. Utah probably does not want to go that high. The Jazz are under no time pressure; the Oct. 21 deadline does not apply to O'Neale.
The Jazz can see how the season goes. They face some long-term payroll concerns depending on Conley's plans; he holds an early termination option for 2020-21. But given O'Neale's potentially central role on a good team, there could be some mutual interest in an extension.
The Oct. 21 deadline applies to Ingles due to a quirk in the rules, and so an extension to his deal -- which runs through 2020-21 -- seems unlikely. Don't rule out some last-minute wrangling.
Bonus prediction: Cedi Osman is in the same situation as O'Neale. The Cavs are probably hesitant to approach that $11.4 million figure, but I could see the two sides settling in the $8 million range. They can negotiate into the season, but some teams and players don't like talks hovering once the games start. If Oct. 21 is a de facto deadline here, I'd lean slightly toward no deal.
I like this trade for both teams, even if both would likely say "no" now. It's an all-in move for Utah -- their means of nabbing another backup power forward and someone with a track record of jostling with the big wings in Los Angeles. New York gets a high-lottery talent who just turned 24.
Yeah, the Knicks have three point guards. So what? Exum has been at least as much wing as point guard for a while now.
Barring a surprise twist -- i.e., a trade involving Ingles or Bojan Bogdanovic -- this Exum/small salary package is Utah's only realistic means of upgrading the frontcourt. Unless Exum finally pops, I'd expect it to be in play.
26. Minnesota makes at least two trades, including one involving Robert Covington -- if he's healthy
I don't think Minnesota wants to trade Covington. Rosas was part of the Houston front office that first signed him. But if Covington plays well, Minnesota could net a decent haul for him -- in a solo deal, or as part of something bigger. There aren't many big wings who: are good; make in the $10 million-$14 million range (i.e. super-tradable, not overpaid); and are at least semi-expendable because their team isn't a contender.
How handy would Covington be in Utah (that same Exum-centric package?), Portland, Houston or Denver against the L.A. teams? Will Covington and other stuff for D'Angelo Russell ever become a thing?
Beyond Covington, the Wolves have a tasty mix of expirings (Jeff Teague) and rotation guys earning between $1.6 million and $3.5 million -- Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell, Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier.
Minnesota can nose its way into almost any trade discussion, even as a third wheel. It will hunt for point guards.
27. Within the next 16 months, there will be trade buzz about Russell Westbrook and/or (gulp) James Harden
There is no reporting behind this. It is purely speculative. The Rockets are going to be really good. I put them in my inner circle of title contenders. Their closing lineup is a beast: Harden, Westbrook, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela. Daryl Morey will find ways to upgrade this thin roster.
I'm betting on Westbrook bumping up his accuracy on catch-and-shoot 3s, reintroducing the concept of "transition offense" in Houston, and slicing up defenses in the spread pick-and-roll. There will be hiccups -- Mike D'Antoni admits Westbrook will stand around a lot when Harden has the ball -- but there are hiccups with almost every star pairing.
But I'm picking the Rockets to fall short of the Finals, and this does not seem like an organization -- and this applies to Tilman Fertitta most of all -- set to react calmly in the face of anything that might be perceived as disappointment.
The Rockets let go much of D'Antoni's staff after another postseason loss to the Warriors; D'Antoni is in the final year of his deal. Some strain damaged the Paul-Harden relationship. What might have happened had the Rockets not found a way to deal Paul for a player Harden likes and respects?
There is just too much noise here -- too much potential for haywire trauma. If the mere prospect of Harden trade buzz strikes you as irrational, please consider, like, everything that has transpired in the NBA in the past five years.
The odds are against any Harden buzz morphing into an actual trade. By all accounts, Harden loves Houston. He wants to win there. It's also really hard to find a team that: is flush with trade assets; in a market Harden might enjoy; boasting a co-star already in the door.
But if Houston falls short of internal hopes, almost anything is possible.
28. Marvin Bagley III is Sacramento's leading scorer
Bagley will have to jump both De'Aaron Fox (17.3 points per game last season) and Buddy Hield (20.7), and both those guys have leaps left in them. Fox's could be big; his trainer and agent, Chris Gaston, has told me Fox has ambitions of averaging 23 or 24 points per game.
But the Kings are counting on Fox to distribute, too. Meanwhile, Bagley averaged 17.8 points over the final 25 games of his rookie season in just 27.7 minutes. That translates to about 20.5 points over 32 minutes. Bagley is a full-time starter now, and the Kings are going to let him eat.
I could see Luke Walton, under win-now pressure, feeling queasy playing Bagley heavy crunch-time minutes due to his defensive limitations, but the Kings are hugely invested in Bagley. He can score from all over the floor.
29. Sacramento trades Nemanja Bjelica and at least one other core rotation player
Bjelica could fall victim to a minutes squeeze, and he would draw interest in a league starving for stretch power forwards. The other player(s) could be anyone outside Fox and Bagley. Tension simmering around Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic potentially playing on expiring deals has exploded into the open. Without extensions, both become trade candidates. That's just NBA reality.
Sacramento could ease future payroll concerns by moving Harrison Barnes, and they should at least investigate his market. Other teams should kick the tires on Harry Giles III. Sacramento has talked up Giles as a core player, but he has to fight a ton of big men -- vets and kiddos -- for scraps of playing time.
30. Otto Porter Jr. signs a long-term deal in Chicago without ever becoming a real free agent
Porter can either exercise his $28.5 million player option for 2020-21 and extend off of that number; decline that option during the season and extend off of his current salary; or decline it after the season and immediately ink a new contract. This seems like a good marriage between player and team.
31. The coach's challenge lasts only one season (at least in this form)
Coaches don't seem to like it. Fans don't want more reviews. Things could change. Coaches could warm to the rule as they figure out how to use it. It could correct a pivotal call in a way that ensures the "right" outcome in a playoff game -- earning support from fans and coaches alike.
But right now, this specific rule feels temporary.
32. The discussion about starting free agency before the draft gets new life.
It hasn't gone away.
33. Washington trades CJ Miles for two second-round picks but re-signs Davis Bertans
Some team will rescue Miles if he proves healthy and productive. Washington will get calls on Bertans too, and the Wizards might well move him if they get a good offer. But he's only 26, and everyone needs bigs who can shoot. He won't command a ton in free agency. Why not keep him?
34. Chicago trades Kris Dunn
Someone will take a cheapo flier: Orlando, Minnesota (reunion time!), New York (Frank Ntilikina challenge trade?), Detroit, maybe Washington?
35. And the Larry O'B goes to: Clippers over Sixers in seven.