NBC Sports Boston Insiders' predictions for 2018-2019 NBA season
BOSTON – The NBA season is upon us and you know what that means?
Preseason picks, baby.
NBC Sports Boston Insiders A. Sherrod Blakely and Chris Forsberg have you covered with their takes on the best players and teams are for this upcoming season.
Sherrod’s pick: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Here’s why: The Bucks will finish with a top-4 record in the Eastern Conference and the Greek Freak will be delivering video game-like numbers on a regular basis. Judging by how he has looked in the preseason, players can’t doze off like they could in the past when he’s near the 3-point line. In addition to being the league’s top scorer in the preseason (24.0 points per game), he also connected on 40 percent of his 3-pointers. That, along with his other-worldly athleticism will land him his first league MVP award this season.
Chris’ pick: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Here’s why: The Brow averaged 30.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks during New Orleans’ nine-game stay in the playoffs last season. If he maintained a line like that during the regular season, he’d have a shot at leading the NBA in all three categories (heck, last season he finished top 5 in all three categories, including second in scoring behind only 2018 MVP James Harden). It will only help Davis’ candidacy if the Pelicans can build off last year’s 48-win campaign in a rigid Western Conference. Downside for Celtics fans: New Orleans isn’t going to let Davis wander any time soon with production like that.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Sherrod’s pick: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Here’s why: It’s rare that a European player comes to the NBA with the expectation of making an impact immediately. But 19-year-old Doncic is different. What he lacks in elite athleticism, he more than compensates for in deftly playing the role of scorer and playmaker depending on which his team needs more of at that moment. Throw in the fact that the Mavericks are sure to make a decent double-digit bump in wins from their 24-win club a year ago and the case for Doncic as the league’s top rookie will be a strong one.
Chris’ pick: Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Here’s why: Hard to pick against Doncic, especially if the Mavericks overachieve like they have the potential to do. But Ayton is a double-double waiting to happen each night as he averaged 18.2 points and 10 rebounds over a mere 26.9 minutes during the preseason. The big question is whether his old-school, post-heavy game can thrive in the small-ball era, but Ayton is too big and too skilled not to make an immediate two-way impact.
Sherrod’s pick: Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
Here’s why: He spent very little time last year playing, and when he did the former No. 1 overall pick was not impressive. He has new mechanics now and a role in the starting lineup with one of the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. His numbers won’t be all that eye-catching compared to others who might play more for weaker teams. But in the end, winning will win out and lead to Fultz being this season’s most improved player.
Chris’ pick: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Here’s why: The Raptors bench was so good last season and it’s hard to imagine they could possibly maintain that level of impact and, yet they might just be able to if Siakam goes to another level. Good things happen when Siakam is on the court as evidenced by him finishing the preseason plus-61 in 119 minutes of floor time. Siakam clearly has all the tools and it just feels like he’ll reach another level in Year 3.
Sherrod’s pick: Boston Celtics (58-24)
Here’s why: Even with a roster full of familiar faces, the Celtics are going to begin the season in getting-to-know-you mode with a lot of players in different roles, which brings about heightened expectations from a year ago at this time. It is going to take Gordon Hayward (left ankle/leg) some time to play at a level comparable to where he was at prior to suffering a season-ending injury on opening night. I see him at or near his best some time shortly after the All-Star break. And the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier only complicates the distribution of minutes for Brad Stevens’ crew. Still, this team has more than enough talent to finish among the elite teams in the NBA and be well-positioned to make a strong run towards Banner 18.
Chris’ pick: Boston Celtics (57-25)
Here’s why: The Celtics are no slam dunk to win the Atlantic and it’s tempting to throw the Raptors in this spot, even though Toronto has some question marks of its own (Kawhi Leonard’s health, a new head coach). Celtics coach Brad Stevens will likely manage minutes early in the year, especially for Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward coming back from injury, all while pacing this team for what could be a 100-game season. The Celtics have some of the best depth in the league and, as Irving and Hayward shake rust, and players figure out their roles, this team should have dominant stretches during the season.
Sherrod’s pick: Milwaukee Bucks (52-30)
Here’s why: MVP candidate (and my pick to win it) Giannis Antetokounmpo is the featured attraction for the Bucks, but they are by no means a one-man show. Khris Middleton will look to build off a strong playoff run last season and should play his way into All-Star conversations this season. Malcolm Brogdon’s versatility in the backcourt plus a plethora of talent returns. And the big offseason addition of Mike Budenholzer as the head coach will keep the Bucks among the upper echelon teams in the East all season.
Chris’ pick: Milwaukee Bucks (54-28)
Here’s why: Milwaukee’s got an awful lot going in its favor — a new coach (Mike Budenholzer), a sparkling new arena, and an MVP candidate (Giannis Antetokounmpo) headlining their intriguing roster. Remember, the Bucks nearly knocked off the Celtics in the opening round of the playoffs. Don’t sleep on these deer; Milwaukee is a top-half-of-the-East team that simply doesn’t have the buzz of the Sixers and Celtics.
Sherrod’s pick: Washington Wizards (45-37)
Here’s why: Other than the Miami Heat, the Wizards don’t really have a lot of stiff competition in what should be the least competitive division in the NBA. But you get the feeling that Washington enters this season in now-or-never mode with a roster full of players that are talented and have experience but consistently come up short. They’re not a title contender, but they’ll do enough to remind us of their potential which once again won’t reach its peak. Beyond being a playoff-caliber team, there’s not a lot of hope and optimism about the Wizards and their chances of working their way into being one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Chris’ pick: Miami Heat (44-38)
Here’s why: The Wizards like to talk like a 50-win team and yet they’ve got incredible implosion potential (hi, Dwight Howard). Miami might have endured one of the quieter summers in the NBA and couldn’t quite pry Jimmy Butler from Minnesota, but they’ve got enough talent to win a lackluster division. Dwyane Wade’s farewell tour adds some motivation and the Pat Riley/Erik Spoelstra combo will always get the most out of their talent.
Sherrod’s pick: Golden State Warriors (62-20)
Here’s why: Winners of three of the last four NBA titles, Golden State has established itself as an NBA dynasty. And there’s the potential to be even more dominant come playoff time with the offseason addition of DeMarcus Cousins, who is on the mend from an Achilles injury suffered last season when he played for the New Orleans Pelicans. Free agency the last couple of years has taken away some of Golden State’s immense depth, but there’s more than enough star power on the frontlines of their roster to be the frontrunner for yet another NBA title this season.
Chris’ pick: Golden State Warriors (62-20)
Here’s why: Motivation is about the only thing that should concern Warriors fans. Golden State has won three of the last four NBA titles, playing in the title round each of the past four years. Steve Kerr’s crew will have dominant stretches where they remind everyone why they’ll be playing in June again but it’s only natural that, having accomplished all that they have, the Warriors are probably going to pace themselves a bit, too, at times. If nothing else, they have the luxury of enduring some bumps whenever they try to integrate a healthy DeMarcus Cousins into the mix.
Sherrod’s pick: Houston Rockets (61-21)
Here’s why: Similar to Golden State, Houston doesn’t have quite as much high-quality depth as it did a year ago, suffering key losses that include Trevor Ariza (Phoenix). However, the team that thrives off the 3-pointer like no other added Carmelo Anthony, who isn’t the perennial All-Star he has been in past seasons but still can contribute at a decent level (offensively at least). And with a dominant, stat-stuffing guard like James Harden joined in the backcourt with Chris Paul, it’s hard to imagine any other team in the Southwest Division even being remotely close to contending with them.
Chris’ pick: Houston Rockets (58-24)
Here’s why: NBA oddsmakers are particularly bullish on the Rockets, typically putting their win total in the mid-60s. But what’s overlooked is that Houston’s defense took a step back with the departures of Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza. The Carmelo Anthony addition doesn’t move the needle much for a team with no tremendous offensive concerns, though it certainly adds star power. If the Rockets hit some turbulence, Davis and the Pelicans could make Houston work for that division crown this year.
Sherrod’s pick: Denver Nuggets (54-28)
Here’s why: The Nuggets have what can easily be described as a sneaky-good roster. Nikola Jokic is a do-it-all, should-be All-Star big man who presents a strong challenge for most defenses due to his versatility and playmaking skills. Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are a couple of underrated perimeter players who will continue to get opportunities to shine this season and play major roles in Denver’s continued growth. The Nuggets also added a low-risk, high-reward pickup in signing ex-Celtic Isaiah Thomas. A two-time All-Star, Thomas is still healing up from offseason hip surgery. But for them, it’s all about what can you do in the playoffs, which as we’ve seen in Boston is a time when Thomas has shown the ability to shine. But the Nuggets will be challenged by the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by their talented 1-2 punch of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, not to mention Steven Adams manning the middle.
Chris’ pick: Denver Nuggets (50-32)
Here’s why: One of the toughest divisions in the NBA with five legitimate playoff teams. During the 2017-18 season, only three games separated the top of the Northwest (Portland, 49-33) from the bottom (Denver, 46-36). The Nuggets, with an injection of energy from old friend Isaiah Thomas, will be the surprise of the West. If Utah plays defense like it did a year ago, it'll be in the mix for the division crown and there’s undeniable talent on the Blazers and Thunder.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Sherrod’s pick: Celtics over Sixers
Here’s why: Boston has talent, depth and versatility across the board that’s on a level that no other team in the East can match. So the Celtics getting back to the Conference Ffinals for the third year in a row is a no-brainer. I got Philly getting here because I believe they will finish with the second or third-best record in the East. And with the game slowing down the deeper you get into the postseason, Joel Embiid’s inside-outside game coupled with Ben Simmons’ playmaking will be just enough to get past Milwaukee and advance to the finals and face Boston.
Chris’ pick: Celtics over Bucks
Here’s why: Listen, this isn’t to say the Raptors and Sixers are not going to be in the mix in mid-May. We can simply envision a scenario where the East plays out 1. Boston, 2. Toronto, 3. Milwaukee, 4. Philadelphia, setting up a path for a Celtics-Bucks battle for the rights to go the Finals. The key here, of course, is health and continuity. Just remember that the season is a marathon. The Celtics we see on Tuesday’s opening night will not be the team we see in May (or, gulp, June?) There’s simply too much talent for this team not to be in the title round this year.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Sherrod’s pick: Warriors over Jazz
Here’s why: DeMarcus Cousins will be back in time to gear up for what really matters to the Warriors, and that’s another run towards a championship. The Utah Jazz were the surprise team of the West a year ago, and I see an older Donovan Mitchell leading the Jazz beyond last season’s second-round exit. They had quality depth, exceptional defense on the perimeter as well as around the basket. And the usual front-runners in the West like Houston and Oklahoma City don’t quite have the depth of Utah to be the last team standing with the Warriors.
Chris’ pick: Warriors over Pelicans
Here’s why: A big year for Davis culminates with him being unable to will the Pelicans past old friend Cousins and his new Warriors squad. Sure, the Rockets might very well lead the NBA in wins and give themselves a more agreeable path to the West title game. But the guess here is that Davis goes to another level this season, muscling his way into MVP chatter, and the long playoff run makes it more difficult for those Davis-to-Boston trade rumors to persist.
Sherrod’s pick: Warriors over Celtics
Here’s why: Boston has been winning all season with its depth, but this Golden State Warriors squad is among the greatest certainly in this era and arguably all-time when you consider they have five All-Stars that are 30 years old or younger. Boston will give the Warriors all they can handle in what should be a six or seven-game series. But in the end, all that talent assembled by Golden State will be just enough to get them yet another title before the Green reign of the Celtics begins to pour over the rest of the NBA.
Chris’ pick: Celtics over Warriors
Here’s why: (KG voice) Anything is possiiiiiiiible. OK, so maybe we’re chugging the Green Kool-Aid here but it seems fair to suggest that no other team in the league is as equipped to give the Warriors a challenge this season as the Celtics. Boston has the depth and versatility to push Golden State, and Stevens’ success against the Warriors in past regular seasons offers confidence that he could game plan a competitive series. All that said, the Celtics have to make some tremendous in-season strides for this prediction to have any chance of happening.