At the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, it was considered a foregone conclusion that the Golden State Warriors would be meet Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season. And, of course, that ended up being the case. As both teams basically coasted through the playoffs with the Warriors posting a 16-1 record on their way to a second title in three years. The Cavs went 11-1 during the Eastern Conference playoffs before losing four of five to the Dubs.
Will the 2018 Finals be any different? Very unlikely.
Golden State is unquestionably the best team in the league and the Dubs were able to keep all their core players together during the offseason. In the meantime, LeBron James and his team are probably not the overwhelming favorites to come out of the East since the beginning of the 2010-11 campaign.
Cleveland is probably the favorites to reach the Finals for a fourth straight season, although the Boston Celtics will have plenty to say about that. The Celtics, who ended up with the conference’s best record last year, added two key pieces in their pursuit of their first finals appearance since 2010.
The biggest questions for the Celtics will be how Kyrie Irving will react to being the “man” on a talented team? As well as how Gordon Hayward performs under pressure?
Irving is a magician with the ball who has shown that he has the knack of knocking down big shots. Hayward is a highly efficient shooter and scorer who is coming off the best season of his career.
The Cavs did a few nice things this offseason as well. James is still the leader of the team and unless his body falls apart is a top-two player in the league. Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose are very important newcomers. Crowder is a versatile defensive-minded forward who can knock down three-pointers while Rose is potentially the backup point guard that the team desperately needed last year.
In all honesty, what the Cavs need is a healthy Isaiah Thomas to find his niche alongside James and Kevin Love. Love, who is coming off his best season in Cleveland, will need to step up his offensive production to possibly around 24 points a game.
Are there other teams would reach the Finals if things go their way? Sure, you never know if a team will be snakebitten by key injuries or if the clubs newcomers will fit in. The East seems more ripe for the picking.
Here are my five underdogs that could win the NBA championship this upcoming season. Boston and San Antonio are not included in the list as they are the second best teams in their respective conferences.
Houston surprised a lot of people last season, posting 55 wins and reaching the Western Conference one season after barely sneaking into the playoffs with a .500 record. And the Rockets made the trade of the offseason by snatching point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers.
James Harden led the way for the Rockets with a historic season and while he will not duplicate last season, he should be more efficient with Paul taking some of the scoring load off his shoulders. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are dangerous from beyond the three-point line.
Harden and Paul gives the Rockets one of the top duos in the league. However, Houston gave up a lot of its depth in order to obtain Paul. Still, Houston has one of the best starting units in the game and a very solid eight-man rotation.
What Houston needs is a consistent third scorer which Carmelo Anthony would most certainly satisfy. Anthony has said that he would waive his no-trade clause for a chance to play in Houston. If the Rockets are able to come up with a good package or is able to get another team involved in the deal, don’t be surprised if Melo ultimately ends up with the Rockets at some point this season.
Houston is probably the third best team in the Western Conference, and would likely be so even with Anthony. The Rockets are currently the fifth choice by Las Vegas to win the 2018 NBA Championship
Oklahoma City Thunder
OKC had a fantastic 2016-17 season thanks in large part to an unbelievable year turned in by league MVP Russell Westbrook. The Thunder finished sixth in the Western Conference after winning 47 games in their first season without Kevin Durant. They then pushed the Rockets to five games in a competitive first round series
Like Harden, Westbrook will not put up the numbers that he did last season ever again.
The good news is that Westbrook definitely won’t have to carry the team as much this year, as the Thunder made three very intriguing moves this season with the addition of Paul George, free agent power forward Patrick Patterson, and the recent blockbuster trade for Carmelo Anthony.
George is an elite two-way player who is coming off a career year. The 6-9 small forward has the ability to be a go-to-scorer who had 18 games of 30 or more points. More importantly, he was the most efficient of his career last season.
Patterson, in the meantime, is a stretch-4 who is not afraid of mixing it in the low post. The 6-9 forward is also a quality defender who is capable of guarding smaller opponents.
Anthony, after a couple of dreadful years in New York where it looked as though all the happiness was slowly being sucked out of him, will arrive in OKC reinvigorated, finally playing alongside All-Star caliber talent again. Whether he can learn to take a slight back seat will be the biggest concern.
Backup point guard Raymond Felton was also a good pickup. In the meantime, starting center Steven Adams is starting to come into his own on the offensive end. Shooting guard Andre Roberson is also one of the best wing defenders in the game.
The Thunder should be a better defensive team than they were last season. The Thunder ranked 16th in scoring defense, surrendering 105.8 points a game and only having a plus-0.8 point differential.
The biggest concern, especially after the trade for Melo, is the team’s second unit.
Washington is coming off its first division crown since 1979, capturing the Southeast title with a 49-33 record. The Wizards have never won 50 games in a season, that streak could end this year.
Guards John Wall and Bradley Beal form one of the best backcourt duos in the league and both are coming off career seasons. The pair combined for 46.2 points along with 14.2 assists and 7.3 rebounds last season. In addition, small forward Otto Porter is still developing. Porter had his best season of his career in 2016-17, contributing 13.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 51.6% from the field and 43.4% from beyond the arc.
There are several concerns surrounding the team. Center Marcin Gortat is getting older and his production dropped slightly last year. Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith are serviceable backup big men.
What the Wiz really need is Kelly Oubre to take another step in his development. Oubre increased his scoring from 3.7 to 6.3 points per game last year as well as his rebounds from 2.1 to 3.3. But the 15th pick of the 2015 draft shot just 42.1% from the field and 28.7% from beyond the arc.
There are some other concerns about the roster. The first is with Markieff Morris who is expected to miss training camp after undergoing hernia surgery. Morris also could face league discipline as a result of his alleged role in a 2015 assault. The Wizards could use an upgrade in the backcourt as Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks, are the top reserves at the 1 and 2 spots, respectively.
The Raptors seem like the forgotten team. Toronto is currently tied for Las Vegas’ ninth choice to win the NBA championship in 2018. The Raps have won at least 48 games the past four seasons, topping the 50-win plateau the last two years. They also have at least reached the Eastern Conference semifinals in each of the last two seasons.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan give Toronto one of the top backcourts in the league. Lowry and DeRozan’s games compliment each other very well as Lowry is a three-point shooter and playmaker. DeRozan, on the other hand, is more of a slasher who has one of the best mid-range games in the NBA. Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and C.J. Miles aren’t elite scorers but each can contribute double-figures and they all bring girth and toughness to the team.
In order for the Raptors to be serious title contenders, they will either need to upgrade their small forward spot. Or add a couple of quality veteran reserves.
Last year, the Timberwolves were expected to make a significant jump in Tom Thibodeau’s first season as head coach. But the young Timberwolves won just 31 games. That being said, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins made major strides in their development. Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Deng, Tyus Jones and Shabazz Muhammad also improved in some areas.
This offseason the Wolves added Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford. All four are great additions and should make the Wolves a top-four or five team in the Western Conference. However, they are still a year or two away from being a legitimate title contender.