What are the biggest storylines we should watch out for in the 2018-19 NBA season?

By Stan Sy | Art by Marian Hukom

My favorite part of the beginning of a brand new NBA season is mapping out the narratives for the year. Inasmuch as I love basketball, I’m equally fascinated by the stories that develop for all 30 NBA teams across the 82 games they’ll be playing throughout the season. That’s why I particularly loved the NBA’s “30 Teams, 30 Stories” slogan from a few years ago. It was a subtle acknowledgment from the league itself that the narratives themselves are what truly make the sport captivating.

With the 2018-19 NBA season just days away, it’s time to list down the biggest stories (and questions) that we’ll be keeping tabs on. It is by no means a declaration of who the best teams are. All we’re doing is setting the table for the most compelling narratives of the year—something that will be fun to look back on once the season (and post-season) ends.

Can LeBron James handle the possibility of ending his eight-year NBA Finals streak?

We already know why LeBron chose the Lakers over everyone else—he’s putting on the ultimate balancing act of being an NBA player-slash-entrepreneur-slash-entertainer-slash-however else he can be a multi-hyphenate. Plus, being in Los Angeles exposes his eldest son Bronny to superior competition in the high school circuit.

LeBron appears to be ready to finally be in LA, but is LA ready for him? Yes, there is excitement surrounding his move, but it’s hilarious how Laker fans who once hated him are still trying to come to terms with him on the team.

Most importantly, LeBron’s ability to make other players around him better will be put to the test this season. He’ll be playing with young guns, who could be the future of the franchise in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. But he’s also going to be on the same roster as former playoff adversaries Lance Stephenson—who infamously blew in LeBron’s ear during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals—and Rajon Rondo, as well as former top two pick-turned-journeyman Michael Beasley and two-time NBA champion JaVale McGee.

Looking at the Lakers roster, it doesn’t look likely that they’ll topple the Golden State Warriors and take their place in the NBA Finals. LeBron is still in the conversation for who’s the best player in the league

Looking at the Lakers roster, it doesn’t look likely that they’ll topple the Golden State Warriors and take their place in the NBA Finals. LeBron is still in the conversation for who’s the best player in the league. But as LeBron found out firsthand in the ‘15, ‘17, and ‘18 Finals, he alone can’t defeat the Warriors. That said, this year might be LeBron’s first “rest year,” where he doesn’t go all the way to the finals. And maybe he’s okay with that. After all, he’s got Space Jam 2 in the pipeline.

Who takes Cleveland’s spot as the Eastern Conference Champions now that LeBron’s out West?

I’m going to cheat a bit here and bring up three smaller stories under this narrative. The upper echelon of the Eastern Conference is going to be a slugfest among four teams: the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Toronto Raptors, and (maybe) the Milwaukee Bucks.

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Let’s take a look at the case for each really quickly here.

The Celtics were one win away from the NBA Finals last year without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. They’ve got the same squad coming back, including a healthy Hayward and Irving, plus both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are only going to get better after that deep run. The challenge for Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is going to be how he’ll balance the minutes for all of his rotation guys, which is a great problem to have.

Two questions arise here:

  1. How will the Celtics’ scoring load look with Hayward playing more than five minutes for the team this season? Who among their talented wings takes a backseat on the offensive end to accommodate him?
  2. With all key players back and healthy, how far can these Celtics go this time around?

Speaking of last year’s surprise teams, what about the Philadelphia 76ers? They went 52-30 last year, finally fulfilling The Process that former general manager Sam Hinkie asked the Sixers fanbase to put their trust in. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the NBA’s new most exciting duo of young players. Barring any injuries to these two, they could very well dominate the league through the 2020s.

Yes, the Sixers didn’t get LeBron in free agency. And sure, they didn’t really have any big pickups in the offseason, other than retaining J.J. Redick. What if all they need this year is for Markelle Fultz to be the game-changer everyone thought he would be coming into the 2017 NBA Draft? Head coach Brett Brown is already trusting him with a starting spot to open the season, sliding Redick over to the bench. What if the Sixers show everyone that they didn’t need a big-name signing after all?

And then there’s the Milwaukee Bucks, whose offense is finally going to adapt with the changing NBA under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. He’ll be bringing the principles of ball movement and floor spacing with him, which brought him success in Atlanta, and which could open up the game of Giannis Antetokoumpo. Unleashing the Greek Freak in a system where he can take advantage of his speed, while surrounded by shooters could very well lead Antetokoumpo to his first ever MVP campaign. Antetokoumpo has a new coach, a new system, and some new shooters. Now, all he really needs is his own jump shot.

And then there’s the Milwaukee Bucks, whose offense is finally going to adapt with the changing NBA under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. He’ll be bringing the principles of ball movement and floor spacing with him, which brought him success in Atlanta, and which could open up the game of Giannis Antetokoumpo

Can Drake make Kawhi Leonard fall in love with the city of Toronto?

Ever since Drake released “In My Feelings” as a single, I’ve openly posited about whether or not this was actually a song accidentally sent to the past from Future Drake. Is “Keke” his pet name for Kawhi Leonard? Is Drake going to be the guy that gets Leonard to stay in Toronto for real?

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plottin', schemin'

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All jokes aside, the Raptors could only have Leonard for a year with his free agency coming up after this season. How does Leonard respond to that? Historically, NBA players go through an uptick in production during a contract year, which refers to the season before their current deals expire. This is Leonard’s contract year and he’s on a new team in a new country to boot.

Is he even the same player after that much-publicized saga surrounding his injured right quad? How will he mesh with Kyle Lowry and the Raptors’ young guns in OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam? Most importantly, will Leonard change addresses again after this season?

Where is Jimmy Butler going to play by the end of the season?

Right before training camp, Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau had just acquired Luol Deng, adding him to his current roster, which now has a growing number of former Bulls who played for him. That list includes Deng, Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, and Jimmy Butler.

And then Butler requested a trade and narrowed his choices to the New York Knicks, the Brooklyn Nets, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Miami Heat. He didn’t join the Timberwolves for training camp, and then showed up to practice earlier this week and ripped every member of his team a new one in the process.

He did this by taking the team’s third-stringers as his teammates in a scrimmage and went up against the starters and key rotation players, cussing his teammates, coaches, and team executives out in the process. And once he’d made his statement, he dropped the mic and walked out. Now, the whole league knows exactly how tense the situation is between Butler and the Timberwolves.

The ball really is in Minnesota’s court. Sure, we saw teams like Indiana and San Antonio get decent returns for their respective disgruntled stars over the last 15 months

It’s clear why Butler did this—he wanted to show the team that he had the upper hand while taking away whatever leverage they may have in trade talks. After all, if you’re a potential trade partner, it’ll be easier to get Butler for less, knowing that the team can’t even control Butler and his actions.

The ball really is in Minnesota’s court. Sure, we saw teams like Indiana and San Antonio get decent returns for their respective disgruntled stars over the last 15 months. Paul George never blew up in public like Butler did. And while Leonard’s tension with the Spurs lasted throughout Manu Ginobili’s entire final season (and then some), it never got Butler bad. Here’s to hoping this situation gets resolved the best it can be for both the Timberwolves and for Butler.

Can the Golden State Warriors go for the first three-peat since the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers?

Conveniently forgotten in the sea of storylines is the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. That last sentence felt very weird to type, and yet it also felt… accurate.

A lot of the questions surrounding this season don’t revolve around them, mostly because there’s a sense of resignation and acceptance that the Warriors are still the best team in the NBA. The rich got even richer when they signed four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, $5.3 million contract during the offseason. If Cousins is even 80 percent of the player he once was following his torn left Achilles, the Warriors could still have the best starting five in the league in Cousins, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry. That’s a lineup you could previously only put together on NBA 2K. But nobody went near Cousins once free agency began last July. So ultimately, 29 teams and 29 fanbases can only blame their own respective executives for not signing him.

Here’s the thing. Cousins isn’t going to be playing again until after the New Year. Until then, head coach Steve Kerr will have to rely on his past experience of going through a three-peat with the 1996-98 Chicago Bulls to inspire his players to keep pushing for that rare trifecta. Yes, the Warriors have already won three of the last four NBA titles. But winning that elusive three-peat puts them in rare company that includes the 1952-1954 Minneapolis Lakers, the 1959-1966 Boston Celtics (yes, they won eight straight during that stretch), the 1991-1993 and 1996-1998 Chicago Bulls, and the aforementioned 2000-2002 Lakers.

And then there’s the underreported substory about Klay Thompson who becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. If Thompson decides he wants to be The Man on his own team or to seek more money elsewhere, then this season could be the last time that the current nucleus of the Warriors plays together. Warriors fans should be keeping tabs on how happy he is—or continues to be—in Oakland, and for good reason. And if Thompson ever decides to play somewhere else because of a bigger role or a bigger paycheck (or both), it will be interesting to see how Dub Nation reacts.

The truth is, we should be talking about the Golden State Warriors. But of course, we aren’t talking about them, at least not as much as we are about the juicier narratives surrounding this NBA season. What’s funny is that none of this could matter by June 2019, except for… well… the Golden State Warriors and their run to a potential fourth NBA championship in five years and their first run of three straight titles. The 2019 NBA championship could very well be Steph, Klay, Draymond, KD, and company’s last title together if they win it. And it could be what they need to cement themselves as the team of the 2010s.

And if that’s not a narrative worth following this season, then I don’t know what is.