The past year changed the landscape of the NBA.
Players moved and with it power bases shifted, speculation about other players on the move dominated the news, front offices were torn apart, and at the end of the day it was still about the Golden State Warriors.
Before we say goodbye to 2018, let’s look back at the 10 biggest stories from the past calendar year. In reverse order, starting with the “honorable mentions.”
Just missing the cut: LeBron James goes to eighth straight Finals; Philadelphia 76ers emerge from “the process”; J.R. Smith’s Game 1 blunder in the Finals; and the Clippers/Rockets confrontation via the Staples Center’s “secret tunnel.”
10. Speculation about Kevin Durant’s plans next July. Player movement — and speculation about players being traded or moving via free agency — has become the fuel that is propelling the NBA to heights of popularity not seen since the Jordan era. Kevin Durant is one of the five best players on the planet and is on the front lines of that conversation — he has a player option for next season and he is going to opt out and become a free agent. Then what? To answer that leads to another question, what does Durant want? Is it just winning? Is it to lead his own team. Is it a new challenge? The sense around the league is KD will change teams, with the Clippers and Knicks getting mentioned a lot, or maybe he joins LeBron on the Lakers (although I doubt that). If the Warriors win a third straight title could KD stay in Golden State? Everything still seems to be on the table, and the question remains what will Durant prioritize with his new deal?
9. Carmelo Anthony doesn’t fit in Oklahoma City, flames out in Houston, now in limbo. It’s hard to watch a future Hall of Famer’s career wind down like this. Anthony started 2018 as a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but after the All-Star break his role began to shrink as he struggled to score efficiently (48.3 true shooting percentage after the All-Star Game), which meant fewer touches, and his defense got worse, too. By the final games of OKC’s playoff run, he was watching the end of games from the bench and he was frustrated. Anthony wanted out and was sent to Houston in a three-team trade last July, but that experiment lasted just 10 ugly games into this season as Anthony would not accept the role Houston wanted him to play. Anthony is still on the Rockets’ roster but is not with the team, his agent is trying to find a landing spot via trade, or, after the deadline he is likely just bought out. As 2018 ends ‘Melo sits in limbo waiting for another team to give him a chance. Somewhere.
8. Anthony Davis watch went into full effect. A top three NBA player — a force on both ends of the court — who is just 25 and entering his prime could be changing teams in 2019, and that has led to a massive amount of speculation that has taken over the NBA in the second half of 2018. The league is obsessed with AD’s future. Right now the Pelicans are working to keep Davis (he will not be traded at the deadline) despite the fact LeBron and his people put together a coordinated push to recruit Davis mid-season. Meanwhile, Boston sits waiting in the wings for July, when they can put together what likely be the best offer for Davis. Every team is thinking about what they can put in a trade that would entice the Pelicans. For example, if New Orleans doesn’t want to go into full rebuild mode could a team like Portland take a swing with a C.J. McCollum offer? The NBA’s AD obsessions was a big story in 2018 and whatever happens to him this July — when the Pelicans put a $239.5 million contract extension in front of him — will be the story of 2019.
7. Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo has to step down after wife’s Twitter burner accounts discovered. The winner for strangest story of 2018. It all began when a news story broke about burner Twitter accounts that were vociferously defending unpopular Philadelphia GM Bryan Colangelo (to be fair, good luck finding a GM loved by a fan base) and seemed in some way to be linked to Colangelo. Those Tweets seemed to share some inside information and took swings at players. When the story broke people close to the Sixers said: “that’s not Bryan, he wouldn’t do that.” He didn’t. Turns out the accounts were tied to his wife (who likely got her info from listening to her husband vent, but didn’t tell him about the accounts). That was not enough distance and Colangelo had to step down, and eventually, former Sixers’ star Elton Brand was promoted to GM (and pulled off a big trade… keep reading).
6. Luka Doncic drafted No. 3 and traded to Mavericks on draft night. We’ve never known as much or seen as much of a European draft pick as we had Luka Doncic heading into the draft — and that includes teams. He was the Spanish league MVP, EuroLeague MVP, and seemed to own European basketball at age 19. And yet there were plenty of doubters questioning his athleticism, and some GMs were thinking “if I miss on a Euro I get hit harder than if I miss on a kid from Duke.” Doncic fell to third in the draft (behind Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III) where he was taken by the Hawks, who quickly traded him to Dallas for the guy they really wanted, Trae Young. It’s too early to make long-term statements about this draft class, but Doncic is averaging 19.5 points a game, with 6.6 boards and 5 assists a night, is shooting 37.1 percent from three, has an above average 56.6 true shooting percentage and an 18.1 PER, and he is the Mavs best player, pushing them into playoff contention. He’s the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. AND THIS IS HIS FLOOR. We don’t know how good he will ultimately be, maybe Jaren Jackson Jr. becomes the best player out of this draft class, but Doncic is going to be very good, and some GMs may get hammered for passing on him.
5. Boston makes run to Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. The Celtics came into the 2018-19 season the conventional wisdom favorite to come out of the East, a prediction based largely on their 2018 playoff run. Gordon Hayward was lost to the team in the first game of last season, and then in mid-March Irving had knee surgery that ended his campaign. Everyone wrote Boston off… and then Al Horford and the young Celtics stepped up. Jayson Tatum exploded to the rim for 18.5 points per game in the postseason, Jaylen Brown knocked down threes on his way to 18 a night, “scary” Terry Rozier made his case for a starting job in the league, and the Celtics defended like the 2004 Pistons (well, almost). Boston beat Milwaukee in the first round, handled Philadelphia in the second round, and pushed LeBron and the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was an impressive run and set the stage for them to be a power for years. (It’s also part of the problem the Celtics have had this season — all these guys got a taste then have been asked to step back into a smaller role, and that has not gone smoothly.)
4. After leading Timberwolves to playoffs for the first time in 14 years, Jimmy Butler forces his way out of Minnesota. The Timberwolves started 2018 with the longest active playoff drought in the NBA, dating back to 2004 when Kevin Garnett was at his peak and Flip Saunders was the coach. Jimmy Butler had been brought in by coach/GM Tom Thibodeau to lead Karl-Anthony Towns and a youngish team into the postseason. And he did — they qualified in overtime on the last night of the regular season. Still, they were in. However, Butler was not happy in Minnesota, he didn’t like the work ethic of Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and called them out for it. There was a lot more to it than that, including money and the team pecking order, but the bottom line is Butler wanted out. He tried to tell that to Tom Thibodeau over the summer and Thibs essentially reacted like a three-year-old putting his fingers in his ears so he doesn’t hear anything. Eventually, Butler was direct in demanding a trade and started being a disruptive force around the team. That forced Thibodeau’s hand (for a long time Thibs thought everything would work if could just get them playing together), and Butler forced his way to the Sixers where he has formed a big three with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That team has the potential to be a power in the East. Meanwhile, Minnesota looks like a team that will miss the playoffs. Again.
3. Warriors win their second consecutive NBA title, third in four years. All the player movement — Butler, LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, and more — is tied together by one theme: Teams are looking for a way to beat the Warriors. They haven’t yet figured it out. Golden State won it’s second consecutive NBA title and third in four years last June with a crushing sweep of the LeBron and his Cleveland Cavaliers (the Cavs were deflated after J.R. Smith’s Game 1 blunder and were never the same). However, don’t fall into the trap that this run was easy for the Warriors. They coasted through much of the regular season then in the playoffs couldn’t always just flip the switch. That said, the Warriors handled the Spurs and Pelicans in the first two rounds fairly easily (4-1 series wins) then came the real test, the top-seeded Houston Rockets. The combination of MVP James Harden and a switching defense had Houston up 3-2 in that series (and they led at half of Game 7). But a combination of a Chris Paul hamstring issue and the Warriors playing better with their backs against the Wall propelled the Warriors back to the NBA Finals. Where the competition was a lot less stiff. Will things be different in 2019 or are the Warriors destined for a three-peat?
2. Kawhi Leonard forces way out of San Antonio, is traded to Toronto Raptors. Just a few short years ago, Leonard was the present and future of San Antonio – a Finals MVP, a defensive force coming into his own on offense, and he seemed built right out of the Gregg Popovich mold. He was quiet and cultivated an image of caring about nothing but basketball. However, Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs started to sour, with the breaking point being the course of treatment for quadriceps tendonitis. (How much voices from inside Leonard’s camp pushing him out of small market San Antonio played into this is a matter of conjecture.) By the end, Leonard didn’t want to be in San Antonio and the Spurs had to trade him — not to Los Angeles, where he wanted to be (allegedly), but to Toronto in a package centered around DeMar DeRozan. Leonard is the best player the Raptors have ever had, is playing near his MVP level, the Raptors have the best record in the NBA (despite some bumps integrating everyone) and, with LeBron in the West, is 2019 the year Toronto breaks through to the Finals? If so, does Leonard stay or leave as a free agent? Leonard isn’t talking, which is one thing back to normal.
1. LeBron James heads west, signs with Los Angeles Lakers. This changed the entire balance of power in the NBA, and at the same time it revived the biggest brand of any NBA team after it had gone through a franchise-worst slump of five seasons without the playoffs. LeBron started 2018 as a frustrated Cleveland Cavalier, but after a trade deadline roster shakeup there was enough around LeBron for him to will this team to the Finals (his eighth straight trip). But LeBron was done in Cleveland and wanted to move on to the next phase of his career — and while he played his cards close to his vest all season he wanted to go to Los Angeles. He made the call on the first day of free agency. LeBron is a Laker now and has turned that team into a playoff squad (probably) while the L.A. front office tries to figure out which of their young players fit with LeBron and how to get another star to the team. LeBron’s decision changed the NBA because it opened up the East — Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee, maybe Philly (if they add some depth) have a shot at the Finals. This also comes with risk for LeBron — for the Lakers’ legacy is judged in titles. If he wants to see his name and jersey up with Magic, Kobe, Wilt and the rest he needs to win a ring in L.A. Or two. And at age 34 that will not be easy.