As has become the norm, 2018 was a wild year in the NBA.
LeBron James heading to Los Angeles, the Toronto Raptors trading DeMar DeRozan and getting Kawhi Leonard in return, and we’ve even had a couple of stars in Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry publicly flirt with common (and very dumb) conspiracy theories.
Whatever your thoughts on those examples of 2018’s wackiness, the one common thread between them is that they were all fairly unpredictable.
In a league where most believe the champion is determined before any games are played, the NBA’s greatest strength probably lies in its unpredictability, especially when it comes to player movement.
So, with that said, while 2018 was great, we’re hoping 2019 will be that much more fun, and here are five bold predictions for the year that can make that happen.
1. The Toronto Raptors will win their first-ever NBA championship
Given the fact they sport a 26-11 record, this one shouldn’t seem all that bold. However, when you take into consideration the Raptors’ less-than-stellar playoff track record — and the fact the Golden State Warriors still exist – this is about as crazy they come.
Just crazy enough to happen, that is.
Thanks to both a very hot start from Raptors themselves and relatively slow jumps out the gate from some of their expected the rivals – the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, in particular – Toronto finds itself in a blessed position to win the East and possibly finish with the best record in the NBA.
Both of these points would be important for the Raptors as finishing first means there’s a good chance they can get through a first- or even second-round playoff series without too much worry before buckling up for an East final with home-court advantage.
And having that home-court advantage will be vital for the Raptors in the Finals because, if all things go as most expect, they will be seeing the Warriors there. And no matter how much more vulnerable Golden State has appeared, they’ll still be a ridiculously tough out come playoff time.
Boldly declaring the Raptors are going to win it all might set off some serious alarm bells among the team’s always-paranoid, always-passionate fanbase, but now’s not the time to turtle into an inferiority-complex shell of doubt.
Are there still problems with the team? Sure, but that’s every team in the league, and everything that ails the Raptors can be corrected in time for the post-season.
The reality with this team, however, is it’s the best one in franchise history. This is a team that has a legitimate superstar, strong ancillary stars and a good-enough supporting cast of role players that can defend and shoot, and is definitely a team that can win an NBA championship this season.
2. A Duke player won’t be drafted No. 1 overall
The NCAA season thus far has been captured by the exploits of a quartet of Duke freshmen who have led the Blue Devils to a No. 1 ranking in the country.
In particular, most talk has centred around Canadian R.J. Barrett and his high-flying frontcourt mate Zion Williamson, and the perceived battle for No. 1 overall pick in this coming June’s NBA draft.
They both make compelling cases with eye-popping stats and off-the charts athleticism – make that “alien-level athleticism” in Williamson’s case – to go along with size, playmaking ability and shooting touch.
These are all traits that would make them worthy first-overall picks, but what if all those same traits were present, except in a seven-foot-three package?
Oregon’s Bol Bol is that player, and he has all the skills that Barrett and Williamson bring – maybe except for the bullish strength – with the exception being he’s over seven feet tall.
We are in the age of unicorns in the NBA, and seeing how guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo can dominate despite coming into the league far too skinny, why wouldn’t a team decide to take a chance on a player who can already shoot better than the Greek superstar and features a similar handle and passing ability?
Son of former NBA player Manute Bol, this Bol has far more skill than his father ever did, but can still block shots in a similar manner because of his size and length. At the moment, he’s battling a foot injury, which may hurt his draft stock. But if he gets healthy in time for the draft, there’s no reason why he can’t blow past all the Dukie hype and go first overall.
3. The Sacramento Kings will reach the post-season
In the midst of their best season since the 2005-06 campaign – the last time they made the playoffs – this 2018-19 Kings team is plenty good enough to end that 12-season post-season drought.
For all the flack Kings GM Vlade Divac took for call his squad a “super team, just young,” his words are looking prophetic.
The DeMarcus Cousins trade with the New Orleans Pelicans a couple seasons ago has worked out with guard Buddy Hield blossoming into the team’s leading scorer, and 2017 first-round pick (No. 5 overall) De’Aaron Fox taking a big step in his second season establishing himself as a potential all-star point guard.
Then, in the frontcourt, Kings centre Willie Cauley-Stein has turned himself into a nice defensive player, and this past June’s No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III has shown some flashes this season when healthy.
The Kings currently find themselves in a scrum of Western bubble teams hunting for a playoff spot, but with both the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks coming back down to earth after surprising starts, Sacramento can sneak its way in there.
Just about the only thing that could derail the Kings is the reportedly contentious relationship between head coach Dave Joerger and assistant GM Brandon Williams.
The crux of the tension reportedly stems from comments Joerger made about Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic before a game between the two teams. Joerger praised the rookie-of-the-year frontrunner, something that was misconstrued as a veiled shot at Williams and the Kings’ decision to draft Bagley at No. 2.
Joerger walked back some of his comments and the situation has appeared to smooth itself out, but it’s worth monitoring as the season goes along.
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4. Brook Lopez will win the three-point shootout during all-star weekend
In a sign of recognition to how the league was going and how he may keep his career going, Milwaukee Bucks centre Brook Lopez will not only enter the 2019 all-star three-point competition, he’s going to win it all.
It’s a story that’s been told many times before, but for those unaware: Lopez is a player who was drafted out of Stanford as a traditional back-to-the-basket centre and, as such, took a combined 31 three-point shots during the first eight seasons of his career. In the two seasons after that, Lopez attempted 387 and 325, and this year he’s on pace for more than 500.
A remarkable career transformation, this season with Milwaukee, Lopez is actually taking far more threes than two-point attempts as he’s embraced his new role as a stretch five.
Thus it will be poetic when Lopez enters the three-point contest and wins it all as it will be the full realization of the complete 180 in his playing style.
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5. The Los Angeles Clippers will strike out in free agency
A lot is being made of the Clippers and their forthcoming free agent pursuits this coming summer.
As has been written before, there are many reasons why premier free agents may be looking the Clippers’ way this summer.
But just because there’s logic behind something doesn’t mean it will happen.
The problem with this list is they all have good reasons to be elsewhere besides the Clippers (or just stay where they’re at).
For Leonard, there’s been no indication from him that he necessarily likes Toronto, but the same can be said of him disliking the city. But the bottom line is he’s in a very good, winning situation right now and that could entice him to remain where he is.
In the case of the two Warriors, Durant and Thompson, they play for, arguably, the greatest team in NBA history. They may need to take a pay cut to stick together, but that’s a small price to pay when you’re winning a championship almost every season. And, especially in Durant’s case, going to the city that LeBron James is in will automatically make you second fiddle.
Meanwhile, Butler’s trade to the Sixers and his glowing comments afterward appeared to indicate he wants to stay there long term, and Irving has expressed interest in staying with the Celtics for at least one more season.
Apart from the Lob City blip, the Clippers have lost far more than they’ve won, and they’ve never been an enticing free-agent destination. Players remember this. So don’t be surprised if July rolls around and you see stories centred around the Clippers unable to sign anyone of great significance