The 2017-18 NBA season is finally here. The Warriors are the toast of the sporting world for their dominance, but a lot goes on between October and June. The league is enjoying a silver age of talent, exciting play and unprecedented profitability. It's never been healthier, even if competitive balance has never been worse.
Here's a look at 50 reasons to be excited for the 2017-18 NBA season:
1. BRAVE NEW WORLD
The Golden State Warriors last season were essentially an Extinction Level Event. They killed off what basketball was, and from the ashes, this bizarre new kingdom has risen, with new alliances formed out of necessity as much as opportunity. Players with an absolutely insane 66 combined All-Star appearances changed teams this summer, and that doesn't even include DeMarcus Cousins, who was traded at the deadline last year.
The Rockets took one of the best offenses in league history and added a future Hall of Famer and defensive pieces while bringing back all of their key components offensively (with apologies to Patrick Beverley). The Timberwolves shifted the rebuild into hyper-drive by trading for top-15 player Jimmy Butler. The Thunder added two of the best scoring forces in the league with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Cavaliers and Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving ... to one another! That happened! The Celtics totally reformatted their team.
More than that, the NBA has fully embraced a new universe in terms of how the game is played. Versatility has never been more important. Shooting has never been more important. Sacrifice and smart offense are essential pillars. You have to be able to shoot, defend, and pass or you're a near-liability. So few teams are wasting their top tier talents in outdated systems because players have seen what a more synergistic approach can create and how that's necessary to beat today's defenses.
The Warriors are still the story, still looming over everything. Beneath their shadow, the sport is thriving -- it's stocked with the more superstar-driven teams than it has been since the mid-1990's as well as the most fun style of play it has ever seen, in part because of the changes the Warriors have brought about.
2. DR. RUSSELL AND MR. WESTBROOK
The 2016-17 Russell Westbrook MVP campaign was everything we imagined it could be. It was a journey deep into the id, the psychological construct that is rooted in impulse. Westbrook's season wasn't beautiful or poetic. It was monstrous, as he rammed the ball down the opponent's throat. You couldn't stop him, you could only hope to limit the rest of the feeble Thunder offense so that you could outpace him. You survived Westbrook like you were barely climbing onto the dock before Jaws caught you.
This season cannot be like that, but it can't be without that, either. Westbrook has to find that version and harness it on call, while embracing a version of himself that's more game manager, more point guard, less human torpedo and more dynamic arsenal maintenance.
This is Westbrook's team; if you ask the Thunder, that's the way it's always been. With George and Anthony on board in contract years, it's on Westbrook to take the team forward while bringing those two into the fold and forming a stronger alliance with them. Westbrook's usage last season was literally the highest in NBA history. Westbrook wouldn't have been on board with the moves to add those players if he was't good with taking a step back.
Still, there will be nights and moments where he has to do Westbrook things.
The Thunder have an abundance of clutch now. Hopefully they won't need it as often as they did last year. If they do, then they'll have options, but there will still be a need for id Westbrook -- the mad man with no regard for anything.
Watching Westbrook adjust will be fascinating. He is a smart passer, but that gets overlooked despite him averaging double-digits assists last season. Passing is at the root of what he does. He forces the double, drops it to the baseline cutter or spot-up man, or finds the shooter who's open because his man is creeping to guard Westbrook's drive.
The best way to make the most of the kind of talent OKC has is to layer in some complexity,. Can Westbrook operate in that kind of offense when he's such a direct-line player? Can he wield the scalpel as well as the hatchet? That's worth tuning in for on its own.
3. THE WARRIORS AND VIDEO GAME MERCILESSNESS
The Warriors beat their opponent by 30 points or more nine times last season, four more than the second-closest team (Chicago). Make that threshold a 20-point victory, and the total jumps to 23. The Warriors beat their opponents by more than 20 in over a quarter of their games last season.
All that in their first season together where it took them until the playoffs to really figure things out, and they still managed to win 67 games.
Golden State doesn't just beat you, it thrashes you like a middle-manager destroying the Xbox opponent on "easy" setting after a tough day of work where the boss yelled at them. They run up the score to the point where the computer would start deducting experience points. The Warriors have blown past hubris and arrogance, all of it well earned, and are straight up obscene. They somehow manage to be dismissive of those teams beneath them while still putting the foot all the way through the throat, just to make a point.
This season will go one of two ways: Either Golden State is going to take the season off, coast because they can, and put on a very Spurs-like "yeah, we'll win 60 games but we're not going to make a thing out of it," or ... they're going to challenge their own record of 73 wins, and somehow make their blowouts even more mind-boggling.
The Warriors have always enjoyed beating James Harden since their 2015 Western Conference finals matchup. Now you add in Chris Paul, who the Warriors have basically tried to nudge towards the basketball grave by breaking his spirit, and their intent to maim will only increase. The Thunder, who Golden State beat by an average 20.6 points per 100 possessions last year, added Melo and PG. And no one can stop talking about how the Spurs not only beat Golden State on opening night last year, but were up 20 before Kawhi Leonard's ... ahem ... unfortunate injury.
So not only does Golden State have another year together and better chemistry, but they've spent all summer hearing the hype about these teams. If the Warriors look to make a point, which is their M.O., their wins will only get more impressive, no matter how predictable they may be.
4. LEBRON JAMES: THE MARTIAN
In 2015, Ridley Scott's The Martian was nominated for an Academy Award for its portrayal of a botanist stranded on the Red Planet. The movie wasn't really worthy of an Oscar; it's what I describe as a "things happen" movie. Some stuff happens, then some more stuff happens, and there's some dialogue, and then the end. The movie doesn't have a greater meaning, it doesn't have anything to say about life, philosophy, human nature (outside of some vague "we can do great things to help one another" stuff), politics, religion, science (outside of some "we should keep exploring" ideas), or art.
I've also rewatched the movie literally somewhere north of 48 times. I can put forth a pretty strong argument for The Martian as the most re-watchable film ever made. It's well-paced, interesting, it has both humor and drama, the cast and their performances are strong. More than anything, it's uplifting without being drenched in sap. It's also got real stakes you can invest in: This person is stranded on the most hostile environment man has ever (in the film's universe) stepped foot on with help 33.9 million miles away.
What does any of this have to do with LeBron James?
Well, for starters, he's been stranded. Yes, Kevin Love is still in Cleveland, but Love is more like the rover Matt Damon uses in the movie; Love is his only way to go anywhere on the planet, but he's not getting off Mars with him. There's still talent in Cleveland, even if some of it is limited by age or injury. His situation isn't analogous in that he's in danger of suffocating in the harsh atmosphere around him because of his teammates, but by how on his own he is right now.
James put together a season with a career high in rebounds and assists per game ... and didn't win MVP. He had one of the most dominant playoff runs of his career ... and lost in a Gentleman's Sweep to the Warriors. Golden State has a sleeper hold on the title for the foreseeable future, which could extend past James' career. The second-best player on his team requested a trade in part because he didn't want to play with James anymore. The franchise he helped resurrect where he tried to instill a new culture that mimicked the success he found in Miami let the GM who architect of their championship go and then replaced him with the default assistant to be promoted. His owner is openly friends with a politician James is in the midst of an ongoing feud with. Everyone else got better this summer and Isaiah Thomas won't be on the floor for months.
James is in a lonely place, even if he has friend Dwyane Wade along for the ride.
The Martian is re-watchable because it's a well-made film about a guy who just has to survive, and whose resourcefulness and personality is compelling on-screen. James will put together another impressive, incredible season that will be overshadowed by the circumstances around him. And just as you spend the entirety of The Martian waiting for Mark Watney to escape Mars, we'll spend much of this season waiting for James to make his second free-agency departure from Cleveland, only instead of returning home, we're watching him find some distant new planet to make his home.
No matter what he decides this summer, one thing is certain. Given Cleveland's situation, LeBron James is going to have to science the hell out of this.
5. DEMARCUS COUSINS: THE MAMMOTH IN THE ROOM
I'm done waiting for Cousins. Every year for the past three seasons I've gone in thinking, "This is it, this is going to be the year Boogie puts it all together." And he did.
He made incredible passes:
He added a 3-point shot:
And he straight beasted:
But his team never won. Not in Sacramento and not in New Orleans, even after being paired with Anthony Davis. The Pels weren't bad with that pairing, and injuries and suspensions got in the way, but instead of rampaging to a very available eighth seed like most thought they would after the deal, the Pelicans just ran in place.
If the Pelicans put it together, Cousins is stepping onto the stage as the kind of impact superstar his talent has always made him out to be. If the experiment crashes and burns, it will be two franchises that bet on him that he's left ruined, as New Orleans will certainly have to consider trading him at the deadline, likely for even less return than the little they gave for him.
Cousins is this monstrous personality, simultaneously a sweetheart who gives a lot to the community and cares about his family and close friends, and also this cantankerous giant who has a habit of making those around him miserable. There are teammates who will vouch for him, and there are those who won't refute the stories and complaints about his behavior. No one is a saint all the time, and no one is a jerk all the time; Cousins' trouble is that he hasn't found a way to convert that negative energy into something positive the way Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett did. Until he does, he'll remain this huge story, where every time you want to dismiss him, you realize how incredible his talent and the skills he's worked to develop are, and every time you want to anoint him, he does the one thing he needs to avoid.
In an era of complicated central characters on television, you may not find a better one than DeMarcus Cousins.
6. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD STARS
This could very well be the last season we see the Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaway. Dwyane Wade is now the guy who gets waived and tacks on with his friend's big-name team to ring chase. Carmelo Anthony is now a supporting role player. Vince Carter ... will probably play 10 more years, who am I kidding? But the stars from the latter half of the 2000s are all heading into the home stretch, and it's never been more difficult for a star to age.
Yes, there are better rest practices and injury treatments. Yes, players are playing in the league longer. Stars, though, have to adjust to a league that is worlds different from the one when they thrived in during their primes. Wade has never been a 3-point shooter, and now if you're a 2-guard that doesn't shoot the 3, you're hard to build around. Wade was always an exception with his playmaking, versatility, and incredible at-rim efficiency, but those are the things that have gone first as they always do. Nowitzki is going to play a lot at center this year, and if I'd told you that seven years ago you would have thrown water in my face.
Still, we need to not let these stars go in our rush to hold up this era (headlined by the Warriors) as superior. The stars who are fading can be appreciated for how great they were and still are while recognizing what the current game does to unlock guys like Stephen Curry.
Wade is still going to hit that twisting runner. Chris Paul will still bury teams in the pick-and-roll. Carmelo Anthony will still get buckets. And Dirk Nowitzki, the NBA's greatest European player ever, will still hit those shots that made him an MVP, a Finals MVP, a champion and one of the most fun-to-watch stars since the turn of the millennium. Hold onto these things before they're gone; we never get to see them again once they're done.
7. IT'S KYRIE'S FLAT WORLD NOW
Who could have seen this coming two years ago? Who could have seen that Kyrie Irving would become one of the more divisive figures in the NBA, simultaneously talked about as an elite talent that transforms your team and a storm in a bottle that brings with it real concerns.
Irving has come of age in the NBA and found his voice. And that voice, my friends, has some weird things to say. Irving had always been an odd bird, a strange duck, a peculiar fowl and any other bird metaphors. But last season, Irving had clearly decided to announce his weird self to the world.
Remember that reports from ESPN after his trade demand finally leaked this summer indicated that Irving had first thought of asking out of Cleveland in June ... after the Cavaliers had won a title. You win a title, and 98 percent of all basketball players just want to feel that same feeling again in a year with the same team. Not Irving. Irving had checked the box, "champion," and now wanted to expand that brand. The next year he dropped the now-infamous word that he believes the world is flat. Irving has gone on to say that he was just messing with people, but never so convincingly to extinguish the memes.
What's more, his trade demand went from casual interest to full-bore line in the sand this summer, resulting in a trade to the Celtics -- of all teams -- and the result of his burning that bridge behind him is a fire pit between Irving and the mentor he never wanted, LeBron James.
We live in the era of "shoot your shot," and Irving's was one across the bow. Irving has effectively put his own personal stakes against that of the best player of the last 20 years. If Irving and his Celtics topple LeBron James, the message that sends is deafening. In the meantime, we're getting a taste of what Sports Illustrated's Open Floor podcast calls "Coffee Shop Kyrie." This is the Irving who said on an appearance on a morning show that he is "very much woke." He's the one who speaks in obfuscation, then turns around and pokes his former city with a hot knife.
In an era dominated by scoring guards and where subtle clues written on T-shirts and in Instagram captions are the topic day to day, Irving is well suited to step into his own spotlight. Meanwhile, he's flanked by fierce defenders and rim runners. Irving is better set up to succeed in Boston than nearly any player in their first year in a new system. He's at once the focal point of a talented team and aligned with players suited to cover for his weaknesses. Irving has made constant conversation about being on the verge of a major playmaking breakout. Yet, even if he never embraces ball movement or a different style, all he has to do on Boston is what he's best at: getting buckets.
He does that, and he gets to make the conversation anything he wants it to be.
8. BRAD STEVENS: MICHELIN (STAR) MAN
Great chefs are mad men, driven by perfection and creativity in some combination.
If Brad Stevens is a great chef, his lunacy is hidden behind that aw-shucks grin of his which screams, "I'm super excited J.C. Penney is having a Dockers sale today."
Stevens has handled his first four years in the NBA with perfection. No matter how much success is attributed to him, no matter how good the team is despite what has been considered a mediocre roster, Stevens defers. You don't find one-on-one profiles fawning over his approach. He credits his players at every turn.
And yet, Stevens is the chef that makes more of the ingredients than they are on their own. Now, for the first time, he's been given first choice at the market. No more discount role players turned into surprising contributors. He's stocked with star talent and capable role players. He's not growing a garden of young talent anymore, he's serving braised duck with watermelon salad and don't you dare forget dessert.
Stevens has real expectations now, and the means to meet them. No matter how painful losing beloved players in Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley may be for the Green faithful, the elite talent has improved. Stevens created stew from spare ingredients, what will he do with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and all the herbs and spices to feed the title hungry?
9. KEVIN DURANT, UNTETHERED
Kevin Durant has never been more fascinating, more relatable and less likable.
The Warriors star won the NBA title and Finals MVP in this first season with Golden State. The established path is that when a player wins, no matter how much grief we give him, he's forgiven. Instead, Durant has never been more divisive after being discovered this summer authoring burner accounts to defend himself and going on a PR binge with appearances on the Bill Simmons podcast.
Yet ... he might be the best player in the NBA. He's without a doubt the best player in the NBA that is obsessed with how he's perceived. Durant's playoff run may have been the product of how the Warriors put him in the easiest position to succeed, but the result was still the best playoff performance of his career.
Durant should have nothing left to prove. And yet ... here he is, actively arguing with egg avatars in pursuit of defending his good name. A multimillionaire superstar athlete with Silicon Valley aspirations with his own signature Nike shoe line, spending his nights chasing down haters on social media.
What's the next step for Durant? Where does he go from here? If he can't be satisfied with his own success, he's never going to earn the public's support back. You can say "people have to respect him," but his respect has never been in question. Will Durant just punish the league more? Will he fade into the background, quietly getting 25-7-5 for the best team in the league, coasting to another title? Does he push harder, challenging the widely held thought that while Durant is the best player, Stephen Curry is the most important?
There's nothing really compelling about the Warriors, but there's a lot that's compelling about watching Durant this season, on and off the court.
10. THE WIZARDS ARE HERE TO PREACH
Washington is not screwing around. For years, the Wizards lazed about on a river of sub-competency. They weren't disasters, they just weren't good enough. They went on a 2015 run where they were a John Wall wrist injury away from knocking off the 1-seed Hawks to get a shot at LeBron James and the Cavs in a year they were vulnerable, and followed it up by missing the playoffs entirely. A season later and the Wizards had validated their stake to the top tier in the East.
Tricky thing about success, though, it breeds expectation a poison in the well. For the first time, though, the Wizards seem ready to take them on. Washington doesn't have to worry about what other people think because it finally answered its own self doubts. John Wall, fresh off double knee surgery, took his offensive game to another level and put in an MVP-candidate worthy season. Bradley Beal shook off injury woes and planted his flag among the great scoring guards in this league. Otto Porter climbed out of the cage of mediocrity and showed what he's capable of -- an elite perimeter defense and floor spacing.
The bench is better and the chemistry tighter this time around. Wall and Beal have nights where they are a plague, seemingly everywhere on both ends at once. Porter punishes teams for bringing help. Marcin Gortat keeps leveling brick wall screens and deft dips in the lane off the role. After being blamed for every failure of the Thunder despite three Western Conference finals appearances, Scott Brooks took the Wizards to a new level last year by tweaking the offense.
Bradley Beal still takes pull-up mid-range shots. The Wizards still zone out on defense. But their energy and style is sharper, brighter, it carries more energy. These Wizards believe in themselves.
And they're ready to make believers out of you.
11. KAWHI LEONARD: COLDEST WRAITH
It must be unnerving trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard as an opponent. He doesn't say anything, he doesn't make an expression, he doesn't celebrate or act dejected. He just moves from one point in space to another, always reaching for you and that ball you foolishly believe belongs to you. Leonard is basically this dude:
Leonard's efficiency is ubiquitous; he's as good spotting up as he is driving, or pulling-up in isolation, or in the pick-and-roll, or in the post. There's not an area or matchup he can't win (with the possible exception of a few defensive assignments vs. large players in the post). Check out what he does to Harrison Barnes at the 2:17 mark here, or Tyson Chandler at the 4:18 mark:
You think you're safe, and then bam, there's Leonard -- when he's healthy, that is -- appearing in the cabin window like Jason Voorhees. He might as well play in a hockey mask.
Leonard's offensive game, stylistically, not quantitatively is like that of Michal Jordan's, if he were dead inside. Statue of Liberty dunks, the straight up and down jumper, the post-up fadeaway, it's all reminiscent of and Undead Airness. Leonard keeps coming at you, over and over again, until you break, and watching it happen brings the same thrill that packs movie theaters for horror films.
Don't cover your eyes.
12. THE ROCKETS' RED GLARE AND BASKETBALL NAPOLEON
Everyone is waiting for the glare at Harden. They're waiting for this Houston team to be torn apart by chemistry problems borne from adding everyone's favorite basketball Napoleon, Chris Paul. Paul, like the diminutive French dictator, is a brilliant tactician, and, like Napoleon, can rub players the wrong way. But Napoleon was hailed as a tactical genius, just as Paul is.
This Rockets team is not the product of some grand design. Paul is not a perfect fit, nor is P.J. Tucker or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. This squad isn't so much an experiment as it is an attempt to remodel something that works, and hope it comes out better. Houston sacrificed some of its depth in the Chris Paul trade, with the simple idea from Daryl Morey that adding a player of Paul's caliber will make them better, and they can just figure it out.
If the formula -- 3-pointers, transition layups, free throws and lobs -- works, this team is going to be fearsome. If last year's Rockets squad was an arcade game of basketball fun, this one has the potential to be the adult version, more refined, more structured, and tougher, but still explosive.
More than anything, Houston is a passing fan's dream. Harden and Paul are two of the absolute best passers in the league, not just for their ingenuity, but their precision. Tracking the ball will take your full attention on this squad, if they don't wind up regretting the decision to team up.
13. THE FLYING BULLIES OF OKC
There's a bit of a trapeze act going on with this Thunder team. They're swinging through the air, hoping to figure out how to catch one another swing each other to the next rope. Westbrook, George, and Anthony have to figure out, on the go, how to make this work together. Who gets what usage, who takes what shot, what their identities are. It's not always the way it looks going in. Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, even Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen, all these players became different players than they thought they'd be on super-teams.
Meanwhile, this team is going to bully teams. We've Steven Adams is one of the toughest guys in the league. Andre Roberson is endlessly physical. Even Carmelo Anthony has a little bit of a bully in him. Paul George was a key part of those Pacers teams that strangled their opponents.. Westbrook is pure aggression.
There's a meanness to this team, wrought by how disrespected and disregarded this team feels. The Thunder were left behind, and summarily insulted through burner accounts by their former teammate Kevin Durant. George feels that the Pacers did wrong by him (for some reason). Melo correctly believes that most people question if he can really contribute to a winning team. While there's certainly a lot of excitement about this team, there's also skepticism that they can make it work.
That, combined with a physical approach to defense, could be a good thing. The Thunder are trying to figure out if this is going to work, if PG and Melo will stay, if they can really mount a challenge to Golden State. (What a challenge looks like is another question entirely.) Resentment breeds resiliency. OKC has a lot of things to figure out for this to work together, and with just a year to make it happen, there's not much of a net. But there will be times they fly, and times when they land firmly on their opponents.
14. DENVER'S TECHNO SYMPHONIC
The Nuggets' offense is heavy on synth and strings. It's melodic and acerbic, it's weird and it's beautiful at times. To wit:
With Paul Millsap on board, this thing could really sing by mid-season. It will take some time for Millsap and Nikola Jokic to figure out how to compliment one another, but given both their skillsets and selflessness it's more likely they figure it out than not. Meanwhile, their guards are all cutters and shooters, their wings are all threes that can play four and fours that can play fives and fives that can play 1's.
Jokic's over-the-shoulder dishes, Gary Harris' "supercuts," Wilson Chandler's do-it-all, Juancho Hernangomez' perfect role player function, Millsap's versatility ... Denver brings everything to the table offensively. Whether the Nuggets are able to defend well enough to win games will be another question, but this team's offense will hum and thump like you're at the Electric Daisy Carnival. Break out the glow sticks, enjoy the ride.
15. MARC AND MIKE: THE BUDDY COPS
Did you see The Nice Guys?" The 2016 film grossed $50 million against a modest $57 million budget, and has a 92 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is emblematic of where the film industry stands: a great, subtle film with star actors (Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe) that grossed zero dollars.
Oh, hey, look, it's the Grizzlies.
Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are such an odd pairing at first glance it definitely looks like a buddy cop movie. Gasol, the refined Spaniard who used to wear a giant black designer trench coat and Conley, the Indiana kid who's painfully polite. But they've formed a bond that continues to flourish in Memphis. Every year, people have anticipated Memphis' demise, and every year, the Grizzlies have made the playoffs behind these two.
Conley and Gasol's dribble-hand-off work is sublime, watching two great actors carry out banter while interrogating a suspect:
"Grit 'N Grind" is over in Memphis, and their Island of Misfit Toys has gotten even even less fit. There are all sorts of ways this season could go sideways, and that could spell the end of this duo. That's all the more reason to enjoy it while it lasts, this lovable combination of stone and water, precision and grit (minus grind), agility and nobility. Enjoy the stakeout.
16. BROOKLYN'S ZOMBIE ARMY
The Nets, no kidding, are crazy fun. They just have a zillion guys who are fun to watch. D'Angelo Russell, Jeremy Lin, Sean Kilpatrick, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the list goes on and on. The Nets have all these guys, like RHJ, who have individual moves on moves. They just have to learn to use them together:
Brooklyn is already "dead" so to speak. They have little hope of making a playoff run, though making it is always possible in the East. They don't have a top pick. Most of their roster won't be on it in three years, if that. But here they are, scrambling up walls like it's World War Lin. The Nets can be OK, but they can't be "good." What they can be is dangerous fun, and for the first time in a long time, they seem genuinely worth watching this year.
17. THE SPARTAN WOLVES
This Timberwolves are about to be very Tom Thibodeau. Tough defense. ISO and ISO-out-of-pick-and-roll-heavy offense. But they are also going to have the bunker mentality that Thibodeau instills, with some absolutely fearsome talent. Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Taj Gibson. (And Andrew Wiggins, sure.) They will battle and they will have nights when they overwhelm you with sword and shield. There will be nights where their phalanx shuts down any and all attack and they just slowly mow up possessions.
There's a toughness that will be endemic based off their identity. Thibodeau failed to convert that attitude last year, but Butler and Gibson will drag this team kicking and screaming into formation. The Wolves will be of a single mind and led by a coach and player with tunnel vision, no matter the cost. The battle is their life, and the Wolves intend to live this year.
18. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO: THE HUMAN ARSENAL
We talk about players as part of a team's "weapons." Giannis Antetokounmpo is an entire weapons system on his own.
Antetokounmpo is this really sweet kid who also happens to be a demon on the floor. He's ruthless, a trash-talker, a mean-mugging villain with helicopter arms and the ability to basically teleport across the length of the floor. He's strong enough to go over Tristan Thompson, fast enough to get past LeBron James, skilled enough to finish in traffic or find the open pass. Yes, the jump shot still needs work. But Antetokounmpo has improved in totals and per-game figures year over year in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks ever year of his career, as has his field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage.
The Freak could be a real MVP candidate this year -- even drawing Bucks could be real troublemakers, and the arsenal is something to behold.-- the
19. TORONTO: THE SURVIVORS
You can't get rid of this team. It's clear after this summer that Masai Ujiri is only willing to give this core a run for another three years, which is why Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka's deals end the same year DeMar DeRozan's does. But that's three years. Meanwhile, this team is loaded with survivors. Drop them out of a plane onto a mountain top, into a desert, wherever, and they are going to find a way to manufacture 45-plus wins and a top-four seed in the East (and not just because it's the East).
They put together makeshift defenses to thwart off threats, like when DeRozan stepped up last March to keep the Raptors in third, or how Norman Powell has become a pivotal part of their future. They are resourceful and ingenious, even if their offense is mostly boilerplate boredom most of the time. They should be dead to rights with the depth they lost over the summer, but instead, they just keep finding ways. Check this team out in the regular season to watch Lowry's ninja-like agility sliding through defenders, Powell's attack-dog mentality, a promising young core, and DeRozan, if you're into that sort of thing.
If you like watching the cast of The Walking Dead make their way through an apocalyptic landscape and keep finding their way out, or like watching survival reality TV shows, the Raptors are a must-watch. They keep finding ways to survive the NBA regular season. Now if they could just figure out how to hunt in the playoffs.
20. BLAKE GRIFFIN: THOR, THE UNWORTHY
Part of the plot for the original Thor film from Marvel Studios is that Thor is found "unworthy" by his father Odin to wield his magical hammer that gives him his extraordinary power to beat the living hell out of people and things. He spends most of the film trying to recover it. In the new flick, Thor: Ragnarok, his hammer is broken. The point is, the most compelling part of the modern rendition of the ancient Norse god of thunder comes when he's left without that weapon, and the idea of being "worthy."
Blake Griffin is kind of in that spot now.
He's without Chris Paul, the diminutive floor general who found Griffin constantly for lobs and pick-and-pops, who spearheaded the defense and managed the offense. But this also means he's free. Griffin can go in a bold new direction because the expectations are different for him. The Clippers have become a trendy pick in part because they should play with more joy now that Paul is in Houston, but also because if Griffin is healthy -- always a dicey proposition -- he can take his game to an entirely higher level.
And if Griffin proves everyone who has doubted him and takes his game to another level? Watch out for that hammer.
21. C.J. AND DAME: FIRESTARTERS
Two players that get hot instantly. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are the best scoring backcourt outside of Golden State. Lillard, at this point, is underrated for how explosive he is scoring the ball, and McCollum continues to take his game to higher levels; watch out for McCollum leading bench units this season, showcasing how he can take over as the No. 1 option. There will be nights you will be scrambling to get to League Pass seeing that one of these two have 30 going into the fourth.
22. ANTHONY DAVIS: THE FRIENDLY DRAGON
The wingspan of an actual winged dragon. The ability to spit fire like an actual fire-breathing dragon. Anthony Davis is about as close as you're going to get to Viserion from Game of Thrones. Davis terrorizes teams like a winged fiend. It's popular to be down on the Pelicans, but if Davis takes his game to another level -- he's still just 24 -- Davis may have to be reclassified as a new hybrid dragon-man species of human.
23. ISAIAH THOMAS STRIKES BACK
As someone(defense, overall impact, etc.), even I'm stunned at the disrespect Thomas had to go through this summer.
After returning to play with Boston following the death of his sister, then playing through a hip injury to try and lead the team that he feels might have contributed to the condition worsening, Thomas was not only traded by the franchise he felt had finally been the one to embrace him, but was dealt for his biggest point guard rival in the East, along with Jae Crowder and the Nets pick Danny Ainge wouldn't deal for other stars. In some ways, Thomas was the throw-in.
All that, it's safe to say, makes him angry. Thomas will come back at some point this season. Hip injuries are both painful and tricky, but Thomas will be driven like never before. He's pretty much Beatrix Kiddo from "Kill Bill." Watching him on a vengeance-fueled tour playing next to LeBron James? Sign me up.
24. STEPH CURRY, POWER HARNESSED
Here's a fresh take on the guy who began the influx of pull-up 40-foot 3's in the NBA: Steph Curry's restraint is admirable. If Curry were to argue that the best possible percentage chance for the Warriors to score on any given possession is for him to just dribble around the perimeter near half-court for five seconds and then launch, could you really dispute that? He's the best shooter ever.
But instead, since Curry's completely bonkers 2016 season where he made an unbelievable -- I literally still struggle to understand that he did this -- 402 3-pointers, he's spent time learning how to be a more complete player. He committed himself last season to finding the balance between deferring to Kevin Durant and making sure he was still involved.
Now he's found that balance. He continues to improve as a passer (he's flashy but not fundamentally sound), a game manager, a defender. He's finding out how to be both the engine of the machine and the tip of the spear. Curry's game still has better places to go even if they aren't as visually jarring. Finding some subtlety in the King of Splash will be a joy unto itself.
25. PORZINGIS LEPIDOPTERA
Kristaps Porzingis could really use a great year. He took the league by storm, and then got lost in the chaotic misery of the Phil Jackson era in New York. He skipped his exit interview, has come well short of giving any support to Jeff Hornacek and, while his highlight plays are enjoyable, made less of an overall impact than many expected. (Porzingis is a terrific shot blocker but still a really rough rotational defender, for example.)
But now he gets to come out of the cocoon created by the presence of Carmelo Anthony. Anthony always involved Porzingis; it was the most deference Anthony showed at any time in New York and he really tried to look for Porzingis consistently. Still, Melo's presence fundamentally altered how New York played. Without him, Porzingis is the guy. There are no more excuses, outside of, well, it's still the Knicks. Porzingis has a chance to spread his wings and be whatever kind of player he can be.
If he embraces that opportunity, it could be his turn again to have the league raving about him as the next great big man alongside his rivals in Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic.
26. MIAMI HEAT, THE SUICIDE SQUAD
I invoke the name of this truly horrible movie because Miami embodies its spirit, however woeful the execution was. The whole idea is "we have no choice, so we'll conquer this impossible challenge." Miami is filled not with superstars or great role players but a whole bag of misfits who couldn't quite make it work elsewhere, from Goran Dragic to Hassan Whiteside to Dion Waiters to Kelly Olynyk to James Johnson.
The Heat's players are all good, they all have talent, but few have lived up to what they were expected to at one point or another. Each is battling demons. And in the end, no one can expect them to succeed. No one believes they can make a serious playoff run, but they don't need anyone to believe in them. They just need to go out and wreck.
That's what they'll do.
(P.S.: Dion Waiters is Harley Quinn in this scenario.)
27. KEVIN LOVE, FINALLY ROBIN
We've seen teams with Kevin Love as the best player fail in Minnesota. (Those squads were mostly derailed by injury, a tough Western Conference and horrible benches, but whatever.) We've seen Love disappear a times into the possession-devouring maw of an offense dominated by egalitarian LeBron James and "I must get mine because I don't know when I'll see the ball again" Kyrie Irving.
Now Love may, finally, be in the perfect spot. Love's best stretch of his career came before Kyrie Irving returned from injury, and when he was on the floor without Irving, you saw much more of what he was capable of. Love's defense last year was good. Let me slow that down and repeat it.
Kevin. Love. Played. Defense. Well. Last. Year.
Yes, he's still able to be exploited off the switch in pick-and-roll, especially against the Warriors. Breaking news: nearly every big in the league is. But he has learned to contain, gave great effort and contested at the rim.
Meanwhile, maybe we will finally see a consistent thread of LeBron James pick-and-pop action with Love this year. With Love moving to the starting 5 spot, James won't be initiating with Tristan Thompson as often, nor will Derrick Rose, a longtime bud of Love's.
Watch Love set solid screens and slip to the arc for quick-trigger 3's. Watch him snare boards with precognitive flow. Watch him actually be used effectively for once. Love was once one of the most promising stars in the league. He's entering his prime. Irving's departure could set the stage for a whole new, and better, chapter in his career.
28. PETTY SZN
Unlike other sports whose headlines are dominated by downer scandals of serious cultural importance, the NBA's headlines are flat-out ridiculous. Social media slander, t-shirt trash talk, inside jokes, memes, the NBA has it all when it comes to drama played out in public.
Draymond Green has already kicked off the year at outright laughing at comments from Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Russell Westbrook is wearing t-shirts with coded language. Joel Embiid and Hassan Whiteside are openly feuding. That was one week, before the season even started! This league is ridiculous, stupid, and impossible to resist loving.
29. CARDIAC KEMBA AND ZILLION-SCREEN ZELLER
So you're facing the Hornets. That means you're facing Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller. That means your facing all the pick-and-roll action. You can go drop:
You can blitz:
You can switch:
It isn't going to matter. This combination is one of the absolute best in the league offensively. Zeller was third in the league last year in screen assists. This combination is killer, and if the Hornets surprise people (as they do every other year), this will be a big part of it.
30. DON'T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS
The Timberwolves center finished the year on an absurd tear last year. He averaged 28.4 points and 13.4 rebounds a game shooting 60 percent from the field (seriously) after the All-Star Break. Now he's got Jimmy Butler running pick-and-roll with him, a better supporting cast, a much better power forward to help him defensively in Taj Gibson, and an opportunity to reclaim his place as the best young big man in the league, bar-none.
Towns is a 3-point-spotting, triple-threat-driving, hook-shot-dropping, screen-setting, mean-dealing son of a gun, and the future is still very much his for the taking ... if he chooses.
31. BEN AND JO-JO DOWN BY THE SCHOOL YARD
SIXERS! Ben Simmons cross-court whip passes! Joel Embiid back-down hammer dunks! Simmons in transition, flanked by J.J. Redick and Dario Saric! Embiid popping out to 3! Simmons steals! Embiid swats! Plus, whatever Markelle Fultz does besides shoot nasty free throws!
Biggest problem with Fultz free throw is that he starts it at shoulder height. Needs to start at waist level for rhythm and POWER pic.twitter.com/CExnUgao4r— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) October 9, 2017
The Sixers are on everyone's must-watch list, and this young combination will set social media on fire ... if they stay healthy.
33. JRUE HOLIDAY AND 90 FEET OF TERROR
Holiday will hound you. He's the most underrated Pelican, by far, and he's quietly terrific. A guy who can dog the fastest players all the way up the court in press, make swipes, get the ball up the floor and then deliver seamless passes, get it off glass or knock down a 3. Holiday is an omni-guard, and he's set to have a huge year.
34. JUSTIN HOLIDAY. YES, I'M SERIOUS, JUSTIN HOLIDAY
Jrue's older brother is good and no one knows this and he played really well in preseason and he's the only Chicago Bull I have any confidence in until LaVine gets back. But seriously, Justin Holiday. Buy stock now.
32. LONZO BALL AND THE CULT OF PERSONALITY
I'm not as convinced as everyone else that this kid's skills are going to translate to wins, but it's undeniable that there's something about Lonzo. And it's probably not his dad. Probably.
Ball's passes are going to make people lose their minds, and anything he does will be exaggerated by 15 degrees because he plays for the Lakers. Magic Johnson has sunk all his chips in the youngster. He's too Ball to fail.
35. KLAY THOMPSON, GETAWAY DRIVER
You think you have the Warriors. You've managed to survive Durant and keep the ball out of Curry's hands for the most part. You've gotten their defense moving and kept up with them from the perimeter. You can do this.
Then Klay Thompson comes out and drills 60 taking less than a dozen dribbles on you.
When you think you have the Warriors cornered, Thompson pops the clutch and they're off.
36. MILOS TEODOSIC
In part because of his amazing passes, in part because he always looks like he should have a cigarette dangling from his mouth, this guy will be fun to watch:
37. GREGG POPOVICH, ICON
From thrashing us mortals in post-game pressers to delivering one-liners mic'd up, to tactical adjustments and the fact that no matter what, the Spurs will come out and play the same way every night. there's a reason this guy is considered the very best year in and year out.
It's hard for anyone to dislike Popovich, and this year he could pull off one of his best tricks ever. This team isn't stocked but could still win 55 games by sheer Pop-ism alone.
38. ANDRE DRUMMOND VS. ANDRE DRUMMOND
Man-monster super-dunk destroyer of worlds? Or malcontent space cadet who drifts in and out with his effort? The biggest battle for the Pistons this year is upstairs with Andre Drummond.
39. WAITERS ISLAND GAINS STATEHOOD
He defends, he hits big shots, he makes plays, he's likable. Dion Waiters is good. Do not @ me.
40. DRAYMOND GREEN, THE MAD GENERAL
Freaking out over layups, jumping up and down when teammates don't pass the ball to other players who are not him, trash talking until his larynx is garbage, Draymond Green is by far the most entertaining Warrior.
41. DEANDRE JORDAN, THE WHOMPING WILLOW
Jordan has evolved to snuffing out pick-androlls, deterring drives and still maintaining his space. He's still an incredible pick-and-roll finisher. Jordan dealt with a lot of pressure being the third wheel in Lob City, and while he'll miss Chris Paul more than any other Clipper, he may have more fun as well. Life's about to be very good for DeAndre Jordan.
42. DEVIN BOOKER, ROBIN HOOD
Robs from the rich to give to the poor, poor Suns. Also his shot has the arc of an archer's. Booker dropped 70 last year, an incredible feat. Imagine what he can do in a game that actually matters!
43. MYLES TURNER: BECOME ARES
Myles Turner needs to absolutely wreck things. We've never seen Turner in this situation, where he's the No. 1 option. Turner has the kind of versatility to put himself on the map with the other great young bigs. Is he ready to step into the spotlight?
44. THE KINGS MIGHT NOT SUCK
I'm serious! They've got George Hill and ZBo! There's Vince Carter doing Vince Carter things at 40 years old. Their youngsters, from De'Aaron Fox to Willie Caulie-Stein to Skal Labissiere to Buddy Hield are all really promising. They have vets, youngsters, and good coaching. I'm not saying they win 40 games, but this team might genuinely not be terrible for once.
Wait, come back, I'm serious! Guys? Guys!
45. STEALTH HAWKS
The Hawks' top run of talent is very bad. Dennis Schröder is about as bad as it gets for a best player. But there's some sneaky good guys on this team. The young wings are particularly exciting and John Collins had a great preseason. Mike Budenholzer is an exceptional coach. Don't be shocked when these guys are more fun to watch than you expect.
46. JUSUF NURKIC, EVERYONE'S FAVORITE BULLY
If you like reclamation projects who dug themselves a hole in their last stop and now blame that team, if you like bullies who can absolutely overwhelm opponents with muscle and brawn, if you like bigs with a soft hook shot and shoulders like battering rams, if you like attitude, have the Blazers got a center for you.
47. ELFRID PAYTON, CARD SHARK
Payton is constantly overlooked, and this kid can play. He fills up the stat sheet yet is totally ignored in this regard. Payton tied for the fourth-most triple-doubles last season, as many as Draymond Green. Point guards start to take off when they hit Payton's age. Don't sleep on this kid.
48. STIFLE TOWER DEFENSE
Just all of this:
49. UNPARALLELED OFFENSE
Last year, there were 40 more 40-points or more performances than the year before, thanks to a combination of factors including roster makeup, more rest, and better overall health.
There's even more rest this year, better continuity with some teams, advanced firepower with others, and a sense that pace is always the way to go. What if this year the offenses go to an even higher level?
50. WHAT WE DON'T SEE COMING
The NBA always has stunning developments. Trades. Teams that come out of nowhere, like Miami over the back half of last season, or the 2015 Hawks, or the 2009 Magic. Even knowing the Warriors will hoist the title at the end, the road to get there is going to shock us, thrill us, leave us flabbergasted and at times overjoyed.
Buckle up, the 2017-18 NBA season is here.