Bold NBA predictions for 2018-19: Jazz face Raptors in Finals, a first-time MVP and the decline of Russell Westbrook

Imagine I'd told you the following things on the eve of the 2017-18 NBA season: The Indiana Pacers would come out as winners in the Paul George trade as Victor Oladipo would morph into an All-Star. The oft-overlooked Donovan Mitchell would become one of the brightest young stars in the NBA. Consensus top draftee Markelle Fultz would be a rookie dud, yet the Sixers would still fulfill The Process a year or two ahead of time as a healthy Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would become a tour de force. Blake Griffin would get traded just a few months into his monster contract extension, and the league's most compelling drama would be centered in the typically drama-free San Antonio.

You would have said I was crazy.

Or just bold.

Now, a year later, you'd call me a prophet.

That's what these predictions are for: Not the obvious predictions (The Golden State Warriors will win another title! Anthony Davis will win MVP! Luka Doncic will win Rookie of the Year!), but for the less-obvious-but-still-plausible. Conventional wisdom would say these bold predictions have less than a, say, 20 percent chance of coming true. Bold guy that I am, I'm predicting them anyway.

(The other great part of being bold? It gives me an out. If one of these predictions is way off, well, being bold means taking unnecessary risks and making unrealistic predictions. Did I believe a year ago that Lonzo Ball was going to be an immediate star and that his funky three-point shooting form -- and his bombastic father -- wouldn't negatively affect that progress? You bet I did. But was I also just being bold? Absolutely. So you can't fault me for it.)

1. The Utah Jazz will win the NBA title.

Let's begin with the boldest of the bold. You just can't get any more bold than this. But if the Jazz -- specifically Rudy Gobert -- are healthy and resemble the team that ended last year's regular season on a 29-6 romp, with the NBA's best defense (by far), then this isn't outside the realm of possibility even in a world where the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets reside in the same conference. It would take Donovan Mitchell to make the All-Star team and be in the MVP conversation, and Ricky Rubio to build on his shooting efficiency from last season. Dante Exum would need to stay healthy, and Jae Crowder would need to turn back the clock a couple years. But it could happen. The Jazz are one of the best-run organizations in the sport.

2. The Lakers will have one of the NBA's best starting units … and one of the worst benches

It's easy to get excited about the Lakers when LeBron is on the floor with starters Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma (not to mention Lonzo Ball, who'll eventually work his way to starter's minutes). Head coach Luke Walton joked after one preseason game that he thought his players were messing with him with ball movement that was occasionally remarkable as they passed up open shots for themselves to get a more open shot for a teammate. But that excitement does not extend too far down the bench. It won't just be LeBron taking breathers that'll expose the Lakers' biggest weaknesses. And it won't be Regular-Season LeBron Defense that drags down this team's efficiency. It'll be the players who replace LeBron (and Ingram, and Hart) who'll bring the Lakers down: The forever-confident Lance Stephenson, the defensive non-stalwart JaVale McGee, the enigmatic Michael Beasley.

3. The San Antonio Spurs will miss the playoffs

For the first time in 22 seasons, the Spurs will miss the playoffs, marking the official end of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. It's not just because Kawhi Leonard is gone to Toronto; the Spurs were able to squeak into the playoffs without Leonard last season. It's because starting point guard Dejounte Murray, primed for a breakout season, tore his ACL a week before the season opener. And because LaMarcus Aldridge is coming off a career season -- which would be hard to duplicate at 33 years old. It's because new acquisition DeMar DeRozan will hurt the Spurs' greatest strength, their defense, as well as their greatest weakness, an underreliance on three-point shooting. And because the final remnants of their era of dominance -- Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili -- will no longer be playing for the Spurs. It's because almost everything is different in San Antonio.

4. The Clippers will make the playoffs

Crazy? Not if you've seen this incredibly deep team during the preseason. Doc Rivers has predicted that this will be Tobias Harris' breakout season, and Harris will be especially motivated given that he'll be a free agent in the offseason. This team needs an alpha dog, and Harris can become just that. The team was ravaged by injuries last season, but a healthy Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley -- who played a combined 32 games last season -- will help the Clippers on both ends of the court. A Clippers source raved to me about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's mental makeup and work ethic during training camp, and NBA general managers agreed, voting the Kentucky product the most likely rookie to outperform his draft position. (Since he was taken 11th, that would mean the long, lean point guard will get lots of votes for Rookie of the Year.) The Clippers are mostly an afterthought in the West now, but good health, a star turn from Harris, continued progress from Montrezl Harrell and an incredibly deep backcourt will put them right in the thick of the playoff hunt -- especially with misfortune hitting Western Conference foes Minnesota and San Antonio. It's a weird roster, certainly, but one with lots of underrated strengths.

5. The Lakers' second-most important player will be Josh Hart

While Hart won't be the Lakers' second-leading scorer -- that'll be Brandon Ingram -- he'll be an incredibly useful two-way player for the Lakers. The versatile Hart fits right in with the Lakers' switch-heavy, play-fast, positionless basketball, and Luke Walton looks to be moving toward plugging Hart into the starting lineup. The guy is a winner.

6. The NBA will have its third straight first-time MVP in Joel Embiid

When I visited the Sixers in the preseason, three things jumped out. One was how positive teammates were about Markelle Fultz's development, and how confident Fultz seemed in himself. Another was that Joel Embiid predicted to me he'd win not just Defensive Player of the Year but also MVP. And the third was when backup center Amir Johnson told me that in going up against Embiid in preseason scrimmages, the Cameroonian big man had made an enormous jump since last season. You may remember that last season, Embiid was one of the most dominant big men in the league. I get that it's preseason, and October is always filled with optimism in the NBA. But I also get that since college the thing coaches and scouts have always been most impressed with about Embiid is his ability to pick up new skills quickly and add them to his game. For Embiid to be in the MVP conversation, that'll mean the Sixers will in the hunt for the one-seed in the East. Remember: This is the first offseason Embiid hasn't had to be rehabbing an injury.

7. The Celtics' second-leading scorer will be Jayson Tatum, and he won't be that far behind Kyrie Irving. 

Maybe not all that bold if you point out Tatum averaged 13.9 points per game last season, behind only Kyrie Irving and Al Horford on the Celtics. But here's what makes it bold: Gordon Hayward is back, which can only take touches away from Tatum, and Irving is presumably healthy, meaning much of the offensive load shifts in his direction, and Al Horford is still one of the quietly most efficient players in the NBA. There's only one ball, and the Celtics have lots of players who'll want to be touching it. But Tatum is one of the best young natural scorers in the NBA. He could nudge his scoring output closer to 20 points per game this season if he's given the opportunities.

8. Three young players will be first-time All-Stars: Donovan Mitchell, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner

If Mitchell progresses at the same rate he did in his rookie season, he'll make the second-year jump the Jazz are expecting from him this season. That would make him a shoo-in All-Star if he were in the East. He'll have to be that much better in the West, where an already incredible slate of A-list stars has been joined by LeBron James. Still, Mitchell will post impressive numbers (and the Jazz will have an impressive record) and make the All-Star squad. It'll be just as difficult for Jokic to make the Western Conference All-Star team, but given the Nuggets' high-flying offense and the confidence Jokic played with the last couple months last season, when he realized the Nuggets were his team, difficult does not mean impossible. In a much easier Eastern Conference, Myles Turner will make the jump many expected from him last season to become an excellent two-way player and an All-Star, shooting in the high 30s from three and averaging 2.5 blocks per game.

9. The biggest surprise in this rookie class will be the Kings' Harry Giles

It's hard to overstate just how good Harry Giles was back in high school before he tore an ACL for the second time. He was Kevin Garnett-like. One respected talent evaluator told me that if NBA franchises were able to select players who were still in high school, he would have picked Harry Giles over Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015 when Giles was a rising high school senior. Giles has shown an efficient, impressive mid-range game in the preseason, rising hopes that this joyful young man can achieve the career he deserves, even if his athleticism isn't what it once was. If he is even in the conversation for top five in the rookie of the year race, it'll be one of the most uplifting stories of the 2018-19 NBA season.

10. The most promising trio of rookies will be playing at Madison Square Garden. 

With Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier, the Knicks rolled the dice on three players with high ceilings. Knox was one of the most impressive players in summer league, but Robinson may have an even higher upside as an elite defensive and rebounding presence for the Knicks. And Trier can flat-out fill it up. An exciting young trio of rookies that can join up with Kristaps Porzingis when he returns from his ACL injury will give the Knicks enough momentum to sign a high-end free agent or two in the 2019 offseason.

11. Toronto will reach the NBA Finals

The second part of this bold prediction is Fred VanVleet will win Sixth Man of the Year. VanVleet's on-off numbers were outstanding last season. Only three players in the NBA had a better net rating during last year's regular season than VanVleet's 12.1 net rating: Steph Curry, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul. To a defense that ranked fifth in the NBA last season, the Raptors added the best perimeter defender of his generation in Kawhi Leonard (while subtracting a big minus on defense in DeMar DeRozan). Conventional wisdom says a healthy Boston ought to rule the East. But a healthy Kawhi in Toronto will be plugged into this well-oiled machine and will turn Toronto into an elite, top-three defense.

12. The Thunder will miss the playoffs by a single game. 

How will this happen? Here's why: Russell Westbrook will begin his long, slow decline from being one of the NBA's biggest superstars. His preseason knee surgery -- and subsequent speculation that he may not be ready for the first game of the regular season, as one week before the opener he was only practicing with "controlled contact" -- is a worrisome sign for the Thunder. The setback with Andre Roberson's torn patellar tendon is certainly worrisome as well, since missing the defensive star for at least the next two months will be a huge hit to the Thunder's defense. But nothing can compare to the concern of having one of the most athletic players in the NBA have knee surgery a month before he turns 30 -- and at the same time he's beginning a five-year max contract extension. A frenetic playoff push by Westbrook in March and April will fall just short, and the concern about Westbrook's decline and the future of OKC will be real.

13. Another star will show concerning signs of decline: Draymond Green

Green was able to pull a LeBron last season, pacing himself through the regular season before returning to form in the playoffs. In the playoffs he averaged close to a triple-double -- 10.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists -- while playing his typical standout defense. But Green turns 29 this year, and a knee injury has lingered throughout his preseason. At some point, you can flip the switch, but nothing switches on. That point will be this season.

14. Jimmy Butler will stick with the Timberwolves, and the chaotic alchemy will galvanize the team into a top-four squad in the West

Just kidding. There's bold … and then there's crazy. That's crazy.

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