Bomani Jones and Pablo S. Torre break down the NBA’s biggest dramas
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s NBA Preview issue. Subscribe today! Watch Pablo S. Torre and Bomani Jones debate hoops every day on “High Noon.”
Here’s a riddle: If the Warriors winning a title is a foregone conclusion, why has the NBA never been more popular? Answer: Because the NBA isn’t just a basketball league — it’s a network of 30 prestige television dramas. The spats! The rumors! The infighting! The subtweets! Whiteboard-smashing! Crotch-kicking! Players-only meetings!
So this year we’re treating the coming NBA season as what it truly is, by finding the TV drama at the heart of each team and ranking all 30 by how must-watch they will be. Will the Lakers be great? Certainly not! But they will be the highest-rated 7-seed ever. Will Houston’s offense be better with Melo? No way! But, hey, tragedy is the new comedy. Can the Sixers stick to the script? Will OKC’s buddy comedy click? Will the Warriors jump the shark?
With that in mind, we give you the 2018-19 NBA season, TV-guide-style.
No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers
It’s an ensemble cast that could lead to high jinks. But neither Magic Johnson nor LeBron James is here for jokes. The Lakers aren’t a contender, but Michael Beasley is right … at least about his teammates. Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee have played big minutes in big games. They can win. It’s just more fun to watch when they don’t. –Bomani Jones
The Quote: “If everybody … stops judging some players, me mainly, you’ll figure out that guys like me and … Lance know how to play.” –Michael Beasley, to the LA Times
The Number: 26 (Teams that Stephenson (7), Beasley (7), Rondo (6) and McGee (6) have played for)
No. 2: Toronto Raptors
Team president Masai Ujiri has eight months to make the relentlessly silent Kawhi Leonard fall in love with him, which feels like both a rom-com and a horror movie. Imagine if Leonard winds up worse than DeMar DeRozan, the beloved spokesman Toronto shipped out for him. Far more heartrending, though, is the more likely reality: Leonard is every bit the superstar the Raptors have lusted after — but he still loves LA. –Pablo S. Torre
The Quote: “We don’t want to be the ones that are felt sorry for anymore. We want to belong.” –Masai Ujiri
The Number: 263 (Raptors’ wins since 2013-14, Ujiri’s first season as GM, fourth best in the league)
No. 3: Minnesota Timberwolves
If Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins really want Jimmy Butler gone, it’s an indictment of them. Butler’s presence made the Wolves one of the better teams in the West, and his absence almost kept them out of the playoffs. Butler has to go, but you’ve got to wonder what it says when the Wolves want to build around two guys who seem happy with getting worse. –B.J.
The Quote: “Ain’t no coach in the world that can make somebody play hard. Ain’t no coach in the world that can make anybody want it.” –Jimmy Butler
The Number: 47 (Wolves’ wins last season, their most since 2003-04)
No. 4: Houston Rockets
If you ever come across a time machine, consider going back to 2012 and telling Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony they’ll be together in 2018. D’Antoni straight up quit the Knicks because of Anthony, who rejected his offensive scheme. But in Houston, which hungers for another scorer, the scheme is different: efficient but remarkably iso-heavy. Enter Anthony, who at least remains the latter. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “Whether he starts or doesn’t start — and he said it — is a moot point.” –Mike D’Antoni, to The Houston Chronicle
The Number: 12.7 (Anthony’s PER last season, the worst of his career)
No. 5: Washington Wizards
Here’s how this might go right: Scott Brooks managed the chemistry around Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant for years; it’s the best thing he did while he was in OKC. But what happens when John Wall, the one guy who wants to play with Dwight Howard, is the guy the other Wizards don’t seem to want to play with? –B.J.
The Quote: “I know I’m a team player. I average almost 10 assists a game. I’m very prideful in finding my teammates and getting guys easy shots.” –John Wall
The Number: 7.9 (Drop in Wall’s net rating last season when playing without Bradley Beal)
No. 6: San Antonio Spurs
Zoom out on NBA history and Gregg Popovich has nothing to worry about. Zoom in on San Antonio, though, and you see anxiety everywhere. Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker are gone. Manu Ginobili retired. Pop still hasn’t missed the playoffs since his first year, over two decades ago. But now, at 69, retirement looms. One way or another, a historic run will be over soon. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “I am not too interested in talking about the past. I don’t even want to talk about Tim Duncan.” –Gregg Popovich
The Number: 9 (Players to win multiple Defensive Player of the Year Awards, including Leonard)
No. 7: New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans finally got a second star to pair with Anthony Davis, but the team was actually better after DeMarcus Cousins got hurt. Cousins is now in the Bay, and Davis has a player option in 2020. How good must the Pelicans be this season to stop Davis from exercising his free agency option two summers from now? –B.J.
The Quote: “You’re wondering if you’re following in that same path.” –Anthony Davis on Kevin Garnett, who got a ring in Boston after exiting Minnesota
The Number: 27.1 (Davis’ PER since 2013, trailing only LeBron and KD)
No. 8: Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have hit their ceiling. Damian Lillard aired grievances to ownership. If the Trade Machine were a jukebox, CJ McCollum would be “Free Bird.” The two guards are gifted scorers who give gifts on defense. So if insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, the question now is simple: Does Portland like being insane? –P.S.T.
The Quote: “It’s not like we’re a destination. It’s tough to get players.” –Damian Lillard
The Number: -2.42 (Combined defensive RPM of Lillard and McCollum)
No. 9: Oklahoma City Thunder
We can no longer say, “No one wants to play with Westbrook.” And while watching Russ take 43 shots in a Game 6 loss to Utah might have infuriated some, it made us forget that Paul George was awful that night, with five points on 16 shots. Westbrook will have to share the ball — but George must give him reason to do so. –B.J.
The Quote: “I know who I am as a player. I just want to help a team win, and I feel comfortable doing that with Russ.” –Paul George
The Number: 20.2 (Westbrook’s field goal attempts per game over the past seven seasons)
No. 10: Golden State Warriors
All that hubbub about adding DeMarcus Cousins is old news. The NBA’s most widespread rumor now centers on the Warriors’ most infuriating luxury. Spoiler alert: Kevin Durant is destined, allegedly, to leave Golden State for NYC. The Warriors may not need KD to stay dynastic. But we’ll find out how badly they want to keep him. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “Draymond probably had the worst pitch. He was like, ‘Cous, I’m pretty sure me and you are going to fight.'” –DeMarcus Cousins
The Number: 118.5 (Points per 48 minutes the Warriors scored last season with Durant on the floor. Without: 105.6.)
No. 11: Philadelphia 76ers
Why do things feel so uncertain with the Sixers? Their best player’s quote about his new GM was that he used to dunk on him. Their two No. 1 picks were scared to shoot jumpers last year. And last season’s performance has created the expectation that the team will make a big leap. Shaq and Penny had only three years together. Same for Durant, Westbrook and Harden. The future is now. –B.J.
The Quote: “It was hurtful because of the stuff that was said. But at the end of the day, I know who I am as a person, as a player.” –Joel Embiid on the burner accounts tied to Bryan Colangelo
The Number: +7.0 (Philly’s plus-minus per game with Embiid and Simmons both on the court last season)
No. 12: New York Knicks
One fun thing about being a Knicks fan: Expectations are so low that basic talking points sound revolutionary. So thanks, David Fizdale, for talking defense and a long-term rebuild. No, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t healthy. No, the Knicks don’t know whether he’ll be back this season. And if he’s not? Well, uh, have you heard that rumor about Durant? –P.S.T.
The Quote:“I’ve been told everything from December to him being out for the season, so I don’t know what to expect.” –Owner James Dolan on Porzingis, to the NY Post
The Number: 821 (Knicks losses since 2001-02, most in the NBA)
No. 13: Milwaukee Bucks
What, we’re kicking Freaky Greeky out already? With an interim coach, the Bucks pushed Boston to seven in the 2018 playoffs. Now, with Coach Bud running a roster of long-armed defenders, it’s all about keeping Giannis happy. The question is how to land a second star, because not many guys end up in Milwaukee because they had other options. –B.J.
The Quote:“[Antetokounmpo] is an icon in a small city with a global appeal. … More than 50 percent of our digital traffic is from outside the U.S.” –Bucks president Peter Feigin, to 60 Minutes
The Number: 4 (The Bucks’ longest winning streak last season)
No. 14: Cleveland Cavaliers
Like a No. 23 Cavs jersey on a clearance rack, the Cavs are now ignored, depressing and heavily discounted. Cleveland already knows to expect tumbleweeds in Quicken Loans Arena. A healthy Kevin Love might even help them move on. But J.R. Smith, still employed, remains a city’s sorrowful reminder: Do not take your time with LeBron for granted. Especially in the Finals. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “Now it’s going to be on my back in a lot of ways, and I’m ready for it.” –Kevin Love, to Cleveland.com
The Number: 59 (Games Love played last season, his fewest since 2012-13)
No. 15: Charlotte Hornets
It’s the 15th year of the Bobcats/Hornets era-and what’s there to show for it? They’ve never had the first pick during that time or a foundation that looked like the beginning of a contender. Trading Kemba Walker won’t net anyone better than he is, and we’ve seen what they are with him as their best player. The Hornets are neither good nor bad enough to truly rebuild. –B.J.
The Quote: “I love Kemba Walker. I would not trade him for anything but an All-Star player.” –Michael Jordan, to The Charlotte Observer
The Number: 9,907 (Points that Walker, 28, has scored for the Hornets, a franchise high)
No. 16: Memphis Grizzlies
Once upon a time, “Grit and Grind” was an ideal slogan for this team’s prideful physicality. Now the motto is less about what the Grizzlies do to their opponents and more about what Grizzlies fans do to their teeth. The good news is that Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are healthy. The bad news? They’re 33 and 31, respectively — and most useful as trade bait. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “I get it, you want Gregg Popovich … and I want LeBron James.” –Former coach David Fizdale, to Marc Gasol, according to the New York Daily News
The Number: 28 (Memphis’ rank in pace in each of the past two seasons)
No. 17: Miami Heat
Pat Riley is always in charge. If Riley could handle Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, and if Shaq, Dwyane Wade and LeBron couldn’t muscle the man, then Hassan Whiteside will never scream loudly enough to get his way, and Dion Waiters will just have to fall in line whether he likes it or not. –B.J.
The Quote: “Stuff happens, things are said, players are frustrated.” –Pat Riley, to the South Florida Sun Sentinel
The Number: 7.3 (Decrease in minutes per game Whiteside played last season vs. the season before)
No. 18: Sacramento Kings
As org charts go, there’s no outdoing the one-two punch of Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and GM Vlade Divac. An optimist would call their stockpiling of big men and divestment of wings “countercultural.” A realist would wonder if they’re elaborately tanking. The question isn’t if the NBA’s longest-running playoff drought will hit a 13th year. It’s how weird it’ll get. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “My team is a superteam, just young.” –Vlade Divac, via ABC10 in Sacramento, after drafting Marvin Bagley III
The Number: 9 (Coaches since ’05-06, their last postseason trip)
No. 19: Detroit Pistons
There might be a ceiling on these Pistons, but it’s never bad to have two really good, really big guys on a basketball team. Quietly, Blake Griffin shot 5.6 3s per game last season, making 34.5 percent. That won’t turn the Pistons into the Warriors, but it’s credible-which is all his shot needs to be. –B.J.
The Quote: “My goal for [Griffin] is to be the best passing power forward in the league, which he can do.” –Coach Dwane Casey, to Vice Sports
The Number: +92 (Andre Drummond’s +/- swing playing with Griffin)
No. 20: Dallas Mavericks
No pressure, Luka Doncic. All you have to do is take the torch from Dirk Nowitzki, sell tickets immediately, be worth the trade for Trae Young and a 2019 first-rounder, justify those European accolades and help fans forget the workplace sexual harassment scandal that resulted in your owner getting grilled on The Jump. Then, and only then, may you turn 20. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “If you think he’s a game-changing player for you, a franchise-changing player, you don’t care about your next pick. You just want that player.” –Owner Mark Cuban on Doncic
The Number: 31.75 (Doncic’s regular-season index rating, a EuroLeague metric for quantifying a player’s total performance, the highest there in a decade)
No. 21: Boston Celtics
What used to be a collection of pretty good players is now two dominant scorers, two two-way wings, a great big man who’s also their best passer, and a deep bench. But is it the future yet? The Celtics are good enough to make the Finals now. What are they willing to do to win them sooner than later? –B.J.
The Quote: “Everybody has a job to do. Brad’s job is to manage playing time and manage all sorts of stuff. That’s why he’s the coach.” –Jayson Tatum, to Boston.com
The Number: 4,590 (Combined ’17-18 minutes for Tatum and Jaylen Brown in their age-19 and age-21 years)
“If the Trade Machine were a jukebox, CJ McCollum would be ‘Free Bird.'”
No. 22: Chicago Bulls
Fred Hoiberg was once nicknamed the Mayor; he literally received write-in votes during the 1993 mayoral election in Ames, Iowa. But in Chicago, the Mayor’s approval rating has hit an all-time low. The Bulls had hoped Hoiberg was a guru; what they got was 110 wins in three seasons. There should be an offensive revolution coming. It just might not be the kind the Mayor survives. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “I think if you consume yourself with [job security], you’re going to have a tough time doing your job.” –Fred Hoiberg, to The Athletic
The Number: 2% (Bulls’ odds of making the playoffs, higher than only the Hawks, Suns and Kings)
No. 23: Indiana Pacers
There aren’t many one-year wonders in the NBA, but are we a little carried away about a team whose second option behind Victor Oladipo is Bojan Bogdanovic? That second option should be Myles Turner, but it isn’t yet, and it won’t be until we see it happen. –B.J.
The Quote: “We have a chance to yell loud: ‘Here we are, and we’re going to be tough to beat.’ It could go in the other direction too.” –Pacers president Kevin Pritchard
The Number: 45% (Increase in Oladipo’s scoring from his last season in OKC to his first with Indiana)
No. 24: Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks don’t want 6-foot-2 Trae Young to compare himself to Steph Curry — despite the fact that his new GM, Travis Schlenk, used to work for the Warriors and chose to trade Luka Doncic, the best Euro prospect ever, for Young, the fifth overall pick in June. Good luck! No, seriously — good luck: Young shot 27 percent from 3 in summer league. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “He blew up and got national recognition because of the shooting, but to us, his best asset today is his passing.” –Travis Schlenk on Young, to CBS Sports
The Number: 36% (Young’s 3-point percentage in his final college year, compared to Curry’s 38.7%)
No. 25: Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic is loved by those who watch way more basketball than the average fan. And the strategy for the Nuggets has always been to use home-altitude advantage and outscore teams. If Jokic can help with that, defense will be the trade-off — and he has a contract that suggests the Nuggets have made peace with that. –B.J.
The Quote: “You put Nikola on Olynyk, they put him on the action-on James Johnson, on the action.” –Coach Mike Malone, to The Denver Post
The Number: 220 (Jokic’s defensive rating rank last season, 53rd among centers)
No. 26: Los Angeles Clippers
The Lakers and Clippers share the same arena in the same way that Iron Man and Street Pedestrian #2 are both in Infinity War. Can you name a Clipper at this point? Would you recognize one on the street? Their biggest draws — besides Boban Marjanovic — are location and cap space. A great formula for an A-lister who doesn’t mind feeling like a B-minus. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “There was just so much pettiness. Like, Donald Trump-level pettiness.” –JJ Redick on his last days in LA, to Pardon My Take
The Number: $57M (Cap space the Clippers could have next summer)
No. 27: Phoenix Suns
Being bad and playing in the Mountain time zone is a great way to get forgotten; if you’re looking for Tyson Chandler, he’s here. But are these youngsters up for playing a game of Survivor? At some point, some of that potential must be converted into success, and that usually requires a few credible adults. –B.J.
The Quote: “We want to be in June on TV.” –Coach Igor Kokoskov, to The Associated Press
The Number: 24.3 (Suns’ average age, weighted by minutes, last season — the NBA’s youngest)
No. 28: Utah Jazz
Teams dream of landing a young guard like Donovan Mitchell and a young big like Rudy Gobert. But they have nightmares about those same two players failing to coexist. In theory, it should work: Gobert prides himself on defense, while Mitchell is volume-scoring his way to stardom. But for two aspirational alphas, celebrity can be a zero-sum game. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “You don’t have to be best friends. The goal is to win a championship.” –Rudy Gobert, to The Salt Lake Tribune
The Number: 187 (Mitchell’s 3-pointers made last season, a rookie record)
No. 29: Brooklyn Nets
It must be someone’s job to make sure no one tells the boss that Jimmy Butler is interested in coming to Brooklyn, because there’s no telling what Mikhail Prokhorov would give up to get a star in his prime. The question is how long it’ll take the Nets to do so, since it feels like their last first-round pick was Kerry Kittles. –B.J.
The Quote: “What bothers me sometimes are the compliments you get after: ‘Oh, they played so hard.'” –Nets coach Kenny Atkinson
The Number: $193M (The Nets’ payroll in 2013-14, the highest in NBA history)
No. 30: Orlando Magic
The greatest trick the Magic ever pulled was convincing the league they didn’t exist. While Philly got obliterated for tanking, Orlando’s best season of the past six peaked, quietly, at 35 wins. The difference? The Magic didn’t want to lose. I think. Orlando cycled through four coaches in that span, which makes it hard to distinguish between incompetence and intent. –P.S.T.
The Quote: “Our fan base is desperate for wins, and we feel the weight of that.” –Jeff Weltman, president of basketball operations, to NBA.com
The Number: .319 (Win % since Dwight Howard was traded in 2012)