Drama and the NBA go together like peanut butter and jelly, or maybe more so Romeo and Juliet, and the 2018-19 season provided multiple examples, some of which surprised and flabbergasted more than others. The Association's top name and biggest draw undeniably generated headlines playing in La-La Land, but not as planned. A pair of stars possessing different styles battled for Most Valuable Player honors up through the final weeks of the campaign. Oh yeah: The Golden State Warriors are probably winning the championship again.
A handful of stories deserve honorable mentions despite failing to crack into the top 25 from the 2018-19 season. Blake Griffin performed better than ever as a more complete player for the Detroit Pistons. The San Antonio Spurs clinched a 22nd consecutive playoff berth. Tobias Harris became arguably the biggest moveable asset ahead of the trade deadline. Meanwhile, a plethora of fan bases yearned for their chosen clubs to drop spring contests all with one to-be rookie in mind.
Not everybody is convinced Duke superstar Zion Williamson will be an all-generational NBA talent — just ask sports talk radio legend Mike Francesa — but fans of losing teams not sold on Zion nevertheless followed lottery predictions throughout the campaign knowing an organization could potentially land quite the haul for the rights to select the 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward likely to go first overall in the upcoming draft. Pockets of Cleveland Cavaliers followers turned the franchise's "#BeTheFight" hashtag into "#BeTheTank," largely with Williamson in mind. The Cavs couldn't get so lucky again, right?
On the surface LeBron James featuring for the Los Angeles Lakers in only 55 games during a lost season because of lingering groin issues is but a blip on the radar, especially considering he didn't miss a single contest his final year with the Cleveland Cavaliers ahead of his anticipated move to the West Coast. ESPN's Brian Windhorst, who has covered James throughout the three-time champion's career, isn't so sure, and Windy isn't alone. James turns 35 in December. Even he can't beat Father Time. It's possible his title window closed in Los Angeles with much less fanfare than anticipated.
It's fitting Houston Rockets guard and MVP candidate James Harden finished March setting a new record when, as Sky Sports explained, he bettered his own mark and tallied a historic fifth 50-point triple-double. You'd need to go through more than a single page of internet search results to read about each instance of Harden altering record books since October, and his streak of 32 straight games with 30-plus points was the second-longest in league history, as Matt Eppers of USA Today wrote. As it pertains to his personal trophy case, the only question remaining at the start of the playoffs is if Harden will match a second consecutive scoring title with a second straight MVP win.
When the Houston Rockets acquired Carmelo Anthony in August, the hope was he would accept his role off the bench and potentially compete for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. The experiment flopped worse than even most pessimists feared, as the forward made only 10 appearances before his active tenure with the club ended. A trade with the Chicago Bulls ultimately awarded Anthony his freedom, but he never signed with a different organization during the second half of the campaign. The veteran turns 35 years old in May. If no team took a chance on him ahead of the playoffs, why would any pay him to play next fall?
As Michael Kaskey-Blomain of 247Sports wrote, Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson believed in July 2018 the Cavs could compete for a playoff spot without LeBron James in the lineup. Last fall, Ryan Piers of Hoops Habit offered three reasons the Cavs would play postseason basketball in April 2019. They couldn't count on Kevin Love missing over half the season because of a toe injury that required surgery to repair or on J.R. Smith going on sabbatical in an attempt to force a trade, one that never came, after 11 appearances. It's not all bad times for the Cavs, though. Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight recently offered high praise for rookie Collin Sexton.
The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania and SB Nation staff meticulously broke down the saga that ended with the Minnesota Timberwolves shipping Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers in mid-November. The period before the trade involved Butler dominating a heated practice, taking part in a unique ESPN interview and participating in a 10-game stint with the Timberwolves before receiving his wish. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors both finished ahead of the Sixers in the standings, but Butler may enjoy the last laugh this spring.
Tom Thibodeau's disastrous handling of the Jimmy Butler dilemma coupled with his "TimberBulls " roster building and Minnesota's subpar record resulted in the Timberwolves sacking the coach/president of basketball operations in January. It was the inevitable conclusion to this portion of the story but also one that birthed new questions for an organization on a figurative hamster wheel. Yes, Karl-Anthony Towns is an All-Star, but Andrew Wiggins is an anchor on a $148 million contract that will negatively affect the franchise for years to come. As Star Tribune writers Michael Rand and Jim Souhan explained in March, Minnesota will have to sell low to unload the regressing Wiggins.
In December, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith referred to guard Markelle Fultz as the "biggest bust in NBA history." Just because S.A.S. is known for hot takes doesn't mean he's wrong. Roughly two months after that segment aired, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Fultz, his broken jumper and his bad shoulder to the Orlando Magic for pennies on the dollar. The first overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome made only 33 appearances and 15 starts for his first pro franchise.
Los Angeles Clippers fans had better demand a recount or investigation if Doc Rivers doesn't win Coach of the Year. Along with handling any distractions that may have arisen from sharing an arena with LeBron James and the not-so-Showtime Lakers, Rivers lost his lineup's best scorer when the Clippers traded Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers in February. The Clippers, not the Lakers, will play postseason basketball, and that has the likes of The Ringer's Dan Devine, The Athletic's Jovan Buha and Jeff Feld of Forbes making cases for Rivers' candidacy.
That roar you heard from the nation's capital in early April came from members of the Washington Wizards faithful celebrating the dismissal of team president Ernie Grunfeld. As Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated wrote, Washington tallied a 568-724 record across 16 seasons under Grunfeld, and the loss of John Wall for the foreseeable future (torn Achilles) combined with missing the playoffs and an uncertain future that could include an ugly rebuild all cost Grunfeld one final chance of righting the ship. Deadspin's Albert Burneko provided a list of Grunfeld's basketball sins over the past decade-and-a-half. Beware, Washington fans. It's a rough read.
Casual sports fans embrace following a dynasty to watch it topple. It's why so many delight in reading just about any story regarding drama hovering over the Golden State Warriors at any point of the year. The Warriors responded to such alleged disturbances in the Matrix by dominating the Denver Nuggets to the tune of a 14-point victory on April 2, a result that guaranteed Golden State a 3-1 season series victory over the conference's second-best side and reminded everybody the journey to the NBA Finals will again go through Oracle Arena.
By now some may have grown tired of reading and hearing about how Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam should be the runaway Most Improved Player for the season. Too bad because his emergence from the team's "bench mob" to a pivotal member of the starting lineup is a wonderful story, and the 25-year-old will prove his worth in front of international television audiences during the playoffs. Toronto's second-leading scorer averaging well over 16 points per contest for the season scored 20.65 PPG from Feb. 3 through the end of March, including a 31-point showing in a win over the New York Knicks on March 28. His best could be to come.
Maybe ESPN's Zach Lowe is right (h/t The Knicks Wall ) and the New York Knicks trading Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks had something to do with Lordzingis not wanting to play alongside Kevin Durant and realizing K.D. to the Big Apple is essentially a done deal. As Daniel Popper of the New York Daily News and others detailed in the past, this organization banking on winning a free agency signing period at the start of the decade set the team back, eh, nine years, give or take. The Madison Square Garden meltdowns we'd see if the Knicks fail to acquire both Durant and/or Kyrie Irving, among others, would be as entertaining as a superteam featuring those stars.
That both Christopher L. Gasper and Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe chose to use the word "disappointing" to describe the 2018-19 Boston Celtics in late March says plenty about the team's struggles, as a whole, throughout what could be the final season for a squad that failed to live up to its advertised potential. By now it's known Kyrie Irving possesses the goods to be an NBA Finals MVP, but the numbers offered by Celtics Stats on April 3 suggest this lineup will go as far as forward Gordon Hayward can help guide it. It's been well over a year since the 29-year-old suffered a gruesome leg injury that could've threatened his career. Patience has been a virtue, but the Celtics are out of time. It's now or never for this roster.
The days of Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young serving as a punchline of jokes due to turnovers and poor shooting barely registers among memories. Bleacher Report's Dan Favale explained how the 20-year-old added his name to Rookie of the Year conversations following All-Star weekend, and Jordan Sharp of Sportsbook Review went so far to add he's "willing to accept the argument that Young might go on to have the better career" than Dallas Mavericks first-year pro Luka Doncic. From Feb. 1 through April 3 Young averaged over 23 points per contest, and he accumulated 53 assists with only seven turnovers in five games from March 26 through April 3, per Kevin Chouinard of NBA.com and the "ATL and 29" podcast.
The previously mentioned Jordan Sharp, The Athletic's Sam Vecenie and SportsDay's Brad Townsend all presented retorts for those suggesting Trae Young deserves to win Rookie of the Year over Luka Doncic. Townsend's includes the following: "Let's put it this way: If this indeed is a season-long ROY "race," Doncic took a five-length lead in October-November, extended to a 10-lengths lead in December and to 12 in January. February was a push and Young, at most, has gained three lengths in March." Doncic, possibly the Association's greatest-ever teenager, entered the final week of the regular season, which is relatively meaningless for both the Hawks and Mavs, leading all rookies in PPG and minutes per contest, and sitting second in rebounds and assists per game. Doncic was also well ahead of Young in win shares.
Fans flocked to arenas around the country to revel in final glimpses of legends Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki even though the latter never confirmed his intentions before or during the heart of the campaign. Recovery from ankle surgery postponed the start of Nowitzki's 21st season through the middle of December, and his bright moments were few and far between. Wade, on the other hand, is a sleeper Sixth Man of the Year candidate, as the 37-year-old posted his best offensive stats in several years. His miraculous game-winner vs. the defending champions in late February would've made for a perfect walk-off, but he'll exit on his terms at his chosen time.
The Sacramento Kings began the season as California's most forgettable NBA team. Sacramento is not only better than the Lakers in April, but the Kings also were arguably the state's most fun team, not to mention a franchise on the uptick. Buddy Hield and De'Aaron Fox both deserve Most Improved Player votes. Marvin Bagley III is cemented in the second tier of rookies from the 2018 class. Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley recently named Sacramento's core as one capable of contending in the near future.
For a piece published on April 3, Bleacher Report's Howard Beck named the Brooklyn Nets as a favorite to swoop in and recruit one or two big-name superstars in the summer. How far the Nets progressed so quickly from a year ago. Guard D'Angelo Russell, averaging over 20 PPG for the first time of his career, may finish second in Most Improved Player voting and could return to the Nets at the right price. Jarrett Allen is already an elite rim protector ahead of his 21st birthday. Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris both broke out. We can only guess where Caris LeVert would be had he not gone down to what looked like a season-ending leg injury in November.
So far, so good for the Toronto Raptors' plan of easing Kawhi Leonard back into the grind. Toronto managing Leonard's workload after injuries kept him off the court for all but nine games last season had little effect on the team's spot in the standings, and he should be fresh for the playoffs having spent roughly a quarter of the current campaign a spectator. When fully healthy and in form, the 27-year-old is one of the league's best two-way players who has shown he can win Finals MVP.
The good news for the Denver Nuggets is they're the second-best team in the Western Conference from top to bottom. Nikola Jokic, the league's most gifted passing big man, is scoring over 20 points per game for the first time, and he'll be a sleeper MVP candidate for the 2019-20 campaign. Gary Harris is (fingers crossed) healthy. As Sean Keeler of the Denver Post wrote, this squad consistently wins on little rest. The bad news, though, is Golden State owned the Nuggets during the regular season, and DeMarcus Cousins humbled Jokic on the floor on April 2.
Paul George won't win MVP since voters don't view the award literally , but no player was more valuable than the Oklahoma City Thunder forward during his best stretches of the season, especially when Russell Westbrook suffered through shooting woes. The Thunder's playoff hopes rest on the state of Russ' jumper, but don't let that overshadow George remaining in the MVP race through mid-March, as Reid Forgrave of CBS Sports wrote. Along with notching career highs in points and boards per game, George is the league's best perimeter defender. The veteran, who turns 29 years old in May, could legitimately win Defensive Player of the Year and, believe it or not, Most Improved Player.
In early April, ESPN.com writers embraced the reality that Milwaukee Bucks unicorn Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves to win MVP over James Harden. The 24-year-old, who is good for over 27 points and 12 rebounds per game and also tallies nearly six dishes and 1.5 blocks a night, is the league's top two-way player and he's the sport's most dominant lone force since Shaquille O'Neal in the Diesel's prime. Even Shaq admitted Antetokounmpo is better at age 24 than the Hall of Famer, per ESPN. The Greek Freak could double as MVP and Defensive Player of the Year without much argument.
Deadspin's Albert Burneko defended New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis for requesting a trade while accurately reminding everybody the 26-year-old hardly shocked his employer or the basketball establishment with his petition. SB Nation's Tom Ziller suggested Davis could've handled the matter differently and also should've realized New Orleans would always prefer to send the All-Star east to a team such as the Boston Celtics this coming summer than gift him to the Los Angeles Lakers ahead of the trade deadline. Nobody involved covered themselves in glory.
LeBron James' bad groin was only the beginning of a Los Angeles Lakers fall out of the playoffs and into a hole that could be deeper than some imagine. After failing to attract a star such as Paul George last summer, the Lakers were unable to obtain Anthony Davis ahead of the trade deadline, meaning any younger members of the roster alienated by rumors of an impending transaction remained with the organization. Last July, the Lakers making the playoffs was a foregone conclusion. As things stand following the disappointing season, this team isn't one superstar away from James playing in a 10th NBA Finals.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.