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2018-19 NBA Preview: Without The King, East Seeks New Crown

There will be something visually different about the NBA when it tips off the 2018-19 season with a pair of games on Tuesday.

We assume you’ve heard about the LeBron thing. Yes, The King is in Los Angeles now, prepared to be recast as the core of the once-proud Lakers franchise – West and Wilt, Magic and Riley, Kobe and Phil. LeBron and TBA.

NBA preview

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No, what we are referring to are the uniforms. Taking a hint from the WNBA (imagine that) the NBA has abandoned the tradition of home and away uniforms. Teams can wear whatever the organization has laid out for them, provided they don’t blend in with what the road team is wearing.

There will be nights when it looks like a rainbow, nights when the Atlanta Hawks, now with Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter, will sport the awesome powder blues that their forefathers, Zelmo Beaty and Bill Bridges, wore in St. Louis in the 1960s.

But enough about aesthetics.  You don’t watch for the fashion. RIP Craig Sager. You want to know if the Golden State Warriors can do what the Boston Celtics couldn’t when LeBron worked in Cleveland. Beat him.

The thing is, without LeBron in Cavaliers burgundy and gold, the Eastern Conference has opened up like a tulip on Easter. The Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers , Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers, maybe even the Milwaukee Bucks, feel suddenly empowered.

Note the absence of the Cavs. If hope remains in Cleveland it’s in the person to Kevin Love, now its axis with a four-year, $120 million deal to soothe him. And that’s simply not enough.

Truth is, someone is going to win the East without James for the first time since 2010 when the Celtics, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, dismantled the Cavs in the semifinals.

“There’s no doubt about his [LeBron] impact on the Eastern Conference,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told NBA.com. “But every year, whether LeBron’s in the East or not, you start the season and feel like, if you have a good roster and can get better. … you’re not going to be worried about anybody.”

And the truth is there will be a new dominant player in the East, a crown most seem anxious to place on the head of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. Greek Freak is still much easier to pronounce.

Of course, the Celtics almost pulled it off last season, taking the Cavs to Game 7 of the semifinals without Gordon Hayward and then Kyrie Irving, who had knee surgery in early April. That shouldn’t be a problem this season.

Boston’s more serious challenger might be the Raptors, now well-equipped with Kawhi Leonard, at least for one season. The 76ers, with Ben Simmons,  Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid, could be matured enough to compete, as well.

If you like Washington, you probably think the presence of Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard will make John Wall a tougher customer.

“The Warriors have proven they’re going to be the team to beat every year,” Washington coach Scott Brooks told NBA.com. “But the East has some really good teams. … He [LeBron] got a lot of coaches fired and a lot of players traded. Now, it’s definitely open.”

So what of the West and Golden State’s chances of winning a fifth-straight conference title and a third straight championship? A survey of NBA general managers overwhelming affirmed its reputation as the team to beat.

Remember when Steve Kerr decided he didn’t want to coach the New York Knicks? There’s a reason. In just five seasons, Kerr is now the fastest coach to 250 wins – by 42 games – and he’s only 35 away from 300.

And why should things change with Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston still around? Just think how much better the “Dubs” may be when DeMarcus Cousins completes his recovery from an Achilles’ injury?

The Lakers will be better, certainly more popular, but you wonder how much James’ presence can do to remake a team that won 35 games to finish 11th in the conference. It will be fascinating to watch Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball, for instance, learn to submit to the wishes and whims of the monarch.

San Antonio’s roster will be vastly different without Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Earlier this week, point guard Dejounte Murray, who looked so promising as an understudy last season, suffered a torn right ACL. Before that, top draft pick Lonnie White tore his meniscus.

This will be Gregg Popovich’s 23rd season, the longest tenured coach in professional sports in the United States. But it may be his most trying in a very long time. Remember, the Spurs have been to the postseason in 21 straight seasons. His new roster will feature guys like DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge. Not a Tim Duncan in the bunch.

The Houston Rockets, who won 65 games and the West by seven games over Golden State last season, who pushed the Warriors to seven games in the conference semifinals, now have Carmelo Anthony to clog up the offensive flow. Then again, they also have James Harden, the reigning MVP, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and the bruising Clint Capela, who averaged a double-double (points and rebounds) last season.

Aside from dealing for Melo, now 34, Rockets GM Daryl Morey sought an upgrade by acquiring Brandon Knight from Phoenix aware Trevor Ariza (Phoenix) and Luc Mbah a Moute (Clippers) had left.

If it’s the future of the league that interests you, a number of top-flight rookies are set for their debuts beginning with big man Deandre Ayton, the first overall pick by the Suns.

Luka Doncic, the Slovenian selected No. 3 by Atlanta then dealt to Dallas, looks ready for a smooth transition next to Dirk Nowitzki. And Trae Young, the hotshot guard from the University of Oklahoma, will help the Hawks with his shooting ability.

In summary, if this NBA season plays out like a movie, you can bet LeBron is producing it.

 

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