Sam Smith ranks the East and West going into the 2018-19 season

Smith asks "C'mon, is there a more fun league than the NBA?"

The 2018-19 NBA season opens Tuesday with the Golden State Warriors favorites to complete their first three-peat, and fourth championship in five years on the way to perhaps being the NBA's greatest dynasty since the 1960s Boston Celtics.

Forget the Warriors! Urgent, urgent! ESPN is reporting that Jimmy Butler told friends that his hard boiled egg for breakfast wasn't tougher than he was; how dare it call itself hard boiled!

LeBron James, the greatest player of this current NBA generation, is about to begin his 16th season playing for another of the NBA's royals, the Los Angeles Lakers. Will they eventually become the Warriors' obstacle? Will they raid the Warriors' great talent inventory?

Forget LeBron! Bulletin, bulletin! ESPN is breaking in with exclusive details of Jimmy Butler copyrighting the word "work" so that no one ever can use it again without his permission.

C'mon, is there a more fun league than the NBA?

Not only does the NBA have the most recognizable and famous players and personalities, but those stars think nothing of creating even more publicity and controversy. Like Butler, the former Bull who in the run up to another magnetic season has made the Warriors and LeBron incidentals in his bizarre combination of trade demand/holdout/show up/challenge everyone/TV tell all reality show. It all but reduced the nascent dynasty Warriors and larger-than-life LeBron to filings beneath the carving of a new statue.

Jimmy Eat World became more than a band.

Los Angeles Lakers

And it's just the beginning because, really, how could anyone really diminish LeBron playing with Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and being coached by Lonzo Ball's father? What, not yet? Or the amazing Warriors, playing their final season in Oakland before moving to a new arena in San Francisco and pretty much already commissioning the parade route. Win one for O-town?

And wait until the buzz really starts. Kevin Durant is a free agent and he's going to play with…LeBron? Klay Thompson is a free agent and he's going to play with…LeBron? Dwyane Wade is in his final season…unless he chooses to play one more season with LeBron? Has Dirk, also believed to be in his final season, always wanted to finish his career playing with LeBron? AD anyone?

Oh, yeah. And DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins with the nickname too good not to use is going to play with the team regarded not to even have a serious opponent? The two-time champions evolve from Zaza Pachilia and JaVale McGee to Cousins. Really?

There's nothing like this in sports.

How about the Eastern favorite Boston Celtics? How did they come up with the idea of having six small forwards? Remember the No. 1 draft pick from a year ago who forgot how to shoot? He's back!

Kawhi Leonard

We know the Spurs were mad at Kawhi Leonard, but couldn't they have at least let him stay in the country? And is this finally, finally the end of the Spurs run that began in 1951?

Many want to see the Denver Nuggets, and they want to see Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr., both due soon to finish their isolations in Bioshere 11. Who'll destroy his team first, Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard? This really doesn't seem fair. But the Celtics unless it's the overall No. 1 pick, which it could be because the Kings will be awful again, should get Sacramento's No. 1 pick next June in what again looks like a loaded draft and a chance for the Celtics to get their potential eighth All-Star wing player.

There's some new rules, the most colorful being that players can now wear whatever color sneakers they want. Parents, get ready to spend. It used to be players had to match one of their uniform colors to their shoe. As Ed Sullivan may have said, "really big shoe tonight." Hey, I didn't know who Kanye West was until this week. So live with my references. The NBA also is looking to speed up its game by reducing the time clock to 14 seconds on offensive rebounds from 24. That's right, the game that lasts about half as long as a baseball game is looking to streamline at a time baseball is expanding its rosters so every batter faces a different pitcher.

There are nine new coaches that include the first Igor to run an NBA team; there's little or no chance a New York team contends for the playoffs for the 22nd straight season—or what seems like it and the NBA miraculously still survives—and there's the potential for the end of the Pelicans' run of one consecutive playoffs with a season of where Anthony Davis is going if they are out of serious contention. Maybe Minnesota. It appears like they may have an opening.

We're all pretty sure Golden State is going to be in the Finals again since Chris Paul likely gets injured earlier in the playoffs. But, anyway, here's a preseason look at how the conference races may play out:


EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston Celtics

1. Boston Celtics

No overachieving anymore like when Brad Stevens turned Isaiah Thomas into the real Isiah Thomas for a moment. They're loaded with talented wing players and if there's a championship of second units, they're winning easily. After all, this was a team that almost went to the Finals missing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. It will be intriguing to see how they now fit with all the guys who almost got them to the Finals.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

If you're a rookie there, plan on taking a year off. Now it's Markelle Fultz time? Fultz was the prize of the 2017 draft, eventually going No. 1, a big guard who could dominate physically and with his shooting. Until he became the first basketball player ever who couldn't throw to first base. He was believed to have spent the summer after the draft golfing with Jon Lester, Steve Blass and Chuck Knoblauch. Now Fultz returns to start at point, and with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is that a true Big Three?

3. Indiana Pacers

Quietly, which is the way everything is described in Indiana, the Pacers probably had the best summer other than the Lakers and the soccer kids in Thailand. They added Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Aaron Holiday and Kyle O'Quinn to a deep roster of pretty good players with Victor Oladipo. And they've also good a good Sabonis who seems ready for a breakout season.

Milwaukee Bucks

4. Milwaukee Bucks

They added some shooting for Giannis with Ersan—it's a one name city, like Brat—but the big addition was Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer eventually in for Jason Kidd. That's like Steve Kerr replacing Mark Jackson: One gets you to a good place; the other takes it from there. Many this season now are prepping Antetokounmpo for MVP since he now takes off from midcourt on dunks and has signed to star in Marvel's Rubber Man.

5. Miami Heat.

I'm assuming the roster eventually includes Butler, who for all the joking is pretty darned good. The Heat have a lot of good and a good coach. Jimmy's more darned good than great, but the combination of goods like Dragic, James Johnson and other Johnsons should at least put them in the midst and middle. Plus, Dwyane Wade gets to close with former teammate Butler. Though based on past association, that wasn't always a great idea.

Toronto Raptors

More speculation here given no one quite knows what's up with or what Kawhi Leonard is about to or capable of doing. Presumably he plays out the season to earn his ticket to Los Angeles, but even if he doesn't are the Lakers or Clippers saying no? There's also a new coach who's taking about rotating starting lineups all season to feature matchups, which suggests the analytics department is in charge. Has anyone seen their mouths move at the same time as the coach's.

7. Detroit Pistons

Not exactly a coaching upgrade from Stan Van Gundy to Dwane Casey, but perhaps more stability given Van Gundy was also running personnel. Blake Griffin? Remember when he was a star. Look, if you want to get back to jumping over cars, what better city to be in? It's hardly the modern NBA with two giants inside, but you're not rebounding a lot against them. And now they've got ZaZa to perform some of those Bad Boys tricks from the 80s. Casey's challenge will be trying to persuade Reggie Jackson that he needs to be more than Mr. October.

8. Washington Wizards

This is a team that could be ready for some magic, like a disappearing act. Bringing in Dwight Howard should ease that locker room tension we heard about last season. Does anyone know John Wall next season begins an extension that averages more than $42 million a year? That also should help with locker room camaraderie with more than half the roster free agents. And Howard with a mid level exception. Talk about draining the swamp in DC.

Chicago Bulls

9. Chicago Bulls

If only...Lauri were around. The Bulls may still have a chance, but losing Markkanen well into November was disastrous. He and Zach LaVine could have been a heck of a one/two scoring tandem the way LaVine came out scoring in preseason. And they may still be. But it's difficult to see Markkanen stepping right back in and up at a high level while trying to mesh with an evolving group. Then what happens with Portis, with Parker? With Payne? Just felt like using another P guy. It could be training camp all over again in December.

10. Charlotte Hornets

The NBA All-Star game finally is going there now that we all can use the rest rooms, though there's the question of where their All-Star is going for the rest of his time. It sounded like last season Kemba Walker was on the way out. But they had a coaching and management reset and who knows what it means for Tony Parker with Michael Jordan upset about the Ryder Cup results in France. They continue with the mish mash of guys, several pretty good, but uncertain what it all means.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers

We figure all to be witness now to 32 wins. They're not a dumpster fire without LeBron. They've got Kevin Love—hey, how about Jimmy for Love back to Minnesota? Jimmy would be the man for sure on that team—several veterans for trading deadline action in George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Channing Frye and Rodney Hood, and…Yikes, that's a lot of guys to trade. Next year should start the rebuild.

12. Brooklyn Nets

They keep adding interesting, supplementary talents, though it's unclear what they mean together. Kenneth Faried and Alan Williams are tough front court players who can't shoot. D'Angelo Russell does little but that. Anyone interested in DeMarre Carroll or Ed Davis? Another team that will scratch out wins and will come at your hard.

Atlanta Hawks

13. Atlanta Hawks

Did anyone know Jeremy Lin was there? Wonder if Trae Young did. Their big story is Young, and also giving up the rights to draft Luka Doncic, whom many project for top rookie. Young's a really good passer, though it's unclear who exactly is going to make those shots. Vince Carter, by the way, also is there in what also is likely to be a farewell season. Typical of the star who eschewed the spotlight more than any with his talent, no one is likely to notice.

14. New York Knicks

It will be all about the Porzingis return watch, though after enough losses they'll probably head for the draft. They may have gotten a good one with Kevin Knox and, amazingly, seem uninterested in building through free agency. Except they do think they are getting Kevin Durant. Shush, don't tell them. Enes Kanter may set offensive rebound records with their misses, they're stocking up on point guards who missed like Emanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke and security has now been told to keep Oakley and Joakim Noah away from Dolan.

15. Orlando Magic

If the Suns fired their GM for being unable to get a point guard, what happens here? Jerian Grant? They're again accumulating talent with Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac from the 2017 draft, two of the longest and skinniest in the NBA. It continues to be an odd mix with Nic Vucevic and Aaron Gordon seemingly their two most productive players. No magic yet.


WESTERN CONFERENCE

Golden State Warriors

1. Golden State Warriors

The theme around the NBA this season is the Warriors last run. I don't think so. I doubt anyone is leaving without going into their supposedly amazing new arena in San Francisco next year. Plus, you're in a grass not only is not greener scenario, but probably brown and patchy if you're leaving that team. Sure, Draymond Green probably drives you nuts some days. But they regularly play with more joy and enthusiasm than any team in the league, have an incredibly understanding and involved coach and probably the most enthusiastic fan base in the NBA. And sour dough chowder bread bowls. C'mon. Oh, yeah, Boogie. That should make it more interesting.

2. Utah Jazz

They don't have the talent of most of the top four or five-or eight—in the West, although Donovan Mitchell is pretty good. But they play with such precision and persistence. Rudy Gobert anchors the basket. OK, he's an anchor on offense, but they find the right players for their style like Jae Crowder, Joe Ingels and now Grayson Allen, the latter who probably would have been booed by Mr. Rogers.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

Never underestimate the LeBron effect. He's not about to come to LA in front of all those potential guests for his barber shop show and have a hairy season. Most point to the curious addition of Lance the Ear Blower, JaVale the Shaqtin a Fool co-star, Michael Any Shot Beasley and Rondo the Ray Allen Fan. But it all overlooks some really good, young talent led by Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma.

Houston Rockets

4. Houston Rockets

It's the Woolridge Effect with the addition of Carmelo. Generally teams he comes to get worse, or at least aren't as happy. Much has been mentioned about the departures of some of the defensive guys like Trevor Ariza, though he was slowing down. They still have P.J. Tucker and he was the best of them, and Mike D'Antoni knows how to work with militants, though Carmelo did get him fired in New York. Much depends on how long before Chris Paul's hamstring explodes. Two more games last season and it would have been a title. They're still very good, but how much with ‘Melo?

5. Denver Nuggets

We're probably more interested in seeing the guys not there as the ones who are, namely injured rookie Porter and injured mini Thomas, Isaiah. They're the upstart favorite of many after missing the playoffs last season. They do get Paul Millsap back, but really have no true point guard, but a lot of guards who like to shoot. This is where the West really gets interesting with a half dozen teams looking at the last four spots.

Oklahoma City Thunder

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook supposedly is close to returning from what's actually his fourth knee surgery, though no ACL. Still, can he continue to play with that sort of frenzy? Paul George surprised everyone by resigning. Few understood his love of chicken fried steak and singing Surrey with a Fringe on Top. They lose Andre Robeson again and add Dennis Schroder, who supposedly wasn't a team favorite in Atlanta. Heck, they did survive ‘Melo.

7. Portland Trailblazers

They didn't do much of anything despite all sorts of rumors they would break up their fabulous backcourt. Of course, why? Maybe center Nurkic gives them more. They're one of those teams about whom you ask just what is it they need? Their guys to be just a little bit better.

8. New Orleans Pelicans

There's much speculation about Anthony Davis' future again, and if it's a first round ouster, or maybe not making the playoffs, is this finally the summer he's red faced and had enough of that spicy shrimp? No Boogie this season, but with Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle it's an interesting front court. The backcourt is fragile without Rondo, but Davis does a lot. For whom will be the question next summer.

9. San Antonio Spurs

Really, this has to be the end of the playoff streak. Of course, they're not exactly empty with adding DeMar DeRozan. After all, Kawhi didn't play last season and they still won 47 games. So there's no surprise if they're still a playoff team. But the gang is gone with Tony Parker in Charlotte and Manu probably in South America. Losing point guard Dejoute Murray was tough. But Popovich generally figures out something.

Minnesota Timberwolves

10. Minnesota Timberwolves

Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. What have you wrought? The latest we've heard is Jimmy's coming to play—he's officially become a first name guy now—but is ready to leave as soon as the ice freezes and matches his demeanor. This is going to be the car wreck of the league, everyone preferring to turn away but unable to keep from looking. Jimmy's scolding of Towns and Wiggins was awful, both being good very guys. Talk about losing your team. Hey, we thought Thibs was the guy who coached hard like Jimmy wanted. Does Jimmy stay with it or with a history of injuries does he come up with something? As the Jimmy turns. Stay tuned.

11. Dallas Mavericks

As Dirk exits, Luka enters, and they may begin to have something going again. Perhaps most amazing was after being punk'd by DeAndre Jordan in free agency a few years back they actually signed him when the Clippers fired everyone else. I'm also looking forward to seeing Jalen Brunson.

12. Phoenix Suns

This is the GM job you'd want now with Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Josh Jackson. Mikal Bridges, too. They finally seem to have the core of promising young talent, though Tyson Chandler isn't the right veteran presence any longer.

13. Los Angeles Clippers

With Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley they get back two of the better defenders. And add another in Luc Mbah a Moute. Just how they'll score to make them relevant is the issue.

14. Memphis Grizzlies

Mike Conley returns after a year away, but they're still stuck with Chandler Parsons. And who knows what Marc Gasol has left. Rookie Jaren Jackson looks like he'll be a nice replacement, but it seems like they should be looking to make more trades of their veterans.

15. Sacramento Kings

Oh, my, and they don't even have their draft pick. They're accumulating young players with De'Aaron Fox and now Marvin Bagley. Harry Giles is giving them something after knee issues and there's Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein, but they don't much seem to fit or work.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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