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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 destinat