The Warriors have won three of the past four NBA titles and added All-Star DeMarcus Cousins on a one-year deal this offseason. It has given the 2018-19 NBA season an air of predetermination that has been present since Kevin Durant joined them — that the title is Golden State’s to lose. It might seem like last season was a cakewalk for the Warriors, but they were still one game away from the Rockets eliminating them. They are the favorites this year to be sure, but there are a bunch of intriguing story lines to watch as the season opens Tuesday, with the Timberwolves set to open Wednesday at San Antonio. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, even if it seems inevitable. Here are five things to watch this year:
1 LeBron switches conferences
For the first time in his career, LeBron James is in the Western Conference, and he has instantly turned the Lakers into a playoff-caliber team just by being on the roster. What his presence also does is make the Western Conference even more of a logjam. Last season, the Wolves were the eighth seed at 47-35 while the third-seeded Trail Blazers were only two games better. There will be good teams that don’t make the playoffs in the West this season. A key injury here or there could be the difference between getting in and being relegated to the lottery.
2 East is up for grabs
Because James is in the West, it means the Eastern Conference will have a team in the Finals that doesn’t have him on it for the first time since 2010. The consensus favorite to be that team is the Celtics, considering they took the Cavaliers to Game 7 last season without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in their lineup. Add Irving and Hayward to a group that includes Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, Al Horford and Terry Rozier and you have a scary deep team. But the Raptors are all in this season after making the trade for Kawhi Leonard, and the 76ers’ young talent only figures to get better.
3 New shot clock rule
Perhaps the most significant on-court change is the shot clock, which will reset to only 14 seconds following an offensive rebound. This should create more offense, since teams won’t have the luxury of a full reset after picking up an offensive board. It is also likely to have an effect on teams’ second-chance points and how they might want to strategize attacking the offensive glass. Teams might want to focus on transition defense if there is less time to work for a good shot following an offensive rebound.
4 Butler drama
It’s a story that doesn’t seem to have clean resolution coming soon, but Jimmy Butler’s trade request — and Wolves owner Glen Taylor’s pledge to honor that request — will be a significant move that could shape the balance of power in the league. It’s not every day that a top-10 or -15 player is moved, and whatever team ends up with him could take another step as a franchise. The Wolves will likely take a step back in the short term, but with a smart trade, perhaps they can make strides for the long term.
5 Will the Spurs keep streak alive?
The last time the Spurs missed the playoffs was 1997, the year Gregg Popovich replaced Bob Hill as coach. San Antonio has been a model for consistency and continuity, but more than any season in the Popovich era there are questions. Tony Parker is with the Hornets. Manu Ginobili retired, and Kawhi Leonard was traded to the Raptors. Popovich will have to make it work with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. There are worse situations, but in a stacked West, will the Spurs have enough firepower after losing promising guard Dejounte Murray to a torn knee ligament?