Four bold NBA predictions for 2018

Lonzo Ball of the Los Angeles Lakers listens to LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Getty Images/Jason Miller)

This time last year, few could have predicted what the basketball world had in store for us in 2017. Consider jut a small sampling of what went down:

• The top two teams in the East, Cleveland and Boston, swapped all-star point guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas, an unprecedented type of trade.

• The Oklahoma City Thunder traded no-time all-stars Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for four-time all-star Paul George — and both Oladipo and Sabonis have been better so far during the 2017–18 season. What’s more, Oladipo has been outplaying former backcourt mate Russell Westbrook. Nobody saw that one coming.

• LeBron James, the greatest player on Earth, got noticeably better at basketball.

• As the NBA trends toward smaller lineups, the New Orleans Pelicans traded for DeMarcus Cousins, arguably the best big man in the NBA, to play alongside Anthony Davis, arguably the best big man in the NBA. It’s become normalized by now, but really the fact that a Cousins-Davis frontcourt exists today may take my vote as the biggest shocker of 2017 in the NBA.

Markelle Fultz, the first-overall pick in the NBA draft, showed up for his debut season with a totally different and undisputedly ugly shooting form that nobody in the Philadelphia 76ers organization knew he changed over the summer.

• The NBA renamed their minor league (the NBA Developmental League, or D-League) after an energy drink (the G-League — “G” stands for Gatorade), and everybody just rolled with it.

The point is, it’s hard to predict what the next calendar year has in store. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Here are some “bold” predictions for 2018:

1. The Houston Rockets will be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs

The Rockets are off to a staggering start to the ’17-18 season. Thirty games into the season Houston’s offense is the most potent in NBA history, and when early MVP front-runner James Harden and newly acquired future-Hall-of-Fame point guard Chris Paul (another shocker from 2017) are both in the lineup, they are yet to lose.

Heading into the last week of 2017, they are in first place in the standings and with a top-10 defence to boot have seemingly emerged as the lone team in the West that can give the defending-champion Golden State Warriors a scare in the 2018 post-season.

But here’s the thing: They won’t.

The Rockets are talented and fairly deep, but can their free-wheeling, shot-chucking style thrive when the game slows down and rotations tighten in the playoffs? I’m skeptical.

What’s more, their two go-to stars, Harden and Paul, have well-earned reputations for being unable to lead a team deep into the post-season. Save for when Harden was coming off the bench for the Thunder, neither player has made it past the second round. Why would 2018 be any different?

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2. Vince Carter will retire as a Raptor

This may be the boldest prediction on the list — and it has nothing to do with Carter’s complicated legacy in Toronto.

Despite turning 41 in January, Carter is a serviceable NBA rotation player who can still routinely do stuff like this:

His advanced age didn’t stop the Sacramento Kings from handing him $8 million to play basketball for them this season, and assuming he can at least continue to be a contributor, he stands to make a decent chunk of change next season as well. Carter has said he feels he has at least a couple of years left in the tank, but it remains to be seen how he feels after the current season is in the books and he starts to look at opportunities.

I’m not sure if Carter makes sense as a rotation player in a diminished role for the Raptors in 2018-19. But I am sure that if he retires after this season, Carter will sign a one-day contract with Toronto and officially retire as a Raptor. It would be a fitting end to a complex story for Carter, the organization he put on the map, and the fan base that loved him, hated him, forgave him, and then eventually came to appreciate him once more before the curtains closed.

3. LeBron James won’t go anywhere

All summer long, the NBA rumour mill churned with potential destinations for James, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. After all, why would the King stay in Cleveland? They traded a young star in Irving for a one-season rental in Thomas and a lucrative 2018 first-round pick who, no matter how talented, almost surely wouldn’t be able to help James win another title with the Cavs.

Los Angeles, where James owns two homes, emerged as a likely front-runner, and the Lakers even began shedding salary in anticipation of signing a top-tier free agent next summer.

But they will have to find someone else to use it on.

Not only will LeBron re-sign with the Cavaliers — he’ll sign a multi-year deal that will see him potentially close his career in Cleveland.

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4. With the first-overall pick of the 2018 NBA draft, the Memphis Grizzlies select… Luka Doncic

The Grizzlies are ripe to blow it up and tank. Mike Conley is injured, Marc Gasol is languishing and a prime trade target for a contender, and Memphis has precisely zero prospects ready to step up and inspire hope for the future. They’re in the basement in the West — only the Mavericks are worse — and even if they don’t actively tank there’s still a good chance the ping pong balls land their way. The notion that the Grizz will wind up with the top pick at the draft isn’t even bold.

But to pass up collegiate stars with clear paths to NBA stardom like bruising centre DeAndre Ayton, dominant big man Marvin Bagley III or an all-star calibre forward like Michael Porter Jr. for a lesser-known international prospect? Better start getting used to it now.

As I wrote about when he was dominating grown men en route to leading Slovenia to a EuroBasket gold medal last summer, teen sensation Luka Doncic is worth tanking for. And GMs around the NBA know it.

Doncic has the ball skills of a lead playmaker, a deadly jump shot, and next-level finishing ability at the rim. At 19 years old, he has the same physical measurements as present-day Carmelo Anthony and isn’t afraid to mix it up and attack the glass down low. This season he’s been putting up big numbers and taking over games down the stretch playing for Real Madrid, facing tougher competition than any kid in college. He’s making strides defensively and on offence can do damage in just about any way you can imagine. And what’s more, he’s a proven winner with the most apparent competitive spirit of any player in the running for the top pick in 2018.

And yet, despite all the reasons in the world, it would be simply unprecedented if Doncic were to rise to No. 1.

Looking back through the history of the draft, it’s obviously rare for an international prospect to be selected first overall, and there are good-enough reasons — there is less first-hand scouting and an overall lack of information that tends to scare-off NBA decision makers.

There are only two non-Americans who never played in the NCAA to be drafted first overall: Yao Ming and Andrea Bargnani. While those two left decidedly different legacies, they both stood out thanks to their mammoth size, which led teams to take a chance on them.

That’s not the case for Doncic. Which will make it even more surprising when he becomes No. 3 on that short list.

Agree? Disagree? Got predictions of your own? Let us know in the comments below.

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