The NBA season starts next week and while we'd love to tell you there are a dozen teams who could take home the championship, it really looks like Golden State's to lose once again. Still, it's about the journey, not the destination, right?
'If there's one consolation, it's likely just a one-year rental, with the Warriors due to extend their other stars next year and Cousins set for a big time pay cheque should he play well.'
It's difficult not to feel like the rest of the NBA are moving seats on the Titanic while a glistening iceberg named the Golden State Warriors punctures and ploughs through their collective hull, such is the dominance of the Californians over their competitors.
One of the reasons we love sport is its unpredictability - Liverpool come back from 3-0 down to win the Champions League, 5000/1 Leicester City win the Premier League, the Browns pick a quarterback at 1.01 who doesn't completely suck - but the Warriors look so far ahead of the rest it's tempting to list them alone under "contenders" here.
Injuries can hit though and complacency must be a risk when you are so heavily favoured, so there are teams who could give the defending champs a series as they make their run at a third title in a row.
The primary reason for any fatalism around the league is the addition of DeMarcus Cousins to the best team in the league's roster.
He's coming off an Achilles injury, and it'll be interesting to see how his physical style fits into the Golden State's fast-paced rotation, but it's just tough to think about them piling his talent onto a team that already looked like they'd mashed the rosters of two good teams together.
Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant all return. Cousins brings more physicality and dynamic playmaking ability to a team already stacked.
If there's one consolation, it's likely just a one-year rental, with the Warriors due to extend their other stars next year and Cousins set for a big time paycheque should he play well.
The champs have waved goodbye to some bench talent - JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West - and Andre Iguodala will turn 35 in January, so it'll be interesting to see how their younger players step up. These changes look nothing like a fatal flaw though.
Steve Kerr had his health problems last year, as did Curry and Durant, but they barely looked threatened in the postseason despite these knocks.
The question it's fair to ask is whether they can go 16-0 through the playoffs? The regular season is just an afterthought.
DeMarcus Cousins doing some full-court 2 on 2. pic.twitter.com/rTGmi1CUF7— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 12, 2018
The Likeliest Challengers
If there's a challenger to their dominance it'll likely come in the finals.
Boston can celebrate not having to face LeBron in any conference finals this year, though, even if he'd stayed in Cleveland, it'd be hard to make a case against the Celtics taking the Eastern title in 2019's playoffs.
You only have to look at last year to see why.
TD Garden will still ring with the question of how they didn't beat the now LA-ensconced James and his ragtag bunch of carousing Cavaliers in game seven, and that shocking loss came without their best two players.
Kyrie Irving will lead them this year again, and Gordon Hayward also shows up after his horror 2017 injury.
Adding those to young players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, who all stepped up last season in lieu of their downed stars, gives shows the kind of depth the Celtics have now, and coach Brad Stevens is a real plus because of his ability to scheme for different opponents - that was a huge factor in their unlikely run to the Conference finals last season.
The 76ers and Raptors are the nest nearest challenger in the betting for the eastern crown.
Philly haven't made many huge moves - they were the only team besides the Laker team that LeBron talked with besides the Lakers - and have lost some scoring talent in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, but they have a lot of exciting pieces in place and looked to be really hitting their stride entering the playoffs last season. It was a real pity they didn't deliver the storming run some expected.
Markelle Fultz is returning too, though what they are getting back after the 2017 first overall pick's troubles last season remains to be seen. Some worry this could disrupt the chemistry of the team, but they still have Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and resigned JJ Redick, so they should be able to cope.
In Toronto, it's harder to gauge where they are, but the arrival of potential MVP Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio - whether it's for beyond one-year remains to be seen - does make them a tougher looking team even if DeMar DeRozan's scoring has gone the other way.
The Raptors, lest we forget, were the best team in the East last season by record, though that meant nothing when they were swept 4-0 by Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs. Dwayne Casey was fired despite being awarded the Coach of the Year title, and a change of mentality is required if they're to make a run.
Leonard can bring that.
Danny Green also comes in from the Spurs, and Greg Monroe's been added to Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and other interesting pieces. New coach Nick Nurse has a lot to work with.
Danny Green on Kawhi Leonard: "He's definitely more vocal than he's ever been, on and off the court. It looks like he feels comfortable. It looks like he feels at home."— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) October 8, 2018
The Raptors won't have to worry about Cleveland in the playoffs this year thanks to the biggest free agent move of the summer.
Though they're unlikely to win the title, it's difficult not to talk about the Lakers after LeBron James switch from Ohio to California.
It's hard to assess this team. There's the almost irresistible power of the greatest player in the game telling you, Kevin Garnett-style, that anything is possible. As with Cleveland teams of the past, James could drag this team way beyond realistic expectations.
However, even for the great man, the roster turnover at the Staples Center gives pause for thought. Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley - these are all Lakers now!
The @Lakers defeat the @warriors 123-113 in Las Vegas!— NBA (@NBA) October 11, 2018
LeBron: 15 PTS, 10 REB, 5 AST
Ingram: 26 PTS, 5 REB
Kuzma: 22 PTS
Steph: 23 PTS, 5 AST
Klay Thompson: 20 PTS, 4 3PM
Durant: 18 PTS, 12 REB#NBAPreseason pic.twitter.com/OVJAA92P2g
What kind of team is Luke Walton - with guidance, no doubt, from the newly arrived superstar -going to fashion with these pieces and the remnants of last season's roster?
The Lakers won 35 games last year. Minnesota grabbed the eighth seed with 47. Lebron's arrival should definitely close that gap - Vegas puts their win total at a tasty looking 48.5, and given their weak divisional matchups against the Suns, Kings and an unrecognisable Clippers, they can top 50 wins. But making a run at Golden State? The Cavs were swept 4-0 in last season's finals.
Houston still look the most likely contenders. They earned the top seed in the West last year, but you'd wonder if that wasn't their best shot at slipping past Curry, Durant et al.
James Harden returns, Chris Paul too, and they've brought in Carmelo Anthony after his year in OKC. His contract is cheap, so it's worth a shot, but how it all fits together isn't clear. Melo was a net negative for the Thunder last season when on court.
The Rockets have also lost a couple of major defensive contributors - Luc Mbah-a-Moute and Trevor Ariza - and CP3 and PJ Tucker are getting on in years now, so you'd wonder whether the improvement from last year is sustained, or they revert to form, in which case the Warriors will be uncatchable.
They'll also have a big bullseye on their backs for the likes of Oklahoma City, Utah and even New Orleans.
OKC managed to retain Paul George against the odds, and have dumped Melo. Not trying to shoehorn him into line ups will help. Russell Westbrook is likely to miss the opening stages of the season thanks to knee surgery, and Andre Roberson, their best defender, could also miss a lot time now too, so that is a big concern.
Nerlens Noel, Dennis Schroder and Abdel Hader have been added, and this season is a real opportunity for George to stake his claim as one of the top five players in league. If he can play to his potential, no one will want to face OKC in April and beyond.
Utah are similarly threatening. The Jazz were the West's version of the Sixers last year, streaking into the postseason on the back of a red-hot run, mainly fired by rookie Donovan Mitchell and one of the league's best defences. Only, as with everything in this league, the team from the Pacific conference went on an even better streak than that from the Atlantic coast.
We have a dope team lol @utahjazz— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) October 3, 2018
Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert and Mitchell were the central actors in their breath-taking second half of the season. Gobert is now ranked by the league's GMs as the best defensive player in the league, and his return from injury was the impetus for it all, but Mitchell's unexpected production marks him out as a possible superstar, and if his trajectory continues upward, Utah can grab a very high seed.
They'll likely outshine Portland, third seeds last year, who have kept Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum but who disappointed when given the chance to shine in the playoffs. They were embarrassed by New Orleans, and while the Pelicans have seen a star name leave in Cousins, they actually seemed to find their rhythm when he went down last season.
Anthony Davis looked to be stepping towards his MVP potential, and Jrue Holiday should be able to fill the gap left by Rajon Rondo too, with Elfrid Payton a nice addition. New Orleans are an exciting team to watch, and Davis could be on a Russell Westbrook-like mission to secure MVP honours in 2019.
One team who lost their possible-league-best star, San Antonio become even more difficult to read with the arrival of DeMar DeRozan in exchange for Kawhi. Dejounte Murray's ACL tear is likely a crippler for their dark horse hopes with Tony Parker now gone. Lamarcus Aldridge and DeRozan will need to develop chemistry if Coach Pop is take this team to a record 22nd straight postseason.
Finally among the playoff teams from 2017-18, the Timberwolves are waiting for one their big names to get out of town. Jimmy Butler has caused a meltdown in Minneapolis that could torpedo their season. They have Karl-Anthony Townes and Andrew Wiggins still, but the disruption caused by Butler's behaviour could end their playoff hopes.
Denver will fancy their chances of pushing out Minnesota. Nikola Jokic will be central to anything good that happens for the Nuggets, while it's good to see Isaiah Thomas on a roster that could be exciting after the couple of years he's had.
The Clippers and the Grizzlies will also be in the fight, with DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers now gone from LA's second team, the roster is barely recognisable. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley (hopefully healthy) make Memphis a competitive team, but you sense this could be a make-or, more likely, break year for them.
Beasts in the East
Washington and Milwaukee still have the potential to make noise in the other Conference.
Bradley Beal and John Wall remain in situ in the capital, though, at this stage, it's hard not to be wearied by the Wizards failures to cast their spell in the playoffs.
The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, MVP contender, and now have a coach likely to get the best out of him in former Coach of the Year Jerry Budenholzer. They are an exciting team with a high ceiling. Giannis is available at 4/1 in the regular season MVP market on Betfair Sportsbook.
Top 10 NBA players last season in PPG under 25 years of age— Dominique Clare (@DomClare) October 12, 2018
Giannis Antetokounmpo (23)
Devin Booker (21)
Joel Embiid (24)
Kristaps Porzingis (23)
Karl-Anthony Towns (22)
Donovan Mitchell (22)
Nikola Jokic (23)
Andrew Wiggins (23)
Aaron Gordon (23)
Gary Harris (24)
Indiana were a big surprise last year after Paul George's departure. Victor Oladipo emerged as a scoring phenom, and they've added some interesting pieces around him, Tyreke Evans prime among them. Whether they can sustain last year's upstart performance is the question. Securing a playoff spot again will be a welcome consolidation for the Pacers.
And sadly you would have to say the same about the defending conference champs. Kevin Love has been given a big contract in Cleveland to lead the scone post-Lebron Cavs, and what a thankless task that could be.
Throughout last season, and even with James, the Cavaliers were flirting with a record that could've dropped them from the postseason if their now departed leader had missed time. Now he's going to miss all 82 Cavs games. They won 50 last year, but the line for their total this year is 30.5 - and that could be optimistic.
They'll be fighting it out with Miami, Charlotte and probably Detroit if they want to be involved in the business end of the season. Of these, the Pistons are looking to make the biggest jump having ended the Stan Van Gundy era and acquired Blake Griffin last season.
Kristaps Porzingis' health is the key factor for the Knicks. They could be in the running for a very high draft pick if he does not recover sufficiently to contribute in 2019.
The Suns and the Kings will also be in the frame. Phoenix fired their GM this week, which should tell you everything about where they are as a franchise. Sacramento's biggest move was what they didn't do - draft Luka Doncic - in the offseason. They've a lot of Young pieces that could do something eventually, but the roster has holes that won't be filled soon.
Dallas benefitted from the Kings' Bagley selection at #2, snaffling Doncic who could supersede Dirk Nowitzki as the franchise leader if things go to plan. With Dennis Smith a year older and DeAndre Jordan signed at centre, the Mavs should show signs of improvement this season - get ready for more Mark Cuban jawing at courtside.
The bottom rungs of the East features a few very messy rosters. Atlanta are likely to be the worst team in the league - they've traded to collect plenty of draft capital and are clearly attempt to work through a process. Brooklyn are in a similar place.
Orlando will be hoping to find some chemistry with the pieces they've collected, though Aaron Gordon remains their best hope, and they're likely to grab a high draft spot next season.
The Bulls will be interesting to watch. They've got young talent, but Zach Lavine's recovery from ACL surgery will likely dictate whether they can push for an eighth seed or not.
Simply put, it's very hard to see how the Warriors don't win another championship. The market reflects that, making their chances of a fourth title in five years odds-on at [1.69]. It's not one for the big-price backers, but it could be better value than many other bets you'll make.
In the East, Boston are getting so much talent back and were still really impressive last season minus their stars, they look the cream of the crop there still, and are available at [1.9] currently.
The MVP race will probably provide the most interesting betting. It should probably always go to LeBron, but that would be boring. The changes in Milwaukee and New Orleans mean Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis have the potential to boss the league's lesser lights around this season. Giannis has been threatening a run at the crown in the last couple of years, so I'd plump for the Greek Freak at 4/1 on the Sportsbook.