Every offseason there are shakeups in the NBA. Some players retire, some get traded, and a new crop of rookies join the league. This year of course, the biggest change across the league is superstar LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
But this upcoming season may be completely different. The Warriors have also made it to four straight finals. It’s become a given that they are the last team standing in the West. With James on the West Coast now, things are different. The Warriors are still as good as ever, but it would be crazy to assume they are a shoe-in for the finals this year.
Initial Effects of LeBron’s Move
LeBron’s move west has two major consequences. First, he has left the Eastern Conference for the Western Conference, making the competition in the West all the steeper. Second, he has left a vacuum in the East for other teams to rise up and take the place of his old Cavaliers.
Teams like Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto now have a much better chance of making it to the finals with LeBron out of the picture. In the past eight seasons there was little hope of any team in the East making it past LeBron. In fact, that seemed to be the goal of every team. Each team knew that no matter how well they played and how far they made it, they would eventually have to come up against LeBron. This pressure has now been lifted.
What Do the Experts Think?
ESPN has come out with rankings for the upcoming season based on their BPI or Basketball Power Index. Their index takes the number of points that each team scores in a game and compares it to the league average. Using this data, the BPI runs approximately 10,000 simulations of possible outcomes for regular and postseason play. Based on the data, the BPI gives each team a ranking,
Who is the top team? You guess it: Golden State. But it might surprise you to know that Boston is number two. The next few spots are taken by the Rockets, Raptors, 76ers, and Thunder. It’s not until number 7 that we find LeBron’s new team: the Lakers.
The BPI gives LeBron’s Lakers an 88% chance of making the playoffs. This seems low for James, considering that he’s not only played in the playoffs the last eight years but made it to the finals every season. But L.A.’s roster is not especially strong, so it remains to be seen what LeBron can do.
It could be argued that his last year’s Cleveland team was not very strong either. With the departure of Kyrie Irving after the 2017 season, the Cavaliers looked worse for wear. With aging support around him in the form of Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, LeBron largely was left to his own devices to propel his team to another finals. And it showed. The Warriors handily dispatched Cleveland in the finals.
So, it may be too early to say the L.A. team around LeBron is not strong enough to make the playoffs. In fact, in the last decade of play, every team LeBron has played for has had at least a 99.8% chance of making the playoffs. In other words: every team of LeBron’s goes to the post season. That being said, merely making the playoffs is a far cry from making and winning the finals. And this year, the BPI gives the Lakers only a 40% chance of making the conference finals.
And Who Is the Favorite to Win It All?
Well there’s no surprise here. The BPI still thinks that Golden state has the best chance of winning the finals. But interestingly, their percentage has gone down. In 2015-16 they had a 19% chance to win the finals. This percentage grew the year to 25% and the next year it exploded to 58%. But for the 2018-19 season it has dropped 18 percentage points to 40%.
This is not to say that the Warriors are getting worse. But they did fall just slightly short of expectations last year. Experts predicted a win in at least 63 games which they did not do. And then there was their performance against Houston in the Conference finals. For a while it looked like it was either team’s series. Yes, Golden State came out on top but not in overpowering fashion.
So, despite all the hype of LeBron’s big move to L.A., you are not likely going to see Lakers in the finals this year. A more likely scenario involves the Warriors or Houston facing off against one of the rising teams in the East like Boston or Toronto. But let’s not count James out of the running yet. The aging superstar seems always to have a way of bringing his teams farther than anyone deems possible.