And then there were two.
In recent seasons, you could argue there were anywhere from three to six — or maybe even seven — teams that could reach the NBA Finals.
On paper, the 2018-19 NBA season — which tipped off Tuesday night — is far too predictable to include more than two.
Yes, barring major injuries, we’ll wake up in June 2019 to a Boston Celtics-vs.-Golden State Warriors championship series. Everyone’s predicting that and for good reason.
Last year, the Houston Rockets played wild card. In addition, you had the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, the guaranteed-to-disappoint-in-the-playoffs Toronto Raptors and the process-still-pending Philadelphia 76ers - all teams that had a shot while being in the lackluster Eastern Conference.
Now, though, times have changed. The Celtics, who took the Cavaliers to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, have healthy versions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. And there’s no longer a King James roadblock set up in the conference.
Let’s face it: The Celtics are stacked. Barring injury setbacks, no one in the East will stop them. Ditto for the Warriors who, despite the arrival of James in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, remain the class of the West.
Let’s go down the list of former contenders who I now consider pretenders.
I’ll be the first admit that I didn’t think the Chris Paul-alongside-James Harden experiment would work. Boy was I wrong. Not only did it work, but if not for an injury that kept CP3 from playing in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, we could be calling the Rockets NBA champs right now.
But I believe the subtle losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute and the questionable addition of Carmelo Anthony will disrupt the chemistry the team had last year. It’s not so much that it will derail the squad completely, but it likely will knock them down a perch.
Ariza has been one of the best “glue guys” of the last decade and Anthony is the opposite, whether he comes off the bench or not. As a fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, I saw last year how trying to incorporate a player like him into a different scheme can be difficult and have negative effects, no matter how much he’s willing to sacrifice.
The Rockets could still get back to the West finals, but I don’t see them being anywhere near the threat they were last season.
LeBron James is gone. Enough said.
Is Kawhi Leonard the answer here? Can the former NBA Finals MVP help the Raptors finally turn the corner from being the biggest annual pretender? I’m going with no.
As much as I like Leonard as a player — I thought he was on the verge of becoming the top player in the league until missing last season with an injury that led to an odd spat with the San Antonio Spurs — we don’t know if the injury issue could redevelop, we don’t know if he really wants to be there and there could be rust.
It’s a long season and he very well could return to the form that made him one of the league’s best, but as Toronto has proven in recent years, it just doesn’t have enough to compete with the big boys when it really counts.
I’ll believe it when I see it. And if the Raptors do finally get over the hump, Leonard would have God-like status there — just in time for him to for Los Angeles in the offseason.
This is clearly a team on the rise, with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Robert Covington forming a nice core. And, if — a big if — Markelle Fultz can live up to the hype that was delayed last year, this team will be pretty formidable.
Philly added Wilson Chandler and brought J.J. Redick back. The Sixers will also have another year of experience under their belt.
Nonetheless, I still feel like this team struck out. It had a chance to lure LeBron, Paul George or Kawhi Leonard to town in the offseason and got none of them. Also, don’t discount the fact Embiid is injury prone and Simmons couldn’t put a jumper in the ocean.
The game slows down in the playoffs and I just don’t think Philly has enough to contend with a team like Boston at this point.
The fact that all signs point to a Boston-Golden State NBA Finals isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Yes, the playoffs could be a little lackluster prior to the Finals. But, the fact that the top two teams are in separate conferences will mean the Finals will be the Finals again.
You could easily argue that the Western Conference finals stole that role this past June.
Despite the predictability, there’s a lot of intriguing story lines to watch. But the end game looks very predictable.
Time will tell if that’s ultimately a good thing or a bad thing.
David Wetzel: @MYBSports, 843-626-0295