Amico’s Preview: Everyone again playing for second behind Warriors

Jaylen Brown and the Celtics and Joel Embiid and the Sixers are among those battling for the Eastern Conference crown.

With the NBA about to tip off its 73rd season, everyone knows the Golden State Warriors are going to win the title.

They have to, right?

“If they don’t win, it’s a failure,” Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley Jr. said. “I know that’s how they feel as well. For us, for the other 29 teams, we’re the underdog. We’re trying to take what they have. It’s a lot easier playing from the underdog perspective than coming in with a lot of expectation.”

The Warriors have won three of the last four championships and two in a row, meeting LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers each time.

That won’t happen this year. That’s because James now plays for someone else — the Los Angeles Lakers. No one is sure, exactly, why James departed the Cavs a second time, he hasn’t really given a specific reason for moving on from the Eastern Conference, the easier of the two conferences.

The Lakers aren’t supposed to do much as currently constructed. Even if they surprise, they’re in the same boat as the other 28 teams. They are looking up, up, up at the Warriors.

Read: James’ streak of eight straight trips to the Finals is about to reach an end. Today’s Lakers will undoubtedly be improved with the addition of James. But for the most part, they are really built for little more than show.

The Warriors, on the other hand, added DeMarcus Cousins to a lineup that already features Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Yeah, there’s nowhere to go but up.

“None of us are ready for this run to come to an end,” Green said. “So we’ve got to continue to approach it like we’ve got zero. And that’s cliche and impossible to do, but you want to try to get as close to that as you possibly can. And that’s my mindset always entering the season.”

The Warriors are heavy favorites, but the West has lots of other reasons to watch. The Houston Rockets, behind James Harden and Chris Paul (and maybe a decent in the aging Carmelo Anthony), can make a case as the league’s second-best team. They finished with the best record last season and led the Warriors 3-2 in the West finals before Paul got injured.

“We’ve all got one goal, man,” Harden said. “You’ll keep hearing the same story over and over until I’m not here no more. We’ve got to win a `chip. We’ve all got the same goal. We kind of, a little bit, we kind of know what it takes to almost get there. But we haven’t gotten there yet.”

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder could be every bit as good, if not better. Same goes for Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz. And Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the Portland Trail Blazers, who finished third in the West last season, bring back the same cast for another run.

But perhaps the biggest unknown in the West is where Minnesota star Jimmy Butler and New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis will play next — or if they’ll even finish the season with their current team.

Butler has turned the Timberwolves into an offseason saga after demanding a trade nearly a month ago. It may reshape the entire organization that previously seemed to be on the rise, depending on where and when Butler is either traded or comes around to the idea of remaining in Minnesota.

And after losing Cousins to the Warriors in free agency, Davis is again sort of flying solo with the Pelicans. Then again, they did OK after Cousins went down with an Achilles injury, the Pelicans upending the Blazers in the first round of the playoffs. There is talk that Davis likes the organization and will be fine with staying put.

Things are a little murkier in the East.

Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are healthy and return to a Boston Celtics team that took James and the Cavs to seven games in the East finals. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons continue to give the Philadeklphia 76ers two huge reasons for hope, and former San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard is now with the Toronto Raptors, the defending regular-season East champs. At least, Leonard is with the Raptors for now. There are whispers the Raptors will trade him if they don’t get some sort of commitment from the free-agent-to-be by midseason.

Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers and John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards are viewed as potential East darkhorses, and the same has been predicted of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

And no one is quite sure what to make of Kevin Love and the Cavs following James’ departure. One opposing general manager called them the league’s biggest mystery entering the season.

Actually, let’s face it, outside of the Warriors, the entire league is a mystery. As usual, they and they alone are the lone sure thing.

AMICO’S PICKS

Eastern Conference: 1. Celtics; 2. Sixers; 3. Raptors; 4. Pacers; 5. Wizards; 6. Bucks; 7. Cavs; 8. Heat.

East Finals: Celtics over Raptors.

Western Conference: 1. Warriors; 2. Rockets; 3. Thunder; 4. Jazz; 5. Trail Blazers; 6. Lakers; 7. Nuggets; 8. Pelicans.

West Finals: Warriors over Rockets.

NBA Finals: Warriors over Celtics.