by Ayotunde Onabolu
The wait is over and the 2019-20 season of the NBA is upon us!
For the most part, team rosters are set, with the exception of a few teams waiving players surplus to requirement and signing role players to fill up available roster spots after having several opportunities in the preseason to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these players.
That said, it is time to take a look at the teams that should challenge for the title, taking into consideration the strength of the players and coaches at their disposal. Of course, injuries will always play a major role. Like we saw with the Golden State Warriors last season, injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson reduced the overwhelming favorites at the start of the season to the underdogs in the finals.
That kind of phenomenon is bound to happen, but for the sake of this article, it will be assumed that the teams are healthy, of course with the exception of a few teams with injuries that will sideline some of their important players for most or all of the season like Kevin Durant (Nets), Klay Thompson (Warriors), DeMarcus Cousins (Lakers) and most recently, high-flying Gerald Green (Rockets).
We begin with the contenders in the Eastern Conference.
The 76ers got so close to the Eastern Conference Finals last season but could not scale the hurdle as Kawhi Leonard’s Game Seven buzzer-beating game winner - one of the greatest shots in NBA playoff history - sent eventual champions, Toronto Raptors through to the Eastern Conference Finals at their expense.
It can only be imagined how far the 76ers could have gone if they did not lose to the Raptors. In the offseason, they lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick in Free Agency but added veteran experience in 12-year All-Star Al-Horford. Horford is one of the more underrated players in the game as a lot of work he does on both ends of the floor is not adequately captured on the stats sheet.
Also joining the 76ers is Josh Richardson from Miami, a shooting guard who can play defense at a high level and can shoot the three-ball. With Horford and Richardson joining the team and playing alongside Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and star of the team, Joel Embiid, what the 76ers now have is a team that is as potent defensively as they are offensively - everybody in that starting lineup is a legit two-way threat.
The disappointment of losing in seven games to the Raptors in the conference semifinals will also serve as fuel and motivation to Coach Brett Brown and his players to not just make it to the conference finals but to get to the NBA Finals and even win it all.
Image - NBA
The Bucks won a league-leading 60 games in the regular season, led the league in points and rebounds, they were third in field goal percentage and attempted and made the second most three-point shots behind the Rockets. On defense, they led the league with the lowest opponent field goal percentage and had the best defensive rating.
The Bucks had and still have the league’s Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. They still have most of the pieces that combined to deliver one of the better seasons in the franchise’s recent history, a brilliant season that culminated in an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Raptors, and have added some veteran quality and experience, most notably in Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews.
One major reason the Bucks could not overcome the Raptors despite going up 2-0 in the finals was the unreliability of Antetokounmpo’s jump shot, which led him to force the issue and dropping his offensive production output considerably.
This offseason though, Giannis has been working on his jump shooting with help from new teammate and one of the finest shooters the league has ever seen, Korver. If that jumper becomes very potent, then Giannis will be totally unstoppable and the Bucks’ chances of grabbing their first NBA title since 1971 will skyrocket.
The Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and Brooklyn Nets all fall into this category as teams that will make some noise during the regular season, but their ability to actually contend at the crucial stages of the playoffs will be brought to intense scrutiny for a vast variety of reasons. Whilst these three teams boast of some incredibly talented players, overall quality and experience could prove to be their undoing.
The Celtics lost Kyrie Irving to the Nets but got Kemba Walker from the Hornets. Besides being named an All-Star last season and enjoying a very productive year especially in the first half of the season, is Walker really the man to take the Celtics over the hump? The fact that he has played only two postseasons in his eight-year career does not even help.
Image - Bleacher Report
For Indiana, the major question will surround the health of breakout star, Victor Oladipo. They are one of the younger teams in the league, and even though there is quality across the board, the experience at the highest level is not quite there. And that could be a source of concern for coach Nate McMillan and the fans of Indiana, although it appears building a title contender for the next few years seems to be the goal for the Pacers this season.
The major reason the Nets would not be considered as title contenders in the absence of Kevin Durant for pretty much all of next season. The two-time NBA Finals MVP is in the course of his long recovery from the injury to his Achilles tendon which he sustained in Game Five of the NBA Finals.
Kyrie Irving has continually displayed a lack of leadership as the main star of his team as evidenced by his time at the Cleveland Cavaliers pre-LeBron James and most recently his two seasons with the Celtics which were loaded with player unrest with Irving at the center.
On to the Western Conference we next head:
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The spotlight of the NBA loving world will be on the city of Los Angeles next season because it houses two teams with immense quality that will challenge for the title next season and for the immediate future. The Clippers by way of history, made it to the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West last season and lost to the Warriors in the first round in six games. They showed some strong character when they came back from 31 points down to beat the Warriors in Game Two at the Oracle Arena.
Now they have added the reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George, who finished third in the regular-season MVP voting behind Antetokounmpo and James Harden of the Rockets. Add Patrick Beverley to Leonard and George, and the Clippers suddenly have arguably the best perimeter defense perhaps in NBA history!
In Leonard and George, they have two guys who can carry the offensive load of any team they play for, create their own shots and work within the flow of the offense to get wide open shots. In addition to all of the above, the Clippers have the reigning back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year (three overall), Lou Williams. In his last two seasons with the Clippers, Williams has averaged 21.3 points and 5.3 assists off the bench.
That is pretty insane!
Also on the bench for the Clippers is Montrezl Harrell who recorded averages of 16.6 points and 6.5 rebounds and was also a finalist for the Sixth Man award. So, the Clippers have starters that can light it up on both ends of the floor as well as quality on their bench that is arguably superior to the rest of the league maybe.
If the team is healthy, then the Clippers look very solid to grab their first title in franchise history and get out of the shadow of the Lakers for good.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Image - CBS Sports
Laker fans all over the world have not been more excited in the past few years than they are right now because of the quality of their team when compared to what they have had to put on display since 2013 when they last appeared in the playoffs.
Anthony Davis is finally going to have a chance to play alongside a superstar for the first time in his career, even though he is currently listed as day-to-day after spraining his right thumb in a preseason game against the Nets in China.
But once he returns to full health status, playing alongside one of the greatest players of all time, LeBron James will be one of the highest achievements of his career.
Davis has been ranked a Top Five player in the league in the last five years, despite only appearing in a total of 13 playoff games in his career. James is also motivated to play alongside Davis especially since injury forced him to play only 55 regular-season games last season and miss the playoffs entirely.
Alongside Davis and James is a cast that is made up of NBA champions like Danny Green, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, and Quinn Cook (yes, he is an NBA champion!), as well as veterans Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard who has something to prove, and a budding star in Kyle Kuzma.
There are lots of reasons for Laker fans to be optimistic and the spotlight will be on them with LeBron entering the twilight of his illustrious career.
The Rockets have been in the title race for the past three seasons but have not quite lived up to the billing. An unfortunate injury to Chris Paul in Game Six of the 2018 Western Conference Finals ultimately killed their chances at a finals appearance, and they also lost to the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals last season in six games, even with the Warriors losing Durant to injury in Game 5 of that series.
Superstar and year-after-year MVP candidate Harden has shown much dominance in the regular season in the past few years but has not been able to translate such regular-season prowess to the playoffs on a consistent basis when it matters most.
This season, Harden will be reunited with a former teammate at Oklahoma City Thunder and former MVP, Russell Westbrook who continues to be a triple-double threat year in, year out.
Obviously, Westbrook is not a reliable shooter of the basketball, but you cannot question his drive and intensity in games. One major question about Harden and Westbrook playing together is the fact that they are both heavy usage players, ranking among the top five heavy usage players in the last five years. Another question is whether center Clint Capela has an improved offensive game that transcends just alley-ops and can contribute to the success of the team offensively.
But even with all those questions lingering on the Rockets, they cannot be written off as title contenders in a very difficult Western Conference.
Has anyone written off the Golden State Warriors already? Is it so soon to write off a team that has made the last five NBA Finals and has won three of those five? It is true the Warriors no longer have KD and Thompson is injured for a long time, but they have added D`Angelo Russell from the Nets.
With Russell comes good shooting and great facilitation, the kind that can create wide-open opportunities for Stephen Curry. Curry looks set to produce an MVP type season. Just imagine this scenario: The Warriors welcome back Thompson from his ACL injury around March and grind out a fourth to a sixth-place finish in the Western Conference. How well do you think the Warriors could fare in the playoffs with a healthy Klay playing with Curry, Russell and Draymond Green?
The bottom line is this: The Warriors CANNOT be written off entirely, as echoed in the words of Green after losing to the Raptors in the finals, “That’s just not smart. We’re not done yet,” and Curry, “I wouldn’t bet against us being back on this stage next year.”
Image - NBC Sports
The Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz are teams that will most certainly have a say in how the West will pan out next season. The young Nuggets who finished with the second-best record in the West last season and lost to the Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals have surely grown in experience and still have pretty much every major player that was a part of that brilliant season, starting with Nikola Jokic. They also welcome back Michael Porter Jr - the 14th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft - from injury in what will officially be his rookie season.
The Nuggets need to play as hard and as well as they did last season and pay attention to the little mistakes they made, and they might just as well find themselves in the conference semifinals for a second straight year, with a chance to go one step further at the very least. Who would have thought that the Trail Blazers would play the Western Conference Finals last year?
Damian Lillard balled out of his skin and got some elite-level assistance from CJ McCollum as they went all the way and only lost to the Warriors. They have lost a few pieces from that team, including Al-Farouq Aminu, but they have also added some quality at the center position in Hassan Whiteside who can be such a major force if only his head is in the right place.
Jusuf Nurkic also looks set to return to action at some point in the season. Nurkic suffered a devastating injury in a double-overtime victory over the Nets on March 25, an injury described as “sustained compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula.” The Jazz added Mike Conley, a veteran and very underrated point guard, and Bojan Bogdanovic, a trusted wing, to their team in Free Agency.
Adding Conley and Bogdanovic to Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Joe Ingles will provide offensive efficiency to the team and will not deplete their defensive solidity - something Utah has developed as an identity. The Jazz cannot be called title contenders right away because of the difficult nature of the West, but their say in how things pan out eventually will not be in doubt.