The NBA 2019-2020 season began on October 23rd. And like every year, only a handful of clubs can claim to have a real chance to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June.
The wave of transfers that took several major players to new shores during the off-season – no move being more important than the departure of Kevin Durant to Brooklyn – had the effect of re-balancing the forces within the league. In summary, unlike the previous seasons with the Warriors, there is no clear favorite out of the leading pack.
But that does not mean that all the franchises have equal chances of winning the title this season. Some clubs clearly have the necessary assets to hope to get through. Others are waiting to see if the accumulated experience and/or the summer recruitment will make it possible to reach a new level, and thus meet their inevitable contenders.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Inevitably, when a team recruits 2 of the top 5 NBA attack/defense players (aka Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) while saving the main talents of a squad that has managed to push an entire Warrior team to its limits in the first round of the playoffs last season, it’s hard not to get excited.
The association between Paul George – who was clearly one of the MVP candidates last year with his best career stats – and Kawhi Leonard, MVP of the 2019 NBA Finals, will be the center of attention. But we must also look around them. We have the 6th man of the year, Lou Williams, who makes a great combination in the pick & roll with Montrezl Harrell. Patrick Beverley and his pitbull defense will also be a determining factor. A slight weakness of the pivot post is to be feared, but it is not dramatic either (and could very well be settled with a transfer during the season).
The coach Doc Rivers has been doing wonders to the Clippers for two years with rather limited staff. He now finds himself driving a Formula 1 race car, with two confirmed stars in their prime, a solid defense, and complementary players on the bench. If they avoid injuries and manage to hone their skills as a team, few opponents will be able to slow down their race towards the title.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
LeBron James, one of the best NBA players, will pass the ball to Anthony Davis wearing the Los Angeles Lakers jersey. Just typing this sentence sends shivers down your spine. In a perfect world – for fans of the purple and gold jersey – “King James” begins a revenge ride in “John Wick” mode to remind everyone who the boss of the league is. And Anthony Davis regains his level of potential MVP / Best Defender of the Year.
The Los Angeles Lakers will be such a big Hollywood production this year – whatever happens – with drama, tears, low blows, short sentences, but maybe also, a return to the NBA behind the two superstars, also candidates to the best players in the NBA title.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 24 years old. And he has the MVP title. He is also the 2nd perimeter defender of the year. His field performances last season had not been seen on Milwaukee’s court since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore the Bucks jersey in the 1970s. But the “Greek Freak” did not succeed defeating Kawhi Leonard’s claws in the Eastern Conference Finals and was forced to recognize his defeat after a historic season. But Milwaukee can count on continuity in its squad, with 77% of players returning. And that is a good sign, isn’t it?
Yes and no. The Bucks hope that the plan goes smoothly and what worked last year continues in 2020. Kris Middleton will have to establish himself as the undisputed No. 2 in his team. Eric Bledsoe will have to play at the height of his new contract (and stop disappearing in the playoffs). Brook Lopez will have to continue launching from behind the three-point line.
Now to the question that really bothers the Bucks fans: Will Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver’s hiring be enough to make up for Malcolm Brogdon’s departure from Indiana? Without being pessimistic, it would be surprising to be so, as the shooting guard has been precious in just about every part of the game and had a level of efficiency which is difficult to replace.
With Giannis, whose progress is colossal (which is truly frightening when you think about it), Milwaukee remains an almost insoluble problem for 95% of the league. But potential flaws in their armor could prove fatal once in the playoffs.
Two former MVPs are on this team. Following the departure of Paul George to the Clippers, Russell Westbrook got a transfer to Houston, where he joined his former teammate and one of his best friends in the league, James Harden. Remember that the Rockets are one of the few teams to make the Warriors sweat when they seemed invincible. Chris Paul’s injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in 2018 proved to be fatal. Last season, Houston was defeated despite the absence of Kevin Durant for the end of their series against Golden State.
With the arrival of Russell Westbrook and his crazy series of three consecutive seasons to shoot with a triple-double on average, the chances of the club to win the title increase by 30%. Great! But we still need to wait and see that happen.
Chris Paul is not the easiest player to appreciate, but his ability to shoot, break the defenses with his dribbles, and engage the others – especially in the absence of James Harden – should not be underestimated. Russell Westbrook is a monster in the counterattack, but he will have to adjust his gameplay to that of Houston. And James Harden. During preseason, the leader displays catastrophic stats: 40% field goal percentage, of which 23.8% three-point field goal percentage. His effectiveness in attack will have to seriously improve if the Rockets want to have a chance to play for the title.
Gerald Green’s foot injury, because of which he may be missing for the rest of the season, is not good news. Ditto for the obvious tensions between Mike d’Antoni and the leaders of the club that have been going on for several months (almost all the staff have been ousted). The Rockets will probably be formidable in the regular season, and the Harden / Westbrook duo seems explosive.
The presence of the one who was MVP in 2017 on the team must be synonymous with success in the playoffs. Or the season will quickly be considered a failure. As unfair as it may seem to the leader, Russell Westbrook will be in the spotlight of critics if the Rockets disappoint. And it could even become very ugly if they were released in the first round. But we are not there yet.
Like Milwaukee, Denver can count on continuity. It is the team that brings back most of last season’s players. This is not a bad thing for a club that had the 7th best attack and the league’s 10th best defense last year and pushed a very experienced Blazers team to a Game 7 in the Western Conference semi-final. The young age of the Nuggets, however, requires some caution. Or not. Nikola Jokic is, at 24, one of the best players in the NBA. His unreal performance in the playoffs last season (25.1 points, 13 rebounds, 8.4 assists on average) only confirmed his status as a serious MVP contender. His ability to play places him among the elite of the passing-centers in the history of the league.
Orbiting around him, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris transform themselves into outstanding attackers by his side, benefiting from his flashes of genius to pierce the defenses of the opponents. Paul Millsap brings his experience from both sides of the field. Will Barton, although disappointing in the playoffs, is still in motion, but lost his place in favor of Torrey Craig. Getting Jerami Grant on board this summer could prove crucial in the ability of this team to move up to the next level. And we must not forget the young talents, Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt, who have already shown beautiful things in the Summer League and during the preseason.
The Western conference is competitive, and Denver will have to work hard to maintain its great run from last season. The Nuggets have a young, talented, and very ambitious team. And a superstar in the person of Nikola Jokic, around whom the team is on the rise to the top of the NBA.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
We are at a time of year when some people doubt that the Warriors can qualify for the playoffs this season. Why not. Kevin Durant went to Brooklyn. Klay Thompson is injured and should not be back by the All-Star Break. Andre Iguodala is held prisoner in Memphis. Shaun Livingston is retired. And the Western Conference is better than ever. That being said, it would be ill-advised to bury too soon this franchise, which counts among its ranks the double MVP, Stephen Curry, a player who revolutionized the league with his exceptional skills, and who, three years ago, was the author of a historical season. Oh yes, he also scored 40 points in 25 minutes in the preseason against Minnesota. Could this be a taste of what’s to come?
His association with Draymond Green is the essence of this team’s gameplay. The point guard will be more motivated than ever to prove the contrary to those who doubt the Warriors. Steve Kerr, the coach, has not demonstrated his ability to adjust, or his creativity when it comes to finding solutions to allow his team to be competitive. We will see what happens with D’Angelo Russell, who returned to the Warriors’ lineup. Author of a great season in Brooklyn, All-Star for the first time in his career last February, he will have to find his place in a system where he will not have the ball in the hands at every moment. But his talent is obvious, and if he manages to improve on defense, Russell could quickly be at ease alongside Curry and Green.
The Warriors are likely to have difficulties in achieving 50 wins this season, and the Raptors have shown, in the NBA Finals, that it was possible to stop Stephen Curry with an aggressive, physical defense, almost exclusively meant to deprive him of the ball and/or space at every moment. But they still need to have the right staff to put such a defense in place. This is not the case for many NBA franchises.
Golden State will fight to stay in the race for the first six months of the season. The return of Klay Thompson will again require a period of collective adjustment. But what teams will be happy to meet the Warriors in April, in the first round of playoffs, with Curry, Thompson and Green, top 3 NBA players, in the starting blocks? Not many, we think.