Russell Westbrook was the last big NBA offseason shoe to drop (at least until Chris Paul moves again), and 90 percent of all offseason business is settled, with five 2019 All-Star Game starters changing teams. In days, the Golden State Warriors dynasty crumbled, the reigning champion Toronto Raptors were deconstructed, and eight of the game’s best players formed superstar partnerships on four teams.
That’s a lot of change. Luckily, I am here to sort it out for you, ranking the most wide-open ring race in recent memory, less than two weeks into free agency, which is probably way too early to make any determination about the championship chances of these reshuffled rosters. But it’s July 11, the NBA is about to go on vacation, and someone has to keep the content train running on time. If Vegas can set 2020 NBA championship odds, so can I. Here are your contenders, in order:
10. Brooklyn Nets
Is there a world where Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan and the returning young core keep the Nets afloat as a second-tier Eastern Conference contender, and then Kevin Durant returns 10 months from his Achilles injury? Could KD round himself into form in a first-round series against, say, the Orlando Magic, and then unleash 30-point outbursts as the playoffs progress? Surely, Irving believes in this world.
This is wildly unlikely, of course, because Durant would be better suited taking the entire season off before returning in 2020-21 as close to 100 percent as possible. I still think it is a more likely scenario than either the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors finding the one big piece that would vault them into serious contention.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Things broke awfully well for the Blazers this past season, only to get swept by the Durant-less Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. The Warriors, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz all landed on the opposite side of the West playoff bracket, and it still took a career night from C.J. McCollum to overcome a 17-point deficit against the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the conference semifinals.
I have them here because I believe that riding McCollum and Damian Lillard could benefit them in a season when most of the more serious contenders are reworking the tops of their rosters. The emergence of Anfernee Simons might make Portland’s guard rotation the most dangerous in the league, which in turn might bring out the best in wings Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood, as well as the center crop of Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside and (eventually, maybe) Jusuf Nurkic. It would take a whole lot of luck, but Lillard and McCollum have done a good job making their own.
8. Denver Nuggets
Granted, the Nuggets choked away a chance to reach the West finals, but they are a team on the rise. The seven-game series with Portland and San Antonio should make them stronger. Their two best players, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, are 24 and 22 years old, respectively. The rest of their core is not much older, save for the recently re-upped Paul Millsap, and the addition of Jerami Grant is sneaky good.
It does not take too much squinting to see the collective improvement from a group that won 54 games together last season transforming a deep Nuggets roster into a team best suited to survive what will be an almost impossible gauntlet in the West.
7. Golden State Warriors
If anybody can return from an ACL injury in the Finals to perform close to peak level by the All-Star break of the following season, it is Klay Thompson, who wanted to keep playing on his torn ACL in Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors. He is tough as nails, and shooting ability does not disappear when you tear a knee ligament.
And if Thompson returns to a backcourt that now also includes D’Angelo Russell alongside Stephen Curry, the Warriors are dangerous again. Draymond Green will be motivated in a contract season, and Willie Cauley-Stein adds depth behind Kevon Looney at center. That’s a tough lineup. It is nowhere near as deep as the group that won 73 games together prior to Durant’s exit, but it does not need to be.
6. Houston Rockets
I wrote two paragraphs about how Houston’s continuity could be more important than ever this year, so long as James Harden and Chris Paul could mend a bond torn by pride. I went on about how the Rockets were a CP3 injury and maybe a few shaky Game 1 calls away from unseating the Warriors in two straight seasons. Then Daryl Morey went and traded Paul and half his draft future for Russell Westbrook.
So, now I’m here to write about how Harden and Westbrook can coexist eight years after the former emerged from the latter’s shadow. Westbrook is every bit the playmaker Paul is, twice the athlete and half the shooter. The net result is less room for Harden and more for Westbrook. I can picture Harden playing off the ball while Westbrook attacks the rim, although I’m not sure he can, and I don’t think either of us can picture Westbrook playing off the ball while Harden breaks his man down.
There is no doubt that having one MVP on the floor at all times and sometimes two will make Houston awfully dangerous — maybe as much as they have ever been, so long as Harden and Westbrook can strike a balance in usage and efficiency.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, which means they will have a chance in any playoff series, so long as they both stay healthy. There is a long way between now and the postseason, and the Lakers may be even better equipped to contend after the buyout market, when more veterans will surely join their cause.
As it stands now, the Lakers likely do not have the depth to seriously challenge the handful of top contenders, unless DeMarcus Cousins, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo hop in the hot-tub time machine. Those guys, along with Kyle Kuzma and Danny Green and everyone else signed in the aftermath of losing the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, are all serviceable. They’re going to need more than that.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo just won his first MVP award at age 24 and finished runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year honors, and there is every reason to believe he could be better next season. He looked more comfortable attempting 3-pointers in the playoffs, and if he even approaches league average from distance, good night. With Kawhi Leonard off the Raptors, he is the undisputed best player in the East.
Sure, the Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon, their third-best player, but they kept everyone else from a 60-win team and added a couple more useful pieces. As LeBron proved before Giannis, when you are a force of nature, you do not need much help in the East to get to the Finals. And who wants to face a guy who may be the NBA’s most dangerous offensive and defensive force once he gets there?
3. Utah Jazz
The Jazz will be the best defensive team in the West. There is little doubt about that. Rudy Gobert already had them there the last two years, and that was before they added Mike Conley as an on-ball stopper. The additions of Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic also give Utah one of the league’s more balanced offensive lineups, fully loaded with shot-creators and floor spacers around the rim-running Gobert.
There are depth concerns, but the bigger question is whether Donovan Mitchell will take a step toward becoming the Dwyane Wade 2.0 we envisioned in his breakout rookie campaign. His playoff performance in a first-round loss to Houston was concerning, but Conley might unlock a more efficient version of Mitchell, now that he does not have to carry such a heavy load. If that is the case, then the Jazz might finally have the explosiveness on offense to match a championship-caliber defense.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers have a chance to be a historic defensive team. The length and skill at all five positions are unlike anything we have seen before, with Josh Richardson and Al Horford joining a roster that already featured Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. They also reside in the East, which gives them an easier path to the Finals — and thus the title — than the Jazz and other contenders in the West. They nearly got there last year, if not for the most suspenseful shot in NBA playoff history.
There are questions. Can Embiid stay healthy? Horford helps in that regard. Can Simmons create in crunch time? A jumper would be nice, and there is less help on the roster if he stagnates, now that Jimmy Butler is gone. Can Harris fill that role as a secondary creator? How much will the Sixers miss JJ Redick’s shooting? Can the development of Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle shore up their depth concerns? Can they find more help? Is coach Brett Brown the right man for the job? These are questions you ask of a team when you expect them to be there in the end.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clips gave the healthy Warriors a harder time than any other team in their Durant era, pushing them to six games in the first round of the playoffs. Then, they added Kawhi Leonard, fresh off one of the most dominating playoff performances in NBA history, and Paul George, arguably the next best two-way wing in the league.
In adding a pair of All-NBA talents to one of the deepest teams in the league, the Clippers constructed the closest thing to a team with no holes as the NBA has right now. They can overwhelm opponents on offense with Lou Williams and on defense with Patrick Beverley. Perhaps there only hole is at center, where Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Greencan respectively bully and stretch small-ball lineups. Ivica Zubac and Mfiondu Kabengele will be asked to contain bigger opponents — like the Sixers — but big-man help might be the easiest commodity to find in season.
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