For the first time in a long time, there is no clear favorite, no star-studded trio or villainous superteam to fear.
With the chaotic free agency finally coming to a rest, the NBA world sets its eyes on a refreshing, wide-open 2019-20 season.
Uncertainty is the seed of hope, and the vibe around the league is bathing in that uncertainty with unbridled optimism. As NBA summer league takes place in Las Vegas, let's zoom through what portends to be the most tantalizing season in recent history.
(If you missed it, here are my free agency columns on the new-look Clippers, the D'Angelo Russell trade, the Kemba era in Boston, Klay Thompson's risky yet worthy max, Brooklyn's big summer, Philly's big pivot and the rest of the free agency moves.)
Hope at the top
Sin City's bookmakers are already gearing up for an unpredictable race for the title. With no heavy favorite, betting market research suggests that the championship contender list is longer than its been in over 15 years.
Teams generally employ the five percent rule, which stipulates that if you have even a five percent chance at winning the title, you better push all your chips to the middle. According to Westgate SuperBook's latest odds, a whopping eight teams will be in that elite circle. The Clippers, Bucks, Lakers, Sixers, Warriors, Rockets, Jazz and Nuggets each have better than 20-1 (roughly five percent) odds to win the title, with the Celtics and Blazers just on the outside looking in.
"It is as open as we've seen in years," said Jeff Sherman, Westgate SuperBook's oddsmaker. "With the current landscape, we are receiving interest throughout the league."
That wasn't the case in recent years. During the Warriors' reign, Sherman says their sportsbook received "minimal interest" in the next tier of teams. Not anymore. So far, the most money coming in has been on, duh, the Lakers and Clippers, with the Lakers ranking No. 1 in ticket count and total money wagered, according to Sherman. But the oddsmaker says they're seeing solid support for about a half-dozen other teams, a rarity in the superteam era.
Don't be surprised if a juggernaut emerges from the fog; it happened the last time a superteam split at the seams. Heading into the 2014-15 season, there was a similar cloudiness in the NBA pecking order. The Miami Heat had just broken up after their 2014 Finals defeat, and LeBron James' return to Cleveland effectively pancaked the title race. The Cavs were the favorite to win the championship but the market was relatively cool, listed at plus-300 on the money line.
And then, bam, a superteam separated themselves from the pack. Actually, Stephen Curry's Warriors really weren't in the pack. Entering the regular season, the Warriors were just 28-1 odds to win the title, the eighth-most likely team with just 3.4 percent implied probability of winning it all. Under newly-minted head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors shocked the NBA world en route to a 67-16 record and their first of three championships in four years.
The Warriors' 2014 emergence, coupled with the Raptors' improbable title run, has a huge chunk of the NBA feeling hopeful. Yes, the L.A. duos are exciting, and not just for sports bettors, but both star tandems face considerable injury risk to their stars. If health issues arise in Hollywood, that opens the door for teams like Portland and Boston to jump into the fray.
Portland has its star duo, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, returning and added Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside. The Western Conference finalists still have Zach Collins, 20-year-old Anfernee Simons (who is lighting up summer league) and each one of their future first-round picks to dangle in a blockbuster trade, if they so choose that route. (Hello, Kevin Love?)
Boston is harder to peg. They could miss Al Horford's presence more than expected, but they could also swing the other way with a culture reset around Kemba Walker. If Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward bounce back and Boston finally cashes in on its draft assets for a star player, this team could vault right back into championship contention. That 2020 Memphis top-six protected first-round pick, and then unprotected in 2021, is still as juicy as any traded pick out there.
Hope in the middle
Looking at teams outside the championship contender pile, there's still a lot to be excited about, starting with the team that traded away maybe the best big man in the NBA. New Orleans may be League Pass juggernauts with Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball and a host of sneaky-good veterans around them led by the perennially underrated Jrue Holiday.
A fancy new analysis from FiveThirtyEight found that Derrick Favors, the team's new starting center, was the best defender in the NBA when it came to contesting and altering shots. Then you throw in JJ Redick's shooting and you have a sleeper out West. Amazingly, after trading Anthony Davis to the Lakers, the Pelicans rank above the Lakers by at least one prominent projection system.
Another surprise team in that early stats-based look? The Chicago Bulls, who are projected to be the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Bolstered by free agency pickups Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls have quietly had a strong offseason. Toss in Coby White's promise at point guard, and this team's core with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Wendell Carter Jr. could be playoff-bound.
And then there's Dallas, which flaunts the two best young stars in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. If Rick Carlisle can fast-track their development into MVP candidates like many have projected at one time or another, Dallas could crash the West's loaded playoff party.
Hope at the bottom
Even for teams pegged to be cellar dwellers, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Memphis has Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke to keep fans hopeful along with whatever they net for Andre Iguodala in trade talks. With Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Jae Crowder joining the team, I think they'll surprise folks next season with both their watchability and performance.
Hey, even the Wizards should be interesting beyond Bradley Beal. They quietly added one of the league's best snipers in stretch-four Davis Bertans, who made a blistering 58 percent of his corner 3-pointers last season. He'll share minutes with rookie Rui Hachimuira and 19-year-old sophomore Troy Brown Jr., who had 18 points and 15 rebounds on Saturday in Vegas. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Bryant is good and should only get better. Notably, without John Wall, the Wizards posted a positive net rating last season with Beal, Brown and Bryant on the floor, per PBP Stats. Getting Bryant on a three-year, $17 million deal was a shrewd move by Tommy Sheppard.
I love what Atlanta's doing with their youngsters. Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and John Collins (still 21!) make up one of the strongest young fives in the league, if not the best. Like, they might actually take the floor together. I don't know if they can win games, but that's a brilliant rebuild in the post-Mike Budenholzer era by Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk.
Look, this offseason wasn't ideal for the Knickerbockers. Far from it. But New York can grieve the L's in free agency by watching Elfrid Payton and R.J. Barrett toss lobs to Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. (Is it possible for the league's best-kept secret to play in Madison Square Garden? That's Robinson). Free agency was a big swing and miss, but hey, there's always next summer. Hope springs eternal, even in the Mecca of basketball.