The unprecedented offseason of 2019 will go down as one of the most outrageous NBA summers in history. Like it or not, the age of player empowerment and roster turnover has blown the league wide open, and it sets the 2019-20 season up to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable in recent times. The Warriors have been heavy favorites for the past few years, but with Kevin Durant moving to Brooklyn, Klay Thompson getting injured and a bunch of superstars teaming up together around the association, there is now no clear favourite for the upcoming title.
1 – Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers enjoyed a solid season last year, tallying 48 wins. They saw young players like Shamet overachieve and looked a superstar away from making a real push. This offseason, they landed not one, but two of the very best.
Two-time NBA champion Kawhi Leonard signed with the Clippers and brought Paul George with him, orchestrating one of the biggest trades the league has ever seen and making his new team the favorite in the process. Both players are outstanding scorers from all over the court and they are two of the league’s best defenders. They join an already-deep roster with continuity and fight in abundance, with the likes of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Shamet. Doc Rivers brings experience of coaching a title-winning team and managing superstar players from his time in Boston. Could this be the year for the Clippers maiden championship?
2 – Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, Talen Horton-Tucker, Coach Frank Vogel… just some of the new additions to the 2019 Los Angeles Lakers. It’s been another summer of renovation after last year’s regular season flop when LeBron James failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
The Lakers’ roster lacks the continuity and chemistry of the Clippers, but their upside is as high as anyone’s in the league. If LeBron and AD are playing at their highest levels, you would be a fool to write them off and would arguably struggle to find a better first and second option in the history of basketball (if things work out perfectly). Add to that Danny Green, fresh off a championship in Toronto, young scorer Kyle Kuzma making steady improvements, and role players stepping up to hit shots – you have the makings of a championship team. The situation provides more questions than answers, but they have all season to figure themselves out and become the terrifying juggernaut they have the potential to be. They just have to make the playoffs this time…
3 – Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo, enough said.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the MVP locked in as the flagship of their franchise, hungry and ready to make a charge for his first title. Last year, they finished with the best record in the league and came within touching distance of The Finals before Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors overturned a 2-0 Eastern Conference Finals lead and put an end to the Bucks’ campaign.
Kawhi has since left the east, the Bucks have the added experience of making a deep playoff run and they have retained their key free agents (in Middleton and Lopez) to run it back and go for it all. Every year, the Greek Freak improves his game and looks all-the-more unstoppable. Back in June, he claimed “I am at 60% of my potential” in an interview with ESPN. Whether he is exaggerating or not, Giannis will be a force to be reckoned with as the Bucks, with new additions in veterans Kyle Korver and Wes Matthews, make a charge.
4 – Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers have had one of the more intriguing offseasons of 2019, and time will tell whether their summer deals will translate to more wins on the court. The 76ers lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, who signed with Miami and New Orleans, respectively. Butler, a four-time all-star, became their go-to scorer in the playoffs and was a tenacious defender at the wing spot, while Redick brought dead-eye three-point shooting and years of experience to an otherwise young core. So why are they still contenders?
They have two of the league’s best young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and they locked in scoring forward Tobias Harris on a five-year contract. They also signed Al Horford, who left the Boston Celtics as a free agent and has been one of the best Giannis Antetokounmpo defenders in the league (which is of high importance in challenging the east). Josh Richardson also joined as part of a sign-and-trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat, to complete their major moves.
In a league that has been transitioning towards ‘small ball’, the 76ers could have a starting five with an average height of 6’9.4″ tall. This is gigantic, especially considering the Washington Wizards were last year’s tallest starting five at 6’8.2″ (per the 2018-19 NBA Roster Survey). Should all their pieces gel together and the young players continue to improve (all eyes are on Simmons’ three point shot), they could make a realistic run at completing The Process and bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Philadelphia.
5 – Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors still have to be considered one of the favorites for the title. They lost Kevin Durant during free agency, but recruited D’Angelo Russell in the process. Russell began to bloom last season, making the All-Star team and showing signs of reaching his potential after a slow start to his career. He will join Steph Curry and menace Draymond Green as they attempt to make the playoffs while Klay Thompson recovers from his torn ACL.
Curry is one of this season’s MVP favourites, as he will be taking on more offensive responsibilities with Durant now in Brooklyn. While he will undoubtedly be a huge loss, it was only four seasons ago when a KD-less Warriors went 73-9 in the regular season. Another all-time regular season record might not be likely (especially considering their extreme lack of depth), but they could continue adding to their dynasty with another championship win if Thompson makes it back in good shape and in good time. Don’t sleep on them.
6 – Houston Rockets
Two seasons ago, the Houston Rockets came tantalisingly close to defeating the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, before Chris Paul went down injured and they were knocked out over seven games. Last season, James Harden went on a complete rampage, averaging 36.1 points per game (the highest since Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-7) and proved he is one of the most unguardable players in the league. In spite of The Beard’s offensive prowess, they lost to Golden State once again and entered the summer ready to make the necessary moves to improve. GM Daryl Morey pounced on rumors of unrest on Oklahoma City, trading for Russell Westbrook and sending Chris Paul the other way.
If Harden and Westbrook figure out how to operate together effectively, their backcourt could be devastating and carry them to a title. They have some other solid starters in Eric Gordon, Clint Capela and PJ Tucker, although one wonders whether they will be affected by reportedly being on the trade block throughout the past few months. Chemistry is the key factor in Houston. If the Rockets can figure out how to play together and maximise their potential in the playoffs, things could really take off.
7 – Brooklyn Nets
New York finally landed some superstar talent, just not at the Knicks like many expected. The Brooklyn Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to catapult them up the NBA power rankings and into contention. Irving is an upgrade at point guard (at least in the short term) over outgoing D’Angelo Russell and has won a championship before, alongside another world class player (with LeBron James in Cleveland).
There is much uncertainty surrounding the timescale of Durant’s recovery from his torn Achilles, with General Manager Sean Marks refusing to rule out a return during the upcoming campaign. Without KD, they should still put up a good fight in the playoffs. With KD, they become one of the most feared offenses in the league and one of the title favorites. They are far from a shallow, two-player team though, with Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, DeAndre Jordan, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, Rodions Kurucs and Wilson Chandler all capable of making valuable contributions. Will it be just another step towards relevancy and a respectable regular season record for the Nets, or could they make the leap and take the crown?
8 – Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets were one of last season’s stand-out teams, drastically improving and reaching second in the Western Conference with 54 regular season wins. Nikola Jokić stepped up to a near-MVP level and Jamal Murray showed considerable improvement to take them towards the top of the standings. Their core is relatively young, with Murray (22), Malik Beasley (22), Jokić (24), Gary Harris (24) and Monté Morris (24) all playing above their respective years, and you would have to expect they will continue to get better over the course of next season. Continuity is on their side, as one of the few challengers not making significant changes to their roster. They did, however, add Jerami Grant, who will provide much needed forward minutes and shooting from outside the arc (averaging a much-improved 39.2 percent from three last year).
The mystery lies with rookies Michael Porter Jr and Bol Bol. Both are constant injury concerns but provide a lot of potential upside, particularly Porter who could play an important scoring role off the bench. Until they actually see any game time though, their impacts remain purely hypothetical. Denver will almost certainly be better than they were last season, as their young core continues to improve and they learn from last year’s playoff experience. Can ‘The Joker’ lead the Nuggets to NBA Finals glory? We will have to wait and see.
9 – Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are one of the most well-coached teams in the league, as Quinn Snyder has them running like a well-oiled machine. They have one of the league’s best defenses, built around two-time and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Young star Donovan Mitchell is joined by Mike Conley Jr for this upcoming season, who will continue to bolster their defense (as an upgrade over Ricky Rubio) and provide scoring. They picked up Bojan Bogdanovic who became Indiana’s go-to bucket-getter after Oladipo’s injury last season. He can enjoy a slightly lesser role in a more balanced offense including Joe Ingles and newly added Jeff Green. The Jazz achieved 50 wins last season and now have a considerable upgrade at point guard with Conley. As long as they are not hampered by the losses of Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors, Utah are set to achieve big things in the Western Conference and, potentially, the NBA Finals.
10 – Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers are certainly outsiders for the championship. For the past six seasons, they have made the playoffs without making a significant run towards the Finals. Last season, things were a little different, with Portland making the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000, thanks to some clutch play from Damian Lillard.
They have one of the league’s best backcourts with Lillard and CJ McCollum, and have Jusuf Nurkić (who completely missed this year’s playoffs) recovering from injury. Nurkić was a huge loss and his return will undoubtedly improve their chances at a title run. Zach Collins’ progression over his first two seasons has been encouraging and will make strong contributions at power forward or as a small ball center. He could also provide good value in a trade package if Portland look to add another star during the season. Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore joined the team and could bolster their bench production alongside Nassir Little, who slipped to 25th in the draft. There is a big question mark around Anfernee Simons, who only played limited minutes over 20 games in his rookie year due to injury. Rumors surrounding Simons have suggested he could become a big-time player in the near future, endorsed by his 37-point and 9-assist performance in his first start during the final regular season game. If their young players continue to develop, their improved role players can make healthy contributions and Nurkić recovers to full health, we could see Dame and CJ lead this team of underdogs to the NBA Finals.
There is no lock for the 2020 NBA Championship. The upcoming campaign promises to be one of the most thrilling seasons ever and the landscape of the league will no doubt continue to adapt as rosters change through injuries, trades and free agent additions.
One would have expected to find the Boston Celtics amid this list of contenders through the past few seasons, but they remain major outsiders with worries about their defense and frontcourt holding them back. It’s likely too early for the Dallas Mavericks, who will be well-coached and exciting to watch but ultimately lack the punch to emerge as champions. Could we see a first championship for the Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets or Nets? Can the Lakers add to their dynasty with a 17th title? Which player will emerge to lead their team to Finals glory? We might not know where the journey will end, but it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Featured photo – Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington