The nine-month (and then some) sprint of an NBA season hasn’t begun yet, but we already have a good idea of where we’re headed. After a few weeks to chew on one of the wildest summers in recent history, here’s everything and everyone we expect to dominate the headlines in the 2019-20 season.
29. The Andre Iguodala Hostage Crisis
Jonathan Tjarks: The biggest casualty of the exodus out of Golden State is Andre Iguodala, the former NBA Finals MVP and longtime sixth man who wound up on a Memphis team at the beginning of a long rebuilding process. Iguodala is currently in a staring contest with Grizzlies management. He reportedly wants them to buy him out immediately so that he can play for a contender, but they want to hold on to him and flip him for future assets at some point before the trade deadline. There is zero chance that Iguodala will be in Memphis all season. The question is who blinks first.
Iguodala isn’t a charity case. Even at 35, he’s one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA and one of the few players with the physical tools to match up with supersized wings like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Every contender in the West needs a player like Iguodala, and teams like Houston, Utah, Denver, and Portland don’t have anyone like him on their rosters. He won’t be an important player in the regular season no matter where he winds up, but don’t be surprised if he makes a huge impact in some playoff series in May and June.
28. Coaching Challenges
Danny Chau: In July, the NBA board of governors unanimously approved the addition of a coach’s challenge. The new rule will allow head coaches to contest a personal foul called on their team, an out-of-bounds violation, or a goaltending/basket interference by calling a timeout and twirling their finger at a ref. While it’s been experimented with in the G League and summer league, it’s an unprecedented tool at the highest level of basketball. Now, the question is just how coaches will exercise their newfound power. Given the cost (a challenge can be made only after a timeout is called) and exclusivity (there’s only one challenge allowed per game, compared to the NFL’s challenge system, which can award up to three) logic suggests it really makes sense only in the most make-or-break situations. But that would limit its applicability: In the final two minutes of regulation and overtime, only fouls can be challenged. In an ideal world, the rule change would add an element of justice: Perhaps a major game will be decided by the veracity of a James Harden drawn foul. But what I’ll be looking for is the first coach to blow a challenge in the middle of the first quarter on a goaltending call.
27. The Specter of Melo
John Gonzalez: The last time Carmelo Anthony played a professional basketball game was November 8 of last year—and yet he remains an omnipresent part of the greater NBA conversation. LeBron James spent much of last season dodging questions about when the Lakers might sign Melo. More recently, Dwyane Wade lobbied on behalf of his banana boat buddy. After Joe Johnson signed with the Detroit Pistons, Rachel Nichols reported she got texts from various NBA players that basically amounted to What about Melo, tho? Reformed Knicks fan and Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang implored his once-favorite team to get back in bed with Melo. Draymond Green insisted that, even at 35 and nearly a year removed from his last game, there are “a lot of players [Carmelo is] better than.” (Green delivered these remarks on a CNBC financial show while wearing a tuxedo jacket.) Even Ice Cube has Melo on his mind, saying the best path back to the NBA for Anthony leads directly through the Big 3. It appears the only person who isn’t keen on Melo these days is Jerry Colangelo—which, beggars and choosers, you know?
Until and unless Anthony signs with another team, there will be endless discourse about how much he has left and why he isn’t employed. And then if and when he does sign, there will be endless discourse about how much he has left and why he is employed. It is Shirtless Melo’s world now, and we all need to get used to it.
26. Victor Oladipo’s Health
Haley O’Shaughnessy: The fate of Indiana’s season will rest in part on coaching: Can Myles Turner be pushed to make another jump? Can Bojan Bogdanovic be replaced? Will Malcolm Brogdon’s talents be maximized? (Then there’s the bench, which sparks too many questions to address here.) But more important than anything else, the Pacers need Oladipo to be healthy as soon as possible.
There’s room for Indiana to take advantage of the Eastern Conference this season when he does return, as significant roster changes have left a power vacuum. While teams like the Celtics and Raptors adjust to the losses of Al Horford and Kawhi Leonard, Indiana has a chance to emerge.
But it all depends on when Dipo can get on the court (he’s expected back in December or January). The Pacers held on to a playoff berth in 2018-19 after he suffered a season-ending quad tear in January. But it seems unlikely that they’ll maintain that level without him again.
25. Lockout Whispers
Justin Verrier: The collective bargaining agreement holds a mutual opt-out clause after the 2022-23 season, which means we are, at most, four years away from even the possibility of another work stoppage. But this summer’s bonanza of player movement has created a clear divide between have and have-not franchises, one the NBA is still struggling to reckon with.
Tempers flared at a board of governors meeting in July, soon after the offseason fireworks had ended, over tampering and an unlevel free-agent playing field. Last week the board unanimously approved new rules that will dish out harsher penalties—a maximum fine of $10 million and loss of draft picks, among others—for violations. But the root issue remains unresolved: Stars are forcing their way to the big markets, and without NSA-level monitoring, teams in those big markets will continue to work the gray area to nudge them there.
The NBA is also in a race against technology. The league is currently making $2.7 billion a year in national TV deals, but commissioner Adam Silver has been transparent about the looming challenge of reaching a viewership that is cutting the cable cord, if it ever had one to begin with. In five years, Silver said in March, the game will look “dramatically different.” The league is being proactive on this front, just as it has been with tampering. But these are the kinds of big existential questions that both sides of the bargaining table will have to think long and hard about four years from now, and are worth keeping a close eye on until then.
24. The Team USA Celtics
Zach Kram: A better showing from Team USA at this month’s World Cup would have inspired swaggering optimism from Celtics fans. Who needs a star anyway? Team USA did, it turns out; so might the Celtics, after Kyrie Irving and Al Horford departed for Eastern Conference foes. Danny Ainge has finally exhausted all the future first-round picks he collected via 2013’s momentous Pierce-Garnett trade, and he might not have a championship core to show for all that work. Whether Kemba Walker can succeed playing on his first real contender, and whether Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart can take steps forward this season, will determine how Ainge approaches the next phase of his team-building project.
23. The Knicks’ Latest Screwup
Verrier: The Knicks traded their franchise player for cap space (and draft picks), yet failed to sign a single All-Star in free agency. They bottomed out to a franchise-low 17 wins, yet ended up with just the third overall pick in the draft. Along the way, owner James Dolan said a lot of shit—a lot of shit—that reaffirmed the widely held belief that his organization is toxic. What more could go wrong?
Several things, based on recent history. And the front office’s choices in the wake of Kevin Durant’s and Kyrie Irving’s decisions to join the other New York team suggests there may be more than usual.
The Knicks are pivoting to a youth movement … and also not? Without a microwaved contender to show for all that suffering last season, one would assume that this will be another developmental season, with recent draftees like Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, and this year’s no. 3 pick, RJ Barrett, receiving a hardy dose of playing time. But the Knicks also signed seven veterans—four of whom are best utilized at power forward. On the one hand, every new contract is team-friendly—all but Julius Randle’s can easily be wiped from the books by next summer. On the other hand, that means the veterans will already be playing for their next contract and wanting playing time to prove their worth. The Knicks have practically ensured infighting from the jump. Add in the New York media fishbowl and the usual dysfunction, and it will be a miracle if the team makes it out of training camp without some blowup.
22. A Barren Free-Agent Class
Dan Devine: After the wildest transactional season in NBA history, replete with marquee superstars and contributors changing franchise fortunes at a dizzying pace, things could get slow next summer. Like, real slow.
The only megastar in the 2020 mix is Anthony Davis, who holds a player option for the 2020-21 season; after what it took to get him to L.A. in the first place, though, it seems awfully unlikely that he’ll go anywhere. Early extensions took Ben Simmons, Draymond Green, Caris LeVert, Jamal Murray, and Eric Gordon off the board. Another devastating injury drops DeMarcus Cousins down the ranks. More extension-eligible members of the 2016 rookie class—Pascal Siakam, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield, Domantas Sabonis, and Dejounte Murray—could reach new agreements with their incumbent clubs before the October 21 deadline. There will still be good players available, including solid veterans on the wrong side of 30 (like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Danilo Gallinari) and rising talents who could be in line for bigger roles (like Fred VanVleet and World Cup star Bogdan Bogdanovic)—but nothing like the league shifters who were on offer this summer or who could hit the market in 2021.
That could send hopeful contenders desperate for a talent boost hunting for trades; stars on rebuilding teams like Washington’s Bradley Beal, Cleveland’s Kevin Love, and new Oklahoma City arrivals Gallinari and Chris Paul are potentially ripe for redirection. If the price tags for those players prove too onerous for would-be buyers, though, we could enter something of a break in the transaction action—a period defined less by who’s about to be on the move than how teams work with the ingredients they’ve already got.
21. Chris Paul Pretending Everything Is Fine
Kevin O’Connor: With Oklahoma City sitting on a pile of draft picks, you should expect a flurry of trade rumors involving their aging starters like Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and Danilo Gallinari. Finding a trade partner for Paul won’t be easy, though. Paul showed major signs of decline in Houston, scoring only 0.92 points per possession in the half court as he struggled to finish around the rim and failed to generate perimeter shots with proficiency. There is no scarier contract in all of basketball: He’s 34 years old and is owed $124 million over the next three seasons. For Paul to escape from Oklahoma City to a contender, it’s on him to prove he has plenty left in the tank.
Don’t rule it out. The Thunder are candidates to blow it up midseason, but they have plenty of talent for Paul to enhance with his playmaking. Over the past two seasons, Paul’s struggles largely came when he shared the floor with James Harden.
Chris Paul With and Without Harden
|Chris Paul Stat||Without Harden||With Harden||Rest of Career|
|Chris Paul Stat||Without Harden||With Harden||Rest of Career|
|Points per 75||25.5||15.7||20.6|
|Assists per 75||12.2||7.1||10.9|
|Shots per 75||18.9||12.4||15.3|
|True shooting %||59.50%||55.60%||58%|
Paul’s numbers without Harden on the floor better resemble his career averages per 75 possessions. If he’s able to produce like that more consistently in Oklahoma City, there’s hope for him. Durability remains a concern, in addition to his age, contract, and degrading quickness. In a league with an open title race, perhaps Paul will prove to be worth the risk.
20. Kevin Durant With Nothing but Time to Tweet
Paolo Uggetti: Volatility makes for great entertainment, and Twitter, for better or worse, is the perfect canvas for Durant’s polarizing personality. We’ve already seen a preview of it this summer. While rehabbing a torn Achilles, KD is out here shoveling deep into the cesspool of Twitter replies to discuss basketball and argue about how you, sir, never picked up a basketball in your life. Imagine how he will be during the season, when there will be actual basketball to talk about.
Here’s the thing: I think I’m all for it. After his burner fiasco, Durant has leaned all the way in on this online persona by arguing with whoever, whenever. The results are a mixed bag. When it turns into Durant arguing with OKC fans who are mad at him for leaving, it becomes a bit eye-roll-inducing:
Nothing I would’ve did would’ve pleased u. Stop lmao— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) September 12, 2019
But when it turns into Durant fact-checking people online, or discussing his Wendy’s order, it’s delightful:
I, for one, can’t wait for Durant to live-tweet games and become the NBA’s unofficial ombudsman.
19. Load Management
Chris Ryan: So now we know. We can still have those super-illuminating arguments about guys from the ’70s playing 82 games a year, 40 minutes a night, flying coach while sitting on folding metal chairs, staying at Best Westerns, and playing eight games a week vs. the participation-trophy generation’s fascination with self-care, getting eight hours of sleep a night, resting up in hyperbaric chambers, and flying private. It’s a really fun conversation. But at the end of the day—or better put, at the end of the playoffs—we know it’s better if a team’s star player has put fewer meaningless miles on the odometer. Kawhi proved this. The trade-off for his historic, career-minting, league-changing playoff run was that the good people of Utah did not get to see him last November. Sorry, Salt Lakers. Putting aside what a special set of skills Kawhi has (he’s the best all-around player alive), and his special set of nagging injury issues (quads!), the question heading into the 2019-20 season is whether other teams and other stars will follow suit.
How will the Clippers handle Leonard this season? Presumably a condition of his signing was that the Clippers went along with Leonard’s rest program. Will they apply the same strategy with Paul George, who will be recovering from shoulder surgery? Would the Clippers’ city rivals risk regular-season embarrassment to manage the minutes of Anthony Davis and LeBron James? Will James Harden sacrifice the MVP trophy for fresher legs in the postseason? Will Joel Embiid do the same in Philly? Giannis Antetokounmpo has never played fewer than 72 games in a campaign, but after a run to last season’s Eastern Conference finals and a jaunt to China for the FIBA World Cup this past summer, will Milwaukee ease him through the 2019-20 season to better its chances at lifting the Larry next June? Who plays how much and when will be one of the defining story lines during the next eight months. And if the majority of the league’s truly elite dial it back to around 60 games played, what does it mean for the future of the 82-game season?
18. Jason Kidd’s Inevitable Coup
Gonzalez: Frank Vogel seems like a nice-enough man and a decent coach. But nice and decent don’t go all that far in the NBA, and certainly not within the Lakers, where messy family feuds and ugly public breakups are standard. It should be noted that while Vogel is the Lakers’ new head coach, he was not the organization’s first choice. Or even its second. Depending on which reports you believe, the first and second choices were, in some order, Ty Lue and Monty Williams. It looked like it was Lue’s job—until it wasn’t and he backed out for various reasons, not the least of which was wanting control over hiring his assistant coaches. And Williams passed in order to work for a franchise best known for farm animal pranks. So Vogel got the gig. Congrats? Maybe?
It might even be fun while it lasts—he does have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the best players on the planet—but it likely won’t last long. In addition to being the backup, backup hire, and dealing with James (who is notoriously fickle when it comes to his head coaches), Vogel also has Kidd looming over his shoulder. It was only five years ago when Kidd orchestrated a failed front-office coup while with the Brooklyn Nets—which led to his landing with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he wore out his welcome with a second ownership group and front office and was fired midway through the 2017-18 season. Kidd might not be a good coach, but he is excellent at drama.
To review, what we have here is a vulnerable coach, an ambitious and disloyal assistant, and a dysfunctional franchise. This will be a blast. For us. Probably not for Vogel.
17. Renegade Jimmy Butler
O’Shaughnessy: This Miami stint will define Butler’s career. Butler was traded twice in the past two years, to Minnesota and then to Philadelphia, and now he’s finally with an organization of his choosing. Miami is a perfect match—Butler shares the Heat’s reputation for old-school intensity. He’s 30 and edging closer and closer to his last in-my-prime push. After years of jumping between being an All-Star-caliber player and a destructive locker-room presence, this season is Butler’s chance to prove he deserves to be in a higher tier of stars.
The key to the Heat’s success could be how Butler handles another group of young players. Perhaps the likes of Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo won’t find Butler’s fervent leadership style as off-putting as the young Wolves (and possibly the young Sixers) did because they’re used to playing under Pat Riley’s umbrella. Perhaps Butler has learned his lesson. Either way, this season has big “this is my time” energy for Butler.
16. Pop’s Odometer
Gonzalez: Have you also waited patiently for more than two decades for the collapse of the Spurs empire? If so, you have come to the right place. In the past year alone, I wrote that the Spurs were done (spoiler: they weren’t), advocated for them to rebuild (narrator: they didn’t), and explained that it will be really difficult for them to make the playoffs for what would be an NBA-record 23rd consecutive season (jury is still out on this one, but given my always-wrong history with them, they’re probably a lock to make it).
But Gregg Popovich was a factor I was most certain would change sooner than later. This will be his 24th season—and he spent much of his 23rd season answering questions about how much longer he planned to coach. After all, he has five championships, and he’s third in NBA history on the all-time coaching wins list behind only Don Nelson and Lenny Wilkens. The man hasn’t had anything to prove for a very long time now. Not to mention that he’ll be 71 in January. This can’t go on forever, right? Except instead of relaxing and drinking wine this summer, he coached Team USA and traveled to Australia and China (and also drank wine). I saw him for a week while USA Basketball was training in Los Angeles, and he was as spicy as usual. For a guy we keep expecting to call it quits, he looked and sounded as energized as ever. We will no doubt talk a lot about whether this will be Pop’s final season. It’s unavoidable. But it’s also clear he hasn’t lost any of that trademark fire. The more I heard him speak this summer, the more it made me realize how much he still clearly loves the game—and how, in retrospect, I hope he’s not in any hurry to walk away from it.
15. Denver vs. Utah for the Nobody-Believes-in-Us Contender Title
Kram: L.A., Houston, and the other L.A. team can have their Big Twos and their massive makeovers from the offseason. Denver and Utah are betting instead that a more methodical transactional approach will vault their more cohesive rosters to the top of the Western hierarchy. The Nuggets were the West’s no. 2 seed last season, in their first playoff campaign in six years, while the Jazz rode yet another late-season surge to 50 wins. Both teams disappointed relative to expectations in the playoffs, but they responded by adding more around the edges than through stars: The only new Nugget of note is Jerami Grant, while Utah signed rotation players like Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis and traded for Mike Conley to help Donovan Mitchell man the backcourt. With the anticipated internal improvements from their young cores and incredible depth, both rosters look more secure than their flashier competitors. But can either Denver or Utah’s ceilings reach as high?
14. Los Angeles As the Center of the Basketball Universe
Uggetti: Last season, the Lakers became an even bigger spectacle with LeBron James in town. The final results weren’t what the team had in mind (remember when Magic Johnson resigned on the final night of the season without telling anyone? Good times), but there was never a dull moment.
Now LeBron has company. Not only did the Lakers land a second star in Anthony Davis, but two other All-Stars will be across the hallway at Staples Center in Clippers gear: Kawhi Leonard, fresh off a title run, and Paul George. Altogether, the foursome will turn L.A. into a spaghetti junction of story lines. Los Angeles has always been a Lakers town, and the Lakers always dominate the news. But with so much star power within the city limits, Los Angeles will moonlight as the NBA’s mecca this season.
13. The 2015 Draft Class With the Training Wheels Off
Tjarks: We are still trying to figure out exactly how good the 2015 draft class is as it heads into its fifth season in the league. Four players from that draft wound up getting max contracts—Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Kristaps Porzingis, and D’Angelo Russell—and there’s no consensus on any of them. Booker and Towns are two of the best scorers in the NBA, but there are still questions about their defense and ability to lead a team. While both should put up massive individual numbers this season, no one will care unless they can carry Minnesota and Phoenix into the playoff race.
Porzingis, who is now on his second NBA team, and Russell, who is on his third, are in better situations to succeed. Porzingis is now playing next to Luka Doncic in Dallas, and if he can stay healthy—which is no guarantee for a player who hasn’t played in a game in 20 months—he could form one of the best one-two punches in the league. Russell is the third wheel in Golden State behind Steph Curry and Draymond Green, which will allow him to contribute to an elite team for the first time in his career, even if it comes at the expense of his individual numbers.
The group is still quite young. Porzingis is 24. KAT and Russell are 23. Booker is 22—younger than Suns first-round pick Cam Johnson. There is still so much of their careers left to be written. This season could be a chance for them to vault to the forefront of the league.
12. The ‘Next Face of the NBA’ Question
Chau: We are entering LeBron’s twilight era, and while it may last another half-decade, the league will eventually need to find a new global icon with enough star power to inspire the next generation of fans. All signs point to Giannis Antetokounmpo, which would be groundbreaking on several fronts, but none as glaring as this: Giannis could be the first international player since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 (when Michael Jordan was technically retired) to be considered the best player in the world.
There are other names who have the talent to be marked with such a grand distinction, but few who have the kind of larger-than-life gravitas necessary to live up to being the face. Steph Curry is the most influential player of this generation, but lacks the individualistic ethos necessary. Kevin Durant, for all his on-court genius, is hurt, and perhaps not the kind of personality suited to the mantle; that goes double for Kawhi, who could not care less.
Antetokounmpo doesn’t turn 25 until December, and has seen near-exponential growth since entering the league in 2013. He will be squarely in his prime when LeBron exits stage left. He checks just about every box. Giannis himself has expressed his doubts: Could the face of the NBA ever actually be non-American? But the league and its fans are ready.
O’Connor: Bradley Beal could be the season’s defining player. A trade would shake up the championship picture, as it could possibly create a new contender. Imagine Beal running pick-and-rolls with Nikola Jokic, or sharing a backcourt with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn or Kemba Walker in Boston. What if Dallas attempts to accelerate its rebuild by adding Beal to its star duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis? Beal can fit anywhere: He’s a deadeye shooter who plays off others and has the pick-and-roll finesse to generate baskets for himself or his teammates. Beal is already a top-25 player and he just turned 26; his best years are ahead of him. The Wizards could get a haul for Beal, and his new team could position itself to win a title.
10. Ben Simmons’s Jump Shot … Again
Ryan: Nothing puts contemporary basketball minds on peyote faster than Ben Simmons’s jump-shooting. We just lose our shit. There is no reliable narrator, everyone has an agenda, and everyone is seeing kaleidoscopic shapes and colors. I don’t even know where I stand anymore, I just know we’re gonna be talking about it a lot this season.
The Sixers are contenders and considered by Vegas to be in a two-team race at the top of the Eastern Conference. They re-signed Tobias Harris, inked Al Horford, brought in Josh Richardson, and lost much of their perimeter depth during the past 12 months, waving goodbye to Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, JJ Redick, and T.J. McConnell. Simmons will be this team’s floor general and point guard. And in 2019, we expect point guards to shoot from outside. Now, you could point to other apositional players like Giannis or LeBron and note their slow progress toward above-Mendoza-line perimeter shooting. But even in their nascent years James and Antetokounmpo usually got it up at least 100 times a season from deep. This isn’t about bricks. Ben Simmons doesn’t even have a trowel.
Last season, Simmons took six 3s and made zero. After losing to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference semis, he admitted he needed to add a perimeter threat to his game. Since then we’ve had some Tobias Harris–backed propaganda about an emerging outside J and some trainer footage of Simmons looking like Dale Ellis in an L.A. pickup game. Philly loves a debate, and Simmons’s willingness to shoot—forget his ability to—will be the hottest topic heading into the season. There are no obvious distractions going into the season—no Markelle Fultz mystery, no Jimmy Butler rental. There’s nowhere to hide.
9. The Unicorns Taking Over
Devine: The reigning Most Valuable Player is a 6-foot-11, 242-pound interrobang who runs a five-out offense while doubling as the sport’s most panic-inducing help defender. The guy who finished fourth in MVP voting is a 7-foot genius who goes about a deuce and a half, and can be the most dominant offensive force on any floor despite lacking the lift to clear a sheet of loose leaf. Seventh place: listed at 7-foot and 250, likely larger than that, yet somehow possessing enough face-up flourish and rim-protecting menace to seem—at peak health—like someone scaled Hakeem up by 150 percent.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid, all 25 and under, are the focal points and beating hearts of teams that Las Vegas thinks will most likely win 50-plus games. They’re the faces of a changing NBA, and they’ve got company. Anthony Davis broke the big-man mold before we even knew what the mold was, and now he’s rolling with the winners in Hollywood. Kristaps Porzingis, the first skyscraper gifted the moniker “unicorn,” will make his return from ACL surgery flanked by a better playmaking partner than he ever had in New York. Karl-Anthony Towns might be the most gifted of them all, and he enters the new season with a new chance to prove it.
What matters most in the NBA is finding ways to control and weaponize space. Giants with the skills to create on offense and the size to vaporize opponents on the other end are the sorts of building blocks that allow organizations to imagine unexplored galaxies, to dream in new colors. As the dominant wings of the aughts move into the latter stages of their careers, these bright young behemoths have the chance to point the league in a new direction. The future is here. It’s fucking gigantic.
8. Zion in the Open Court
Uggetti: An entire arena in Las Vegas vibrated with excitement while watching Zion perform pregame dunks. Now imagine what will happen during a live NBA game, while playing at Alvin Gentry’s pace and surrounded by a bunch of athletic phenoms and savvy veterans.
The basketball world was first introduced to Zion on YouTube; the dunks he threw down at Spartanburg Day School quickly became the stuff of legend. Now, instead of having to fire up a grainy stream from a high school gym, we will get to see Zion leap out of arenas in high definition on the biggest stage possible. It will do everybody some good to remember that Zion is just a rookie; his best basketball is still somewhere off in the distance, so expectations should be limited. But for now, we’ll have more than enough highlights to fuel the hype train.
7. Luka vs. Trae, Round 2
Kram: When two high picks are traded for each other on or near draft night, the outcome is typically lopsided: Jayson Tatum over Markelle Fultz, Kevin Love over O.J. Mayo, LaMarcus Aldridge over Tyrus Thomas, Deron Williams over Martell Webster, and so on. Through one season, though, both the Hawks and Mavericks are thrilled by the result of their 2018 swap, which sent Doncic to Dallas and Young plus a future first—ultimately Cam Reddish, 2019’s no. 10 overall pick—to Atlanta.
In Atlanta, Young’s rookie season was a tale of two halves; after a slumpy start to his NBA career, he was superior in every statistical category in the second half—he shot better, passed better, and overall played better as Atlanta blossomed into a League Pass favorite.
Trae Young Rookie Year
|Statistic||First Half||Second Half|
|Statistic||First Half||Second Half|
All Doncic did, meanwhile, was post the fifth 20-5-5 season for a rookie in NBA history—joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Tyreke Evans—en route to receiving 98 out of 100 first-place Rookie of the Year votes. (Young got the other two.)
For all of Young’s offensive firepower, it’s hard not to think, at least for the moment, that Dallas has emerged as the deal’s victor. Young remains a defensive question mark—ESPN’s advanced RPM stat rated him the worst defender in the league last season—while Doncic, at just 20 years old, looks like a future MVP candidate, with an all-around game optimally built for the modern NBA. In Year 2, we will learn whether Young might close the gap, given his hard charge to end his rookie season and Atlanta’s exciting young lineup. And we will learn, most of all, whether Doncic might go the route of Evans, who peaked as a rookie, or whether he’s more apt to follow NBA legends Robertson, Jordan, and James.
6. The Beard and the Brodie Ride Again
Tjarks: It’s still hard to believe James Harden and Russell Westbrook are on the same team again. Two of the most ball-dominant stars and biggest personalities in the league are now sharing one ball. No one knows exactly how it will work. Harden and Westbrook will both get time to dominate the ball when the other is on the bench, but how the Rockets mesh their games together when they share the floor will be one of the most fascinating stories of the season.
Harden and Russ are saying all the right things for now, and their long-standing personal relationship that goes back to their days as high school players in Los Angeles should make getting along and cutting each other slack easier than it was for Harden and Chris Paul. But how will things work in the fourth quarter of a second-round playoff game against the Lakers or the Clippers at Staples Center? Like everyone else in the NBA, I can’t wait to find out.
5. Steph Curry Taking Every Goddamn Shot
O’Connor: Kevin Durant is gone. Klay Thompson is out. Yet Curry remains, and as a result, we could witness his most explosive season ever. Over the past three regular seasons and playoffs, Curry has posted straight-up silly stats when Durant and Thompson weren’t on the floor: Curry averaged 38.4 points on 27.4 shots per 75 possessions without either of them. It comes on a sample of only 1,214 minutes because the Warriors were blessed with good health until this past postseason, but those are Harden-esque volume numbers (36.6 points and 24.8 shots per 75 for Harden). For context, Curry averaged 31.8 points on 22.8 shots per 75 possessions with at least one of KD or Klay on the floor. D’Angelo Russell will take some of the shots that previously went to Thompson, but the Warriors will likely need to empower Curry more than ever due to their dearth of other options.
Curry is already a top-25ish player ever. The stage is set for Curry to rise further up the ranks in league history. If he wins another MVP, he’ll become only the ninth player in NBA history to win at least three—a list that includes Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. Soon, Steph Curry’s name may be spoken in the same breath with the game’s legends.
4. LeBron With Something to Prove
Devine: I don’t think it’s “hate” to suggest that LeBron James might be slowing down. He’s played more than 56,000 career regular and postseason minutes, which is more than all but five players in NBA history. He suffered the first major wear-and-tear injury of his career last season. He’s going into Year 17, will turn 35 in December, and has been favoring stepback 3s and intermittent defense more and more the past couple of seasons. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s at least possible that the King’s arrow might not be pointing skyward anymore. With apologies to our future president, though, it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what James thinks, what that makes him feel, and what he does about it.
Coming off his first playoff-free spring since 2005, LeBron enters this season with more competition for the title of best player in the world than he’s had in years. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard have all assumed the mantle for a moment or two since last we saw LeBron lace ’em up, and I’m going to guess he hasn’t much cared for their rise to the top of the food chain inviting the perception that he’s fallen from his perch as the sport’s apex predator:
Alright alright. Enough is enough. The throne has been played with to much and I ain’t for horseplay. Ether coming soon! #JamesGang✊— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 1, 2019
Even at age 34, nobody questions LeBron’s capacity to control high-leverage games and command championship moments on a level few in the history of the sport have reached. The issue, though, is sustainability. Davis’s presence opens the door to L.A. lightening—some might even say “managing”—James’s load throughout the season. But even with AD, a Lakers roster light on shot creation and bankable scoring will need LeBron at his best—on both ends, consistently—to fight through a brutally crowded West. It’s a lot to ask of a man with so many miles on his odometer, but LeBron’s not any man, and he should be fresher and more motivated than he’s been in ages.
3. Kawhi’s Grasp on the Best Player in the World Belt
Chau: To follow the NBA’s drawn-out 82-game regular season is to eventually fall into a distorted view of the league; the Larry O’Brien Trophy may be the ultimate prize, but the rhythms of the regular season have a way of obscuring the means of attaining it. Kawhi may spend the rest of his Hall of Fame career managing the number of games he plays; he may never play more than 60 games in a regular season ever again. Come March, players like Giannis, AD, or Steph may all have more convincing résumés, but after last season, we now know just what Kawhi is capable of when he takes his limiters off. Kawhi, with Durant likely to miss out on much of next season, now occupies a space similar to LeBron James over much of the past decade. It doesn’t matter who lands the actual MVP award; the real answer to the best player in basketball question is him until proved otherwise. Kawhi is the shadow belt-holder. It doesn’t matter who wins the regular season; no one can stake a stronger claim until they usurp the defending champ.
2. Big Twos
O’Shaughnessy: Who needs a Big Three to win, anyway? After multiple teams failed to win big with three stars—the Sixers with Butler, the Pelicans with DeMarcus Cousins, and the Wizards with Otto Porter—the Big Two is back, and they’ve never been bigger. The most powerful teams this season feature two major stars: the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Rockets have James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and the Nets have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. (Eventually, anyway. Durant could miss the entire season after rupturing his Achilles in the Finals.)
There are still a few Big Threes out there. Philadelphia will try again, this time with 33-year-old Al Horford next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Perhaps Boston counts, if three of its four major names—Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward—can stay consistent. But with most of the trios dissolving into duos, most contenders will also depend on depth. Each of the four superstars between the Lakers and the Clippers is at risk for injury; Leonard, George, James, and Davis were the faces of “load management” last season. The difference between the two teams is that the Clippers are more prepared to hang on when their Big Two need to rest. A top-heavy roster—especially one with two elite players, not three—is a dangerous thing to rely on.
1. One of the Best Title Races in Recent History
Verrier: NBA fans love a dynasty. Yet as popular as the Warriors dynasty was, and as thrilling as their Basketball Nirvana offense could be, it was hard not to feel a bit of burnout after five years in a flat circle. In the end, there are only so many ways a Steph can shimmy.
But with Kevin Durant relocating his glowering to Brooklyn, and with some of the league’s best players scattering to new locations this summer like Dragon Balls, the title chase suddenly feels wide open.
Unlike in recent years, when the season felt like a slow march to an inevitable rematch, at least eight teams enter the season with a real shot at the NBA title: the 76ers, Bucks, Clippers, Jazz, Lakers, Nuggets, Rockets, and yes, the Warriors. If we’re talking about teams that could make it to the NBA Finals, you can throw in the Trail Blazers, and maybe even the Celtics. That’s a third of the league! And each one has something new to figure out about itself or some fatal flaw to work out over the course of 82 games.
Welcome back, parity. We missed you.