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A Reintroduction to the NBA Title Race

Eight teams have a legitimate shot at the Larry O’B in 2019-20. Here’s the case for and against all of them.

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After three years of complaints about an NBA made too predictable by superstar-stacking stasis, the basketball gods shook their snow globe this summer, delivering Christmas in July—well, late June, really—by sending some of the best players in the world to new locations and drastically altering the league’s state of affairs. The 2019-20 NBA season promises uncertainty, volatility, drama … and, with scant few Big Threes and Fours replaced by a plethora of power couples, likely the most wide-open title race we’ve seen in ages.

The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas lists eight teams in the shuffled-up NBA with championship odds of 14-to-1 or better, all featuring elite top-end talent, excellent depth, or both. Let’s get up to speed on the league’s expected upper crust by reviewing the cases for and against each of them hoisting the Larry O’B come season’s end:

L.A. Clippers (Odds: 7-to-2)

The case for: Well, they added two of the five best two-way players in the world this summer, which seems like a pretty good place to start.

Kawhi Leonard proved last postseason just how destructive a force he can be, lifting the Raptors past the 76ers and Bucks before throttling another dynasty in a Finals victory over the Warriors that earned him his second Finals MVP trophy. Before a pair of shoulder injuries derailed him late in the season, Paul George was a bona fide MVP candidate, averaging a career-best 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.2 steals per game in Oklahoma City. They’ll give Doc Rivers the league’s most balanced and devastating perimeter pairing, a duo capable of carving up defenses inside and out and locking down opponents’ top scorers every night.

L.A.’s new superstars will have plenty of help too. The Clippers return five of the top seven rotation players from the squad that pushed the full-strength Warriors to six games in last spring’s first round, including reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, rim-wrecking pick-and-roll partner Montrezl Harrell, and pitbull point guard Patrick Beverley. After watching his best Lob City teams come up short year after year, Rivers now has the best roster of his tenure with the Clippers—and arguably the best one in the league.

The case against: We’ve yet to learn how much time George is expected to miss after undergoing surgeries on both of his shoulders after last season; he’s evidently back on the court, which is great, but there’s no timetable for his return at the moment. Leonard said in his introductory press conference that he feels like he’s at full strength and doesn’t anticipate missing games like he did last season in Toronto, but it seems unlikely that the Clips will abandon the load management strategy that helped keep him in working order through the end of the Finals. New teams need time and reps to develop chemistry after undergoing major changes; how long it takes everybody to get on the same page could have a big impact on how many games the Clippers win (and which postseason seed they wind up snagging) in what promises to be another brutal West.

Past the stars’ health: While the Clippers boast more quality depth on the wing than any other team in the league, their big-man rotation’s a bit more suspect. The 25-year-old Harrell was electric in his breakout fourth season and could see even more than last season’s 26.3 minutes a night, but he remains undersized for the 5-spot at 6-foot-8. JaMychal Green (who was great last season) and Patrick Patterson (who was very much not) both profile as small-ball 5s, too; in a conference featuring a slew of tough, talented centers, the Clips need a big body to bang down low and serve as the back-line captain of what should be an elite defense. Enter … Ivica Zubac?

The 7-foot-1 Croatian impressed after coming over from the Lakers at February’s trade deadline. He averaged 9.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 20.2 minutes per game in 26 appearances as a Clipper, and opponents scored 7.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court than when he was off it, according to Cleaning the Glass. But expecting a 22-year-old with barely 50 career starts and 2,000 minutes under his belt to be the starting center on a championship team is a big ask; if neither he nor rookie Mfiondu Kabengele can fill the void, a Clips front office that moved heaven, earth, and all manner of assets to land its two signature stars could have a hard time figuring out how to match up in the middle.

Eastern Conference Finals - Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Getty IMages

Milwaukee Bucks (9-to-2)

The case for: Giannis just won MVP and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, at age 24, by turning in a season the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Peak Kareem … and he feels like he’s only about 60 percent of the way to his own summit. After getting outclassed by Leonard in the Eastern Conference finals and suffering a frustrating group-stage exit with the Greek national team at the FIBA World Cup, you can bet Antetokounmpo’s going to be plenty motivated to keep climbing and build on the Bucks’ best season in nearly 50 years.

Giannis will be joined by a talented supporting cast that’s already built up a rhythm and familiarity. According to roster analysis by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Bucks rank fourth in continuity, bringing back players responsible for 77 percent of Milwaukee’s total minutes last season; among East teams, only Orlando returns more of its key core pieces than Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks, who won 60 games behind an offensive attack predicated on flanking Antetokounmpo with 3-point shooters to space the floor and a defense that aimed to force the ball to iffy marksmen and funnel drivers into shot-blockers at the rim. Last season proved that Coach Bud’s system could unleash Giannis and elevate Milwaukee’s collection of long-limbed athletes into the title picture; now, with the only guy who successfully guarded the MVP straight up having left the conference, the Bucks will look to take the marriage of talent and scheme even further.

The case against: His personal evaluations aside: How much better can Giannis really be than he was last season? If his overall effectiveness takes even a slight step back, how will Milwaukee make up for it? Can the Bucks count on Khris Middleton to again turn in All-Star-caliber work, Eric Bledsoe to build on an excellent regular season (and bounce back from another rough postseason), and Brook Lopez (fresh off a brutal World Cup) to remain perhaps the league’s most surprising unicorn? (They’ll also need all three to stay healthy; they combined to miss just 10 games last season.)

Even if Antetokounmpo is as brilliant as ever, Milwaukee will have to make up for the loss of Malcolm Brogdon. The restricted free-agent guard decamped for Indiana in a sign-and-trade after the Pacers ponied up a four-year, $85 million offer. The decision eases the luxury-tax burden on ownership, but it also removes a valuable shooter, ball handler, driver, and perimeter defender from the backcourt. Bud’s got options—new arrivals Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, incumbent youngsters Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo—but none seem to tick all the boxes left blank by Brogdon’s exit. That might not impact the Bucks’ win total all that much; in the playoffs, though, where weaknesses are amplified and incomplete players get forced off the floor, it might matter a whole hell of a lot.


Los Angeles Lakers (9-to-2)

The case for: How about the chance that LeBron James might not be the best player on this team this season? That might be just a touch hyperbolic, but Anthony Davis absolutely has the talent to make it true.

Davis is a matchup nightmare capable of torturing defenses from all over the floor who doubles as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year–caliber game plan wrecker. It is completely understandable that we discount Davis’s 2018-19 campaign after the disaster he wrought in New Orleans, capped by a mail-it-in spring that somehow resulted in real discussion of the intentionality of wearing a Looney Tunes T-shirt. It’s worth noting, though, that when he was on the court, Davis was still really friggin’ good: Only Giannis, Rudy Gobert, and James Harden produced more win shares per 48 minutes than Davis, and only Giannis, Harden, and Nikola Jokic posted a higher box plus-minus.

Five players ever have turned in multiple seasons with a player efficiency rating higher than 30; Davis is one of them, and he’s only 26. Now he gets to play with arguably the best pick-and-roll playmaker and offensive orchestrator of his generation, flanked by a bunch of new additions who can shoot (Danny Green, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley, Avery Bradley, Troy Daniels) in an attack that, reportedly, will be built around his abilities. At the risk of invoking dark spirits: This is going to be fun.

The case against: Maybe the groin injury that derailed LeBron’s first season in L.A. was less a fluke than the first sign that, at age 34, he’s finally about to start showing the wear and tear of 17 pro seasons and more than 56,000 NBA minutes. Maybe Davis, who’s been mostly healthy over the past three campaigns but still seems to pick up dings that send him back to the locker room for a check-up a few times a week, will struggle to carry the load by himself. Maybe all those veteran role players who can look really good on a roster anchored by elite shot creators will look a bit worse for wear pressed into larger roles without a steady diet of clean looks.

Losing DeMarcus Cousins removes what could’ve been an important X factor from the frontcourt rotation, and it is a gigantic question how much L.A. can expect from Dwight Howard as his replacement. If Kyle Kuzma doesn’t take a significant step forward in his third season, who else on the roster can create a good shot and help the superstars carry the scoring load? Is Rajon Rondo and people’s champ Alex Caruso a good enough combo at the point to hold up in the postseason? If Davis isn’t superhuman, just how good can this team really be defensively, even under a gifted tactician on that end like new head coach Frank Vogel?

After a disappointing 37-45 start to James’s Lakers career, this year’s team has a chance to make a massive leap, but it also has questions. MVP-caliber talent can answer a lot of them. Good thing, then, that the Lakers have two of those now.

Houston Rockets Introduce Russell Westbrook - Press Conference
Russell Westbrook and Daryl Morey
Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Houston Rockets (8-to-1)

The case for: I mean, they won 53 games and made the second round of the playoffs last season, and, according to Daryl Morey, they just improved their championship odds by 30 percent. What, I’m gonna argue with lead-pipe mathematical certitude?

Houston’s chances hang on how well James Harden and Russell Westbrook can fit together. If the longtime friends and former MVPs tweak their games to accommodate one another, and if Westbrook’s superior athleticism and downhill driving upgrades Houston’s attack, especially in transition, then the Rockets should once again boast one of the NBA’s most devastating offenses.

Going from Chris Paul to Westbrook means a decline in shooting accuracy and defensive acumen at the point. But P.J. Tucker and the newly extended Eric Gordon offer toughness and versatility at key spots, Tyson Chandler brings a like-for-like stylistic replacement and veteran presence behind starting center Clint Capela, and there should be enough shooting elsewhere on the roster to keep the Rockets’ machine humming. Houston may finally have enough to break out of a Western Conference no longer dominated by the rival Warriors.

The case against: While the personal relationship between ex-Thunder buddies Harden and Westbrook might be warmer than it was between Harden and Paul, the on-court mix could prove more volatile. How will Houston defend good point guards? (Gordon, I think, is an even more important piece for the Rockets than many realize.) Will Westbrook commit to making himself a threat off the ball? Will Harden? How quickly can they develop a playmaking rhythm that produces something more than the “my turn, your turn” possessions that at times hurt Houston during the CP3 era?

Even if everything goes off without a hitch for Harden and Westbrook, though, there are some causes for concern. You’re within your rights to be a bit leery of relying on Gerald Green, Austin Rivers, and Thabo Sefolosha as primary wing reserves against good competition and in postseason matchups, especially against opponents with elite wing scorers. (There’s a reason the Rockets reportedly wanted in on the Andre Iguodala sweepstakes, though it’s unclear whether they can construct a deal worth Memphis’s while.) Then there’s the matter of coach Mike D’Antoni watching his coaching staff get gutted after last season and having to enter this one without an extension. If the Rockets stumble out of the gate, like they did last season, could D’Antoni’s lame duck status make it more difficult for him to get the buy-in required from his players to get things back on track?

Maybe not. Maybe the Rockets will navigate whatever choppy waters result from the integration of Westbrook, find their flow midseason, once again top 50 wins, and slide into a top-four seed in Round 1. Then, it’ll be time for Harden and Westbrook to lead a team through the postseason gantlet without succumbing to fatigue or self-destructive impulses. They certainly have the talent to do so. But how much do you want to bet on it?

Philadelphia 76ers (8-to-1)

The case for: The Sixers went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals thanks in large part to one of the best starting fives in the NBA. Now, after turning over 40 percent of that unit with a daring offseason sign-and-trade, they’ve got … arguably the best starting five in the NBA?

Joel Embiid’s an MVP-caliber mauler who gives the Sixers a chance to beat absolutely anybody as long as he’s on the floor. Ben Simmons is a walking mismatch who, even without the benefit of a functional jump shot, became an All-Star two-way game-changer before turning 23. However reasonable the arguments for splitting them up might be, the Sixers aren’t going that route right now—especially not after reupping Simmons on a five-year maximum extension of his rookie contract. So instead, they built around them.

In comes Al Horford, famously the bane of Embiid and Simmons’s existence during his tenure with the Celtics, to solve Philly’s persistent backup-center/Embiid-health problem and act as a floor-spacing, playmaking decongestant that allows a cramped half-court offense to breathe more freely. (That he’s one of the best defensive options available against Giannis, and that his departure weakened the Celtics, are nice fringe benefits too.) In comes Josh Richardson, an excellent two-way wing forced to play above his station as a no. 1 option last season in Miami, but who should be a dynamite fit as a complementary piece on the star-laden Sixers. Their arrivals should vault the Sixers’ defense back into the ranks of the NBA’s elite and give Philadelphia a real shot at its first Eastern Conference finals berth since 2001.

The case against: As massive as this team is—general manager Elton Brand clearly has a type—how effective can what is essentially three centers, a power forward, and a small forward really be on offense in 2019? Re-signed forward Tobias Harris will likely move up in the offensive pecking order after Jimmy Butler’s exit, and he and Richardson could do more work off the ball to help make up for the loss of JJ Redick to New Orleans. Still: It remains to be seen whether Philly has enough shooting to open things up for Embiid and Simmons inside, and whether Simmons has found enough confidence in his shot to avoid relegation to dunker-spot anonymity/ignominy late in tight games against good opponents.

Depth could be an issue too. Youngsters Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton, and rookie Matisse Thybulle might have to play major roles. Instant-offense backup point guard Trey Burke might wind up mattering more than you’d expect. Somebody on this giant-sized roster needs to be able to defend point guards. And while turning Butler into Horford and Richardson was deft work by Brand and Co., it’s unclear how Philly’s going to replace Butler’s offense in high-leverage situations. Talent trumps all, but fit matters too. Brett Brown, once again, has a whale of a puzzle to put together—and this time, an expectation that the finished product will be good enough to hoist the O’Brien.

Western Conference Finals - Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers
Stephen Curry and Draymond Green
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Golden State Warriors (12-to-1)

The case for: The Warriors team that tips off this season at Chase Center will look drastically different from the one that began the 2018-19 campaign at Oracle Arena. Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, DeMarcus Cousins, and a slew of end-of-the-benchers are gone, and Klay Thompson’s likely laid up until January or February. One thing hasn’t changed, though: Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will still be in uniform. And generally speaking, the Warriors have been really good when that happens, no matter who else is or isn’t suiting up: Golden State outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions last season when Steph and Dray ran the show without Klay and KD, by 9.3 points-per-100 in such minutes in 2017-18, and by 14.4 points-per-100 in 2016-17.

The smart money’s on the Warriors offense remaining elite, if for no other reason than Curry will still be at its controls and could be poised for a monster season. The last time he got to be Golden State’s unrivaled top offensive option, he won the scoring title, became the first player ever to hit 400 3-pointers in a season, and won the first unanimous MVP award in league history. As my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor noted earlier this week, Curry’s individual production in non-KD/Klay time over the past three seasons compares favorably with the one-man show that Harden’s been running in Houston.

With Curry, Green, and newcomer D’Angelo Russell on board, the Warriors should have enough playmaking chops to activate Golden State’s complementary pieces. If they can do that, and if Green comes into camp in great shape and determined to wrest possession of the Defensive Player of the Year trophy back from Rudy Gobert, and if Thompson’s able to provide a major offensive boost come the springtime, it’s absolutely possible that Draymond was right to warn us all that it was “just not smart” to see the Finals loss to the Raptors as the end of the line for these Warriors.

The case against: At the top of the list, there’s the chance that a Harden/Westbrook/solo Kobe-type usage rate will run Curry into the ground. He’s no shrinking violet, and he’s certainly accustomed to a ton of defensive attention, but he’s smaller and slighter than those guys, he’s coming off consecutive seasons in which injuries cost him significant time, and he turns 32 in March. We know Curry’s capable of pulling off a Superman act; whether he’s able to do it for six straight months after all the miles he’s accumulated over the years and still be fresh for the postseason, though, remains to be seen. (The job will get even harder if Thompson’s not quite himself in a short-season return coming off a torn ACL.)

It’s also possible that the Warriors might stumble on offense just by dint of seeing so much institutional memory exit the locker room this summer. Under head coach Steve Kerr, Golden State has favored a pass- and motion-heavy scheme that leveraged the gravity of Curry, Thompson, and Durant to create passing lanes for off-ball cuts; that relied on the playmaking gifts of big men like Green, Andrew Bogut, and David West to make those feeds; and that highlighted the importance of experienced, high-IQ facilitators like Iguodala and Livingston in a high-functioning offensive environment. With so many new—and, crucially, younger—faces now dotting the Golden State roster, it seems a stylistic shift toward more ordered/less improvisational play might be in order; as Kerr recently told Anthony Slater of The Athletic, “Random stuff gets more difficult if you don’t know each other well.”

So does getting stops—especially when the overall defensive talent level of the roster leaves more than a little bit to be desired. The Curry-Russell pairing could prove combustible, particularly when one of them’s forced to guard bigger wings; I’m not sure how much we should trust the perimeter rotation of Alfonzo McKinnie, Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, Jacob Evans, and rookie Jordan Poole to both handle those defensive responsibilities and provide positive contributions on the other end. If Draymond’s anything less than the best he’s been after securing a lucrative contract extension, things could get hairy enough for the Warriors’ D—like, “bottom-10 in points allowed per possession” hairy—that even their expected firepower might not be enough to fuel another deep playoff run.

Denver Nuggets (14-to-1)

The case for: If continuity really does matter in an NBA where rosters change faster than expressions during a silent face journey, no team should benefit more than the Nuggets. Denver returns more of last season’s minutes than anybody else in the league, including virtually its entire postseason rotation. (Even one of the league’s most enticing unknowns, 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter Jr., spent his entire redshirt freshman season with the team.) With the rest of the West’s best all figuring out how to absorb new arrivals or replace departed contributors, all that familiarity could bode well for the Nuggets’ chances of getting out to a hot start and staking a claim on a top seed.

But continuity really matters only if what you’re bringing back is good, and the Nuggets boast a deep roster teeming with young talent. Nikola Jokic became the fourth player ever to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists per game for a full season; he improved upon those numbers in a monstrous postseason during which he laid to rest every question about his fitness and function; and he doesn’t turn 25 until February. Gary Harris, the ace two-way shooting guard who defends top scorers and keeps defenses honest with his off-ball activity, just turned 25. Jamal Murray, a devilishly gifted trick-or-treat scorer who might hold Denver’s fate in his hands, is only 22. Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, Juancho Hernangómez (who looked great during Spain’s gold-medal run at the FIBA World Cup), key new arrival Jerami Grant, Porter, rising sophomore Jarred Vanderbilt—Denver’s chock full of young players with room to grow. Their continued development, combined with contributions from vets like Paul Millsap and Will Barton, could help propel the Nuggets past last season’s 54-win, second-round breakthrough. Bigger steps, most notably from Murray and MVP candidate Jokic, could bring the franchise’s best shot at a championship since it played in a league with a red, white, and blue ball.

The case against: Development is rarely linear; young players tend to get better with time, but you can’t necessarily bank on new leaps for Jokic, Murray, Harris, and the rest of Denver’s emerging core. A lot could depend on those players—including second-unit revelations like Morris and Beasley—simply maintaining last season’s level under the burden of new expectations.

Health matters, too. Injuries limited Millsap to 38 games during his first season in Denver; the Nuggets finished that campaign 21st in defensive efficiency, and one game out of a playoff spot. Last season, Denver weathered lengthy absences for Harris and Barton, but Millsap stayed healthy enough to make 70 appearances; the Nuggets finished 11th in defensive efficiency, with the second-best record in the West, and got out of the opening round of the postseason for the first time in a decade.

Millsap wasn’t the sole reason for that improvement. (Some of it, as Michael Pina covered at SB Nation, came as a result of opponents shooting a league-worst 34.4 percent from 3-point range—a stark reversal from recent seasons, and one that might not be repeatable.) But even with Father Time gaining on him and his offensive game waning a bit, the 34-year-old Millsap is clearly still a stabilizing agent for the young Nuggets: They posted the point differential of a 62-win team with him on the court last season, and of a 36-win team when he sat, according to Cleaning the Glass. The addition of Grant as a similarly versatile understudy/replacement was a dynamite move in an otherwise quiet summer in Denver, but keeping Millsap upright and operational could determine whether the Nuggets soar or stumble.

Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies
Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Utah Jazz (14-to-1)

The case for: Utah led the league in points allowed per possession after the 2014-15 All-Star break, when Rudy Gobert took over for Enes Kanter, and has finished seventh or better in non-garbage-time defensive efficiency in every season since, including no. 1 with a bullet in 2018-19. But while the ability to snuff out opposing attacks has helped the Jazz rack up regular-season wins and become a playoff mainstay in the crowded West, Quin Snyder’s club has yet to field an offense potent enough to qualify as a true contender. Trading for Mike Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic, though, could make things different this time around.

The 31-year-old Conley and 30-year-old Bogdanovic are smart, credible veterans who seem like hand-in-glove fits for Utah’s style. They’re low-turnover shot creators who can make plays off the dribble and off the catch, willing and accurate 3-point shooters who can also run the pick-and-roll, and cagey operators who can get themselves to the line when the offense needs a jolt. After impressive work last season as the top offensive threats for their respective teams, Conley and Bogdanovic should work even better as complementary creative options alongside the high-scoring Donovan Mitchell, playmaking swingman Joe Ingles, and emerging 3-and-D difference-maker Royce O’Neale.

This has the makings of a dynamic four-out offense: Gobert screening, diving, dunking, and cleaning the offensive glass, flanked by four players who can all make good things happen with the ball in their hands. The newcomers should fit well on the other end too. Conley’s smaller and older than ex-Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio, but he’s still a quality defender at the point of attack. And while Bogdanovic isn’t going to lock up opposing wings, the 6-foot-8, 216-pound Croatian has enough size, length, and smarts to guard either forward spot in a pinch.

Superstars playing musical chairs got more attention this summer, but landing Conley, Bogdanovic—as well as quality backup center Ed Davis, and versatile forward Jeff Green—might quietly be good enough to give teams with more star power fits in a series.

The case against: Utah looks deep, and very well might be. I have some concerns about second-unit offense, though, with the eternally hurt and puzzling Dante Exum and reclamation project Emmanuel Mudiay as the top backcourt options behind Conley and Mitchell. Staggering Ingles and Bogdanovic with those lineups could go a long way toward mitigating the issues; maybe Snyder will look to keep at least one playmaking forward on the court with his backup guards to ensure the ball keeps moving.

Beyond that, and beyond the possibility that a crunch-time offense that struggled last season isn’t buoyed as much by the arrivals of Conley and Bogdanovic as you’d expect, the Jazz don’t have any real glaring flaws. This should be a very good, solid team. That’s just it, though: Is “solid” as much as we can really say about them? And if so, is that really enough in such an unsparing conference?

As good as Conley and Bogdanovic are, the Jazz probably won’t have the best offensive player on the court in a playoff matchup against any of the other West titans, unless Mitchell makes a massive leap in his third season. That doesn’t make winning those games impossible—those who watched France take down Team USA at the World Cup know how Gobert can dominate as a defender, rebounder, and roll man—but it does make it harder. A team full of A-minus and B-plus players can get you a long way; I’m just not sure it gets you past multiple opponents with A and A-plus talents in a seven-game sample. I think I’m going to need to see that before I really believe it.

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