By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
The NBA season that tips Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) is indebted to a July shakeup that’s still sending ripples, specifically from a pair of franchise-altering free agents and what they chose not to do:
Kevin Durant did not re-sign with the Warriors. Kawhi Leonard did not sign with the Lakers.
Had either or both happened, the death of suspense would’ve surely followed. Imagine a novel where the author makes the last chapter the first. Why bother reading the next 480 pages when the mystery is solved? Such is the case whenever the league is ruled by the iron boot of a super-team. And make no mistake, a recharged Warriors’ club with KD, or a revamped Lakers team with Leonard teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis would’ve made the basketball world press fast-forward until the schedule reached June.
But now? We have drama now, all because the super-team is officially -- and some will say thankfully -- dead. At least for the moment.
Much like the world’s sprinters when Usain Bolt finally hung up his spikes, the race is wide open. There are roughly six to eight teams that can realistically see themselves enjoying a splash of victory champagne next June. That in itself will add pop even to the regular season (remember when those 82 games meant something?) and create all sorts of wild scenarios by springtime.
“When’s the last time you could say there are this many teams who honestly believe they have a legitimate chance?” asks Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
This has been a long time coming, six years to be exact, before the Warriors stocked up on 3-point skills, took ownership of the Western Conference and made an entire league shiver. You could even travel back a few years further and say before LeBron took his talents to South Beach. What we have right now in the NBA is a more realistic sense of normalcy, where even the best contenders are bringing just two dynamic players at most to the fight. That’s more in line with this generation’s NBA, not the league in the 1980s, when player movement was more stifled and Hall of Famers were hopelessly stuck with each other (see Celtics with Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish, see Lakers with Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-James Worthy, see Sixers with Julius Erving-Moses Malone-Maurice Cheeks).
Even after a 2019 free agency period that could only be classified as nuts, what’s curious is how and why the top two players on the market, who could’ve drastically altered the landscape, chose otherwise. Let’s examine:
Leonard with the Clippers: This wasn’t necessarily the wrong choice. After all, the Clippers officially added Paul George the same day and are still bringing the guts of a club that won 48 games last season. Plus, Doc Rivers is the coach. Which means they enter the season as the favorite. That said, all you need to know about the amazing possibilities if Kawhi had joined the Lakers was summed up by the perky response of Davis, when asked what that would’ve been like: “Oh man,” Davis said, rolling his eyes and arching those famous ‘brows. “Oh (slight pause) man.” Davis then caught himself, so as not to appear to discount or dismiss the Lakers as currently constructed. But seriously: He knew. And you knew.
Durant with the Nets: Staying with the Warriors was a more sensible choice strictly from a wins and losses standpoint if only because the Warriors, well, won championships. But Durant is a different creature and other factors important to him were in play. Also consider that he and Klay Thompson likely would’ve sat most of the season while healing from injuries. But aside from that, the Warriors were equipped to make regular trips to June with him back in tow. Now? They’re no lock for the playoffs.
And thus, the season upon us will generate great interest in several corners, not just inside the Staples Center. A league that’s more balanced at the top might invite an unexpected champion. Sure, the Raptors just gave us that, didn’t they? Well, yeah, but only to an extent; they seized advantage of a Golden State team without Durant for all but a handful of minutes, and Thompson for five crucial quarters. True Cinderellas don’t get those breaks.
This season, the NBA could get a more genuine underdog, free of suspicious smell, and the last time that genuinely happened, with all due respect to Dirk’s Mavericks, was when the 2004 Pistons took down the feuding Lakers (and subsequently helped break up that super-team).
“Obviously the parity is there,” Malone said. “It makes for a competitive, intense situation that’s ultimately good for the league.”
With that, here’s a roll call of eight title contenders and what they bring to the table of hope:
Weakened by the loss of Malcolm Brogdon, yet strengthened by the belief that Giannis will top his own Kia MVP season, the Bucks haven’t felt this frisky since Oscar Robertson rode shotgun with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Besides having the required superstar, the Bucks bring 3-point shooting and defense, both necessary in a seven-game series. Plus, the man who destroyed their dreams last season, Kawhi Leonard, is too far West to spook them, at least not until June if they’re lucky to see him.
Maybe the breakthrough simply skipped a year. Yes, the Celtics were supposed to be in this position in 2018-19 with Kyrie Irving and now they’re bringing Kemba Walker instead. For those who insist Kemba is short on Kyrie’s skills, he’s also short on Kyrie’s drama, so there’s that. And speaking of delayed reaction, if -- and yes, it’s a big if -- Gordon Hayward finally comes around to being Utah Jazz-era Gordon Hayward, next summer’s forecast could indeed be green.
Kawhi and Paul George. What else needs to be said? That duo brings energy on both ends, which is why the Clippers could be the rare team that can beat you by rolling up the points or preventing anyone from scoring them. And obviously when those two are flanked by Lou Williams and Montrezl “Playing For The Bag Next Summer” Harrell, the Clips boast the deepest rotation in basketball.
It is true Mike Conley has never made an All-Star Game or reached The Finals. Yet it’s also quite possible he does both this season, his first away from Memphis. He and Donovan Mitchell are that compelling as a backcourt. Both can tag-team in the final moments of tight games, rather than carry that burden alone, as Conley did for years with the Grizzlies and Mitchell has ever since he arrived in Utah. Much like the Clippers, there’s plenty more to respect beyond those two, especially from Rudy Gobert, the tall protector of rims.
Los Angeles Lakers
OK, let’s be right upfront about the aspects of these Lakers that give you pause. They’re relying just a bit on players who are either past their primes (Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Danny Green) and one who’s not yet a borderline star (Kyle Kuzma). Still, answer this: What happens when teams double LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Because, after all, nobody is guarding them straight up.
Michael Malone says the stair-climbing Nuggets must “create championship habits every day” in order to maintain their continuity over the last three seasons and reach the mountaintop. And that’s doable, because if premier big man Nikola Jokic can’t see the summit from where he’s at right now, he appears ready and equipped to stand on his toes, enjoy the view and lift the club with him.
Deemed a failure by the general basketball public before they’ve had a chance to prove otherwise is giving James Harden and Russell Westbrook additional incentive, as if these two former Kia MVPs-without-rings needed more. Yes, they both need the ball to be at peak performance, yet superstars often find a way -- more often than not -- to find the right solution. And if Westbrook’s jumper comes around after taking last season off, name a more explosive scoring duo.
The tears on Joel Embiid’s jersey have finally dried up, five months after Leonard broke his heart, and the big man seems motivated to do what another Sixers big man did in 1983. From a tenacity standpoint, there’s a bit of Moses Malone in Embiid, especially with the game on the line. Philly paid dearly for a pair of support staffers named Al Horford and Tobias Harris, both solid soldiers but not stars. Also, Ben Simmons may finally bring a 3-point shot but could be years away from being a volume shooter from that distance.
Those are the teams with the proper ingredients needed for championship consideration, no disrespect to the defending-champion Raptors, the Spurs, Pacers and Blazers, who’d need to catch a break or two to reach June. What will be interesting is how the order falls in standings, and the matchups in the playoffs (especially in, say, the semifinals when the L.A. teams might be paired) and how coaches play their “load management” cards. For example, will Lakers coach Frank Vogel sit LeBron often in the final two weeks of the regular season and therefore sacrifice a spot in the West standings? It’s all conjecture now.
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