There's a little under two months until the 2019-2020 NBA season tips-off. On October 22, the reigning champion Toronto Raptors will square off against the new-look New Orleans Pelicans and (the most hyped rookie since LeBron James) Zion Williamson, followed by the true birth of the Los Angeles rivalry when the Lakers take on the Clippers at Staples Center. It's safe to say that the upcoming season is the most anticipated since 2011-2012 when LeBron took his talents to South Beach to form the Big Three, effectively altering the landscape of the league forever. Following a once-unfathomable amount of player movement this offseason, there are many teams and new situations to keep an eye on throughout the season because, after all, the NBA is the greatest soap opera on television.
I can't cover everything at once. There might be a part two.
James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the Houston Rockets
I could've started talking about the Lakers and Clippers but they've dominated headlines, plus I haven't really had a chance to talk about the new pairing in H-Town. Don't worry, the Lakers are down there somewhere.
Things didn't go as planned for James Harden and the Rockets last season. Sure, Harden finished second in MVP voting and had one of, if not the, most impressive offensive season of all-time, finishing the year averaging 36.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game while at one point scoring at least 30 points in 32 consecutive games (!). He scored at least 50 points on nine occasions and finished ninth in the league in triple-doubles, notching seven throughout the season. Let's not forget his 30.6 PER! I love me some PER. Despite his noble efforts, the Rockets suffered a disappointing exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semi-Finals, a frustrating end to a year that had championship expectations.
Following the loss, general manager Daryl Morey got to work trying to find ways to improve his team in the wake of multiple power duos forming throughout the league. Reports of beef between Harden and Chris Paul started gaining traction and it seemed like CP3 was headed out of Houston, if they could find a deal. Once the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers and sparked a rebuild, it felt certain that Russell Westbrook's time in OKC was finished. After a week of rumors centered around Westbrook-to-Miami, the Rockets swooped in and traded CP3 to OKC for Westbrook, effectively teaming him back up with Harden. It's crazy that they played in the Finals together in 2012; that seems so long ago.
There is plenty of skepticism surrounding the new duo in Houston, and (maybe) deservedly so. Both Harden and Westbrook have posted historically high usage rates over the past few years and are considered "stat chasers" by some. There's potential for this to blow up, but it seems unlikely. Harden and Westbrook are close friends from their time as teammates in OKC and both are hungry for a championship after coming so close (multiple times). People like to say Westbrook has "fallen off", but he has averaged a triple-double in the last three seasons, something no other player has done before. His 10.7 assists per game last season could certainly see an uptick if he defers more to Harden, finding him in the perfect spots to bomb threes over defenses that have yet to slow him down. Obviously both will start games, but it's up to head coach Mike D'Antoni to stagger them throughout the game and give each a chance to run the offense, eventually bringing them back together in the fourth quarter to really turn up the heat.
The Rockets are (mostly) running back the same team as last year, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Besides swapping Chris Paul for Westbrook and bringing in veteran center (and former Defensive Player of the Year) Tyson Chandler, the supporting cast will still be headlined by Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, Gerald Green, Austin Rivers, and Danuel House. The team has experience playing together, something most teams don't have after all the roster changes made this summer.
If Westbrook is able to come in and mesh well with Harden and the rest of the team, Houston could easily find themselves amongst the best teams in the Western Conference, perhaps the entire league.
Utah Jazz: Serious Contenders?
You might read the above question/headline and scoff. "The Utah Jazz? Serious contenders? Utahns are busy trying to convince everyone that Jesus is from Saint Paul and that having four wives is normal, they don't care about a championship!" While that may be (somewhat) accurate, there's (potentially) championship-caliber basketball brewing in Salt Lake City. Since Donovan Mitchell entered the league in 2017 and was given the reigns to the offense (and franchise), they've appeared in the playoffs twice and have been eliminated by the Houston Rockets, twice. With two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Australian sniper Joe Ingles as additional support, the Jazz have been an excellent defensive team but lacked on offense. Following the playoffs, the front office went out and filled their biggest gap by getting an established point guard in Mike Conley.
Last season, Mike Conley averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game, so he'll be able to not only move the ball but put it in the basket. Donovan Mitchell put up nearly 24 points a night on 43% shooting last season; his efficiency will surely see an increase this season. Too often Mitchell finds himself having to force a shot or go to the basket with no plan due to the offense becoming stagnant, but with Conley as the second option, the Jazz might actually become a fun team to watch when not playing D. We all know what Rudy Gobert can do on the defensive end, and with less pressure on him to succeed on offense, he should become an even more terrifying thought for opposing teams around the rim.
Since the Donovan Mitchell-era kicked off, the Jazz have been a fairly deep team. After completing their Big Three, they filled out the rest of the roster with multiple impressive signings that have turned Utah into one of the deepest teams in the league. Here's their roster:
I could only squeeze so much into the screenshot; Royce O'Neal is still on the team. Here's who they brought in (besides Conley): Bojan Bogdanovic, one of the low-key best signings of the offseason; Ed Davis, a veteran big man who can rebound the life out of the ball; Jeff Green, everyone's favorite uncle who can provide scoring off the bench; and Emmanuel Mudiay, a guard who didn't quite pan out but can provide stability as a backup on an already-deep team.
With all the player movement I've already mentioned a thousand times, the league feels pretty wide open heading into the season. There are so many new pairings, it's impossible to accurately predict how any of them will play out. The media is going to put most of their focus into Los Angeles, so the Jazz will be able to navigate these new waters relatively quietly.
With the ability to come together as a roster without being under a microscope, the Jazz have the potential to be a top-three or four team in the West and could be primed to make an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, maybe even the NBA Finals.
Battle: Los Angeles
No, not the shitty Aaron Eckhart movie. There was seismic change in Los Angeles this offseason and I'm not talking about the earthquakes. There's a decent amount to break down here; I'm going to do it in parts.
It happened, the Lakers actually traded for Anthony Davis. After a mind-numbing amount of speculation regarding when AD would become a Laker, Los Angeles' front office traded Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and draft picks in exchange for Davis. The move instantly placed the Lakers in "win-now" mode as LeBron enters year 16 and the once highly-lauded young core is alongside Zion Williamson on Bourbon Street, but the dynamic star power formed by possibly the best duo in the league has placed LA amongst the favorites to win it all. To aid the next great Lakers pair, GM Rob Pelinka made a series of solid signings that could help bolster his lackluster reputation as a team builder. Here's what the roster is looking like heading into training camp:
Kyle Kuzma is entering his third season with high expectations. After a sophomore campaign in which he averaged nearly 19 points per night, Kuzma is tasked with taking a leap and becoming LA's third star. Whether or not he's up to the challenge is to be determined, but if his three-point stroke and defense can improve and remain consistent, Kuz will be a valuable asset to a championship contender.
Following a championship run, Danny Green got paid while being given a chance to repeat. A career 40% three-point shooter, Green may prove to be the sniper that LA was missing last season. Coming off a 45% campaign from beyond the arc, there's no reason why Green won't continue to be one of the more lethal guards in the league. He's been apart of multiple championship teams; he knows what it takes to win. Green's ability to knock down shots in big moments will be huge, but his veteran leadership may prove more valuable.
People can clown on all them all they want, but LA is running out a really nice frontcourt. JaVale McGee is coming off a remarkably efficient season (62.4%, 21.8 PER) starting for the Lakers, a role he's assumed to fill again. His slip-ups may define him for a number of Twitter users, but McGee is actually a solid player who can hold anchor and let LeBron do his thing. To back him up is future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard, a self-proclaimed rejuvenated center looking for another chance. He posted 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in his last full season (2017-18), so there's no reason that a fully healthy, focused Howard can't do some damage.
Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Quin Cook, and Troy Daniels make up a solid supporting cast that provides depth behind the star power. They all fill specific roles and if everyone can remain healthy and consistent, they could prove to be a well-rounded core.
Is this a championship roster? It definitely could be. There's no doubt that LeBron and AD will come together to be an absolutely terrifying tandem, but how the rest of the team will come together is still up in the air. Right now, I'd pick them to win it all, but we all know things can change in an instant in the NBA. You won't have to work to hard to keep up with the Lakers; they're going to be on the tip of every fan's, and media outlet's, tongue.
I forgot to mention the coaching changes. Luke Walton is now in Sacramento and Frank Vogel is the new Lakers coach. He had some good runs with Indiana back in the day and it's tough to forget about those defenses. Jason Kidd as top assistant is very iffy, but again, we'll have to see how it plays out.
The Clippers had been rumored to be the favorites to land Kawhi Leonard when he hit free agency this summer. There was never a sense of certainty that Kawhi would stay in Toronto, even after winning the Finals, and he felt primed to return home, whether it be with the Lakers or Clippers.
When the Clippers pulled off the Kawhi signing, they also pulled off a trade that not many, if any, saw coming. Paul George, third-place in last year's MVP voting, was acquired for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and five first-rounders. It shocked the league and formed another power duo in Staples Center. With a supporting cast that's considerably deeper, and possibly better, than the Lakers, the Clippers will enter the season as co-favorites to bring home their first franchise championship.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were both finalists for Sixth Man of the Year, which Lou Will took home for the third time. He can get buckets better than 99.5% of people on Earth while Harrell brings a sense of swagger to playing tough, grabbing boards, and providing electric defense. Landry Shamet was a knockdown shooter in his rookie year (42.2% 3FG) and projects to improve his efficiency as he gets more accustomed during year 2. We all know what Pat Beverely brings to the table. He will take on any defensive assignment given to him and will fight every night for his team. For a team looking to take it all the way, Pat Bev is the perfect spark plug.
Mo Harkless is a guy I've always been super high on for some reason, but he's been a solid staple on Portland's last few playoff teams; I like him for the Clippers. Ivica Zubac was acquired from the Lakers for an absolute steal at the trade deadline and with another year under his belt; he should prove to be a really solid backup or starter if need be. JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson are nice supplemental big man and help fill out the rest of the roster nicely. The Clippers are a truly deep team, Doc Rivers and Jerry West did an excellent job building a contender after moving on from the Lob City era.
Are Paul George and Kawhi Leonard a better duo than LeBron and AD? No, but they're the second-best pairing in the league. With a seemingly better supporting cast and a more stable, organized front office, the Clippers feel like a safer bet than the Lakers to win it all. They gave the Warriors plenty of problems in the first-round and that was without PG and Kawhi. Honestly, the sky is the limit for this team and barring any injuries or odd locker room issues, there's no reason this team shouldn't be representing the Western Conference during the Finals in June.
THINGS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Bulls On Parade
This is just me being hopeful, I think. I wrote about this more extensively about a month ago, but after two years of suffering, there may be some light in the life of Bulls fans. Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, and Otto Porter have me excited and with the offseason signings of Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky, there actually seems to be a direction for the team. Drafting Coby White further proved an effort to improve on offense and play faster, so hopefully he comes along quickly in the development process. Look, I'm pushing for playoffs this year. Am I being overly-optimistic? Absolutely. But I need to be, I can't keep suffering.
Daniel Gafford is a player to be excited about, too. I'm not sure how much playing time he'll get, but he's going to be fun. I have a feeling he'll become one of my favorite Bulls quickly.
No Sleep Till...
I just want to remind everyone that I called Kyrie and KD teaming up in Brooklyn months ago. I think it was in February, so I was well ahead of the curve. With KD being out for the whole year due to the Achilles injury he suffered during the Finals, this will be Kyrie's team for the foreseeable future. After a rocky two seasons in Boston, Kyrie is out to prove that he can lead a team and co-exist with others. Sounds like fourth grade park district ball. Brooklyn went 42-40 and made the playoffs as the East's sixth seed while being led by first-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell, who is now on the Golden State Warriors.
DLo is one of the best young guards in the game but it'd be ignorant to sit here and say that Kyrie isn't an upgrade. He's a six-time All-Star and champion that has proven to be one of the top players in the league, if he can move past the criticisms from his time with the Celtics and mesh well with KD, then the Nets can definitely compete for a title. DeAndre Jordan was brought in alongside Kyrie and KD to grab an unreal amount of rebounds and anchor the defense alongside prolific shot-blocker Jarrett Allen. Caris LaVert just got extended, Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the most underrated guards in the league, and Joe Harris can snipe you from wherever. I really like their depth and with a year to figure things out before KD enters the lineup, there's a lot of potential in Brooklyn.
They need to sign Melo. Wilson Chandler just got suspended for PEDs, so why not? What is there to lose? Not a damn thing.
I could've used Zion as the picture or even crafted a more creative title, but I've reached the end of this long piece and my brain power is drying up. We all know that Zion Williamson was drafted first overall by New Orleans and is already considered a superstar. I'm not sure how he's going to be throughout his rookie campaign, but I do know that executive VP David Griffin has put the right team around him to succeed.
Quite possibly the best defensive guard in the league, Jrue Holiday, is now the captain of the team. Anthony Davis was flipped for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart. Derrick Favors and J.J. Redick were signed in free agency, and Jaxson Hayes was drafted a few picks after Zion to fill out the rest of the roster. While this team won't compete for a championship or maybe even make the playoffs, they're going to be a lot of fun to watch and make it tough for teams to score.
The core is built to grow alongside each other and eventually compete. Lonzo Ball has been under a spotlight much like Zion for the last few years, and after a somewhat-disappointing start to his career, he's ready for a fresh chance in NOLA. There's no pressure for him to score and with his elite vision and defense, he'll flourish alongside Holiday and start silencing doubters. Brandon Ingram is somehow only 22, and after flipping a switch before suffering a blood clot late last season, I see no reason why he can't average 20+ points per game this season. I know, I'm really high on the former Lakers. With so much youth on the roster, New Orleans is going to push the pace, throw tons of lobs, and shut down your favorite players. The West is super deep this year, but who knows, maybe the Pelicans can compete for the eighth seed.