For NBA fans, the Christmas season officially started on July 6th
Forget about the NBA Summer League. Forget about Wimbledon. Forget about baseball, soccer and college football — the NBA just exploded.
One of my earliest memories is going to a theater to watch game 7 of the 1969 Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals with my dad on closed circuit television. Since then, we have shared a life watching tennis (his first love), football, basketball, baseball and the Olympics. 50 years later, I lost my number one sports buddy.
While I did a lot of grieving after he got sick and his quality of life deteriorated quickly over the last month of his life, it feels like an eternity has passed since his physical body finally shut down 13 days ago. Like every person, I miss my dad, thinking about all the things we might have done, and all the words left unspoken. When he needed me most, I was there for him, so I hope he ended his life in peace, surrounded by the love of his son, daughter-in-law and grandsons.
The first time I almost felt normal was when my wife and I joined our sons and their friends for a 4th of July barbecue. On July 6th, late Saturday morning, I looked at ESPN.com, and learned of all the crazy free agency deals made by the Clippers and Lakers since the night before. In my excitement, my first reaction was to yell across the house, “Hey Dad… you’re not going to believed what happened with Kawhi Leonard!” The realization he wasn’t there brought tears.
Beryl David Shapiro was a good-hearted guy who rooted for underdogs, like the Clippers. I used to chide him for cheering what I called “fool’s gold,” but they finally struck the mother lode. This NBA hot take is dedicated to you, Dad.
The NBA has changed radically in the last ten years.
If we’ve learned anything from the last ten years, it’s that the playoffs and the regular season are moving further and further apart.*
On offense, basketball is not exactly a crap shoot so much as it has become a game of Russian roulette. Find enough good shooters, and one of them will get hot enough to kill the other team.
The other thing title contenders have needed is an unstoppable small forward who can get a bucket in crunch time, and an elite defender who can slow down these players.
Finally, teams need players who can shoot open three pointers and defend multiple positions, as coaching staffs have figured out how to force valuable regular season players onto the bench during a seven-game playoff series.
7 of the last 8 championships have been won because opponents had nobody who could stop LeBron, KD, or Kawhi. The 8th time, the Warriors won the title because Andre Iguodala was able to “slow down” LeBron James (30.1 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 8.5 apg) and an injured Cavalier team while the Splash Brothers provided enough offense to win in six games.
This could be the most competitive season in NBA history.
With Durant injured, there are three unstoppable forces in the league (Giannis, Kawhi, LeBron) and a handful of teams with players who can slow those superstars down a little bit.
With the way the talent has spread out, I could see any one of nine teams win the title. Here are the odds for eight of those teams.
In the East, Milwaukee and Philadelphia look to be the class of the East this year, and the West could be insane, even to make the playoffs.
So many teams appear to have excellent crunch time units (just my guesses here, a lot could change), although some teams will have far more depth:
The battle for Los Angeles basketball supremacy may determine the NBA Title.
My picks are based on the same criteria I used in predicting that the Warriors and Raptors were the two teams most likely to win the 2019 NBA Title.
Here is a quick summary of the teams that have a chance to win the 2020 NBA title, based on how many boxes they check.
Tier 3 — the Longshots
#9 Denver (2 boxes checked)
Denver is one of those entertaining teams that is unlikely to win the West, but crazier things have happened. They’re bringing back almost every player from last year, so that continuity will help them break out of the gates fast and become a media darling in the first half of the season, just like they did last year.
Strengths: they maximize possessions with a low turnover rate and an elite rebounding percentage (check #1), and Paul Millsap, their defensive star, is big enough and strong enough to slow down those unstoppable wings (check #2). They’re young, have a lot of depth at the wing, including a good upgrade in Jeremi Grant who was traded from the Thunder for a first round draft pick.
Weaknesses: Aside from an incredible defensive effort early in the season, Denver was a league average defense. From December 1, 2018 until the end of the season, the Nuggets were #15 on defense. In the playoffs, they ended up 10th out of 16 teams.
Offensively, Denver was below average in 3-point shooting (#19), and didn’t get a lot of easy baskets in transition (#15). Worst of all, their go-to guy is Jamal Murray, a high volume, low efficiency scorer who was also terrible on defense. He’s not a max level player, but he just signed an insane $170 M extension that will limit this team for the next five years.
#8 Utah (1 box checked)
The Mike Conley trade has fans and the media going insane. No matter how good he was (or will be next season), there’s a reason he never made an All-Star game — he was simply not quite as good as Curry, Harden, Lillard, CP3, Westbrook, and Thompson. Unless Donovan Mitchell makes a massive jump in offensive efficiency, Utah still doesn’t have a consistent closer.
Strengths: they have an elite defense that is amplified by elite rebounding, and the defense of DPOY Rudy Gobert (check #1). The only reason I put them above Denver at #8 is because Conley will improve all their weaknesses a little, and he is more dependable in the clutch than Murray.
Weaknesses: Utah was a league average offensive team and that’s simply not enough. They were a little below average in 3-point percentage (#18), terrible in turnovers (#27), and their closer, Mitchell, was top 12 in usage, but less efficient than D’Angelo Russell (and that’s saying a lot): 1.48 ast/to, .493 eFG%, .537 TS%.
#7 Portland (2 boxes checked)
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are just slightly better than anyone on Denver or Utah. If Nurkic can return to play at the his old level, I think they are the best dark horse bet (+3500) to sneak into the Finals. The problem is, I wouldn’t bet on them to win the title unless they somehow get home court advantage in the playoffs (they were undefeated at home against every Eastern playoff team last season).
Strengths: Portland doesn’t turn the ball over often (#11) and they are an elite rebounding team — #5 overall %, #2 offensive % — so they don’t waste possessions (check #1). Portland was #8 in shooting three pointers at a high enough volume (check #2). They have two guards who can catch fire and close a game. It’s not quite as good as having the one unstoppable wing, but you’ve got to give them credit.
Weaknesses: Portland was a league average defensive team and they don’t have a player who can guard the unstoppable wings that dominate the league. that’s simply not enough. Portland is forced to depend on their outside shooting, which means they’re always going to be a step below the Splash Brothers. In addition, they play at a fairly slow pace, so they don’t get a lot of cheap points in transition (#24).
Tier 2—the Wild Cards
NOTE: The Warriors and Rockets all seem fragile for next year. There are so many factors that can change, and if things don’t go well early in the season, each team’s GM could make some big changes. There are too many questions to place them higher or lower. And no one has any idea how the 76ers are going to look offensively.
#6 Houston (2 boxes checked)
Houston has brought back their team from last year, which was worse than the team the year before. But there is trouble with the coaching staff. Jeff Bzdelik, the team’s defensive specialist, may have decided to permanently retire. When he led the team in 2017, Houston had a top 5 defense. When he retired at the beginning of last season, Houston spun out of control. Between the season opener and November 30th, Houston one of the worst defenses in the league (#27). Bzdelik came back on November 5, and finally righted the ship by December as they finished out the season with an above average defense (#11 in the regular season, #6 in the playoffs). Combine that with the owner turning Mike D’Antoni into a lame duck coach and this looks like a team walking on the razor’s edge. With continuity, they could start fast and stay relevant. But if the Rockets flame out on defense, the players might tune out their coach and be headed for a fiery explosion. (At least I hope so. I’m not a fan of the flop and roll.)
Strengths: Houston improved their shooting efficiency to become a top 10 three point shooting team (#9) that shoots at a high volume (check #1). The Rockets have two superstar guards in Harden and Paul. During the regular season, Harden draws 10+ free throws per game and becomes an unstoppable offensive force (check #2). Against elite teams in the playoffs, he can’t quite do it, but that still gives them enough to beat the Denvers and Utahs of the league.
Weaknesses: Houston is just about average to below average in everything they do (rebounding, turnovers, fast break points), and their defense might crater without Bzdelik. Or maybe they just righted the ship without him once they got rid of Carmelo Anthony. They don’t have a real offensive threat in the post to get easy buckets, and they don’t have a defensive stopper.
#5 Golden State (3 boxes checked)
I would normally have the Warriors higher, even without Durant, if Klay Thompson was healthy. But there are so many unknowns. Willie Cauley-Stein could be a huge steal, as he is a young, low-usage 7-footer who can rebound and run the floor. He is a huge upgrade over Andrew Bogut, Jordan Bell and the still recovering Boogie Cousins and may be a great fit for the Warriors’ pace and space game. They also made a brilliant move in getting an asset in the Russell sign and trade, a nice consolation prize for losing Kevin Durant.
The problem is that a Russell-Curry back court means that Stephen Curry is your best back court defender. This is a recipe for disaster, but one that should be rectified when Bob Meyers makes a deal before the trade deadline to get a more complementary two-way player.
There are the two huge questions for the Warriors this year, and the answers to those questions give them the widest variation in outcomes of any team in the league:
- Can Thompson get back to 100% by the time the playoffs begin?
- Who can the Warriors get in exchange for D’Angelo Russell?
If Thompson doesn’t return to 100% by the All-Star break, and they don’t get a wing on the Iguodala level, the Warriors will be a low seed and not get out of the first round.
If Thompson does get back to 100% by the All-Star game, and they don’t get an Iguodala-level wing, the Warriors will be at mid-level (3–6) playoff seed, and be a lock to win their first playoff series. Without a second player to guard either Kawhi or LeBron, maybe they could upset one of the top two teams in the West, but not both, preventing them from reaching a sixth straight NBA Final.
If Thompson does get back to 100% by the All-Star game, and they do get an Iguodala-level wing, the Warriors suddenly become the third best team in the NBA, and a threat to win it all. Unfortunately, they would have to beat the best two teams in the West just to get to the Finals. With a weak bench and the wear and tear required to win three straight tough series, they will be big underdogs, but they still have a shot at the title.
Strengths: The Warriors still have the greatest three point shooter in NBA history (check #1). They are an elite team in transition (check #2). And the slimmed down Draymond Green we saw in the playoffs can play at a level where he can guard an unstoppable superstar (check #3). Their championship experience earns them the right to still be considered an elite team.
Weaknesses: Without Durant and with injuries to Thompson and Iguodala, the Warriors’ defense slumped from elite to just pretty good. The absence of those players and the addition of Russell scares the hell out of me. Without Durant, they lose their unstoppable, high efficiency superstar, in spite of Curry’s brilliance. The Warriors’ bench looks to be even worse than it was last year, as they lost Iguodala, Cook and Cousins, while Livingston was terrible. That would leave them with a six player rotation, and only two players who are really threats from deep. Teams will keep ganging up on the Splash Brothers and dare the others to make shots, giving the Warriors a razor thin margin of error.
#4 Philadelphia (3 boxes checked)
Even though Philadelphia came so close to going to overtime in game 7 against Toronto, nothing about their crazy season and off season has changed my mind about them: their coach isn’t as good as the ones in Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston and maybe Brooklyn. Embiid shows no signs of getting in shape. And Ben Simmons shows no signs of even attempting a jump shot. If they could improve in any of these areas, that might be just enough to reach the NBA Finals and then have a puncher’s chance to win the title.
Strengths: On the other hand, they signed Al Horford and that is a huge key to unlock the East by eliminating the one team (Boston) that makes them poop their pants, while getting the best guy in the league at defending Giannis (check #1). With Horford, Embiid, Simmons, and Richardson, they will have an elite defense (check #2). They are excellent in transition (#7), so the defense will turn into some easy baskets (check #3).
Weaknesses: The loss of Redick, and Butler, and the trades that sent away Shamet, Covington and Saric have left Philadelphia with some big questions about their 3-point shooting. The 76ers have a potentially unstoppable superstar in Joel Embiid, but shoot themselves in the foot with dubious coaching and his bad conditioning and shot selection. They are also a bad team when it comes to turnovers (#25).
Tier 1 — the Contenders
#3 Milwaukee (4 boxes checked)
I can’t tell you how much I hated Milwaukee’s decision to avoid the luxury tax by letting Malcolm Brogdon go. They made a huge mistake in offering Middleton crazy max money, and resigning Brook Lopez to a big contract. Their priorities were completely backwards — Brogdon was their second best player in the playoffs, followed by Middleton. Bledsoe was unplayable, and every floor spacing shooter except Brogdon, Middleton and Hill was a disaster: Ilyasova (.300 3P%), Lopez (.293 3P%), Mirotic (.289 3P%), Bledsoe (.236 3P%). They are bringing back the same team minus Brogdon, and hoping Donte DiVincenzo can hit big shots and defend in the playoffs.
Strengths: They have a force of nature in MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (check #1). If he can become a league average outside shooter, it won’t matter if the rest of his teammates can’t shoot. They will still have an elite defense complemented by strong defensive rebounding (check #2). They are an elite transition team (#3), so the defense will turn into some easy baskets (check #3). And they have a very low turnover rate (#7).
Weaknesses: They shot poorly on three pointers and that isn’t going to change. If the outside shooting fails, teams have a road map to frustrate Giannis and make it hard for the Bucks to score enough points to keep pace with an elite team. Finally, in spite of their elite defense, they couldn’t stop Kawhi Leonard. Could they stop LeBron James? I think the answer may still be “no” and that’s why I dropped them to #3.
#2 Los Angeles Lakers (4 boxes checked)
Does it matter that the Lakers’ front office has been almost as much of a dumpster fire as it was with Jimmy Buss? Apparently not. Does it matter that Rob Pelinka is a back stabbing, political opportunist who isn’t trusted by most of the league’s GMs? Not if you give teams way more than the market value in every trade you make.
Does it matter that Kawhi Leonard’s delayed decision cost the Lakers the chance to sign another superstar, or at least some top free agents? Who cares? They got Anthony Davis, just like I predicted back in 2017.
(This was originally a response to a Bill Simmons column when the Ringer was on Medium.)
If the Lakers can get through the regular season in one piece, they will have a shot at winning it all. And it won’t matter if they don’t have home court advantage against the Clippers because every game will be played at Staples Center!
I’m glad I waited to publish this until after I heard of the Lakers signing Avery Bradley, because it made me think of the ways that player relationships and agent-player relationships can influence team building in the absence of a strong front office. Look at how this Lakers roster has been reshaped:
- Ties to LeBron James and/or Rich Paul: Anthony Davis, KCP, Kyle Kuzma (rumored to switch agents to Rich Paul), Rajon Rondo, and Talen Horten-Tucker
- Ties to Anthony Davis: Boogie Cousins
- Former Rob Pelinka clients: Avery Bradley and… (fingers crossed!)… Andre Iguodala. (NOTE: The Lakers have left one roster spot available.)
- Ties to Javale McGee: Quinn Cook
Aside from Danny Green, who was overpaid a little to sign with the team, possibly seven of the team’s nine crunch time players and ten of the fifteen total roster players have previous ties with current Lakers players, agents or a past relationship with Pelinka.
There seems to be some real planning by the Lakers this off season, unlike the trash fire created by Magic Johnson. It may not work, depending on how well players can regain some of their past form, but look at how these signings anticipate a heated playoff series with the Clippers:
- Boogie Cousins’ strength in the post could create major problems for the Clippers’ small ball center Montrezl Harrell. He was one of the big reasons the Clippers had the second best bench in the NBA last year, as he killed backup centers with his energy, rebounding and defense.
- Avery Bradley played for the Clippers last year, so he practiced every day for months against Lou Williams, the 6th Man of the Year, and the offensive engine for the team. If Bradley can guard Williams effectively, that neutralizes the Clippers biggest advantage on paper over the Lakers.
- If Andre Iguodala somehow ends up with the Lakers, just remember how well he defended Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs while battling injuries. The Lakers could stash him on the bench the entire year, letting him do rest and rehab, then have a huge defensive weapon to slow down the Clippers’ #1 option, allowing LeBron to guard the less dangerous spot up threat in Paul George.
Strengths: They have two unstoppable superstars (check #1). With the signing of Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Alex Caruso to complement the rim protection of Davis and Javale McGee, they could have a very good defense (check #2). They were an elite transition team (#1), so the defense will turn into some easy baskets (check #3). And they imported a bunch of above average three point shooters in Green (career .404 3P%), Cook (career .418 3P%), Daniels (career .400 3P%), and Dudley (career .392 3P%), which should get the team to at least league average (check #4). Boogie Cousins signing a minimum deal is a great addition if he can get closer to his old level. But there will be games where a big post presence is still valuable, giving the team more roster flexibility during the regular season.
Weaknesses: The Lakers have been consistently bad with turnovers, both with the ball and with the roster.The team might need a lot of time to come together, and put pressure on the team to catch up to secure a decent playoff spot. The Lakers are not built for the regular season. The poor defense of players like Rondo, Cook and Daniels will probably mean the bench will give up a lot of leads, forcing the stars to play extra minutes and increase the risk of injury. Finally, the Lakers don’t really have a Kawhi stopper (yet). LeBron might try to guard him in crunch time in a big game, but I think that time has passed.
#1 Los Angeles Clippers (5 boxes checked)
The Clippers pulled off the greatest trade in NBA history… since Toronto did it last year. They completely changed the balance of the league, getting two MVP-level candidates who are also two of the best three two-way players in the league who will suit up this season. Kawhi Leonard’s power play to get Paul George traded to the Clippers might make him the smartest player in the NBA.
Once again, Jerry West proved to be a genius at team building. Who cares if the Clippers were tampering all year?
Now this is How You Tamper!
The story of how two Los Angeles basketball teams seem to be headed in the opposite direction.
The Clippers look like the team to beat this year, based on the quality of their non-star players. Even if the duos of LeBron and Davis versus Kawhi and George even out, Lou Williams looks to be the great difference maker in crunch time (unless Avery Bradley regains his defensive prowess).
Strengths: They have the best player in world at the moment (check #1). We need to look at what Kawhi did in the playoffs this year, even when he seemed to be playing on one leg.
Leonard averaged 30.5 ppg, and 9.1 rpg, with 40 steals, with at least a .545 eFG%. Only one other player in history has ever done that in the playoffs… the guy in the locker room down the hall at Staples Center.
With the signing of Leonard, George, and Beverly, L.A. should have an elite defense (check #2). They were an elite transition team (#6), so the defense will turn into a lot of easy baskets (check #3). The Clippers were also the second best three point shooting team in the league (check #4). And they have two guys who can slow down the other team’s superstar (check #5).
The Clippers have excellent depth with an offensive machine in 6MOY Lou Williams, small ball center Montrezl Harrell (#3 in votes for the 6MOY award), and a host of solid 3-and-D guys like Green, Harkless and Chandler. Last year they had the #2 bench in the NBA, and they kept it intact. They basically turned Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander into Leonard and George. That is insane to consider.
If the Clippers go from having the #27 starters (-15.9 point differential) to just being league average (approximately +0.0 point differential) they could have a total team point differential of +13.7. That’s better than the Warriors teams that won 73 games and won the title in Kevin Durant’s first year.
Weaknesses: The Clippers only weaknesses are that they were a below average team in terms of turnovers (#19) and average in rebounding (#15). Their main weakness will be at center where they have little depth and will have trouble guarding dominant centers like Embiid, Jokic and Davis.
We’ve got a massive present already sitting under the tree, and we can’t open it for another five months.
As good as the Clippers look to be on paper, this still feels like the most wide open title chase since Michael Jordan retired to play baseball and the league was thrown into chaos. The top 5 teams have undergone changes that range from damaging or unpredictable (Golden State, Milwaukee and Philadelphia) to transformational (Lakers and Clippers). And if Kevin Durant comes back successfully from his Achilles’ tendon injury, there will be a top 6 of teams with a strong chance to win a title the following year.
Besides those top teams, there are dark horses who could make some noise if everything breaks right, and a number of young rebuilding teams that have legitimate hope in making the playoffs in the near future.
I’m already excited about next season, though sad that I won’t be able to share the craziness with my dad. As the 4th of July weekend came to an end, I poured out one more drink in his honor. Now, the long count down begins.
*Remember the 2011 Bulls? Remember the 2014 Indiana Pacers? Remember the 2015 Hawks? Remember the 2018 Raptors? They were all #1 seeds in the playoffs. They won a combined THREE games when their season ended at the hands of LeBron James and company. At least the 2018 Rockets took the Warriors to seven games.
A quick review of the teams that won championships:
2011 — the Mavs went on a hot streak, shooting out of their minds on three pointers, allowing them to overcome multiple 4th quarter double digit deficits in three straight playoff series. At the time, I thought they had broken the sport and turned basketball into a crap shoot.
2012 — the Heat won two close games against the Thunder, and turned it into a 4–1 rout on the strength of Battier’s impossible shooting for the series (.612 3P%) and Miller hitting 7 of 8 in the title clinching game. In the crucial second game, Battier hit a key three pointer while falling on his butt.
2013 — Ray Allen saves the Heat on the greatest clutch three point shot in history.
2014 — Danny Green earns $70,000,000.00 in future contracts by making 9 of 17 three pointers, helping the Spurs takes a 3–1 lead on the Heat, who then folded. Kawhi Leonard guards — and outplays LeBron James.
2015 — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson basically reinvent basketball percentages. What used to be a one-in-a-generation fluke becomes the new rule of thumb. Andre Iguodala guards, slowing down a superhuman LeBron James enough to win the Finals MVP.
2016 — LeBron James and Kyrie Irving combine to make 14 of 26 three pointers to win games 5 and 6 and tie the series. They finally win a title for Cleveland as LeBron makes the signature play of the Finals on one end, blocking Iguodala’s breakaway layup, and Kyrie hits a game winning 25-foot three pointer on the other end. The Warriors miss 9 out of 10 three pointers in the 4th quarter.
2017–2018 — Kevin Durant not only guards and outplays LeBron James, he hits game winning three pointers.
2019 — Kawhi Leonard is the dominant player, the Warriors are decimated by injuries, and it still might not have mattered without Fred VanVleet making 13 of 27 three pointers in the last four games of the Finals, and 17 of 25 three pointers in the last three games of the Conference Finals.
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