On July 6, 2016, Kevin Durant effectively killed parity in the NBA. Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder after almost a decade to join the Golden State Warriors, who were coming off of the best regular season in league history.
Durant joined fellow all-stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to create one of the most dominant teams in NBA history. The Warriors waltzed to the NBA Championship in 2017 and 2018, and it looked like there was no end to their dominance in sight.
However, with both Durant and Thompson going down with serious injuries in the Finals, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took down the Warriors in 2019. In the ensuing offseason, Durant left for the Brooklyn Nets. Long-time sixth man Andre Iguodala is also gone, and Thompson’s injury will keep him out for most of this season. It certainly seems like the era of Warriors dominance is over.
Like the prodigal son, parity in the NBA is back. The 2019-20 season is the first time in a long time where it seems like there is no true favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Let’s look at some of the teams that could challenge for the first championship in the post-Warriors NBA.
Los Angeles Clippers
After taking down one dynasty, Kawhi Leonard packed his bags and headed to LA to try to start a new one with fellow superstar Paul George. The Clippers seem to be the most common pick to be this season’s champion, and for good reason. George and Leonard are one of the more versatile dynamic duos the NBA has ever seen; both players are elite on both sides of the ball. George and Leonard also have an elite supporting cast around them.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell form a terrifying pick-and-roll combo coming off the bench, shown by the fact that the duo finished first and second for Sixth Man of the Year last season. The rest of the roster is made up of perfect complementary role players like Patrick Beverly, Maurice Harkless, JaMychal Green, Landry Shamet and Rodney MacGruder.
The only question for the Clippers is health. Paul George is missing the beginning of the season with a shoulder injury, and Kawhi Leonard is likely to miss 10 plus games nursing the chronic leg issues he has suffered since his time in San Antonio. If the Clippers can enter the playoffs with their superstar forwards healthy, they will likely be the favorites for the NBA championship.
Philadelphia’s defense is absolutely terrifying. Replacing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick with Al Horford and Josh Richardson might hurt the offense, but it makes the Sixers defense one of the most versatile defenses of all time. Philly has a few concerns on offense. With Jimmy Butler gone, they don’t have an elite isolation scorer on the perimeter to rely on in crunch time. Ben Simmons’ lack of an outside shot has and will continue to be exploited during the playoffs, clogging the spacing for the entire team. While those are legitimate concerns, do they really matter if no one can score on you?
Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That’s all you need to say when talking about the Lakers this season. Davis and James form another superstar duo that will cause havoc around the league, arguably more so than Leonard and George. The issue with the Lakers will be everyone not named LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Kyle Kuzma is being cast as the third option on this team, and I think he will have to take a huge leap to live up to that billing. The rest of the supporting cast might look alright if you squint hard enough, but a lot is going to have to go right for the Lakers to reach their potential.
As we speak, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the NBA. The Bucks improved from 44 wins two seasons ago to 60 wins, and the league’s best record, last season. They always had the talent, and head coach Mike Budenholzer was able to unleash it last season. Most of all, however, Giannis went nuclear. If Antetokounmpo gets better again this season, which he has every year of his career, the Bucks have a very real chance at a championship this year.
The current Houston Rockets are a lot like the Utah Jazz in the late 90s – a historically great team that just happened to get beaten by a historically greater team year after year. Whether it was an injury to Chris Paul, or a historically bad shooting performance in the fourth quarter of game seven, the second-best team of the Durant-Warriors era could never quite get over the hump. The Rockets aren’t quite the same team they were in 2018, when they nearly took down the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Chris Paul has made way for Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets lack serious depth on the wings. The fit between James Harden and Westbrook isn’t quite as seamless as the one between Harden and Paul. However, if it works, the Rockets are a team that no one will want to see in the playoffs.
Longshot Contenders: Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets
Right now, you could convince me that any of those five teams should be the front-runner to start the season. There’s even a reasonable argument for three or four other teams that I see as sitting just outside of contention right now. All I know is that this NBA season will be one to remember, and I certainly won’t be missing one second of it.
Photo of Golden State Warriors celebrating 2017 championship win courtesy of Flickr