Now that the dust has more or less fully settled on NBA free agency — well, we think it has more or less fully settled — it’s time to take stock of what teams will enter the 2019-20 season competing for the championship.
Kawhi Leonard’s decision to spurn the LA Lakers means that we don’t have a singular superteam that will, like the Warriors the past three seasons, go into the campaign the overwhelming favorite. There is some semblance of championship parity.
How deep does that parity go? It depends on the conference. In the East, it’s hard to imagine any but two teams making the NBA Finals barring further trades or major injuries. The West is more uncertain, with five legit contenders for the crown and a couple more teams knocking on the door. This takes into account the trade sending Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. The Thunder were out as a contender once Paul George decamped for L.A.; swapping CP3 for Westbrook doesn’t actually change the Rockets’ fate all that much, in my estimation.
Here’s our list of seven teams with the best shots at winning the 2019-20 NBA championship, ranked. But first, we start with teams just missing the cut.
Honorable Mentions, Dismissed in One Sentence Each
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers are quite good and might be better after a couple of roster tweaks, but lack the star punch of any of the other teams on this list after Damian Lillard (no offense to C.J. McCollum).
Denver Nuggets: Don’t hate me, Colorado, but the Nuggets feel like one of those teams that overachieves and then falls slightly back the next season after a quiet offseason spent believing its own hype.
Boston Celtics: Color me concerned about the Celtics’ frontcourt!
Toronto Raptors: The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors could absolutely stay in the mix — never count out Masai Ujiri — but it’s hard to imagine the players keeping the focus necessary to make a deep playoff run without a singular superstar like Kawhi.
Atlanta Hawks: Give it two more years.
UPDATED on July 12 after the Westbrook trade
The Rockets sat out the first week and a half of the NBA offseason before signing off on maybe the most shocking trade of the summer: Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul and picks. Houston goes from a James Harden co-star who drives everyone crazy with his demanding manner to a James Harden co-star who will drive everyone crazy with his shot selection.
Let’s be real: no one has any idea whatsoever how this will work. We don’t know whether Westbrook’s supremely inefficient 2018-19 performance was a sign of age or injury or a fluke. We don’t know just how friendly the dual stars will be now that they have to play together again. We don’t know how Mike D’Antoni, himself in a precarious situation, will handle the duo or the roster as a whole. We don’t know whether Daryl Morey has another move coming down the road.
All I know is that this move doesn’t inspire more confidence in the Rockets. But I am a whole lot more interested in watching them work through it.
6. Utah Jazz
The Jazz were the designer title contender before Kawhi broke the NBA. Utah still belongs in the conversation until we see just how well the Lakers and Clippers work in practice. The Jazz have a stellar defense, albeit damaged a little from the losses of Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors. Now Utah has a second playmaker alongside Donovan Mitchell in Mike Conley. (Notice that we didn’t mention the loss of Ricky Rubio impacting the defense: Conley is as excellent a defender.)
The Jazz are going to be really good on both ends (almost certainly top-10, maybe better) and that’s a recipe for an awesome record and a deep playoff run. (If they can avoid the Rockets in the early rounds. That’s just a horrific match-up.)
The Bucks had the best record in the NBA last season and brought back everyone of importance save for Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. Milwaukee will again have a top defense and Giannis Antetokounmpo should remain an MVP frontrunner. You can’t expect the Bucks to be better in the regular season. The question is whether Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Mike Budenholzer figure out how to make it work a little more efficiently in the playoffs.
The good news is that with Kyrie Irving and Al Horford out of Boston and Kawhi out of Toronto, there are only two teams who look like legitimate threats to make the NBA Finals out of the East at this point, assuming that Kevin Durant doesn’t play in 2019-20. No offense to the Celtics, Raptors, or Pacers, who feel like the next tier down.
Here’s that other East team with a real path to the Finals. What a 12 months for the Sixers! Now they have the most intriguing line-up in the East outside of Brooklyn with the big three of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris plus sage Al Horford and electric Josh Richardson. The bench remains shallow, the Jimmy Butler security blanket is gone, and the team’s best shooter (J.J. Redick) is gone.
The line-up is intriguing, and the biggest question maybe in the entire league is whether Simmons can be a legit star level player in the NBA playoffs. As has been discussed at length, for long stretches of the 2019 playoffs, Butler was essentially the team’s point guard. Butler’s gone now. It’s Simmons or bust.
This team came a couple of crazy Kawhi Leonard game-winners from beating the eventual NBA champion. That matters. They are a prime contender to follow it up and go further. What a story that would be.
3. Golden State Warriors
This column will be bleating this message until the Warriors start the season, like, 20-3 and everyone is forced to reckon with reality.
Do Not Forget About Stephen Curry And The Golden State Warriors. Do Not Forget About Stephen Curry And The Golden State Warriors. Do Not Forget About Stephen Curry And The Golden State Warriors.
Klay Thompson will be out for a while with an injury, and the team’s depth has taken a few hits due to the decision to pick up D’Angelo Russell in the Durant exit. But Russell is pretty good. Stephen Curry is a top-3 preseason MVP candidate (with Giannis and James Harden — Kawhi and Anthony Davis will be up there, too). Draymond Green was stupendous toward the end of the regular season and through the playoffs. This team again has something to prove. When that’s the case, the Warriors usually prove it.
Do Not Forget About Stephen Curry And The Golden State Warriors.
2. LA Lakers
The Lakers missed out on Kawhi, and the wait for him took LA out of the running for several other free agents. And the Lakers were pretty mediocre last season. However, adding Anthony Davis is a huge deal and you can’t sleep on the infusions of Danny Green and DeMarcus Cousins.
The latter might be the most important non-max signing of the summer, depending on whether Boogie accepts his role and comes back from injuries suffered in the NBA playoffs. For spells last season, Cousins looked like himself. Every bit of that he can give the Lakers in the regular season and in the playoffs will matter.
LeBron James is neck and neck with Kawhi as the best healthy playoff performer in the NBA (Kevin Durant belongs in that category, if he were playing next season). Even if the Lakers aren’t a No. 1 seed due to load management for LeBron and some adjustment period to find the right lineups and balance, everyone has to be afraid of LeBron’s crew in the playoffs.
1. LA Clippers
When the Clippers pulled off the LA coup in the wake of the earthquakes early Saturday morning, it immediately felt as though we had a new presumptive NBA champion. A couple days later, in the clarity of time spent thinking about our new basketball landscape ... yep, that’s still the case. The Kawhi Leonard-Paul George combo is a brilliant one-two punch on both ends. It’s beautifully interchangeable and should allow both to rest during the season.
And that duo is being added to a team that made the NBA playoffs in the West last season, albeit replacing Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Incredible.
Given Kawhi’s historic playoff run and PG-13’s top-3 MVP finish last season, this Clippers team looks incredibly imposing and it’s difficult to imagine what could derail them outside of major injury or some other team going on an absolute tear at the right time. I’m excited for every prospective playoff match-up in the West right now. The Clippers are giving us not just parity by keeping Kawhi away from the Lakers. The Clippers are giving us life!