The NBA season returns Tuesday night to much anticipation, since, for the first time in a while, the league truly feels wide open for a variety of contenders. There is no one single dominant Big Three, but rather several strong two-star duos. While a host of teams have viable championship aspirations, let’s take a look at three in particular that seem to be a cut above the rest.
On paper, the Los Angeles Clippers look like the best team in the NBA. Between Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they have the best two-way wings, and we’ve already seen how Leonard can take over a team and lead a group to the championship. Over 24 playoff games last season for the Toronto Raptors, he averaged 30.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. A third NBA Finals MVP would secure Leonard’s place among the all-time greats.
Teams will struggle to score against the Clippers in general, as the combination of Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley will make it tough for guards to find openings.
Los Angeles has plenty of depth to back up its two stars. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrel form a devastating second-unit pair, and Landry Shamet is the perfect roleplayer on a championship team with his three-point shooting prowess.
The Clippers have to be wary of injuries, though. George will miss at least the first 10 games of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Leonard seems fine, but the health of his legs will be watched closely by fans throughout the season. He only played nine games in the 2017-18 NBA season and had a noticeable limp throughout the later rounds of the playoffs last year.
Another concern is ball-handling: Los Angeles does not have a clear playmaker to set up teammates. The Clippers will most likely pursue options in the buyout market midseason, but spacing on the court could become an issue early on. Still, they boast star power, depth and terrific defense — right now, they are the favorites to win the championship.
Next we have the Los Angeles Lakers. Any team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is sure to contend for a championship. Pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop plays run by the two stars will prove almost impossible for opposing defenses to stop consistently. James has never played with a big man as talented as Davis, and he can conserve his energy for the playoffs, deferring to Davis for stretches. The Lakers also have other pieces who can offer large contributions in a championship chase. Kyle Kuzma can score in bunches with his elusive moves to the basket and Danny Green is a classic 3-and-D player who has won two rings.
Still, depth could become an issue for the Lakers. Time will tell if the front office has put enough pieces around James and Davis. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, both question marks at this point, will see playing time at center, with Los Angeles hoping that Howard can resurrect his career.
They, like the Clippers, also don’t have many playmakers. LeBron will start the season at “point guard,” and Rajon Rondo is the only other player known for his passing on the roster. Rondo will have to step up his defense significantly if he wants to have an important role. The Lakers’ season could come down to whether those secondary veterans — Rondo, McGee, Howard and Avery Bradley — can produce enough.
Moving to the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers stand out. While the rest of the league has embraced small ball, Philly has gone in the opposite direction, putting together an enormous starting lineup. Between Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid, no one stands shorter than 6 feet 6 inches (and four out of the five are 6 feet 9 inches or taller). The defense might emerge as the league’s best — opposing teams will have little space in which to operate among all these towering defenders. The addition of Horford should help Embiid most of all, since he won’t have to face Horford’s defense in the postseason anymore. The 33-year-old will also alleviate some of the punishment Embiid takes in the paint over the course of the season. The Sixers have some solid younger players who should be able to contribute as well; Zhaire Smith boasts impressive athleticism and Matisse Thybulle will generate plenty of steals on defense.
But does Philadelphia have enough shooting? The Sixers will miss JJ Redick, and no one besides backup Mike Scott currently offers well above-average accuracy from the three-point range (unless Harris recovers his form from earlier last year). Simmons has been working on a shot throughout the offseason, but it remains to be seen whether his jumper will become an actual feature of his offense during real games. If he still can’t shoot, expect inconsistent playoff performances from him yet again. Still, the Sixers will look to play a brand of bully ball, and with little competition in the East besides the Milwaukee Bucks, they should reach the Finals.
Of course, several other teams are right in the championship hunt, too. The Bucks were two wins away from the Finals last year, and Giannis Antetokounmpo could take his game to another level and dominate the playoffs. The Houston Rockets will pair James Harden with Russell Westbrook, and while the fit could seem a bit rough at first, team chemistry should be much improved this year. The Rockets have won 118 games combined over the last two seasons and should earn a high seed again. And don’t forget about the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry will have to take over in the regular season, but no one will want to face them in the playoffs once Klay Thompson comes back.
With no one overpowering team, any contender has a real chance at the title.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.