This NBA season will feature new contenders

By MATTHEW RITCHIE | October 24, 2019

A tumultuous summer in the NBA has come to an end, framed by a slew of paradigm shifting free agent signings and a full-blown international incident involving Chinese business relations and the ongoing Hong Kong protests. 

Gone is the intrigue and over analyzation of workout videos on Twitter. 

We no longer have to listen to ridiculous hot takes and overreactions of the preseason, where NBA players’ performances against the Shanghai Sharks and Melbourne United are extrapolated into predictions for their entire season.

Real basketball finally arrived Tuesday night, with the reigning champion Toronto Raptors defeating the New Orleans Pelicans 130-122 in overtime, and the Los Angeles Clippers making a statement win, defeating the cross-town Lakers by a score of 112-102. 

In fact, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Clippers have the best chance of making the Finals out of the Western Conference (27 percent), and the second best chance to win the whole damn thing (16 percent). 

Everything went according to plan for the Clippers, who seamlessly inserted Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard into their existing cohesive unit. Their defensive mettle frustrated the Lakers, who shot only 44 percent from the field. 

Leonard took the wheel on offense and dropped 30 points, adding six rebounds and five assists as well. His solo production meshes perfectly with the balanced pick and roll offense ran by bench stars Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who scored 21 and 17 points, respectively.

The Clippers looked good. Plain and simple. They worked well together defensively, as they have in the past couple of years. And once newly acquired Paul George is fully healthy they can only improve on both sides of the ball.

On the Laker side, it was the first meaningful appearance for their new superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who was acquired in a trade that sent away the young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart. On top of that, it was head coach Frank Vogel’s first time running the team in a game that mattered.

From the outset, the objective seemed to be to run their offense through Davis, a transcendent scorer in the post. 

The majority of possessions started with an entry pass to Davis and ended with a shot attempt by him. He put up a team high 21 shots, only converting eight of them, and finished with 25 points. 

James was unusually inefficient, putting up 18 points while shooting 36 percent from the field. 

But this was par the course for season openers with new teams. In four of the last six season openers, James has failed to score 20 points, which indicates that he won’t play like this for the entire season.

The worry is that the even with the addition of Davis, this Lakers team just is not good enough as a whole. 

Their performance on Tuesday was reminiscent of last year’s Lakers team, or even the Pelicans teams Davis was on: one or two central stars and a bunch of other guys running around. 

The only other player to score double digits was Danny Green, who was on fire from behind the arc, hitting seven of nine three pointers. That does not spell well for the Lakers’ success.

The Western Conference could be wide open for the taking this season with the closing of the Golden State Warriors’ title window. 

It was a summer of losing for Golden State: they lost Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to free agency; they lost the NBA Finals in five games; and they lost Klay Thompson to a torn ACL. 

They’re now left with a young locker room and only Steph Curry to lead them back to glory, or at least to the playoffs. 

They just don’t have enough depth to succeed this season.

It might be the year for teams like the Denver Nuggets or the Houston Rockets to finally break the glass ceiling. 

The Nuggets did nothing but add to an already talented roster spearheaded by Nikola Jokic, one of the best two centers in the entire League, and the 22-year old Jamal Murray, whose only question is his ability to be consistent. 

Pair the uber-talented duo with the experience of Paul Millsap, the versatility of defensive specialist Jerami Grant and the offensive potential of a “healthy” Michael Porter Jr., the window of success may be wide open for Denver.

The Rockets retooled via a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder and now have the most statistically dominant duo of all time in the form of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. 

Westbrook, who has averaged a triple double for the last three seasons, has gone on record saying that he relishes the opportunity to play with Harden, who posted a ridiculous line of 36.1 points per game, 7.5 assists per game and 6.6 rebounds per game. 

The biggest question is how will the pair coexist as ball-dominant guards, with both ranking in the top 10 for usage percentage last season. 

In the Eastern Conference, there is a power vacuum left with Kawhi’s exodus to the West. That isn’t to say that the Raptors will be a bad team by any stretch of the imagination. 

They had a gritty win on Tuesday, pulling out the victory in overtime. It was a statement game for newly paid Pascal Siakam and point guard Fred VanVleet, who both scored 34 points in the win. With Kawhi gone and a solid veteran core around them, the duo has the chance to become the next star pairing in the conference. 

The only other teams with a real shot at reaching the Finals are the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Bucks hold an advantage over the rest of the conference in the form of League MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

While they lost 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to free agency (he signed an $85 million deal with the Indiana Pacers), they retained the majority of their core and replaced Brogdon with 3-and-D specialist Wesley Matthews, looking more than prepared to take control of the conference. 

Not to be outdone, the Sixers, who traded away Jimmy Butler in exchange for Josh Richardson, also landed veteran paint presence Al Horford to go along with Joel Embiid. They stabilized their bench, returning key contributors like Mike Scott and James Ennis, and locked in Tobias Harris for a five-year deal. 

On top of all that, Ben Simmons seems to have developed a serviceable jump shot. This propels him into the conversation for best player in the conference. 

His ability as a passer and scorer was already top tier, and now that he has developed the willingness to shoot, it opens up a realm of possibilities for the Sixers. 

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