Monday, July 29, 2019

A Six-Pack of NBA Title Contenders

By Ross Lancaster

Have we caught our breath yet? After a month that changed the course of the NBA unlike any 30-day offseason period before it, I think I finally have.

As if the first six to eight hours of the so-called "moratorium" weren't hectic and surprising enough, we got two of the biggest bombshells in recent sports memory after most top free agents made their commitments: the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George team up with the Clippers and the Russell Westbrook trade to Houston.

Perhaps the one thing that remained the same through July is that there's no clear title favorite for 2020 before and after free agency. For the first time in five years, there isn't a clear favorite in either conference.

However, I'm reasonably certain that one of six teams will take home the title next June. Since these six aren't the six at the top of the current odds list, I'll also list the current odds, per 5Dimes (your book may differ). Teams are listed in order of those odds, not the order I think they'll finish in.

Los Angeles Clippers (+370)

The current Vegas favorite, and for good reason. There's two two-way superstars, shooting, depth, perimeter length, and plenty of defense.

Perhaps the one question mark I see is interior defense, where Montrezl Harrell can be somewhat mistake-prone despite his explosiveness and pick-and-roll prowess on the other end of the floor. But they also have Ivica Zubac, who can protect the rim efficiently enough.

Plus, let's face it. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard can switch and play post defense, because they're that good. If this is your biggest problem, you're doing alright.

Los Angeles Lakers (+500)

There are massive questions here with almost every player not named Anthony Davis or LeBron James. Are DeMarcus Cousins and Avery Bradley any good anymore? Can Quinn Cook put up those impressive per-36 numbers in an increased role? Is Kyle Kuzma ready to improve on defense? Can Kentavious Caldwell-Pope be efficient? What do Rajon Rondo and Jared Dudley have left in the tank?

We know LeBron is going to do LeBron things/put up LeBron numbers even though he doesn't really care about defense anymore, Davis is going to be a freak of nature, and Danny Green is going to be a consistent 3-and-D guy.

Truth be told, if those three stay healthy, the Lakers can take 45-48 wins to the bank. But the other players could push the ceiling up to real contention. I can see them finishing anywhere from first to sixth in the West after 82 games, but a title is absolutely a possibility as we evaluate them in the summer.

Milwaukee Bucks (+500)

It surprised me a bit to see as many people down on the Bucks a bit after they failed to re-sign Malcolm Brogdon. Yes, Brogdon will probably be as good as he was with Milwaukee in Indiana. But is he a player you should pay $20 million a year and go into the luxury tax for? I say no, and so did the Bucks.

In his stead, the Bucks signed some cheap shooting options and/or other veterans that will be great for the locker room. That shouldn't demonstrably change the team's title odds when you get down to it.

Maybe Milwaukee won't win 60 games again. But this team will make the Finals if Giannis Antetokounmpo can figure out the top defense he couldn't last year, and if Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton are the two-way players they were most of last year until that Toronto series.

Philadelphia 76ers (+950)

I know I said that there's no clear favorite in either conference. But it will be a surprise if either Philly or Milwaukee doesn't win the East. Boston and Toronto won't have their best player from last year; Indiana will be without their's for awhile and has a big man logjam in the starting lineup; and it feels like a stretch for Brooklyn to reach 50+ wins without Kevin Durant.

In a normal year, Al Horford teaming up with Joel Embiid might have been the surprise of free agency. And I have to admit to thinking, "that ain't gonna work" when it first broke. But as long as each player can find the right fit when on the floor together offensively, I love it for the Sixers.

That's because a lineup of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Horford, and Embiid is going to be an absolute defensive monster in crunch time. But, outside of Mike Scott, I'm not sure where good depth is coming from on this team. Maybe that won't matter with how Brett Brown staggers minutes. And I'm now into "believe it when I see it" mode on Simmons ever picking up a serviceable jumper.

The Sixers can absolutely win the title because they have the best starting five on paper. I see Milwaukee as the stronger team in the East today, however.

Utah Jazz (+1200)

I feel there's been a sort of deja vu with the last three Utah teams. Start the season slow and/or with several injuries, be fantastic after the all-star break, play great defense ... and then ultimately get washed away by Golden State or Houston in four or five games in early playoff rounds.

The time for solid, 45- to 50-win seasons is over in Salt Lake City and it's time to compete for the crown. Mike Conley is an amazing fit at point guard, and Bojan Bogdanovic gives the Jazz a superb defense-stretching option. New signings Ed Davis and Jeff Green will undoubtedly provide solid veteran contributions off the bench. And it wouldn't be too surprising to see Emmanuel Mudiay become a solid player within Utah's refined offense.

Denver Nuggets (+1525)

Complete team continuity from one year to the next is ... not something we can typically talk about in today's NBA. Hell, it's almost impossible to do with the way the CBA is structured now. But, the Nuggets have done it, returning every one of their 10 best players from last year, and add the underrated Jerami Grant and 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter, Jr.

The Nuggets were a couple minutes away from being in the West Finals with a pretty young core last year, so with almost every team in upheaval around them in the conference, there are many reasons to believe that the West playoffs can go through Pepsi Center next spring.

One thing to watch, however, is that the Nuggets went from being the very worst in the league at 3-point percentage defense in 2018 to being the very best in 2019. Yes, some of that was scheme and young players closing out on shooters better, but regression to some semblance of a mean might be inevitable. In a league where all-time highs in threes attempted per team per game have been set each of the past eight seasons, just a small correction there could have consequences to the win total.

Teams Not Mentioned

Houston Rockets (+750)
Golden State Warriors (+1200)
Portland Trail Blazers (+3050)

The odds imply that the James Harden/Russell Westbrook Rockets are somehow fourth-favorites for the championship and have about a 12% chance of taking the crown in a year where you could make at least a marginal argument for up to 10 teams. While there's some dumb public money involved here, I can't see that for the life of me.

For starters, Westbrook for Chris Paul makes Houston worse on defense. Then, Westbrook's poor shooting is going to seriously hamstring the Rockets' desired playing style of putting up 50+ threes every night. And the assurances of Harden and Westbrook saying, "we know how to play together" fall on deaf ears. The NBA of 2012 (when Harden and Russ were last teammates) was, in many ways, a different NBA altogether, and certainly a different James Harden as a player.

Having said all of that, Westbrook will make the Rockets much better in transition. That's not enough to improve the Rockets to a real title chance unless Daryl Morey and Mike D'Antoni drastically change their basketball philosophies.

Dumb public money also seems to be why Golden State has lower title odds than Denver. The backcourt fit of Steph Curry and D'Angelo Russell is curious at best. Perhaps if Klay Thompson's rehab goes absolutely perfectly, Russell could then be moved before the trade deadline in February. But you have to consider that because of the sign-and-trade to get D-Lo, the Warriors can't take additional salary on in any potential trade sending him out.

The hardest exclusion from this column was Portland, who in theory shouldn't look much different from last year, albeit without Jusuf Nurkic for half or more of the regular season. But title contention will rely on Hassan Whiteside and Rodney Hood each keeping their heads on straight, and one more bench piece emerging. I can't count on all that.

If you're looking at a prop bet for NBA champion, one of the Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, 76ers, Jazz, or Nuggets is your play in what should be as wide-open an NBA season as we've been able to enjoy in some time.

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