The NBA season is on the horizon, with the regular season tip-off scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 22 between the Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Pelicans. Both aforementioned franchises have faced major changes in the offseason, with the defending league champions losing their star in small forward Kawhi Leonard, who left for the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency. New Orleans no longer boasts All-Star center Anthony Davis, who left for the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, but they now hold the future of the NBA in small forward Zion Williamson. With such balance in the league, since the defeat and disbanding of the Golden State Warriors at the hands of Leonard and the Raptors, speculation on who will represent both conferences in the Finals will be had daily.
Following the preseason, there were four undefeated teams. Granted, the preseason doesn’t give direct insight as to the caliber at which players will compete during the regular season, but it is a crucial time to see the chemistry between free agents, rookies, and veterans on each team throughout the league. There were four undefeated teams following the preseason, with two in the West and two in the East; the Denver Nuggets (5-0) and the New Orleans Pelicans (4-0), and the Milwaukee Bucks (5-0) and the Boston Celtics (4-0).
On the Eastern Conference side, the Bucks and Celtics, the former losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Raptors last season, look to be the juggernauts in their conference once more. Reigning league MVP, Buck’s point guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, continues to dominate on the floor with his athleticism and smarts, elevating the roster around him for another heavily anticipated season. The expectation in Milwaukee, now that Leonard is in the Western Conference, is finals or bust. With Boston, their season hinges on the development of chemistry between point guard Kemba Walker and shooting guard Jayson Tatum, in addition to their collaboration with versatile guard Marcus Smart. This should pace this team to a strong playoff seed, but may not be enough to get past Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.
For the teams with losses in the preseason, the Philadelphia 76ers look to be the strongest contender against Milwaukee. With the additions of shooting guard Jason Richardson and center Al Horford in free agency, in addition to the jettisoning of small forward Jimmy Butler, this group looks prime for playoff contests. Most importantly to note is the development of a three-point shot by 76ers’ point guard Ben Simmons. Should this large point guard, standing at 6 foot, 10 inches, learn to shoot three and deep consistently with the best guards in the league, the NBA will need to watch out. Fortunately, a single, open look three-pointer doesn’t indicate Simmons will be lighting up the buzzer from beyond the arc every game. Simmons’ profound passing prowess should similarly aid him, in a 76ers attack likely featuring many big men on the floor at once, leading to some easy alley-oops.
On the Western Conference side, the Denver Nuggets well-rounded roster, which helped them boast the best record in the West last season, returns with more experience under their belts and a chip on their shoulder following their playoff exit to the Damian Lillard led Portland Trail Blazers. Power forward Nikola Jokic may be one of the best handling big men in the history of the game alongside Simmons, as he time and again sets up his teammates with abnormal, head-scratching passes. The Nuggets don’t have “the man” like the Bucks do in Antetokounmpo or the Clippers do in Leonard, but their well-rounded roster, strong chemistry and deep bench should allow them to compete with any team in the West, similar to the San Antonio Spurs’ teams of the 2000s. New Orleans, now with a new face of the franchise in first overall pick Williamson, stand to be happy with any performance they get out of their roster. Considering the king’s ransom they received in exchange for Davis with the Lakers, this year will be about developing chemistry between Williamson and his new teammates, including point guard Lonzo Ball. With the Western Conference being tougher than ever, this team may find itself in the ninth or tenth seed, watching the playoffs from home come next summer.
Other than those two teams, many are excited to see how teams like the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and Warriors will do in the West. The Warriors have been a dominant team in the West for the past five years. But as previously mentioned, following their loss to the Raptors in the past NBA Finals, the once touted super team began to disband; All-Star small forward Kevin Durant left in free agency, small forward Andre Iguodala was traded away to increase cap space, and a torn Achilles tendon will be sidelining All-Star shooting guard Klay Thompson until the end of the regular season. The one constant will be one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, point guard Steph Curry. Curry won’t be alone either, as the Warriors picked up free agent guard D’Angelo Russell from the Brooklyn Nets in the offseason. If Russell and Curry can click like Thompson and Curry, then the league will be on its heels once again in awe of the Warriors’ backcourt.
The Houston Rockets sport quite the roster, with two former MVPs in guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who have previous experience playing together, which they hope will carry them through the rough West. Harden and Westbrook have both been handed losses by the Warriors in the playoffs for the past half-decade, and with their talent combined, they might be able to get over the hump against the Durant-less Warriors. Like many of the notable teams, the Lakers and Clippers both have power duos like the Rockets. These duos being forward Lebron James and Davis for the Lakers, and Leonard and forward Paul George for the Clippers. It’s been quite some time since the NBA saw a collection of stars in Los Angeles quite like this, so these four have quite the shoes to fill, and if neither brings home the championship, the city will be buzzing about basketball for years to come.
With so many teams boasting a powerful duo, including several not listed above, look for no teams to be resting and taking it easy, this whole season will be a fight right down to the final buzzer.