The Clippers will get to see the fruit of their labor first. They enter the 2019-20 season as championship favorites after pairing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, bringing two of the NBA's best two-way players into the fold of a deep, veteran-laden team led by one of the game's best coaches (Doc Rivers).
The Brooklyn Nets will probably have to wait a year to see if their superstar pairing works out. Kevin Durant is expected to miss the entire season after suffering a ruptured Achilles during last year's Finals. No one's sure what Durant will look like when he returns, with the Achilles ranking as arguably the most catastrophic injury a basketball player can suffer.
Until Durant's return, it'll be up to Kyrie Irving to hold down the fort. Irving is coming off the most tumultuous season of his career, which saw him reach the height of individual greatness and a nadir in terms of his reputation around the league. His fallout with Boston Celtics teammates quickly changed a guarantee he'd return last October to a divorce neither side could sign the papers on quick enough.
Irving and Durant then conspired to take over New York City—just not from the locale everyone expected. The Nets landed both stars, along with DeAndre Jordan, while the Knicks were left in the lurch to hang out near the bottom of the standings.
With the NBA releasing its schedule Monday, let's take a look at some of the biggest games on the slate and break down the Nets' chances this season.
2019-20 Season Details
Season Opener: vs. Timberwolves (Oct. 23)
Championship Odds: +3000 (Caesars)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
At Boston Celtics (Nov. 27)
A lot of players changed teams this offseason. No player will get a chillier reception in his return to Boston than Irving.
Celtics fans, in many cases rightfully, blame Irving for the dissolution of what some thought was a title team last season. The All-Star point guard was moody, feuded with teammates, walked back a promise to return and exited with some of the strangest play of his career during Boston's second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Celtics replaced Irving with an objectively worse player in every respect (Kemba Walker), and there were few who were sad to see him go. Some saw it as an addition-by-subtraction situation and were much more disappointed in Al Horford's departure for Philadelphia.
So suffice it to say Irving will struggle to hear a scant cheer at any point in his return. The level of vitriol will only be rivaled by Anthony Davis' first return to New Orleans, but Pelicans fans got most of that out of their system when he was still on the team at the end of last season.
As for the basketball matchup, this is a game between two teams that could easily meet in the first round of the playoffs. They could find themselves at the 4-5 or 3-6 lines in the East depending on how their respective campaigns go, and a playoff-starved Walker is going to want to prove himself his first time out against Irving.
At New York Knicks (Nov. 24)
For the first time since Brooklyn's ill-fated Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, it feels like the Nets have dented the Knicks' hold on New York basketball. The Knicks spent a large portion of last season convinced they were getting Durant and then traded Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas in order to open up a second max slot, presumably for Irving.
Then Knicks fans watched as the Nets, a team with almost no historical significance to speak of, came in and stole their summer thunder. New York went on to seemingly attempt to build a roster out of all power forwards, signing Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris.
There is no rivalry as far as the on-court product goes. The Nets are competing at the top of the East, while the Knicks are still fully in woebegone status. The Knicks' success this season will be dependent on the development of RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr., Randle and Kevin Knox as a starting 5 of the future.
That said, it's disappointing Durant won't be on the floor because Knicks fans seeing what they thought was their future on the opposing bench would be a little surreal.
Durant's absence taints any prediction for the Nets, and it remains possible that he'll come back late in the season. Both parties will be motivated to take it slow, especially after Durant's injury was caused by him returning too soon from a calf strain in the first place.
So we'll be projecting here as if Durant is missing the entire season.
That puts the Nets in the East's second tier behind the Sixers and Bucks, who are the runaway favorites to represent the conference in the Finals. There will probably be an 8-10-game gap between those two teams and whoever winds up on the No. 3 line, whether it's Brooklyn, Indiana, Boston or another surprise team.
The Nets appear to have the best on-paper shot. They upgraded at point guard from D'Angelo Russell to Irving, are hoping for an improvement from Jarrett Allen, and have a combination of depth and smart coaching that makes them a strong regular-season team on paper.
Irving's relationship with his teammates, as always, will be one to watch. As will his relationship with Kenny Atkinson, a well-respected coach who isn't the type to engage in passive-aggressive behavior.
Record Prediction: 49-33