10 Things That Will Define the 2019-20 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 24, 2019

10 Things That Will Define the 2019-20 NBA Season

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    All we know for sure about the 2019-20 NBA season is that, after nearly eight months of plot twists, thrilling highs and sobering lows, we'll look back and marvel at the improbability of the journey.

    Consider 2018-19 as an example. Not until the Golden State Warriors fell apart and the Toronto Raptors emerged as champs did we know what the true story of the year would be: a dynasty ended and a new king crowned, with the league headed for a makeover that, in mere days, would shift the balance of power just established.

    Although we won't know how to parse the entirety of the 2019-20 season until it's over, there are a few emerging angles—personnel-based, stylistic and narrative-driven—that should warrant attention.

    For all the shock attached to the way last year ended, we at least had an inkling Kawhi Leonard's presence in Toronto would matter and the Warriors' dynasty was approaching its natural conclusion.

    A handful of key players, trends and storylines offer similar hints about where the league is heading this year.

The Giant Recedes

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    The idea was always ridiculous, but it arose in the run-up to the last several seasons: The Warriors, prohibitive title favorites, were too good. Other teams had to aim their sights further down the road, at a point when Golden State was done dynasty-ing.

    There was no point in trying to compete, or so the thinking went.

    Short two All-Stars and several veteran mainstays from their title-chasing years, the Warriors are now diminished. Weakened. Mortal*.

    Ready to fill the power vacuum created by their decline are, among others, the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. You could talk yourself into a half-dozen other teams reaching the NBA Finals as well.

    The end of Golden State's run will color everything about the 2019-20 season. It will force the large swath of potential contenders to reconsider the worth of the regular season. That'll entail recalibrating load-management decisions, prioritizing (or not prioritizing) playoff seeding and even roster construction.

    For years, championship pursuit meant building a team capable of matching up with the Dubs. Things are different now.

                             

    *Klay Thompson rejects this premise, and nobody should expect Draymond Green or Stephen Curry to resignedly mail it in. Curry's necessarily expanded role (and his potential to win a third MVP) is just one more season-defining angle created by the Warriors' changed circumstances.

China

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    When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, it ignited a preseason controversy hot enough to keep burning through the rest of the year.

    In China, state-run media arms initially cut ties with the Rockets before suspending all preseason broadcasts, and though the NBA issued official apologies, its coaches and players will continue to field questions on the league's relationship with and its responsibilities to a major international market.

    LeBron James seemed to condemn Morey's stance but faced immediate backlash and had to clarify (mostly unsuccessfully) his position in several follow-up tweets. Steve Kerr was more artful when asked for his thoughts, but even he declined to side with the protestors Morey supported.

    This is all new to the NBA news cycle, but according to Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts of the Washington Post, the concern that "profit-seeking companies will inevitably cave to Chinese government demands ... because they want access to the lucrative Chinese market" is hardly novel in international business.

    How will the NBA, which is an international business, handle all this?

    Will players concerned about hits to their overseas earning potential tread lightly, as James appeared to do? Will they catch flak for declining to take a side?

    Does a sports league have a responsibility to take a moral stand on every issue, or can it pick its spots? Is domestic backlash imminent?

    This thing is complex, fraught and, most of all, isn't going away.

The Giant Returns

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    The Sixers are enormous.

    Long-limbed—the starting five's average wingspan is roughly 7 feet—bulky and conspicuously short on the shooting and playmaking that came in vogue over the last half-decade, they represent a return to a bygone era. And while it'd be hasty to assume size is the new defining feature of NBA basketball, it's worth noting Philly isn't the only contender built to win with heft.

    The Milwaukee Bucks leveraged their size and length en route to last year's top defensive rating (104.9 points allowed per game). Though three-point shooting and Giannis Antetokounmpo's ascent define them, the Bucks are still built on power. Antetokounmpo goes through as many defenders as he runs past.

    In contrast, the West's purported contenders will continue operating with an emphasis on skill. Anthony Davis will play the center minutes that matter for a downsized Los Angeles Lakers team, and Montrezl Harrell could close at the 5 for the Los Angeles Clippers...if JaMychal Green doesn't usurp that role and turn L.A. into a true five-out offense during crunch time.

    A stylistic clash in the Finals seems inevitable, and the result of a "size vs. skill" tilt could influence every team's roster construction for the next several years. Will would-be contenders have to build the kind of team that bangs with the burly Sixers or runs/switches/shoots with the sleeker Clips and Lakers?   

Can LeBron James Take Back the Throne?

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    LeBron James hasn't won an NBA MVP since 2013, and his eight-year run of Finals appearances ended last season as the 15-time All-Star also succumbed to injury, playing a career-low 55 games. Of course, in those contests, James averaged 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists on 58.8 percent true shooting.

    He was the only player to post numbers like those, just as he was in 2017-18. 

    In light of that, the question can't be, "Is LeBron still one of the best players in the league?" He obviously is. What's at issue, especially now that James has a team around him that he could conceivably lead to a title, is whether he's still the best.

    Are we about to see James settle into a different phase in his age-35 season, or is a revenge tour imminent? Might he cement his GOAT status by turning in the greatest "old" season on record?

    Fresh off the longest recuperative period of his professional career, LeBron could enter 2019-20 newly refreshed and motivated. His defensive intensity, absent for several seasons, might return.

    If James recaptures the mantle, stays healthy and produces clear MVP numbers, it'll impact the championship chase and add a new chapter to his legend.

James and Russ: A Buddy Picture

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    This isn't like the time the Rockets tried to shoehorn Carmelo Anthony into a bench role. It's not even like the time they added Chris Paul, a ball-dominant point guard, to a backcourt already occupied by James Harden, a fellow who likes to have the ball pretty often himself.

    The stakes were lower with Anthony, and Paul's defense and off-ball value made for a clean on-court fit after some tinkering.

    The challenge of integrating Russell Westbrook and his history of cartoonishly high usage, stylistic inflexibility and invisible off-ball value is different. The degree of difficulty is off the charts.

    Houston will make the pairing work to some degree; Harden and Westbrook are too talented for the match to fail completely. But the extent to which these two former MVPs mesh and maximize each other's games could determine which West team represents the conference in the Finals.

    Westbrook is the one facing the greatest challenge. Harden is objectively the better player—more efficient, more prolific in his scoring and, critically, closer to his peak than an athletically declining Westbrook. That means Russ, who turns 31 in November, is the one who has to change.

    He can't stand still off the ball anymore. He can't treat defense as if it's optional. He can't consume entire games with his singular drive to dominate them.

    Old habits die hard, and Westbrook's stubbornness is deeply ingrained. The calls for more ball movement and less "all Russ, all the time" have been part of every recent Oklahoma City Thunder preseason narrative. You'd think that if Westbrook were capable of changing, of fitting in, he'd have done it by now.

    The Rockets are betting on a new version of Russ. We'll soon see the wisdom of that wager.

2021 Free Agency

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    The NBA refuses to let us live in the moment. What's next almost always gets more attention than what's now. And so, before we even start the 2019-20 season, let's acknowledge that we're going to spend it hearing about 2021.

    That summer's free-agent class will be flush with superstars, and several teams are already living with concerns about the potential for another league-altering whirlwind of player movement.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo heads the list, followed closely by four huge names with player options: Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Jrue Holiday and Paul George. Throw in Rudy Gobert, Blake Griffin and Victor Oladipo. Don't forget the restricted draft class of 2017, which includes De'Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum.

    As teams gauge players' willingness to re-sign or accept extensions, trades will emerge as sensible fallbacks.

    Sometimes, it's a shame we can't just enjoy the season at hand. But the transactional nature of the NBA continues to generate as much interest as the games themselves. So, strange as it sounds, a date two years in the future has real bearing on what happens right now.

Zion Williamson

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    Zion Williamson played nine summer-league minutes and still generated more buzz than anyone else. His mauling of New York Knicks sophomore Kevin Knox outshone everything that happened in Vegas.

    The preseason has only solidified Williamson's place atop the list of fascinating NBA figures.

    His combination of power, speed and finesse is impossible to ignore. He's a rookie highlight machine the likes of which we haven't seen since 2010-11 Blake Griffin. And his potential to physically dominate the greatest athletes in the world would be frightening if Williamson—a pumped-up hybrid of Charles Barkley, Anthony Mason and Griffin—weren't so endearingly unassuming.

    He's Bruce Banner and the Hulk, all at once, all the time.

    Williamson's torn meniscus and the surgery that'll cost him 6-8 weeks are anxiety-inducers. But consider the setback a buy-low opportunity. It'll be the last one available for a prospect who, health permitting, feels all but guaranteed to reach superstardom. 

    The New Orleans Pelicans aren't a contender, but if Williamson continues to dominate and several key teammates (looking at you, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram) reach their potential, the team could make the playoffs and cause problems for a top seed.

    Even if the Pels don't deliver, we'll spend the season fixated on Zion, eyes wide and jaws on the floor.

The Utah Jazz's Identity Shift

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    The cast of contenders in the West is larger than usual, with the Clippers, Lakers and Rockets occupying the consensus top three spots. The Utah Jazz, who swapped out size and stopping power for spacing and shooting, have a chance to join the fray.

    No team more directly addressed its deficiencies than the Jazz, who spent the offseason patching the offensive holes that sank them in yet another disappointing playoff exit. Derrick Favors is gone, and those defensively sturdy but scoring-challenged two-big lineups alongside Rudy Gobert went with him. Bojan Bogdanovic, a wing, is in line to start as a floor-spacing 4.

    After two years of watching defenses dare Ricky Rubio to shoot, the Jazz will gladly let Mike Conley take on the challenge.

    All that added spacing could cure Donovan Mitchell of his addiction to low-percentage floaters. If he can get all the way to the cup more often, his efficiency will spike, and the breakout so many wanted last year will finally arrive. Gobert could become an even more dangerous roll man with shooters around him and Conley threatening to punish defenses that sag into the lane.

    The defense may suffer with smaller players replacing Favors (and Jae Crowder), but it will only fall so far with Gobert stabilizing the back line. If the offense progresses as it should with such improved personnel, there's no reason Utah can't quietly overtake everyone else in the conference.

    Or, if Conley breaks down, Gobert can't hold the line alone and Mitchell's breakthrough never comes, the Jazz will be right back in their familiar sub-contender spot.

    They'll never get the press of the other West powers, but the Jazz might have the talent to beat all of them anyway.

The Leapers

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    The Boston Celtics aren't quite deserving of top-tier status in the East, but they will be if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown reach new levels now that they're out from under the (mis)guidance of Kyrie Irving. Pascal Siakam, last year's Most Improved Player, could be the reason the Toronto Raptors get to retool rather than rebuild the 2018-19 championship team.

    Sticking with the East, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon could both pop. If they do, the Orlando Magic are suddenly a threat to finish as high as third in the conference.

    We've already hit the potential of the young Pelicans, but the lower rungs of the West playoff race may also shake out according to which other young stars shine brightest. De'Aaron Fox could carry the Kings to their first postseason since 2006, and if Luka Doncic vaults into top-10 territory in his second year, the Dallas Mavericks will be heard in the playoff discussion as well.

    Dejounte Murray and Derrick White will have as much to say about extending the San Antonio Spurs' playoff streak as LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. If Jamal Murray becomes an All-Star, the Denver Nuggets turn into a superpower.

    Though it's true to some extent every year, 2019-20 feels especially likely to hinge on the development of several up-and-comers.

Los Angeles Rising

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    In what may be a bad omen for small markets everywhere, Los Angeles is now the center of the basketball universe.

    The Clippers are the league's deepest team and its most widely accepted title favorite. They added two superstars in Leonard and George. Meanwhile, the Lakers have an even more threatening duo in James and Davis—plus a supporting cast that, unlike last year's, makes sense.

    Two powerhouses, four of the league's 10 best players and a championship there for the taking. Whatever else happens in the NBA this year, whichever strange detours the eight-month journey takes on its way to June, the story looks like it will end in Los Angeles.

    Maybe that conclusion involves James hoisting his fourth Larry O'Brien trophy. Maybe it includes Anthony Davis winning MVP. Or maybe Leonard backs up his claim to the throne with a second straight championship and solidified status the league's best player. Or, perhaps neither freshly constructed superteam holds together. Maybe injuries or chemistry concerns or the sheer weight of expectations topple the whole thing.

    Los Angeles will dominate the 2019-20 discourse, one way or another.

                                                                                    

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated.