Early Impressions of Every NBA Contender

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 31, 2019

Early Impressions of Every NBA Contender

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    It's never too early to start thinking about which NBA teams might have a shot at the title. Even before the season started, prognostications ran rampant, thanks in part to an offseason loaded with upheaval.

    Several contenders were made over on the fly as if they were the subjects of a daytime television show.

    The Los Angeles Clippers landed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Los Angeles Lakers added Anthony Davis. The Houston Rockets paired James Harden with Russell WestbrookKevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, D'Angelo Russell, Mike Conley and Kemba Walker, just to name a few, all switched teams, as well.

    And all that player movement led to takes galore. Suddenly, there were legitimate arguments that around a third of the league had a shot at an NBA title in the post-Golden State Warriors vacuum.

    As of Wednesday, just over one week into the 2019-20 campaign, FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR projection system gave 10 teams at least a 2 percent chance at winning it all.

    What have we learned about those teams in the early part of this season? The answers are found below.

Knocking on the Door

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    Toronto Raptors

    It feels a bit strange to count out the defending champions mere months after they were the last team standing in 2019. The last time that happened would probably be with the 2011-12 Dallas Mavericks, the squad that jettisoned defensive anchor Tyson Chandler after winning a title in 2011.

    The loss of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is decidedly bigger than that. Danny Green is no small departure, either. But the Raptors have looked, at the very least, solid to start out 2019-20.

    Pascal Siakam is averaging 27.5 points and 10.3 rebounds with a 60.8 true shooting percentage. Kyle Lowry is at 22.0 points, 6.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game with a 60.6 true shooting percentage. Together, they look like a pair that isn't going away quietly.

    And maybe we should've seen that coming. Last season, Toronto was plus-21.6 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) when Lowry and Siakam were on the floor without Leonard and Green, per Cleaning the Glass.

    Of course, that's on a sample size of a measly 324 possessions, but Lowry with a volume scorer is a formula that led to plenty of good Raptors teams before Leonard showed up. And Siakam is comfortably better than DeMar DeRozan, whose career-high box plus/minus of 1.8 is about half the 3.4 BPM Siakam posted last season.

    Toronto may not be quite on the top tier of contenders. But those two, combined with progress from Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and others, should give the Raptors an outside shot at getting back to the Finals.

           

    Boston Celtics

    Boston figures to feature one of the league's more egalitarian attacks, and that applies to more than just scoring.

    Entering Wednesday's action, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward were all between 20.4 and 27.2 in usage percentage. They were between 9.2 and 13.5 in assist percentage.

    Over the course of the season, they should all get plenty of chances to isolate, run pick-and-rolls, take catch-and-shoot jumpers and more. Long story short, opportunities abound for this largely positionless bunch. That should make the C's unpredictable on offense.

    It might be even more helpful on the other end. The three forward/wings can switch all over the floor, and Grant Williams looks like he may be able to join in on that fun already.

    The versatility up and down the roster is intriguing. But like Toronto, this team feels just shy of legitimate-contender status, even if winning the Eastern Conference wouldn't be totally shocking.

Fare Thee Well, Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors are the early leaders in HTPTHMS (Hot Takes per Talking Head Morning Show). After their 0-2 start, which included a shellacking from the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, some went as far as wondering about Stephen Curry's all-time legacy.

    Blowing out the New Orleans Pelicans after entering the contest as three-point underdogs stabilized things a bit. Getting Willie Cauley-Stein and Alec Burks might have helped, too.

    But Curry's broken hand—an injury he suffered during Wednesday's game against the Phoenix Suns, per The Athletic's Shams Charania—probably makes all of that moot.

    Even before the devastating loss of the two-time MVP, Week 1 of this campaign had already highlighted a severe problem for the Warriors: They have no depth.

    If you'd given the organization a crystal ball that showed 2019-20, they'd surely go down the same path. Signing Kevin Durant in 2016 and winning two more titles was worth it. But years of late first-round picks, as well as a focus on winning over player development, now has Golden State in unfamiliar territory.

    "Stephen Curry is diagnosed with a broken left hand, thereby breaking a Warriors season that already was on the brink," NBC Sports' Monte Poole tweeted.

    Even Curry may not have been enough to lift a supporting cast that includes Jordan Poole, Jacob Evans, Omari Spellman, Glenn Robinson III, Marquese Chriss, Eric Paschall and Alen Smailagic. There's certainly a chance Golden State has a hit with one or two of those guys, but it also wouldn't be shocking to see all seven fail to secure another long-term contract in the NBA.

    Not only did contention seem unlikely with this team, but the playoffs were also probably in question. Though a broken hand doesn't necessarily end Curry's season, the Warriors will be too far out of postseason contention by the time he returns.

Northwest Up-and-Comers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Utah Jazz

    "All-Stars or no All-Stars, we're going to win a lot of games," All-NBA center Rudy Gobert told ESPN's Tim MacMahon.

    Behind the two-time Defensive Player of the Year's stellar work on that end of the floor, it looks like there's some merit to his proclamation.

    Heading into Wednesday's action, Utah was 3-1 despite a historically cold shooting start from its new point guard. Mike Conley went a seemingly impossible 9-of-45 from the field in the Jazz's first four games. It should be encouraging that they're winning in spite of his misfires. 

    Once he locks in, this team should look like a real title threat.

    The one-two offensive punch of Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic is potent. Complement that with an on-track Conley as the third option and you have the makings of a scary offense.

    Gobert remains the league's premier defensive anchor. Royce O'Neale and Joe Ingles are among the game's best gap-fillers on both ends of the floor. Solid vets such as Jeff Green and Ed Davis should buoy the bench. And if Dante Exum can return to full health, the team would have another positionless plus defender.

    All the ingredients are there. After it has some time to simmer, expect this to be one of the NBA's best teams.

           

    Denver Nuggets

    Of the teams on this list, only the Raptors have enjoyed more continuity this season than the Denver Nuggets. In fact, those two squads are the only two in the league with over 90 percent roster continuity.

    It made sense for Denver. Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Jamal Murray are all 25 or younger. Theoretically, they all still have room to grow. Internal development for a youthful team that already finished second in the West is a logical choice.

    But the Nuggets—and particularly their first-team All-NBA center—almost seem lethargic to start this season. 

    Jokic had a 10-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double this week against the Dallas Mavericks, but he looked disinterested for large portions of the game. That's a Jokic staple, at this point. If the Nuggets are going to hit their ceiling this year, he has to eliminate those occasional head-scratchers, and that starts with simply being aggressive.

    Throughout his career, the Nuggets are 122-87 (.584) when Jokic attempts at least 10 shots. When he doesn't, they're just 60-77 (.438).

    If Denver can convince Jokic how important his scoring is, it should be fine and join the list of reasonable title contenders. 

Los Angeles Lakers

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    After posting an absurd 40 points and 20 rebounds in 31 minutes during L.A.'s blowout win over the Memphis Grizzlies, AD vaulted up to second place in Basketball Reference's MVP tracker.

    "The NBA MVP Award Tracker ranks candidates based on a model built using previous voting results," the site reads. "This list does not represent the opinion of this site. Rather, these are the players that the voters are likely to target (maximum two players per team)."

    It's not hard to see why the math loves Davis. He's averaging 28.8 points, 12.8 rebounds, 12.0 made free throws, 3.0 assists, 3.0 blocks and 1.0 steals, and the fit with LeBron James has been seamless. When the two share the floor, James seems to be making a concerted effort to feature Davis as the No. 1 option.

    And if LeBron is your No. 2, even in his age-35 season, you are going to compete for a title.

    There are still questions here and there about the rest of the rotation. But in general, the team looks good.

    Danny Green is a no-brainer who's spent his career effectively complementing superstars. Dwight Howard looks primed for a resurgence. Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have had predictable struggles on offense, but their defense has helped make the Lakers a problem for opponents on the perimeter.

    If Kyle Kuzma can get back to 100 percent, settle into the No. 3 scorer role and hit threes at the rate he did as a rookie (36.6 percent), this team is going to be a nightmare.

Houston Rockets

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    The James Harden-Russell Westbrook reunion is off to a strong start, at least for Westbrook.

    Most had pretty much given up on the triple-double-season streak. After the dynamic point guard spent three straight years averaging double digits in points, rebounds and assists, sharing a team with Harden made pulling that off for a fourth consecutive year feel impossible.

    And yet, Westbrook is a single assist shy of averaging a triple-double through three games in 2019-20. He's also been efficient, shooting 4-of-11 from three and posting a true shooting percentage just shy of 60.

    Perhaps most importantly, he's shaken up a Rockets offense that may have gotten stale over the last couple of years. The Ringer's Danny Chau explained:

    "Change, in the interim, hasn't looked like change at all. If anything, the Rockets have provided a runway (and the proper infrastructure) for Russ to be himself completely; in turn, Westbrook has given coach Mike D'Antoni a new lease on his career-defining offensive mentality: six seconds or less, baby. Three games in and the Rockets are playing faster than they've ever played—hell, faster than any team D'Antoni has ever coached. Across their first three games, the Rockets are averaging 107.7 possessions per 48 minutes, tacking on an additional 9.3 possessions per 48 minutes compared to their regular-season average last year. Pace is one way to measure a team's speed; time of possession is another. Coming into the game, the Rockets led the league in lowest time of possession, taking up only 12.3 seconds of the shot clock per offensive possession, according to Inpredictable, making them the most expedient offense, outpacing league average by a second and a half (and the Cavaliers' putrid offense by three)."

    Houston's new reality as a run-and-gun offense may take some getting used to for Harden, who's grown accustomed to pounding the ball into oblivion before either launching a step-back three, goading a defender into fouling, lobbing to Clint Capela or kicking out for a three.

    Possessions had taken on a volleyball-like repetitiveness for the Rockets.

    Westbrook introduced chaos, and that chaos seems to have attached itself to Harden's line.

    After three games, he's 18-of-63 (28.6 percent) from the field and 6-of-40 (15.0 percent) from deep. The free throws are still there, of course. He's 46-of-48 (95.8 percent) from the stripe. But at some point, he'll have to start hitting some live-ball shots.

    For a player who's finished at least second in MVP voting four times, it's reasonable to assume that will start happening eventually. And after he makes the adjustment, Harden should actually find life as a co-manager has its benefits.

    That chaos Westbrook creates often draws defenders into the paint. Harden should get more open catch-and-shoot opportunities than he's used to. That, in and of itself, should preserve a player who's often been criticized for wilting in the playoffs. It's just easier to catch the ball and immediately shoot than it is to dribble for 20 seconds before making one of the aforementioned actions.

    The synergy between these two isn't perfect yet, but the first few games suggest there's little reason to think they won't get there.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    There's a pretty good chance we're already taking Giannis Antetokounmpo for granted. His video-game numbers in 2018-19 earned him MVP honors, but most of this season's early buzz surrounds other stars.

    Somehow, Giannis is quietly averaging 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals. And despite the loss of Malcolm Brogdon, this team's roster still feels almost perfectly tailored for his various skills.

    Between Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, George Hill and Ersan Ilyasova, there's plenty of shooting to surround Antetokounmpo's drives. And if he ever finds some consistency with his own jump shot, overhauled teams around the league may not have done enough to top last season's best regular-season squad.

    There's still a reasonable argument to be made that Giannis is the game's best player. That goes a long way toward determining the best team.

    And though there may not be another full-blown superstar alongside him, there is depth and a number of above-average to good players—maybe even a couple of borderline stars. That's a formula that took the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks and the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors to championships.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    The sample sizes we're working with are still way too small. Some of these numbers are bound to undergo drastic changes.

    But through one week of games, the Philadelphia 76ers have nine players with above-average defensive box plus/minuses. Al Horford, Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris are all well above average. Rookie Matisse Thybulle and Joel Embiid are way above.

    Simply put, Philadelphia could be a defensive juggernaut in 2019-20.

    Embiid is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Horford was the nervous system of consistently great defenses in Atlanta and Boston. And there's length in abundance between Simmons, Richardson, Harris and Thybulle.

    They're going to be disruptive, and they're going to frustrate opposing offenses.

    The biggest question facing the Sixers is on the other end. In today's game, it's hard to win a championship without a few bona fide floor-spacers. And while Horford and Harris have each had a season with a 40-plus three-point percentage on decent volume, no Philadelphia shooters will terrify opposing defenses.

    That might allow playoff teams to pack the paint against Embiid's post-ups and Simmons' drives, causing many of the same problems those two have faced throughout their careers.

    The defense may be good enough to overcome that. But as far as weaknesses go, that's a big one.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    For most so-called superteams of the last decade, getting the foundational pieces in place meant torpedoing the rest of the roster. Books pretty much had to be erased to fit the annual salaries of two or three stars, and depth was built with players on rookie contracts, exceptions and minimum salaries.

    The Clippers, despite adding two of the game's best forwards in one summer, didn't have to make that sacrifice.

    Yes, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—all good players who were key cogs on last season's scrappy, 48-win Clippers—are gone. 

    But L.A.'s 2018-19 leader in wins over replacement player, its starting point guard, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year and an up-and-coming sharpshooter were all on below-market-value contracts and remained on the team after the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

    Those two, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Landry Shamet comprise perhaps the league's best top six. Maurice Harkless, Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson have also shown how they might be helpful at various times this season.

    The Clippers have an argument that they employ the game's best duo, and they have loads of depth to back it up. The importance of that depth has already been on display in the early part of the season, with George sidelined due to offseason shoulder surgery.

    As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote, "When George returns, the Clippers will have just about everything—arguably, if not certainly, the NBA's most complete roster from top to bottom."

         

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into Wednesday's games.

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