The NBA season kicked off tonight. I cannot recall being as excited for a season as I am for the 2019-2020 campaign. As much as that can be attributed to my beloved Sixers being legitimate title contenders, I have just as much enthusiasm for where the league is as a whole.
Instead of giving a generic list of “what to watch for”, I can simplify it for everyone ranging to the true hoop heads to the borderline casuals. This is arguably the first time in multiple decades where we enter the season without a clear-cut favorite or a limited list of 3-4 teams that have a realistic shot at winning the NBA title. That has very much been the reality of the NBA for a very long time.
The NBA has historically been a very top-heavy league in comparison to the other major sports. I have to wonder if there is a connection to it being the first league to embrace tanking, but that is a story for a different day.
In recent years, and specifically during Lebron James’ second act with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was virtually a foregone conclusion in October that they would be meeting the Golden State Warriors that June in the NBA Finals. It was so predictable that you couldn’t get even odds on a Cleveland/Golden State preseason futures wager. It took Lebron leaving the conference altogether last summer for the East to send a Lebron-less team to the Finals for the first time since 2010.
But that is not the case this season. You could make a legitimate argument for at least eight different teams to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this upcoming. According to Bovada, there are eight teams that have title odds shorter than +2000, or 20-1.
An argument could be made for the Celtics if they were to make an in-season trade for a star. But at this point, it looks like a two-horse race in the East. Turn to the West, there are six true contenders. So, how did this happen? How did the NBA magically become more open?
The answer is not that complicated, especially if you have been paying attention to the offseason. This was one of the most active offseasons in many years. But it wasn’t active like the spending frenzy of 2016 when average players were handed out lavish contracts, accented by Kevin Durant’s decision to join the already historically great Warriors. Instead, we had a heavy dose of player movement, which some could suggest was the apex of the “Player Empowerment Era”.
There has never been another offseason in which so many high-profile players changed teams:
Anthony Davis (Pelicans to Lakers)
Kawaii Leonard (Raptors to Clippers)
Jimmy Butler (76ers to Heat)
Kyrie Irving (Celtics to Nets)
Kevin Durant (Warriors to Nets)
D’angelo Russell (Nets to Warriors)
Paul George (Thunder to Clippers)
Chris Paul (Rockets to Thunder)
Russell Westbrook (Thunder to Rockets)
Al Horford (Celtics to 76ers)
Kemba Walker (Hornets to Celtics)
Amongst the flurry of activity, there was a common theme that stuck out to me. The talent is much more spread around the league than it has been in a while. A few years ago, you might have these players team in up in threes, forming multiple super teams. Instead, we are entering a season of super duos.
If this offseason followed old trends, we could have seen new super teams like Lebron James, Anthony Davis and Kemba Walker on the Lakers or what about the idea of Kyrie Irving, Kawaii Leonard and Paul George on the Clippers.
I think just about everyone outside of Los Angeles and ESPN HQ is very grateful that it didn’t happen.
Instead of only a couple of teams led by a few superstars, we are entering a season with several teams led by two stars and stronger supporting casts. If not already obvious, that equates to a much more balanced league. A more balanced league means a more competitive and enjoyable regular season.
The NBA regular season has been deemed practically meaningless in recent years. In a season with so many more contenders jockeying for playoff seeding, that definitely will not be the case.
This should naturally lead to a more compelling Playoffs or at least one that gets interesting far before the Conference Finals. Just think about the potential scenarios…
What if the Warriors, missing Klay Thompson, grab the 6th or 7th seed. Would a tested team like that not give a scare to the Lakers, Clippers or Rockets in the first round? When it comes to a team very familiar with each other against a talented team still trying to figure out how to play with one another, I like the odds for at least a fun first round.
How about the prospects of the Heat, who recently acquired Jimmy Butler, facing a Celtics team that will have an interesting new look after replacing Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker.
Obviously there are more compelling matchup possibilities in later rounds…an all-LA series, Sixers/Bucks featuring a battle between Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and eventually a very fun NBA Finals between the teams that managed to make it through what should be much tougher roads than usual.
Either way, it’s definitely going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Photo courtesy of clutchpoints.com