The NBA seems to be a year-round sport these days. Draft talk dominates the spring and early summer; the summer free agency period has become every bit as newsworthy as the season itself; and after that, there’s only a short break before the preseason begins. We’re in the midst of the preseason at the time of this writing, which means that the 2019-20 season is nearly upon us. Before it begins, we thought we’d have a look at the five teams most expected to contend for the title.
1 – Los Angeles Clippers
Nothing illustrates how much the NBA changed over the summer of 2019 quite so well as the fact that the Clippers are now title favorites. LA’s “other team” was solid from top to bottom during the 2018-19 season, and was well coached by Doc Rivers, but lacked star power. So, over the summer, the team swung a dramatic trade for Oklahoma City’s Paul George, and signed free agent Kawhi Leonard (fresh off a second Finals MVP performance) around the same time. Now, things aren’t perfect. The Clippers had to give up some strong players in the Oklahoma City trade, and Paul George is likely out until November with an injury. But assuming George comes back at something close to 100%, the Clippers’ combination of rotation depth and star power looks formidable.
2 – Los Angeles Lakers
The Clippers may have emerged as something of a consensus favorite, but if you actually look at bookie sites posting NBA odds, you’ll typically see the Lakers nipping at their heels. The iconic franchise had already done the heavy lifting of acquiring LeBron James prior to the 2018-19 season, but has now done its best to surround him with championship-caliber talent. Most notably, this comes in the form of Anthony Davis, a potential league MVP who was brought in via a major trade with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers surrendered most of their depth and youth in this trade (which is ultimately why the Clippers look just a bit better), but James and Davis may be the strongest core in the NBA.
3 – Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks are in an interesting position. Last season everyone expected them to make a leap due to the pure talent of now-reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But no one expected them to dominate the Eastern Conference quite like they did. Now, the question is whether they can match their top-seed performance from last season, or whether they’re due for a bit of regression. The loss of starting guard Malcolm Brogdon (who now plays for the Indiana Pacers) may hurt, but overall the Bucks look too much like last year’s team not to be taken seriously. And if Antetokounmpo keeps getting better (as most expect him to), the sky’s the limit for this group.
4 – Philadelphia 76ers
Following a busy 2019 offseason, the 76ers will be dealing with some significant losses (JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler), but also welcoming some major additions (Josh Richardson and Al Horford). That’s a lot of change to handle, but on paper, Philadelphia might just have the best starting lineup in the league. Richardson and Horford will join Tobias Harris, who was brought in midseason in 2018-19, as well as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons – the homegrown duo the Sixers would like to ride to a title. It’s a massive lineup, and an imperfect one, but from a pure talent perspective it might be difficult to beat.
5 – Houston Rockets
The Rockets pulled perhaps the biggest shock move of the offseason when they traded Chris Paul and a haul of draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook. The trade reunited Westbrook and James Harden, who played together in Oklahoma City years ago, and gave the Rockets perhaps the most talented backcourt in the league. There are huge questions about the fit between these two ball-dominant players, but if things work out, they could be scarily good. Westbrook has stated that the intent is to win a championship, and while most wouldn’t call that likely, few would discount the possibility.