Five teams that can defeat title-favorite Brooklyn Nets this season

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The Brooklyn Nets are the clear and obvious favorites to win the NBA title this season, and it shouldn’t be particularly close.

The Nets have, for my money, the best player in the NBA right now in Kevin Durant, flanked by two more of the league’s top 15 players in James Harden and Kyrie Irving — three players who showed last season they will sacrifice to make it work (small sample size alert). That core is surrounded by one of the best pure shooters in the game in Joe Harris, plus a wealth of quality role players who can fill the gaps: Patty Mills, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Claxton, and more. The team most likely to knock off the Nets? The Nets. Injuries or some player foolishness getting in their way is their most likely undoing.

That said, some teams are a legitimate threat to Brooklyn’s title dreams. Let’s look at five teams who — as currently constructed, so we’re ruling out the 76ers at this point,  and we need to see Klay Thompson before we talk Warriors — could knock off the Nets.

Milwaukee Bucks

The defending champions are the biggest threat to the Nets this season, and Brooklyn knows it — Durant himself said the Bucks were forming somewhat of a dynasty.

In Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have an MVP/DPOY player who can legitimately threaten Durant’s standing as the best player in the game — and the Greek Freak is one of maybe a handful of defenders with a chance of making Durant’s life difficult. Remember, Antetokounmpo put up 40 in Game 7 against the Nets, and by the end of the Finals was an unstoppable force.

Next to the Greek Freak is gold medalist and often underrated Khris Middleton, plus the Bucks have a perfect fit at the point in Jrue Holiday. Milwaukee will get starting two guard Donte DiVincenzo after he missed much of the playoffs due to a foot injury. They have a solid combo at center with Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, and behind them are quality role players off the bench such as George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Rodney Hood, and more.

Besides Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ biggest strength is shooting, spacing the floor and taking advantage of Antetokounmpo playing downhill. The Bucks also bring continuity to the table — the same core of this team has been together under Mike Budenholzer for years now, they know the system and they know each other.

The loss of P.J. Tucker will hurt come the postseason, but this is one team that can stand toe-to-toe with a healthy Nets and trade blows. The Bucks have a legitimate chance to repeat as champions, and they have some margin for error if things don’t go perfectly.

Los Angles Lakers

LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain the best duo in the NBA; their games perfectly complement one another, which is why oddsmakers have them second to the Nets this season (well, that and the massive Laker fan base betting on them).

For all the triple-doubles and spacing questions that Russell Westbrook brings to the table, he is a No. 3 option on this team and has to fit his game around LeBron and Davis if the Lakers are going to win. Westbrook will help in the regular season when the Lakers will look to get LeBron and AD some load management nights (although they won’t call it that). Westbrook can carry the load for stretches. Lakers fans will love him early when the schedule is soft, but we’ll see how those attitudes fare after the All-Star break and into the postseason.

Credit GM Rob Pelinka and staff for revamping this roster on the veteran minimum market with quality role players around LeBron/Davis/Westbrook: Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, Wesley Matthews, Kent Bazemore, and they hope to see Talen Horton-Tucker take another step forward. The Lakers have shooting around LeBron and AD, something they lacked a year ago. However, Los Angeles sacrificed defense to get that shooting, and the team that won its most recent title based on defense is going to prove it can still be top 10 on that end.

For the Lakers to win it all again, Anthony Davis has to find his shot from the bubble, play at a Defensive Player of the Year level, and be a top-five player force on both ends. The good news is it looks like the Lakers will start AD at the five and bring Howard off the bench. Even as he turns 37 this season, LeBron can still perform at an MVP level (he showed that last season), and nobody should question his status as one of the game’s elite.

The Lakers Achilles heel is no secret: Health. LeBron and Davis have to be as close as possible to 100% come the playoffs for the Lakers to have a chance (that’s why Westbrook as an innings eater in the regular season makes sense), and with nine players on the roster over 30 staying out of the training room is a concern.

But healthy, the Lakers are a legitimate threat to Brooklyn in what could be a coastal-elites Finals.

Miami Heat

This is the point on the list where we reach the “if Brooklyn is half-a-step off” level — at best, a fully healthy Heat team has a puncher’s chance against a fully healthy Nets team. And maybe not even that.

However, the Heat are hoovering around if the Nets are off for any reason. Miami should be a defensive force with gold medalist Bam Adebayo in the paint and Jimmy Butler on the wing, plus they have an excellent defensive combo with Tucker and Markieff Morris at the four. The addition of Kyle Lowry gives Miami good secondary shot creation, something the team needs next to Butler (plus Lowry brings a championship pedigree).

A lot of things have to go right for Miami to contend. Lowry and Tucker — both over 35 — need to stop the clock, stay healthy, and be impact players in the postseason. Butler has to stay healthy (obviously). Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson need to provide desperately-needed shooting to space the floor for this roster (especially when Butler and Adebayo are on the court together). Herro, in particular, could be a bellwether for this team. Finally, Eric Spoelstra has to work his magic, getting more out of the whole than the sum of its parts.

But Miami won the offseason, and they come into the games that matter with a chance.

Denver Nuggets

It’s all about Jamal Murray.

If the Nuggets point guard were healthy, a lot of pundits would have picked them to come out of the West last season (*raises hand*). There is no timetable for his return from a torn ACL this season, he had surgery last April, and a full year to return is not uncommon. Even if Murray were to return in time for the postseason, what percentage of him would we see? 60%? 75%? 90%? For nearly every athlete coming off an ACL tear, it takes a while for them to really trust their body and get back to being the player they were pre-injury.

But if Murray is back to being himself, the Nuggets are a threat. They have the reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic, who is also a fantastic clutch shooter. Michael Porter Jr. looks ready to step into a staring role (and earn his max extension). Aaron Gordon is a perfect fit on both ends of the court. And this team has quality role players up and down the roster in Will Barton, Jeff Green, JaMychal Green, Austin Rivers, Monte Morris, and more. If Murray is close to his old self, the Nuggets are a threat to the Lakers in the West and everyone else in the NBA. It’s just unlikely we get to see that Murray this season.

Utah Jazz

The pressure is on the Jazz this season to show they are more than just a regular season team.

No doubt the Jazz are in the NBA’s upper echelon with an elite defense anchored by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Donovan Mitchell showed last playoffs he is one of the best scoring guards in the game, averaging 32.2 points a night on basically one ankle. Mike Conley is an All-Star at the point, they have the Sixth Man of the Year in Jordan Clarkson, and the roster is loaded with quality players such as Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gay, Royce O'Neale, and more.

Utah is my pick to have the best record in the NBA in the regular season. Again. But what sticks in everyone’s mind is how the Clippers were able to play small and take four straight from the Jazz last postseason — all without Kawhi Leonard. A large part of that was the injuries to Conley and Mitchell in the postseason, but part of it was that once Utah’s system is disrupted, it struggles with Plan B. Get the Jazz out of their comfort zone and they look lost. The Jazz remind me somewhat of the Bucks before last season started — Milwaukee needed to both be more versatile, and be better prepared to use that versatility come the playoffs. Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks did that, and we saw the result.

Are the Jazz ready for that step? On paper this is a team that is a threat to come out of the West and, with that defense, challenge anyone. This team is unquestionably deep with good players. But can this the Jazz play outside their comfort zone, and can their stars reach a new level in the playoffs?

If so, the Jazz are a title threat. But they will have to prove it, first.

Paolo Banchero, Scoot Henderson highlight player pool for Rising Stars during All-Star weekend

Orlando Magic v Miami Heat
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The big winner in last year’s All-Star Friday night Rising Stars game was the new format (and Cade Cunningham). The new setup saw players onto four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score — something that actually had the young stars defending and playing hard. Things too often lacking All-Star weekend.

That format is back, and an impressive crop of players is involved: Rookie of the Year favorite Paolo Banchero, last year’s ROY Scottie Barnes, and expected No.2 pick in the upcoming draft Scoot Henderson of the G-League Ignite. Here is a complete list of the players competing (the rookies and sophomores will be drafted into three teams of seven players each, and the G-League players will make up their own team).

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic)
Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons)
AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks)
Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons)
Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz)
Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers)
Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings)
Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers)
Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets)
Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs)
Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans)
Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors)
Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Jalen Green (Houston Rockets)
Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks)
Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets)
Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans)
Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets)
Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite)
Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite)
Mojave King (G League Ignite)
Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle)
Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats)
Leonard Miller (G League Ignite)
Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

There are former NBA stars to coach each of the teams: Former All-Stars Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Deron Williams will coach the three Rising Stars teams, while former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry will coach the G League team.

There will be three games Friday night during the Rising Stars challenge, with each game played to a target score of 40. If it’s anything like last year, it’s worth tuning in.

Needing defense, Kings reportedly eyeing 76ers Thybulle for trade

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings
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At 28-21, the Sacramento Kings sit as the No.3 seed in the West with the second-best offense in the league — they seemed destined to break their 16-year playoff drought and very well could even host a first-round playoff series.

However, their 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) will undo them come the playoffs.

That has the Kings looking for some defensive help and they are eyeing Sixers wing Matisse Thybullereports Marc Stein in his latest Substack newsletter.

Sacramento is said to be monitoring the availability of Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle as the Kings, unexpectedly holding the West’s No. 3 seed after a league-record 16 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, ponder the pursuit of a more defensive-minded option on the perimeter.

Thybulle has lived in the rumor mill for a while, this is nothing new. However, those rumors carry more weight because Thybulle’s role in Philadelphia has shrunk considerably with the additions of De'Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker as defensive-minded forwards who can provide more offense than Thybulle. Doc Rivers also leans into Georges Niang more off the bench because of his shooting.

Thybulle is in the final year of his contract and is headed for restricted free agency, the Kings might be interested in re-signing him (depending on the price and his fit with the roster). The Kings can match salaries easily enough with Davion Mitchell, Terence Davis or Alex Len, the question is who will the 76ers want back, and will the Kings need to throw in a second-round pick?

There’s some logic to this trade getting done in some form, it’s worth keeping an eye on.

 

Nets reportedly in no rush to sign Kyrie Irving to contract extension

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyrie Irving wanted a contract extension with the Nets this past summer, but that went nowhere (as did his looking around for a new home). Now, Irving’s representative again wants to talk contract extension with the Nets.

The Nets are in no rush, partly because they feel they have all the leverage, reports Marc Stein in his latest newsletter.

Irving hopes to sign a contract extension with the Nets — but substantive talks between the sides have yet to begin. Some league observers have posited that this could be by design on Brooklyn’s part, with the Nets apparently convinced that they are under no pressure to move swiftly on the extension front when Irving would likely need their help via sign-and-trade to relocate in the offseason to any other team he likes.

The teams with potential cap space next summer are the Spurs, Rockets, Magic, Pistons, Hornets, Pacers and Thunder (a few teams, like the Lakers, can create some cap space but not at the max money Irving would seek). It’s a list of teams that may take a step forward toward the play-in, but there is not a contender in the mix.

If Irving wants out of Brooklyn to get to the Lakers or another team he sees as a threat to win it all, it will come via an off-season sign-and-trade. Irving will have to work with the Nets, one way or another.

There is a growing sense around the league that ultimately Irving will re-sign in Brooklyn if the team’s recent run of strong play continues into the playoffs. For all the tension between Irving and Nets’ ownership in recent years, he fits well there on the court and likes playing with Kevin Durant. He likes being in Brooklyn. This can still be a fit that works for everyone.

The interesting part with Irving’s next contract will be the years — would any team lock into him for four fully-guaranteed years? He may not get more than a couple of years, at least from any team he would want to play for.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
117

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,271

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Jan. 31 at Knicks
Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Since he turned 38 (on Dec. 30), LeBron has averaged 35.2 points per game, which would see the mark broken at home against the Thunder.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”