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.
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.
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.
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.
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.