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


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.

Jokić conducts a symphony on offense, Nuggets pick up 104-93 Game 1 win over Heat


DENVER — This is what the Denver Nuggets have done to every team that faced them this postseason. And most of the ones in the regular season, too.

There are no good answers to slowing the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokić pick-and-roll. Their passing and off-ball movement are elite. They have shooters everywhere. They have size across the board. And they play enough defense that it becomes impossible to keep up with their scoring.

Combine that with Heat shooters going cold for long stretches of Game 1 and you end up with a 104-93 Nuggets victory that wasn’t as close as the final score made it seem.

The Nuggets lead the NBA Finals 1-0, with Game 2 Sunday in Denver. It was a raucous, fun night for Nuggets fans who got everything they wanted from the franchise’s first-ever Finals game.

Jokić finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds — Miami has to find a way not to let him both score and distribute if they are going to have a chance in this series. Of course, that’s what the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers all said.

Murray added 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Aaron Gordon scored 16 on 7-of-10 shooting.

Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 26 points and 13 rebounds, shooting 13-of-25. He played well and hard all night, but the Nuggets will be happy if he is the Heat player taking the most shots every game.

From the opening tip, Denver’s size advantage on paper became a problematic reality for Miami – 18 of Nuggets’ first 24 points were scored in the paint. The Nuggets used their size advantage to pummel the Heat inside on offense, and turn them into jump shooters on the other end.

“You have to credit them with their size and really protecting the paint and bringing a third defender,” Spoelstra said postgame. “Things [we do] have to be done with a lot more intention and a lot more pace, a lot more detail.”

Miami also just missed shots they made in the previous series, shooing 9-of-26 (34.6%) in the first quarter. For the game things got a little better, but the Heat had an unimpressive 102.2 offensive rating on the night.

The shooting trend continued into the second, as the Heat didn’t play terribly on the offensive end for most of the first half, moving the ball and getting clean looks, but they weren’t falling — Max Strus was 0-of-7 in the first half (six from 3) and those were essentially open looks. Miami did make a little push in some non-Jokić minutes in the second and cut the lead down to six with 5:47 left in the half on a Haywood Highsmith dunk.

But the first half’s final minutes were a disaster for the Heat. They didn’t score for 3:30 after Highsmith’s bucket and shot 2-of-10 the rest of the quarter. Denver got rolling at the end of the quarter, went on a 16-5 run, and it was a 17-point Nuggets lead at the break, 59-42.

At the start of both the third and the fourth quarters the Heat made runs — 7-0 to start the third, 11-0 to start the fourth — and cut the lead to 10 both times. In the third,d things returned to first-half form and the Nuggets ran out to a 21-point lead after three.

In the fourth, the Heat kept it close, partly thanks to 18 points from Highsmith off the bench, and the lead got down to single digits for a possession. But Miami was too far back for their comeback magic, especially against a team with Jokić orchestrating a symphony on offense.

Brad Stevens confirms Joe Mazzulla will return as Celtics coach


Despite the sting of losing to the No. 8 seed Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, don’t expect sweeping changes in Boston. Not to the Celtics’ coaching staff and not to the roster.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Steven made that clear in his end-of-season press conference. It starts with bringing back Joe Mazzulla, which was expected after he was given a multi-year contract extension during the season. Stevens was asked if Mazzulla was the right person to lead the Celtics after an uneven season (hat tip NBC Sports Boston).

“Yeah, I think he is,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a really good job with this group. Everybody’s going to overreact to the best players and coaches after every game. That’s always the way it is. We know that going in, so we have to be able to judge things on the whole.

“He’s a terrific leader, he’ll only get better at anything that he can learn from this year, because he’s constantly trying to learn. And he’s accountable. Those leadership qualities are hard to find. I know they’re easy to talk about, but when you can show all those through the expectations and the microscope that he was under, that’s hard to do. Our players, our staff, everybody around him believe(s) in him, and we’ve got to do our best to support him going forward.”

The expectation is that veteran coaches — ideally at least one person with NBA head coaching experience — will be added to Mazzulla’s staff to help with the maturation process of the young coach. But he will be back.

Stevens also was asked about Jaylen Brown, who is eligible for a supermax extension of around $295 million over five years (his making All-NBA made him eligible for 35% of the salary cap). Stevens was limited in what he could say due to (archaic) tampering rules.

“I’ve had nothing but great conversations with Jaylen, but we can’t talk about all that stuff,” Stevens said. “I’m not allowed to talk about the contract details, let alone the extension because it’s not of that time yet right now. His window is between July 1 and October or whatever it is.

“But I can say without a doubt that we want Jaylen to be here. He’s a big part of us. We believe in him. I’m thankful for him. I’m really thankful for when those guys (Jayson Tatum and Brown) have success, they come back to work. And when they get beat, they own it and come back to work. I know that’s what they’re about, and that’s hard to find. Kinda like what I talked about with leadership earlier. Those qualities aren’t for everyone. Jaylen had a great year, All-NBA year and he’s a big part of us moving forward in our eyes.”

Despite Brown’s struggles against the Heat, it’s a no-brainer for the Celtics to retain the 26-year-old All-NBA player entering his prime. They should offer him the full supermax, and his public comments made it sound like that’s what he expects. Mess around in negotiations and try to get Brown to take less than the full max and then the threat of Brown leaving becomes more real. Only one player has ever rejected a supermax extension: Kawhi Leonard when he was trying to force a trade. (If Boston puts the full 35% max on the table and Brown rejects it, then the game changes and they have to trade him this summer, but don’t bet on him walking away from more than a quarter of a billion dollars).

There will be changes on the Celtics roster, but expect Brown and Mazzulla to return.

Purdue’s Zach Edey headlines list of players to withdraw from NBA Draft

Fairleigh Dickinson v Purdue
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The winner of the 2023 John R. Wooden Award and the Naismith College Player of the Year Award is headed back for another year in the college ranks. And it’s the right move.

Zach Edey headlines the list of 181 players who withdrew their names from the NBA Draft, and he is headed back to Purdue for another season. He confirmed it on Twitter in his own way.

Edey averaged 22.3 points a game on 60.7% shooting and 12.9 rebounds a game last season for the Boilermakers, and his measurements at the NBA Draft Combine were hard to ignore — 7-3¼ barefoot, with a 7-10½ wingspan. However, his lack of elite athleticism, questions about his ability to defend in space, and an old-school, near-the-basket game are not natural fits with where the NBA is trending. He was expected to get picked in the back half of the second round (meaning no guaranteed contract), if at all.

With that, he made the right decision to return to college. If the Toronto native can arrange a new student visa that allows him to better capitalize on NIL money, a return to Purdue is likely the right financial decision as well.

Here are some of the biggest names among the 181 who withdrew from the NBA Draft (via Jonathan Givony of ESPN), with all projected to go after No. 40 or later:

Trey Alexander (Creighton)
Reece Beekman (Virginia)
Adem Bona (UCLA)
Jalen Bridges (Baylor)
Tristan da Silva (Colorado)
Zach Edey (Purdue)
Coleman Hawkins (Illinois)
DaRon Holmes (Dayton)
Josiah-Jordan James (Tennessee)
Dillon Jones (Weber State)
Judah Mintz (Syracuse)
Dillon Mitchell (Texas)
Terrence Shannon (Illinois)

The NBA Draft takes place on June 22.

Lakers rumored to prefer sign-and-trade options for D’Angelo Russell, eye Fred VanVleet

2023 Play-In Tournament - Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors
Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

D'Angelo Russell helped the Lakers turn their season around after the All-Star break. He provided needed shot creation at the point, averaged 17.4 points per game while shooting 41.4% from 3, and generally fit nicely on the court. However, his limitations — particularly on the defensive end — were exposed in the playoffs, especially by the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

Russell is an unrestricted free agent and the Lakers are faced with choices: Re-sign him, let him walk, or maybe find a sign-and-trade that can bring back a player who is a better fit for a Lakers roster with championship aspirations next season. The Lakers would ideally like the sign-and-trade option, suggests Jovan Buha of The Athletic.

My read on the situation is that the Lakers would prefer to use D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, but I’m not sure the market is there.

Landing Kyrie Irving for Russell is shaping up to be a pipe dream, especially with Dallas unlikely to help Los Angeles out. Fred VanVleet, a Klutch client, looms as a possibility, but adding him would require Toronto to agree to terms with Russell (or take on the Beasley and Bamba contracts).

Forget about a Kyrie Irving sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Russell, that appears off the table (unless the Lakers add so many sweeteners Dallas can’t say no… and didn’t the Lakers just gut their roster for a guard in Russell Westbrook?)

Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times adds this.

Fred VanVleet’s name has been mentioned since even before he joined Klutch Sports, though the Lakers could again be in a position where they’d be forced to part with one or more draft picks in a deal. Russell’s postseason struggles were probably a little overblown after a disastrous Western Conference finals, but expect the Lakers to look at upgrade options. There’s still a chance Russell returns on a good deal and the Lakers actually get the continuity they’ve spoken about building.

VanVleet has a $22.8 million player option he is widely expected to opt out of seeking more money and years. He averaged 19.3 points and 7.2 assists a game last season, is a respectable defender, and is a former All-Star and NBA champion.

The questions start with, what are Toronto’s plans? They have yet to hire a new head coach after firing Nick Nurse, and there isn’t a sense of whether they will try to re-sign VanVleet, extend Pascal Siakam and run it back, break the entire thing up, or travel a middle ground reworking the roster. Dreams of a sign-and-trade only work if the Raptors play along. And, if the Raptors come around to consider a sign-and-trade for VanVleet, do they want Russell in that deal? Plus, the Lakers likely have to throw in the last first-round pick they can trade to get Toronto even to consider it.

All of which is to say, it’s a long shot VanVleet is a Laker. Not impossible, but not likely.

The smart money is on the Lakers re-signing Russell and considering trade options at next February’s deadline or next summer, if they feel it’s time to move on.