For better or worse, the NBA is forging ahead with its plan to restart the 2019-20 season at the end of the month in Orlando, Florida. As teams report to Walt Disney World for training camp, we will dive deep into the big-picture basketball questions left to be answered between now and October.
We know what makes an NBA champion. With few exceptions, it takes an MVP-caliber superstar at the peak of his powers, surrounded by at least one other star (often two) and quality role players to navigate the playoff gauntlet. Kawhi Leonard succeeded as the headliner of a deep Toronto Raptors rotation last season. Before him it was Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry this decade.
Leonard is the only one without a Maurice Podoloff Trophy to his name, but he does already own two Finals MVPs, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a pair of top-three MVP finishes from his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs, whose 2014 title roster, led by the aging Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, is somewhat of an exception to the NBA rule. But they were also already a four-time champion with four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, including a top-10 all-time player.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons are the most oft-cited aberration. They were the last team to win the title without an MVP on the roster, but in retrospect they too were stacked. Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace were all multiple-time All-Stars under the age of 30.
So, which teams fit the bill in Orlando? The Los Angeles Lakers feature James, the four-time MVP, and Anthony Davis, who finished third in the 2018 MVP race. The Milwaukee Bucks boast Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has all but sealed his second consecutive MVP campaign. Throw in the Los Angeles Clippers, since we know what Leonard can do, and he is now joined by Paul George, who placed third in last year’s MVP race. And the Houston Rockets have a pair of MVPs, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, sharing their backcourt. That’s it. That is the list, so it is unsurprising that those four teams currently have the best odds of winning the 2020 championship, per BetMGM.
But we do not know what it takes to win the title in a bubble. Could we see a team built in the mold of the 2004 Pistons win in Orlando, where health looms large and depth could be key? Our circle then expands to the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, whose starting lineups are rife with star-caliber players, headlined by Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum, respectively, both flashing future MVP potential.
Considering how well the Raptors have rebounded from losing Leonard, we should include them as well. They still feature a pair of 2020 All-Stars and former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol atop a loaded rotation, although I am not sure Pascal Siakam has the ability to reach that highest level. The Miami Heat, led by All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, exist in that same space. The Utah Jazz might have, too, had they not lost Bojan Bogdanovic to a season-ending surgery.
If we want to consider teams with players who could potentially join that MVP conversation, then Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets enter the fray. Duncan had not yet won an MVP when he led San Antonio to the 1999 title in a lockout-shortened season. Could Doncic do the same in a stop-and-start season? Keep in mind those Spurs also started David Robinson, four years removed from his MVP campaign. I am not sure Kristaps Porzingis and Jamal Murray are comparable co-stars, although Porzingis was in that stratosphere before his knee injury.
We have expanded our list of potential champions too far already. As much as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers, both talented teams, might want to talk themselves into being in this discussion, they are outside the circle. If only Chris Paul were younger and Victor Oladipo healthier.
I would be surprised if the Bucks, Lakers or Clippers do not win the title and shocked if the Larry O’Brien Trophy lands anywhere else but Houston, Boston or Philadelphia. The Heat, Jazz, Nuggets and Raptors have ceilings that fall just short of championship heights, and the Mavs are not ready.
The last seven champions have posted a top-five offensive rating during the regular season, and all but one of them had a top-10 defensive rating. The 2018 Golden State Warriors were coasting en route to a third title in their fourth straight Finals campaign and submitted the 11th-ranked defense. All seven of those teams finished with a top-four net rating, with Toronto’s margin of 5.8 points per 100 possessions last season marking the lowest. Only one champion this century has had a net rating lower than 4.1, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (3.5), another dynasty coasting to the playoffs.
Only six teams have net ratings higher than four points per 100 possessions this season:
Milwaukee Bucks: 10.7 net rating (6th in offensive rating, 1st in defensive rating)
Los Angeles Lakers: 7.1 net rating (4th in offensive rating, 3rd in defensive rating)
L.A. Clippers: 6.4 net rating (3rd in offensive rating, 5th in defensive rating)
Toronto Raptors: 6.4 net rating (12th in offensive rating, 2nd in defensive rating)
Boston Celtics: 6.1 net rating (5th in offensive rating, 4th in defensive rating)
Dallas Mavericks: 5.8 net rating (1st in offensive rating, 17th in defensive rating)
Houston is sixth with a net rating of 3.4. The starting lineup since the trade deadline — when Robert Covington replaced Clint Capela in a center-less rotation — has not had enough time together to determine whether they made much of an upgrade. The talent is there, but the fit remains awkward. The small-ball gimmick might win a series or two, but it is practically impossible to imagine it surviving the gauntlet of the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks over the final three rounds of the playoffs.
The Sixers’ offense has been so bad that they did not make this cut. The only hope for them is that the restart represents an entirely new season, one in which their chemistry issues are wiped clean.
Dallas’ net rating fell to 3.9 in the 24 games since starting center Dwight Powell tore his Achilles, and their defense eliminates them from this discussion. One team with a defensive rating worse than 11th has won a championship this century, and they had Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Likewise, Toronto’s offensive limitations suggest fears are legitimate that the Raptors will miss Leonard’s presence more in the playoffs, when they absolutely need to create a crunch-time bucket.
If you are looking for a long shot, consider the Celtics. They have more capable playmakers than any competitor, and Tatum has improved at such a rate this season that he could be the best player on a title team by the end. Jaylen Brown is similarly on the rise in a way that we could look back on Boston a few years from now and wonder why we doubted them. The center position is not fully shored, they could have used another shooter off the bench, and the health of Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward has been a concern, but if both can be supporting stars to Tatum, that is a depth of talent on par with the 2004 Pistons. And Marcus Smart might have to be their Ben Wallace.
The Bucks are unquestionably the favorite, if only because they do not have to go through the Lakers and Clippers to get to the Finals. The biggest question facing Milwaukee is whether defenses dead set on stopping Antetokounmpo from getting into the paint will limit its offense. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe are not the secondary creators we are accustomed to seeing on title teams. It is a heavy burden on Antetokounmpo’s shoulders, but this is what is asked of MVPs.
The margin for error for the Lakers is razor thin after losing Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. Their only regular lineup without either of them (and with a large enough sample size to consider) — the one that replaces Bradley with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope alongside the other starters — has only outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions, largely because of a defense equivalent to the NBA’s 27th-ranked outfit. It obviously helps to have James and Davis fully engaged and sharing the burden on both ends, but the quality of their role players may be short of championship caliber.
The team with the best recipe of a traditional champion is the Clippers. Leonard is capable of being the best player on the court against anyone, and George is not far behind. They can create offense even when both stars are not involved, because Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are an elite pick-and-roll tandem, and they have a host of versatile defenders to plug any holes. They run deep. Take away one strength, and they can hit you with a few more. They have answers for every adjustment.
The Clippers will win the 2020 NBA championship, or at least they should if everyone stays healthy.
More from our NBA restart series:
– – – – – – –