SINGAPORE — After the Toronto Raptors upended all predictions to emerge as surprise champions last season, after a breathless free-agency period that saw numerous personnel changes, and after the recent clash with China over a tweet, the 2019/20 National Basketball Association (NBA) season will finally begin on Wednesday (23 October). Phew!
Fans would be over the moon if the six-month, 82-game regular season slog is half as thrilling as the past five months of drama. But there is bound to be plenty of intrigue from the fallout of what transpired in the off-season, so here are the key storylines that will dominate the new season:
Can the Raptors retain their NBA title?
The short answer is: No, but just like last season, you’ll never know.
The long answer: Having failed to retain Kawhi Leonard, the Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals, the Raptors are likely to be greatly diminished. After all, Leonard was by far their best offensive and defensive player during their astonishing triumph last season.
His free-agency move to Los Angeles Clippers was a huge blow, and it meant that the Raptors did not have a like-for-like replacement. This spells trouble for them in offence, as they have to hope power forward Pascal Siakam can develop quickly into an inside scoring threat to complement Kyle Lowry’s perimeter prowess.
But the Raptors’ defence is still top-notch with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka prowling the paint, and they are certainly capable of contending in the Eastern Conference. And considering that they hit on such scintillating form in last season’s play-offs, they are certainly not to be dismissed lightly.
Can the Los Angeles Clippers win their first NBA title?
On paper, they certainly have the tools to do so. In Leonard and Paul George, their prized free-agency captures during the off-season, they boast two of the best two-way players in the league – capable of scoring at will and shutting down anyone in defence. It will be exciting to find out if these two could co-exist well enough for a title assault.
But the Clippers have other formidable weapons. Point guard Patrick Beverley is a hustling, tough-as-nails defender, while Lou Williams has made a career out of coming off the bench to provide instant offence.
The only weakness for them will be at the centre position, with third-year pro Ivica Zubac an inexperienced and underwhelming presence. How this plays out in the regular season will be a conundrum that head coach Doc Rivers must address.
Otherwise, this is a potent title-contending team that will, at the very least, be the best team in Los Angeles.
Can LeBron James and Anthony Davis lift the Los Angeles Lakers?
It may seem like a disappointing off-season for the Lakers, who were gunning to sign Leonard or George – both LA natives – to complement James and Davis in what would have been a shoo-in for the NBA title.
Still, getting Davis remains a huge plus for the struggling NBA giants, who have not reached the play-offs for the past six seasons. By himself, the centre is a one-man wrecking machine – inside scoring, outside scoring, rebounding, blocking, passing, he can do it all.
Combined with the extraordinary skills of James, as well as a squad of seasoned veterans and young upstarts, and the Lakers can have no excuses to miss the playoffs again this season.
Can they win the NBA title? It may be a little too soon, and there are still lingering doubts on Davis’ durability, but it will definitely be fun watching the Lakers again.
Can the Golden State Warriors overcome their setbacks and last season’s disappointment?
They had a team built to dominate the next few years, with a playing style few teams can defend against. Then Kevin Durant went down with a serious injury. Then Klay Thompson suffered a similar fate. Then the Raptors stunned them in the NBA Finals.
That the Golden State Warriors – three times champions in the last five years – are still in the shout for another title assault despite all these catastrophes shows how strong the squad is, and how well the franchise is being run.
Durant has left for the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, while Thompson may be out for at least a large chunk of the season, but sharpshooter Stephen Curry and defensive linchpin Draymond Green are still around, and still in their primes.
With the experience gained from winning those three recent titles, it would be foolish to think they will not be in contention for a deep play-off run, if Curry and Green stay healthy and motivated.
Which of the “nearly-there” teams can spring a surprise like the Raptors did last season?
We’re looking at you: Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. These four teams are packed with talents, but either lack veteran experience in their squads, or have some weaknesses they have yet to address.
Of the quartet, the Bucks made the fewest off-season trades, essentially retaining the team that reached the Eastern Conference finals. That means they remain a thin squad heavily reliant on reigning Most Valuable Player (MVP), Giannis Antetokounmpo, and much of their hopes lie on keeping him healthy.
The “Greek Freak” is still improving though – a scary thought for the rest of the NBA – and his all-around brilliance should carry the Bucks into another strong post-season.
In contrast, the Jazz made arguably the most astute upgrades among the four teams, bringing a top-calibre veteran point guard in Mike Conley to complement their star shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, as well as a sharp-shooting forward in Bojan Bogdanovic to pair up with Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
Together with versatile wingman Joe Ingles, the Jazz have finally assembled a strong starting five to challenge the Western Conference. It would not surprise anyone to see them overcome the talent-heavy conference and reach the NBA Finals.
The Rockets and the 76ers remain enigmas, despite engineering significant personnel changes.
Chris Paul, the talented but prickly star point guard, has been traded by the Rockets for former league MVP Russell Westbrook. This brings a stunning offensive upgrade in a team that already boasts another MVP in James Harden, NBA’s top scorer in the past two seasons.
The big question is whether Harden and Westbrook – two of the biggest ball-hogs in the game – can thrive together. The duo, who were former teammates at Oklahoma City Thunder, insist they can. Fans can only await with bated breath.
The 76ers also traded away a controversial character in shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who has never settled in any of his three NBA teams. In comes veteran forward Al Horford, an underrated player who will provide a steady partnership with their MVP-calibre centre Joel Embiid.
However, with the ongoing shooting problems of their star point guard Ben Simmons, who will be the 76ers’ go-to guy come crunch time, one who can create his own shots? Without Butler, this is the major problem hindering the team from winning the Eastern Conference.
Can the NBA survive their ongoing spat with China?
Commercially, they will take a severe beating, with China likely to close its doors to any marketing and broadcasting ventures by the league in the near future.
Nonetheless, the essence of the NBA – unquestionably the most exciting and talent-loaded basketball league in the world – will mean that fans, including the majority of Chinese fans, will continue to catch the daily action. The Lakers v Nets pre-season game in Shanghai, which happened in the midst of the spat, still saw a full-house crowd wanting to be entertained by the likes of James, Davis and Kyrie Irving.
So the NBA should survive the current dispute, and continue to be a global force. Whether it can regain its past marketing power in China, that is a question unlikely to be resolved in the new season.