In the past, as new sports seasons approached, smart money said to bet the champs. Never underestimate the heart of a champion and all that. Sometimes, it paid off. Sometimes, it blew up. You don’t always see it coming. But sometimes, you do.
So while the defending champion Toronto Raptors again will be talented and formidable, few see them as 2019-20 NBA favorites. You lose your very best player, Kawhi Leonard, to free agency and your chances take a Richter scale-like hit. And that is one reason why teams across the NBA landscape are preparing a “Why Not Us?” mantra for the season, which officially starts Tuesday.
“I can’t remember where you legitimately have nine teams in the league that are contenders,” Lawrence Frank, president of basketball operations for the Clippers, said in a text. “I think teams will need 2½ to three months to really understand who they are and what needs they have to address.”
Frank has built one of the strongest contenders with the free-agency acquisition of Leonard and the trade acquisition of Paul George. Those are two legit superstars for a team that won 48 games in blue-collar style last season.
Leonard and George represent another theme for NBA 2019-20: massive relocation. Big names changed addresses like online addicts change passwords, so continuity could be a real strength.
“With all the movement, it’s hard to know or say what anyone has,” one veteran Eastern Conference scout said. “It will take a while to see what’s what.”
Here is one early attempt to assess what’s what, one through 30, with last season’s records:
NBA POWER RANKINGS 2019-2020
1. Milwaukee Bucks (60-22)
Why not? The Bucks were the league’s only 60-win team last season and reaped a boatload of awards, including MVP for Giannis Antetokounmpo. They led the league in scoring, but little mattered after losing the Eastern Conference Finals (blowing a 2-0 lead) to Toronto. They have basically the same group back with a big exception: point guard Malcolm Brogdon, a sign-and-trade departure. With Eric Bledsoe nursing a rib injury early, vet George Hill should man the point. Sharpshooter Khris Middleton and center Brook Lopez both re-upped. But it all revolves around Antetokounmpo.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (48-34)
They had a toughness last year. Now they add studs Leonard and George. Yeah, they’re dangerous. The Clips still have Lou Williams, who could win the Sixth Man Award for what seems like the 37th straight year. Forward Montrezl Harrell could contend for Sixth Man, too. Landry Shamet, along with offseason acquisitions Moe Harkless and Rodney McGruder, offer quality depth. Both Leonard and George are tough defenders and fit with defensive stud Patrick Beverley.
3. Denver Nuggets (54-28)
Here is where continuity helps. The Nuggets have basically the same roster from a 54-win, No. 2-seed team. And they get back Michael Porter Jr., a potentially terrific player who dropped two drafts ago with back issues. Nikola Jokic is a No. 2 or 3 center in the league. The first-five talent continues with Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. They landed defensive stud Jerami Grant to make them two deep at every position.
4. Philadelphia 76ers (51-31)
After a disappointing regular-season defense, the 76ers lured big man Al Horford away from the Celtics. They received Josh Richardson from the Heat in a sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler. They extended Ben Simmons, re-signed Tobias Harris and moved up in the draft. Yet none of it will matter if they can’t keep Joel Embiid on the floor. The Sixers are in the elite mix and Embiid is as big a reason as any. He is simply a dominant player with a stunning inside presence.
5. Los Angeles Lakers (37-45)
Last year did not go as planned, unless the plan was “Let’s fall on our faces.” LeBron James proved no one beats Father Time, and his groin injury doomed the Lakers’ hopes. But the failure to make the playoffs, and an offseason free of games (but not controversy) should regenerate James. That is especially true with the Lakers landing (hijacking?) Anthony Davis, an MVP sort. Throw in Danny Green, an experienced element with rings from the Spurs and Raptors, and Kyle Kuzma, who was one of the few young Lakers not exiled to acquire Davis. Rajon Rondo is still around, but depth is shaky.
6. Houston Rockets (53-29)
They will win again. They will shoot an unholy amount of 3-pointers again. And they will not win a title again. The Rockets landed one of the premier talents in Russell Westbrook. But here is the problem: Westbrook needs the ball in his hands. James Harden always has the ball in his hands. So they’re running into the chemistry issue again. They are the same team as last year, except for Westbrook taking the place of Chris Paul.
7. Utah Jazz (50-32)
The Jazz are a team most ignore. Mistake. Utah improved its depth and brought in the best point guard never to make an All-Star team, Mike Conley. They have a legit star in Donovan Mitchell, the do-everything wing. Joe Ingles is a joy to watch because he plays the right way. An important pickup was dead-eye shooter Bojan Bogdanovic. And they got rebound machine Ed Davis to support the best defensive center in the universe, Rudy Gobert. They won 50 games last season and now are better.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (53-29)
Some things never change. But some things really do. Witness the Trail Blazers, who are always good for 28-30 wins at home. And these Blazers have done it primarily with a dominant backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. So here’s what’s new: almost everything else. A huge personnel turnover from a 53-win team includes newcomers Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Hassan Whiteside and Pau Gasol. Whiteside brings a different look inside with center Jusuf Nurkic rehabbing a gruesome leg injury.
9. Golden State Warriors (57-25)
It seems the last time the Warriors did not rank as preseason favorites, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The Warriors are still very good — Steph Curry and Draymond Green will see to that — but not prohibitive favorites. Curry-D’Angelo Russell is not Curry-Klay Thompson, despite Russell’s All-Star status. Thompson, injured in the Finals, will return. Until then, Green must play a bigger offensive role. Willie Cauley-Stein is an upgrade at center. They move into a new arena and are likely still a 50-win team.
10. Toronto Raptors (58-24)
Kawhi Leonard stayed one year but delivered a title after arriving from the Spurs in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader. The Raptors will be interesting, bringing everybody back but their MVP. Point guard Kyle Lowry’s thumb will be a early issue, so Fred VanVleet will have to carry the position. Pascal Siakam has emerged as one of the better small forwards. Other young guys like OG Anunoby developed, with vets like Marc Gasol leading. They are a great home team.
11. Indiana Pacers (48-34)
The Pacers reflect coach Nate McMillan. They play hard, defend hard. They made a major addition with blue-collar point guard Malcolm Brogdon. When Victor Oladipo heals, the Pacers will have a rock solid backcourt. Jeremy Lamb, another add, gives scoring at the two until Oladipo returns. They’ve got 3-point shooting in Doug McDermott and Justin Holiday and old-school front-liners in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. T.J. Warren was a good add from the Suns.
12. Brooklyn Nets (42-40)
One opposing executive in assessing the Nets’ blockbuster offseason pointed to Kyrie Irving: “Did they get Stephon Marbury or Jason Kidd?” Fizzle or Finals? Brooklyn also got Kevin Durant, who might not play until next year but is part of the stunningly upbeat Nets vibe in New York. They have most of the core back, changing D’Angelo Russell for Irving. Rising center Jarrett Allen will split time with DeAndre Jordan. Taurean Prince brings an additional perimeter threat, joining the likes of Joe Harris. Caris LeVert is another rising star, while Spencer Dinwiddie, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs provide depth.
13. Boston Celtics (49-33)
The Celtics come back after a season of disappointment that everyone who slurps Chowda blames on the departed Kyrie Irving. They replaced him with Kemba Walker, who really has not won big in the NBA. The Celtics are good, not great. Gordon Hayward looks better with some pop back in his game, but there still is a minutes problem for him, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. A lot of toughness is gone. Enes Kanter is at center and he can give a double-double, but also provide suspect defense.
14. San Antonio Spurs (48-34)
How amazing have the Spurs been? They won 48 games last season, and that was a bad year. Guard Dejounte Murray is back from a torn ACL and he’ll team with DeMar DeRozan for a solid backcourt. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge remains a force. Center Jakob Poeltl got better as the season progressed and they added defender DeMarre Carroll.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33)
Paul George is a Clipper. Russell Westbrook is a Rocket. Chris Paul replaces Westbrook, but what are the Thunder getting? Definitely not the All-Star version of Chris Paul. But there are enough good players here to make the Thunder intriguing: guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, center Steven Adams and defender Terrance Ferguson. Danilo Gallinari was picked up in a contract year.
16. Orlando Magic (42-40)
The Magic came on late last season, made the playoffs and seemed to have carried over the momentum. D.J. Augustin is a heady point and Evan Fournier has continually improved at two. Aaron Gordon is legit and Jonathan Isaac has made huge strides up front. Nikola Vucevic is a true star center. They added an elite defender in Al-Farouq Aminu who gives a second unit vet presence with Terrence Ross.
17. Sacramento Kings (39-43)
This is not a drill: There is excitement in Sacramento. The Kings are deep and could surprise. De’Aaron Fox is poised for a big jump. Buddy Hield has found his spot at two guard. Cory Joseph solidifies the bench. Harrison Barnes and Trevor Ariza fortify the three. Forward Marvin Bagley III continues to improve. They added Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes to improve center. Guard Bogdan Bogdanovic has star potential. Coach Luke Walton has a nice mix in his first Kings year.
18. New Orleans Pelicans (33-49)
Here is your true X factor team. They could be big-time good. They could be OK. To start is Zion Williamson, the most-heralded rookie since guys shot at peach baskets. He has had knee issues since summer league and will be sidelined to start the season. This is a chance for Lonzo Ball to be a point guard, free of LeBron James’ gaze. Forward Brandon Ingram, also part of the return for Anthony Davis, is solid. Forward Derrick Favors, late of Utah, is a sound, experienced pro. This could be a very fun bunch.
19. Miami Heat (39-43)
The Heat’s culture keeps them in the hunt. They simply outwork you and that puts them in the playoff mix. Jimmy Butler is aboard. He went from being the hungry guy who worked himself from a star in Chicago to being a royal pain in the pants in his last two stops. Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters form a potentially potent backcourt. No. 13 pick Tyler Herro has shown a great preseason shooter’s touch.
20. Detroit Pistons (41-41)
Health is the issue. And it’s particularly important when you have the depth the Pistons have, which is little, especially up front. Blake Griffin had a terrific season last year and he needs to be just as good if the Pistons are to make noise. Derrick Rose seeks to continue his reincarnation after a strong 51-game stint with the Timberwolves last season. Detroit still figures to hoist 3s incessantly, so Luke Kennard is key. Amid all the sniping, Andre Drummond remains a post presence. Vet Tony Snell was a nice add.
21. Dallas Mavericks (33-49)
The Mavericks have not been past the first round of the playoffs since their 2011 title year. But there are two really good reasons for excitement — franchise foundation types Luka Doncic, the reigning Rookie of the Year, and Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-1 “Unicorn” who has been sidelined since tearing his ACL in February, 2018. Early returns on Porzingis are favorable and if healthy, he can be a beast of the highest order. Depth is better, especially with center Boban Marjanovic and the addition of guard Delon Wright.
22. New York Knicks (17-65)
Knicks fans, who have known only two winning seasons in 18 years, had grand visions entering free agency. But big names went elsewhere. Still, the guys they acquired can play. The haul, including Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris will help. Taj Gibson is a terrific veteran presence. Reggie Bullock (disk surgery, out for the start) and Wayne Ellington are sound shooters. RJ Barrett was the No. 3 draft prize after dreams of Zion Williamson evaporated. The point-guard situation is weird. They have a bunch, and none — Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. or Elfrid Payton — can shoot. Kevin Knox and center Mitchell Robinson must make second-year leaps.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves (36-46)
Wasn’t it just a year ago the Timberwolves were on track for great things? Well, Jimmy Butler got his trade-demand wish, coach Tom Thibodeau got a pink slip and Minny fans got a non-playoff team. The outlook is no better. They still have one of the better players in the league, center Karl-Anthony Towns. They added depth (Noah Vonleh to back up Towns, Shabazz Napier behind point guard Jeff Teague) but need real jumps from Andrew Wiggins and Josh Okogie. They require help from forward Keita Bates-Diop and guard Jarrett Culver, their last two first-rounders.
24. Chicago Bulls (22-60)
Team Tank may actually try to compete this time. The Bulls traded for Tomas Satoransky to stabilize the point while No. 7 pick Coby White matures. They hope Zach LaVine is healthy for a full season and sharpshooter forward Lauri Markkanen proceeds to the next level. Forward Otto Porter Jr. is a good pro, and they need progress from Wendell Carter Jr., last year’s first-rounder. Depth is a huge problem.
25. Atlanta Hawks (29-53)
They are young and play very hard. But youth and hard play doesn’t mean playoffs. The backcourt — Trae Young and Kevin Huerter — is good. Young was only the third rookie ever to average more than 19 points and eight assists. Evan Turner arrived for a veteran presence. There are some depth issues up front, but there’s also optimism with forward De’Andre Hunter from NCAA champ Virginia. John Collins and Alex Len were potent bigs last season. And Vince Carter is back for one more run.
26. Memphis Grizzlies (33-49)
The worst scoring team in the league last season landed the No. 2-overall pick in Ja Morant, which means a rookie will handle the point for the Grizzlies, and that’s always interesting. Jaren Jackson Jr. is another young reason for hope. Center Jonas Valanciunas breaks the young-across-the-board plot. Trade-acquired vet Andre Iguodala is more likely to play in Seattle before Memphis.
27. Washington Wizards (32-50)
They’ve got Bradley Beal and some young talent and a very good coach in Scott Brooks. After that, there’s a bunch of one-year deal guys, some rookies and a light on in the window for John Wall (Achilles surgery) who will be an unknown quantity even if he makes it back this year, which is anything but certain.
28. Phoenix Suns (19-63)
Some 20 years from now, more folks will identify Igor Kokoskov as Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant rather than a one-and-done Suns coach. So Phoenix stabilized things bringing in Monty Williams to coach. The addition of Ricky Rubio makes them better and it will make life easier for Devin Booker, getting him better looks. They should have Kelly Oubre Jr. (acquired in December, hurt in March) for a full year. Ex-Celtic Aron Baynes gives beef up front behind Deandre Ayton. Import Dario Saric brings backcourt physicality.
29. Charlotte Hornets (39-43)
Well, at least Michael Jordan made a bundle selling a minority share of the Hornets. Now if only he could make some equally sound moves to improve the product. Kemba Walker left for no return and Charlotte signed Terry Rozier, who never has been in a star role. Miles Bridges seems to have a nice future, but for the present the highest scoring returning Hornet is Nicolas Batum (9.3 ppg).
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (19-63)
Kevin Love is the Cavalier under the biggest microscope — after former Michigan coach John Beilein, who swapped college recruiting for professional rebuilding. Love only played 22 games last season, but if he can find his old form, he could find a new address. The Cavs are agonizingly young and owners of a pair of lottery-pick point guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, from the past two drafts. Tristan Thompson is another sound vet in a sea of youth. They also have Larry Nance Jr., but not enough for any excitement.