2019-20 Previews: Denver Nuggets

Losses: Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Thomas.

Additions: Jerami Grant, Tyler Zeller, P.J. Dozier, Vlatko Cancar.

Likely Starters
Guard: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris
Wing: Will Barton
Big: Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

Predicted Record: 58–24 | 1st in NBA | 1st in West

Full disclosure: I love this team. This is a roster full of singular players; somehow, it is also a roster that coheres in exciting ways. You’ve got key players who are still incredibly young—Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić, and Gary Harris will be 22, 24, and 25 this season, respectively—and veterans like Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee who tie the young guys together. Everybody is a really good passer, everybody can make plays for themselves or for their teammates, and everything in this paragraph makes this a really good team that should improve over what they did last season.

On just what I’ve already written, you could argue that the Nuggets will be the best regular season team in the league this season. I’m suggesting here, though, that they will be more than that. I think this team is about to be great, and the reason for that is Nikola Jokić.

On a team of singular players, Jokić is a fucking singularity. He warps and curves the space on the floor in astonishing ways. Yes, he’s lumbering and plodding, but his physical form belies the effect he has on the game. You don’t need to be fast if you can alter space and time. You don’t need to move from point A to point B if you can fold those points together. It’s such a cliché to suggest that great players make their teammates better, but in the case of Jokić, his capacity for making his teammates better is his greatness. How to you quantify the effect it has on players to play with someone like that?

Here’s something so obvious you might miss it: it turns out it is valuable to have the best rebounder on your team be an all-time great passer. When Jokić gets a defensive rebound, his teammates can fly; they know if they’re open on the wing, down the floor, anywhere, the ball will magically fall into their hands. Jokić’s unique skill set fuels what would otherwise be a mediocre offense. The Nuggets were 6th in offensive rating last season despite finishing 27th in free throw rate, 15th in 3-point rate, and 15th in effective field goal percentage. You know why? They were 2nd in offensive rebound rate and second in assists. In a league that is figuring out the value of quick-hitting kick-out passes, Jokić came along fully equipped to deliver them more often than anybody. Philosophically, this becomes a way of building a team—Millsap and Plumlee are great in these areas too.

It’s fair to critique Jokić for his defense, but his effort and intelligence puts him ahead of plenty of players on that end too. It’s fair to wonder if there will be playoff matchups in which Jokić just can’t check anybody. On the other hand, he creates matchup problems too. The best playoff teams find things that work and pick them apart. Jokić is able to process that information in real time. You don’t have to call a timeout. He brings up the ball, he bulldozes his way into the post, and the offense swirls around him like a hurricane. My bet is that he can survive on defense. The great ones have a tendency to survive.

There’s a lot of peripheral stuff to be excited about in Denver. Jerami Grant is an awesome fit on this roster. Jokić didn’t shoot the ball particularly well last season and still was one of the best players in the league. The Nuggets are incredibly deep, and they are one of the few contenders with the contracts to swing a big trade at some point. If Jamal Murray can find some consistency in his best performances, this team is going to be a juggernaut. Whatever. The main attraction here is Jokić. He’s the thing that takes them from very good to anything’s possible.

It has become conventional wisdom that regular season success and playoff success are fundamentally different in basketball. It’s true, of course. Over the course of a series, it is much harder to get away with giving minutes to players with weaknesses the other team is capable of easily exploiting. We’re deep into an era in which players with the athletic profile of Nikola Jokić get played off the court against teams that can go small in the playoffs.

And yet, one quick look at the history of, well, anything will tell you that whenever we start thinking we know something, we should start considering the idea that we’re probably wrong. Jokić isn’t just some stiff. If you accept the premise that his greatness as a passer is evidence of a kind of genius when it comes to processing the game in real time, you can probably imagine that he’s capable of figuring out how to avoid getting roasted in the playoffs. The dude is 24 years old, and he’s already some kind of howling vortex at the center of a star, but he’s still becoming. He’s not what he’s going to be. Not yet; not even close.

As our basketball data gets better and better, there’s a risk in placing too much importance on what can be measured. Consider the way the 2014 Spurs were able to pass the ball until the Heat’s defense stretched and broke. Intuition—that holy basketball skill we refer to as feel: it is hard to value it properly. It requires a little bit of faith. The Nuggets are up to their elbows in it, and their center is a gravitational force, closing all distances, knitting everyone together. That’s why I think the Nuggets are going to win the 2019-20 NBA title.

2019-20 Previews: Milwaukee Bucks

Losses: Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon.

Additions: Robin Lopez, Wes Matthews, Dragan Bender, Kyle Korver, Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

Likely Starters
Guard: Eric Bledsoe
Wing: Wes Matthews, Khris Middleton
Big: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez

Predicted Record: 56–26 | 2nd in NBA | 1st in East

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –

764 | Emily Dickinson

It is my opinion that Kawhi Leonard is the best basketball player in the world. I believe that. Nevertheless, as I’ve been sitting here stewing about the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks, I’ve found myself struck by one all-powerful fact: Giannis Antetokounmpo is not even 25 years old yet. His trajectory is still pointing upward. Kawhi is in the thick of his prime—he already did the work of becoming a perfect defender, a knock-down shooter, a better passer, etc. Giannis still has so much room to improve.

For example, last season, Giannis set career highs in percentage of field goal attempts at the rim AND field goal percentage at the rim. He set career highs in assist rate and both offensive and defensive rebound rate. He also posted the highest usage rate of his career. On the other hand, he turned the ball over too often. He’s still not making enough of his free-throws. He has endless room to become more confident and dangerous as a shooter. He is still getting smarter about positioning as a defender. He’s only played in Coach Bud’s system for one season. The ceiling isn’t even in sight yet.

On the other hand, the Bucks’ insistence on ducking the luxury tax looms over all of this. You can’t ignore the fact that they could have kept Malcolm Brogdon this summer and chose not to because of money. They are seemingly locked into a universe in which everything comes down to Eric Bledsoe, a player who has epically shit the bed in two consecutive playoff runs. He’s just good enough that you don’t want to give up a bunch of assets to clear him off your books; he’s just terrible enough to absolutely destroy your team when it matters most.

Maybe Giannis is good enough that it doesn’t matter. George Hill is a good fit on this team as a caretaker point guard who plays defense and makes open shots. If three of their wings (a group consisting of Wes Matthews, Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Kyle Korver, and Thanasis Antetokounmpo) pop and they get something out of D.J. Wilson in the frontcourt, this team will be plenty deep enough when it matters. Still, if Bledsoe could manage to duplicate his regular season performance in the playoffs, they’re capable of going to another level.

Regardless, this Bucks team should coast to the best record in the league. The West is stacked—full of teams that are going to eat each other alive. The East is terrible; the only real competition is Philly, and that team has a ton of questions to answer on the offensive side of the ball. Milwaukee isn’t sneaking up on anybody anymore, but the system of Giannis + shooters on offense and no lay-ups or free-throws on defense is likely to carry them into the high 50s in wins easily. Coasting to the number one seed is nice, but if you do it too many times without playoff success it can start to leave a bad taste in the mouth of your superstar.

That, finally, is the shadow that darkens everything the Bucks do, now and into the uncertain future. They pulled off an incredible magic trick in getting Giannis on their roster with a middling first round pick and developing him into an MVP. Now they need to figure out a way to keep him. Like a shark, a team needs to keep moving, keep eating. You’re either getting better or you’re dying. Giannis might still be improving, but this team’s time is now. Given the stakes, you’d think they’d be all-in. When the playoffs roll around, it’s not hard to imagine they’ll wish they’d kept Malcolm Brogdon around.

2019-20 Previews: Los Angeles Clippers

Losses: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Wallace.

Additions: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Mo Harkless, Patrick Patterson, Mfiondu Kabengele, Terance Mann.

Likely Starters
Guard: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet
Wing: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George
Big: Ivica Zubac

Predicted Record: 56–26 | 3rd in NBA | 2nd in West

Finally, we have reached the Los Angeles Clippers. Once a talented roster screwed over by the managerial incompetence of their coach, “Cool story, Glenn” Rivers, the Clippers spent the past two years nailing every decision (including retaining Glenn), fleshing out an incredibly deep and seasoned roster, and creating an ecosystem that could attract the kind of star who can win the whole damn thing. This summer, they got that star. Kawhi Leonard decided he wanted to play for the Clippers. It took trading everything that wasn’t nailed down in order to pry Paul George from the Thunder, but it worked. If this roster is totally healthy heading into the playoffs, it’s the best roster in the league for sure.

If I was trying to explain the glorious possibilities inherent in basketball to someone who had never seen or heard of sports before, I think I’d make them watch Kawhi Leonard. He is somehow both machine-like and fluid. Like The Borg, he seems to be both cybernetic and organic; like an Olympic gymnast, he moves with unimaginable balance and strength. Hands like magnets; hands like vice-grips. Kawhi is like if wind was a dude; he’s like if a rock briefly became water, took the shape of a man, and then became rock again while maintaining all of water’s physical attributes.

Somehow, Kawhi Leonard made the Toronto Raptors win the title last season. Friends, winning titles basically is impossible. It almost never happens. The people who do it tend to do it over and over, and the rest of the people don’t get to do it. The exceptions you are muttering to yourself right now just prove the rule. In order to win a title—and here I mean: in order to be the meaning-making force at the center of a championship team—you need to be one of the all-time greats. This dude, playing hurt, played 39 minutes per game in the playoffs, and he averaged 30 points, nine rebounds, and four assists. And he led the league in times a player made me yelp and howl and make sounds I don’t even know how to make.

It’s kind of insane that you can just, like, sign a guy like that to a contract. The Clippers, it became clear as the days passed by in the first week of July, were willing to do whatever it took to do just that. Who could blame them? If you could hire the best person in the world for a particular job to do that job, wouldn’t you try to do that?

For my part, I’ve been having all these thoughts over the past few years about what it means to root for a team, and how that meaning survives or doesn’t in the context of a sport in which players don’t generally spend very long in one place. This summer, for example, I actually did not want my beloved Celtics to try to acquire Anthony Davis. I know Davis would have made them better, but even if I thought they could have kept him, I wasn’t interested. I’m not giving up Marcus Smart to get Anthony Davis. I love watching Marcus Smart. It’s the best. It can’t just be about getting the best players, right? At some point, love has to matter.

Kawhi, though. Sheesh. This guy exists outside of all of that nonsense. He comes with the love baked right in. Everything he does is this optimized, perfect action. Do I love watching him play basketball? I don’t know, does the fucking basketball love being a basketball? With Kawhi, it doesn’t make sense to talk about things like fandom and love. He is—or rather, he seems to me to be—basketball itself.

This Clippers team is perfect for him. They’d be decent without him. Like last season’s Raptors, they are a team with an identity already. You’ve got Lou and Trez running screen-and-roll, and the rest of the roster fits in around that, multipositional, tough, good on both ends of the floor. When Kawhi’s out there, they will wrap around him like a cozy blanket.

I’m not saying the Clippers are going to win the title. I think Denver and Milwaukee will win more regular season games. I think the Clippers are the most likely team to win the title, but it’s not a sure thing. Kawhi, for everything I wrote above, is enigmatic, challenging, breakable. He averaged 30 in the playoffs, sure, but he also hobbled around like an old man trying to get out of bed late on a Sunday morning. Frankly, I’m not sure how he did it. He carefully managed himself all season, and barely had anything left in the tank when it was over. Paul George is currently injured. This is not a sure thing.

What is a sure thing is this: when he’s right, Kawhi Leonard is the best basketball player in the world right now. Any other worlds? I’d like to see them try.

2019-20 Previews: Utah Jazz

Losses: Ricky Rubio, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh, Raul Neto, Grayson Allen.

Additions: Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Emmanuel Mudiay, Nigel Williams-Goss, Miye Oni.

Likely Starters
Guard: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell
Wing: Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic
Big: Rudy Gobert

Predicted Record: 55–27 | 4th in NBA | 3rd in West

Today is Mike Conley’s 32nd birthday. He’s had a really interesting career. He arrived in our basketball consciousness as Greg Oden’s Friend, accompanying the big guy the Ohio State. That year, as a freshman point guard who couldn’t really shoot from outside, Conley was the guiding principle that carried Ohio State to the championship game (they lost to the Joakim Noah/Al Horford Florida Gators).

Memphis drafted Conley 4th overall, and there were a few years during which that pick felt like a reach. He slowly improved, and in 2010—coming off a season in which he averaged 12 points and five assists per game with a PER below the league average—the Grizzlies extended him to an extension worth $45 million over five years. He slowly improved. Get used to reading that sentence. He slowly improved. He slowly improved.

It’s hard to imagine this now, but people questioned that contract. It seemed like a lot to give a mediocre point guard. It ended up being the central force in the last decade of the Grizzlies’ franchise. With Conley locked in at a bargain rate (he slowly improved), it was possible to maintain a good core around him. Even better, he slowly improved, and as he did, so did Marc Gasol, and the two of them turned into a ferocious, severely competent pair on both ends of the floor.

Eventually, a couple years ago, Gasol started looking old. The end of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies loomed. You can guess what happened with Mike Conley: he slowly improved. Last season, lugging around a garbage roster, Conley—at age 31—implausibly averaged a career high in points and field goal attempts. He did what he could to try keeping a sinking ship afloat. And now, for the first time in his NBA career, Mike Conley’s on a different team.

Conley’s whole game just begs to be underrated. He’s a pure point guard in the classic sense—a game-manager who is willing to be a killer when things get desperate. He knows where his guys want the ball; he knows how to get it to them. He’s rock-solid on defense. One thing I love about Conley is that early in his career he always hovered around the league-lead in steals, and then suddenly, right around the middle of his career, his steal-rate plummeted. My theory is that he realized something like: steals are risky, and I’ve got Tony Allen with me and Marc Gasol behind me—let’s just grind the other team until they fuck up.

Famously, Conley has never been an All-Star. He’s played in the West during the dominance of the West—during the era of Paul and Westbrook and Harden and Curry and Lillard and on and on. When someone becomes great slowly, you barely notice it. It’s like the fable of the boiling frog. Conley, today, on his 32nd birthday, might still be improving, because that’s what Mike Conley does. Again and again, he gets better. Who is a better basketball player: Mike Conley or Kyrie Irving? Mike Conley or Russell Westbrook? Who would you rather have on your team? Who is more likely to help you win?

This Utah Jazz team presents a new situation. The starting lineup heading into this season has a kind of offensive potential that goes beyond anything Conley has ever played with before. Rudy Gobert will be rumbling down the middle, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic will be spreading the floor and bullying switches, and Donovan Mitchell is a downright fireball. Conley’s a chameleon, and I’ve never seen him in this environment. In what glorious complexion will he dress himself?

This team is deep, and beyond the 1-5 combination of Conley and Gobert, everybody is multi-positional and versatile. This roster has an answer for everything. There’s a reason the sportsbooks currently have them right around the top of the West. Gobert and Mitchell are the eye-catching stars here, just as Greg Oden was the star on that Ohio State team back in 2007. Nevertheless, we know who is driving the car. It’s Conley, incrementally approaching his destination, a little better all the time, doing what he does.

2019-20 Previews: Philadelphia 76ers

Losses: Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick, Boban Marjanovic, Jonathon Simmons, James Ennis, T.J. McConnell, Amir Johnson.

Additions: Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Trey Burke, Kyle O’Quinn, Raul Neto, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle.

Likely Starters
Guard: Ben Simmons
Wing: Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris
Big: Al Horford, Joel Embiid 

Predicted Record: 51–32 | 5th in NBA | 2nd in East

Let’s start with the obvious: this team is going to be a pain in the ass to play against. They are gigantic, athletic, and skilled. Everyone in their starting lineup except for Tobias Harris is an absolute monster on defense. They’re full of guys who can play bully ball. They are going to get every rebound, clog up the whole court, slow things down, and make life hell.

Everything in that previous paragraph is good for the 76ers. That shit makes them title contenders—no way around it.

If you’re feeling a big ol’ but coming on, you’re right. Yes, this team was within a sniff of winning the whole thing last year (honestly, if Kawhi missed that shot in game 7, I think that’s where we may have been headed), but that team had Jimmy Butler and that team had J.J. Redick. This team has Al Horford and this team has Josh Richardson, and while I’m not sure how I feel about that as a two-for-two trade, I’m pretty sure that in terms of basketball fit, it is going to be complicated.

When the 2018–19 76ers needed a big bucket, they most often went to Jimmy or let J.J. and Embiid work in the two-man game. Those options are gone now. There isn’t anyone on this roster as adept as Jimmy Butler at scrounging a bucket out of nothing, and there isn’t anyone scary enough as a shooter to make sure Embiid gets clean post-ups. Can Embiid keep his turnover rate low without Redick around, and with a more crowded court around him in general? I’m honestly not sure. His turnover rate skyrocketed in the playoffs last season, which feels like an ominous sign.

Ultimately, the Eastern Conference is so bad that this team might be able to bulldoze its way to The Finals regardless. Still, there is a reckoning coming, because it feels inevitable that at some point the fact that Embiid and Ben Simmons are a bad fit is going to be impossible to ignore. Simmons needs to be able to push the pace with the floor spread around him. He’s at his best in the open floor. Embiid is at his best grinding out possessions, making the opponent deal with him each and every time down the floor; he might not have the stamina at this point to play the way Simmons needs to play. And Embiid is the star here. He’s the unprecedented, gravitational force. He’s the one you build around.

I love what Ben Simmons could be, but it’s hard to imagine him getting there as the giant point guard in a lineup filled with mediocre shooters and slow-footed behemoths. Without question, Brett Brown will be able to find minutes for him in lineups that make sense (a Simmons, Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris, Mike Scott lineup would singe some eyeballs for sure), but ultimately, when it is time to shove the chips into the middle, Simmons is likely to be stuck in the dunker spot, frowning.

And if this was a league without a salary cap, I’d be all for keeping Simmons. He’s a tremendous talent, and it would be heartbreaking to draft him and then see him play elsewhere. But in 2020–21, Simmons + Embiid + Horford + Harris = roughly $120m in a league where the cap is projected to be $116. They’ll be approaching the luxury tax just paying their starting five. If your starting five is a great fit that puts you in contention, that’s great. If you have an obvious, glaring problem, you might have to, like, deal with that.

If they ever get around to it, Simmons will have enormous value on the trade market. I know his contract currently makes it tough, since his extension doesn’t kick in until next season. I’m not saying this stuff is currently possible. Still, think about the following pipe dreams. Simmons for Bradley Beal: who says no? Wouldn’t Philly be much better tomorrow if that trade happened today? Would C.J. McCollum, Anfernee Simons, and Zach Collins get it done? Some version of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter, Jr.? Could you get Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam for him and make a run at the title right now?

I’m a Celtics fan. I’m rooting for these guys to mess this up. I’m telling you: I’m praying they hold on to Ben Simmons. I’m terrified of every one of these fake trades. At some point, I think Philly has to pull the trigger. I just hope they wait one more year.

2019-20 Previews: Boston Celtics

Losses: Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele.

Additions: Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards.

Likely Starters
Guard: Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart
Wing: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum (Gordon Hayward?)
Big: Enes Kanter 

Predicted Record: 51–32 | 6th in NBA* | 3rd in East

Love. Who can know its mysterious corridors, its secret, locked rooms, its vaulted chambers full of light and fragrant air? Just when it seems most familiar, it changes again. You’re dreaming of a future with Kyrie Irving and some even better, as-yet-to-be-named superstar, and then one day he feels differently, and then you feel differently, and one dream turns into another. It’s a different future, but it’s in the future, so you don’t have to do anything differently in the present. Or anyway, you can’t. It’s all in your mind. Isn’t that strange?

It has been a weird couple of years for those of us who love the Celtics. We had a glorious future ahead of us, full of possibilities, and over time those possibilities eroded into a clearer present moment. That’s how time works. Every day you live is a day in which you could have done something else and didn’t. You did what you did, and having been done that, the doing becomes a solidified past; and since you are going to die someday, every day the future gets a little smaller, a little more narrowed down.

And so all those possibilities—all those hypothetical trade packages for Anthony Davis, Mike Conley, etc.—have become a core of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward. There are some more future assets—that pending pick from the Memphis Grizzlies still looms large—but fewer than there had been. Any growth that happens is likely going to be internal.

What that means, more than anything, is that this team is going to go as far as Jayson Tatum can take them. That’s a scary thought if you are a C’s fan. Tatum seems to be largely getting a free pass for last season. Specifically, it is alarming that he went from getting to the line with some regularity as a rookie to getting there hardly at all. He didn’t compete; he didn’t improve. Still, you can see the talent. It’s right there, on the surface.

On the other hand, there’s a comfort in knowing what you’ve got. For the first time in a few years, I know what I’m rooting for as a Celtics fan. I’m not focused on trades or on salary cap mechanics. My thoughts are all about basketball.

Last night, the C’s played their first preseason game against the woeful Charlotte Hornets. The C’s eked out a win despite their starters all finishing with negatives in the plus/minus column. Still, I found myself thinking about player development and strategy. Robert Williams was really hitting people as opposed to slipping screens. Jaylen Brown was using his strength to bully his way to the rim and finishing with control when he got there. The C’s struggled when Charlotte blitzed their high pick-and-rolls, and then, especially with Carsen Edwards in the game, they ran some stuff to adjust. In previous years, I might have been thinking: who cares? All of this is moot until we trade for AD. Things are different now. I’m living in the moment with this team.

Of course, it remains to be seen how good they’ll be. The frontcourt defense is a joke. There’s still a logjam at the forward spots, and possibly too many mouths to feed on offense. Jaylen Brown is playing for a new contract, and that’s going to get complicated if he feels marginalized. Nevertheless, I love the C’s, and for the first time in a while, I know who they are. They’re not going to win the championship, but they’re going to play basketball. It’s gonna be great.

*I know the C’s aren’t better than the Warriors or the Rockets, but playing in the East this year is a major boon to a projected win total.

2019-20 Previews: Golden State Warriors

Losses: Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, Damian Jones, Jonas Jerebko, Jordan Bell, Andrew Bogut.

Additions: D’Angelo Russell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Omari Spellman, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Andrew Harrison, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall, Alen Smailagic.

Likely Starters
Guard: D'Angelo Russell, Stephen Curry
Wing: Alfonzo McKinnie
Big: Draymond Green, Kevon Looney

Predicted Record: 50–32 | 7th in NBA | 4th in West

This is wildly ungenerous of me, but it is my firm belief that your feelings about the Warriors acquisition of D’Angelo Russell are an accurate stand-in for your attitude about basketball in general. Somehow, even though D’Angelo Russell just last season—at age 22 for crying out loud—made an enormous leap from underachiever to NBA All-Star, the prevailing narrative around him is that he is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, trade fodder, an acquisition of cold calculation.

And yeah, it’s true that he isn’t your traditional high-efficiency scoring guard. He does not get to the line or the rim at all, and survives on a large diet of floaters and runners on which the degree of difficulty is basically off the charts. If you were teaching someone to play efficient basketball 20 years into the 21st century, you wouldn’t show them tape of D’Angelo Russell. I get it.

On the other hand, he carried an offense last season that wasn’t heavy on great scoring options. He had an enormous usage rate and an enormous assist rate. He was absolutely a go-to guy, and his team, while no great shakes, managed to hover around league average, make the playoffs, and keep everybody happy all year. He’s an imaginative and productive passer. He’s a good teammate. He’s about to start this season at age 23. Are we sure he’s a finished product? He’s about to play alongside Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Not sure you know them; they’re quite good. We’re ready to just assume that he’s a bad fit?

I’m going the other way. I think something is about to get unlocked in D’Angelo Russell, a profoundly unique basketball player who has kinda never had a great teammate before.

Okay, here’s something else:

Remember the Finals? They happened a few months ago? Well, in that series, you may recall that Kevin Durant was injured and barely played, and although the Raptors ended up winning, it definitely seemed like the Warriors might win right up until Klay Thompson got hurt.

Then Durant left, and we all decided the Warriors were done. Why did we decide that again? I don’t want to offend anyone, especially future Hall of Famer Andre Iguodala, but the guys they lost aside from KD were pretty much washed. I know it looks like a shallow roster, and I know that (even though everyone keeps inexplicably saying they’ll be in the market for buyout guys) this team is hard-capped and has no flexibility this season whatsoever. Still, they’re the Warriors, and Klay’s going to be back down the stretch, and they are going to be dangerous as hell.

Frankly, I’m excited to root for them again. The Kevin Durant era: it was rough, emotionally. I love basketball, and I’d love it even if the outcomes were set in advance, but the past few years certainly tested that love. I’m excited to see the creative control ceded back to Steph; I’m looking forward to the rebirth of his particular brand of wild kindness.

Let me return to D’Angelo Russell. I think you either believe that teams equal the sum of their talent, or you understand that talent coheres in ways both mundane and profound. Teams are never exactly what they are. They are always either more or less than they should be. D’Angelo is a weird ingredient; we’ve seen his ability to hold together a more or less average meal. What happens when you drop him into the Dubs’ sublime stew? I think it might be something magical.

2019-20 Previews: Houston Rockets

Losses: Chris Paul, Iman Shumpert, Kenneth Faried.

Additions: Russell Westbrook, Ben McLemore, Tyson Chandler.

Likely Starters
Guard: Russell Westbrook, James Harden
Wing: Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker
Big: Clint Capela

Predicted Record: 49–33 | 8th in NBA | 5th in West

Back in the early part of this decade, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade teamed up in Miami, it took a little while for the combination to work. At first, it felt like two lead guitarists in a supergroup taking turns noodling. The crowd was wowed. Games were won. Nevertheless, something was lacking. When a team is playing at its peak, players add up to more than the sum of their individual talent. Miami, at first, was winning off individual talent alone.

Eventually, LeBron and Wade figured it out. They became a kind of cyclone of devastation. They leveraged the outsized attention each of them required of opposing teams into outright impossibility. Eventually, they overwhelmed everyone for a couple years, culminating in two championships, a 27-game winning streak, and loads of memorable moments.

During LeBron’s first season in Miami, he was 26. Wade was 29. LeBron’s best years were still ahead of him, and Wade was still squarely in the middle of his prime. I found myself thinking about that first Heatles season this summer when Daryl Morey traded for Russell Westbrook. Like LeBron and Wade, Westbrook and James Harden are offensive systems unto themselves. They have been, in recent seasons, the primary options on their respective teams to an alarming, insane degree. Each has set records for usage while posting gaudy statistics, and each has been thwarted in the playoffs when individual heroics weren’t enough.

Allow me to admit here and now that I have no idea whatsoever how Russell Westbrook and James Harden are going to coexist on a basketball team at this point in their careers. I wrote about this earlier in the summer, and I haven’t managed to come to any conclusions in the intervening months. The versions of themselves that have existed over the past few seasons will absolutely not work together. They can’t just stand around with their arms crossed when they’re not actively dribbling the ball. They are going to need to exercise skills that may have begun to atrophy. You can’t really understate the degree to which these two dudes have been living in isolation these past few seasons. We have literally never seen anyone play like this before. We’ve certainly never seen two players like this come together, because two players like this haven’t ever, like, existed.

Ultimately, this makes them compelling. We always have questions about how basketball players are going to function in the context of a team, but this iteration of the Rockets poses questions I’ve never considered before. When superstars team up, they always have to alter their games, but not like this. Ray Allen was still running around screens like a maniac when he got to the Celtics in 2008. He still got his points in similar ways; he just had to accept a smaller role in the offense than he was used to. This is different. We need to find out if Harden, a dude who just set an all-time record for unassisted 3-pointers made in a season, can function as a spot-up shooter. We need to find out if Westbrook, the most useless off-ball player in the league in recent seasons, can be a supercharged hybrid of, I dunno, Marcus Smart and Allen Iverson?

Probably, this won’t be a clean fit. There will be problems, and there will be angst. Still, this team has undeniable talent. They’re versatile and tough. They’re going to come at you in waves. I have them as the 8th best team in the league, but they’re the first team I’ve written about this summer, going from worst to best, that I believe has a shot at winning the title. I haven’t been this excited about a basketball experiment in years. If it works, it’s going to change everything about how we think about two of the greatest players of the past 25 years. Isn’t that great?

2019-20 Previews: Portland Trail Blazers

Losses: Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Mo Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Seth Curry, Jake Layman, Enes Kanter.

Additions: Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja, Pau Gasol, Anthony Tolliver, Nassir Little.

Likely Starters
Guard: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum
Wing: Kent Bazemore
Big: Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside

Predicted Record: 49–33 | 9th in NBA | 6th in West

What is the power of institutional consistency? What, tangibly, do we gain through the simple fact of keeping some baseline level of ourselves the same?

When you look at this Trail Blazers roster, you see Dame and C.J., and your first thought is that this is a team that has decided to stick with the status quo. You look closer, and it is clear this isn’t the case. Of the ten players with the most minutes played for this team last season, only four are currently on the roster, and one of those players—Jusuf Nurkić—is currently injured.

So, the question here, really, is to what degree Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum count as institutional consistency at this point. The Blazers have been made it a commonplace in recent years to blow past pre-season expectations. Something here has been underrated. Has it been Dame and C.J. all along? Or, more troublingly, were players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless playing with a kind of hidden usefulness that we’ve been taking for granted all this time?

The obvious shift, roster wise, is that the Blazers went from being a team loaded with combo forwards (Aminu, Harkless, Layman) to a team with, at first blush, none of those guys. Kent Bazemore is game for anything, but he’s not big enough to do the versatile defensive work and rebounding Aminu and Harkless did for these guys. Rodney Hood is wonderful offensively, but he’s not helping you on the other side of the floor. Mario Hezonja has yet to prove he can play meaningful NBA basketball. Nas Little is still so green (though he’s the guy you are looking at here if you are a Blazers optimist).

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The Blazers were third in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency last season. It’s not like Aminu and Harkless were turning them into the 2008 Celtics on D. They were decidedly average. Terry Stotts has proven for years that he can get mediocre defenders to play enough defense to leverage their offense. Even Enes Kanter looked pretty good in the playoffs last season.

Maybe it doesn’t matter for an even sneakier reason. Maybe the league is getting bigger again. Is it possible that we’re moving back into an era in which the possibility of letting Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins share big minutes isn’t a non-starter? Maybe Collins has enough juice, given his youth and athleticism, that he can chase guys around on defense enough to leverage his size in other ways.

The Blazers, significantly, led the league in rebound percentage last season—it is a huge part of their success. If we assume Bazemore and Collins are replacing Aminu and Harkless in the starting lineup, then the Blazers will be smaller on the wing, but they’ll be bigger in the frontcourt. Can Collins replicate Aminu’s rebounding? Can Bazemore play a little bigger than he has in the past? Where does someone like Anthony Tolliver fit into all of this? Do the Blazers even have a way of going small at this point? Is playing Rodney Hood at the 4 for a few minutes tantamount to forfeiting the game?

The West is a bloodbath. It took 48 wins to get in the playoffs last year, and it’s not hard to argue that 10 of the teams in the conference got significantly better this season (11 if you count the Suns, who at the very least won’t be the same pushovers they were last season). What I’m suggesting is that you can think that the Blazers are likely to approach 50 wins again AND not be convinced that they are a lock to make the playoffs.

And if the institution of Dame and C.J. finally isn’t enough this season—if we are surprised to discover that Aminu and Harkless were more essential than we’d previously imagined—the Blazers will finally have to acquiesce to the conventional wisdom that has dogged them over the past seasons of this iteration of the franchise. They’ll have to take a hard look at whether Dame and C.J. is a viable combination, a meaningful allocation of resources, whatever you want to call it. If February rolls around and this team is on the ropes, seismic shifts could be coming. I can’t wait to see how they respond.

2019-20 Previews: Los Angeles Lakers

Losses: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Mike Muscala, Lance Stephenson, Reggie Bullock, Moritz Wagner, Josh Hart, Tyson Chandler, Isaac Bonga.

Additions: Anthony Davis, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso (was on a two-way contract with the Lakers last season), Jared Dudley, Dwight “Farts” Howard, Troy Daniels, Talen Horton-Tucker.

Likely Starters
Guard: N/A
Wing: LeBron James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma
Big: Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard (unless Boogie somehow recovers this season)

Predicted Record: 48–34 | 10th in NBA | 7th in West

It isn’t easy for me to write about the Lakers. I’ve hated them all my life, and root against them with a kind of automatic fervor that feels woven into my DNA. On the other hand, I know the Lakers. The abiding attention of my hatred means I’m a keen observer. I’m familiar with the history, the long and historic run of excellence and the recent nonsense and idiocy.

As such, I’m always a little worried about the Lakers. People make fun of the idea of Lakers Exceptionalism, especially given the bumbling incompetence of entire period since they won their last title in 2010, but it’s also true. LeBron and AD are here now. The Lakers ultimately get whatever they want.

And yet more and more, as the league around them gets smarter, the mistakes the Lakers make around the edges loom larger. Consider the final years of Kobe Bryant in L.A. (a scorched-Earth disaster of wasted talent and resources) as opposed to the final years of Dirk in Dallas (it’s fine). Consider the Lakers in the context of other teams that acquired star pairings this summer. The Clippers and the Nets built actual teams around their guys; they have the flexibility to change things if they need to. The Lakers are locked in to this mess no matter what, and they are heavily relying on Dwight Howard.

Nevertheless, the Lakers got LeBron and AD, and in terms of playing basketball, it’s hard to imagine a better combination of two players. For all the problems on this Lakers roster—and wow are there lots of those—there’s a feasible way of getting to a crunchtime group of LeBron and AD surrounded by shooters that should be devastating offensively.

I used the word feasible in the previous paragraph, however, because a lineup like that isn’t inevitable. It remains to be seen what kind of team this is. Anthony Davis seems to not want to play center, which means the team has devoted all kinds of resources to DeMarcus Cousins (injured again) and Dwight Howard (Dwight Howard). The lineups they’re going to default to make no sense. Look at that starting lineup at the top of this page. Do you notice that there aren’t any guards there? I know positions are over, but who is handling the ball besides LeBron? If your answer to that question is Rajon Rondo, I have to ask whether you’ve just arrived here in a time machine from seven years ago.

It seems to me that in order to imagine this Lakers team winning 50 games (meaning: they are a write-it-in-pen playoff team in the West), you’ve got to take a lot on faith. First on that list is health for LeBron and AD, who played 55 and 56 games last season respectively. Didn’t we all head into last season imagining that there was no way LeBron would miss the playoffs? Are we so sure that Anthony Davis can keep this terrible roster afloat if LeBron misses time? What about vice versa?

The honest truth is that I have the Lakers as a playoff team right now because I can’t trust my own schadenfreude over how shitty this roster is. I keep looking at it, and it keeps looking bad. I can’t really understand how this team is going to regularly do important things—like play defense, for example—in the regular season. I don’t trust their coaches, their management, their sense of themselves. The only thing here that I trust is LeBron James, so I’m picking them to make the playoffs, but I’m telling you right now that my brain is screaming this team is going to miss the playoffs. It’s confusing, I know.