For the past few years, the NBA season seemed to be a foregone conclusion with the Golden State Warriors, fielding a team with two of the league’s most valuable players, in addition to one of the all-time best three-point shooters and a perennial defensive player of the year candidate.
The regular season was a futile exercise with the Warriors typically dominating the post-season to win multiple championships. However, the 2018-19 playoffs flipped this script. The Toronto Raptors’ excellent defense and stellar offense, led by Kawhi Leonard, toppled the juggernaut Warriors. The Warriors were decimated by injuries to key stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson by the end of the series.
The summer of 2019 can only be described to be of seismic proportions. All-stars and stellar role players moved to unexpected new teams and restored the NBA with dynamic duos rather than a league dominated by a stacked team.
The Houston Rockets reunited James Harden with Russell Westbrook. While young European star duo Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis are now playing for the Dallas Mavericks. Jimmy Butler headed to South Beach to join Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat. The Brooklyn Nets signed both Kyrie Irving and Durant.
The biggest shift was felt in Los Angeles, as the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis to pair with superstar Lebron James while Kawhi Leonard left the champion Raptors to return home and play with Paul George on the Los Angeles Clippers.
A summer of movement across teams rejuvenated the league. For the first time since 2015, the race for the title is as open as ever. As we approach the midpoint of a long 82-game season, here are some of the biggest emerging stories from around the league.
Raptors stay afloat
Following Kawhi Leonard’s departure, many expected the Raptors to perform significantly worse without the two-way star.
Despite a plethora of injuries throughout the season to point guard Kyle Lowry, centre Marc Gasol and forward Pascal Siakam, the team has managed to stay amidst the top teams of the Eastern Conference.
Rising star Siakam has not stopped his growth and may be in the running for most improved yet again.
The Raptors recorded impressive wins against the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers. A spot in the playoffs is highly likely for the Raptors at this point. But it remains to be seen what they can accomplish in the post-season without Leonard, their exceptional former leader.
Giannis rules the East
In the 2018-19 season, the Milwaukee Bucks posted a league best 60-22 record and were poised to make the finals after an early 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. They lost in a devastating fashion after dropping four straight games to the eventual champions.
Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has returned this season at his best, developing a three-point shot that seemed unlikely to critics. He has taken his game to new heights and elevated his teammates’ play along with his individual prowess.
With the best record in the league and convincing victories over the Lakers and the Clippers, the Bucks are the early favourites to win the Eastern Conference.
Miami Heat’s hot start
Despite signing five time All-Star Jimmy Butler during the off-season, the Heat was not expected to be a team in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
Their standing can be credited to stellar play by young star centre Bam Adebayo, who has flourished in an expanded role after the departure of Hassan Whiteside. Additionally, rookie sharpshooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are blazing from three-point range.
With one of the best home records in the league, the Heat will prove to be a formidable foe and a tough match up in the playoffs, especially if they can secure home court advantage with a high seed.
A rejuvenated Celtics team
Superstar point guard Kyrie Irving departed the Celtics after a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, but the team immediately replaced him with all-star guard Kemba Walker. The fit has been magnificent both on and off the court, as Kemba leads the team in points per game and is a professional presence in the locker room.
Boston’s two “Jays,” Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are only improving, providing scoring support to Kemba. The recent 107-139 victory over the Lakers was a dominant performance, proving the team can contend with the best in the league.
Boston looks to reach the Eastern Conference Finals just as they did in 2018, after a frustrating playoff run that ended abruptly in 2019.
The King’s resurgence
Categorizing the 2018-19 Laker season as a failure would be a massive understatement as the team was in great disarray. LeBron James’ groin injury, along with middling play from the young core including Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, led to the team missing the Western Conference playoffs.
The unexpected resignation of Magic Johnson on the last day of the season was perhaps a microcosm for the team’s season: one without identity or a plan.
The arrival of superstar PF Anthony Davis in a blockbuster trade that sent the aforementioned young core to the Pelicans has flipped the Lakers’ fortune. Davis and head coach Frank Vogel have transformed the Lakers into a top five defence, and Davis carries his weight on the offensive end as the team’s top scorer.
LeBron has settled into a facilitator role, leading the league in assists. The superstar pairing has terrific chemistry and the team is bolstered by consistent production from role players.
However, the team does have deficiencies, as proven through their losses to teams with great forwards such as Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum.
If the Lakers can add a defensive wing at the trade deadline, the sky’s the limit for the current Western Conference first seed.
Clippers showcase flashes of dominance
The Los Angeles Clippers were widely expected to be the best team in the league due to the addition of superstars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to an already strong core that reached the playoffs last season.
However, the team has rarely been at full strength due to George and Patrick Beverly dealing with various nagging injuries and Leonard load managing his chronic knee injury.
The team is still among the top in the West, and especially dominant when playing with their full lineup. Leonard led the team to convincing wins over the Lakers on Christmas Day and opening night.
George has been more inconsistent in his offensive output. Yet his tenacity on defence along with Leonard forms the best defensive tandem in the league.
The NBA is a league where star forwards are the most impactful, and the Clippers have two of the best two-way forwards. If the team can stay healthy for the rest of the season and during the playoffs, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Harden leads Houston
James Harden’s scoring was a tour de force in the 2018-19 season, as he scored 60 points multiple times and led the league with a blistering 36.1 points per game. Somehow, he has maintained his form this season with individual games where he reached 60, 59, 55 and 54 points.
In addition to his scoring, he directs the offence with lobs and pinpoint passes to shooters, providing the team with steady playmaking.
Former MVP Russel Westbrook helps shoulder the load by providing a steady stream of scoring and playmaking himself. Houston may have the best guard combination in the league, but their depth suffers, as they lack a true backup centre and are often playing a seven-man rotation.
The 82-game season is a long road, and the intensity only ramps up during the playoffs so fatigue may limit the Rockets. Maintaining the player’s minutes and health will be a top priority down the stretch, as the team looks to preserve its rotation and not burn out before the postseason.
A surprise in Oklahoma
After suffering a deflating five-game series loss to the Portland Trailblazers last season, Oklahoma City Thunder’s championship hopes were put to rest.
Paul George requested a trade to the Clippers and departed OKC shortly after, forcing the team to also deal franchise legend Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in an effort to rebuild the team for the future. Their haul for the two stars included a plethora of first round picks along with veteran guard Chris Paul and the young Canadian star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
It would not have been surprising to see the decimated squad at the bottom of the Western Conference. However, Chris Paul’s leadership and clutch playmaking as the point guard, along with Gilgeous-Alexander’s rapid improvement, has the team fighting for a playoff spot in their conference.
A team with no expectations for the season has managed to shatter fans’ expectations, proving to be one of the most entertaining teams in the league.
Overall, after the reshuffling of powers last summer no expert or fan can predict the outcome of the season and playoffs. The absence of a clear contender has made for an exciting season, one that will only get more interesting as we get closer to June.
Graphic: Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor