NBA 2019-20: New season, new contenders as free agency rolls in

Injuries, fatigue and the improvement of other teams have rendered the Golden State Warriors less potent. Other teams now lurk, seeking to occupy this void at the apex of the NBA.

The Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard holds his MVP trophy while celebrating with Drake. The rapper had been taunted for years for bringing bad luck to teams, but that seems to have changed after the Canadian team won the title.   -  AP

The triumph of the Toronto Raptors, the team identified with the term “We, the North” — a clear reference to the popular television series “Game of Thrones” — over the Golden State Warriors was not just about the crowning of a new champion in the NBA. It also culminated in significant setbacks to the Warriors — with two devastating injuries to key players Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

Durant, who suffered an Achilles tear after rushing back from a calf injury, is now expected to miss significant time next season. An Achilles tear is the most dreaded injury for an NBA player. Nearly every player who had suffered this injury in the past returned diminished afterwards, with very few exceptions such as former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins.

READ | Kevin Durant opts out of Golden State Warriors deal

Durant reportedly turned down his $31.5 million player option with the Warriors to become an unrestricted free agent. Potential destinations will be plentiful for Durant when free agency begins on June 30, with the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets among those apparently aiming to land one of the top players in the NBA. Durant has been heavily linked to the Nets and has reportedly met twice with fellow free agent Kyrie Irving about joining forces in Brooklyn.

READ | Warriors' Stephen Curry will visit Kevin Durant to convince him to stay

A team like the New York Knicks was expected to make a strong case to recruit Durant, but it could also spend its considerable war chest on a more healthy free agent. Durant’s status for next season is up in the air, and that limits the Warriors’ chances of contention in the following year. Durant’s multidimensional play made him the Warriors’ trump card and their fire-breathing dragon to which there was no answer from sides that had their hands full in tackling the other Golden State all-stars, and his absence was decisively felt in the finals against the Raptors.

The Golden State Warriors’ season culminated with two devastating injuries to key players Kevin Durant (left) and Klay Thompson.   -  AFP

 

Thompson, too, is a crucial member, the other half of the Splash Brothers’ back court with Curry. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament after rushing back from a hamstring injury and a one game layoff in the finals. NBA players have handled rehabilitation from ACL tears well in recent times, and Thompson, whose main skill is shooting off picture-perfect form, should return back relatively unscathed if he follows the recovery protocol. But the process of recovery also rules him out of the bulk of the next season.

Without Durant now, the Warriors will be overly dependent on Curry to carry the offensive load. It will also be constrained to find talent to replace the injured stars because of salary cap issues. For the first time in more than half a decade, the Warriors could effectively be ruled out of contention before the 2019-20 season starts.

READ | Kawhi Leonard free agency rumors: Multiple teams interested in pairing star with Jimmy Butler

And that uncertainty and the fragility faced by the Warriors have suddenly opened up competition in the NBA. Teams sense blood and have already made moves to go for the kill — i.e. to get to positions where they could contend. The Los Angeles Lakers, for example, the storied franchise that dominated the previous decade, paired their lynchpin LeBron James with versatile front-court player Anthony Davis after trading for him with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers paid a heavy price to acquire Davis, but it was a risk worth taking, having James on board already.

The Utah Jazz, which flattered to deceive in 2018-19 by losing to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, added point guard maestro Mike Conley (from the Memphis Grizzlies) to a strong core featuring shooting guard Donovan Mitchell and centre Rudy Gobert. Conley’s playmaking and shooting should stabilise a steady but offensively challenged Jazz team and raise its status as another contender in the loaded Western Conference.

Among the other teams in the West, the constantly improving and youthful Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trailblazers should see a clearer path to contention due to the Warriors’ woes. The Los Angeles Clippers are a marquee free agent acquisition away from contention, too. They will try hard to prise away NBA finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard from the Toronto Raptors during the off season. Other targets could include Philadelphia 76ers forward Jimmy Butler.

READ | Kawhi Leonard: Lakers believes it has ‘strong shot’ to sign superstar

Even teams such as the Houston Rockets — which lost two consecutive and demotivating ties against Golden State in the last two years — will want to make hay while the Warriors wane.

The West, suddenly, looks wide open.

Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo will continue to improve and add new facets to his game (three-point shooting in particular) in the coming year and the Bucks can only get better to challenge Toronto more effectively.   -  AFP

 

In the East, the Raptors have the best chance of contending for a repeat win next season if they retain Leonard, who is expected to become a free agent in the off season. Their squad featured a potent admixture of two-way players in point guard Kyle Lowry, the presumptive Most Improved Player of 2018-19; forward Pascal Siakam and centre Marc Gasol, besides the outstanding Leonard. This team weathered the Warriors challenge by smothering their powerful offence with rangy defence and a diverse attack. Leonard was the head of the snake, but the other players were quite effective as the fangs that delivered telling blows against the Warriors.

If by any chance Toronto loses Leonard in free agency, other role players could also move to other teams, leaving the Raptors in the lurch. Leonard has been inscrutable about his free-agency choice, but the Raptors have done everything possible to keep him happy in Toronto and the team has more than a puncher’s chance in retaining him.

The Los Angeles Lakers paid a heavy price to acquire Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, but it was a risk worth taking, having LeBron James on board already.   -  Getty Images

 

The 76ers were defeated by a Leonard buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and ran the Raptors close in a tight contest. Centre Joel Embiid, when healthy, threatened to be an unstoppable force on both ends of the floor and was ably supported by up-and-coming point guard Ben Simmons and the free agent duo of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The 76ers will also work to retain their squad for the coming season as they are expected to pose the strongest challenge to the Raptors.

The Milwaukee Bucks will dispute the previous sentence. They were defeated 4-2 by the Raptors in the Eastern finals this year after leading 2-0 as Leonard shut down their talisman Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Greek Freak will continue to improve and add new facets to his game (three-point shooting in particular) in the coming year and the Bucks can only get better to challenge Toronto more effectively.

READ | Giannis bursts into tears after winning MVP

The Warriors had an outstanding run, reaching five finals in five years spurred by a revolutionary offensive philosophy that relied on lights-out perimeter shooting, quick passing, unselfish play, switchable and versatile defence and great coaching. Injuries, fatigue and the improvement of other teams besides uncertainties due to the salary-cap rules in the NBA have rendered them less potent. Other teams now lurk, seeking to occupy this void at the apex of the league. How free agency pans out in the off season will decide which teams will have the best chances of emerging as new contenders next season.