As Kawhi Leonard hung in the air—figuratively this time—anybody who cares about pro basketball wondered where he would land. The Clippers, as it turns out, with Paul George joining him, and this is lousy news for the Raptors but fantastic news for the NBA. We can now say, for sure, that the race for next year’s championship is wide open. A super team may emerge, but it will be the way the pre-Kevin Durant Warriors emerged: out of a pack of contenders.
At least 10 teams realistically believe they can win the 2019-20 title, and an 11th, the Brooklyn Nets, is primed to win in 2020-21. (The 10, in no particular order: Bucks, Rockets, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Clippers, Lakers, 76ers, Celtics, Warriors. Yes, we can argue about this, and we will. But the dream is not crazy for any of them.)
Kawhi to the Clippers is great largely because it means Kawhi is not going to the Lakers. Leonard, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis on the same team… really, other than Lakers fans, who wanted to see that? What would that have done for anybody?
In an historical sense, James is competing against one person, Michael Jordan. Would winning a title with Davis and Leonard really get him closer? People would scream, fairly or not, that he was the third-best player on his own team.
Leonard has already won two championships. He just made his case as the best player in the league and a fiercely independent player who just wants to work and win. Joining James and Davis with the most glamorous franchise in the league felt like a strange and completely unnecessary move.
Davis lobbied his way out of New Orleans for a chance to win—but does he want the perception he is only a champion because he is playing with James and Leonard?
You can say none of this matters—that a championship is a championship is a championship, and everything else is just media blather. But how you win a championship does matter. Look at Durant. He won a title with a superteam in Golden State and realized it wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as he expected. He won another and had the same feeling. There was a reason that, when last season began, anybody paying attention thought Durant was leaving: he could only get what he really wanted by winning somewhere else.
The Warriors were too stacked for the good of the league or themselves. During this spring’s playoffs, there was a lot of talk that the Warriors were better off without Durant, which was of course asinine. Durant could make any team in basketball history better. He is an all-time great. But the offense was prettier without Durant—not better, just prettier—and the Warriors played like they knew they had to maximize their talent. That’s what we want to see out of a champion, isn’t it?
Durant and Kyrie Irving will have a title chance in Brooklyn, but that’s all it is: a chance. They have to make it work. The famously thin-skinned Durant has a year to get used to the New York media, and to realize most people actually find him extremely likeable. Irving has a year to learn from the Boston debacle, earn the trust and admiration of his teammates, and clear the runway for Durant. And if they pull it off, it will mean more to both of them than their previous championships.
And in the meantime, any of those 10 teams can win next year—and any of the 10 could disappoint.
Leonard and Paul George should be a frightening combination on both ends. Put them on the floor with bulldog point guard Patrick Beverley, and the Clippers’ defense should be scary. But will the Clippers even be the best team in L.A.? The Lakers are perhaps the most fascinating of the 10. Frank Vogel has LeBron James on his team, Jason Kidd on his bench, Rich Paul potentially in his ear and Rob Pelinka in his front office. Vogel should hire a food taster. But that team could win a title.
Milwaukee has the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and most of a club that had the league’s best record. The Blazers have played together and just got better; the Jazz could take a leap with Mike Conley; Denver is lurking. The young Celtics still have one of the game’s great coaches, Brad Stevens, and a desire to prove last year was all Kyrie’s fault, whether it was or not. The 76ers just swapped a mercurial star, Jimmy Butler, for a stable one, Al Horford, though they will miss J.J. Redick.
The Rockets may have one season before Chris Paul is too old. But that team is as close to a title as any on the list. When teams fall short for several years in a row, we tend to assume they can’t win, instead of simply acknowledging they haven’t. It’s easy to make that mistake with the Rockets now, especially after their relatively quiet summer.
And then there are the Warriors. They would probably be three-time defending champions if Durant had been healthy this spring. Now, incredibly, people are acting like they will be on sabbatical for a year. Well, we’ll see. Klay Thompson’s ACL injury is not like Durant’s Achilles; he should be back sometime next season. There will be issues: a short bench, a questionable fit with D’Angelo Russell. But the last team built around Thompson, Steph Curry and Draymond Green won 73 games. Green may be playing for his next contract, and I suspect they will all be playing to remind us they were champions before Durant showed up.
There are so many teams in contention that the champion may be decided by midseason acquisitions, health, and luck. It will be fun to find out. The summer of 2019 set up the spring of 2020 awfully, awfully well.