Nebraska’s bye week feels like a good time to use this space to dive into my favorite sport: basketball. The NBA preseason draws to a close on Friday night and the real thing gets started on Tuesday, and I think this season has a chance to be pretty special.
This offseason saw a ton of movement by big names, a generational talent enter the league via the draft and even the addition of a bit of Husker flavor. Consider this your official guide to the 2019-20 NBA season, complete with a breakdown of which teams you should be watching.
I’ll start with every Husker fans’ new favorite team, the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas acquired former Nebraska forward Isaiah Roby, a 45th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, in a draft-day trade with Detroit and signed him to a record deal for a college player drafted in the second round.
Putting Roby aside for the moment, the Mavericks have a chance to take a big step forward this season. Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic won Rookie of the Year last season after putting 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists. Doncic’s skill level and court vision are outstanding for a player his age (20 years old). Dallas also went out last season and traded for Kristaps Porzingis, the sharp-shooting 7-footer from the New York Knicks, to pair with Doncic, and after sitting out all of last season while recovering from a torn ACL he’s back on the court.
The Mavericks have a strong group of role players, from knock-down 3-point shooters (Seth Curry, Justin Jackson) to rim runners (Dwight Powell) to versatile defenders (Delon Wright, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber). Oh, and they have Boban Marjanović, a 7-foot-3, 290-pound John Wick villain.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Roby yet. There’s a reason for that. He’s going to have a tough time cracking the rotation this season. The Mavericks played five preseason games and Roby logged a total of 45 minutes, putting up 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting (1-of-4 from 3) and 3-of-6 from the free-throw line with 17 rebounds, six assists, six turnovers, four blocks and one steal.
The Mavs have Powell, Marjanović, Porzingis, Kleber and Finney-Smith in the frontcourt, and that doesn’t even factor in Doncic’s ability to defend power forwards at 6-foot-8 and 227 pounds. Minutes are going to be hard to come by this season, and we might even see Roby play more for the Mavericks’ G League affiliate the Texas Legends than we do with the big club. But Dallas wouldn’t have given him the contract they did if they weren’t serious about developing him.
The Mavericks only won 33 games last season and will be looking to make a playoff push this season. That’s also true of the New Orleans Pelicans, the next team on my list.
Anthony Davis forced his way out of New Orleans during the offseason, but the Pelicans lucked out in the lottery and landed Zion Williamson, the phenom out of Duke, to replace him. The top pick in the draft put up a dominant preseason showing, averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in 27.3 minutes per game while covering 71.4% of his shots from the field. Williamson’s physics-defying athleticism translated immediately as he went over, around and through anyone and anything in his path.
New Orleans is sitting Williamson for Friday’s preseason finale with knee soreness, and hopefully there’s nothing too serious there. Williamson is worth tuning in to see all by himself, but he’s not a one-man show. True Holiday is one of the more under appreciated players in the league over the last few years and is one of the most complete combo-guards in the NBA. JJ Redick signed with New Orleans to add some perimeter shooting while the Pellies traded for Derrick Favors to add some experience in the frontcourt.
They also got a package of young players back in the Davis trade including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart. I’m not the biggest Ingram fan in the world, but he’s certainly improved a great deal over the last couple of years and a healthy Ball could be a lot of fun in an up-tempo system alongside Williamson and Holiday.
The two teams in Los Angeles will be tied together all season, and it’s not just because they share a building. The Clippers and Lakers both made franchise-altering moves and will be gunning for a championship this year.
The Lakers were the team that traded for Anthony Davis to play alongside LeBron James. Danny Green was a great pick-up for Los Angeles as well and is a perfect fit playing off of Davis and James. I don’t love the rest of their supporting cast, but when you’ve got LeBron James and he’s doing things like this, it doesn’t matter that much.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 17, 2019
The Clippers made an even bigger move over the offseason than the Lakers did, winning the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes by trading for Paul George. Add Patrick Beverley and Maurice Harkless to that duo and the Clippers should have the best perimeter defensive team in the league. Lou Williams (the reigning Sixth Man of the Year) and Montrezl Harrell were two of the top-five bench scorers in the league and Landry Shamet is a sniper, giving the Clippers plenty of offensive firepower as well.
It’s worth noting here that James Palmer Jr. signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Clippers but was cut after playing in three preseason games. He will likely end up with the Clippers’ G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers.
In the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers is one of the most intriguing teams in the league for me. In a league shifting towards more and more small-ball, the 76ers assembled the biggest staring lineups in the league featuring 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons and a front line of Joel Embiid (7-foot), Al Horford (6-foot-10) and Tobias Harris (6-foot-9). Josh Richardson, acquired from Miami in the Jimmy Butler trade, will be the shortest player in the starting lineup at 6-foot-6.
Whatever his limitations may be as a shooter, Ben Simmons is a unique talent and a lot of fun to watch with the way he’s able to impact the game in so many ways, especially with his passing. Embiid is a dominant force defensively and Horford is outstanding on that end as well while Harris can catch fire and get buckets in a hurry. I’m a little worried about the team’s depth as they’ll be counting on a lot of young players off the bench who haven’t proven much at all, but their top-end talent stacks up with anyone.
This list would not be complete without listing the teams of two of the most unstoppable forces in the league: reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and two-time MVP Stephen Curry.
The Milwaukee Bucks won a league-high 60 games during the regular season behind Antetokounmpo’s 28-12-6 stat line. I don’t think the league has ever seen a player quit like the Greek Freak before, and any time he’s on TV he’s worth watching. The Bucks took a hit with the loss of Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana in restricted free agency but they still have a strong supporting cast around Antetokounmpo.
As for the Golden State Warriors, they lost Kevin Durant in free agency and they lost Klay Thompson for much of the season to a torn ACL. That means Steve Kerr is going to have to unleash Curry on a nightly basis in order for Golden State to score enough points, and there’s no player in the league I enjoy watching more when he gets going than Curry. His historic shot-making ability and the threat it provides bends the court in ways no other player in the history of the game has matched.
To add some firepower while Thompson recovers, the Warriors added D’Angelo Russell, fresh off an All-Star appearance with the Brooklyn Nets. I’m not totally sure how that duo will mesh, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out. Kerr is going to have to build up a new supporting cast as well after losing long-time key players like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
The final team I’ll touch on in depth here is the Denver Nuggets, led by point-center Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets won 54 games and secured the No. 2 seed in a tough Western Conference. Jokic is a nightly double-double who occasionally pushes that into triple-double range as he’s one of the best passers in the league regardless of position, averaging over seven assists. Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris is a strong supporting trio to put around Jokic and the Nuggets also acquired Jerami Grant from Oklahoma City to add frontcourt depth.
The most intriguing story line with this team, however, is the health and potential impact of Michael Porter Jr. Porter Jr. was one of the very best players in his recruiting class coming out of high school, but after an injury-plagued one-and-done year at Missouri the Nuggets snagged him with the 14th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and had him sit all last year while trying to get back to full health. Porter has flashed some of the scoring ability at 6-foot-10 that made him a blue chip recruit during the preseason, and if he can grow into difference-maker it dramatically alters Denver’s long-term outlook.
Portland, Houston and Utah will make some noise in the West while Boston and Indiana among others should push Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the East. Atlanta will be worth tuning in for to see dynamic second-year point guard Trae Young dice up defenses with both the pass and the shot, and De’Aaron Fox will be a fun out west running the point for Sacramento with a couple of sharp-shooters in Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanović on the wings. If Williamson is the most exciting rookie, the runner-up will likely be Memphis point guard Ja Morant. I could go on and on, but tis is already way to long so I’ll cut it off here.
Opening night will feature three of the teams on my list above as the reigning champion Toronto Raptors will square off against Williamson and the Pelicans while the night cap features a showdown between the two Los Angeles teams.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.