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NBA

2019-20 NBA Season: The Contenders

Kawhi LeBron Giannis

After 16 weeks and 52 odd games, we finally find ourselves at the 2020 NBA All-Star Break, the increasingly hollow spectacle that serves to break apart the NBA’s gruelling 82 game regular season. But while the NBA and its players prepare to take a well deserved rest and enjoy the festivities, we here at Spice HQ are taking this opportunity to knuckle down and assess the lay of the land as we move towards the business end of the NBA calendar, the journey to the playoffs and ultimately, to the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy shaped finish line.

As always, some teams find themselves already out of contention and with one, if not both eyes firmly planted on June 25th’s 2020 NBA Draft. However, this year in particular has been rife with parity, with most teams still a realistic shot to make the playoffs in their respective conference. Furthermore, two years removed from the Warriors/Cavaliers duopoly that cast a shadow over the league for nearly half a decade, there are currently 10 teams that have a case to be considered a legitimate NBA championship contender.

The Elite

The Favourite (Milwaukee Bucks)

46-8.

Think about that for a moment: 54 games played, 46 games won and only 8 games lost. 

Consider for a moment the following list of teams that have equaled or bested the Bucks win % mark of .852% since the NBA’s regular season increased to the current 82 game slate:

  • The 2016 Golden State Warriors, who finished with the best season record in NBA history at 73-9, a win percentage mark of .890%; and
  • The 1996 Chicago Bulls, owners of the record at 72-10 for the 20 years prior to the Warriors, a mark of .878%.

What do these teams have in common? Both are considered amongst the best teams in the history of professional basketball. Well, without jumping the gun on the remaining 28 games in the Bucks season, it’s time to start viewing Giannis and the men from Milwaukee in a similar light, and there’s no greater reason than the Greek Freak himself. 

Giannis’ production in the 2019-2020 is not only without peer, but his performance in leading his team to what is likely a top 5 all-time NBA Regular Season record is eerily similar in value to those or Steph Curry and Michael Jordan in their team’s respective history making seasons. Averaging a ludicrous line of 30 ppg/13.5 rbpg/5.8 apg with a TS% of .608% along with over 1 steal and 1 block, the craziest stat of all may be that he’s doing all this in 30 mpg. For context, every other player in the top 5 league leaders for PPG averages over 5 minutes more per game. 

Despite the individual greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this is by no means a one man band, with the Bucks possessions perhaps the best constructed team in the league despite the offseason departure of starting guard Malcolm Brogdon. Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez are all well above average at their respective positions, and the Bucks bench is surprisingly deep, led by Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton. Nothing highlights the dominance of this Bucks team better than the teams net rating of 11.5, the best mark in the league by a considerable margin. 

Don’t be fooled by last year’s collapse, Giannis is a year older and is considerably better than he was last season, despite having won the MVP. This year, the road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy most likely runs through Milwaukee.

Ryan Leonard

The LeBron Factor (Los Angeles Lakers)

Despite being 4.5 games behind the Bucks for the best record in the NBA, the Lakers still remain the NBA title favourites in the eyes of some. SBD, a sports analysis and odds aggregation site, have kept the Lakers as the market favourites since mid-November. Having the best one two punch in the league doesn’t hurt their chances at contention: LeBron James somehow has barely lost a step at age 35, leading the NBA in assists, while Anthony Davis is indisputably the best big man in the game today. Couple that with the centre rotation of JaVale McGee and a born-again Dwight Howard protecting the paint at an extremely high level, and it’s easy to see this team being the one to emerge from the bloodbath that is the Western Conference.

My biggest concern for the Lakers is how top heavy they are. More than any other team in the top 5, if they were to lose one of their best two players, I fear that they would crumble in a playoff series. While the role players on the team such as Danny Green, Avery Bradley and the aforementioned McGee and Howard have performed admirably all season, there’s just not very much depth in that lineup – especially when it comes to shot creators. This means that there simply aren’t many players that I’d expect to even poorly fill a hypothetical LeBron/Davis vacuum, unless Kyle Kuzma suddenly learns how to shoot efficiently from the floor. He’s shown flashes of excellence this season, but I would not feel good about relying on him to carry a team in a 7 game playoff series.

Having said that, maybe my concern regarding injuries derailing the Lakers season is just me searching too hard for a doomsday scenario. Injuries are unpredictable for the most part (just ask the Warriors), but the reality is that thus far, the Lakers are 2nd in offensive rating, 5th in defensive rating, have the second best points differential in the league behind the Bucks, and have one of the best two players in the history of the sport (who prior to last year went to 8 straight NBA finals). They also happen to have won 17 straight road games against Western Conference opponents, which just so happens to be an all time NBA record. If the Lakers role players can continue to space the floor for their two superstars and do the little things like they’ve been doing all season, they deserve to be the favourites to emerge from the Western Conference.

– Luca De Angelis

The Fun Guys (Los Angeles Clippers)

The Clippers have had some consistency issues, that much has been made abundantly clear. Throughout the first 55 games of their season, they’ve compiled a 37-18 record, good for 3rd in the crowded Western Conference. The good news is this is still essentially a brand new team, and despite the myriad of changes they are working to overcome, the Clippers are still well and truly one of the favourites to win come Finals time. For the Clippers to bring home the bacon, there are two keys, neither of which surprisingly are the names Kawhi Leonard or Paul George.

Firstly, with the deadline trade for Marcus Morris, Sr. the Clippers possess arguably the strongest top-eight rotation in the league outside of the Milwaukee Bucks. A supporting cast consisting of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris, Sr. Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet, provides the Clippers with an excellent balance of offensive creativity, shooting and defense that will surely peak in the grind of the playoffs, where rotations rarely go deeper than 8 players.

Secondly, this team is still very much a work in progress, and yet remains 37-18 and in possession of the 3rd seed in the West. With just under 30 games remaining in the regular season, this group still has a lot of time to continue to develop and grow as a unit, ironing out any chemistry issues they may have on the court and figuring out what combinations of players work best. Yes, they do have the habit of relying on desperation isolation shots at the end of the shot clock: the downside of having three dominant one-on-one scorers in Leonard, George and Williams, but the Clippers have still managed to put up an offensive rating of 112.5, good for 6th in the league. 

Outside of the Bucks and Lakers, the Clippers have the best chance of winning it all. After last season’s playoff heroics, you’d be foolish to bet against Kawhi Leonard once again having the last laugh.

Ryan Leonard

The Strong Contenders

The Champs (Toronto Raptors)

In the aftermath of the Kawhi decision, many NBA fans, including yours truly, wrote the Raptors off as a team whose peak would be the 4th or 5th seed in the 2019-20 season. A tad disrespectful to the defending champs? Sure. But with Leonard leaving after having a postseason for the ages for the Raptors last season, everyone expected there to be a void on the team that would be the size of his freakishly large hands.

Boy am I glad to be proven wrong.

Although their 15 game win streak has just come to an end at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets, the Raptors still find themselves as the #2 seed in the east. Although he’s slowed down a little bit from his scalding hot start to the season, Pascal Siakam has taken a big step up from the previous season, performing admirably as the Raptors #1 scoring option. The Raptors have somehow survived long term injures to Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Fred Van Vleet, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Marc Gasol at various points of the season, due to having arguably the deepest team in the NBA outside of the Denver Nuggets. With promising young talent like OG Anunoby and Terence Davis putting together impressive performances at various points this season, coach Nick Nurse has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal for almost any matchup.

The big question mark around the Raptors remains this: is Pascal Siakam good enough as a #1 option to put the team on his back when needed? There were large stretches these previous playoffs where Kawhi Leonard had to single-handedly carry the Raptors on offense in order to get them through scoring droughts. As much as Spicy P is one of my favourite players in the NBA (and the cornerstone of 3 of my best fantasy rosters), I’m not so sure he’s at the stage of his career where he can consistently carry the offensive load when the going gets tough.

Luca De Angelis

Big Sugar and His Band of Merry Men (Denver Nuggets)

The NBA’s deepest team and last year’s #2 seed in the West has not dropped off this season. Despite the fact that his annual tradition of playing himself into shape took even longer than normal this year, Nikola “Big Sugar” Jokic has been playing at an MVP level the past two months. He looks like a stretched out version of the dudes you’d find at the local YMCA but the numbers don’t lie: since breaking out for 30 points against the Celtics on December 6 (coincidentally, the day I traded him in fantasy basketball), his splits are as follows: 23.6 ppg/10.3 rbpg/7.3 apg on 55/39/82 shooting.

The Nuggets are as well rounded a team as you’ll find in the NBA, ranking 7th in offensive rating and 10th in defensive rating for the season. Will Barton has had his best season in years, Jamal Murray has quietly upped his scoring to nearly 19ppg, Jerami Grant has reverted back to his Oklahoma City form after a slow start to the season, Michael Porter Jr (when healthy) has looked like a future superstar out there and Paul Millsap is still a very good defensive anchor despite his advanced age. This is one of two contending teams along with the Raptors that have their rotations run a legitimate 10 deep if they wish, which allows for coach Mike Malone to manage the minutes of his key contributors, in order to keep them fresh for a potential playoff run. Case in point: no player on the Nuggets averages more minutes per game than Barton at 33.3, a very low number compared to contenders with tight rotations such as the Houston Rockets.

Jokic took over during the playoffs last year, but the biggest knock on him over the course of his career so far is that for a superstar, he can sometimes have prolonged stretches where he is too passive. Before that aforementioned Celtics game, he was averaging less than 15 points per game and his shot attempts exceeded 20 only twice in a 19 game span. Jamal Murray is a good player but not a #1 option on a team with championship aspirations, and while Porter Jr may one day be that guy, he’s not there yet. At present, this team can only reach its sky high potential if Big Sugar embraces his role as a bonafide superstar.

Luca De Angelis

The Outside Chances

Grown Ups 3 (Boston Celtics)

Seriously, what happened to the Boston Celtics last year in year two of its youth led assault on the NBA? Talk about a sophomore slump. 

With last year’s disappointment well and truly behind them, as a team the Celtics have embodied the stereotype of the year 3 jump. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in particular have stepped up after relatively disappointing 18-19 campaigns, thriving alongside off-season addition and perennially under appreciated, Kemba Walker and the finally healthy Gordon Hayward. So much so, in fact, have the Celtics impressed on the court they have posted the third best net rating in the NBA at a difference of 6.4 points per game. These Celtics are taking the right shots at the right time in stark contrast to the criticism of last year’s efforts, as evidenced by their offensive rating leaping from 10th in the NBA to 5th.

No player has seen such a marked improvement in performance on these Celtics than 3rd year wing Jayson Tatum. As a result of trading the much derided midrange attempts of last year for the much more analytically friendly 3 pointer, Tatum is already in possession of a new career mark for 3 pointers made in a season. He has also drastically improved his percentage on his off the dribble 3 point attempts by over 7% on last year, up to 39% good for 6th in the NBA out of the 45 players who have attempted such shots.

Perhaps most impressive is this team’s ability to grind out wins seemingly irrespective of who is playing. During their recent 10 game winning streak, the only two players to play every game were role players Brad Wanamaker and Grant Williams.

Once again Coach Brad Stevens is demonstrating his own abilities on the sideline and all things considered it would be no surprise to see the Boston Celtics hold their own amongst the tier above come crunch time. If their young core continues on their current in-season trajectory, listing these Celtics in the “outside chances” tier may prove to be a mistake.

Ryan Leonard

The Most Improved (Miami Heat)

Whether you believe that Jimmy Butler is a negative locker room presence and malcontent or a misunderstood workhorse, one thing is for certain; he is very good at the game of basketball, and remains one of the best two way players in the league. With this renewed focus and a collection of players around him that are seemingly willing to share his passion to improve, the Heat have done just that, and at times have looked like the best team in basketball. Bam Adebayo in particular has demonstrated legitimate star power in his first year as a starter following Hassan Whiteside’s departure in the offseason

We know what Jimmy brings to the table, with his all round game humming to the tune of 20.6 ppg/6.8 rbpg/6.1 apg along with 1.8 steals, but Adebayo has been a revelation. The 22 year old 3rd year big man out of Kentucky is demonstrating why he will soon be considered amongst the superstar big men of the game, if he’s not there already. The averages of 15.8 ppg/10.4 rbpg/4.9 apg, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks only tell part of the story: Bam is arguably the centrepiece of this team on both sides of the ball, anchoring the defense as well as acting as the secondary playmaker on offense.

But again, this is a team not simply carried by its stars. Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have constructed a team positioned to thrive in this new era of basketball analytics. Players like Kendrick Nunn, an undrafted rookie out of the University of Illinois and Duncan Robinson, another undrafted player out of Michigan, are thriving off the ball in this Heat offense averaging 15.3 ppg on .341% from 3pt and 12.6 ppg on .438% respectively.

Miami was also a big winner at the trade deadline, adding much needed veteran leadership and versatility both offensively and defensively with the additions of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. The latter of the additions flew mostly under the radar, but has been very impressive in his short Heat career. Crowder’s South Beach debut was a success to the tune of 18 points and 11 rebounds, and he gives the Spoelstra another long, versatile wing defender to chuck at the behemoth’s out East come playoff time. 

It’ll be interesting to see how this team continues to progress post-All Star Break, but count on them living well and truly up to their billing as dark horses by seasons end. 

Ryan Leonard

The Fundamentals (Utah Jazz)

Carrying the torch from Spurs teams of yesteryear, comes the NBA’s most boring contender. Seriously, the most exciting thing about this team is that their head coach is secretly a supervillain. I suppose that Donovan Mitchell guy isn’t bad to watch either, with the third year wing taking a step forward both scoring and efficiency wise.

The formula for Utah Jazz basketball over the Rudy Gobert era has been simple: defense, defense and more defense. Understandable when you have a two time defensive player of the year protecting the rim. However, this season their defensive rating has dropped from 2nd to 8th. I feel like Ricky Rubio was an underrated defensive presence in the back court, and while Mike Conley is no slouch at that end of the court, he’s missed large chunks of time already this season, forcing the Jazz to turn to Joe Ingles in the starting lineup. This has forced Donovan Mitchell to guard opposing point guards more often this season than he’s ever had to in his career, something he’s clearly not comfortable with, as he’s putting up his worst Defensive Box Plus Minus Estimate number of his career. Add the horrid defense of Bojan Bogdanovic to the mix, and not even the Stifle Tower can completely erase the poor perimeter defense of this iteration of the Jazz.

On a positive note, Bogey gives Donovan Mitchell a secondary shot creator to play alongside for the first time in his young career. Not only has the offensive rating of the Jazz shot up from 14th last year to 8th this year as a result, but crucially, this means that in a 7 game series, the Jazz will have far more offensive sets that they can run this time around. Mitchell was stifled into 32% shooting from the field in 5 games against the Rockets last playoffs, but with an extra year of growth and Bogdanovic to share the offensive load this time around, I foresee Mitchell having a far stronger playoff campaign this time around.

This is a big “if” based on the season thus far, but IF Mike Conley can revert back to the form he’s exhibited across the course of his career once he’s healthy, it will improve the Jazz’s offense and defense to the point where I’d consider them the best chance to come out of the West outside of the LA duo. Defense wins championships, and the Jazz are built to grind out ugly playoff games better than any other contender. Unfortunately, there’s something about a Quin Snyder system that crushes the spirit of any point guard that plays for him (take a look at Rubio’s number’s pre and post Jazz, and compare them to his numbers with the Jazz), so I sadly don’t think Conley returns to his Grizzlies form any time soon. That leaves this team with a second round ceiling, barring something like Mitchell and Bogdanovic going Super Saiyan.

Luca De Angelis

The Dysfunctional (Philadelphia 76ers)

On their day the Philadelphia 76ers can beat any team in the league, as evidenced by the recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. What says dysfunction more though, than the team’s best player Joel Embiid yelling at the raucous home crowd to “shut the f*** up”, before putting up 26 points in an all round terrific performance. This is the 76ers in a nutshell, who are just as likely to put up excellent home wins against the league’s top teams as they are likely to lose against its worst. Despite an overall record of 34-21, the team has the most pronounced home/road splits in the NBA. They have an almost inexplicable 9-19 road record, yet have a home record of 25-2, the best mark in the entire league. 

To make matters even worse, this team still has the same myriad of offense woes that has plagued it since drafting Ben Simmons 1st overall in 2016. Seriously, where is this team’s shooting? Outside of the Turkish sniper Furkan Korkmaz, that is. Despite possessing one of the best passers in the NBA in the aforementioned Simmons, who is 5th in the league in assists per game at 8.3, the 76ers are 22nd in the league in terms of 3 point field goals made, a mark only better than the Denver Nuggets amongst the playoff contenders outlined in this article. 

All this considered, it comes as no surprise that the biggest talking point of the 76ers pre-All Star break week has been a shoot around video that depicts Ben Simmons hitting eight straight corner threes with what appears to be solid form and relative ease, yet remains a shot Simmons has attempted once this season (and made). It truly begs the question as to why this obvious ability is being so explicitly flaunted, yet not being applied when it comes to live action?

Despite the fact this team has two extraordinary talents, this team still feels like a team staring down the barrel of a second round playoff exit if they no longer possess the home court advantage. And should that occur, the focus should be on Brett Brown’s tenure on coach, and not who of Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid are to blame. 

Ryan Leonard

The Hobbits (Houston Rockets)

Last, and in this case definitely least, comes Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took – a plucky group of Hobbits that have fled Middle Earth and decided to begin a new life, playing professional basketball for the Houston Rockets.

All jokes aside, this may be the most extreme version of Moreyball that we’ve ever witnessed. During the Golden State dynasty years, the fiercest challenger out West was the Houston Rockets, a well balanced unit led by offensive dynamo James Harden and an ageing but still very good Chris Paul. They had two modes: small ball with PJ Tucker at centre and surrounding Harden with a plethora of outside shooting, and more traditional basketball with the athletic Clint Capela acting as an elite rim protector and the dream roll man for either Harden or Paul in guard/centre pick and rolls.

Well, in a year where 3 of the top 4 teams in the West (Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz) actually have dominant big men, the Rockets seem to have eschewed any size whatsoever in dealing Capela to the Hawks. Coming back in the deal was Robert Covington, a very good player, but essentially a better version of a guy like Danuel House Jr. Since the trade (and to be more accurate, since Capela got hurt January 30 against the Blazers) the Rockets have refused to play an actual centre, but have had surprisingly good results – going 5-2 including wins over the Mavericks, Lakers and Celtics.

A big reason behind the Rockets continuing to pile up the W’s is that Russell Westbrook has been arguably the games best player over the past month. I’ve been highly critical of Westbrook in the past and with good reason, he is statistically the worst high volume 3 point shooter in NBA history, and I have a strong bias against point guards who can’t actually shoot. However, since the start of the calendar year, Westbrook has cut his three point attempts to 2.3 per game. He’s still hitting them at an atrocious clip (26.5%), but is eschewing them for shots at the basket or midrange attempts. The result: 33.1 ppg/8.1 rbpg /7.4 apg on 52% from the field and 76% from the line. If reigning scoring champ James Harden can find the form that he had earlier in the season while Westbrook is cooking like this, the Rockets are a legitimate threat to catch fire and make a deep playoff run.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen all too often how much Harden and Westbrook struggle as lead guys in playoff series’ when defenses tighten and referees call less fouls. Russ has not gotten past the first round without Kevin Durant as a teammate, and Harden’s game is a microcosm of the Rockets in general: unstoppable when on fire from three but prone to historically bad cold streaks, and vulnerable to refs swallowing their whistles come playoff time. Couple this with the fact that these Rockets have no answer for Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic or even Rudy Gobert on defense, and it’s hard for me to see them making it past the second round, barring Harden turning into his November 2019 self.

Luca De Angelis

Do you agree with our ten contenders? Have any teams been unfairly snubbed? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!