THAT CAME AROUND fast. It’s been just over three months since Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets beat the Miami Heat to claim their first NBA title. Now, decks have been shuffled, players traded and rosters rebooted in one of sports’ great merry-go-rounds/reality TV dramas/soap operas.
Questions abound. Can Jokić and the Nuggets go back to back and become the next NBA dynasty? Does 38-year-old LeBron James have one more title run in him. Will the Bucks’ addition of Damian Lillard tilt the balance of power their way and allow Giannis Antetokounmpo to reclaim the throne as the world’s best player? What will Jimmy Butler’s hairdo be on opening night?
There’s plenty for Aussie fans to get excited about too, not least the re-emergence of Esquire Australia’s October cover star Ben Simmons. A revitalised Simmons has shown a lot of intent in preseason, which means precisely nothing. Now, we’ll see once and for all if the 27 year old’s physical and mental problems are behind him and if he can fulfil the enormous promise he once held as a generational player. But it’s not just Simmons; there are a record 11 Aussies on NBA rosters this year, from OKC point guard Josh Giddey, who has a shot at making his first All-Star team, to veteran Patty Mills, now plying his wares with the Atlanta Hawks.
So, let’s take a look at the contenders, the MVP favourites and the Aussies to watch before the season tips off tomorrow.
The Contenders in the East
At this stage the East looks like a two-horse race, with apologies to Miami, who will be a contender if they make the play-offs based on sheer grit and willpower but could struggle in the regular season. With the addition of Lillard the Bucks are a formidable offensive team and their big four of Giannis, Lillard, Kris Middleton, and Brook Lopez is as good as anybody’s best four in the league. Lillard will be the most open he’s ever been in his life, which is a prospect that should send shivers down the spine of defences around the league, while his gravity creates corresponding space for his teammates. This team will score a lot of points. In Giannis and Lopez they have the tools to cover Lillard’s weaknesses on defence but perimeter coverage could be an issue and Giannis may have to clean up a lot of messes.
This team is LOADED, with Jayson Tatum finally entering his prime, Jaylen Brown getting paid over summer, a seemingly revitalised Kristaps Porzingis and the addition of Jrue Holiday adding elite perimeter defence. The Celtics don’t have a lot of holes, beside perhaps coach Joe Mazzulla, who at least has more assistants beside him this year. The Celts would be a title favourite, it’s just that they haven’t done it before, though losing in the finals against the Warriors in 2022 will have given them the big-moment battle scars teams seem to need to take the final step.
The contenders in the West
Nikola Jokić is the best player in the world, Murray is a great running mate and the two are unguardable in the pick and roll. Add Michael Porter Jnr.’s long range bombing and the defensive versatility of Aaron Gordon and this is probably the most well rounded starting five in the league. The bench is a little thin, after losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, so it will up to Reggie Jackson and Christian Braun to step up.
A lot of people have been sleeping on the Suns even though in Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal they possess perhaps the best offensive big three in the league. The problem is after trading Deandre Ayton for Jusuf Nurkic they are light on rim protection. Nurkic spends a lot of time in street clothes, as does KD. The regular season could be a battle for the Suns but if everyone’s healthy at the right time of year, look out.
The Lakers quietly retooled over the off-season, retaining Austin Reeves who broke out in last year’s play-offs, along with D’Angelo Russell, who could be trade bait come February. The big question is Anthony Davis and James’ health, which will ultimately determine the team’s fortunes. If the two can play enough games together in the regular season to ensure a playoff berth and are healthy come play-off time, the team has a chance. If they’re not, you can write the Lakers off right now.
Aussies to watch
Simmons has been saying all the right things, including telling Esquire that, “You can only take so much slander ’til you gotta turn up on motherfuckers”. He has looked like a man on a mission in preseason, attacking the rim, finding teammates for open looks and even taking the odd jump shot and if he can return to being the defensive menace he was in Philly he’ll make Brooklyn a tough team to handle. But if he starts passing up shots and open drives to the basket because he’s scared to get fouled and go to the free-throw line you can expect the online army to go to town. We’re rooting for him.
The 6’ 8” OKC point guard is poised to have a breakout season after logging 16 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists last year. If he can bump those numbers up just a little bit, OKC, with the addition of Chet Holmgren and the outstanding play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could be a play-off contender and Giddey an All Star.
The veteran sharp-shooter is now in Atlanta, who will be looking for him to bomb away from three off the bench. Mills is still capable of the odd twenty-point night. He was moved multiple times this off-season, and may still get traded again come February, but he’s a Hawk for now.
Exum is a good story and many will be rooting for him. The 6’ 5” Australian shooting guard used his two-and-a-half years in Europe to rebuild his game and recover from injuries and trades that had robbed him of confidence. Strong showings in the Boomers’ campaigns at the Tokyo Olympics and the World Cup earlier this year saw Dallas take a chance on the 28-year-old. Now he has a shot to make his name as a defensive stalwart with some playmaking chops.
Fellow Mavericks forward Josh Green showed enough promise last year to land himself a three-year $41 million contract, with signs he could become a valuable member of the rotation this year. He scored 22 points in his last pre-season outing, which again means nothing other than being a nice confidence booster heading into the season.
Rookies to watch
The Spurs’ Wembanyama is the most exciting rookie since LeBron James and his preseason work featured many highlight-worthy plays on both ends of the floor. Whether he can handle the ball and shoot from long range on a regular basis in the season proper is a different kettle of fish. His defence will make many think twice about heading into the lane but the fact is, his spindly frame means he’s going to get manhandled from time to time.
With Dame traded to the Bucks, Scoot has a license to chuck up shots. He also seems to have what The Ringer’s Chris Vernon likes to call “That dog in him”, and will be highly motivated to claim the Rookie of the Year title ahead of Wemby.
After red-shirting last year Holmgren has returned to the NBA this season with a little more muscle and a serious chip on his shoulder. He went right at Wemby in their preseason match-up, who didn’t back down either, and the battle between these two giraffes could become a serious rivalry over the next decade. Holmgren gives the Thunder a much needed interior presence and with Giddey feeding him dimes, shapes as a lob threat as well as a rim protector.
Best league-pass teams
Oklahoma City Thunder
Giddey, Holmgren, SGA and Jaylen Williams are the most exciting young core in the league. Many predict they could be a top five team in the West.
In Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, this is another young team that could make a leap this year. Both had strong World Cup campaigns and with a lot of talent around them will be a fun watch.
New Orleans Pelicans
If Zion is healthy how can you not watch? He’s only played 114 games in three seasons but when he’s on the floor has looked like Thanos on a basketball court.
The Nets are mainly on here for the Simmons curiosity factor. The whole of the hoops world wants to know if Simmons is back for real or just a cheque-cashing pretty boy in drippy street clothes.
Dončić has been a favourite with punters the last few years and looked slimmed down during the World Cup. He’ll always have a stats case; the issue is whether his team can get enough wins to support his campaign.
The ease with which Jokic fills the box score is ridiculous. The only reason he doesn’t win this every year is because the only trophy he really cares about is the Larry O’B.
The best two-way player in the league is always a contender. After a few years without an MVP he’s probably due again.
The Celtics small forward was the MVP front runner during the early part of last season. Now 25, he’s at an age where stars generally stamp their authority on the league. With a loaded roster around him, this could be Tatum’s time.
This is Curry’s last best shot to add a third MVP. If healthy and the team around him wins enough games, at 35 he’s a shot to become the oldest winner since Karl Malone in 1998-99.
We’re going for a Nuggets-Bucks finals. This mouth-watering match-up would pit the two best players of the last few years in a head to head match-up, with the winner crowned as NBA champion and indisputably the best player in the world.