It is quite impossible to think of a more heroic way to go. When Klay Thompson was blocked at the rim by the Raptors’ Danny Green in game 6 of the NBA finals, it was clear that something was seriously wrong from the moment he landed awkwardly. You could see from Steph Curry’s anguished pounding of the ball into the floor and the ashen looks on the faces of fans in the stands of the Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors were grimly hanging on to their title against Toronto.
Incredibly, Thompson came back out to shoot – and score – both free throws. That was his last contribution and the banged-up Warriors, with Kevin Durant having ruptured his Achilles tendon in game 3, had run out of miracles as the title went to Canada for the first time in the league’s history.
What it did show was that the team who won three out of the previous four titles retain that champion grit, even if they face a transitional season after a slew of important departures. Those include star forward Durant (to the Brooklyn Nets) and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, traded to Memphis to make cap space for the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, brought in from Brooklyn in a sign-and-trade to salvage something from Durant’s exit.
Still, it does have the feeling of a dynasty being over. Tipping a title favourite in the last couple of seasons was an exercise in futility – the Warriors weren’t just the best, they were one of the best of all time. Now that the playing field has been dramatically levelled, the only thing we can be sure of is that Los Angeles is once again the epicentre of the NBA.
In any normal season, LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers would probably be the heavy favourites. Stung by criticism of how they managed (or perhaps wasted) the King’s first season in Hollywood, general manager Rob Pelinka has re-tooled around him, finally managing to snare another superstar in Anthony Davis, while adding some shooting and defence via the likes of Green – fresh from winning his ring with the Raptors – and Avery Bradley. Their depth is still highly questionable, however.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of how the Lakers handled last term, it seemed to make the 34-year-old James acutely aware of his own basketball mortality for the first time. He’d never sat out as many games through injury, and having missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 2005, he doesn’t have any time to waste. His desire to pass the torch to Davis is clear. In fact, he even tried to give his own fabled No 23 shirt to the new arrival though the league denied the request, with the application to change numbers not having been made in time. Pointedly, James has been wearing his old Miami No 6 in training sessions, and in scenes from the currently-filming Space Jam 2.
Yet the Lakers will have far from a clear run, even in their own city. After years of being the punchline to jokes, this season’s Clippers are serious. They have signed their own superstar duo in Kawhi Leonard, fresh from guiding the Raptors to the title as Finals MVP, and Paul George, who finished third in the overall MVP running and was handpicked by Leonard to join him in a title push. Added to a strong existing unit, full of character and well coached by Doc Rivers, who pushed the Warriors to six games in the opening round of last season’s playoffs, the Clippers are now heavyweights.
This injection of star power into LA is only the top line in a Western Conference teeming with quality. The Houston Rockets might be more in the news for their general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet sparking crisis in the NBA’s relationship with China – and as even LeBron found out in recent days, it’s a case of react quickly, repent at leisure in respect of that situation – but they are the only team to have pushed Golden State to the limit in the last two seasons. Morey has taken another big risk in trading away Chris Paul to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook, meaning the MVPs of 2017 and 2018 are on the same team as Westbrook reunites with James Harden. Setting up the two most ball-dominant players in the league will either equal boom or bust.
Elsewhere, the Utah Jazz are now a genuine contender, having added point guard Mike Conley to play with the explosive Donovan Mitchell. Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray will seek to build on last year’s promise for the Denver Nuggets. The Western Conference has such depth that Kristaps Porzingis’ return from injury, meaning the Dallas Mavericks have a star European tandem to build around in the shape of the Latvian and reigning Rookie of the Year Luka Dončić, has almost been overlooked.
The intensity of the competition out West means that the East certainly risks being overshadowed. The inspirational Leonard’s exit after his glorious one-and-done means that the Raptors have little chance of defending their crown. The Nets made the most sensational splash of free agency in luring Durant and Boston’s Kyrie Irving from under the noses of their neighbours, the New York Knicks, but Durant isn’t expected to play in the coming season, leaving Irving to lead this good, young team – a role in which he plainly failed with the Celtics last term.
Milwaukee and Philadelphia are widely expected to battle it out for top spot in the East, with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo aiming to go one better and make it to the Conference Finals with the Bucks. In Philly, the 76ers have a formidable – quality-wise and size-wise – line-up led by Joel Embiid, with good additions in Al Horford and Josh Richardson, but the loss of their clutch man from last year’s playoffs, Jimmy Butler (the small forward has joined Miami Heat), could hurt.
Perhaps the East’s most intriguing story will come in the shape of the much-anticipated NBA debut of the New Orleans Pelicans number 1 pick, Zion Williamson. Though that will have to wait for a few months after the rookie had surgery on a torn meniscus this week.
A heroic return from the Warriors’ Thompson, who is on track to come back after February’s All-Star break, to propel the Warriors back into contention would be the ultimate twist. The season promises to be full of them.
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