10 NBA Storylines To Follow This Season

The 2019-20 NBA season is upon us – and a string of massive roster moves has set it up as one of the most fascinating on record. We take a look at the key narratives that will shape the eight months ahead for hoops fans.

Westbrook and Harden Reunited

James Harden played alongside Russell Westbrook for three seasons in Oklahoma City before heading Houston in 2012. Now two of the league’s dominant individualists reunite, with Westbrook leaving the Thunder for the Rockets, who traded Chris Paul to OKC. Both guards have a recent NBA MVP trophy on the mantelpiece and a stack of All-Star appearances, but how will they mesh?

Westbrook has a history of struggling to co-exist with big-name teammates and building an effective team around him is a riddle the Thunder never figured out. But ‘Brodie’ could also shake things up for a Harden-led Rockets outfit that has finished top-four in the West in four of the past five seasons, only to flake out during the playoffs.

Westbrook makes Houston less predictable, less reliant on Harden. It could be a bust or it could take the Rockets to the next level. Either way, it will be fascinating viewing.

Support for LeBron and AD

After eight straight NBA Finals appearances with the Heat and Cavaliers, LeBron James’ injury-hampered first campaign with a super-young LA Lakers support cast – playing a career-low 55 games – saw him miss the playoffs altogether for the first time since the 2004-05 season.

Now he has ex-Pelicans big man Anthony Davis alongside him – and the Lakers have two of the league’s top five players (according to ESPN) and are on the second line of Championship betting behind the Clippers.

Will that be enough for the Lakers? The health of LBJ and AD is paramount to the Lakers’ title hopes, but the superstar duo also need support. Their starting five is set to be fleshed out by JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley and Danny Green, though Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard are in the mix, and Jared Dudley and Quinn Cook have also joined the roster.

How Good is Zion Williamson?

No.1 Draft pick Zion Williamson ranks as arguably the most hyped rookie since LeBron James began his ascension to megastardom in 2003. Like LeBron when he was snapped up by the Cavaliers, the 19-year-old Williamson is set to instantly become the marquee man on a modest New Orleans Pelicans roster.

But after a blockbusting pre-season, the Pelicans – and basketball fans at large – are bemoaning a knee injury to the tyro. Williamson has been ruled out for 6-8 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus, effectively ensuring he will miss the Pelicans’ first 20-30 games.

Plenty of pundits have expressed concern over the 129kg Williamson’s weight, given his high-octane, big-dunking playing style. This setback will only add to the scrutiny around his potential greatness – particularly given Pelicans predecessor Davis’ tenure was characterised by injury problems.

Simmons’ Shooting Key for Sixers

The NBA world lost its mind when Ben Simmons nailed a three-point jumper in the pre-season. Poor shooting had become a real millstone around the Aussie phenom’s neck, and while draining one perimeter shot means little unless he’s doing it on the reg, it was positive step for Simmons – and a promising sign for a Philadelphia 76ers side capable of a Championship run.

But the 23-year-old’s importance to the Sixers goes far beyond making a few more jump shots. With Jimmy Butler heading to Miami, Simmons becomes their undisputed key playmaker. He is one of the most valuable and versatile defensive players in the league. Joel Embiid may be regarded as the best player on Philly’s roster – and the seventh-best in the NBA according to ESPN – but Simmons being touted as an MVP candidate.

The arrival of Al Horford and the progress of Tobias Harris gives the 76ers quality in every position. It seems a formality the Sixers will square off against the Bucks for the East title – but Simmons’ ongoing development is central to their ability to go further.

The Kawhi Effect

Kawhi Leonard became arguably the most popular American in Canada’s history after leading the Toronto Raptors to a maiden Championship last season. But after just one year in maple leaf country the former Spurs stalwart returns home to Los Angeles, where he will attempt to steer the long-suffering Clippers to their first title.

Named the second-best player in the league by ESPN, Leonard teams up with fellow marquee recruit and six-time All-Star Paul George, and the Clippers’ key trio from last season, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. The bookies have consequently installed the Clippers as Championship favourites – despite the franchise, which began life in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves, never having been past the second round of the playoffs.

Is Conley the Jazz’s Missing Piece?  

After three straight seasons finishing fifth in the West, the Utah Jazz shape as a genuine dark horse in a crowded conference – and the addition of long-serving Grizzlies linchpin Mike Conley is viewed as one of the main reasons why.

At 32, Conley has arguably been handed the reins of the best offence in his career, while he will help lighten the load on dynamic back-court partner Donovan Mitchell. With Bojan Bogdanovic, Aussie Joe Ingles and the Defensive Player of the Year for the past two seasons in Rudy Gobert rounding out the starting line-up, the Jazz look capable of taking the next step. 

East/West Imbalance

If there’s a season that could turn the murmurs about the NBA needing to abandon the conference playoffs system into a roar, it’s this one.

The Western Conference has boasted more good teams than the East for some time. Despite LeBron leaving the Cavs for the Lakers, the imbalance wasn’t as big an issue as expected last season. But roster changes over the off-season are set to see the disparity become an embarrassment again for the NBA.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are miles ahead of every other team in the East, with a host of OK sides jockeying for position behind them. Meanwhile, six of the top eight 2019-20 Championship favourites come from the West. We could witness the awkward situation where a team that misses the West playoffs is actually regarded as a better team than the No.3 seed in the East.

Nuggets’ Roster Juggling Act 

The Denver Nuggets were one of the surprise-packets of the 2018-19 season, finishing second in the West as Nikola Jokic emerged as an MVP contender. They’ve added Jerami Grant and haven’t lost anyone of note.

In many ways, the Nuggets are a GM’s dream: a roster with too many pieces and too much depth. So the challenge now is to decide who to keep, who to trade and work on swapping two or three good players for a star that can turn transform Denver from rising force into Championship contender.

Golden State: Spent Force or Still in the Mix?  

The Warriors headed into last season a ridiculously short $1.50-ish to achieve the three-peat. They duly topped the Western Conference, before scrapping their way to the NBA Finals without injured superstar Kevin Durant. With KD breaking down again, the Warriors lost to the Raptors in six.

And following Durant’s departure to Brooklyn, Golden State – after five straight Finals appearances for three titles – have slipped way back to the pack in terms of the 2019-20 Championship conversation. But in the mercurial Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors still boast the nucleus of the side that started their dynasty five years ago.

Veterans and dressing-room leaders Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are also key losses, but the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Glenn Robinson III and Marquese Chriss are talented younger recruits who will revel in the opportunity to develop alongside Curry and co.

Grizzlies and Hawks: Ready to Fire or Continue to Flame Out? 

The Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks finished 12th in their respective conferences last season, but both are rebuilding with promising, youthful rosters and could force their way up to the fringes of playoffs contention.

The ‘Grit and Grind’ Grizzlies traded veteran cornerstones Mike Conley and Marc Gasol away, while new 34-year-old head coach Taylor Jenkins will guide a young team headlined by Jaren Jackson Jr and No.2 Draft pick Ja Morant.

The Hawks let Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince go, while Dewayne Dedmon took a free-agent option with the Kings. They will pin their hopes on the likes of Trae Young – last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up – power forward John Collins, Duke alumni Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter, who are all 22 or younger.

Are these teams on the right track or heading down another dead end, a la the Phoenix Suns?