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Teams to watch
Coming off their first championship in 40 years, the Bucks are riding high. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most potent threats in the league, while he has a well assembled support cast of shooters and the increasingly prominent Khris Middleton.
On paper, the most talented team in the league, led by scoring duo Kevin Durant and James Harden. How much the Kyrie Irving anti-vaccination saga impacts them could be telling.
Los Angeles Lakers
It was almost the plot of a movie, the way this Lakers team was assembled. All the players from yesteryear followed each another to Southern California for one last shot at a ring. Health is massive with this team. But if LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and company can be at their best come April, this team could go all the way.
Golden State Warriors
The dynasty took a two-year hiatus, but the window to bring another title to the Bay has not completely closed. Klay Thompson will return after two years off with injury, joining Stephen Curry to re-form the most potent shooting backcourt in history.
Went on a run to make last year’s finals and should be better again this year. Devin Booker gives them one of the best scorers in the game, DeAndre Ayton is a beast inside and Chris Paul pulls the strings at point guard as well as anyone who has ever played.
Players to watch
Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)
The Slovenian does virtually everything and is capable of putting a team on his back. His step back from deep is one of the toughest shots to guard and he facilitates as well as he scores. At just 22, expect another jump this season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Long and athletic, the Greek Freak is coming off one of the most dominant finals displays in recent history. Always potent on defence, gets to the rim whenever he wants and has an ever-developing shooting game.
LeBron James (Lakers)
A healthy King James, entering his 19th season, remains the best player on the planet. He can hurt teams in any way and his passing game is as good as anyone’s. Had two of his past three seasons derailed by injury, although won a championship in the one he stayed healthy.
Kevin Durant (Nets)
Probably the best all-round scorer of all time. Long and skilful, he is unguardable at his best.
Stephen Curry (Warriors)
Not as versatile as the others in this group, but the former two-time MVP still shoots the ball better than anyone. Has had something of a second coming since returning from injury last year and is a reminder that there is still a place for the little guy in a supposed game of giants.
Narratives to follow
Vaccination has been the issue of the off-season — notably in Andrew Wiggins’ U-turn and Irving’s refusal to get the shot. What it means for player availability and their future in the league will play out as the season goes on.
For a long stretch, there were one or two clear favourites to win the title. This season, like last, feels far more wide open. Last year’s league was heavily impacted by injury.
The big Kiwi lasted just one year in New Orleans. Memphis is his new landing spot and there will be plenty of interest in his role and how he goes on a Grizzlies team on the rise.
East no longer the least
For so long the butt of many a joke, the Eastern Conference is the strongest it has been in years. It has the defending champion Bucks and arguably the best paper team in the Nets. There is also plenty of quality among the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and a resurgent Chicago Bulls.
It is hard to go past Brooklyn. A team dogged by injury last year, this time around it has had a full off-season and its new pick-ups have had a chance to gel. The Bucks are a clear a threat too and seem the most likely to meet them in the conference finals. But I’ll give the Nets the edge here.
There are many questions around the Lakers, although there is enough talent and experience in that team to be in the mix. The Warriors are another who know how to get it done and have the talent to do so. Both could yet end up being disasters. But a LeBron-Curry conference finals is appealing so let’s go with that. It is tough to make a pick there — but it is always risky betting against LeBron so the Lakers advance.
Again, it is always risky betting against LeBron. The Lakers to win an epic series, but Durant will push them all the way.