The season’s opening tipoff is just hours away. We’re awaiting a wild nine-month ride that will take fans on highs that reaches higher than Giannis Antetokounmpo wingspan, and lower than the Knicks fan base when they found out that they lost out on Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson and Kyrie Irving.
This upcoming season is one of the most anticipated seasons since 2010 when the Heatles were formed. For the first time in a long time the League is competitively balanced. The Warriors’ stranglehold on the championship is over for the time being (although they are very much in the mix to possibly win it all) and now multiple teams has elite duos that are gunning for the NBA crown. Russell Westbrook and James Harden are reunited in Houston; The Lakers finally got their second co-star to play alongside LeBron James in Anthony Davis; and the Clippers made the biggest splash in free agency when they signed Kawhi Leonard in free agency while acquiring Paul George. On paper, The Clippers are looking like the most complete team in the NBA and few would be surprised if they represent the West in The Finals.
Now that Leonard has left The Raptors, the East is wide open. Is this the year that the Process in Philadelphia is fulfilled? Can Boston return to The Eastern Conference elite with Kemba Walker? Is this possibly the year that Antetokounmpo rounds himself as the best player in the world and help the Bucks reach the Finals.
We recently sat down with ESPN analyst Jalen Rose and spoke about all the intriguing storylines that will entrench the upcoming 19-20 NBA season.
Let us start things off with the defending NBA Champion Raptors, what are their odds of repeating as NBA Champions?
They won’t repeat as champs, but what I am excited to see is the development of Pascal Siakam. Here’s a guy that was Most Improved player on a team that won the championship, and as someone who won that award the year in 2000, I’m really looking forward to how his game is going to take a leap without Kawhi.
This offseason has brought competitive balance back to the NBA. Do you think that gap is getting smaller in terms of elite teams between the Eastern and Western Conferences?
I think the Western Conference after this summer continued to distinguish its self as the superior conference from top to bottom. Denver was the No. 2 seed last year, Jokic and Murray are going to get better. Russell Westbrook is now playing with James Harden in Houston. Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard are together in LA. LeBron James is still going to play at an MVP level with Anthony Davis. Utah added Mike Conley to go along with Rudy Gobert and Donavan Mitchell. Portland was the No. 3 seed last year, and they added Hassan Whiteside to tag along with who I affectionately call the “Mama Boys”” Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum. And the Warriors without Klay Thompson… Draymond Green is going to have a monster year, Steph Curry is going to be one of the top players in the game and they just added D’Angelo Russell. The West is loaded!
This is a big year for the Sixers. Do you think that this is the year they finally fulfill and complete the process?
I think this is their best overall chance since The Process started. Joel Embiid is an All-NBA performer, one of the best overall players in the game—he can shoot 3s, play in the post, turnover both shoulders, he can pass, rebound, block shots and has a magnetic personality. Ben Simmons flirts with a triple-double on a nightly basis, plays a good floor game and is competitive on defense. The elephant in the room with him and what’s going to unlock the Sixers ceiling is if he can make shots outside of the paint. That’s two separate steps I want to acknowledge: first take shots outside of the paint with confidence and then make them consistently.
You can’t forget about Tobias Harris. He can ball, he understands that he has to take his game to an All-Star level in the East. I think he’ll be a first time All-Star this year. And then they brought in Al Horford, taking him away from Boston. Horford was probably the best person to defend Joel Embiid, he can play some quality minutes on nights when Embiid is out with load management. Josh Richardson can lock down on defense, he’s an underrated athlete, really explosive, I like him a lot.
The Sixers lost Jimmy Butler this offseason to Miami. Do you feel his departure from The Sixers is addition by subtraction?
I think it’s a win-win for both teams. If you’re the Sixers, if you look at how you parlayed it: You lost Jimmy, but you gained Horford, gained Richardson and resigned Tobias. When you look at the totality at what they were trying to do, that works for them because it creates a balance in their roster and for Miami they needed a franchise player now that Dwayne Wade is retired.
Do you see as Miami as a possible playoff team?
In the East, I feel like record-wise it’s pretty much going to be the Bucks and the Celtics with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. I feel like they have the best collection of perimeter players in the Eastern Conference.
The Bucks are an interesting team. I like Khris Middleton a lot, but I feel that he’s better suited as a third or fourth option for the team. Do you think the lack of a second superstar on the Bucks will hold them back?
You echoed what I’ve said about the Bucks this season. That assessment is accurate for me. I think that they might have a great regular season, record-wise, and a good playoff position. I love what head coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff have done to turn around the team, but loosing Malcolm Brogdon will be a big loss.
One of the sneakiest teams in the East is The Hawks. Do you see Trae Young taking a huge step and picking up from where he left off during the second part of last season?
I do. We all know how he came on after January. He was heroic, doing a better job at driving to the basket, finishing in the paint. He was a proven knockdown shooter in college who continues to improve his range in the League. He’s shown that he’s a really good playmaker, too—he can split screens, and go underneath them, and drive to the basket. He unlocked John Collins’ game they have good chemistry going between the two of them. They’re going to be a fun team to watch because they’re young and they continue to show promise. They drafted DeAndre Hunter, who just won a National Championship. He’s expected to play quality minutes. I like what they did with their team over the last couple of years.
John Collins is one of the League’s most underrated and consistent players. Is a possible All-Star berth in his future?
Doing this job you’re always in a 24/7/365 news cycle. I didn’t do the research yet, but I’m just thinking out loud: A game-changing position in the Eastern Conference this year is going to be the four spot. Other than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin I don’t believe a current starting four in the East has ever been an All-Star. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but that can change. The two established fours in the East are Griffin and Antetokounmpo. Other than that, it’s going to be a proving ground for a lot of up-and-coming players.
The Knicks has one of my favorite players to watch in Mitchell Robinson. Do you see him taking a big leap this upcoming season?
Yea, he’s a pogo stick. I love how he can constantly change, contest, and block shots. He’s a really good roller, I like the term “skill or will” because there are a couple of different ways to do it up front in the League. Everyone isn’t going to be Draymond Green playing the four and the five, leading his team in assists.
Across the Hudson River, The Nets took everyone by surprise and signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. Do you see Brooklyn as kings of the East?
One thing about this league: Super teams didn’t just start happening. The best players usually win the most championships, that’s just how it works. Kevin Durant is a former MVP and a two-time Finals MVP. We still have to see if he can resemble the player that he was in Golden State. Kyrie is going to continue to dazzle people. And I love Caris LeVert—people sleep on the fact that he was on track to become Brooklyn’s All-Star before he got injured. I appreciate watching Spencer Dinwiddie come up in the League. I remember when he was in Chicago and Detroit, trying to find a home in the League. He eventually became a productive player and now he has staying power. I like what Sean Marks the general manager has done, they created a culture that convinced Kevin Durant to leave The Golden State Warriors to join them.
Do you think it’s feasible that Spencer Dinwiddie can be a serious contender for Sixth Man Of The Year?
Yes, Spencer was in the conversation for Sixth man, but usually what happens with that award, you have to be first or either second on your team in scoring. We’ll see if he can be that with Kevin Durant out, but I think Caris will fill that role.
How about The Pacers? You can’t count them out. The last couple of years their season ended prematurely in the playoffs due to injury. Do you view them as possible contenders?
No doubt, [the Pacers are] so under the radar, deeper in the box score the last three years, even when they had Paul George as a young player. [The Pacers] and the Blazers—those are the two teams that stand from the mountain top and yell to everyone down at the standings because they’ll be in the top three or four no matter what’s happening in the League. Look how The Pacers performed without Victor Oladipo last year. Bojan Bogdanović is a huge loss. I love Malcolm Brogdon, he’s a 50-40-90 guy, but Oladipo is the guy that makes that team go. He was on track to being an All-NBA and All-Defense as well. Myles Turner is a guy that needs to take an All-Star leap if they’re going to become a legit contender. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.
The Lakers and Clippers made some of the biggest offseason moves this past summer. What do you think about Kawhi Leonard and Paul George going to the Clippers and Anthony Davis finally forcing a trade to The Lakers?
I think this offseason was one of the greatest things to happen to the NBA since the retirement of Micheal Jordan because the popularity of the game has continued to skyrocket, and you see it play out in endorsement deals and commercials, check out the popularity of players on social media, check out the Forbes list. When you have champion and a Finals MVP change teams in the offseason—I don’t ever recall that happening. LeBron James didn’t make the playoffs last year [so] he’ll be back, and then they added Anthony Davis this offseason. Each team did something to boost who they are and not just with the rotation players, but with All-Stars, All-NBA and Finals MVP players.
For a team like the Clippers, what would it mean for that franchise to win a ring after so many years of being a laughing stock in LA? And for Kawhi—to be the bridge for two franchises in the Raptors and possibly the Clippers at winning their first championship?
I think that it’s always good for the game when you have great franchise-changing championship level players so now it’s lifts the tide of the League, so that’s what I see happening for The Clippers, like the Raptors last year. When a first time team wins it all, it changes the dynamic on how people make moves. Masai Ujiri was masterful in bringing in Kawhi by rolling the dice for one year, so now that’s something teams are going to be willing to do.
Long term, do you see the Clippers as the dominant team out West, like how the Warriors dominated the conference for the last six years?
On paper, I have to go with The Clippers right now. They are loaded from the top down. Steve Ballmer has been an amazing owner for that franchise—being able to turn around their imagery and turn them into a winner. They hired Jerry West, Lawerence Frank has done a terrific job, you have a championship coach in Doc Rivers, who has been there they made the playoffs last year without an All-Star. They brought back Lou Williams and resigned Patrick Beverly as their starting point guard, and they still have Montrezz Harrell in the interior. So to add Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to that, they have a chance to be one of the best defensive teams that we seen in a long time. Paul and Kawhi remind me of Mike and Scottie defensively.
LeBron James had another monster season last season. Do you expect him to keep that up going into year 17?
I think that the gift for LeBron was that the Lakers got Anthony Davis. LeBron hasn’t played basketball since March or April, so he’s going to be as fresh as he’s been in a long time and he’s going to be motivated to perform on that big Laker stage with expectations.
What do you think about Dwight Howard returning to the purple and gold?
It’s all about energy, blocking shots, rebounding and playing defense. Sometimes he’ll play 14 minutes other times it’ll be 25 minutes.
Another player who’s dominated the offseason hot takes is Carmelo Anthony, who like Howard is looking for one last shot in the League. Are you surprised at the way Anthony’s late career has gone?
I hope not, because I hate that for Melo. He’s a future Hall of Famer. He deserves and he earned the right to leave the League on a better note, not to be gone from a team after 10 games into a season. I hope he lands on a roster. I’ve been a champion for this topic since the day Houston let him go and hopefully it happens because he can still play and contribute in the League.
What would be the perfect ending to Anthony’s NBA career?
Hopefully that he gets on a team where he’s happy living, as an OG. There’s speculation that Kyrie and KD want him in Brooklyn. I feel that might be a good landing spot.
Melo’s old team the Rockets added Russell Westbrook in the offseason. How do you see Westbrook and James Harden—two of the league leaders in isolation plays a year ago—co-existing in Mike D’Antoni iso-heavy offense?
That’s going to be must-see TV, all these dynamic duos are must-see TV, when both of those guys get going the kind of numbers they’re going to put up. I’m just getting myself ready for the stats of when the last time players on the same team had x amount of triple-doubles in the same game. Or when players on the same team have both guys score 40 or more. They are going to wreak havoc on the League and I can’t wait to watch.
Do you see them putting up similar individual numbers as they did last season? I think if Westbrook can dial himself back for Paul George then he can do the same for James Harden.
The one thing about the numbers—yeah they can come down, but not if the efficiency goes up, so that’s what going to be key for Westbrook. Now if the efficiency goes up from the 3-point or free throw line normally you’ll see a great player or any player for that matter in a couple of seasons, go from shooting 80 percent from the free-throw line to like 60 percent, so I think that’s he’s going to be working on. I like that they re-signed Eric Gordon. PJ Tucker is one of my favorite bulldogs in the game, he’s like a Swiss army knife for them defensively and knocking down open corner 3s.
Denver might be one of those sneaky teams out West to make one serious noise. Do you see the Nuggets taking the next step as a team?
If you were to ask who’s going win MVP this year, my guess would be Jokic because the wins are going to be there, he’s going to be one of the league leaders in points rebounds and assists, so he will be a finalist for the MVP award and probably win it depending on the team record. They have so many young, talented players. Jamal Murray needs to take that All-Star leap, and then eventually Micheal Porter Jr, who was considered one of the best players in his draft, if he can play up to his potential and find health then things can be really serious for the Nuggets.
The Jazz made some moves with the addition of Mike Conley. Is this the year that Utah separates themselves as one of the top teams out West?
Yeah, they’re going to defend. You won’t see a lot of guys on their teams mentioned throughout the regular season because the team is built for the marathon 82 game schedule. I love Spider Mitchell. I think he and Jayson Tatum are going to make the same leap. They both came into the League, played on playoff teams, made a name for themselves and wasn’t able to make the All-Star leap the next year. Both teams tried to build around them, put them in position to maximize their game, so I feel like that’s going to happen for them this year.
The Warriors made another shocking acquisition with D’Angelo Russell after his breakout season. How do you see him fitting in with The Warriors?
They’ll be a modern-day Run TMC, it’ll be no problem at all! They have a bunch of guys on the floor that can dribble, pass and shoot. They have championship rings. Draymond Green is going off this year. Look at how the team changed. He took a step back when they added KD, he had to take another step back when they added Demarcus Cousins (I hated to see him get injured). Last year Draymond averaged 8 points. He wasn’t an All-Star last year. He’s about to be flirting with triple-doubles and putting up big numbers on a nightly basis. I like Willie Cauley-Stein. He’s going to be a skilled guy—he can run, jump and block shots.
Final thing: Who do you predict will win MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie Of The Year, and who do you have coming out both conferences to meet in the Finals?
ROY: Ja Morant.
DPOY: Depends on how many games he plays, I’m going with Kawhi.
MVP: My early guess would be Nikola Jokic.
I have Philly coming out the East and the Clippers coming out the West.