As 2020 dawns, the four teams earmarked as preseason championship contenders have separated themselves from the pack. But such a crowd at the very top of the league hierarchy ensures none of them teams can be complacent and expect to win in June.
Here are New Year’s resolutions for basketball’s true title contenders.
The Bucks just don’t have the assets to add a big-name player via trade without shuffling their core. Odds are any moves general manager Jon Horst makes will come on the margins of the rotation. But Milwaukee has room for improvement regardless.
Bledsoe has long struggled to maintain his regular-season effectiveness in the playoffs. He was a net negative in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, and his losing individual matchup with Terry Rozier one year earlier is the stuff of niche postseason legend.
Bledsoe has been a streaky three-point shooter his entire career. But if his shot fails him again come playoff time, it’s absolutely crucial for the Bucks’ overall offensive viability that he keeps on firing with confidence. Any other outcome will lead to the same disappointment that’s made Bledsoe a postseason liability for multiple seasons running.
J.J. Redick would be a perfect fit, but his $13 million contract complicates the task of salary-matching without the Lakers adding a rotation player to any trade centered around Kuzma. The same goes for a potential trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for Andre Iguodala, and Kuzma probably has too much value for Los Angeles to feel comfortable parting with him in such a deal anyway.
The Lakers could win the title as currently constructed. James and Davis are that good, and their veterans that motivated and battle-tested. But Los Angeles’ roster has a gaping hole on the wing regardless, and moving Kuzma would be the surest means of filling it.
Among the Clippers’ greatest strengths is their ability to play lineups without a single negative defender. They’re stacked with plus wing defenders who can slide between four positions, and Patrick Beverley is a game-changing stopper on the perimeter.
But LA’s utmost ceiling will only be reached with its five best players on the floor, and that means honing a lineup of Beverley, Lou Williams, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Montrezl Harrell. Defense hasn’t been a problem for that group so far. An offensive rating of 102.0 is what’s held Doc Rivers’ most talented lineup back, a dynamic bound to change as it gets more time on the floor.
Beverley, Williams, George, Leonard, and Harrell have played 46 minutes together over the season’s first third. That needs to change as the playoffs grow nearer.
Simmons has received an undue amount of flak for his role in the Sixers’ relatively slow start. It’s not his fault that Elton Brand doubled down on size and defense before Simmons proved he was able to make defenses pay from the perimeter.
But what is his fault is Simmons’ ongoing refusal to launch at least one wide open three-pointer per game – even flaunting the demands of his coach.
If that doesn’t change in the playoffs, the same half-court offensive foibles that are currently dogging Philadelphia will grow even worse when it matters most. Spacing to the corner and taking open jumpers should be an easy ask for Simmons to answer. It’s imperative he starts doing so soon.
Last modified: January 22, 2020 11:40 PM UTC