What to look for in the NBA: Who’s up, who’s down, and more

The stars are aligning in Los Angeles, where LeBron James (left) and Anthony Davis are uniting in pursuit of a title.
The stars are aligning in Los Angeles, where LeBron James (left) and Anthony Davis are uniting in pursuit of a title.Zhong Zhi/Getty Images/Getty Images

The 2019-20 NBA season begins this week, so here’s a guide to the top story lines, transplanted stars and MVP candidates.

Top story lines

AD in LA

After months of trying to acquire a difference-maker to join LeBron James, the Lakers finally netted Anthony Davis and now have two of the league’s top five players in their quest to win another championship. It seems James is ready to share responsibility with Davis, who wants to prove that he can be a standout player on a winning team, having made just two playoff appearances in his career.

Kawhi Leonard shook the basketball world when he agreed to sign with the Clippers.
Kawhi Leonard shook the basketball world when he agreed to sign with the Clippers.Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press/AP/The Canadian Press via AP

The new-look Clippers

On a Friday night in July, when an earthquake had already hit Las Vegas, the Clippers shook the basketball world by agreeing to a free agent deal with Kawhi Leonard. Then Paul George was added in a stunning trade with the Thunder. The Clippers are now a favorite to reach the NBA Finals with that dynamic duo, plus Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams.

Westbrook in Houston


After the Thunder dealt George, they decided to completely implode their roster by moving Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. Westbrook is now paired with former OKC teammate James Harden, who has been the primary ball handler and playmaker for the Rockets. How will Westbrook fit into the offense? He promises it will work. We’ll see.

Related: Predicting the 2019-20 NBA season

Faces in new places

Anthony Davis, Lakers

Davis finally gets his wish and leaves New Orleans for Los Angeles, where he will join LeBron James to help the Lakers make a run at a championship. Davis is one of the more gifted players in the NBA, but he’s never been on the big stage. He now has an opportunity to prove he can win, and remember, he is a free agent after this season, so this could be a short marriage.


Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

After leading the Raptors to the title, Leonard went on his free agent tour and it came down to the Raptors, Lakers, and Clippers. He chose the Clippers, and he says he’s completely healthy, so no more load management is needed. Still, coach Doc Rivers will manage his minutes and ensure he’s ready for a long playoff run. Is he the best player in the NBA? We’ll find out this season.

After 11 seasons with the Thunder, Russell Westbrook relaunches as a Rocket.
After 11 seasons with the Thunder, Russell Westbrook relaunches as a Rocket.joe skipper/FR171174 AP via AP

Russell Westbrook, Rockets

Westbrook is nearly 31, and one of the league’s most athletic and explosive players may be slowing down. The hope is that the move to Houston’s offense can relieve some of the responsibility from Westbrook, who probably tried to do too much during his final years in Oklahoma City.

Chris Paul, Thunder

You figured that when Paul signed that four-year, $160 million extension with the Rockets, he would stay put. But Houston found a taker when Oklahoma City decided to move Westbrook, so Paul, at age 34, will have to be a leader for a young Thunder team, for the time being. How long will he be in OKC? Will Miami come calling because it needs an All-Star-caliber point guard?

Paul George, Clippers

George looked so happy when he re-signed with the Thunder just a summer ago, only to ask for a trade when Kawhi Leonard expressed interest in playing together. George will miss at least the first month of the season after shoulder surgery but eventually will combine with Leonard to make up perhaps the best defensive duo in the NBA.


Al Horford, 76ers

Horford said he was happy in Boston, that he wanted to return for the final year of his contract or negotiate a new one. But things change, and when he found out that he could get more than $100 million from the 76ers and the Celtics refused to match, he was gone. Horford will get a chance to play his desired power forward position. It will be strange to see him in a Philadelphia uniform but it was his choice.

Former Celtic Al Horford has a new uniform, and a huge new contract to go with it.
Former Celtic Al Horford has a new uniform, and a huge new contract to go with it.matt rourke/Associated Press

Jimmy Butler, Heat

Butler finally gets his own team, and he will try to change the culture in Miami, which has been a major disappointment over the past few years. And he has been known to make teammates and coaches feel uncomfortable if they aren’t following his lead.

Kyrie Irving, Nets

Irving wanted out of Boston, he apparently is happy now, closer to his New Jersey home and completely healthy. But he’ll have the same leadership role he couldn’t quite handle in Boston. Will anything be different?

Dan Shaughnessy: This year’s Celtics have a feel-good vibe. Is it grounded in hope or reality?

Malcolm Brogdon, Pacers

Brogdon was a valuable player for the Bucks, but to re-sign Khris Middleton, Milwaukee had to let Brogdon go, and the point-guard-starved Pacers picked him up. He turns Indiana into an Eastern Conference finals contender with his consistency and maturity. Brogdon does everything well, but he’s not flashy — a perfect fit for the Pacers.


Kevin Durant, Nets

Durant will miss the year with the torn Achilles’ tendon he sustained during the NBA Finals with the Warriors, but he turns the Nets into title contenders the moment he steps on the floor. Durant said he chose Brooklyn to play with Irving, and once he gets healthy, they could be one of the league’s best duos.

Related: Kyrie Irving said he ‘failed’ his Celtics teammates in midst of difficult season

MVP candidates

LeBron James, Lakers

James’s team missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and he missed 25 games with a groin injury, so he’ll enter this season totally fresh and with a point to prove to those who say he’s no longer the best player in the NBA. He will figure out a way to put up those big numbers and return to form.

Can Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) make it back-to-back MVPs?
Can Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) make it back-to-back MVPs?Aaron Gash/FR171181 AP via AP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

The reigning MVP will only get better, stronger, and more determined, especially after the embarrassment of the playoff elimination by the Raptors. Antetokounmpo is only 24 and the Bucks are favored to come out of the Eastern Conference. He will put on a nightly show.

Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

It seems Leonard saves his MVP play for the playoffs, but he’ll enter as a favorite in the regular season because the Clippers could win 60-plus games and he won’t be on the load-management schedule he was last year in Toronto.

James Harden, Rockets


Harden feels he should have won the past three MVP awards, and he will have something to prove for a Rockets team that blew a chance to reach the conference finals by losing to a shorthanded Golden State team in the semis. Harden is still the most gifted offensive player in the NBA, but are his numbers hollow?

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

He led the Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals, and they made some interesting additions in the summer to go further. But it will be up to Lillard whether Portland really gets the respect it feels it deserves. He signed a long-term contract and is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Related: ‘I’m blessed to still be here.’ Amid change, Marcus Smart remains Celtics’ cosntant

Top rookies

Once he’s ready to go, Zion Williamson will bring excitement to New Orleans.
Once he’s ready to go, Zion Williamson will bring excitement to New Orleans.john bazemore/Associated Press

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

It’s disappointing that Williamson won’t be available for at least the first few weeks of the season because of a knee injury, but he showed major promise during the preseason. He may be the most dynamic player to enter the NBA since LeBron James 16 years ago, and he’ll be a cinch for Rookie of the Year if he can play in enough games and score as he did in the preseason.

Ja Morant, Grizzlies

The Memphis rebuild is centered around Morant, the athletically gifted point guard from Murray State who draws comparisons to Russell Westbrook. Morant is the reason the Grizzlies traded Mike Conley to the Jazz and started over. He, along with Jaren Jackson, should give Memphis something to be excited about.

RJ Barrett, Knicks

What you hope is that Barrett doesn’t succumb to the pressure of playing in New York. The Knicks will put a competitive team on the floor but likely not playoff-worthy. Will Barrett grow along with second-year forward Kevin Knox and become a great Knick? Or will fans treat him like Frank Ntilikina after his first mistakes?

Carsen Edwards, Celtics

When you hit eight 3-pointers in a 5:06 span, you deserve to be on this list. Edwards could become one of the Celtics’ top reserves because of his ability to score in bunches. He scored 26 points in an 8:46 span at Cleveland and is lobbying for more playing time and a significant role.

Related: In strong rookie class, Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters emerge as key roster additions

Rui Hachimura was a first-round pick of the Wizards after playing three years at Gonzaga.
Rui Hachimura was a first-round pick of the Wizards after playing three years at Gonzaga.matt rourke/Associated Press

Rui Hachimura, Wizards

Potential busts with new teams

The Wizards will be in total rebuild mode, but Hachimura will be fun to watch as he enters the league with a polish and maturity to his game. After signing Bradley Beal to his two-year, $72 million extension, the Wizards are capped out, meaning they’ll have to rely on Hachimura and second-year forward Troy Brown as foundation pieces.

Chris Paul, Thunder

How motivated will a 34-year-old Paul be to lead a younger team to the next level, a team that has little chance of even making the playoffs in the Western Conference? Paul may not be in OKC long, depending on his attitude and his desire to play for a contender.

Dwight Howard, Lakers

This may be Howard’s last chance, as he promised the Lakers he would be a better teammate, more dedicated to the game, and more unselfish the second time around in Los Angeles. He made it through the preseason in a backup role, but there is a long season ahead and stuff always seems to happen to him.

Isaiah Thomas will try to make his mark with the Wizards.
Isaiah Thomas will try to make his mark with the Wizards.Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

Isaiah Thomas, Wizards

As much as we don’t like mentioning Thomas in this category, there is an uncertainty as to whether his body will allow a triumphant return. He will miss time early after having thumb surgery, and the Wizards may opt for younger players when he returns. This may be Thomas’s final chance.

Teams on the rise

Buddy Hield just signed a four-year contract extension worth $94 million.
Buddy Hield just signed a four-year contract extension worth $94 million.Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Associated Press

Sacramento Kings

The Kings have spent years rebuilding, and it’s finally about time it resulted in a playoff appearance. Buddy Hield just signed a contract extension. De’Aaron Fox could be one of the league’s more dynamic young point guards. And Marvin Bagley is a difference-making big man.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have made a series of trades and astute draft picks over the past few years to build an exciting team that could win for years. Trae Young ended up being the best rookie in the second half of the season, while John Collins and Kevin Huerter are potential cornerstones. Coach Lloyd Pierce is a rising star. The Hawks will push for the eighth seed in the East.

Miami Heat

With Jimmy Butler, rookie Tyler Herro, and second-year center Bam Adebayo, the Heat have a chance to become a top-four playoff seed in the East. They must hope the chemistry improves, Dion Waiters cooperates, Justise Winslow reaches his potential, and the bench is better than last season.

Teams on the decline

Golden State Warriors

It had to happen eventually. The Warriors were going to drop because of injuries and age. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are gone, Klay Thompson is hurt, and Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn. The Warriors will rely on Stephen Curry and D’Angelo Russell to remain respectable in their new arena, but it won’t be like those championship days.

Is the venerable Gregg Popovich (right) getting close to the finish line in San Antonio?
Is the venerable Gregg Popovich (right) getting close to the finish line in San Antonio?darren abate/FR115 AP via AP

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have been the team good enough to beat anyone on any night but never good enough to advance past the first round of the playoffs. Gregg Popovich, 70, could be in his final years as coach, and it’s been difficult for the Spurs to improve through free agency. Their 22-year playoff streak could be on the line.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves were tapped as the team of the future when they paired Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins but all that has resulted in is a first-round playoff elimination two years ago. Nobody is expecting much from Minnesota, and it will be up to the laidback Wiggins and the talented but sometimes passive Towns to exceed such predictions.

Coaches on the hot seat

Billy Donovan, Thunder

If the Thunder didn’t make a move with Donovan after his past shortcomings with more talented teams, then it’s hard to figure he’ll get fired for not winning with this team. But if the Thunder don’t take a step forward, general manager Sam Presti may consider a change-for-change-sake.

Mike D’Antoni, Rockets

He’s in the final year of his contract, and the owners have refused to extend him, so D’Antoni will coach out this season, hope the Rockets improve, then get ready for a new deal. But if the James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment fails and Houston hovers around .500, D’Antoni could be gone.

Rick Carlisle is entering his 12th year as Mavericks coach and has missed the playoffs the last three seasons.
Rick Carlisle is entering his 12th year as Mavericks coach and has missed the playoffs the last three seasons.duane burleson/FR38952 AP via AP

Rick Carlisle, Mavericks

Carlisle’s seat may not be super-hot, but the Mavericks have to take a significant step forward or it may be time for a change. With Luke Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas could be one of the more improved teams in the league. But if not, there could be pressure on owner Mark Cuban to do something.

Worst road trips

Cavaliers, April 1-8

With the NBA constantly adjusting its schedule for more days off and fewer back-to-backs, some clubs have been stuck with West Coast trips late in the season. The Cavaliers don’t start their major Western trip until April 1, when they play the Jazz, Suns, Kings, Blazers, and Warriors in an eight-day span. By that time, the Cavaliers could be in, well, “tank” mode trying to get the No. 1 overall pick.

Spurs, Feb. 3-23

The rodeo is returning to San Antonio’s AT&T Center, and that means the Spurs will be away from home for nearly a month. They host the Hornets Feb. 1, then don’t play in San Antonio again until Feb. 26, a stretch of eight road games that includes the All-Star break. Two of those games are at Oklahoma City.

Bulls, March 30-April 8

If the Bulls are competing for a playoff spot in late March, it’s going to be a tough road to the end. They play six of their final eight on the road, including a five-game Western trip with a back-to-back set against the Lakers and Clippers. After two home games, they then end the season at Boston.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.