It’s a new decade and the NBA has never been in a better place. Before we continue, let’s give our utmost appreciation to former commissioner David Stern for his contributions in formulating one of the greatest professional sports leagues in the world.
The league is filled with intriguing stories approaching the halfway point of this season. The Lakers looked like the best team in the NBA but then lost three in a row and now could be seeking one more piece for a title run.
The Clippers have been great one night and average on others. The Nuggets are slowly creeping up to challenge the Lakers, while the Jazz and Mavericks are not far behind.
In the Eastern Conference, the Bucks have been the elite team, but the Celtics have emerged as a big surprise with the second-best record. Luka Doncic, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James are vying for MVP, while No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant and undrafted Kendrick Nunn are competing for Rookie of the Year.
So what’s going to happen over the next six months? The Globe offers 20 predictions for the 2019-20 season — 10 this week and 10 next Sunday.
1. The Lakers will make a major deal before the trade deadline. While Los Angeles is playing well and has two of the top five players in James and Anthony Davis, something is missing. It’s inconceivable to think the Lakers will win a title with their current guard rotation, including former Celtic Rajon Rondo. The Lakers are all-in this year and will pull off a major deal for a guard.
2. The Trail Blazers will trade CJ McCollum. It’s not working in Portland with one of the league’s highest-paid backcourts. Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere, but McCollum could be moved for an impactful frontcourt player such as Kevin Love. The Blazers are going to do something and McCollum could be the one to go.
3. This will be Gregg Popovich’s last season in San Antonio. The Spurs are not a good team and it will take a few years to execute a rebuild if they decide to move on from LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. Popovich, who will turn 71 this month, may not have the patience for that. Look for him to retire after leading Team USA to a gold medal, with Tim Duncan taking over as coach.
4. Stephen Curry won’t play again this season. The Warriors have nothing to play for besides pride and seasoning their younger players for next season. So why would Curry rush back from a broken hand to play this season? The team wants to pair a lottery pick with their established core and return as a contender next season.
5. Phoenix will make the playoffs. The Suns are as close to playoff contention as they have been in six years, so they will go all out via trade and the buyout market for a legitimate run. They will overtake the Spurs and claim the West’s eighth spot.
6. The Timberwolves will move Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins before the trade deadline. Minnesota has been putrid since a hot start and it is again headed for the draft lottery. Management will break up the pair and move forward with draft picks and perhaps an expiring contract.
7. J.R. Smith or Jamal Crawford will end up on a roster before the season ends. Both are waiting on calls and could help a playoff contender for the stretch run. And both have too much talent to be out of work all season. Once the trade deadline passes and players bought out of contracts choose new teams, Crawford and Smith will be more marketable.
8. Jim Boylen will be the next coach fired. The Bulls have underachieved and, unless there is a major run coming soon, the abrasive Boylen — who has annoyed many of his players with his public airing of team issues — will be sent packing. The Bulls may wait until after the All-Star Game (in Chicago) to make the move, but it’s inevitable.
9. The Raptors will finish with a better record than the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard’s former team is one of the league’s surprises, while the Clippers, his current team, have been inconsistent. And remember, the Clippers will most certainly use load management in the second-half schedule.
10. The Celtics will get a big man in the buyout market. Boston will seek another center to help for the playoff run and will get one at the expense of Vincent Poirier. Poirier hasn’t worked out as expected and the Celtics will seek to use his roster spot on a rim protector.
NOT PART OF THE SCRIPT
Hawks a major disappointment
It was this reporter who went on a local TV station and tabbed the Hawks as the team to watch this season. The Hawks were coming off a successful first season under bright young coach Lloyd Pierce and with a slew of young players. They added Evan Turner and drafted Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter for a potential playoff run but are off to a horrid 7-28 start and are among the league’s worst defensive teams.
Losing rising forward John Collins to a 25-game PED suspension and key shooter Kevin Huerter hasn’t helped. Trae Young, the splendid point guard and the Hawks’ leading scorer, has taken the organization on his shoulders at age 21, trying to find positives in what has been a disastrous start.
Injuries and the Collins suspension are the primary reasons, but the Hawks also haven’t dealt well with high expectations. The only silver lining from the injuries are the major minutes being logged by Hunter and Reddish, who were expected to be complements in their first seasons.
“It’s been tough, a lot of our season we haven’t had John, I mean for 25 games, Kevin’s been out for multiple weeks, so it’s been tough not having everybody healthy,” Young said. “I know we’ve been in a lot of close games and just haven’t been able to finish off the games. We’ve had a lot of young guys play a lot of minutes. It’s been difficult and I’m just trying to stay positive as much as I can.”
It’s been a difficult adjustment, but Pierce hopes the trial-by-fire approach will eventually benefit his team. “The balance for us is unfortunate because we missed a lot of guys early on,” Pierce said. “So I had no options but to give them too much. De’Andre Hunter is averaging 32 minutes a game; Cam Reddish is averaging 26 minutes a game and that wasn’t the design or the plan. It just fell in their laps.
“Everybody had to shift and play different roles. Ready or not, you have to go out there and be willing to step up. With Cam, we had to put the ball in his hands early on in the season and that’s a lot to ask a young player.”
Young has been stellar for the Hawks, averaging 28.5 points per game and an almost certainty to reach his first All-Star Game. But the losing has been wearing on him. He is capable of a 40-point game on any given night, but past proving he’s capable of being a superstar (which he has done), there hasn’t been much satisfaction.
“It’s not fun,” Young said. “Anybody who knows me knows I’m about winning, that’s the No. 1 thing. I try to do whatever I can to help our team win, help our team be in the best position. We’re just not getting everybody back. The guys who have been here before, we try to be as positive as we can.”
The Hawks earned the reputation of playing hard for all 48 minutes last season. Despite youth and a lack of elite talent, Atlanta was able to stay competitive in games because of its fortitude. This season, the Hawks are 30th in the NBA in point differential (minus-10.5), meaning they are constantly getting blown out of games.
“It’s been a small sample [size],” Young said. “With all of our guys healthy, we were 3-3 before [the injuries]. It’s hard to really judge our season with the way it’s been going right now, especially since we’re playing three rookies.”
Amazingly, the Hawks, despite being 21 games under .500, are just nine games behind the final Eastern playoff spot with more than half the season to play. There remains hope. And if that doesn’t work, changes could potentially be in store because Hawks ownership wants a playoff team.
“If you look at both conferences, San Antonio, everyone is talking about their historic year that they’re having negatively and they’re the ninth seed right now?” Pierce said. “The bottom line is San Antonio and Portland, who have been two consistent playoff teams, have an opportunity to make a run even in the downturn. It’s the same thing out East. As rough a patch as we’ve had, if we find some way of getting this thing organized, it’s definitely within the realm of possibility.”
Stern a key figure in women’s game
What has been largely ignored in the recent tributes to David Stern, the former NBA commissioner who died on New Year’s Day at age 77, is his contributions to women’s basketball, primarily helping create the WNBA.
The WNBA was considered a major risk for Stern when he considered the idea of a women’s professional basketball league in the Unites States. The league took advantage of the momentum created by the success in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and tabbed three of the best American players — Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Rebecca Lobo — as centerpieces of the league.
While there have been rocky times for the WNBA, including the dissolving of the three-time champion Houston Comets, the league has become an individual and powerful entity. That is what Stern envisioned.
Generations of women’s basketball players can now conceptualize playing professionally at home without fantasizing.
And what the advent of the WNBA did was help bond women’s and men’s basketball, fostering bright basketball minds and helping create a new generation of women’s coaches.
Becky Hammon, Kara Lawson, Kristi Toliver, Teresa Weatherspoon, and Lindsey Harding all played in the WNBA.
“The WNBA will be forever grateful for his exemplary leadership and vision that led to the founding of our league,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said of Stern. “His steadfast commitment to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball.”
Another Stern idea was the institution of a dress code, which many believe was targeted at the influence cultural icon Allen Iverson was having on the NBA. This writer disagrees with that notion. The dress code was not targeted at Iverson, it was targeted at some of the league’s top players who had begun to dress more casual than the league would have preferred.
The NBA wished it could have remained in the Jordan era, during which most players followed Michael Jordan’s lead in how he carried himself, including wearing suits to games. If you look back at the NBA of the 1990s, it was a well-dressed league, mainly because of the Jordan influence.
While Iverson’s style was casual, the league was OK with that, as long as it didn’t spread to players the league felt were marketable worldwide, among them Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a league headliner and when he donned a Philadelphia Eagles Donovan McNabb jersey on the bench while missing a Lakers game with an injury, Stern decided he had enough of the casual dress.
While the dress code wasn’t widely accepted by the players, it did encourage a generation of players to put more effort into their appearance. Thus, we have those interesting creations of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and former star Dwyane Wade. The players decided to adhere to the dress code but in their own way — and there was nothing the league could do about it.
While Stern was considered a rigorous and tough negotiator, he understood the power of the players in the league. And he fully understood that the new generation of players — beginning with Iverson — idolized Jordan but didn’t necessarily want to look like him. The NBA and hip-hop were forming a partnership that has become unbreakable and the league’s hierarchy had to acknowledge that. And it’s safe to say the NBA has greatly benefited financially from the merging of basketball and hip-hop and has embraced the musical art form.
As Stern as wasn’t comfortable with the association, he realized allowing players to express themselves freely (with some restrictions) would allow for a more popular and harmonious league. And at age 72, when Stern decided to step down, he prepared his successor, Adam Silver, who has used his own ideas and Stern’s vision to carry the league to new heights.
Stern received his deserved credit by being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014. His impact on the game is immeasurable and he will be considered perhaps the greatest commissioner in professional team sports.
The Detroit Pistons are reaching a crossroads, where they are barely good enough to compete for the eighth playoff spot but nothing more than that, despite acquiring Blake Griffin and signing Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to contract extensions. Griffin has played well when he has played — making the All-Star team last season — but he’s dealt with constant leg injuries as he career nears the end. Drummond puts up numbers in points and rebounds, but they don’t result in victories. Jackson has not lived up to his contract and has spent most of this season out with a back injury in the final year of his contract. So, it’s no shock the Pistons may be looking to move Jackson and Drummond and build for the future. Detroit tried to rebuild without being really bad for a few years, which is difficult to do. The result has been 30-plus-win seasons, two first-round playoff sweeps (2016, 2019), and being stuck in Eastern Conference purgatory. Owner Tom Gores has said he wants to compete and put butts in the seats of Little Caesars Arena, but that hasn’t happened, despite the presence of Griffin. The Pistons are 26th in the NBA in attendance (the Celtics, for reference, are seventh), filling just 77.9 percent of the arena, which is 30th. So if you’re not winning and the fans aren’t coming out, why not start over? That’s the predicament that general manager Ed Stefanski is facing. The best remedy would be to trade all of their good pieces for draft picks and younger players, and then allow those youngsters to play while getting a high lottery pick. The Eastern Conference is better when the Pistons are a contender, but that hasn’t been the case for a decade . . . One player of interest to the Celtics who could be available next month is Atlanta swingman Evan Turner, who is in the final year of a four-year, $70 million package he signed with the Portland Trail Blazers. Turner, 31, has played in just 18 games with the Hawks, averaging 3.3 points. Those are career lows as the Hawks have too many young swingmen to play, leaving Turner on the bench. Turner played solidly in his three years with the Trail Blazers and could serve as a bench scorer and playmaker with a contending team. But it’s apparent that his stint in Atlanta hasn’t worked out for either side.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.