25 years ago, Acclaim Entertainment Inc released NBA Jam to the video game console world. It was one of the first video games to be officially licensed by the NBA, and featured catchphrases that may not have originated with the game, but as a result of many hours of gameplay, many of us still use those phrases to this day. What many did not realize, is that the NBA would model itself after the game just a quarter century later, as many teams arranged to have their resident star paired with another star. And the results will be very entertaining, even if it doesn’t produce great basketball.
Where once there were a few (several if we’re being extra generous) teams competing for the title, one could argue that the field is wide open this year. There isn’t a four headed juggernaut in California, there isn’t a “big-3” super team in Miami or Boston (or anywhere else for that matter), there isn’t an aging dynasty in south-central Texas.. There isn’t an underdog team on the shore of Lake Eerie being led by the league’s best player. In fact, this is the first year since 2011 that the previous year’s Finals teams are just as vulnerable as the rest of the league. This year, maybe just this year, everyone is on the same level. It’s wide open, and everything is up for grabs.
The league trying to spread the wealth of power is nothing new. You may recall the summer of 2017, when most teams in the West were trying to form their own super team to combat the Golden State Warriors and their seemingly unbeatable lineup with Kevin Durant. The Thunder traded for Paul George, the Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler, and the Rockets traded for Chris Paul. Even the Pelicans joined the action, trading for DeMarcus Cousins at the deadline. Everyone assumed Portland would be on the outside looking in, yet there they were at season’s end, claiming the third seed in the West while everyone else got acclimated to their new star studded rosters.
So what can we expect to see from Portland in the 2019-20 season? Will Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum be able to keep pace with a new star studded lineup each night? Will the new look rosters around the league backfire, or will they hit the ground running? And most importantly – in this NBA Jam inspired league, would you choose to play as Portland? If you dare, keep reading as Casey Mabbott (CM) and Bryant Knox (BK) offer their opinion on these questions and much more.
1. With many stars players opting to team up this offseason, the NBA now looks something like an NBA Jam team selection screen. Where does Portland’s star duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum stand in the new look league? And if you were playing a game of NBA Jam with 2019-20 players, which duo would you pick to play as?
(CM) I think Lillard and McCollum have absolutely proven that they deserve to be mentioned alongside any duo in the league. They might not have the size or athletic ability some bigger and faster players have, but they make up for it with great shooting and a passion to improve. We saw this year that they are eager to play two way basketball at this point in their careers, and it has inspired their teammates to take their game up a notch. And that’s the mark of a true NBA star – lifting the play of your supporting cast. Where they stand in the league and who I would pick in a video game are not the same though. If I’m playing a game purely for entertainment, I’m choosing the two players that have the best combination of speed, shooting, and dunking ratings in the game, which does not fairly grade Dame and CJ. And based on that math, the best NBA Jam duo most likely plays for the Clippers.
(BK) Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum should be in a class all of their own as far as guard tandems are concerned. D’Angelo Russell was about as good a stopgap as the Golden State Warriors could find, but he’s no Klay Thompson. DeMar DeRozan is long gone from Toronto, and John Wall is a long way away from seeing the hardwood at all. But if we’re talking at any position? I’m excited to see and taking my chance on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in my game of NBA Jam. They’re both top-5 MVP candidates when healthy, they can each iso a defense to death, and good luck scoring on either when they’re motivated (37-foot stepback jumpers aside).
2. Portland won at least 49 games and claimed the third seed in the Western Conference each of the last two years. Where do you project them to finish this year?
(CM) It’s going to be a tough year with so many good teams in the West, but I think Portland has an advantage as their star duo actually played together last year and they don’t have to worry about their on-court rapport. I have them finishing in the top five with somewhere between 45 and 50 wins. Denver is going to be really good again, but they might be the only scary playoff team other than Portland not working in a new star. Golden State is going to be a tough sell with Durant gone and Thompson starting the season on IR, and Steph Curry gets to share the ball with D’Angelo Russell. Then you have James Harden and Russell Westbrook teaming up in Houston, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Clippers, LeBron and Anthony Davis on the Lakers, no one on the Thunder, and the Jazz working in an aging Mike Conley. Aside from that, you have a lot of talent but a lot of question marks on several other teams. While Portland may give up some in the talent department, I truly believe not having to work on how to share the ball with another star could be to their tremendous benefit.
(BK) I’m pretty much with Casey. I want to give Portland the benefit of the doubt and lock them in for a top-four spot, but landing in the top five or even six feels safer at this point. Then again, the Blazers could legitimately compete for a No. 1 seed. That’s how wild the West is going to be this season. If you told me to put $5 down on a 2020 Western Conference champion, I’d probably hedge and split it between the Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. If my Zion Hype Meter were particularly high that day, I might just make it eight teams. Should be a fun season.
3. After finishing their 2019 season in the Western Conference Finals, Portland drafted Nassir Little, signed Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver, traded for Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside, and re-signed Rodney Hood. As a result, Evan Turner, Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Meyers Leonard are on different teams. With their new-look lineup, do you expect them to go on another deep playoff run?
(CM) Absolutely. While that many faces arriving and departing might throw off the mojo of some other teams, it’s just another year in Portland. It might take a chunk of the early part of the season for the supporting cast to get acclimated to a new system, but let’s be honest, any game before the end of December is not to be taken seriously anyway. “Mid-season form” is a phrase that gets thrown around for a reason, and I expect to see Portland shift into overdrive once the all-star break rolls around. And then they will go on their patented second half terror, and claim a high playoff seed. After that, they just have to continue to trust the guys around them, play their best basketball, and not get injured. We’ve seen a revolving door of reserves in Portland since the 2014-15 season, I don’t see why Dame and CJ would suddenly have trouble breaking in a newish supporting cast.
(BK) I do, but I’m genuinely curious what this roster will look like post-trade deadline. Will Jusuf Nurkic be back for the March-and-beyond stretch? Will Hassan Whiteside still be in the rotation? Will he and Kent Bazemore be cashed in as valuable trade chips come February? I think the Blazers have the firepower to make it well beyond the first round, but at this point, so do so many other teams in the conference. I’ll spend the summer laying out the different season blueprints, pick one, and officially get back to you by October with my for-real answer.
4. Which Western Conference team are you most impressed by this offseason? Which team’s moves (or lack of moves) are you most unimpressed with?
(CM) Most impressed with the Clippers. They took a young team on the rise and injected championship adrenaline in their blood. Signing Kawhi Leonard instantly makes any team a contender, and by trading for superstar Paul George, you now have two of the best two-way players in the league on the same team. George’s shoulder will merit watching, but just those two transactions takes a playoff bubble team that couldn’t get out of the first round, and converts them directly into an elite contender. Granted they had to give up two quality players and their draft picks for the rest of our lifetimes, but they also got a quality reserve in the deal, and somehow still own 1st round picks in 2021 and 2023.
I’m least impressed with the Thunder, not just today but in seeing their trajectory since leaving Seattle. They were in the Finals just four years after relocating, and have since traded away Paul George, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, not to mention having to watch Kevin Durant walk in free agency. As of right now they are a brand new team with absolutely everything riding on the front office hitting on most draft picks, or making a series of trades to bring established veterans to play for them. If they were my team, I would be absolutely terrified. There’s nothing I know of that they could have done to avoid this, but it’s still terrifying.
(BK) You can’t not be impressed by what the LA Clippers are doing. Yes, there’s a homecoming element that may have found a way to happen with Kawhi Leonard anyway—and yes, Paul George’s trade request to the Clips is a requirement for this summer’s coup to ever actually taking place. But what Jerry West and the Clippers have accomplished goes deeper that that. It’s the quiet, sometimes questionable moves of the past two-plus years that set them up for this to even be possible. Few people seemed to give the Clips a real shot behind the Lakers, Brooklyn Nets and even New York Knicks to make a splash when free agency began, and yet they walk away the consensus winners now that it’s all said and done. Not too shabby. But the other team that deserves to be in this same discussion is the Utah Jazz. This team has been on the brink of a breakout for two seasons now, and the addition of Mike Conley mixed with their even subtler moves should make for a solid low-key title contender all season.
5. Do you like seeing star players given the freedom to build their own teams through free agency and recruiting, or do you prefer to see players stick with the teams that drafted them? There’s no wrong answer here.
(CM) It’s nice to see the players giving themselves the best shot to compete for a title, since they know they have a short title window in the best situation, and a limited shelf life as an athlete. Waiting on a front office to stock the cupboard is nice in theory, but it doesn’t always work out. In the current climate, you and your team get a 2-3 year window, no long-term deal if it doesn’t pan out, and you get to play alongside another star and perhaps win a championship. Worst case scenario, you’re rich and get to play a game for a living with one of your good friends. Best case scenario, you’re rich and get to play a game for a living with one of your good friends, and potentially immortalize yourself by winning a championship. Either way, you’re rich and playing a game with your friends. In the traditional wait and see scenario, you would most likely be richer, but you won’t know if you’re ever going to be able to play alongside another star or compete for a title. I would imagine that’s what keeps Lillard very happy in Portland, he has the best of both worlds – he just got mega paid, he gets to play alongside another star and friend in CJ, and he has a legitimate shot at a title.
(BK) It’s just a new era of NBA basketball. Players used to value longer contracts and more security, but now the league’s top stars prioritize playing with their buddies and building championship teams together. It’s always unfortunate to see organizations suffer at the hands of a fickle franchise face, but at its core, free agency is nothing more than an opportunity for working citizens to seek other employment opportunities. If you take issue with a player requesting a trade after signing a contract, that’s fine, but I’d ask if you have issues with a team trading said player without notice in the similar but far more frequent scenario. If you ask me, it’s just not worth it to get worked up over who signs to play with whom and whether or not he’s giving the team the appropriate number of years as a commitment. Basketball is basketball. And with all due respect to the storylines that make this the most entertaining league on the planet, sometimes it’s best to sit back, think about what a time it is to be alive, and watch the Battle Royal that will be the NBA title race for at least a few years to come.