NBA breakdown: Rising Nets add intrigue to season of Big Four (Clippers, Lakers, Sixers, Bucks)

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Rod Beard of The Detroit News previews the NBA season with a look at the top players, championship contenders and more.

Top MVP candidates

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: After making a big jump and winning the award last season, Antetokounmpo will look to go back-to-back. He’s still one of the toughest players in the league to defend and he’ll have the Bucks in position to contend again in the East. Antetokounmpo still is looking to find the upper limits to his game and when he adds a reliable jump shot, he’ll be a menace.

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, left, has a solid chance to win consecutive league MVP honors.

Steph Curry, Warriors: With Kevin Durant gone and Klay Thompson (ACL tear) out for part of the season, Curry will shoulder the scoring load and he could post some ridiculous numbers. If the Warriors are going to even make the playoffs again, Curry will need to elevate his game, likely to an MVP level again.

Anthony Davis, Lakers: Davis is one of the best singular talents in the league and teaming with LeBron James, anything is possible. The Lakers mortgaged the future for an opportunity to contend immediately and Davis and James will be the leaders of the patchwork roster that looks to be one of the favorites to win the title.

Durability will be the biggest question facing Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson.

Top rookies

Zion Williamson, Pelicans: Beyond the highlight-reel dunks, smooth plays and fanfare, there will be questions about whether Williamson can play through a full season. He has an NBA build but health will be a major concern and if he misses more than a handful of games, it could impact whether he posts the numbers to win rookie of the year.

Ja Morant, Grizzlies: He’s poised for a good debut after a promising preseason. The key will be whether how the other pieces around him jell and whether the Grizzlies can rise above mediocrity in the rugged Western Conference. Morant can be a dynamic presence that helps ease the franchise’s transition from Mike Conley Jr.

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R.J. Barrett, Knicks: All eyes in New York will be on Barrett, who has the star power to lift the moribund franchise out of its doldrums. The front office was effective in surrounding him with some tough and talented veteran pieces in free agency; they could make a jump in the standings — and if Barrett gets going, that could be the playoffs.

Coach of the year candidates

Doc Rivers, L.A. Clippers: Rivers did a good job with less talent last season but adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will make things easier — and likely take the Clippers deeper in the playoffs as the favorite in the West. With all the new tools, Rivers could make the battle for Los Angeles the most intriguing storylines in the NBA this season.

Mike Malone, Nuggets: After an impressive season, the Nuggets have higher expectations and a maturing roster that can get them there. Winning in the West will be tough, but the Nuggets showed last season that they can get it done. Now comes a progressive step in the playoffs to show that wasn’t a fluke.

Mike Budenholzer, Bucks: After coming so close, Budenholzer will be almost solely measured on whether he can get to the NBA Finals. They have another year of experience but lost some pieces to last year’s squad. Still, they should at least make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Teams to watch

Nets: Beyond the obvious choices of the Clippers, Lakers, Sixers and Bucks, there is some intrigue around the next tier, which includes the rising fortunes in Brooklyn. Adding Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, along with the development of Caris LeVert (Michigan) should be the push they need to become a top-four seed in the East. Jarrett Allen could dominate in a reserve role, helping their bench develop.

Trail Blazers: They took a big step forward by making the Western Conference final but they didn’t stand pat. Getting Hassan Whiteside will give them a boost, at least until Jusuf Nurkic returns from injury. Beyond the California teams, Portland could have the best chance to win the West, depending on how their new pieces fi together.

Warriors: In the aftermath of their dynasty, the Warriors will be an interesting team to watch. They likely will have a tougher time trying to score and carry themselves through the regular season. They’ll need a high seed and home-court advantage to advance but it’ll be hard to come by with a retooled roster.

Nets' Caris LeVert (Michigan) will benefit from a veteran cast.

Under-the-radar players

Caris LeVert, Nets: After another good season, he’s been on some lists for most improved player, but with the additions of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the former Michigan standout will benefit from a better veteran presence around him. If he stays healthy, he could become an All-Star in the years to come, with an elite-level squad.

Jonathan Isaac, Magic: He’s had a good preseason and with their glut of big men in the frontcourt, including Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba, the Magic could be poised for a big year. Isaac has added the 3-pointer to his repertoire and the pick-and-roll game suits him well.

Michael Porter, Jr., Nuggets: After missing last season, he was almost forgotten about, but he could provide some needed scoring for Denver and add to an already-loaded roster with a young nucleus. With injuries out of the way, he could show that picking him 14th was a gamble worth the risk.

Former Michigan coach John Beilein takes over the Cavaliers.


Cavaliers: With new coach John Beilein and swirling rumors about trading All-Star forward Kevin Love, the Cavs could still be in retool mode and won’t be ready to go all-in behind young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. They could be another couple of years away from contending but this year will be about assessing their talent.

Suns: After seemingly getting another lottery pick for the past decade, the Suns still are building around Devin Booker, but aren’t taking a step up in the standings. The West got tougher in the offseason and they still don’t look poised to make a move out of the basement toward mediocrity.

Kings: They agreed to a new deal with Buddy Hield that will keep him there for the long term and now they’ll be tasked with building around him with other pieces. Sacramento is a tough sell in free agency but with a centerpiece — and potentially another good piece in the lottery — it could become a more palatable destination.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard