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NBA Contenders: Which preseason favourites look legitimate?

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Drawing too many conclusions from early action in the NBA is usually a mistake. Teams figure themselves out and hit their respective strides at different paces, and that may be particularly true of the 2019/20 season given how many teams are trotting out brand new lineups.

At the same time though, the first handful of games can sometimes change our early perspective on contenders, either confirming our offseason expectations or calling things into question.

Along those lines, I wanted to do a bit of an early assessment of how convincing the NBA’s preseason favourites have been.

Los Angeles Clippers – Stock Neutral

There’s no clear-cut favourite in this NBA season the way there were throughout the Warriors’ dynasty or LeBron James’s run with the Miami Heat.

But for the most part, writers, television analysts, and oddsmakers came to an agreement over the summer that the Clippers were the team to beat. So far, they’ve looked the part, particularly in an opening night win over the Lakers – and they haven’t even gotten Paul George back from injury yet. Controversy is already building on U.S. sports outlets over the team’s decision to rest Kawhi Leonard for major games (the same way the Toronto Raptors did), and this same tendency might lead the Clippers to drop a few regular season games for the sake of preserving their best players.


For that reason, I don’t think I’d vote for the Clippers to earn the West’s top seed. But I’d still call them the title favourite.

Los Angeles Lakers – Stock Up

If it became clear that the Clippers were slight preseason favourites, you’ll find that most reputable online bookmakers have their cross-town rivals neck-and-neck with them.

The Lakers were not viewed by oddsmakers as quite as much of a sure thing because their role players are perceived as weaker than those of the Clippers. However, bookies and analysts alike still put quite a lot of faith in the Lakers in the preseason due to the sheer strength of the star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

And so far, it’s looking as if that faith was well placed. Following an opening night loss to the Clippers, the Lakers have looked like the best team in the NBA, with James visibly more engaged than he was last season and Davis looking poised to push the limits of his potential.

Milwaukee Bucks – Stock Down

The Bucks topped the East last season, largely on the strength of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP season (which many think was the first of several to come). They were widely picked to repeat the feat this year, and Antetokounmpo led in the MVP odds as well. So far, the Bucks have been strong, and look very much capable of making the Finals.


Antetokounmpo is perhaps better than ever, and the loss of starting guard Malcolm Brogdon (who now plays for the Indiana Pacers) hasn’t hurt them much early on. However, because the Bucks do not necessarily look like the prohibitive best team in the East, I’d argue their stock is slightly down from the preseason.

Philadelphia 76ers – Stock Up

The 76ers look like the best team in the East, such that after a few games I’d give them better odds at a championship than the Bucks – whereas the Bucks were just ahead of the 76ers in most preseason betting and analysis.

Philadelphia lost significant players from a season ago in JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler, but went on to assemble a massive starting lineup that appears capable of simply overwhelming opponents on a night-to-night basis. The 76ers have already hit some bumps in the road in the form of a two-game suspension for Joel Embiid and now a minor injury to Ben Simmons.

But they’ve performed about as well as anyone in the NBA, with offseason acquisition Al Horford in particular standing out as the sort of difference maker who could potentially help the 76ers reach their thrilling potential.

Houston Rockets – Stock Down

I’m still a believer that the pairing of James Harden and Russell Westbrook will yield results in Houston. This should ultimately function as a better version of the Chris Paul-Harden duo that nearly reached the Finals – not to mention that in the regular season, either Harden or Westbrook can entirely overwhelm an opponent on any given night.

However, early questions about Houston’s defense – while predictable – are perhaps more urgent than expected. The Rockets’ defense has been non-existent in the early going, which drops them a little further below the top tier they were often ranked among in the preseason.

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