The LeBron James MVP hype train has slowly been picking up speed as we near the end of the 2019-20 NBA regular season.
When I was growing up, I played a lot of sports video games: Madden, NBA 2K, FIFA, maybe some NHL here and there.
While going head to head with my friends was fun, I spent the most hours in the modes where you could run your own franchise, controlling your roster and playing out games over the years. The idea of taking your favourite team and leading them to championships sucked me in.
As a younger child, I wanted the easy wins, so I always made sure to stack my teams by doing things like manipulating trades and improving my players’ attributes. 70-win NBA seasons, going 16-0 and winning the Super Bowl, taking home the Champions League trophy every year – this was the norm for me while the other virtual teams fought over scraps.
Eventually, though, I started to get bored. Each season bled into the next as my 99-rated players ploughed through the competition. I played fewer and fewer of the individual games, instead fast forwarding through the schedule year after year.
After all, what was the point of playing if I already knew what was going to happen?
At some point, I started making an effort to improve other teams in my leagues. I manipulated trades and attributes again, but not only for my roster. I created new superteams to combat my own. I just wanted some competition. I just wanted to have fun again.
And it worked. Other franchises began coming for my crown. Facing an equal foe in the early stages of a tournament and not knowing who would advance to lift the trophy reignited my interest in playing.
When I lost a championship match for the first time, I was stunned. But I was more eager than ever to hop into the next season to see what would happen.
Does that last bit sound familiar?
With Golden State’s Death Lineup finally vanquished (and it only took two devastating back-to-back injuries to make it happen), this offseason’s flurry of player movement has the Western Conference boasting somewhere around seven franchises that have a realistic chance of making the finals to compete with a couple of loaded teams in the East.
Right off the bat, the two Los Angeles teams are going to be many people’s favourites. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, the Clippers landed both Kawahi Leonard and Paul George in a move that no one really saw coming.
Though they gave up a historic amount of draft assets to get here, the Clippers now have a versatile team with two premier two-way superstars playing alongside the likes of perennial sixth man of the year candidate Lou Williams and the relentless Montrezl Harrell.
While some Lakers fans are beside themselves (I mean, to have George and Leonard turn you down to sign elsewhere in back-to-back years, only to end up playing for your crosstown rivals? It has to sting), in LeBron James and Anthony Davis they will have the best one-two punch in the league for the next couple of years and will very much be ready for a deep playoff run.
They need to fill out their roster, but Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook and JaVale McGee, who all signed shortly after Leonard’s decision, will be critical pieces for them.
Utah will be trotting out Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert in one of the league’s more underrated and balanced line-ups. They should be a handful on both sides of the ball with very few weak links.
Portland added Hassan Whiteside to shore up the interior, and we already know how explosive Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can be with their tough shotmaking. Whiteside will add nice depth to a team that got to the western finals, especially once Jusuf Nurkic returns from injury.
Speaking of explosive, any James Harden-led team is a threat. Harden and Chris Paul pushed the Warriors unlike anyone else for the past two seasons and as long as Harden is the most unstoppable isolation player in basketball, the Rockets will have their window.
Denver emerged as one of the best teams in the west this year and another season of improvement from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic with a deep team behind them has to be taken seriously. Jokic is the most creative passing centre we have ever seen and just needs to improve his fitness to make himself unguardable.
And of course, while Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr are still breathing, the Warriors still have a chance – especially if Klay Thompson makes a full return before the playoffs. While I don’t love D’Angelo Russell’s fit next to Curry, it would be foolish to consider them out of the running.
Meanwhile, in the east, the 76ers lost Jimmy Butler but added Josh Richardson and Al Horford to complete the scariest defence in the NBA, along with what will likely be the league’s tallest starting line-up. Perimetre shooting is a problem, but who’s scoring against that team with ease?
The Bucks won the most games in the league last season and are returning virtually the same core with Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton re-signing. Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to improve his game by leaps and bounds every season and I expect him to improve his jump shot yet again, setting him up for another MVP-calibre year.
While he needs a year to rehab, a healthy Kevin Durant playing alongside Kyrie Irving and a host of intriguing young players in Brooklyn will be a surefire contender in the 2020-21 season.
Those are nine, yes, nine teams that have a decent chance at a title next season, with a tenth joining the ranks the year after. After three offseasons of “my god, the Warriors added another All-Star?” writing that sentence doesn’t quite feel real.
Credit where credit is due – the Warriors were a joy to watch at their peak; beautiful ball movement, unselfish play and that otherworldly shooting made them one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams I have ever seen. Someday, I hope that everyone who despises them and their dominance will look back and appreciate what they got to witness.
It feels brief in hindsight, like Golden State should have won even more titles. They seemed destined to be a Chicago Bulls-type of dynasty. Those last few images of their team crumbling were both heart-wrenching and inspiring – Toronto fans mockingly waving goodbye as Durant was helped off the floor, Thompson heroically emerging from the tunnel to shoot those free throws on a torn ACL and then begging to stay in the game.
Those injuries closed their window in a matter of hours, and it just feels so abrupt.
But for now, with Durant and Andre Iguodala out the door, their reign is officially over, and they’re just one of the other competitors again.
Hey, I’m not complaining, even though I know that my Timberwolves will still just be lucky to make the playoffs. Seeding is going to be so important this year, the playoffs will be back-and-forth and I love it when all of the games feel like they matter. More competition is exactly what the league needed.
If you were a virtual fan in my copy of Madden ’07, it would’ve been a long night as my roster of Pro Bowlers buried your team under piles of Super Bowl trophies. For a lot of us, it was tough to watch Curry, Thompson and Durant splash three after three in the face of good defence, laughing and shimmying their way back up the court up 20 points in the playoffs.
I kept hearing people say, “all I want is a good, close finals”.
Well, the time is now, even if injuries made it happen. Rejoice, disillusioned basketball fans – you can look ahead to the upcoming seasons expecting not another Golden State title, but instead, absolute chaos.