The Mazzola Minute: NBA Contenders

The 2018-19 National Basketball Association’s (NBA) regular season has begun, and it’s finally socially acceptable to talk about basketball again. While the playoffs are still far in the future, discussion over which teams are true title contenders has begun in earnest, and will take place throughout the regular season.

I believe there are five such teams in the NBA — one clear favorite, three contenders primed for improvement and one team likely doomed for regression.

1. Golden State Warriors No surprises here. The defending champs are favorites to three-peat, even after a quiet offseason. Quiet, that is, unless you count the addition of four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins. That’s right — the Warriors could roll out the first five All-Star lineup in over 40 years at some point this season.

Combine that with Steph Curry focusing his offseason efforts on staying healthy throughout the regular season and the already nearly-unbeatable Warriors somehow managed to get even better. Much like the 2017-18 season, Golden State’s biggest regular season challenges will be making sure boredom doesn’t translate to sloppiness and staying healthy, with the integration of Cousins once he recovers from a torn achilles adding another wrinkle to the mix.

This year could be the last for this core five, so keep an eye on free-agency rumors, as they could disrupt team chemistry.

The now-retired, ex-Warriors power forward David West hinted at behind-the-scenes team drama during last year’s run to the title, and the last thing the Warriors need is another reason not to focus on the games at hand.

2. Boston Celtics The Celtics added All-stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to a squad that reached last year’s Eastern Conference Finals and returned all major role players in the process. Need I say more? Last season’s second-ranked defense is long, switchable and features a strong mix of energetic youngsters and wise veterans.

The Celtics roll out a starting lineup of Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, each of whom is capable of finishing anywhere on the court — from at the rim to beyond the arc. With a bench featuring a starting caliber point-guard in Terry Rozier, self-proclaimed “pitbull” and defensive stalwart Marcus Smart, a talented scorer and capable defender in Marcus Morris and the Joel Embiid-stopper Aron Baynes, the Celtics might boast the deepest roster in the league.

If Irving and Hayward return to form and Tatum makes the leap to All-Star status, the Celtics could prove a serious challenge for the top-heavy Warriors.

3. Utah Jazz Continuity is key for a Utah Jazz team headlined by sophomore shooting guard Donovan Mitchell. While the Jazz lack many complete offensive players, Ricky Rubio’s passing, Joe Ingles’s shooting, Mitchell’s finishing at the rim and Rudy Gobert’s lob threat form the pieces of a contender.

Mitchell is poised to make the All-Star leap, especially if he improves his jump shot.

An improvement in Rubio’s shooting and finishing or Ingles’ creation could turn the Jazz into a top-tier NBA offense.

Thanks to a stifling defensive scheme, which was the best in the NBA during the 2017-18 season, the Jazz led the NBA in net-rating after the All-Star Game last season. The way Gobert alters offensive schemes by forcing teams out of the paint is reminscent of the way Curry’s shooting range forces defenders to guard all the way up to half-court, as both completely alter the geometry of the floor.

The Jazz are a promising foil to Golden State’s high-octane offense (the Jazz dominated the 2017-18 season series with a 3-1 record), and Utah-Golden State may well become the marquee matchup in the Western Conference.

4. Toronto Raptors After years of moderate success with essentially the same squad, the Raptors nabbed the top-seed in the Eastern Conference last season by — you guessed it — running-it-back with a similar squad.

Smarter ball-movement, more-emphasis on the three-ball and the development of a bench mob capable of outplaying many starting units contributed to this leap, but the Raptors again fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, crashing out of the postseason to a LeBron James-led team for a third straight season.

As part of a very busy offseason, the Raptors parted ways with 2017-18 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and swapped DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Although Leonard only played nine games last season due to a quad injury and conflict with the San Antonio Spurs front office, he’s a top-five player in the league when healthy and maybe the best two-way player in the entire NBA.

Most importantly, he’s a former NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, who doesn’t collapse under the pressure of the postseason.

LeBron James’ move west removes yet-another playoff block, and the Raptors will battle the Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy.

5. Houston Rockets Minus an ill-timed Chris Paul hamstring injury and an NBA-record three-point shooting drought, we may be speaking of the Rockets as the reigning champions.

The Rockets switch-heavy defensive scheme and isolation-heavy offense pushed the Warriors to seven games in last year’s Western Conference Finals, but the Rockets failed to return the same roster.

Rather, Houston lost two of its best perimeter defenders in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, replacing them with noted mid-range specialist and defensive liability Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony’s fit with the Rockets is questionable at best, even before considering his previous experience coach Mike D’Antoni, but it’s the loss of Ariza and Mbah a Moute that will ultimately prove more significant.

The Rockets made the leap to championship contender last season thanks to a much-improved defense, and without two of the three most switchable members of that elite defense, the Rockets may become a sieve.

The additions of James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams will likely do little to offset this defensive decline, and though Paul and reigning league-MVP James Harden will once again command an electric offensive unit, Golden State has only widened the gap on Houston.

The landscape of this year’s NBA should provide an entertaining season. Although the Golden State Warriors have the best chance of claiming their third straight title, any team can claim the title, for NBA seasons rarely shake out the way everyone expects.