Sun. May 26th, 2024

Meet the new Denver Nuggets, who look just like the old Denver Nuggets.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ excitement of seeing the reigning champs who swept them right out of the conference finals last season, ran smack into reality Tuesday night.

Nikola Jokic: Triple double of 29, 13 and 11.

Jamal Murray: 21 points, six assists to just one turnover, and some well-timed shots to keep the cushion Denver had mostly earned all night long.

And a final score of 119-107 that served as a reminder that, yes, of course, the Nuggets are the team to beat.

They’re betting favorites, along with the Suns, to win an NBA championship this season for a reason. Outside of Bruce Brown’s exit, it’s largely the same team that rolled through the Lakers and the rest of the field and raised that trophy four months ago. And they’re in a Western Conference that, while full of high-ceiling teams, have no one else that seems as complete and ready-made for another run.

CBS Sports reached out to executives and scouts looking for doubters of Denver’s top competition. Several we spoke too wouldn’t bite — there were those who liked the Suns this season, a few for the Lakers, and even a few unofficial votes for the Mavs and the Thunder.

But most pointed to Denver as the West’s by-far best positioned team, and here’s a boiled-down guide to the doubts that do exist for everyone else.

Suns: The primary questions here center on depth, fit and health. There’s plenty of skepticism out there about the Durant-Beal-Booker trident staying healthy, a fact underscored by Beal missing Tuesday’s season opener. But the main worry is: How do three guys who like to shoot, a lot, find the rhythm and chemistry to win 16 playoff games starting in April.

Lakers: LeBron is old, and his 29 minutes Tuesday night could become the new norm. Anthony Davis wants to play 82 games, but you have to think L.A. would be thrilled with 70. And a lot rides on Austin Reaves behind the real deal. But LeBron’s age hasn’t dented too much of his greatness, AD playing in the playoffs is probably enough, and maybe Reaves is really the guy. The main worry you hear out there is some version of this scout’s take: “They weren’t nearly good enough against Denver last year in the playoffs, and they didn’t improve nearly enough. Why would anyone think this year would be different?”

Warriors: Doubters tend to unite around some similar through lines: Stephen Curry is getting old. Chris Paul may not fit with a team that hated him very much until recently. And even if they do, Paul is also getting old. Klay Thompson, many worry, can no longer be the player he was — especially defensively. And with misses from James Wiseman to (probably) Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, there’s a lot of people out there thinking (hoping?) the Warriors window is already closed.

Grizzlies: Ja Morant. That’s the answer, and it was even before Steven Adams was lost for the season to knee surgery. It’s not hard to talk to an NBA executive and come away very pessimistic not just about the Grizz for 25 games without Morant, but for Morant once he returns to basketball.

Mavericks: A surprising number of NBA insiders were more likely to predict the Mavs will miss the playoffs than play in June. Most think Luka Doncic is almost good enough to carry a team on his own. Very few think Kyrie Irving and the rest of his supporting cast are going to make that easy enough to become reality.

Pelicans: One answer: Zion Williamson. If he’s healthy, yes, the Pelicans become an instant Western Conference threat. But since the past is often prologue, there’s every reason to doubt Zion playing enough this year to alter what has been a career of injuries. 

Kings: I think Sacramento is fascinating in this context, but apparently I’m in very small group of would-be believers. A few counter arguments: De’Aaron Fox can’t possibly be as clutch, mathematically speaking, as he was last season. They need another superstar to augment a talented, hard-working team. Bad defense (they were 25th last year in defensive rating) never adds up to championship runs. 

Harden’s soap opera could get ugly 

The season has started. The games count. And still no sense of resolution — or even a clear picture of when, and if, Harden will eventually re-report to the Sixers — has emerged in the midst of the fiasco in Philly.

Misery loves company, so add this to the pressure-cooker in which Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is operating: The chatter across the NBA that, come what may, his job is very much in jeopardy. 

A few caveats. Of course Morey is safe if — if — the Sixers somehow shock everyone and, with or without the Beard, win the whole thing. A championship appearance, amidst this soap opera, would be impressive. Even a long-awaited conference finals appearance might look like success, depending on the damage Harden inflicts in the weeks and months ahead.

But there’s a growing sense out there things could go very, very badly in Philly, and Morey could take the blame. 

There’s the report Tuesday from Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Keith Pompey outlining the price the Knicks would be willing to pay for Joel Embiid if the get-me-out-of-here-now virus jumps from Harden to Embiid.

There’s the rumors the Clippers are scrounging to find more first-round picks, even if they’re not uber-valuable and offered as pick-swaps, so Morey can save face when he capitulates on the price.

There’s Harden the certainty out there the East is a two-horse race, and the Sixers wouldn’t be in it even if Harden does a 180 and decides the Sixers are his true basketball love.

Morey’s an excellent GM, smart and bold and willing to take risks. But his risks are just that, and the one he took on Harden, many think, will cost him dearly.

Suns win, but will Beal rise?

On Tuesday night, the Suns defeated the Warriors, 108-104, in San Francisco.

Bradley Beal, nursing a bad back, didn’t play, a harbinger to the worries about his ability to stay healthy this season. He hasn’t played more than 60 games since the 2018-19 campaign, and his ability to be healthy will certainly impact the Suns’ ability to live up to the massive expectations in Phoenix this year. 

But here’s another theory of worry around Beal: Maybe — as in, literally, it’s possible but not certain — he just isn’t the winner at the highest levels of NBA competition he needs to be.

First warning sign: The fact, as Beal himself revealed this week, the Miami Heat had little interest in acquiring him, despite his own strong desire and effort to head there.

“I’m like, ‘OK, what’s Miami doing? Dragging feet,’” he told Marc Spears from Andscape. “And eventually it came to a point to where Miami said they just can’t do it. But it was an eye-opener for sure.”

In Beal’s telling, after internal conversations at the highest level, the Heat in effect, said it was a “no.”

Perhaps it was because of his no-trade close. Perhaps Miami was overly focused on Damian Lillard. Or maybe — there’s that word again — they saw in Beal a talented player who doesn’t fit the Heat system, or in a macro sense, that some players are built for the playoffs and others aren’t.

Beal spent a long time in D.C., and yet with the Wizards he was just 22-23 in the postseason. He hasn’t won a playoff series since 2015, and he’s only won two series in his career.

To borrow a comp from the NFL, it’s very similar to Kirk Cousins: A superlatively talented player, who came up short in the playoffs on lackluster teams in Washington, only to get his chance to move to a more talented team with big-time expectations.

And that, to date, hasn’t worked.

Now it’s Beal’s turn to show what he’s got (or doesn’t) when the talent around him is as legit as the expectations that come with it.

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The post Why the Nuggets look like they’ll repeat, but here’s how the Suns, Lakers and Warriors could unseat the champs appeared first on WorldNewsEra.

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