By The Associated Press
A new NBA year is here.
On Friday, the first five teams will hold media days, the NBA’s annual day-before-camp-begins ritual. Anthony Davis, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will discuss a season of enormous expectations. So will James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston, along with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn.
Sacramento and Indiana also open Friday. NBA champion Toronto has media day Saturday, the title-chasing Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday and the rest of the NBA on Monday. And while most teams typically enter a season with high hopes, this year seems as wide-open in terms of the total of realistic championship contenders as any in a long time.
“I talked to at least seven GMs over the summer that really feel that they’re going to go for it,” Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard said Thursday.
There might even be more.
Over the last 14 seasons, only 10 franchises — Toronto, Golden State, Cleveland, Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Dallas, the Lakers, Boston and Orlando — have reached the NBA Finals.
This season, there might be at least 10 with a legitimate chance of getting there.
The Clippers, with Paul George and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, are atop most lists. The Lakers, who haven’t even been to the playoffs since 2012, also seem likely to contend with James and Davis leading the charge. Denver brings most of its team that won 54 games back. Utah figures to be better and has a budding star in Donovan Mitchell. Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn may be atop the East.
And then there’s last year’s finalists — the Warriors and Raptors, neither of whom expect to fall too far in the standings despite losing the likes of Durant and Leonard.
“I’d rather be the favorite again, to be honest with you,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
They’re not. Most sports books have given that role to the Clippers or Lakers. But the Warriors are still a popular pick among bettors, and in Las Vegas, the odds are showing that the general belief is that plenty of teams have a real chance of being the last club standing when the Larry O’Brien Trophy gets handed out in June.
“I don’t know if it’s a bettors’ delight, but I would definitely say it’s a bookmakers’ delight,” said Nick Bogdanovich, the director of trading for bookmaker William Hill US. “You want parity. That’s why the NFL has been so good to bookmakers over the last 25 years; there’s parity. This year, the NBA is definitely much more open.”
On William Hill’s current books, the Lakers — always very popular among Las Vegas bettors, since the city has tons of their fans — and the Clippers are co-favored at 7-2. There are eight teams at odds of no more than 15-1, which is roughly where eventual champion Toronto was at this time last season.
“That means eight teams seem to have a really good puncher’s chance,” Bogdanovich said.
Even some of the teams not in that mix figure to carry hope into the new year.
For the first time in nine years, Oklahoma City isn’t one of the 10 teams with the shortest preseason odds in Vegas. The Thunder now are among the longest of long shots on the Vegas books — understandable, after trading Westbrook to Houston, George to the Clippers and starting to stockpile tons of future draft picks in a clear sign that a rebuild is beginning.
“The way I explain this internally is there’s a million ways for things to go wrong in the NBA,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “There’s really only one way for it to go right. It only goes right for one team. You know, you want to be that one team, and you want to strive and do everything you can. But you’ve got to be really smart about how you get there.”
Sheppard is also quick to point out that preseason speculation guarantees nothing. The Warriors were overwhelming favorites last year, then fell in the finals after Durant and Klay Thompson went down with injuries.
And after a summer of wild player movement, a certain amount of unpredictability would seem plausible.
“A lot of the teams’ jerseys are the same on the front, but the name on the back is different,” Sheppard said. “It changes how you are, chemistry-wise. So I think a lot of teams that are really excited and going for it, they have to be able to factor in what happens during the season. The names look great on paper, but the game is played on wood, and it’s always been that way.”