EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — For the first time in years, the Golden State Warriors were not the presumptive title favorite entering the 2019-20 NBA season. Thanks to the loss of Kevin Durant in free agency and Klay Thompson looking likely to miss the year with an ACL tear he suffered in the NBA Finals (he’s since been definitively declared out), the Warriors looked like a playoff contender but not a championship shoe-in. Stephen Curry’s broken hand and various other factors then fully dropped the team out of even those comparatively meager expectations to the bottom of the Western Conference.
As a result, the title chase feels a bit more open this year. Sure, the Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the NBA and the LA Clippers loom as a threat, but neither of those teams — or the Los Angeles Lakers — feel like an preordained champion. Multiple teams have a chance to win this season, and ahead of the Lakers’ matchup with the Warriors on Thursday night, Anthony Davis said he thinks that’s a good thing for the NBA.
“I just think after free agency in the summertime, I think this is probably the best the league has been since I’ve been in the league,” Davis said after practice on Wednesday. “This is as open as it’s been in a while, and both conferences have powerhouses. Especially in the West, one through 13, [teams] can get in the playoffs and make a difference.
“Even if they were healthy, I think this still has been a chance for anyone to win and not see Golden State as a big favorite.”
The Warriors have been the top seed in the Western Conference for four of the last five years, finishing second to the Houston Rockets in 2018. Even that year, due to Durant’s presence, they essentially felt unbeatable. Inevitable, even. For the first time since in a while, that doesn’t feel like the case.
“I think it’s definitely felt like a more open race, rather than chasing the top dog like it’s felt like the last five years,” said Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel. Still, he’s not sure it really matters, or affects other teams.
“I don’t know if that really changes each team’s approach. You’re still trying to win as many games as you can, but it definitely has felt like more of an open race,” Vogel said.
The Lakers have taken advantage of that openness, racking up the most wins in the Western Conference and second-best record in the league (44-12), but they still don’t consider themselves the top dog in the West just yet.
“I don’t really look at it like that,” Vogel said. “We have a team that is confident that we can beat anybody, but we have a lot of room for improvement. The newness of our group still gives me a great deal of concern in terms of what the stretch run is going to look like, and the battles we’re going to face in the playoffs.
“Just because we’re ahead in the standings, I don’t necessarily feel like we’re a finished product by any stretch,” Vogel continued. “We haven’t accomplished anything as a group. To me it’s all in front of us.”
The other thing that’s in front of the Lakers is not just the title chase this year, but also the reality that the Warriors team they race to the top with next year is going to be a lot different than the one they’ll likely beat on Thursday night. Vogel admitted that he fully expects Golden State to be an upper-echelon team again next season.
“You’ve got three of the best players in the world, a great system, culture and coach, everything. I think if they’re at full strength, they’re one of the best teams in the league,” Vogel said, and while that might not sound like good news, Davis says it’s a positive in the bigger picture of things.
“To add those two guys back, especially with the young guys they have back that are playing well for them, you put that back with Klay and Steph, it’s just going to make the league a whole lot better,” Davis said.
For now though, the Lakers will head up to Golden State to face a very different Warriors team. A sleeping giant in the middle of a gap year. Whatever the returns of the Warriors’ stars ultimately means for the Lakers’ window for contention in a macro sense, in a micro one, it’s just as strange for them as it is for us to see this version of the Dubs.
“It’s just different not seeing [Steph], Klay and Draymond in the lineup,” Davis said. “That’s what you think about when you go to Golden State.”
For now, the Lakers can just think about it. Next year, they’ll have to game plan for it. At the very least, it sounds like they aren’t getting used to the current status quo.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.