Damian Lillard went to Milwaukee, Bradley Beal went to Phoenix, Jrue Holiday ended up in Boston and Chris Paul ended up with Golden State. Victor Wembanyama arrived in San Antonio, Nick Nurse took over in Philadelphia and LeBron James is now the oldest player in the league.
As always, the NBA is opening a new season with new looks.
The Denver Nuggets are hoping this season doesn’t end with another new champion.
The NBA’s 78th season starts Tuesday, with a ring ceremony in Denver — the traditional celebration of the reigning champions — highlighting the opening-night celebration. The Nuggets beat Miami last June to become the league’s fifth different champion in the last five years, a run of parity the likes of which the league hasn’t seen in more than 40 years.
“We’ve gone from being a team that’s hunting the teams in front of us to now we’re going to be the hunted,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “And hopefully our guys understand the responsibility that comes with being a defending champion. There can be no off nights, because we’re getting everybody’s best 82 times this year.”
The last five winners: Toronto, the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee, Golden State and Denver. The last time there was a five-season stretch with no duplicate champion was 1977 through 1981, and it was a very different NBA back then.
For context on what the league was like in those five years: Seattle had a team, Washington was the Bullets, the 3-point line didn’t exist when that run started, the league had 22 or 23 teams instead of its current 30, the Nets played in New Jersey, the Jazz were wrapping up their New Orleans run, the Kings played in Kansas City, the Clippers played in San Diego and four players were the top earners at exactly $1 million a year each.
During this regular season, the NBA has at least 56 players who’ll make $1 million a week.
“There’s still the elite teams: Denver, Milwaukee, Boston,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. “But there’s a lot of really, really good teams that if they evolve the right way, they can get there too.”
The offseason included several major transactions. Lillard’s quest to get traded to Miami wound up with him getting traded to Milwaukee and instantly forming a championship-caliber duo with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Beal got traded to the Suns, forming the newest Big 3 alongside Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. The Lillard and Beal moves led to others — Holiday eventually joining Boston, Paul eventually joining Golden State.
Everybody is chasing the ring. Which means, for now, everybody is chasing the Nuggets.
“I just know when you have a team that can be one of those teams that’s going to compete for a title,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And we have one of those teams.”
For the first time, there are two titles for teams to go after this season.
The In-Season Tournament — something Commissioner Adam Silver wanted for years — is now a reality. It starts on Nov. 3 with group play, and ends with a Final Four in Las Vegas on Dec. 7 and 9. The winner gets the NBA Cup and around $18 million in prize money will be awarded, with $500,000 going to each player on the winning team.
“Anything that’s going to create higher quality basketball, better competition, more intensity and more fan engagement is a great growth opportunity for us,” said Evan Wasch, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball strategy.
CJ McCollum, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, knows there are skeptics. He points out that there also were skeptics when the NBA added the play-in tournament – which has turned out to be a massive success and ratings bonanza.
“It makes November and December not so gloomy,” McCollum said of the in-season event. “And it gives people a chance to go to Vegas and compete at a high level on television for a chance to make more money. So, you have all these incentives in place, along with the fact that the season is so long, you have to figure out ways to continue to make it entertaining. This is a way to accomplish that.”
So, there are more things to win.
There’s also, the NBA hopes, more reasons for players to play.
The league has been stressing to teams in recent weeks that, unless a player is injured or absolutely cannot play, they want them on the floor for games. Players now have to appear in a certain number of games — typically 65 — to be eligible for postseason awards, and the league even wants a more competitive All-Star Game after some relatively lackluster ones in recent years.
“I think Adam Silver is trying to change the mentality and get players to play,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “Our guys, last year, we led the league in games missed. We had some long-term injuries. But it’s hard when guys can’t play. And so, I’m glad that that that Adam Silver and the NBA, along with the Players Association, are trying to address this thing.”
Boston and Milwaukee enter the season as co-favorites for the NBA title, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, which lists Denver’s Nikola Jokic — who won MVP in 2021 and 2022 — as the favorite for that award this year. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid has a new coach in Nurse with the 76ers, and an unhappy teammate in James Harden, whose future in Philadelphia is most unclear. And James, who turns 39 in December, is convinced the Lakers can make another title run.
There are many questions heading into the season and endless possibilities with so many talented teams.
But Nuggets guard Jamal Murray is clear about this: “If we can get another championship, I think we’ll be on the right track.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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