NEW YORK – The 2019-20 NBA season will tip off on Tuesday night with the Raptors hosting the Pelicans followed by the highly anticipated first battle between the L.A. teams as the Clippers “host” the Lakers, with both games on TNT.
On Wednesday, the marquee matchups on ESPN’s opening night of NBA coverage feature the Celtics at Sixers and the Nuggets at Trail Blazers, in a rematch of last year’s conference semis. Jalen Rose will reprise his role as analyst on the retooled NBA Countdown set prior to those games, alongside new host Maria Taylor and fellow analysts Jay Williams, Paul Pierce, and Richard Jefferson.
Rose recently sat down with DIME at ESPN’s Seaport District Studios to discuss the upcoming NBA season, his thoughts on how the West shakes out, Houston’s boom or bust potential, why he believes the Sixers are a tier above the Bucks, and who would win a playoff series between the two L.A. teams.
Where does Houston fit in the West and, within all the dynamic duos that have formed around the league, do they have the highest ceiling and floor differential with Russ and Harden because of the potential clash but also the possible way it could fit?
You reminded me of something, when MJ said “the ceiling is the roof,” that was the craziest thing ever. Um, absolutely. They have the biggest boom or bust potential of not only any duo but of any team. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for three straight years. James Harden is the only player in the history of the league that’s going to lead it in made threes, made free throws, total assists. Dynamic offensive player. Their usage is as high as any two players in the history of the league.
So when you put them on a team, as a coach I’m going to tell you what you’re going to see. He’s going to try and make them take turns. He’s going to try and have them start the game, take Russ or James out first depending on the matchup, fatigue, or whatever, and then allow each of them to cook during the game. Then put them out there together at the end to finish it. That don’t necessarily always work with a dynamic duo, because you usually want your two best players to be in sync with one another. And so, while I think they’re willing to make the adjustment and want to do all the things it takes to win and make the necessary sacrifices, when you’re a great player like those dudes, it’s hard to get off that ball.
It is so very hard, and I noticed the trend — and it’s only the preseason — but when Russ had the ball, James was drifting like when Chris Paul had the ball. And that didn’t end well. So the person that has to make the adjustment is James. Welcoming Russ to his team and letting him eat.
And not just eat, but help him eat. Like you mention, he drifts back toward halfcourt and moves off and it semi-sabotages what Russ can do because that spacing collapses on you and that’s the entire way they’ve built that offense.
Yes, but also, allow him to make you better sometimes. Drive and kick so you can actually catch and shoot a shot. You throw it to the wing, run on the baseline for a single double and come off the screen towards your left hand where you can cut toward the middle. Like, those types of sacrifices happen with coaching, but it more-so takes place with the players because they police what happens on the floor. So, they have the biggest boom or bust potential in the NBA. If it does boom, those guys are gonna try to play all 82 games and they’ll try to vie for the best record in the West. Now all of a sudden, Game 7 is on your home floor and that team wins 80 percent of the time. That gives them a legit chance to win, along with Denver, along with Utah. If I’m those three teams, I’m going hard for 82 games.
I was about to ask, the three teams — although Utah made some big changes with Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley — but the three teams with the most continuity seem to be them, Denver, and Portland. Of that trio, which do you see as having the best chance to be a contender with those top teams in the West and which do you see as suffering the most from the rest of the West all lifting up around them?
The one that nobody’s going to talk about: Utah. Because, what just happened to Spida Mitchell, he doesn’t have to always have to score and play make, because Mike Conley is going to take a lot of pressure off of him and both of them play D. Rudy Gobert is two-time Defensive Player of the Year. And you just talked about Bogdanovic. People thought that when Victor Oladipo got injured the Pacers were going to fall out of their spot. He stepped up his game.
He showed he was a playmaker not just a catch and shoot guy.
Correct. So now, all of a sudden, not just defensively can Utah suffocate you, they can score the ball and have multiple ball handlers. And Denver is as deep as any team in the league. They’re the kind of squad, other than Jokic cause any team you miss your best player, but if anyone goes down with an ankle injury for 7-10 days or whatever, they got 12 players that show up each not at the game expecting to play. So, they’re really deep. Utah, Denver, and Houston, those are the teams — I would put Portland there but they don’t have Nurkic — those three teams I feel like have a chance for being top 5 record-wise in the West.
You move East, everybody talks about Bucks-Sixers. Do you believe those are the top two pretty clearly or is there a third team that can bring themselves into the conversation?
I think there’s tiers. For the regular season I think the Bucks are going to have the best record because the Greek Freak is just terrific and is going to continue to improve and he’s the reigning league MVP. But if you notice when we’re talking about dynamic duos, we ain’t mentioning Milwaukee. Middleton did make All-Star last year, but he now has to show that he can make improvements in his game still.
I think Philadelphia has distinguished themselves as the clear-cut best team in the East. Clear cut. Clear cut. And that’s without Ben Simmons making jumpers. If he’s making jump shots then [brushes hands] lights out, them to the Finals. Boston’s going to be a terrific regular season team. You bring in Kemba, he’s going to bring you Kyrie’s production but he’s going to fit in better. Tatum is going to take the leap he was supposed to take last year, so is Jaylen Brown. I think Gordon Hayward the second year off his injury — you know how much I love Gordon Hayward — I think he’s going to play really well, people sleeping on him. So those three teams have distinguished themselves, but I think it’s tiers.
Regular season, Bucks, because of Joel [Embiid] not playing all 82. But postseason, Philly. Then it’s Boston, Indiana, and then it’s just a crapshoot after that.
With Philly, the addition of Horford, because it happened on that crazy first day, fell under the radar a bit, because as you mentioned, Joel doesn’t have to play as many minutes, they can keep him fresher. What is it that makes you think they do have that much separation from the rest of the East?
Size. The Lakers and Philly are going to have lineups where Ben Simmons and LeBron James are going to be playing point guard. Then you look at Kuzma, AD, JaVale McGee. Then you’ve got Joel, Horford, Josh Richardson is big and Tobias Harris is 6’9. So like, those two teams are going to be able to put a level of versatility out onto the floor that just can’t be matched when they’re playing at their apex. I think adding Horford, it’s like a weird reverse Benjamin Button thing, where you have a guy in the 30s you’re relying on to help take minutes for the guy in the 20s because he’s healthier. Al Horford has the ability to do that, and he’s going to bring them some leadership.
Look, Joel Embiid, terrific talent. But shows some immaturity. On the cell phone on the bench. Trolling a little bit too much. Sometimes when you’re the leader, when you start to giggle you can’t check me for doing the same thing. So I think Al Horford is going to bring a stabilizing force to the locker room that allows them to be a true contending team.
Last one. Lakers and Clippers are going to be the biggest story in the league, they meet opening night. We know we’re not going to see the Clippers at full strength until PG comes back and it might not be until January when they hit their stride. Once they get there, which of those two do you like more — Lakers or Clippers — should they meet in a playoff series?
Remember I told you this. In a vacuum, if I had to say the two best teams in the West it’d be the Lakers and the Clippers, but they will not face each other in the conference finals because they’re not going to have the two best records. They’re going to face each other in the second round, so one of ‘em is gonna get knocked out, while Utah, Denver, Houston and maybe if Nurkic come back, Portland will also be in the mix.
It’s the perimeter strength and the greatness of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George as two-way players that have the ability to dribble, pass, and shoot, Lou Will able to close games as the Sixth Man of the Year, terrific defensively [as a team], Montrezl Harrell as a finisher. But the Lakers have so much size up front, and this is always going to be a tall man’s game because the rim is still 10 foot and if Kevin Durant does the exact same thing as Steph Curry you’ll take the taller guy. I have to pick the Lakers based on that.