From veterans to future rookies, these five players will dominate the headlines and have a major impact on the league in 2019.
As the calendar turns to 2019, we’ll see the rest of the current NBA season play out and a pivotal offseason start to take shape, with major free agencies looming and another new draft class readying for their first season in the pros. From veterans to future rookies, these five players will dominate the headlines and have a major impact on the league in 2019.
If the topic is 2019, the story starts with Durant. The NBA has been living in the shadow of the Warriors for two-and-a-half years, and every other month, basketball fans read a new think piece debating whether Golden State has ruined the league. All of this began two summers ago when Durant signed with Golden State. This summer he hits free agency all over again. If he stays, there's no reason the Warriors couldn't win several more championships and go down as the greatest team in the history of the league. If he leaves, KD will likely create an addition contender of his own (Knicks? Clippers? Lakers?) while also weakening the Warriors and leveling the playing field for the first time since 2016. We could go from a league with one title threat to a league with five or six, and it's all up to Durant. He started this era two years ago, and in July he will decide how much longer it lasts.
Durant will decide how much longer the current era lasts, but Anthony Davis may well decide who owns the era that comes next. He's the best big man the NBA has seen since Kevin Garnett, and he spends most of his nights putting up Hakeem Olajuwon numbers for the Pelicans. The problem is that even the best of Davis—not to mention some outrageous performances from Jrue Holiday—hasn't been enough to make the Pelicans true contenders. If Davis refuses to sign a supermax extension in July, that will signal his intent to enter 2020 free agency, and the Pelicans will have to listen to trade offers. The Lakers and Celtics will be very interested, but so will everyone else. Davis is a perennial MVP candidate, and he might be available on the open market. The whole league will be carpet-bombing New Orleans with offers. Whoever wins that battle will an inside track to the title in 2020.
Talk to scouts around the league, and they may come up empty when asked to compare Zion Williamson to anyone in the NBA. Said one Western Conference front office member: "There f***ing isn't anybody. At 285 lbs... he's bringing the ball up the court and going straight to the rim like a freight train." Williamson is some unholy hybrid of Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin, and maybe a little bit of LeBron James. No one knows what position he'll play at the next level or how much of his dominance will translate against NBA defenses, and that's part of the fun. The bottom third of the league will spend the duration of this season tanking for the opportunity to draft Williamson, and next year he'll enter the NBA as one of the biggest stories in the league. How does this end? Where does this lead? We will all find out together.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard
There's a decent chance the 2019 MVP race will come down to Kawhi and Giannis. They anchor both ends of the floor for two of the best teams in the league, they are putting together the best seasons of their respective careers, and they will spend the next five months orbiting one another in the Eastern Conference. For that matter, regardless of what happens in the MVP race, "Kawhi or Giannis?" is already one of the best debates of the current NBA season. Kawhi is slightly more disruptive on defense and significantly better as a jump shooter. Giannis may be the single most unstoppable offensive player in the league, dunking his way through entire teams on a nightly basis. It's a really close call. And while the rest of the league waits on Davis and Durant to reshape the league next summer, watching these two players battle for Eastern Conference supremacy is one of the best reasons to watch the rest of this season.
Of course he's on the list. We're 15 years in, and the league still orbits around LeBron. 2019 will be no different. For now he's building an MVP resume of his own and trying to transform a young Lakers team into a playoff contender. By the spring, wherever the Lakers land in the West, he'll probably lose earlier in the playoffs than he has in almost ten years. And the summer is where he'll really be tested. If Durant leaves Golden State, the door will be open for everyone else. Can LeBron conjure one more empire out of thin air? There will be questions about his recruiting power, there will be a ton of pressure to deliver a legitimate title threat in L.A., and the field of 2020 challengers could go four or five teams deep. All of it will be part of the story for the next 12 months. On the biggest stage in basketball, with the whole league wondering if he can make this work, LeBron has never had a tougher challenge. He's also never had a better opportunity to underscore his power on and off the court.