As 2020 rapidly approaches, it’s a good time to take stock of the NBA’s power players, the guys who will not only have a massive impact on the court for the rest of this season, but will shape the narratives we follow in the early years of the upcoming decade. These five players will dominate the headlines in 2020—and beyond.
Sports Illustrated’s first-quarter MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has an incredibly huge decision to make in the summer of 2020. He can accept the supermax extension from the Bucks, or play out the last year of his contract and enter free agency in 2021. If Giannis accepts the extension, Milwaukee will almost surely cement itself as an axis of power for the upcoming decade. If Giannis declines, he will set off a free-agent frenzy that will have the entire league scrambling for space (more so than it already is) in hopes of building the newest superteam centered around him. And that’s only part of what makes the Greek Freak so powerful.
There’s also what he’s doing on the court. Giannis has improved since his MVP year, and he’s even dabbling more than ever in shots from beyond the arc. He clearly took his playoff defeat to heart, and Milwaukee, even without Malcolm Brogdon, is playing like an absolute juggernaut. The Bucks should arguably be title favorites, despite not having quite the level of top-line talent as the Lakers and Clippers. That’s all because of Giannis, who seems to be the most consistent destructive force on both ends of a basketball floor as 2020 arrives. The Freak is capable of bringing the Bucks a championship as soon as this season, which means the NBA will be fixated on everything he’s doing on and off the court as we barrel toward the summer.
Guess who else can be a free agent next summer? Anthony Davis! AD is putting up his own MVP-caliber season in year one of his L.A. experiment with LeBron James. Davis is thriving now that he finally has another superstar to play off of. It would be shocking for Davis to leave the Lakers after what’s been an immensely successful partnership through 30 games or so, although who knows what will happen in the playoffs. It’s the postseason that will be the most interesting for AD. He’s never before faced the pressure of being on a title contender. How will he fare in his first conference finals? Or Finals? Those moments have briefly crippled great players in the past—something LeBron is well aware of.
If Davis maintains his level of play in the postseason, then the Lakers become that much scarier. Imagine what L.A. could do with another offseason to recruit guys to a team that’s already won a title? A championship could also push Davis to sign a longer contract with the Lakers than if they were to flame out early in the playoffs. And if the team were to win a ring, it would be because Davis lived up to his billing for the entire run. There’s so much talk about the AD-Bron partnership and what they’ve done to make each other better. Both look incredible as of December. But the true test will be seeing them go through the grinder of a high-stakes postseason. The NBA will know a lot more about AD by next July.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid
We have to group the Sixers stars here. Philly has remade its team several times over the last couple seasons, before finally settling on a core of Simmons, Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford. All are signed long term, and the front office is betting on the sheer amount of talent on the floor to outweigh the herky-jerky offensive fit come playoff time. Philly was arguably a few bounces away from its own title run last season, but instead decided to re-tool in the summer by letting Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick walk. While all the supporting pieces may shift around, the Sixers’ success ultimately boils down to Simmons and Embiid.
Can Embiid stay healthy through a postseason? And when he’s healthy, can he stay on the floor long enough? How will Simmons work offensively in a cramped lineup in the fourth quarter of a close game? Can Simmons sustain a high-level playoffs, or will he continue to be up-and-down? It wouldn’t be shocking if the Sixers made the Finals. I also don’t think anyone would be surprised if they somehow flamed out in the second round. Anything short of a conference finals trip would be a massive disappointment for this team, and anything short of a Finals berth will probably result in some kind of change anyway.
But if the worst-case scenario happens, and Philly gets bounced early, there will almost certainly be a scapegoat. Would Simmons get moved? What’s his trade value? Or can the team afford to keep Embiid as the centerpiece considering his injury history? The Sixers can make all these questions go away if Simmons and Embiid are able to engineer their deepest playoff run. But the scrutiny will be intense if Philly once again falls short of its own lofty goals. And if one of these two players has a less-than-stellar postseason, there will almost certainly be consequences that could shake up the entire league.
KD hasn’t played a single game for the Nets yet, and he won’t until next season, but that doesn’t mean anyone should sleep on what he’ll mean in 2020. If Durant looks like scoring-champ, Finals-MVP KD when he returns, then the rest of the league has a new power to deal with. For all the mystery surrounding Kyrie Irving, the last time he played with someone at the level of Durant, he was hitting game-winning shots in the Finals.
Durant has the ability to turn the league over if he can return to what he was. He is every bit as if not more talented than the Kawhis, Giannises, and Hardens of the world. But health will be a huge factor. Achilles injuries are not easy. What if Durant needs another year before he looks right? KD will be 32 by the start of next season. If he needs another year to fully bounce back from his Achilles tear, not only will be in his mid-30s, he’ll also only have two years left on his Nets deal at that point.
How Durant looks next fall will be hugely important for the shape of the NBA. Either there’s an instant title contender in Brooklyn with a star duo that is capable of competing with anyone, or people may eventually start to question if KD’s body will allow him to be the No. 1 guy on a title team.