Beyond the Battle for L.A.: The Underappreciated NBA Storylines
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
After a massive shakeup, the wide-open NBA has something for everyone.
By Matt Foley
This is the latest edition of OZY’s Huddle newsletter, which brings you a smart, flavorful conversation-starter for your next game watch party. No stale takes allowed.
In case you hadn’t heard, there’s meaningful basketball being played in Los Angeles again. With Anthony Davis and LeBron James teamed up in Lakerland, and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and six-time All-Star Paul George joining the Clippers, endless chatter will be devoted to the merits of the two SoCal squads this fiscal year.
But after a madcap offseason that reshuffled the league, there are at least a half-dozen title contenders. As the NBA tips off this week, here’s what’s in our crystal ball:
The year of the unicorn. All across the league, generational big men are coming into their own. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (pushing to become the fifth repeat MVP this century), Davis, Denver’s Nikola Jokić and Philly’s Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons all lead title contenders, while Kristaps Porziņģis (Dallas) and Karl Anthony-Towns (Minnesota) anchor young teams with breakout potential. These and countless other versatile big men are allowing teams to play “small ball” with actual giants, ushering in a new era of NBA strategy.
The great Jazz revival? New point guard Mike Conley (pictured) will push Utah to the Western Conference finals.
Freaky Philadelphia. Four of the Sixers’ starters stand 6-foot-10 or taller. With a roster full of rangy, versatile athletes who can guard every position, Philly will shut down outside shooters … and make the finals.
What about the Warriors? Steph Curry will use a 2018 James Harden–level usage rate to finish in the top three in the MVP race, and D’Angelo Russell will help make the Dubs a No. 5 seed.
What to Watch & Pick ’Em
Houston Astros at Washington Nationals (Friday at 8:07 pm ET on Fox)
This was supposed to be a lopsided series … in the other direction. Now in the first World Series home game in Nationals franchise history, can Washington take a commanding 3-0 lead?
- Houston (-125)
- Washington (+105)
No. 9 Auburn at No. 2 LSU Saturday at 3:30 pm ET on CBS
Can anyone slow down the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow? One of the nation’s stoutest defenses will give it a shot.
- Auburn (+11)
- LSU (-11)
Ones to Watch
Auston Matthews. One of the presumed superstars of hockey’s young generation, Matthews is approaching a key moment in his career. If the fourth-year Toronto Maple Leafs center wishes to fulfill his potential, it’s time to embrace both ends of the ice. The first overall draft pick in 2016, Matthews embodies the best of the NHL’s expansion efforts and strategic evolution. He plays with blazing speed and a sniper’s efficiency. His eight goals in 11 games rank fourth in the NHL. But a September disorderly conduct arrest caused Leafs coach Mike Babcock to yank his captaincy; on the ice, he’s exhibited a concerning lack of interest in defense. If he really wishes to become the best two-way center in hockey, he needs to start acting like it. Only then will Toronto win its first Stanley Cup trophy since 1967.
Heather O’Reilly. With 231 U.S. Women’s National Team appearances, O’Reilly, 34, is one of the most prolific international soccer players of her generation. Now she’s going out in style. A midfielder who retired from international play following the Rio Olympics in 2016, O’Reilly will retire from professional soccer entirely following the NWSL title game this Sunday. (She’s staying busy as a volunteer assistant coach at alma mater UNC.) The Courage face the Chicago Red Stars, led by Australian star Sam Kerr, in Sunday’s title game. A win would make it back-to-back titles for the Courage — a fitting swan song for O’Reilly, whose late penalty kick score gave the Courage the lead over Reign FC in the semifinals.
The Nats’ bats. This was supposed to be the World Series where the “best collection of pitching ever” would shine. In total, Houston’s three aces (Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke) plus Washington’s four (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Aníbal Sánchez and Patrick Corbin) combined have 29 All-Star Games, five Cy Young Awards (Cole should make it six this season), five ERA titles and an MVP. Verlander and Scherzer are surefire Hall of Famers, with Cole, Greinke and Strasburg likely for Cooperstown. And yet, the hitters have stolen the show. In Game 1, Washington — led by phenom Juan Soto, who turns 21 Friday — hung five runs on Cole, for the pitcher’s first loss since May 22. In Game 2 on Wednesday, Verlander and Strasburg each allowed two first-inning runs before the game steadied. Then the floodgates opened in the seventh, starting with a solo bomb from 36-year-old catcher Kurt Suzuki and ending with a stunning 12-3 Nats win. Now a team that was +180 underdogs to start the series is headed home up 2-0 with a chance to win Washington’s first World Series since 1924.
Pulisic paranoia. Everyone r-e-l-a-x. When 21-year-old American soccer phenom Christian Pulisic was acquired by Chelsea from German side Borussia Dortmund for $73 million — a record transfer fee for an American — Stateside footie enthusiasts expected him to take the Premier League by storm. Reality has rolled slower. Pulisic has been in and out of the lineup for the Blues, occasionally even a healthy scratch by coach Frank Lampard. In six appearances so far this fall, Pulisic has just five shot attempts. So, of course, fans are panicked. But take a look at the advanced stats: Pulisic is tied for the team high in expected assists (1.5) and third in expected goals. He still has many opportunities to come. The long-term vision for Chelsea’s lineup — one with the young quadrant of Tammy Abraham up front, Mason Mount behind him and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic flanking them on either side — looks bright.
Going Through Hell to Get Into the Hall of Fame, by Charlie Scott in OZY
When Charlie Scott got to UNC in 1968, as the first Black scholarship athlete below the Mason-Dixon line, the burden was heavy. But that burden pushed him toward significance — academic, athletic and historical.
Can Colleges Police Sports Betting? Some Are Trying, by Alan Blinder in The New York Times
Purdue, St. Joseph’s and Villanova have banned students from betting on their schools’ teams, but other universities are seeking more of a middle ground. No one is sure whose approach is right.
Brett Brown and the 76ers Are Thinking Big, by Charlotte Wilder in Sports Illustrated
He took them from the bottom to title contention. Now Brett Brown needs to figure out how to push the very loaded (and very large) Sixers over the top — or face getting processed himself.
The Art of Sticking Around in the NBA, by Dan Devine in The Ringer
How do you carve out a decades-long career without superstar talent? Kendrick Perkins, Jared Dudley and a bunch of other longtime veteran players reveal their secrets to lasting in the NBA in six easy lessons.
We’ll Miss You
The Huddle is taking an indefinite hiatus as Team OZY reassesses and refreshes all our email offerings. But don’t throw your hand or let yourself go. You can still find the web’s freshest sports stories every day at ozy.com/the-huddle.