Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis

Kawhi Leonard drives against Anthony Davis in the Los Angeles Clippers’ 112-102 victory over the Lakers in the NBA season opener. After dropping 30 points, Leonard may have established himself as the new king of L.A.

After a whirlwind summer that saw several stars switch area codes, the 2019-20 NBA season is finally upon us. The season kicked off Tuesday night with a double header.

First, the defending champion Toronto Raptors started their title defense tour against the New Orleans Pelicans. The game lost a bit of its steam considering that Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard was one of those traveling superstars and rookie sensation Zion Williamson is sidelined for six-to-eight weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

Still, the game gave us the first glimpse of how the Raptors would look without Leonard leading the way. Pascal Siakam proved that he’s ready to be the man. The power forward put up 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.

Fred VanVleet also proved that his spectacular playoff run was no fluke by matching Siakam’s 34 points. He also added seven assists and five rebounds en route to the Raptors’ 130-122 OT victory.

The JV Lakers Pelicans team may have been without its superstar rookie but there were plenty of new faces in New Orleans. After an activity-filled offseason that includes the blockbuster trade that sent Anthony Davis to Hollywood, the Pelicans’ roster features 11 new players this season.

The Pelicans were competitive but got mixed results from its renovated roster. Josh Hart (15 points off the bench) and JJ Reddick (16 points, 4-6 shooting from 3PT) played well. Brandon Ingram (22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists but a -19 rating) was solid, but unspectacular. Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball (eight points, five assists) and Derrick Favors (six points, seven rebounds)did not play up to expectations.

It should be encouraging for Pelicans fans that the team scored 122 points without Williamson. The team has potential but it will have to shore up things on the defensive end. With the excessive player turnover, it will naturally take time to develop chemistry and consistency.

Tuesday night’s main event was the battle for Los Angeles, and possibly NBA, supremacy between the Lakers and Clippers. LeBron James welcomed Davis as the Lakers franchise attempts to win its first NBA title since 2010. Surprisingly, it wasn’t James or Davis who led the team in scoring against the Clippers. Instead, it was newly-acquired Danny Green who poured in 28 points, including 7-for-9 from downtown. Green scored 18 of those points in a third quarter tear.

Davis chipped in 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in his Lakers’ debut. James seemed to defer to Davis for much of the contest, but still neared a triple double with 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the team did not receive much production outside of those three players. By the fourth quarter, it appeared that James and Davis were fatigued and the Clippers pulled away for a 112-102 victory.

Although the Lakers and Clippers share the Staples Center, Leonard “pulled up” on the Lakers aboard his clipper ship and proved that he’s the captain now. Leonard staked his claim as an early MVP candidate by pouring in 30 points, six rebounds and five assists in the victory.

We’ve known for years that Leonard is a defensive stalwart, but it was his offensive performance that spoke loudly. Throughout the game, Leonard imposed his will versus the Lakers. He got to his midrange spots seemingly whenever he wanted and knocked down jumper after jumper.

Leonard, Patrick Beverly and Montrezl Harrell alsoplayed an extremely physical brand of defense that seemingly tired out James and Davis late in the game. The Lakers’ superstars combined for a whopping two points in the fourth quarter (a layup by James with 8:51 remaining).

It is amazing that the Clippers looked so impressive without Paul George, who is expected to miss at least the first 10 games of the season after undergoing surgery on both shoulders during the offseason. Once George returns, the Clippers will boast another dynamic two-way threat in the lineup.

The Lakers played without Kyle Kuzma, who suffered a fractured foot during the offseason. Kuzma is expected to be the Lakers’ third scoring threat, after averaging 18.7 points per game during his rookie season. He should ease the offensive load for James and Davis upon his return. However, the Lakers’ front office is certainly brainstorming ideas to increase the team’s depth after the 10-point loss in the season opener. The team was also without Rajon Rondo, who sat due to calf soreness.

Predictions

No early season NBA story is complete without some predictions.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Last season, I was proven correct that Antetokounmpo would earn his first MVP award, so why not ride the hot hand again? With Leonard out of the way in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks should repeat with the Best Record in the NBA. The only 60-win team from the 2018-19 season returns four starters. After falling to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, “The Greek Freak” and Co. will be fueled by the defeat and dominate the East once again. Leonard is Antetokounmpo’s biggest threat. However, George will likely siphon votes from his teammate paving the way for a repeat.

Rookie of the Year: Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson will miss the first six-to-eight weeks of the season after undergoing knee surgery. That shouldn’t stop him from soaring to win the Rookie of the Year Award.

Yes, Williamson will miss the first 6-to-8 weeks of the NBA season, but he is by far the most dynamic rookie since James set it off in Cleveland back in 2003. Guys like Ja Morant (Grizzlies) and Rui Hachimura (Wizards) will have excellent seasons, but will ultimately be outshined by Williamson’s freakish talents and the crazy numbers to match.

Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers

Rivers’ job has been made easy with the addition of Leonard and George. Not only will the Clippers take over L.A., they’ll also take over the Western Conference. In fact, why delay the major prediction any longer? The Clippers may not finish with the best record in the league but the team is built for success. I expect a Finals matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks with Leonard outdueling Antetokounmpo once again, this time for all the marbles. That would make Leonard the first star player to win back-to-back championships with different teams.

Be sure to check In the Clutch online and also follow Ishmael on Twitter @ishcreates. 

Ishmael H. Sistrunk is a columnist and the website coordinator for the St. Louis American and www.stlamerican.com.

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