NOEL KING, HOST:
The NBA regular season starts tonight. At least half a dozen teams have a realistic shot at the championship this year. That's thanks to a summer of blockbuster player trades and some players just moving on to other teams. Joining me now is NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hey, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So before we get to the teams and the season ahead, I want to ask you about a big story that's still unfolding. Earlier this month, the Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. That made the Chinese government very, very angry at him and at the NBA broadly. What's the latest? What's going on there?
GOLDMAN: Well, it's still simmering, Noel. Late last week, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a public appearance in New York City. He said the Chinese government had told him to fire Daryl Morey. China responded and said Silver was lying. And then a CCTV - that's the state-run network in China - ran a commentary over the weekend saying Silver will face retribution for saying what he did. So the relationship is still quite contentious, it seems.
KING: Does this do lasting damage to the NBA's reputation?
GOLDMAN: Well, you know, there is potential financial damage. The NBA reportedly earns half a billion dollars every year in revenue through its business with China. And if the financial impact continues - and Commissioner Silver said last week it's already been significant - if it continues, it could affect the league's salary cap, meaning how much teams are allowed to pay players.
And then there's reputational damage, Noel. I mean, the NBA was attacked from the political left and right for initially sounding like it was appeasing China and not supporting Morey, (laughter) one of the few things in this country that unites the left and the right. But Silver quickly came out, stressed that freedom of expression is paramount, and the league supports that. If the NBA continues saying that and still pays the price if China, you know, cuts off business, the NBA can probably reclaim the moral high ground.
KING: Let's talk about tonight's games. We've got New Orleans versus Toronto, and we have got the battle of Los Angeles - the Clippers versus the Lakers. So four big teams. What are we interested in? What are you interested in?
GOLDMAN: Oh, so much. But the excitement about tonight is tempered by news that New Orleans' Zion Williamson, the most hyped rookie since LeBron James, he's out for six to eight weeks after knee surgery. And Paul George, one of the LA Clippers' new stars, is out recovering from shoulder surgery. But once he's back, this battle for LA should be epic, and it's because of that crazy summer of player movement you mentioned. Kawhi Leonard, who led Toronto to last season's title, he also joined the Clippers, a historically bad franchise that's suddenly a contender. So, too, are LeBron's Lakers. They added big man Anthony Davis. He's really good.
KING: What are some of the other teams with a good chance this season? And I hate to ask you to make a prediction this early on because we know you'll be wrong. But...
GOLDMAN: Thank you for at least saying that upfront because it's so true. But I will say I think it's pretty safe to advise you to keep an eye trained on the Mountain West.
GOLDMAN: Denver, Utah - very strong teams last year - they made moves in the offseason; not as huge as what happened in LA but moves that should strengthen them. Portland, where I'm based, got to the conference finals last year. They're a very good team. Houston's a very good team. And then in the East, you've got Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston also with title hopes. All of this because the great Golden State Warriors are no longer great. So for the first time in many, many years - well, maybe five or six - it's wide open, and that's what has NBA fans so excited.
KING: All right, a little competition never hurt anyone. NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks so much.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEATAMINE'S & MATCHY'S "GREYZONE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.