We preview the upcoming season with a big-picture look at the most interesting storylines after a wild summer
This past summer was a reset for the NBA. As the regular season approaches, the dynasty that dominated most of the last five years is, uh, different. So, too, is the team that dethroned it in June. There will be a new world order, but its exact form will not reveal itself for a while. If there is one central question running through the league, it is which of the many championship hopefuls will separate themselves from the pack.
From that question, you can zoom in all the way to the ripple effects of Gerald Green’s potentially season-ending injury in Houston or the development of Lakers rookie Talen Horton-Tucker. For now, though, let’s stay with the big-picture stuff. Five questions:
1. How can these new-look contenders find basketball nirvana?
In the past year, both Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston used the phrase “basketball nirvana” to describe their situation in Golden State. When the Warriors were at their best, they did not destroy teams merely because of their arguably unprecedented talent, but because they combined that talent with an understanding of how to move the ball and their bodies around, confusing opponents who had to make a flurry of difficult decisions while the juggernaut seemed to be operating on a higher plane.
Every team, even the isolation-heavy Rockets, wants to find their version of that flow state on offense. Championship teams tend to have a sort of sixth sense about them on defense, too. Conventional wisdom dictates that teams need years of experience together to become more than the sum of their parts, but the Raptors showed how basketball IQ can accelerate the process. This year, almost all of the presumed contenders are trying to pull off the same trick.
Can the Clippers find that ineffable everything-is-in-harmony energy without any elite passers? Can the Lakers and Sixers balance their respective rotations in such a way that everyone feels comfortable? The Jazz have bet on their powered-up starting five making their offense sing, the Rockets have tied their fortunes to a dynamic but potentially discordant duo and even the teams with continuity need to actively maintain what worked. The simplicity of the Bucks’ offense was wonderful for them until it wasn’t in the conference finals, and the Nuggets’ depth is only enviable until intra-team envy seeps onto the court.
For teams with a realistic chance of playing in June, the regular season will be about building habits so that, under postseason pressure, they will play to their identity. Part of that, especially these days, involves experimentation and getting players used to being flexible. The playoffs require problem-solving; you never know when you might need to adjust your pick-and-roll coverage, use an unconventional lineup or, say, try a box-and-one. With more teams than normal going into the season thinking they have a realistic shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it’s worth remembering that championship winners do not avoid tension, but rather are able to manage it, enduring the inevitable rough patches on the road to cohesion.
2. Can the big names make some small tweaks?
I could do an entire preview on the subject of MVP candidates with something to prove. Consider:
- It looks like LeBron James could be a nominal point guard, and no one seems to know whether this is more likely to drive him toward his fifth Most Valuable Player award or help Anthony Davis win his first.
- Stephen Curry’s ability to elevate everybody around him will be tested like never before.
- Kawhi Leonard says he’s healthy and doesn’t need to be as cautious with his body as he was in Toronto.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo pledged he’d learn from his crushing conference finals loss.
- Joel Embiid has apparently worked on his conditioning, improved his off-the-dribble game and set his sights on winning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
Beyond that, I want to see James Harden and Russell Westbrook figure out how to complement each other, Kemba Walker blend his pick-and-roll game with Brad Stevens’ system, Jimmy Butler validate his decision to become The Guy again, Chris Paul show that he still has it, Luka Doncic jump up a tier, Jrue Holiday flourish in a featured role, and Donovan Mitchell steal all of Mike Conley’s secrets.
3. What’s next, trade-wise?
Pretend the trade deadline is tomorrow. Which teams will be the most aggressive buyers? Who are the best players who might move? Who will be this year’s Marc Gasol? Could it be Marc Gasol?
These are the sorts of questions that front-office people have already considered. Until Thursday’s surprising extension, everybody was curious about Bradley Beal, and execs will continue to monitor Kevin Love and Chris Paul for obvious reasons. Kyle Lowry’s recent contract extension might make him more appealing to certain suitors. D’Angelo Russell’s long-term future with the Warriors is a divisive subject. I wonder how well the Pistons will have to play to prevent Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond winding up in the rumor mill.
Andre Iguodala will have contenders fighting over him. The same could be true of Danilo Gallinari and Serge Ibaka. Robert Covington should be much more valuable to a playoff team than he is to the Timberwolves. The Nuggets and Spurs probably need to consolidate talent. The Blazers need wings (and do not need Hassan Whiteside once Jusuf Nurkic returns), the Sixers (still) need depth and the Celtics are a total wild card. Do not assume that the game of musical chairs is over.
4. Who’s going to muck up the playoff picture?
Every prognosticator seems to think that the Bucks and Sixers are head and shoulders above the rest of the East, but I’ll bet the Celtics and Raptors are taking that personally. The Heat and Nets see themselves making big leaps, too, and, if the Bulls get some internal improvement from their young core, they might justify all the praise they’ve received for adding Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky and Luke Kornet (!) in the summer.
The West, as usual, is more compelling. At the moment, I can’t decide if the Mavericks or the Pelicans are my favorite dark horse, and maybe I’ll be feeling the Thunder next week. (The Kings, by the way, told the whole league they see themselves as playoff material, simply by virtue of the way they spent their money in the summer.) If any of these teams get in, though, something has to give. Barring another catastrophe, the Lakers will not be in danger of missing the playoffs again. Reasonable people can disagree about how vulnerable the Warriors, Spurs and Blazers are, and I’m sure the answer to the previous question will affect this one.
5. Who has room for error?
Instead of envisioning the beautiful possibilities that could open up if Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball were to become reliable 3-point shooters, what if we thought more about what might go wrong? I can totally see a world in which Curry wins MVP, Draymond Green wins DPOY and Klay Thompson returns at full strength for the playoffs. I can also see minor injuries becoming major problems for the Warriors, especially because they hard-capped themselves by acquiring Russell (which has led to a strange situation in which merely keeping Marquese Chriss on the roster requires front-office gymnastics).
I don’t know if it will ultimately matter that the Lakers feel less sturdy than the Clippers do, but it’s somewhat concerning that I keep thinking about whether or not Alex Caruso will live up to the hype. I like that the Pelicans can play around with a million lineups, I like that Denver proved it could withstand any non-Jokic injury and, while it’s a relief that the Sixers should no longer crumble when Embiid goes to the bench, I’m nervous about how much they have riding on unproven backup wings. Everybody’s best-case scenario is pretty rosy, but the vast majority of teams will not be blessed by the basketball gods.
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