These questions are an attempt to dig a little deeper than the surface and try to find a smaller thing that could swing a team’s season. They aren’t really in any particular order and they might not be the most important question facing each, but they are all something I’ll be monitoring as the season unfolds.
Can Zaza Pachulia provide enough rim protection?
The incorporation of Kevin Durant will get more of the headlines, but the Warriors’ ability to protect the rim will be more important. Andrew Bogut was the backbone of a great Golden State defense last season and replacing him will be very difficult. Pachulia is no slouch and will work hard, but reaching Bogut’s level will be difficult. The Dubs could play lineups featuring Draymond Green at center, but that likely means a lot of Durant at power forward and the Warriors now know all too well how long the NBA season can be.
How will the Cavaliers manage LeBron James?
If reports out of training camp are to be believed, LeBron will be taking extra rest this season. He’s earned it of course, but it poses an interesting question for this Cavs season. They can easily turn the keys over to Kyrie Irving, but Irving has a less than stellar injury history and Cleveland will need him if it hopes to repeat. Similarly, placing an increased burden on Kevin Love could upset the chemistry if things shift back to LeBron down the stretch. Personally, I’d plan to work the offense around Irving and challenge him to win the scoring title.
This is probably nitpicking, but after all the chemistry questions surrounding this team the last two years it’s something worth monitoring.
Will Russell Westbrook reduce opposing arenas to rubble, or dust?
This is a trick question. The real answer is both. Westbrook, finally in control of his own team, might just attempt to tear through the entire league this year. He might take 30 shots a game. He might average a triple-double. Nothing feels too outlandish.
How will the Spurs replace Tim Duncan?
It probably won’t feel like it for a few months, but this is Kawhi Leonard’s team now. The Spurs admittedly didn’t have Tim Duncan for large stretches of last season, but it will be different that he’s gone for good. Do the Spurs have enough defensive talent and smarts to be as good without him? With Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and an aging Tony Parker in the starting lineup it will likely be very hard.
Is this the last year of Lob City?
It feels like we say this every year, but this season really might be the last run for Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Tim Duncan is gone, Kevin Durant has relocated and the Clippers have never had a better chance to lock up a two seed in the West. If they can’t do it now, management may give up hope of them ever doing it.
Plus, Paul and Griffin will be free agents after the season and the Clippers may need to go in a different direction if this core fails to get far enough again. Paul is 31 and it’s very hard for point guards to stay on the same level after 30. The Clippers have a ton of talent and will still be very good, but they’ll need a few breaks to go their way if Lob City is to be remembered for anything for more than dunks.
How much regression is in store for Portland?
I can’t think of any team that had a wider gap between expectations and outcome than last season’s Blazers. Damian Lillard shined in an alpha-dog role and CJ McCollum took a leap forward of his own. But a team that wasn’t expected to do much last season is bringing back mostly the same guys. Slipping down a tier in the Western Conference feels possible. Still, there is a ton of depth on this team with the additions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli and Terry Stotts is a talented coach who won’t let this team slip too far.
Can Al Horford be the star the Celtics need?
The Celtics made the playoffs last season largely thanks to their strong defense and the offensive wizardry of head coach Brad Stevens. Stevens’ ability to draw up scoring plays can be jaw-dropping at times, but the Celtics were obviously hurting for playmakers in last year’s postseason. They’ve added a bonafide star in Al Horford, but it’s unclear if that will be enough. Horford is already 30 and likely can’t be the fulcrum of an offense anymore. But he is a massive upgrade in the frontcourt who can provide spacing without his team sacrificing anything on defense. If Marcus Smart makes another leap look for the Celtics to advance another round in the playoffs this season.
Can James Harden be a point guard?
Harden’s dominated the ball during his time in Houston, using 31 and 32 percent of his teams possessions the last two years, but has never been thought of as a point guard. That may change under Mike D’Antoni. Houston’s new coach seems to have decided to eschew the charade and turned over lead ball-handler duties to Harden. It’s not hard to see why. The 27-year-old is a good passer and he controls the ball so much anyway that you might as well call him the creator in name and in practice. If Harden can approach anything close to Steve Nash territory Houston will be very good.
Is Dave Joerger a Boogie Whisperer?
Go read this beautiful Tom Ziller Kings-Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure analogy right now. I’ll wait.
Ziller is right. The Kings face a circular logic problem for seemingly the umpteenth season in a row. If Joerger, who has had success with mercurial players in the past, can get through to Cousins, the Kings can challenge for the eighth seed. Cousins, of course, has to finally allow himself to be coached for that to be even a remote possibility.
What will the Raptors’ frontcourt rotation look like?
We know the Raptors backcourt, All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, will be good. They were the leaders of the NBA’s 5th best offense last season. Who gets minutes at the other three spots is more of a question. Jonas Valanciunas is a talented big man, but he doesn’t provide the kind of rim protection to anchor a great defense. Patrick Patterson is a bit of an undersized power forward, and his inconsistent shooting disqualifies him from being a true stretch four. Jared Sullinger, signed away from the Celtics this offseason, can be mercurial. How head coach Dwane Casey balances those three- if he finds the right mix of shooting, spacing and defense, will be interesting to watch.
How big a leap will the young Timberwolves make?
There’s little doubt the Timberwolves are going to be very good. The only question is when. Karl Anthony-Towns might already be one of the top 10 players in the league and I can’t wait to see new coach Tom Thibodeau unleash Andrew Wiggins’ defensive potential. Zach Lavine, Ricky Rubio and rookie Kris Dunn all still have room to grow and the Timberwolves only need to be patient and let their young pups grow.
Will Dwight Howard shrink the Hawks’ spacing?
Since coach Mike Budenholzer got to town, the Hawks have beaten teams playing five-out. They relied on a pair of athletic, talented big men, Paul Millsap and Al Horford, to spread the floor and beat teams with shooting and passing. Dwight Howard is not exactly an ideal fit for that game plan. Howard, along with Dennis Schroeder who will assume starting point guard duties, must figure out a way to fit in the Hawks’ offense. Will coach Bud rely more heavily on a pick-and-roll and have his shooters spread around two guys crashing the rim?
Will the 76ers be an actual basketball team?
Sadly, we probably won’t see Ben Simmons for a while, but this team will be exponentially more fun than its last few iterations. There’s competent point guard play, a very intriguing European in Dario Saric, and every move Joel Embiid makes on the court looks to be fun to watch. This team won’t be good, but young and exciting will be quite a breath of fresh air.
What is the Bulls’ best lineup?
It feels unthinkable in the modern NBA that any team might play a lineup with zero shooters. But this year’s Bulls could very well start Rajon Rondo, Dywane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez. Hot take: that will not go well. Nikola Mirotic will probably end up starting at the four, but that still leaves three guys in Rondo, Wade and Butler who work best with the ball in their hands. Head coach Fred Hoiberg will be faced with some serious lineup gymnastics as he tries to keep all of his guys happy and still put enough shooting on the floor. Unless he figures out a five-man unit or one of those three guys willingly takes a step back, I can’t see the Bulls being very good.
Is Point Giannis legit?
Over the final few months of the season Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo wrecked havoc on the league playing the point guard position. He posted his first triple double in late February and went on to post four more. His unique blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling ability unlock a new dimension for the young Bucks who disappointed last season. The shift to lead ball-handler also helped Jabari Parker, who averaged more than 18 points per game after last year’s All-Star break. If the Bucks can overcome a terribly unfortunate injury to Khris Middleton and find enough shooting to compensate for Antetokounmpo they could very easily make a playoff run.
How good is Harrison Barnes?
We are going to find out very quickly. Barnes struggled in a much more limited role in Golden State, especially during last years playoff run. He’s still a very talented player, a more than capable wing who can slide between different positions, and that kind of player’s value has never been higher than in today’s NBA. The Mavericks, led by ageless wonder Dirk Nowitzki and coaching warlock Rick Carlisle, are short on playmakers and will need a strong season from Barnes if they want to make the playoffs. Dirk’s gravity will create openings on offense. Is Barnes good enough to take advantage of them?
Do the Nuggets have enough minutes for everyone?
Outside of Minnesota, the Denver Nuggets might have the most exciting young team. They have a ton of intriguing young players without the positional logjam that the 76ers will face. The only problem will be finding enough minutes for everyone. Head coach Mike Malone will have to find out how well his young front line of Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic functions, while also finding frontcourt minutes for Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried. Rookie Jamal Murray may want to take point guard minutes from Emmanuel Mudiay. There’s lots of young talent to like here, but it will need reps to develop.
Can the Pistons find bench production?
This question becomes even more important with starting point guard Reggie Jackson sidelined up to six weeks with knee issues. The Pistons’ offense slowed noticeably last season without Jackson’s attacking presence. Ish Smith is here this year and, while he’s capable of creating penetration, his shooting leaves much to be desired and hurts Detroit’s already cramped spacing. Detroit will need Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris to have much better shooting seasons to keep the Detroit offense afloat.
Have the Pacers sacrificed defense for offense?
During the Frank Vogel era the Pacers were a lock to finish in the top 10 in defense. Now Vogel is gone and Nate McMillan is taking over as head coach. Larry Bird has said he wants to see a more uptempo team and his trades for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young back that up. This Pacers team seems almost determined to shift its identity on the fly and its hard to imagine that working. Still, this is a team led by superstar Paul George and he alone may be enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
Can the Lakers stop anyone?
Last year’s Lakers were the worst defensive team in the NBA, allowing 111.6 points per 100 possessions. It’s hard to fathom, but this year’s team might actually be worse. D’Angelo Russell is an incredibly talented offensive player, but he’s a definite minus defensively at this point. Same for Lou Williams. And Nick Young. And Julius Randle. Brandon Ingram is an unknown, but rookies are almost always poor on defense. Last year’s team at least had Roy Hibbert, who looked nothing like the defensive fulcrum he was in Indiana. Timofey Mozgov, who signed a four-year deal with the Lakers this offseason, is unlikely to be much better. Outside of the aging Luol Deng, it’s hard to find a player on this roster capable of playing competent defense.
Can Justise Winslow take a leap?
There’s no doubt about it: Pat Riley lost a big bet this offseason. Dwyane Wade called his bluff and left for the Bulls and, while it might’ve made the Heat’s cap sheet cleaner, it’s unclear if it will make the team and franchise better. In the interim, the Heat’s best chance for its next cornerstone player lies with Justise Winslow. Winslow has an arsenal of physical tools and if he can harness them and continue to develop his jumper he could reach a Kawhi Leonard level of effectiveness. Does he take a step closer to that this season?
Can Frank Kaminsky carry Charlotte’s second unit?
The Hornets re-signed two important pieces in Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, but did not have enough space to retain Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin as well. That leaves a big hole in a bench unit and makes worry that the Hornets won’t be able to find enough offense. They’ll need a big sophomore season from Kaminsky, who, though he was largely underwhelming last year, showed small flashes of being able to serve as an offensive fulcrum. If the Hornets play their brand of defense and Kaminsky can replace Lin’s offense look for them to be right back in the playoffs.
Is there finally some shooting in Grind City?
On paper, this Grizzlies team is very intriguing. Mike Conley is back and Marc Gasol is still here to work big man magic. Zach Randolph is ready to transition into a bench scorer and Tony Allen is still a terror defensively. Grind City has always lacked shooting and now Chandler Parsons, whose game is seemingly a perfect complement to Gasol and Conley’s, is here. Of course, the games aren’t played on paper and all three of Conley, Gasol and Parsons have messy injury histories. The Grizzlies will still be a tough out, but they feel closer to the lottery than title contention.
How much, and where, does Aaron Gordon play?
Aaron Gordon and his never-ending dunk contest may end up taking a step back this season. It won’t be for lack of talent, Gordon is legitimately exciting, but there simply aren’t enough minutes for all the mismatched parts the Magic have assembled. Gordon, at least currently, works best as a power forward and he’ll have to compete for front court minutes with Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Nik Vucevic and maybe even Jeff Green. Fitting all those guys together will be difficult for new coach Frank Vogel. We’ll probably see Gordon get some time at small forward, but unless he dramatically improves his jumper that will be tough to watch.
How will the Knicks balance their aging superstars with their young phenom?
The Knicks might have had the most confusing offseason in the league. They made the best pick in last year’s draft, stealing Kristaps Porzingis at No. 4, and then, instead of re-aligning the team around him, went out and signed Joakim Noah and traded for Derrick Rose. It’s the kind of floundering summer that leads to mediocrity the Knicks have had far too many times. The team will now be forced to pay a declining Noah for four seasons and if Rose has a productive season, they’ll have to sign him too. This team could challenge for a playoff spot, but it still lacks a clear path forward.
What will the Suns’ backcourt look like?
The Suns hit a home run with their draft pick last season, taking Devin Booker 13th overall. Booker has all the makings of a terrific shooting guard in the Klay Thompson mold and won’t turn 20 until October 20th. The only problem is the Suns have made big investments in two other guards, Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe. It will be exceedingly difficult for all three to play at the same time and coach Earl Watson may have to do some ego gymnastics to make this roster work. Brandon Knight, though he may not like it, has serious potential as a bench scorer. If Watson can successfully juggle his three young guards the Suns might surprise a few people.
Will the Nets trade Brook Lopez?
The Nets front office appears to have successfully put the franchise on a new track, but it will still be a few years before the team is competitive in any way. Brook Lopez remains their best player and while he’s only 28, his trade value may have already peaked. The Nets might not be able to get anything for him and, since they still owe two picks to Boston, keeping him wouldn’t be a terrible idea. He’s still a really effective player when healthy. But if they want to speed the rebuild along, the only way to do that is to trade him for future draft picks or young players. Pay close attention to the Nets around the February deadline and look for them to be active in the trade market.
Did the Pelicans bring in enough help to play with Anthony Davis this season?
Last year was a season from hell for the Pelicans. Outside of Memphis, no team suffered a greater variety of injuries and new coach Alvin Gentry simply couldn’t find a productive lineup. The good news is Gentry has had a whole offseason to implement his philosophies and the new additions- Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, and Buddy Hield- are all intriguing. The bad news is the Pelicans might be even more injured than a year ago. Anthony Davis is hurt again, suffering a sprained ankle in a preseason game in China. Tyreke Evans won’t be healthy to open the year and Jrue Holiday is dealing with an incredibly unfortunate situation with his wife (prayers up for Lauren). The Pelicans badly need the new additions to gel quickly and for Davis to return to full strength and unleash holy Brow on the rest of the league.
Also, keep an eye on Terrence Jones. He suffered injuries and was a bit too inconsistent to earn the coaches’ trust in Houston, but if he can develop his stretch-four game he’ll be a perfect fit next to the Brow.
How good will the Jazz defense be?
If you’re looking for the team ready to make the biggest leap this season, look no further than Utah. The Jazz, after years of internal growth and smart signings, are ready to challenge for a top-4 seed in the Western Conference. That might sound absurd for a team that missed the playoffs last year, but this team is deep, has plenty of veterans and could be really, really good on defense. A lineup with George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert could smother opposing offenses with athleticism and wingspan and there’s plenty of intriguing bench options- Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Trey Lyles, Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw- for this team to have a very successful season.
Will Bradley Beal live up to his contract?
Let’s play a quick game of who is the higher-paid player: John Wall or Bradley Beal? I know their contracts were signed under wildly different circumstances and it’s not really fair to compare them, but woof. Beal is set to make six million more than Wall this year in one of the weirder situations in the league. Wall is bona fide superstar, but he definitely needs some help. Beal has shown flashes but his early career has been mired by injury and he’s never reached his potential. If he doesn’t come close to it this season the rumors of bad blood between him and Wall will only intensify- and the Wizards will miss the playoffs again.
Bring on the opening tip.