The NBA is back! In a couple of hours, the league will tip off its 71st season. We take a look at all intriguing story lines for another exciting year of NBA basketball
TRILOGY ALREADY SET?
Let’s start with the obvious — how good will the Golden State Warriors be this season? Fresh off becoming the best team in NBA history to blow a 3–1 lead in the Finals, the Warriors went on to sign former league MVP Kevin Durant. It’s an unprecedented move in league history which didn’t sit well with the rest of the NBA. Losing key players Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, and Leandro Barbosa to name a few meant that Golden State sacrificed depth that made them champions 2 seasons ago.
But when you still have the best shooting backcourt in history (and human cheat code) in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the ninja-kicking-no-suspending Draymond Green, veteran Andre Iguodala and a former MVP in your lineup, you’ll take your chances.
The new look contenders won’t prioritize setting records anymore. It’s about changing the landscape of the league one championship ring at a time.
Barring any injuries or major trades made by his Eastern Conference rivals, LeBron James will be well on his way to his 7th straight Finals appearance and 8th overall.
Think about that for a second.
Done? Ok, going back.
LeBron is entering his 14th NBA season and it’s the 1st time in his career that he will be entering the new year of the NBA with nothing to prove.
Win a ring for Cleveland to end a 52-year championship drought? Done.
Prove he’s still the best player in the world by beating the team that had the best regular season record of all-time? Also done.
He may have to repeat to finally put his harshest critics to rest, but remember that all pressure is on the new-look Warriors. LeBron has the free pass to coast through this season while getting ready for another rematch with the Warriors to complete their epic trilogy.
Russell Westbrook will be the odds-on favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. After losing KD in the offseason, OKC GM Sam Presti handed the keys to Westbrook by resigning him to a please don’t go anywhere3-year $85 mil extension which buys them enough time to build a contending team around the dynamic point guard.
Russell and Durant always seemed to have a very complex relationship. It wasn’t as tumultuous as Kobe and Shaq’s but it wasn’t fun as Steph and Klay’s either. In the 48 games sans Durant, Westbrook averaged 30.5 points, 9.2 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per game. Now as the lone alpha of the Thunder, it’s exciting to see what Westbrook can do with the ball in his hands.
The Houston Rockets’ James Harden could be this year’s dark horse contender for the award with the help of new coach Mike D’Antoni. There’s no better player built to play D’Antoni’s run-and-gun system than James, who will also be playing the point for the foreseeable future. New acquisitions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, IF healthy (that’s a big if, mind you), will provide enough spacing and scoring as the Rockets look to surprise everyone by not playing defense for all of the 48 minutes.
Better offense triumphs better defense, right? Laugh all you want but that didn’t stop Steve Nash from winning the MVP back-to-back with the Phoenix Suns under, you guess it, Mike D’Antoni.
Indiana’s Paul George is another player looking for an-MVP worthy season. Behind the Cavaliers and the Celtics, the 3rd to 8th seed are up for grabs. If George can sustain his hot start (which he failed to do so last season), the Pacers could be one of the scary teams come Playoff time.
And as usual, don’t sleep on San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi could realistically be the first player in NBA history to win both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
QUESTION: Which of the following transactions have mostly improved their team overall for the upcoming season?
A) The Atlanta Hawks replacing Al Horford and Jeff Teague with Dwight Howard (3 years, $70M) and Dennis Schröder.
B) The Memphis Grizzlies investing almost a quarter of a billion on Mike Conley (5 years, $153M ) and Chandler Parsons (4 years, $94M).
C) The Portland Trailblazers paying almost $250M to retain Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless, and to acquire both Festus Ezeli and Evan Turner.
D) The Dallas Mavericks trading for Andrew Bogut and signing Harrison Barnes to a max contract (4 years, $94M).
E) The Washington Wizards resigning Bradley Beal to a max contract (5 years, $128M)
ANSWER: Letter F (which was hidden in invisible ink), none of the above.
For the nth time, what do we make of the Atlanta Hawks? Dwight Howard has been a shell of himself since his first season with the Rockets. The league is becoming more perimeter oriented and the need for a center who demands the ball in the post is close to gone.
Dennis Schröder has the making of a Rajon Rondo-type guard with his long wingspan and the ability to push the ball, but the lack of a consistent jump shot (as I said, Rondo-type guard) shrinks the floor more for the Hawks who need all the space they can get for Korver and Millsap.
The Grizzlies weren’t going to let Conley go without a fight but it cost them a fortune to keep a non-All Star and acquire an oft-injured one with Parsons. It’s important to note that Marc Gasol is also recovering from a foot injury that ended his season last year. New coach David Fizdale plans to play an uptempo style (RIP grit and grind) but he needs every able body to play first.
Portland has two solid foundations in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum but their recent signings have been questionable, to say the least. Evan Turner cashed in after coming off a successful career revival with the Boston Celtics but how does he fit in the starting lineup with the team already having two playmakers on the court?
Festus Ezeli is still a raw player (see NBA Finals Game 7). And what do we make of Crabbe and Harkless? It’s as if the Trailblazers wanted to grow up so quick after putting up a fight against the Curry-less-than-100% Warriors in the 2nd round of last year’s playoffs.
The Mavs are known to give out crazy contracts (see Wesley Matthews) but they weren’t crazy enough to resign Parsons to a max. They were half crazy to sign Harrison Barnes though. Barnes was coming off the worst stretch of games in his career during the NBA Finals (he basically LeBron’d 2011 in that series) and yet somehow, he found himself earning $94M for the next 4 years.
Andrew Bogut provides a strong defensive end to make up for Nowitzki’s limitations, but it won’t be enough to make the most out of Dirk’s remaining years in the NBA. That’s just sad.
Here’s what I imagined how John Wall reacted when the Washington Wizards resigned teammate Bradley Beal to a 5-year $128M contract:
I feel you, John. Bradley Beal has had a horrible injury history. So horrible in fact, Derrick Rose tore his ACL again just by reading it.
Beal is only 23, hasn’t reached his full capabilities as a player, and is the perfect complement to Wall’s drive and kick, slashing style. But the kid has missed 25% of the total games played due to various injuries, hasn’t shown any other skill aside from shooting the ball, and again hasn’t been healthy to prove to be the perfect complement to Wall.
To make things worst, tensions between the two stars have been circulating around the league with John Wall reportedly not happy that his unhealthy teammate is earning more than him. Money is indeed the root of all evil.
TIME TO SHINE
The injury to Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons brings both good and bad news to everyone.
Bad news? We may have to wait between 3 months (if the doctors clear him) to a year (if his agent Rich Paul clears him) before we get to see him back on the court. I was able to watch him play in the Vegas Summer League and let me tell you: Simmons is the real deal. A combination of both Lamar Odom and LeBron James, Simmons’ vision is off the charts and made highlight plays after highlights plays with his passing alone. Here’s hoping that his foot injury is just a minor bump on the road for a long career.
The good news? The Rookie of the Year award is up for grabs and everyone has a chance to win it.
The Lakers’ Brandon Ingram provides hope for a struggling franchise with his unique skill set that has everyone thinking Durant 2.0 (hopefully minus the trait of leaving a team for a much stronger one).
The Timberwolves’ Kris Dunn is the perfect player under the Tom Thibodeau system, but can he get enough opportunity to showcase his skills with Ricky Rubio still in the lineup and having to play third or fourth fiddle to Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach Lavine?
Buddy Hield could get to a hot start with the New Orleans Pelicans, who are missing Tyreke Evans (injury) and Jrue Holiday (family) to start their season.
And don’t forget the Philadelphia 76ers duo of Joel “The Process” Embiid (by far, the best nickname in the NBA) and Dario “The Croatian Ben Simmons”Saric (by far, the worst nickname in the NBA).
FAMILIAR FACES IN UNFAMILIAR PLACES
We never thought we’d see Dwyane Wade in another uniform, and yet here he is — in a uniform with almost the same colors as his last team. Miami’s greatest player in franchise history found himself back home in Illinois after being denied a hefty yet rightful extension from slick GM Pat Riley. Far from being a top 10 player now, Wade will look to help quickly rebuild Chicago’s identity and challenge (or try to challenge) the Cavs in the East.
Speaking of Chicago, former Most Valuable Player turned Most Valuable Patient Derrick Rose looks to restart his career in the bright lights of New York. After missing time in the past training camps due to nagging injuries, Rose vowed to have no distractions whatsoever heading into the season and focusing only on the game he loves, before missing said training camp due to an ongoing civil trial case with his ex-girlfriend for sexual abuse.
Here’s a good bet to play with your friends — which attire will Rose appear more this season: street clothes or in basketball uniform?
Al Horford and the Boston Celtics seem like the perfect fit for each other and for good reasons. Horford gives them a solid low post option and can even space the floor while being a secondary playmaker to Isaiah Thomas. Though already 30 years old, it’s exciting to see what Horford, Brad Stevens, and the Celtics can achieve in the years to come.
LEGENDS AND LEGACIES
This is the first year since 1994 where we won’t see Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant on the floor at any point this season. And that’s just sad. With a combined 11 rings between the three, these legends will forever be missed but will make one heck of a Hall of Fame class in 2021.
Minus Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs still have the talent and the makeup of a championship team. Gregg Popovich will continue to get the best out of his players and having Pau Gasol to replace Timmy D is not a bad thing. Lamarcus Aldrige is given a bigger responsibility on the offensive end while Kawhi is still a matchup nightmare on the defensive end.
If all goes well, they could face the Warriors in an epic Western Conference Finals series. Death, taxes, and Spurs winning 50 games are always certain to happen.
Minus Garnett, the Minnesota Timberwolves are fast becoming the league’s rising team with the arrival of Tom Thibodeau. Karl-Anthony Towns is becoming what Anthony Davis is supposed to be without the injuries. Wiggins is in his 3rd year when most of the league’s young stars finally become a stud. Lavine is becoming a solid scoring threat and Kris Dunn is an exciting prospect. The last time they were in the Playoffs, KG was still in uniform.
That’s about to change very very soon.
Minus Kobe, the Los Angeles Lakers’ future is a bit murkier compared to the two. President and owner Jim Buss promised that the team will be contending in 3 years. That was 2 years ago. This is year 3 and unless Timofey Mozgov plays like Shaq and Luol Deng is actually afro Kobe in disguise, they’ll miss the playoffs for the 5th straight season. They do have the pieces to contend sooner or later.
D’Angelo Russell now has the backing of new head coach Luke Walton to handle the offense. Julius Randle can be better than Draymond Green, according to Draymond Green. Jordan Clarkson has shown flashes but just needs consistency. And once Brandon Ingram bulks up and finds his groove, the Lakers can contend. It has been a long process which is something the Los Angeles faithful hasn’t been accustomed to.
CHANGE OF SCENERY
The season hasn’t started yet the trade rumors have been in midseason form. My favorite hypothetical trade that I’ve read so far: Oklahoma’s Cameron Payne for Sacramento’s Rudy Gay (it’s possible).
Payne has been averaging 6 dabs and 2 juju on that beat dance steps per game since arriving in OKC as a lottery pick but has never been able to showcase his skills due to the limited touches that come as back up to Westbrook.
Rudy Gay has had enough of what the heck Sacramento is trying to do with their team. He has made it clear that he will not exercise his player option nor resign with the team at the end of the season. Imagine a Westbrook-Oladipo-Gay-Kanter-Adams. That would have been something else. Talks abruptly ended when Payne broke his foot.
How about a swap between Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio and Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert? The Wolves have somewhat been quiet with regards to Rubio’s availability but it’s no secret that time is running out for the Spaniard ever since Kris Dunn was drafted.
Lo and behold, the Cavaliers are looking for backup point guard behind Kyrie Irving. Much like ‘Sotta, Cleveland isn’t aggressively looking to move their athletic guard, but a player like Rubio’s caliber would surely start a discussion between the two.
Of course, it wouldn’t be trade rumors if we didn’t involve either the Boston Celtics or DeMarcus Cousins!
Should the 76ers finally solve their logjam in their frontcourt by trading Nerlens Noel to the Celtics for a guard to solve their logjam in their backcourt?It’s also possible.
Embiid, Okafor, Saric, and Ryan Holmes are just some of the players on the Sixers roster who will have to battle it out with Nerlens for minutes in the frontcourt. Marcus Smart is also in a very similar predicament with the Celtics who have Isaiah Thomas, Bradley, Rozier, and James Young. Noel provides the Celtics with a perfect defensive partner for Horford, while Smart secures the guard spot for Philadelphia.
And how about we finally free Boogie Cousins from Sacramento?
Washington looks like a solid place to start all over as he reunites with UK teammate John Wall. If the Aldridge-is-unhappy rumors are indeed true, San Antonio can send him to a place where he can be more unhappy in Sacramento. Los Angeles isn’t quite bad. Heck, we can even send him inBrooklyn!
Just free DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins please.
Don’t sleep on the Utah Jazz now that they have figured it out. Gordon Hayward will miss the first couple of weeks due to an injury (dislocated finger) but the Jazz were one of the more impressive teams post-All Star break last year. They narrowly missed the playoffs after losing tight contests against San Antonio and Clippers.
It took an injury before the Suns realized what they had in Devin Booker. As part of Calipari’s loaded Kentucky team headlined by KAT, Booker was overshadowed by his peers. But as soon as Devin got the opportunity, oh boy, he made the most out of it.
With no Kobe and Byron Scott, D’Angelo Russell finally has the ball in his hands for his sophomore year with the Lakers. The motion offense of the Warriors that has been part of the Lakers playbook will give the young point guard enough opportunities to create shots for others and himself ala Curry.
The NBA’s unicorn Kristaps Porzingis is ready for an encore performance in the Garden. The stakes are a little bit higher now with the acquisition of Rose and Noah to help New York return to the Playoffs but Porzingod should be ready as we start the season.
And last but certainly not the least
Stephen Curry is still the reigning back-to-back and first unanimous MVP in league history. And he makes the long regular season worthwhile. Love him or hate him, Curry is the most fun player to watch in the NBA (not so much fun in the NBA Finals). If you need more proof, watch this.
– David Gamboa