100 questions that will determine the NBA season
By Mike Prada
Illustrations by Lindsay Mound
The NBA lost the plot last season. The show became more important than the game, to the point where the very superstars that created the social media frenzy supposedly powering interest in the league balked when interest in their futures inevitably overshadowed their actual work product. It was uncomfortable watching Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and many others come to the same realization Truman Burbank did when he realized his entire life was being broadcasted to billions of consumers and he had little choice but to play along.
That better not happen again this year. A whirlwind free agency left the title chase wide open and created an on-court product that even the most inept salesperson should have no trouble promoting. If the NBA can’t find a way to make actual basketball compelling to the masses this year, we have a serious problem. There’s no superstar free agent drama on the horizon to distract us, nor is there any dominant-yet-stale superteam there to turn the regular season into something between a complete waste of time and a weighty existential dilemma. This season should be all about the basketball, and that’s ultimately why we devote so much of our time to following this silly league.
In that spirit, I’ve crafted 100 burning basketball questions that will decide the league’s trajectory this season. You won’t see anything about trade targets on this list, and this is also a Giannis Antetokunmpo speculation-free zone. Instead, these are 100 questions that directly pertain to what happens on the actual basketball court. I can’t wait to find out the answers.
Will we get the best offense and worst defense ever in the same season again?
Two teams made history last season on opposite ends of the offense/defense spectrum. The Golden State Warriors had the most efficient regular-season offense since Basketball Reference began tracking the stat in 1973-74, while the Cleveland Cavaliers shattered the previous mark for defensive futility. With the three-point revolution showing no sign of slowing down, will those record marks even last a full year? My guess: the offensive mark stays intact, but the defensive one falls again. Between the Cavaliers, Wizards, Hawks, Suns, Knicks, and Grizzlies, someone will do worse.
How many more rebounds will Steven Adams get without Russell Westbrook stealing them?
My man’s gonna win the rebound title this year. Mark it down.
Is Brandon Clarke for real, or just a Summer League sensation?
The rookie from Gonzaga looked like the steal of this draft class when he fell to the Grizzlies at No. 21 overall. He really looked like the steal of this draft class when he dominated Summer League and led the Grizzlies to the title. The more time we see him and Jaren Jackson Jr. together in Memphis’ frontcourt, the better. Hopefully he doesn’t prove to be too slow laterally to check speedy power forwards.
Are there any winners in the Dennis Smith Jr.-Frank Ntilikina Knicks point guard battle?
It’s amusing that these two flawed point guard prospects picked right after each other in the 2017 NBA Draft are now battling it out on the same woeful team. Smith’s the incumbent after receiving more NBA opportunities in his two seasons, but Ntilikina is coming on strong after a brilliant FIBA World Cup for France. If either is to be a front-line NBA starter, it has to happen this season, likely at the expense of the other. Too bad the Knicks can’t combine their attributes.
How sad is the Pistons’ wing rotation?
Bless Dwane Casey if he’s able to cobble together 96 quality minutes per game from some combination of Tony Snell, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway, Big 3 star Joe Johnson, and rookie Sekou Doumboya. Kennard has some offensive pop and Brown seems like a pain in the ass to play against, but that’s a wretched lot for a hopeful playoff team. Casey will need to get creative.
Does Clint Capela have any more room to grow?
The six-game series loss to the Warriors exposed Capela’s offensive limitations and suggested Houston’s defense is better off when using P.J. Tucker at center in key spots. The 25-year-old Capela has stagnated as Houston veered more toward isolations and switching rather than pick-and-roll and more traditional drop defensive alignments. Is there room for his game to grow, or is this just the player he now is for good? Perhaps adding Russell Westbrook will provide Capela’s rim-rolling ability more room to shine.
Can teams still build an offense around Kevin Love’s skill set?
The now-absurd optimism Cleveland had after losing LeBron James again was built on the premise that we’d see the real Kevin Love again. The hope was that he could duplicate his early-career success in Minnesota, when the entire offensive system was built around his shooting, screening, and playmaking. Alas, that never came to pass. Love missed most of the season due to toe surgery and wasn’t exactly Mr. Efficient when he did suit up. The unfortunate reality is that he’s probably entered a new stage of his career.
Will Markelle Fultz do anything this year?
He better, because Orlando has cleared the runway for him to play. Starter D.J. Augustin is due for a regression after a career year at 31, and last year’s backup Michael Carter-Williams put on weight in preparation for being used as more of a wing player. How can you not be fascinated by the possibility of Fultz playing meaningful basketball?
Will Lauri Markkanen develop any shadow impact from the threat of his shooting?
The third-year Finnish big man has one of the sweetest strokes in the league, but has only been an average perimeter shooter in his first two years in the league. That must change this season for Chicago to maximize its offensive potential. If the mere possibility of an open Markkanen on a pick-and-pop scrambles defenses, that’ll make life easier for the rest of Chicago’s nice young core.
How much will Michael Porter Jr. play this season?
The Nuggets took the consensus top-five high school recruit at the back end of the 2018 lottery knowing he’d take a redshirt year to recover from back surgery. Now, they seem determined to wedge him into one of the league’s most crowded wing rotations. It’ll be fun seeing if Porter can mold his game to fit Denver’s fragile ecosystem while still showcasing his immense talent.
How many shots will Terry Rozier take?
Rozier spent his final season in Boston bristling at his reduced role before punching his ticket out of town with memorable ESPN morning show appearances. He then joined a team that lost its only two double-digit shot attempters and whose four other projected starters posted four of the 55 lowest usage rates among players who logged at least 20 minutes a game last year. You do the math.
Can O.G. Anunoby remind Raptors fans what they missed last year?
In retrospect, it’s amazing Toronto won the title while getting very little from a hyper-athletic 21-year-old combo forward who started 62 games as a rookie. At the time, it was a coup that Masai Ujiri successfully kept Anunoby out of the Kawhi Leonard trade. Big things were expected of him. Instead, injury and personal tragedy combined to make last year a lost season, while fellow youngster Pascal Siakam emerged as Toronto’s new franchise player. With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gone, the Raptors need Anunoby to reclaim his place as part of their next generation.
Can Steve Clifford keep hiding Nikoka Vucevic on defense with his well-designed system?
The Magic owe their late-season surge to a textbook Steve Clifford formula. From Feb. 1 on, Orlando allowed the fewest points per possession in the NBA, using precise positioning, regimented discipline, and their rangy forwards to limit easy shots and prevent long defensive rotations. That approach successfully minimized center Nikola Vucevic’s lack of mobility in the middle, allowing him to dominate offensively without giving his points back on the other end. But that soft underbelly will always exist, and Clifford’s attempts to hide the similarly slow Al Jeferson in Charlotte were mixed after a successful first season.
Is John Collins a center or power forward?
The third-year Hawks big man quietly posted a 63 percent true shooting mark last year, hitting 70 percent of his shots at the rim and flashing the broad strokes of an effective three-pointer. He did that as a power forward, with 97 percent of his minutes coming alongside either Dewayne Dedmon or Alex Len last season. Both bigs spaced the floor on one end for Collins’ rim-rolling and handled the necessary rim protection that Collins struggles to provide. But in letting Dedmon walk to Sacramento and trading significant assets to draft combo forward DeAndre Hunter, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk is betting that Collins’ future is at center, despite last season’s success. The Hawks have a nice young core, but their long-term title upside depends on Collins making the transition effectively.
Can Luke Walton add a half-court offense to the Kings without compromising their transition game?
The Kings were one of the league’s most delightful surprises last year, thanks to a frantic transition game that left opponents’ heads spinning. But they ultimately fell short of a playoff berth, in large part because their half-court offense ranked just 22nd in the league, according to Cleaning The Glass. To take the next step, the Kings need new coach Luke Walton to provide some useful structure without taking away from their bread-and-butter. Adding Dewayne Dedmon may prove to be an underrated move: the 38-percent three-point shooting center should give De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley more breathing room than they had last season.
Are the Suns serious about playing DeAndre Ayton at power forward?
The 2018 No. 1 pick raised some eyebrows when he championed a potential return to his “born-and-raised position” this season. There’s some sense to a positional change for certain stretches: new coach Monty Williams deployed a young Anthony Davis in a similar way in New Orleans, and incoming veteran center Aron Baynes formed a successful two-big defensive tandem with Al Horford in Boston. At the same time, it’ll be a lot harder for Ayton to find room to operate on offense this season if he’s playing with another big man and notorious non-shooter Ricky Rubio at point guard. Phoenix isn’t expected to do much this season, but they need Ayton to grow into a franchise player worthy of a No. 1 overall selection. Is this really what’s best for his development?
Can the Spurs’ bench still dominate opposing second units?
Was the Spurs’ modest success last year due to the better-than-expected on-cout fit of mid-range snipers LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan? Not according to lineup data. The Spurs outscored opponents by 44 points in 2,242 minutes with both in the game and just 11 points in 892 minutes with one of the two in the game, but went +83 in the 828 minutes with neither star on the floor. Classic Spurs. Can Gregg Popovich’s team continue to dominate the minutes other teams punt?
What will Jerami Grant do to Denver’s rotation?
A supersized wing with dynamic defensive ability and an improving offensive game, Grant was a clever pick-up by Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly. Few role players provide more Oh Shit moments, and even fewer can reasonably defend small forwards all the way up to centers. But for Grant to be the Swiss Army Knife the Nuggets desperately need, he’ll need to syphon minutes off backup center Mason Plumlee, a favorite of coach Mike Malone. Will Malone yield to the modern game and deploy Grant as the backup to both center Nikola Jokic and power forward Paul Millsap, or will he continue to rely on Plumlee as a crutch?
How do the Nets find enough minutes for Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Joe Harris?
Brooklyn’s rash of in-season injuries last year wasn’t ideal, but one silver lining was that they allowed their four promising young guards to each get enough minutes to shine. LeVert was on fire to start the year, but in his absence, D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star, Dinwiddie embraced his East Coast Lou Williams role, and Harris seized the pindown sharpshooting throne from J.J. Redick. Kyrie Irving is an obvious talent upgrade over Russell, but Nets coach Kenny Atkinson retains the same playing time dilemma this season. How will he ensure all four guards get enough game time and touches to be their best selves? Given the gaping hole at the 4 that Kevin Durant won’t fill until next season, might we even see the four guards play together sometimes.
Can Justise Winslow play point guard next to Jimmy Butler?
The former lottery pick got a new lease on life when Goran Dragic’s December injury forced the Heat to think outside the box. Down a series of ball-handlers, Erik Spoelstra moved Winslow to point guard, where his downhill aggression, size, and court sense became assets rather than liabilities. Finally, it seemed like Miami found a way to maximize the potential the Duke product showed early in his career while masking his shaky perimeter shooting. But with Jimmy Butler arriving to cannibalize the rock and Dragic (and Dion Waiters) now healthy again, I fear Point Justise is no more. If that’s the case, the Heat better hope Winslow’s 37.5 percent three-point shooting on four attempts per game is sustainable in a different role.
How interesting is the Timberwolves’ wing rotation?
Don’t look now, but Minnesota has quietly put together an envious group of young swingmen. Robert Covington is the 3-and-D platonic ideal when healthy, and second-year man Josh Okogie often looked like a RoCo in training last season. Toss in rookie Jarrett Culver, high-flying former Blazer Jake Layman, and gritty former Net Treveon Graham, and Ryan Saunders has some nifty options to hit shots around Karl-Anthony Towns on one end and cover for his defensive limitations on the other.
(There’s also Andrew Wiggins.)
How do the Pacers score before Victor Oladipo returns?
Indiana struggled to generate offense after Oladipo went down with a torn quad last January, and that was with stand-in first option Bojan Bogdanovic, reliable marksman Darren Collison, and the underrated Thaddeus Young occupying three starting spots. If Malcolm Brogdon has more shot-creation sauce than he showed in Milwaukee, and if the combination of Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren can make up for Bogdanovic’s departure, Indiana might be able to hold the line until Oladipo returns. If not, those games before Oladipo returns will be a real chore.
Who is the biggest Clipper on the floor in crunch time?
Put Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in permanent marker. Use a ballpoint pen to write in Lou Williams, and add Patrick Beverley’s name in pencil just in case Landry Shamet is going off. Looks pretty good, but you wouldn’t want any of those guys protecting the rim or banging for tough rebounds. That means one player from the group of Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, and Maurice Harkless needs to emerge as that fifth finisher.
Will Jim Boylen let the Bulls run?
Boylen isn’t quite the buffon his substitute high-school-gym-teacher aesthetic suggests, but he has a tendency to pump the breaks instead of letting his team play freely. Stephen Noh of The Athletic uncovered a fascinating stat: the Bulls were 10-17 when they had an above-average number of transition possessions and 12-43 when they didn’t last year. With quality veterans Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter (for a full season), and Thaddeus Young joining a promising young core featuring Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and rookie Coby White, the Bulls have the personnel to fly up and down the court. The question is whether Boylen will let them.
Can Trae Young defend at all?
Young’s slick passing and daring shooting range made him and the Hawks a League Pass favorite last year. He should pick up right where he left off on that front, and maybe that’s fine for now considering Atlanta’s rebuilding trajectory. But at some point, he needs to give some effort defensively to make up for his slender frame. Atlanta surrendered nearly 115 points per 100 possessions when Young was on the floor last year. That can’t happen again.
What will Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic do for an encore?
De’Aaron Fox received most of the press for Sacramento’s fun season, but these two snipers were the hidden delights in the Kings’ run-and-shoot style. Hield, the centerpiece of the DeMarcus Cousins deal, was the best high-volume perimeter shooter in the NBA last season outside of Stephen Curry. Bogdanovic, acquired in a draft-day trade with Phoenix for the No. 8 pick, followed up a promising rookie season with an even better sophomore campaign off the bench. Selfishly, I want the Kings would play the two together on the wing from the jump because that’s when they are most fun to watch. Unfortunately, such lineups are far too deficient defensively, which is why Sacramento has made several boring-yet-sensible moves to limit the minutes Hield and Bogdanovic play together. There’s a world in which both threaten to be All-Stars, but it won’t happen when they’re on the same team.
How do the Heat space the floor?
Miami was terribly short on spot-up shooting last season, and it’s not clear that adding Jimmy Butler is the ideal solution. Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard are intriguing shooting bigs, and the healthy returns of Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic should provide secondary playmaking Miami lacked last season. But if Justise Winslow’s modest three-point improvement from last year doesn’t progress, Spoelstra will need to get really creative to cobble together a decent offense around his new star. (Keep an eye on rookie Tyler Herro, who impressed in Summer League and preseason).
How will Kenny Atkinson coach a more glamorous roster?
As the old adage goes, it’s a lot easier to be the hunter than the hunted. Over his Nets tenure, Atkinson has demonstrated he’s much more than a nice player development coach. He was among the earliest adopters of zone defense, and hasn’t been afraid to deploy unconventionally small lineups or guerilla tactics to give his team extra edges. But that kind of coaching is far easier to do with a scrappy bunch of underdogs willing to try stuff out. Will that same spirit resonate with Atkinson’s more established roster of stars?
How much pick-and-roll will Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. run right away?
This is a tell for how the Grizzlies plan to develop their two young franchise cornerstones. Jackson projects as a beast of a modern big man, but center Jonas Valanciunas was Memphis’ most effective offensive player after coming over from Toronto in midseason. Morant, meanwhile, has slick vision and hops, but needs to prove he can make off-the-dribble threes to maximize those gifts. Cultivating the long-term partnership between Morant and Jackson should be the Grizzlies’ top goal, but it may not be prudent to throw both to the wolves right away given the offensive reliability of Valanciunas, Jackson’s spot-up shooting ability, and Morant’s inevitable growing pains.
What’s the next evolution of Atlanta’s Double Drag set?
As Nekias Duncan explained for us last year, the foundation of Trae Young’s second-half improvement was an alignment known as “Double Drag.” That’s when two bigs screen set a staggered ball screen for Young 30-plus feet from the hoop, then dart in opposite directions. Young’s deep shooting and slick passing made this a major challenge for teams playing out the string last year, but now everyone knows it’s coming. How will they adjust, and how will Young and the Hawks adjust to those adjustments? These are the schematic cat-and-mouse games I live for.
Can Rick Carlisle still elevate a shaky supporting cast to more than the sum of its parts?
The Mavericks’ longtime head coach earned his wizard reputation for conjuring playoff teams from a series of idiosyncratic rosters in the half decade after management broke up the 2011 title team. Those years gave him incredible job security even as Dallas accepted it needed to rebuild once Dirk Nowitzki finally aged. But after three straight lottery seasons, it’s fair to wonder if Carlisle’s controlling style is out of touch with the game’s speed revolution. Dallas’ roster around Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis features no true point guard, one decent defensive wing who can’t shoot, and a trio of average-at-best centers flanking Porzingis up front. They’re betting that Carlisle can still cook up a tasty basketball dish from unconventional ingredients like he did in the past.
How will the Knicks’ many free agent signings interact with the team’s young core?
After whiffing on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (and apologizing to their fans for doing so), the Knicks resisted the urge to fatten their books up with massive long-term contracts. That kind of decision usually signals a slower rebuilding process and a commitment to youth, which the Knicks have in the form of R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., and/or Frank Ntilikina. But how is that youth supposed to develop when competing for shots, minutes, and space with a legion of veteran short-term signings that includes (deep breath) Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, and Bobby Portis?
Can Aaron Gordon make another leap?
We’re just going to have to live with the Magic’s insistence on playing Gordon as a ball-handling small forward instead of the Draymond Green-like destroyer he seemed poised to become when he was younger. That said, Gordon quietly improved his all-around floor game last year, improving to 35 percent from downtown while upping his assist rate and bullying smaller wings inside. It’ll only take further incremental improvements in both areas for Gordon to push the All-Star team and emerge as Orlando’s top perimeter initiator. He’s still just 24, amazingly.
Is Denver’s defense actually good, or did they just get lucky?
Denver finally got serious on defense last year, posting the league’s 10th-best mark and flirting with even better early in the season. Coach Mike Malone made the system more aggressive, asking bigs like Nikola Jokic to slide to the level of ball screens instead of hanging back in the lane.
But in retrospect, Denver might’ve just been lucky. As Michael Pina noted, Denver’s opponents shot just 33.4 percent on three-pointers last season, the best mark in the league – and a sharp contrast to the three straight bottom-five finishes in years prior. In fact, Denver allowed more threes classified as “wide open” by NBA.com last year than they did in 2017-18, but got away with it because teams shot just 31.9 percent on those.
Tracking data is notoriously unreliable, and it’s possible there’s an intangible effect that Denver’s more aggressive ball pressure put on shooters that were technically “wide open,” but three-point percentage defense typically doesn’t hold up year over year. The Nuggets better hope they’re the exception to the rule.
Will Hassan Whiteside embrace his role in Portland?
If you accept the premise that Portland needed a short-term solution at center to account for Jusuf Nurkic’s injury, the acquisition of Whiteside without surrendering any meaningful short- or long-term pieces makes sense. But even if Whiteside fits in culturally – which is not a given no matter how good Damian Lillard’s leadership is – he hasn’t exactly been willing or able to play the way Nurkic does to juice up the Blazers’ offense. Nurkic is a crafty dribble-handoff operator that sets mean screens and delivers pinpoint passes in the short roll. Whiteside has historically wanted to shoot jumpers and post up whenever his coaches have begged him to play more like Nurkic. Asking him to grease the wheels of Portland’s offense with quick decisions and plays that don’t always show up in the box score is asking a hell of a lot.
Can Rudy Gobert clean everything up for the Jazz defensively?
Disgusted by endless bricked open threes for two playoffs running, the Jazz conducted an offseason makeover, jettisoning their trademark size and interior toughness for more shooting and playmaking. Now, it’s on Rudy Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, to ensure the Jazz gain more than they’ve lost by that trade-off. I’m confident his rim protection will cover a multitude of defensive sins on the perimeter, but I fear it’s asking too much to also gobble up the rebounds Bojan Bogdanovic and Jeff Green inevitably won’t snag.
Are the Magic putting too much faith in Jonathan Isaac?
The Magic are really high on Isaac, and you can understand why. His combination of length, agility, and intelligence on defense is already terrifying, and it’s encouraging that he locked down a starting spot in just his second NBA season. The next step is to become more of a threat offensively. His perimeter shot isn’t good enough to scare teams yet, and his athleticism on basket cuts and offensive rebounds has mostly gone to waste in Steve Clifford’s conservative system. Isaac will never be a primary scorer, but the Magic need his juice to spice up their attack. It’ll be a shame if this is the second straight year his main offensive contribution is to convert a bunch of lightly-contested threes at a sub-35 percent rate.
Is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander actually good, or just a nice prospect?
The Clippers really didn’t want to trade Gilgeous-Alexander; The Athletic reports they were “heartbroken” that they needed to part with him to land the biggest free agent double swoop since The Decision. Few young prospects produce such glowing reviews from insiders and outsiders alike. He’s certainly First-Team All Eye Test material. But that’s not the same thing as saying he’s a star in waiting that’ll front Oklahoma City’s rebuilding project. He may be poised and crafty, but he also was a reluctant shooter and poor finisher at the hoop last year. Worse, he’ll be playing out of position as long as the Thunder have Chris Paul on the roster. Is Gilgeous-Alexander’s upside closer to Eric Bledsoe’s or Kyle Lowry’s?
Can Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis play together?
After two years of punting on the inevitable, the Pacers finally committed to starting their 23-year-old frontcourt duo together even though they’re both modern centers. Lineups featuring both last season were significantly worse offensively than lineups featuring just one, which makes sense because both do their best work around the paint. Early signs suggest Turner, a 39 percent shooter from distance last year, will be the one to hang on the perimeter more often while Sabonis does his thing inside. But Turner’s release is slow and his decision-making against speedy closeout artists is suspect at best, so teams will help off him to bug Sabonis. The Pacers need to make this pairing viable, because Turner is beginning a four-year, $72 million rookie extension and Sabonis should command at least that when (if?) he hits restricted free agency next summer. There’s not much time for experimentation before the small-market Pacers must make a heavy financial commitment.
Can Caris LeVert be his best self next to Kyrie Irving?
LeVert was the Nets’ No. 1 option at the beginning and end of last season, looking like an All-Star in the process. In between, he suffered a devastating leg injury and took a while to regain his confidence playing off D’Angelo Russell rather than as the main ball-handler. The injury is in the past, but the arrival of Kyrie Irving will only further cannibalize LeVert’s on-ball reps. He can’t shoot 27 percent on catch-and-shoot threes again this year, or else he will stagnate the same way Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum did playing with Irving last year.
Can Zach LaVine be a winning player?
Long seen as an empty-calorie, inefficient player, LaVine at least shed the latter designation last season. Jim Boylen’s tough talk may have turned off a lot of Bulls fans, but it certainly helped push LaVine’s game to new heights. Scoring efficiently on a terrible team playing out the string is one thing. Doing it from the jump while contributing more to actual winning is another. The Bulls have enough supplementary offensive talent for LaVine to dial his shaky shot selection back and help in more non-glamorous ways. The question is whether LaVine is capable of doing so.
How much will DeJounte Murray’s return from injury change the Spurs?
Murray was getting rave reviews before tearing his ACL last preseason, and the Spurs aren’t exactly a franchise known for hyperbole. San Antonio badly missed his defense last year, but Murray also presents some offensive challenges, especially if his presence on the floor means less Derrick White. Murray’s infinite wingspan and quick feet more than made up for his shooting limitations in 2017-18, but that was with Kawhi Leonard on the roster instead of DeMar DeRozan. Even Gregg Popovich will have trouble maintaining San Antonio’s successful offense if Murray’s shooting and finishing don’t improve.
How responsible is Devin Booker for the Suns’ recent ineptitude?
The fifth-year Suns guard has become a walking Rorschach Test centered around an unprovable question: is it possible to pile up countless buckets and little else for a trash fire organization without having some culpability for the franchise’s state? On the one hand, Booker scored more efficiently last season while improving as a passer, and damn can he fill it up. On the other hand, his defensive attention to detail remains shameful, and he probably would have benefitted from the camaraderie, coaching, and pressure that comes with playing for Team USA this summer. The Suns still have serious issues, but they at least got Booker a real point guard and an experienced coach that connects well to young talent. This should be the best all-around season of Booker’s career. If it’s not, maybe he really is part of the problem.
How does Jamal Murray become more efficient?
It’s easy to be seduced by those games where Jamal Murray can’t miss. Watching him nail every shot in the book – deep or short, on-balance or off one foot, out of pick-and-roll or coming off screens – is thrilling for Nuggets fans and demoralizing for opponents. But those highs also come with equally memorable lows, as anyone who watched Denver’s playoff run can attest. It’s unrealistic and counterproductive to expect Murray to play like a steely floor general, but the roller coaster ride has to add up to something better than 37 percent from 3, 48 percent from two, and a below-average true shooting percentage for someone who uses a quarter of his team’s possessions. Denver has too much invested in him for those numbers to stagnate.
Can the Blazers’ defensive system persist without its best defensive players?
Tired of seeing its combo forwards brick threes in the playoffs, the Blazers said goodbye to starting forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless and replaced them with weaker defensive players that in theory will make those shots when teams load up on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. In the process, the Blazers are hoping their conservative defensive system can cover up the defensive quality those two former starters provided. It’s a heck of a bet on themselves, especially with defensive backbone Jusuf Nurkic also out for most of the season. Going from too many combo forwards to zero is a major change.
How does De’Aaron Fox zoom into superstardom?
Fox’s improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 was staggering even by the rookie-to-sophomore standards we expect. He became an expert floor manipulator almost overnight and drove the most relentless fast break in years. He already had all the intangibles a franchise player must possess, and last year showed he had the game, too. But the jump from good to great will be much harder, especially now that he and his team won’t sneak up on anyone. Can he become as effective an orchestrator of a functional half-court offense as he is directing traffic in the open floor?
How long can P.J. Tucker hold up?
Our favorite pancake-loving thicc forward again held Houston’s fragile mix together with his unique brand of perimeter defense, toughness, and corner three-point shooting. Mike D’Antoni routinely calls Tucker one of the best players in the league, which sounds wild until you check Tucker’s on/off numbers. There aren’t any other agile-yet-plump forwards that can check both Kevin Durant and Karl-Anthony Towns, pursue loose balls with unbridled ferocity, and accept an offensive role where they may not touch the ball for several possessions. That’s a blessing when he is available, but a curse the second he’s not. That makes me nervous, because it’s asking a hell of a lot for him to play 3,200 minutes again at age 34.
What is D’Angelo Russell’s best role with the Warriors?
The Warriors signing Russell was so out of left field that many of us (myself included) figured they acquired him to be a trade asset instead of a foundational player. That could still happen, but it certainly hasn’t been the party line coming out of Oakland San Francisco during the preseason. So how will the Warriors, who ran fewer pick-and-rolls as a team than Russell did individually last season, integrate Russell’s skill-set into their post-dynasty reboot? Is Russell now the point guard, or will he be asked to play off ball to facilitate a Stephen Curry resurgence? Will he be used often with Curry, or was he acquired to buttress the non-Curry units that are sure to struggle for offense? Can Golden State possibly defend with a Curry-Russell backcourt? I have so many questions.
What happens to the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell pick-and-roll with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard around?
It speaks to the Clippers’ unique character that their go-to scoring play combined Williams’ slippery bucket-getting with Harrell’s ferocious rim rolls. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe illustrated, defenses could never get a read on the two bench players’ tendencies and were consistently roasted. But the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George now, and one thinks they’ll want to take a few shots here and there in high-leverage situations. Here’s hoping the two new stars make the delightfully unstoppable Williams-Harrell pick-and-roll even better instead of relegating it to the sidelines.
How will Mike Conley’s game change playing alongside Donovan Mitchell?
Conley arrives in Utah as a sage old head that can help Donovan Mitchell grow. He’s battle-tested, stone-cold in clutch situations, and thrives on or off the ball. But before we channel Conley into a less central role, it’s important to remember that he took an individual jump over the past couple years by becoming more selfish, not by suppressing his own offense to help others. His two highest-usage seasons (2016-17 and last year) also so happened to be his two most efficient scoring years, and he’s never played with another ball-handler like Mitchell. Did the Jazz trade for the Conley of the past three years, or the more understated conductor of the Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies? Which of the two helps Mitchell most?
Will we see more elaborate transition offensive and defensive strategies?
Due to a multitude of factors – rule changes, longer-range shooting, and more skilled big men entering the league – transition play has become more important than ever. Rather than dividing games into offense or defense, I tend to split it up by two different stages: run-of-play sequences that includes all defensive rebounds and live-ball turnovers, and dead-ball situations that occur after a basket is made or the ball goes out of bounds. These days, the sign of a great team is one that maximizes and dominates the former, while limiting opponents to the latter.
The strategic ripple effects of this change are intriguing. Coaches have designed sneaky early offense plays for a while now, but will they script even more now? Will offensive rebounding make a comeback in a different form, or will it further decline in the name of getting back? Will leaking out become less a no-no and more a smart strategic play? Can we finally kill the outdated “follow your shot” truism once and for all? I’m looking forward to seeing some real innovation in this space.
How does Kyle Kuzma fit on this Lakers team?
The holdover member of the Lakers’ once-promising young core now finds himself in a tricky predicament. The Kyle Kuzma brand has never been stronger, both as a marketing tool and a means to achieve cache with new teammates. Yet the arrival of Anthony Davis, combined with his insistence on playing power forward instead of center, also boxes Kuzma out of an obvious place in L.A.’s natural pecking order. He’ll need to hit more spot-up threes and learn to play some perimeter defense for Brand Kuzma to achieve staying power, but that’ll be tough when two of the best seven players in the league are on his team and play his position.
Can Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol be top options again?
Playing with Kawhi Leonard was a liberating experience for both of these former All-Stars and now-champions. They didn’t need to carry their team’s offense anymore, freeing them to affect games in other ways with their genius-level intelligence and savvy grit. It’s hard to then go back the other way and take on more of a scoring burden, especially at their advanced ages. Yet Toronto might need both to do so as long as they stay in town, unless Pascal Siakam seizes the throne and some other youngster steps into his void.
Does Chris Paul have anything left?
The Point God’s current plight reminds me of Joe Johnson’s years ago, in that the weight of his massive contract obscures that he’s still pretty good. I understand Paul is a 34-year-old small guard bound to miss a third of the season with nagging ailments, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was his team’s best player in the Western Conference Finals. The six inches of separation he once could create is down to three, and he’s certainly lost a step defensively. Yet I can’t shake this feeling that Paul will relish a Thunder setup that seems tailor made for his grind-it-out, controlling style – at least until they trade him somewhere better.
Can Jank Kiddogel get the Lakers to defend?
Silver Screen and Roll’s Harrison Faigen wrote a deeply reported piece into this topic that’s worth reading. My big question: how do those plans hold up if and when LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis go half speed to preserve their energy for offense?
Will Victor Oladipo be the same after he returns from injury?
It’s easy to forget that the 27-year-old Oladipo has only looked like an All-Star in one of his six NBA seasons. That one season was breathtaking – you could say Oladipo was a top-10 NBA player in 2017-18 and I wouldn’t argue with you – but it was just one season. Nagging injuries were already limiting Oladipo’s effectiveness last season before he suffered that devastating torn quad in January. Considering the way he uses his athleticism and speed to terrorize opponents on both ends, I’m not sure it’s a cinch that he’ll storm back to the court and return to his best self. Can he really duplicate that 2017-18 season if his body is forever compromised?
What can Blake Griffin do for an encore?
Griffin’s 2018-19 season was truly remarkable. Seeing him seamlessly toggle between floor-spacing playmaker and post-up battering ram, often on the same possession, made a sad-sack Pistons team watchable last year. Detroit’s roster was short on talent and didn’t really fit, but Griffin’s versatility somehow lifted it to the playoffs. The only thing harder than performing like he did last year is doing it again.
What does an unleashed Jrue Holiday look like?
In an interview on Sirius XM, new Pelicans general manager David Griffin presented a lofty challenge for the NBA’s Indie star. “I told him ‘You can be the most underrated guard in the league for as long as you want to be, but I’d rather you want to be an MVP,’” Griffin said, suggesting Holiday now has “permission to dominate” with Anthony Davis gone. I feel confident saying Jrue Holiday will not win MVP this year, but Griffin’s point is a sound one. As great as Holiday can be defensively and as a playmaker, he’s also the kind of player content with starring in spurts and taking a backseat to teammates otherwise. What happens if and when those spurts become longer? How good will Jrue Holiday be then?
Is C.J. McCollum more like Playoff CJ or Regular Season CJ?
McCollum’s 2018-19 regular season was a mild disappointment. His scoring efficiency fell off a cliff, mostly because his unhealthy-yet-seductive diet of floaters and long twos finally caught up with him. McCollum’s 2019 playoffs, on the other hand, were a revelation. He confidently fired more off-the-dribble threes, ripped switching defenders to shreds with his silky isolation game, and even took the highest-leverage shots for Portland once Damian Lillard ran out of gas. Maybe McCollum just has the kind of game that works best in the playoffs, when it becomes more difficult to generate good shots. Maybe McCollum just had a well-timed hot streak. Or, maybe McCollum really has leveled up to Lillard’s level, which would certainly raise Portland’s overall ceiling.
How will Brad Stevens use Kemba Walker?
Stevens is about to coach his third pint-sized scoring assassin in Kemba Walker. His first, Isaiah Thomas, thrived due to a highly structured system that masked his size by constantly playing on the move. (Here’s a video breaking it down). His second, Kyrie Irving, preferred more standard pick-and-rolls and isolations, leading to a disjointed approach that left nobody happy. Walker is an interesting hybrid of the two: he’s small and squirmy like IT, but thrived in Charlotte playing something closer the more direct style Irving preferred. Stevens is creative, so I’m curious to see how he gets the most out of Walker without forgetting about his three other notable wing shot creators.
Will the scorned Lakers kiddie core improve simply because they’re no longer on the Lakers?
Josh Hart’s slip-up when he equated the vibe around the Lakers’ organization to LaMelo Ball’s ill-fated Lithuania sojourn will take on a whole new meaning if the Pelicans thrive this season. The implication was that the Lakers’ player development infrastructure was so destructive that L.A. had a lot more than they realized in the three players it gave up to acquire Anthony Davis. For that to be true, Hart, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram need to kill it in an up-tempo New Orleans system that theoretically plays to their strengths. Early signs are promising – especially with Ball’s improved shooting form – but I worry the Pelicans may not have enough perimeter shooting for Ingram to thrive.
What will the 76ers’ half-court offense look like without Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick?
When push came to shove, Philadelphia had two bona fide ways to score last year. One was to put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hands and let him create. The other was to run J.J. Redick off a maze of screens and use the threat of his shooting to open up opportunities for others. Neither of those choices are available to the 76ers this year, and it’ll take a village and some imagination to account for the loss of two excellent perimeter shot creators. Joel Embiid needs to pass better out of double teams. Tobias Harris must tap into some hybrid of Redick’s non-stop motion and Butler’s pick-and-roll craftiness. Al Horford has to take threes more confidently and deliver more hi-lo passes than he has since his Atlanta days. Josh Richardson has to hit open shots. Ben Simmons has to take open shots. If all five players make those marginal improvements, the 76ers will be fine. If not, this grand experiment may get bumpy.
How will the Mavericks use Kristaps Porzingis?
It was hard to see a clear developmental roadmap for Kristaps Porzingis before he got hurt, thanks to the cesspool that was the Knicks. By the time the Mavericks hosts the Washington Wizards in their season opener, it’ll be nearly 21 months since we last saw him in a meaningful NBA game. The Mavericks are staking a hell of a lot on his star potential, but I have no idea how they’ll coax that out of him. I’m prepared for anything at this point.
What can Bradley Beal do for an encore?
The league’s trade machine target du jour is coming off a career season largely wasted in the Wizards’ vortex of mediocrity. But before we assume that he can swing the title race if traded away, I think it’s reasonable to wonder if he can duplicate last season’s success, much less exceed it. On the one hand, Beal is just 26, with a skill set that theoretically fits nicely in tandem with another star. Maybe it’s true that John Wall held him back from showing off his complete game in the past. That said, I worry about his minutes load, combined with his history of stress injuries in the past. It’s a Sissyphean tragedy that he piled up more than 3,000 minutes last season for that directionless Wizards club. If the Wizards do indeed trade him to a contender as many expect, I worry that new team will end up footing the bill for that overuse.
How many buckets in transition will Houston score this year?
How important was Al Horford to holding the Celtics together?
Those of us who appreciate the finer things in basketball have championed the theory that Al Horford was actually the most important Celtics player, not Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas. What better way to test that theory than to replace Irving with a comparable talent, but swap out Horford for empty calorie All-Star Enes Kanter? If Horford’s understated-but-essential skill set really was that important to the Celtics, then we should expect a serious Celtic drop-off this year even with all the perimeter talent they have. But if that doesn’t happen, maybe Marcus Smart was right when he suggested Horford’s perimeter-oriented game hurt Boston more than many of us let on.
Can the Bucks possibly replace Malcolm Brogdon?
During a preseason media session with reporters, Bucks managing partner Marc Lasry characterized re-signing Brogdon as a “luxury” and not an “imperative” this summer. (The use of the word “luxury” is amusing because the question specifically referenced going into the luxury tax to re-sign him. It’s not called the Imperative Tax, Marc!). Lasry’s right to a point: the Bucks already have players on the roster that can handle the ball, shoot from distance, defend three perimeter positions, and attack closeouts from even the longest wings. Paying $23 million a year (times at least two due to luxury tax penalties) sounds untenable when considering the balance sheet. The problem is that those contributions must now be covered by five different players, and you can’t merge them together to create one Malcolm Brogdon. The tighter the Bucks’ margins get, the more Brogdon’s specific aggregation of skill will be missed.
What kind of offense does Doc Rivers run? Do the Clippers need an actual system?
As Kawhi Leonard’s star has risen, his team’s offensive systems have become more free flowing. Gregg Popovich bastardized his highly structured approach to let Leonard isolate in his final Spurs season, and Nick Nurse thrived with Leonard specifically because he didn’t really have a coherent system. It’ll behoove Doc Rivers to study the way Nurse tailored his team to Leonard’s strengths while also providing his other players the freedom to thrive on their own. With Paul George’s off-screen brilliance, Lou Williams’ pick-and-roll genius, and Rivers’ own after-timeout skill combining with Leonard’s one-on-one dominance, there’s no reason for the Clippers to over-complicate their offense. Still, I do worry there isn’t enough passing on this roster to break down the toughest defenses.
How is Draymond Green supposed to cover up the Warriors’ defensive holes?
Fun parlor game if you’re not a Warriors fan: who is the best perimeter defender on the roster with Klay Thompson sidelined? Alfonzo McKinnie? Could it possibly be Stephen Curry? That’s OK, you might say, because the Warriors still have Draymond Green, a player some idiot once called “a defensive genius unlike any the NBA has ever seen.” But Green also was famously out of shape last regular season before going on a hunger strike to terrorize playoff opponents. That was fine when the Warriors had Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livington, and a healthy Thompson to cover for him, but it’s not going to work this year. (Also, Green’s at his best guarding nobody and roaming as a help defender, which doesn’t work as well when everyone else can’t guard anyone).
What does Quin Snyder’s system look like with elite shooters and secondary playmakers?
When Synder arrived in Utah, he had a reputation for being one of the league’s most creative offensive minds. We’ve seen glimpses of that work in action – a cool after-timeout play here, a new pick-and-roll alignment there, seamless second-side ball screens during the second quarter of a February home game – but the organization’s commitment to the Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert pairing forced Snyder to be more pragmatic with his ideas. With Favors in New Orleans and intelligent veterans Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic joining a roster that’s both stretchier and smaller, I’m expecting to see some cool stuff from Snyder now that he doesn’t have one hand tied behind his back.
What does an offensive system actually built around Karl-Anthony Towns look like?
Towns has every offensive skill in the book, yet we’ve never really seen the Timberwolves fully commit to building their entire offense around him for a full season. That will change this season: Jimmy Butler is gone, and the surrounding roster is heavy on role-playing wings and short on supplementary shot creation. Their hope for significant short- and long-term improvement is that Towns becomes an offensive system unto itself, much like Dirk Nowitzki often was during his Mavericks prime. We should all be excited to see how the Timberwolves unleash the full breadth of Towns’ game.
Can the Spurs still defy math?
Despite the constant fretting over their retrograde style, the Spurs finished sixth in the league in offensive efficiency last year. They attempted the fewest three-pointers in the league, but made up for it with obscene mid-range shooting, tight ball security, and by making the trifectas they did take at a league-best rate. The NBA is a better place when there’s stylistic diversity, so I hope the Spurs have indeed found a way around the enduring reality of three being worth more than two. However, I fear San Antonio simply had an unusually good shooting season that will be more difficult to sustain with the return of DeJounte Murray and the loss of bench ace Davis Bertans.
Is Pascal Siakam a full-time No. 1 option, or just one that pretends when Kawhi Leonard is resting?
Leonard’s load management meant Siakam played more than 1,000 minutes without him during the 2018-19 regular season. In those minutes, Siakam scored more than 27 points per 100 possessions with a true shooting percentage above 61 while using 22.5 percent of his team’s possessions. If he duplicates those numbers this year while still being his hyperactive defensive self, he’ll cement his status as Toronto’s franchise player and confirm he’s one of the league’s premier talents. But it’s one thing for Siakam to produce like that with Leonard as a security blanket. It’s another thing entirely to thrive when his name leads every scouting report and there’s a duplicable road map that several of Toronto’s playoff opponents uncovered to limit Siakam’s effectiveness.
Is Donovan Mitchell actually a star?
What does a team with Jimmy Butler as the unquestioned Alpha Dog actually play like?
Butler has spent the past two years flexing his superstar muscles, so it’s easy to forget that he’s never been fully trusted as a no-brainer first option on his teams. Chicago traded him before we really could see that occur, and Minnesota and Philadelphia both had franchise big men that took center stage (pun intended). Butler’s desire to be The Man explains why he engineered a sign-and-trade to Miami instead of signing back with the 76ers’ title-contending roster. What will this mean in practice? Will Butler play mostly on the ball, or off it? Will he play out of the mid-post while shooting bigs space the floor, or will he run a lot of very high pick-and-rolls that other downhill drivers love? Will he slow Miami down, or run with his younger teammates? In the process, we’ll learn just how valuable Butler really is.
How will teams defend the Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis two-man game?
We’ve seen plenty of “unicorns” enter the league, and we’ve even seen unicorns that were teammates, but we’ve never seen an all-unicorn two-man game with this much built-in synergy. There’s a world where Doncic’s size and playmaking combine with Porzingis’ lightning-quick release and vertical threat to form something we’ve never seen before. Since this’ll be the bread-and-butter of Dallas’ offense for years to come, I’m curious to see how opponents try to neutralize the Mavericks’ two core players. Will they switch and force either to go one-on-one? Will they dare trap Doncic considering his vision? Will they go under Porzingis’ screens? Will they defend Porzingis with a smaller player and Doncic with someone bigger?
Who is the Celtics’ second option?
While Kemba Walker is an infinitely more likeable frontman than Kyrie Irving, his arrival does little to change the fundamental basketball challenge that doomed the Celtics last year. Between Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics still have three wings that will be less effective and/or bristle if they don’t get enough touches. If anything, Brad Stevens’ challenge is even greater this year: Brown is angling for a new contract, Hayward isn’t burdened by his injury recovery, and glue guy Al Horford now plays for the rival 76ers. There’s a way for each to improve, but can Stevens elevate all three while still letting Kemba be Kemba?
What can Damian Lillard possibly do for an encore?
Every year, I’m convinced we’ve seen the best of Damian Lillard, and every year, he adds a new tool to his game and proves me wrong. Last year, he improved his defense to competence and somehow added more range on his deadly off-the-dribble three-pointers. Frankly, he deserved more MVP consideration than he got, considering the Blazers’ improvement and the load he carried to compensate for C.J. McCollum’s shaky regular season. At age 29, with three new starters likely entering the lineup, is there still another level for Lillard to go up?
Who is the Lakers’ secondary perimeter shot creator?
LeBron James may be the best pick-and-roll operator of all time, and he’s now working with the best dive man in the game in Anthony Davis. But LeBron is also turning 35 this season, and it’s asking way too much of him to be the team’s only perimeter shot creator. Someone from the motley crew of Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, and Alex Caruso needs to handle the ball and make plays for others, if only to give LeBron a break. Remember: it was less than three years ago that LeBron publicly begged his team to get “a fucking playmaker” … and that was with Kyrie Irving as a teammate.
Who has the highest usage rate for the 76ers in clutch situations?
This is the strongest critique against the 76ers’ offseason makeover. The supersized starting five is interesting and Al Horford will do wonders for Joel Embiid on and off the floor, but who gets the ball with the game on the line? Who’s the closer? I’m not a fan of the blunt framing of that question because I see value in having late-game variety, but I understand the 76ers will need some pecking order when the game gets tight.
That’s why I’m less curious who handles the ball most and more curious who ends up finishing the most possessions. If the answer is Embiid, it suggests Philly figured out schematic ways to allow a big man to be the guy late. If it’s Ben Simmons, it’s an indication that he made enough offensive improvements this summer to avoid being stuck in the dunker spot. But if it’s Tobias Harris or someone else, then I worry Philly has been forced to compromise for the shortcomings of their two core players – again.
What is the actual basketball impact of the 76ers’ size?
I recently spent an afternoon rewatching that epic Game 7 between the Raptors and 76ers. At the time, I recall an undercurrent of fear that Toronto’s role players shrunk from the moment and needed Kawhi Leonard to drag them over the finish line, one bounce at a time.
In retrospect, the 76ers did not get enough credit for spooking the hell out of those shooters with their size and speed. The role players hadn’t shrunk from the moment at all; the Raptors’ next two rounds proved that. Instead, the 76ers were vaporizing their open attempts, turning each possession into a slugfest that tested the Raptors’ will and skill. In acquiring Al Horford and Josh Richardson, the 76ers have doubled down on that quality. I, for one, cannot wait to see how they try to replicate the terror they instilled in the Raptors for 82 games.
How important was Klay Thompson to the Warriors being THE WARRIORS?
Klay Thompson has always been viewed as the low-key essential cog in the Warriors’ devastating machine. Spiritually, he was the one who never got phased by the surrounding drama that comes with combining such incredible talent. Emotionally, he was the player who most demoralized opponents with barrages of made threes. Schematically, he didn’t need the ball to thrive on offense and took on all sorts of defensive assignments while doing the dirty work that Draymond Green and others got credit for cleaning up. If you wanted to be smart or counterintuitive, you’d declare that Thompson was the player who really made the Warriors the Warriors!
With that in mind, how the heck do the Warriors cope with his extended absence due to a torn ACL? If they cannot despite still having Curry and Green as anchors, then maybe Thompson really was the glue holding their fragile ecosystem together.
Will Nikola Jokic get in shape?
Nikola Jokic is riveting to watch. My colleague Seth Rosenthal once described him as an MVP candidate who “plays every minute like he’s wearing flip flops,” which is a perfect description. He does not look like he belongs in the modern NBA, much less dominate it.
But there’s also a serious reason a photo of him looking a bit pudgy during Nuggets media day was the meme of NBA Twitter for 24 hours. Until he slims down, Jokic’s beautiful game will bump against a self-contained glass ceiling. He still commits too many frustration fouls out of fatigue, and his inability to go the distance effectively in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Spurs nearly ended Denver’s season. It might be less fun for the neutral if his body is slightly more cut, but it’ll be a lot better for the Denver Nuggets’ title hopes.
What is the effect of more “load management” on the rest of the roster?
Get ready for “load management” to be one of the buzzwords of the season. Toronto’s year-long effort to preserve Kawhi Leonard ended with the franchise’s first title, and the NBA is nothing if not a copycat league.
There are some prickly big-picture questions the league must consider with this growing trend, but I’m most curious to see how more load management changes coaches’ attitudes toward player development. If stars are taking games off, that means there are more minutes for younger bench players to snag and show their coaches what they’re missing. To use just one example, I’m not sure Pascal Siakam develops into the player he’s become if he isn’t forced to accept the brunt of Toronto’s offense in those 22 games Leonard sat.
NBA coaches have developed tight rotation leashes out of fear of losing games, but maybe the load management trend will finally incentivize them to coach up their entire 15-man roster instead of only the more reliable players at the top of the list.
How will the league adjust with a year of film on the Bucks’ five-out system?
Mike Budenholzer caught teams off guard with a schematic adjustment so simple that you wonder why it took so long for the Bucks to implement it. He taped four boxes well behind the three-point line to show where his four other players should stand, then let Giannis Antetokounmpo go to work attacking the space everyone else vacated. Surround Giannis with three-point shooters and wide-open driving lanes: what a concept! But after watching the Raptors stop the Bucks in the playoffs, you can be sure the rest of the league will have schematic adjustments up their sleeves. Giannis + space is one hell of a fastball, but Budenholzer needs to come up with some offspeed pitches to keep opponents guessing.
How many one-legged threes will James Harden take?
The new move the 2018 MVP uncorked in the preseason is the galaxy brain meme personified. The thought of a wrong-footed one-legged three-pointer being a functional shot is completely absurd, but it actually solves a legitimate defensive problem for Harden. Teams forced Harden right all last season, to the point where some even played behind him. His patented stepback jumper is already difficult to block, but the one-legged, wrong-footed stepback jumper cuts the number of steps needed to get the shot off in half. Harden no longer has to worry about being called for traveling, and he now needs even less space and time to fire after freezing his defender. The whole endeavor has the feel of a hacker staying one step ahead of investigators, and is quintessential Harden. Even if he doesn’t actually take many of these shots when the regular season begins, the fact that he even thought to try some shows how far he’s willing to go to shatter the game’s norms.
What kind of coach is Steve Kerr, anyway?
The Warriors’ coach has lived a charmed life since taking over before the 2014-15 season. He gets credit for installing the Warriors’ signature offensive style and managing his players’ emotions while dealing with debilitating back pain of his own, but he freely admits he benefited from the foundation the previous coaching staff set.
Now that the core of those teams is gone, it’s Kerr’s turn to lay down a foundation for the Warriors’ next generation. With D’Angelo Russell arriving and several rotation spots that must be filled by younger players, Kerr must craft a different system than the one he used to great effect over the past five years. What system will that be, and is he really capable of maximizing a different kind of roster? We’ll learn a lot about Kerr’s coaching chops this season.
The Death Lineup is dead, so does this mean big men will get their revenge?
The Warriors’ Death Lineup, which symbolically ushered in the small-ball era, is no more after the departures of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, and the injury to Klay Thompson. Anthony Davis, long the platonic ideal for the modern big man, has joined a team willing to honor his desire to play power forward. Look around the league, and there aren’t many teams with the capability of running traditional big men off the floor with speedy bigs. But this shouldn’t be considered a return to the past as much as a further evolution into the future, where big men possess the skills of smaller players while still being big. The small-ball revolution may be over, but the skill-ball revolution is stronger than ever.
Will the Nets give Kyrie Irving the fully unleashed system he craves?
Irving’s biggest basketball gripe last year was not getting the chance to be an offense unto himself, a la James Harden in Houston. Celtics coach Brad Stevens tried appeasing everyone, which only resulted in a disjointed system that wasn’t Kyrie-centric enough for Kyrie, but too Kyrie-centric for everyone else.
By contrast, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson’s guard-heavy approach should be music to Irving’s ears. Brooklyn was fifth in the league in pick-and-roll possessions where the ball-handler shot, whereas Boston was 24th. With Kevin Durant out all season, Kyrie should get as many ball screens as he desires. Maybe Atkinson’s system really is the key to threading the needle between Irving’s desire for control and the need to further develop fellow ball-handlers Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie.
How will the Pelicans use Zion Williamson?
The best thing about the NBA’s newest sensation is that he cannot be classified. We’ve never seen a 6’6 dude who weighs more than most centers, jumps like a prime Vince Carter, and plays so directly that he doesn’t need to dribble much to dominate inside. That presents a unique-but-welcome challenge for Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry: how to use him in a way that develops his skills, yet still helps the Pelicans win this year? Early indications are that Williamson will mostly play power forward and act as a finisher while Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball handle the playmaking, which makes sense at this juncture. Best to let Williamson perfect his bread and butter now and worry later about improving his jumper and tightening his handle later.
Will any team come up with a defensive strategy to account for the space problem?
Prior to the 2018 playoffs, I released this video explaining how the NBA’s three-point expansion is making it significantly more difficult for teams to play good defense. The principle is simple: when defenses are forced to cover more of the court with the same number of players, they will snap like rubber bands.
- The average three-point shot distance held steady at nearly 25.6 feet for the second year in a row in 2018-19 after not eclipsing 25.4 feet in any season from 2000-01 to 2016-17.
- There’s no room to expand in the corner, so more teams are launching longer above-the-break threes. The percentage of overall shots that were above-the-break threes league-wide rose from less than 20 percent in 2014-15 to nearly 28 percent last year.
What’s an NBA defense to do when the two most efficient shots in basketball are from one foot away (the rim) and 27 feet away? Will someone find a new way to somehow limit both, or will we see more defenses operate like the league-leading Bucks last year and prioritize one zone (the rim, in Milwaukee’s case) while surrendering the other.
Is Joel Embiid’s body ready to sustain his dominance?
Embiid has been remarkably self-critical for Philadelphia’s second-round playoff loss to Toronto last season. He regretted not being his best self physically, thanks to several nagging ailments that may or may not have stemmed from shaky offseason dieting. He’s vowed to change that this year, and his slimmed-down body certainly looks ready to take on the pounding he’ll receive this season. With Al Horford in town to supply the interior help needed to rest Embiid and not suffer a significant drop-off, there are no more excuses for Embiid’s body breaking down when it matters most.
What does Russell Westbrook do when James Harden has the ball?
Even if the Rockets push the pace more this season, they’ll have plenty of possessions where four guys watch James Harden put on a dribbling exhibition. Those plays were more tenable with Chris Paul, who at least had to be honored from three-point range. Westbrook, on the other hand, is a historically bad (and frequent) bricklayer from three who has barely operated off ball since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City in 2016.
Mike D’Antoni is a brilliant offensive mind, so I expect him to find some creative solutions to the Westbrook problem if Russ will buy in. We’ve seen lots of Westbrook attacking second-side pick-and-rolls decisively from the wing in preseason, but don’t be surprised if Russ gets stationed in the corner for baseline backdoor cuts or even acts as a roll man for Harden.
Does everyone play fast now?
Last season was a breakthrough one for up-tempo proponents. For the first time since the late-80s, more than half of the league averaged more than 100 possessions per game. A whopping 17 teams cracked the 100 mark in 2018-19, compared to just five in 2017-18. To get a sense of how much the game has changed, consider that the league’s slowest-paced team last year (Memphis) averaged 2.2 more possessions per game than the league’s fastest-paced team in 1997-98 (Boston). It’s hard to pinpoint a specific team actively slowing itself down this season, so is it possible all 30 teams will crack the magical 100 mark this year? If so, how do we properly contextualize counting stats, not to mention the overall viewing experience?
When will the three-point revolution stop?
We’re nearly a decade in, and the three-point trend is showing no signs of slowing down. The NBA’s three-point rate rose for the eighth straight season last year, and trifectas now account for more than 36 percent of the league’s field goal attempts. Tired: off-the-dribble threes. Wired: Stepback threes. Inspired: one-legged threes from 30 feet away. This has to taper off at some point, right?
How will Paul George and Kawhi Leonard divide up responsibility on defense?
If Kawhi Leonard is No. 1 on the list of best wing defenders in the NBA, Paul George is No. 1a, or vice versa. Wing defense is so prized these days that most NBA teams don’t even have one elite wing defender, much less the two best in the league.
That creates the ultimate first-world problem for Doc Rivers: which of the two actually gets the toughest assignment? Both Leonard and George are lockdown defenders on ball, but both also wreak havoc in passing lanes and shut down open threes with lightning-quick closeouts. It’ll be a delight watching them trade assignments and blanket entire sections of the court when they play together. (By the way, Patrick Beverley also belongs in the top 10 of that wing defender list, and he’s also on the Clippers. Holy crap).
What does Anthony Davis look like when he’s not checked out?
Let’s be real: Anthony Davis checked out last season. Combing through film and stats to find any clues for how he’ll perform this year is a useless exercise.
Instead, I’d recommend re-watching his post-All-Star break performance in 2017-18 if you need a reminder of his generational talent. Davis has always possessed every offensive and defensive tool in the book, but that was the first time he dominated with the sense of urgency that a franchise player must show. He was not afraid to take lots of shots, and he finally locked in defensively for a consistent stretch of time. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum still see him in their nightmares after he erased them with terrifying pick-and-roll defense in the Pelicans’ four-game playoff sweep.
If Davis is that focused from start to finish, the exorbitant price the Lakers paid to acquire him via trade will look like a pittance.
What does a fully unleashed Stephen Curry look like?
I’m 32 years old – so old enough to remember the end of the Michael Jordan era – and I’ve never witnessed a basketball experience quite like Stephen Curry’s 2015-16 season. To our detriment and Curry’s benefit, the subsequent arrival of Kevin Durant put that unleashed version of Steph on ice. We didn’t think it’d ever return.
Now, Durant’s departure and the break-up of the Warriors’ dynasty will force Curry to embrace his inner gunner like he did in that breathtaking 2015-16 season. The 40 points he dropped in a preseason game against the Timberwolves was an early shot across the bow to the rest of the NBA.
Curry turns 32 this season, so it may be unrealistic to expect a direct copy of that magical 2015-16 year. Still, he’s shown enough of his old self when freed from KD’s shadow over the last three years to suggest that Ruthless Steph still exists somewhere in there. Now that the Warriors need every one of those moments to even compete in the Western Conference, it better come out of hibernation.
How does Giannis Antetokounmpo grow his game after his playoff failure?
Last spring, the Greek Freak reached the fork in the road every NBA legend eventually confronts. Nobody could deal with his historic combination of size, speed, agility, and intelligence … until someone found a way in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks’ six-game series loss gave Antetokounmpo’s critics all the ammunition they needed to tee off with the most reductive of criticisms: he needed to add some actual skill to his game instead of just plowing through opponents. All the success he had all year, all the incredible skill actually required to pull off the moves he makes, none of that matters anymore. The fact is that the Raptors absorbed Antetokounmpo’s powerful first punch and exposed weaknesses he must improve to rule this league – namely, his jumper, his propensity to spin into traffic, and his court sense. More teams will duplicate the Raptors’ tactics, so now it’s on Antetokounmpo to address those shortcomings to beat the NBA’s final boss.
Nobody said it would be easy or fair.
Is this still LeBron James’ league, or has it passed him by?
With apologies to all these other on-court storylines, one battle looms over the NBA this season: LeBron James vs. Father Time. The latter always wins in the end, but it’s still unclear if “the end” is now.
Even James’ most enthusiastic supporters must understand how formidable his opponent is. Sixteen seasons. Fifty-six thousand, two hundred and eighty four career minutes, including playoffs (but not Olympics). Nearly 1,200 regular-season games, plus 239 playoff contests. Twenty-eight thousand, four hundred and eighty four shots, plus another 11,892 free throws. Ten Finals appearances. It’s no knock on LeBron to suggest he has too much wear and tear to ascend back to his throne. Father time comes for us all.
On the other hand, James got to rest for the spring and summer for the first time since 2005. His Lakers are reinvigorated with the arrival of Anthony Davis, though their lack of depth and playmaking will force LeBron to carry a heavier burden than he should in the regular season. (Good luck asking him to try on defense before May). When not filming Space Jam, he’s had to hear about other young stars that have seized control of his league. He certainly won’t be lacking for motivation.
The NBA is a better place when it orbits around LeBron James. Is this the last season that happens, or has it already moved on?