When I spoke with Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey toward the end of last season, he told me that in the wake of Gordon Hayward's leaving for the Celtics the previous summer, he and Jazz coach Quin Snyder had gotten together on a flight back to Salt Lake City and written down seven questions -- the answers to which, they felt, would largely determine the outcome of their season. Was Donovan Mitchell as good as they quietly thought? Would a few mechanical tweaks, a new role playing more off the ball and an encouraging nudge to pull the trigger with confidence lead to an improvement in Ricky Rubio's shooting? Could Derrick Favors stay healthy? Was Rudy Gobert ready to take his game to the franchise-player level they internally expected?
"Without getting into specifics," Lindsey told CBS Sports at the time, "we answered 'yes' to all seven questions."
As such, a Utah team many expected to spiral after losing Hayward won 48 games, good enough for the No. 5 seed out West, before defeating Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs. This year, the Jazz have a new set of questions. As does every other team. After talking to numerous people inside numerous organizations this summer, I've listed below the biggest one for each.
- What do they have in Trae Young?
The Hawks could very easily lose 65 games this season, maybe more -- and yet, if Trae Young looks like a star in the making, general manager Travis Schlenk will be sporting the smile of a guy who just hit the Powerball. Schlenk went out on some kind of limb when he traded for Young on draft night, giving up the rights to No. 3 overall pick Luka Doncic, who looks like a model modern player and about as close to a sure thing as anyone in this draft. that throughout the evaluation process, the Hawks rated Doncic and Young as equals, making the 2019 first-round pick Dallas included in the deal the effective tiebreaker. That said, if Doncic lives up to his billing, and Young doesn't, that 2019 pick won't be much consolation.
But that's a worst-case scenario for Atlanta, and I wouldn't expect it to play out that way. Personally, I think Doncic and Young are both going to be somewhere between really good and great. Young looked terrific as he got more and more comfortable in summer league, even though his overall numbers won't wow you. To that point, it's important to remember that at the end of this season, Young's numbers won't necessarily tell an accurate tale. He's going to chuck a lot of bad shots as he matures as a floor leader and learns to situationally suppress his gunner instincts -- "we're going to turn him loose," Schlenk told CBS Sports -- meaning you could easily look up at the end of the season and see a high-volume, 33- to 35-percent 3-point shooter with far too many turnovers and terrible defensive metrics.
Without context, pay those numbers little mind. If Young is able to get to his spots against bigger defenders, if he's able to create his own shot on his own terms, if he shows a creative finishing instinct in the lane, if he validates Schlenk's belief that passing is in fact his best attribute, the raw numbers won't matter. The Hawks will know they have something special. And right now, there is nothing more important to anyone affiliated with the Hawks than validating that Young-Doncic trade. They might not tell you that, but there's no way to avoid it.
- What is Brad Stevens' best finishing lineup?
For Boston's first preseason game vs. Charlotte, Brad Stevens started Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, and this will likely be the starting lineup on opening night against Philly. It's a monster lineup. One league exec told me it's the "scariest lineup in the league outside of Golden State's [death lineup]," so it stands to reason that Stevens would close most games with this lineup as well.
This, of course, would leave Marcus Smart on the bench in winning time. Smart has been a fixture in Stevens' closing lineups, and for good reason. Last season, Smart's plus-7.8 net rating in clutch time (defined as a five-point game with under five minutes to play) was second only to Tatum among Boston players with significant time in those situations. During last year's playoffs, Smart was a part of Boston's most successful fourth-quarter lineup (Terry Rozier, Smart, Tatum, Marcus Morris and Horford) -- which was plus-33.9 per 100 minutes. As long as we're cherry-picking numbers, Smart also had the best individual defensive rating in the fourth quarter among Celtics regulars.
Stevens loves Smart, and Danny Ainge surely didn't give him $52 million this summer to ride the bench. He'll play a lot of fourth-quarter minutes, and chances are, he'll play his way into the closing lineup some nights simply because he's making too big an impact to come out. In those cases, who stays on the bench instead? Brown? Tatum? Hayward? This is to say nothing of a night that, say Terry Rozier is red-hot from 3-point range, or Marcus Morris is just making too big a defensive impact to come out. Boston's bench is that good that sitting starters in crucial moments is a plausible scenario any night. This is a dilemma every coach would sign up for, but it's a dilemma nonetheless. Somewhere along the way, probably in the playoffs, Stevens will have to make a gut call in a very gutsy moment.
- Is D'Angelo Russell a future building block?
Russell is only 22 years old and has shown brief flashes of being a borderline All-Star player. But flashes aren't enough. The Nets almost certainly won't offer Russell the rookie-scale extension by the Oct. 15 deadline, meaning he'll become a restricted free agent next summer. The Nets have much bigger fish in mind with the ability to create two max salary slots next summer, and with 2019 free agents like Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler square on their radar, you have to wonder how they'll proceed with their long-term planning as it pertains to Russell -- who comes with an almost $10 million cap hold and would probably be looking for more money that he's proven, to this point, to be worth.
The Nets quietly have a nice young core building with Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Joe Harris -- but Russell remains the only current asset with tantalizing star potential. "When he's clicking, you can still talk yourself into [Russell] pretty easily," one scout told me this summer, and that just about sums it up. You can talk yourself into him. In other words, he still hasn't proven to be anything more than a talented guy who can post good numbers on a bad team. If he's ever going to be anything more than that on a consistent basis, this feels like the year it needs to start happening.
- Can they flip the fourth-quarter script?
The Hornets were better than you think last season. Yes, they only won 36 games, but they lost 12 games by five points or less, and according to Cleaning the Glass's metrics, they had the statistical profile of a 42-win team. The six-game discrepancy can be largely attributed to Charlotte's inability to win those close games. They were bordering on a top-10 offense last year but fell to 23rd per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter.
New coach James Borrego Kemba Walker with more ball movement (so defenses can't settle in entirely on him), play at a much faster pace and shoot a lot more 3-pointers (after attempting 27 3-pointers a game last year, they put up a combined 69 triples in their first two preseason games).the Hornets will do three things to try to flip their fourth-quarter fate this season: Take some of the burden off
"It starts in transition," Borrego said. "We'll look at our fast-break numbers, our efficiency in the first eight to ten seconds of the shot clock. We'll look at our 3-point attempts. I want to have four 3-point shooters on the floor as much as possible. Last year, there was always a big lingering somewhere in the paint. This year, the way we're going to spread the floor, there shouldn't be a big in there very often. Primarily, that should be an open lane."
That last part about the paint being more open this year is key. Last season, Dwight Howard was the one clogging things up down there. This year the Hornets get Cody Zeller back. Zeller isn't a big name, but he fits what the Hornets want to do perfectly. He can play on the perimeter (he's a superb dribble handoff guy with Walker) and in transition (in 2016-17, he scored 1.5 points per transition possession, an elite number). Bottom line, if we throw out last year because of the MCL injury and the small sample size (he played just 33 games) and look back two years ago, the Hornets were 33-29 when Zeller played and 3-17 when he didn't. That's what you call a difference maker.
So you start to add all this up, and suddenly a team that was already a 42-win team on paper last year looks even better this year, and now you're realistically talking about something in the range of 45 wins, which is a playoff team in the East. The Hornets could be one of the real surprises this year, but they're not going to run away from anyone. They have to get it done in the fourth quarter.
I can't take credit for this question. My colleague Colin Ward-Henninger posed it in one of our roundtables, and I've been fascinated with it ever since. Think about it: Oladipo and Parker were both No. 2 overall picks. They were both effectively given up on by their original teams. They both went home -- Oladipo to Indiana, where he went to college; Parker to Chicago, where he was born and raised.
Oladipo thrived in Indiana in large part because for the first time in his career, he was a No. 1 option. With Lauri Markkanen on the shelf for 6-8 weeks in Chicago, Parker should get the opportunity to be at least a co-No. 1 option with Zach LaVine. When I talked to Fred Hoiberg this summer, he noted the importance of re-signing LaVine for the pressure it would take off Markkanen and Kris Dunn, among others, to score big every night. Adding Parker doubles down on that logic.
The other intriguing question in Chicago, of course, is how good Wendell Carter Jr. can be out of the gate. He looked fantastic at summer league, where he said the No. 1 thing he was going to work on this offseason was foot speed so he could stay with smaller players on the perimeter. Carter Jr. has the potential to be an immediate defensive force, and he can comfortably step out to the 3-point line and hit shots, too. The Bulls believe internally they can make a run at a playoff spot. For that to happen, Carter Jr. will have to develop quickly and Parker is going to have to play big -- even if him becoming the type of player Oladipo has become, even just on offense, is a massive stretch.
- Is Kevin Love still an All-Star No. 1 option?
For Cleveland, this is a major question for two reasons. First, if Love is still this kind of player and was merely being suppressed by the presence of LeBron James over the last four years, the Cavs still have an outside shot -- a very outside shot -- at making the playoffs in the East. Second, if Love indeed rediscovers his Minnesota magic, it's only going to make him more attractive to potential trade suitors.
Yes, the Cavs signed Love to a four-year, $120 million extension this summer, but that doesn't mean they won't eventually move him. In fact, it might make him even easier to move now that he's locked up, and teams don't have to worry about trading for him only to watch him walk away as a free agent. It's important to remember that the Cavs do have a pretty strong incentive to, well, not be a good team this year: If their first-round pick falls outside the top-10, it goes to Atlanta. In other words, if Love is too good, and the Cavs, say, squeak into the playoffs, is that really worth losing a top-10 pick?
- Is Luka Doncic really as good as the hype?
Put it this way: Doncic's NBA preseason debut was encouraging. He posted 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 3-of-4 from downtown. This is a 6-foot-7 dude who will likely start at power forward, and he's putting on displays like this?
Then he can turn right around and do this on the defensive end?
Granted, the Mavs were playing the Beijing Ducks, so you can only put so much stock in the debut. Which is why we'll all be keeping a very close eye on Doncic all season long. We'll break him down against every kind of matchup. Can he guard quicker players? Can he create his own shot against more athletic defenders? He's the future in Dallas. When the Mavs sent that 2019 first-round pick to the Hawks, in addition to Trae Young, to get him, they officially went all in. That's a potential, if not likely, lottery pick. Those are gold in today's NBA, where the only realistic way to rebuild is through the draft.
Talk of the Mavericks being a sleeper playoff threat this season is overstated, even with the addition of DeAndre Jordan to a better-than-you-probably-think starting five (Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Doncic, Jordan). But if anyone in Dallas had their pick between, say, an 8-seed in the playoffs and the first-round butt-whipping that will surely come with it, or for Doncic to look like a future star on a lottery team, they'd take the latter for sure -- though to be fair, the two probably go hand in hand. Bottom line: They need Doncic to be the real deal. Nothing in this organization matters more right now.
- Can they put the D in Denver?
Last season the Nuggets were the No. 6 offense in the league, scoring 109.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. If you watched their preseason opener against LeBron James and the Lakers, you saw a frenetic pace and 3-pointers flying from all over. Jamal Murray is a guy that could break out in a major way this season. Nikola Jokic was one of just five players league-wide who led their team in points, rebounds and assists in 2017-18. Paul Millsap is back. Gary Harris can still get better. Will Barton is a microwave scorer off the bench. Putting the ball in the basket will not be a problem.
But can this team stop anyone? Last season they were 26th in the league with a 108.8 defensive rating, meaning they did all that work on offense to basically break even. It added up to 46 wins, a pretty solid number but not good enough to get into the playoffs in the murderous Western Conference. They were great at home with a 30-11 record, but they were just 17-24 on the road. Defense travels -- or doesn't travel, however you want to look at it. The Nuggets need to stop some people this season if they're going to crest 50 wins and secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2013.
- To what extent will Blake Griffin earn his money?
Griffin's contract, which guarantees him more than $141 million over the next four years, is weighing on Detroit's books like a herd of elephants. It would take a miracle for someone to take that contract off the Pistons' hands (you know, the same kind of miracle Stan Van Gundy so generously bestowed upon the Clippers when he traded for Griffin in the first place). When that deal was made, a Western Conference scout told me it was a "desperate move" by a desperate Detroit team, which at the time was grasping at straws having lost eight straight. It didn't work, by the way. Detroit went 11-14 with Griffin on board, and moving forward into this season, there would appear to be almost no chance that Griffin plays up to that contract. But how close can he get? Can he at least stay healthy for a full season? If so, can he be an upper-tier All-Star in the depleted Eastern Conference?
If the answers are yes to those questions, the Pistons can compete for a lower-four playoff spot. Andre Drummond is a stud (even if his impact numbers don't always reflect it), and Dwane Casey should be able to generate some internal improvement as he did when he took over with the Raptors. Luke Kennard is a quiet candidate to emerge in his second year. Stanley Johnson could still put some things together. Reggie Jackson can at least get you some Dennis Schroder-like numbers if he stays healthy. Reggie Bullock is one of the better players that absolutely nobody talks about. There is a 45-to-47-win team in Detroit, but the only chance that Casey has of bringing that team to full bloom is if Griffin at least comes close to earning his absurdly oversized paychecks.
Golden State Warriors
- How will DeMarcus Cousins fit in?
It's become a popular sentiment that Cousins is pure gravy for the Warriors: If he returns to even 80 percent of his old self, they'll be the most ridiculously talented team in NBA history, and if he doesn't, well, they're probably still the most ridiculously talented team in NBA history and thus don't need him anyway. Here's where that might not be true: If the Rockets somehow end up getting Jimmy Butler and/or if the Warriors meet the Celtics in the Finals.
A healthy Boston team could give Golden State a real run, and in that case, Cousins could actually end up being a guy that puts the Warriors over the top. His presence might force the Celtics to play bigger than they'd like to, or punish them for staying small. As for the Rockets, clearly they would be a major problem for the Warriors with Butler.
Look at it like this: The Rockets were right there with the Warriors last season and probably would've beaten them had Chris Paul not missed Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals. So if Houston adds an elite talent like Butler to that equation, it stands to reason Golden State would have to add someone of its own to keep pace. This is where Cousins could go from the cherry on top to an actual vital component of Golden State's very established, very intricate system that depends so heavily on the "feel" everyone has for all the moving parts. That kind of feel only comes with time, if it comes at all. Can Cousins, who might not get on the court with these guys until as late as January, find his place and make an impact commensurate with his talent? If the Rockets get Butler, he better.
- Do they have the defense to beat Golden State?
Right now, no, I don't think so. The loss of Trevor Ariza either slots Eric Gordon or Carmelo Anthony into the starting lineup, and from a defensive standpoint, that's a major downgrade. For all the talk about the Rockets' offense, it was their versatile defense that had the Warriors on the ropes. You're going to have a lot of lineups out there that feature James Harden, Carmelo and Gordon. Golden State will feast on that.
When I talked to Daryl Morey this summer, he told me to "judge [Houston's] roster on April 15th" -- the last day of the regular season -- implying he won't be done tinkering with his team until at least the February trade deadline. The biggest fish out there is obviously Jimmy Butler, and until somebody else gets him, you can rest assured that Morey, who has freely admitted to being obsessed with beating the Warriors, is maneuvering behind closed doors for all his worth. If Houston somehow lands Butler, this whole situation flips on a dime. If it doesn't happen, the gap between the Rockets and the Warriors appears to have widened, perhaps considerably, in Golden State's favor.
- Can they validate last year's surprising success?
When I asked Pacers coach Nate McMillan if there's any pressure on his team to deliver on some high expectations that didn't exist last season, he wasn't buying it.
"My approach to that, and what I've said to the team, is that we didn't listen to the outside noise last year, and we're not going to start listening to it this year," McMillan told CBS Sports. "Expectations are higher. We're not running from that. But as far as us getting back to that momentum we created by playing pretty well last year, we know that we have to do it all over again. No one determines our future but us. This is a new year, and we expect to be a better team."
On paper, the Pacers should indeed be a better team than the one that won 48 games last season and took LeBron James' Cavaliers to seven games in the first round. Myles Turner feels like one of the league's likeliest players to make a leap this season. The Pacers were not a big 3-point shooting team last year, so quietly adding Doug McDermott was solid. Also, adding Tyreke Evans as a second big-time one-on-one playmaker to pair with Victor Oladipo in certain lineups is something McMillan is excited about.
Speaking of Oladipo, like the Pacers as a team, he, too, has to validate the surprising success he had last year by balling out again this year -- a tougher ask when teams are going to be specifically game-planning to stop you on an even more focused level than they were as last season progressed, and Oladipo's star status increasingly cemented. McMillan isn't worried about any that.
"Victor was hungry last year," McMillan said. "He heard all the noise when the trade [with OKC] was made, that Indiana didn't get enough, that OKC basically stole Paul [George] from us, that [Oladipo] hasn't turned into the player that he was projected to be. He goes from Orlando to OKC for one year before they gave up on him, and he was hungry. And he remains hungry to now go out and prove not just to himself, but to the league that he can be even better than he was last year."
If Oladipo does that, Indiana could well be an outside threat to pull an upset and make the conference finals.
Los Angeles Clippers
- How actively will they pursue in-season trades?
In the Lob City era, the Clippers were flush with top-end talent but didn't have much behind the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Now they're the opposite: super deep with a bunch of good players but no great ones. The front office has done a great job of positioning this team to be a major free-agency player next summer, but if they want to get a jump on things, they also have a handful of highly movable contracts.
Lou Wiliams is a bargain at $8 million a year for the next three seasons. Tobias Harris is on an expiring deal and could be attractive to a good team looking to add firepower without a long-term commitment. Avery Bradley is reasonably priced at $12 million this season and is effectively on an expiring deal with a team option for next year. Luc Mbah a Moute is making less than $5 million and comes off the books next summer. Plenty of teams would be interested in these guys.
If they can stay healthy, the Clippers could have an extremely slim shot at the playoffs. Their defense, particularly on the perimeter, should be pretty stout. But they also have real incentive to not make the playoffs -- they lose their 2019 first-round pick if it falls out of the top 14. That would be a pretty big loss just to finish eighth in the West and get stomped in the first round. On the other hand, having a lottery pick (another potential big trade chip next summer) and a ton of cap space would be a pretty sweet spot to be in come 2019. A trade or two could get the Clips a head start on both.
Los Angeles Lakers
- How do all these pieces fit around LeBron?
The moves the Lakers made this summer after signing LeBron James were, shall we say, strange -- namely the signings of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee. Historically, James has been most effective playing four- or even five-out sets that put shooters around him to space the floor and let him go to work. Rondo has quietly improved as a shooter, but defenses are still happy to let him cast away. Stephenson shot 29 percent from 3-point range last season. Perhaps more problematic, both those guys operate most comfortably with the ball in their hands. Newsflash: James is going to have the ball most of the time.
As for the incumbent Lakers, notably the core young four (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart), the assumption that all these guys' games are going to automatically improve because they're playing alongside LeBron is premature. People love to say that LeBron makes everyone better, but that hasn't always been true.
I talked to Joe Ingles earlier this summer and he pointed to his former teammate in Utah, Rodney Hood, who went from averaging just under 17 points a night with the Jazz to barely being able to get off the bench for Cleveland in the postseason. On the flip side, Jae Crowder completely lost his way while in Cleveland, only to come to Utah and look like the Crowder of old. Playing with James has its challenges. It's not for everyone. We'll see if it's for these young Lakers, most of whom got very comfortable last season playing on their terms.
- Can Mike Conley be the Mike Conley of old?
I've talked to people inside Memphis' organization, and they're cautiously optimistic about this season -- but they all know it has no chance of even getting off the ground if Mike Conley can't be the player he's been in the past. That means more than just staying healthy. That means staying healthy AND playing at a borderline All-Star level in his 12th season, with a ton of mileage on his 31-year-old legs, coming off a season in which he only played 12 games before being shut down for the year to have surgery on his heel.
Is that a lot to ask? Perhaps. But remember, Conley and the Grizzlies were rolling along pretty good to start last season. In those first 12 games that Conley played, they beat the Rockets twice, the Warriors, Pelicans and Blazers. Across the organization, there is a noted commitment to getting back to the defensive-minded, Grit n' Grind roots that had sent them to seven straight postseasons, including one conference finals, before falling out last season.
Conley is at the heart of that reboot, but he's not alone. Memphis expects that Marc Gasol will be re-energized with Conley back in the lineup, and No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. has elite defender written all over him. Pairing him with Gasol gives the Grizzlies a two-big lineup that most teams won't even try to match these days.
"With young players, you don't know how fast they're going to develop skill wise, but if they compete, they can help you," Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff told me this summer. "[Jackson] competes every play."
Still, it all comes back to Conley. Without him, you probably don't get the real Marc Gasol, and without the two of them, you have one of the worst teams in the league. Don't be surprised, so long as Conley plays like his regular self and stays healthy, if Memphis, which only won 22 games last season, sneaks into the playoff race.
- What do they do with Hassan Whiteside?
Play him big minutes and force him to earn the almost $25 million he's making this season? Sit him on the bench for long stretches, as they did in last year's playoffs, and effectively watch that money circle a shower drain? Trade him? Listen, if someone would take him, Miami would certainly be game. Perhaps he'll end up being part of a deal that brings Jimmy Butler's talents to South Beach. Well see.
Until then, Miami has to get something halfway substantial out of Whiteside. At the Heat's media day, coach Erik Spoelstra said this about Whiteside: "I haven't forgotten about the player that he's capable of being. I remember the kind of player he was two years ago, and preseason and this [past] season, before he got injured." Spoelstra also said that Whiteside is in "terrific shape" and that "most importantly, his mindset has grown."
We'll see about all that, too.
The bottom line is Whiteside doesn't stretch the floor, can't really stay with smaller players on the perimeter, and he isn't exactly the most focused, instinctual or mature player you've ever seen. In last year's playoffs he was flat-out unplayable for long stretches. In all, he barely logged 15 minutes a game in the playoffs. Bam Adebayo, on the other hand, is the cool kid in school right now. Everybody loves him. Spoelstra told me in Las Vegas that they "couldn't keep [Bam] out of the gym" this summer, and at media day the Heat coach backed that up by lauding Adebayo's impressive level of offseason commitment for a player his age:
"[Bam's] a perfect example of a player committing for five months, at that age, 20 years old, and doing it every day for three to four hours a day ... He's improved his other skills. You will see a different player, no question about it."
We know Spoelstra will not hesitate to sit Whiteside if Adebayo is the better player, or just to go small more often, particularly in the big stretches of the fourth quarter. That's basically a 100-million-dollar player sitting on the bench in money time. That's a problem. The simplest solution, of course, would be for Whiteside to just play better. All together now: We'll see about that.
- How big a difference will new coach Mike Budenholzer make?
Watching the Bucks play under Jason Kidd bordered on basketball torture, and watching them under Joe Prunty in the playoffs last season wasn't exactly a relief. Nothing stuck out to me more last postseason than the difference between a Milwaukee team playing fast and free and a Milwaukee team freely conceding to a congested, methodical half-court game. When the Bucks got out in the open court, they looked fantastic against Boston in the first round. But they were like that football team that plays it close to the vest all game only to open it up in the two-minute drill and suddenly start marching down the field: Uh, why weren't you playing like this all game?
Insert Budenholzer, a master of spacing and modern offense who should install a system that offers Giannis Antetokounmpo, and to a lesser degree Eric Bledsoe, more room to operate. You can bet Budenholzer will take full advantage of the stretch shooting of Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, rookie Donte DiVincenzo and Brook Lopez as a legit stretch five. A big part of playing fast is cleaning up the glass, and the Bucks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league last season. That has to at least marginally improve. But the pace and space are what's key. Coach Bud feels like the guy to maximize those efforts.
- Can Towns and Wiggins both take a step forward?
Until Jimmy Butler is traded, that's obviously the biggest question hanging over this franchise. But we're going to assume that's a formality. With Butler eventually gone, all attention will shift back to Towns, who just signed a five-year, $190 million extension, and to a lesser degree Wiggins, who didn't come anywhere close to justifying his own $147 million contract extension last year. These are both No. 1 overall draft picks. They aren't supposed to be good; they're supposed to be great.
Towns, to be fair, is a great offensive player, and he's been a great defender for stretches; he just hasn't put it all together on both ends with long-term consistency. Wiggins, let's be honest, just isn't a great basketball player at this point, despite his enviable athletic tools. Some would say even calling him "good" would be a stretch.
The Wolves are one of the teams you hear mentioned most when discussing the likeliest candidates to fall out of the playoffs in the West. Part of that is just being in the West, where at least two solid teams are going to be in the lottery. But that's also an indictment on Towns and Wiggins. Hopefully they'll take it that way and play like dudes on fire this season -- on both ends. It's obviously the only way the Wolves move forward with any sort of optimism.
New Orleans Pelicans
Talent tends to win out in the NBA, and Alvin Gentry was very matter of fact at Pelicans training camp when he told CBS Sports that he feels New Orleans has "the best two-way duo in the league" in Davis and Holiday. Two-way is the operative term here. Davis and Holiday are beasts on both ends. Everyone knew this about Davis, but a lot of casual fans found out in last year's playoffs that Holiday is a legit two-way star in his own right.
For all the talk about the increased pace the Pelicans played with last season after DeMarcus Cousins went down (and they did play significantly faster), the main reason for their second-half surge was their defense. Through Jan. 26 of last season (the night Cousins' 2017-18 campaign ended), the Pelicans ranked 21st in the league with a 107 defensive rating. From that point forward, they were fifth in the league, giving up more than three points fewer per 100 possessions over the remainder of the season.
Davis and Holiday are at the core of that defense.
And clearly they generate the bulk of the offense.
Much like the Thunder with Paul George and Russell Westbrook, the Pelicans are not a perfect team, but if their two best players are dominating the way they can, they can play with -- and beat -- any team on any given night. Frankly, the only team that feels completely out of the Pelicans' reach in a seven-game series, if everything were to go their way, is Golden State. That's how talented those two guys are. And yet, New Orleans can't even be considered a lock to make the playoffs. Such is life in the Western Conference.
New York Knicks
- Can David Fizdale change the culture?
The Knicks aren't going to make the playoffs this season. The two main goals are to get Kristaps Porzingis back healthy and excited to be in New York, and to get the momentum of the whole organization headed in a direction that might be able to attract a big free agent next summer, when they'll be flush with cap space. Winning a few more games would certainly help that cause, but it's more about how the players are buying in. Particularly Porzingis. Remember, before they go big-game hunting off campus, they still have to lock up the Unicorn long term.
Will Frank Ntilikina, already a budding defensive beast, improve offensively in his second year? Will rookie Kevin Knox continue the kind of play that made him a summer league darling? Could Mitchell Robinson become the league's latest second-round steal? If the Knicks can simply change the perception around them from one of a bumbling mess to a team to be taken seriously, this will have been a successful season. That is the whole mission for Fizdale -- a respected coach whose mere presence, before he's even coached a single game, has already made the Knicks feel more legitimate.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Can they flat-out make enough shots?
I'm going to make the optimistic assumption that Russell Westbrook's knee is going to be fine and will hold up for the season. If that isn't the case, nothing else you'll read about the Thunder will matter. They'll be done if Westbrook can't stay healthy.
Aside from that, shooting appears to be OKC's lone true weakness. I talked to a scout last season that worried about the team's ability to make enough shots, and that was when they had Carmelo Anthony. Say what you want about Anthony's defense and career-low shooting percentages, but he remains a threat. Now he's gone, probably replaced in the starting lineup with Jerami Grant, who is a much better defender than Anthony (part of the reason OKC's defense figures to be lethal, along with the return of Andre Roberson) but a non-threat from any kind of range.
Dennis Schroder comes over from Atlanta after shooting 29 percent from 3-point range last season. Roberson is one of the worst shooters in the league. Outside of Paul George (and perhaps Patrick Patterson if he gets decent minutes), there isn't a single player on the OKC roster that strikes any real fear into a defense from beyond the 3-point line. Obviously that includes Westbrook, who shot an appalling 29 percent from deep last season.
That number can improve one of two ways: Either Westbrook cleans up his shot selection, or he just makes more bad shots. You'd like to think first option is a possibility, but in reality, it'll probably have to be the latter. Sometimes, with no change to approach or mechanics, guys just have good shooting years.
Westbrook needs to have one of those years, not just from 3-point range but on those isolated pull-ups you know he's going to take with reckless abandon. They say it's a make-or-miss league, and in Westbrook's case, that's pretty spot on. He's going to take his shots, for better or worse -- he simply needs to make more of them than he did last season. If he does, and George does his thing, and this long, athletic defense smothers teams in the fashion it should, OKC could be a dark horse in the Western Conference.
- Will all this length work together?
It'll be a while before anyone can answer this question definitively, but we'll get some solid intel this season. The three guys everyone is focused on are Aaron Gordon, who signed a four-year, $76 million extension this summer, last year's No. 6 overall pick Jonathan Isaac and this year's No. 6 overall pick Mo Bamba. Gordon is 6-foot-9, Isaac is 6-foot-10, and Bamba is 7-feet tall with a cartoonish 7-9 wingspan. With all those arms waving around out there, offenses could feel like they're driving through a human car wash.
Can these three guys thrive playing together, or are Bamba and Isaac a bit redundant? It will be a while before either one of them is a real offensive force. Gordon is the best player on the team, but his real matchup advantages are at the four, and with Isaac and Bamba on the floor he'll be going against small forwards who are more capable of defending his athleticism. On their own, all three of these guys have monster upside. But what kind of potential do they have as a unit? Something seriously interesting could be building in Orlando.
- Is Markelle Fultz ready to be a real contributor?
These things we know for certain about the 76ers: Joel Embiid, assuming he stays healthy, is going to be a top-10 MVP candidate at worst. You can probably say the same about Ben Simmons. The defense should be pretty darn elite again. Shooting is a big question with the departures of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, but that notwithstanding, we can feel pretty confident in saying this Sixers team is comfortably upper class in the Eastern Conference -- the Western Conference equivalent of, say, the Thunder or the Jazz, a solid team but a step below the elite. Philly would have a puncher's chance to beat Toronto in a series, and probably no chance of beating a healthy Boston team.
Unless -- cross your fingers -- by the end of the regular season Fultz is able to return to the form that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2017.
If that somehow happens, all bets are off. The Sixers would then be at least an outside threat to anyone. It's quite a leap to go from getting genuinely excited when an NBA player, no less one who was supposed to be star in waiting,, to being able to count on Fultz as a consistent, high-level contributor, but there are positive signs. After a solid preseason debut, Fultz notched 12 points and six rebounds on 5-of-12 shooting -- and, wait for it, he actually hit a 3-pointer. Behold:
That ain't the prettiest thing you've ever seen, but Sixers fans will definitely take it. I've talked to a few people around the league who've described the Fultz situation as the ultimate X-factor because you just can't be sure what you're going to get. The Sixers have a pretty high floor without Fultz adding much, but if he gets better and better as the season progresses, if his confidence in his jumper grows and allows him to play freely and impact other parts of the game, that will raise the Sixers' ceiling considerably.
- What do we make of the youngsters?
That would be rookies Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and sophomore Josh Jackson. Ayton, of course, was the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft this past June, and Bridges went No. 10 to Philly before being traded to Phoenix. Ayton is a freakish athletic specimen who could realistically put up 18 and 10 as a rookie (after watching his preseason debut, that might actually be conservative). If he can develop as a consistent, instinctual defender that doesn't just reply on his athleticism to try to make highlight plays, he could be one of the top bigs in the league very soon.
Bridges, a 6-7 wing with a pure shooting stroke and the ability to guard multiple positions on the perimeter, appears to be perfectly suited for the modern NBA. He better be. The Suns gave up the Heat's 2021 first-round pick (not to mention a pretty freaky athlete and potential defensive gem in Zhaire Smith) to the Sixers to get him. That Miami pick could well end up being a lottery pick.
Jackson, for his part, somewhat salvaged what was heading in the direction of a pretty disastrous rookie season. To start the year he couldn't make a shot from anywhere (he was brutal from the rim to the 3-point line, free throws included). The ray of hope came in the form of a 17.2 ppg average from January through the end of the season -- the second-highest scoring mark over that stretch among rookies, trailing only Donovan Mitchell. The shooting percentages still weren't great, but he said the game started to slow down for him and he was much better inside the arc, at least. He looked pretty darn good connecting with Ayton in the preseason opener.
Jackson should be a defensive stud who can capably guard 1-4 and at least score in athletic, slashing ways. Rookie seasons get a bit of a pass (though not nearly as much as they used to), but this season Jackson will be under heavy scrutiny from the start. If all three of these youngsters show promise this season, with Devin Booker locked in on a five-year. $158 million extension, optimism will be flowing through the Valley of the Sun.
Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard, despite a rumor here or there, has maintained his commitment to Portland. McCollum has bashed the super-team movement and obviously likes playing with Lillard. Will the Blazers keep them together? That could depend on how the first few months of the season go. If the Blazers struggle, as many expect they could, the questions surrounding whether this small, defensively deficient backcourt can be the backbone of a contending team will only get louder.
I'm on record that Lillard is criminally under-discussed in the superstar conversation. If you trade him, the chances that whoever you get back, whether in the form of a current young player or a draft pick, will ever turn out to be as good as Lillard are slim. McCollum is younger, however, and therefore you could see a scenario in which the Blazers might consider moving forward with McCollum and trading Lillard, who will likely also fetch a higher return as they both make roughly the same money over the next three years.
Don't rule out Lillard lifting this team well above expectations yet again. But if he doesn't, the Blazers' books are a mess with over $80 million committed to Evan Turner, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard over the next two years. Perhaps getting off some of that money with a package deal that includes Lillard or McCollum could be a tempting reboot in Portland. I can't stop thinking about the Lakers here. Suddenly these big-name guys -- Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler -- are shying away from playing with LeBron. A trade for Lillard might legitimately become the Lakers' surest bet to put another star alongside James.
- Is something brewing with this youth movement?
We're talking about De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles, all of whom are under 21 years old (Bagley is still a teenager). Skal Labissiere is 22. Justin Jackson is 23. Buddy Hield is 24. That is a lot of talent. Fox and Bagley are fresh in everyone's minds, but remember, Giles was almost universally regarded as the surefire No. 1 pick before his three knee surgeries. He looked pretty good this summer and has the talent to make his being picked No. 20 overall look like a robbery a few years from now. Hield has quietly become a real weapon. I've always liked Jackson. Sacramento is going to lose a lot of games again, but similar to Phoenix, the accumulation of young talent is something to watch.
San Antonio Spurs
- Can they hold up on the perimeter?
This applies to both ends of the court. On the offensive end, they lack shooting, particularly 3-point shooting, in a major way. Dejounte Murray flirts with "can't hit water from a boat" status, and for as great as DeMar DeRozan is at getting to the line and creating in the mid-range, he still isn't any kind of threat from 3-point range. Rudy Gay shot 31 percent from downtown last season. Maybe rookie Lonnie Walker has something to add in the shooting department, but we're talking about a guy who only shot 41 percent from the field in college making an impact right away. They lost Tony Parker. They lost Manu Ginobili. Marco Belinelli can shoot, but if you're depending too heavily on Belinelli, you're in a tough spot.
Defensively, Murray can be an elite defender at the point, but DeRozan is below average and Rudy Gay is about the same. Belinelli? Forget about it. Losing Danny Green, still a nice 3-and-D guy, hurts the Spurs on both ends. Gregg Popovich always seems to put something solid together, even if it takes a little spit and glue. The Spurs won 47 games and made the playoffs last season without Kawhi Leonard, so it's certainly feasible they could at least do the same this season.
Problem is, the West, somehow, got better. You have to figure LeBron's Lakers as a cinch for the playoffs, which will push at least one of last season's postseason teams out. And that's to say nothing of the Nuggets, who also didn't make it last season but figure to be a good bet to get in this time around. That would push two teams from last season out. If the Spurs want to avoid being one of them, they'll have to figure something out on the perimeter.
- How long will it take Kawhi Leonard to find his old form?
Leonard said he felt great, health wise, in his Raptors preseason debut, in which he scored 12 points in 19 minutes. Once Leonard gets up to speed, the Raptors have the potential to be really, really good. The defense should be an all-switching monster with Leonard and OG Anunoby anchoring a perimeter attack that has length everywhere, both in the starting unit and off the bench. Even the small guys -- Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet -- are dogs on the defensive end. Serge Ibaka can still protect the rim.
Danny Green adds a 3-point threat, and Leonard is a much better shooter from 3-point range than DeMar DeRozan. In reality, the regular season doesn't really matter in Toronto. They're a lock to make the playoffs. In that regard, Leonard could take until January to get totally comfortable and it would be fine. Just be right for the playoffs.
The one potential problem with that timeline is this: If somehow the Raptors stumble the first few months, and Leonard isn't looking comfortable, you could start hearing about some potential Leonard trade scenarios if Toronto starts to feel like it could lose him for nothing next summer. From that standpoint, the quicker Leonard and the Raptors can take off, the more secure Raptors fans can feel that they'll at least have him for the full season (Chances are, he's not going anywhere. Paul George staying in OKC gave all these one-year-rental teams hope that it could be more if you hold out and keep selling your product).
- Can they avoid individual regressions?
Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles both had career years last season. Donovan Mitchell played at a level nobody saw coming. Rudy Gobert was Defensive Player of the Year. You can pretty much bet the farm that Mitchell is only going to get better, and Gobert is going to play like a DPOY, even if he doesn't win the award again. Ingles and Rubio are where it gets interesting.
Ingles shot 44 percent from 3-point range the last two years, he was simply a bigger part of the offense last season -- averaging a career-high 11.5 ppg. I talked to Ingles this summer and he said for a shooter, it's impossible to state the power of confidence and being in an equal-opportunity offense. Everyone is involved in Utah, and everyone is encouraged to shoot. Rubio told me the same thing last season -- when he shot a career-high 35 percent from 3-point range and 45 percent from the field. Those aren't great numbers, but for Rubio, a historically poor shooter, they're huge. It made him an entirely different player.
If all those guys repeat last season's performance, the Jazz are simply too sound an organization and too well-coached by Quin Snyder to not improve on the 48 wins they posted in 2017-18. Chances are, Mitchell is going to go to another level, and Ingles warned me not to be surprised if rookie Grayson Allen makes a big impact on this team right away. If all that happens, you could start to make the case that Utah could contend for as high as the No. 2 seed in the West.
- Can John Wall find the right balance?
When Wall went out for an extended period last season, the Wizards caught fire by winning 11 of 14 with Tomas Satoransky running the point. This wasn't because Satoransky is even close to as good as Wall -- it was, in fact, because he isn't. Wall is so good that he pretty rightfully controls the ball as much as anyone in the league. When he was out, the Wizards tapped into a level of inclusivity they've never really found on a consistent basis with Wall. The ball was moving. They were playing fast. Everyone was benefiting.
The Wizards eventually came back to earth because, simply, they didn't have enough talent with Wall out. The key here is for Wall to strike a balance between playing his game and lifting everyone else's. Satoransky passes just to keep the ball moving, not just when it's time to get an assist. It's hard for players of Wall's caliber to do that, to let someone else make the play without at least initiating the action yourself, but there can be great power in letting go. Whether Wall can do that effectively will largely determine how big of a threat Washington is to Boston, Toronto and Philly in the East.