Key question for each NBA team before training camp: Steph Curry and D'Angelo Russell's chemistry, Lakers' PG plan, more
Training camps are only a couple of weeks away, with plenty of decisions to be made before the season starts
The summer is drawing to a close and that means the fragrant aroma of salty ocean air will soon be replaced by the unmistakable funk of sweaty gymnasiums. The relaxing sound of seagulls and children's laughter will give way to ball-bouncing, sneaker-squeaking and referee whistles. That's right, basketball fans, NBA training camps are just a couple of weeks away.
The season itself doesn't start until Oct. 22, but there's plenty of work for teams to do in the month or so of practices, workouts and preseason games that precedes the 2019-20 campaign. There are question marks all over the league heading into camp, particularly with the amount of player movement we saw this offseason. Adjustments will need to be made and position battles will need to be won before we can get a clear picture of which teams are poised to have memorable seasons -- for better or for worse.
As we prepare for NBA training camps, here's one important question that each team will need to address.
How good is Cam Reddish?
The Hawks developed a pretty good idea of what they have in Trae Young and John Collins last year, and their No. 4 overall pick, DeAndre Hunter, is generally considered to be a known commodity. So the huge question mark in the potential emergence of the Hawks as a future NBA power is Reddish, a Duke product whom some feel could eventually be the best player in a draft featuring Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett. In this summer's NBA rookie survey (which is generally wrong, mind you), Reddish received the most Rookie of the Year votes for any player outside the top three picks. His name was also mentioned the most of anyone's (19 percent) to answer the question, "Which rookie will have the best career?" If the 6-foot-8, smooth-shooting wing can prove that his lack of college production was due to fit -- not a lack of effort, as some suggest -- the Hawks could be a fringe playoff contender in the East this season, and the future could be extremely bright.
Who will be the closer?
You can say a lot about Kyrie Irving's time in Boston, but you can't deny that he was the undisputed go-to-guy at the end of close games. Most expect Kemba Walker to fill that role after Irving's departure, but despite his willingness to take big shots Walker has had mixed results in such situations. He's not quite as adept at getting his own shot as Irving (not many are), and Walker's lack of size could lead to problems creating space. Enter Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward, both longer, taller wings who could also play the closer role. Whether they're ready to take over will depend on development -- gradual improvement from Tatum as he gets older, and a return to form for Hayward, who was the closer for the Jazz before suffering his devastating leg injury. All three players (or more) could alternate, but as we've seen in baseball, the closer-by-committee approach is often inferior to one player in a solidified role. The Celtics can use training camp to get an idea of who will at least start as their main man in the clutch.
How will Kyrie Irving fit in?
The Nets took huge strides last season partly based on chemistry and cohesion, and there's perhaps no more polarizing player to throw into an NBA locker room right now than Kyrie Irving. Off-court dynamics aside, there will likely be some push-and-pull between Irving and coach Kenny Atkinson as to the best way to utilize Irving's talent. That's not a bad thing, but it will take some time for both sides to figure out the right approach. The Nets were eighth in the NBA in passes per game last season, but were also fifth in isolations per game. This suggests that Irving could fit in nicely into the role vacated by D'Angelo Russell, but we won't know until we see it play out on the court. With Kevin Durant likely out for the entire season, it's Irving's show -- we just need to see what kind of show it will be.
Who's going to score?
There are very few teams in the NBA for which you can't quickly and accurately identify the best player, but Charlotte became one of them when Walker headed to Boston. The Hornets replaced him with Terry Rozier on a debatable contract, but we have no idea how he will perform in a regular starting role. Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and head coach James Borrego have both stated a commitment to making time for young guys like Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon, Devonte Graham and this summer's No. 12 overall pick, P.J. Washington, but they also have veterans like Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller to get in the mix. You wouldn't list volume scoring as the primary trait of any of those players (unless Monk takes a huge leap forward), which leaves the Hornets with a serious dearth of point production. Figuring out who can consistently put the ball in the basket should be the top priority at Hornets camp.
How do the talented pieces fit?
For all their recent struggles, the Bulls have a good amount of talent on their roster. Adding veterans Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky to go along with an established core of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter makes Chicago an intriguing team in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. How the pieces fit together, however, is a different story. No. 7 overall pick Coby White is a big combo guard, much like LaVine, Satoransky and Kris Dunn. Markkanen, Young and Wendell Carter Jr. should all command starter minutes as bigs. The Bulls have done a nice job collecting assets, but now they need to figure out how it's going to work and, perhaps, who they can start shopping around.
Can their two young guards play together?
The Cavs took who they considered to be the best player available with the fifth overall pick in June's draft, but Darius Garland just happens to play the same position as last year's No. 8 overall pick, Collin Sexton. Since Sexton turned in epically futile assist production last season and shot surprisingly well from 3-point range (40.2 percent on 3.6 attempts per game), it's easy to imagine him sliding to the two while Garland mans the point. However, both guards stand just 6-foot-2, which will provide significant matchup problems on the defensive end against shooting guards in the 6-6 to 6-8 range. Also, scouting reports on Garland suggest he's much more of a scoring guard than a distributor, much like Sexton. You can't blame a rebuilding team for drafting talent over fit, but it's going to take some tinkering during camp and in the early season.
What's the plan for Kristaps?
Dallas is salivating at the prospects of an exciting core of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, but we have no idea what Porzingis will look like after missing a season and a half while recovering from a torn ACL. NBA players generally have trouble getting back to form in the first year back from ACL surgery, so how many minutes will the Mavericks expect their 7-foot-2 unicorn to play? Load management will surely be involved, but getting a sense of where Porzingis is physically will be a big goal in Mavs camp.
Is Michael Porter Jr. ready to contribute?
Once considered a potential No. 1 overall pick, the Nuggets drafted Porter with the last pick of the lottery in 2018 despite health concerns. After a redshirt year, Porter looks healthy and ready to go for this season.
However, the Nuggets, who are expected to contend for the top seed out West, have a solid rotation of proven players that will make it difficult for Porter to get off the bench. Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee figure to get the bulk of the big minutes, with Torrey Craig, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez on the wing. But still, if Porter realizes the talent he displayed in high school and his brief college career, it will be hard for Denver to keep him off the court.
Who starts on the wing?
Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are staples in Detroit's starting lineup, but the other two positions aren't set in stone. Bruce Brown started 56 games as a rookie last season but was practically invisible on the offensive end. He could receive some competition from Luke Kennard, who played well in increased minutes in the final month of last season, shooting 43 percent on nearly five 3-pointers per game in March and April. They used Kennard off the bench last season, but with the addition of Derrick Rose as a bench scorer and playmaker, they might look to insert Kennard as a floor-spacer in the starting lineup. There's also offseason acquisition Tony Snell, who was a 40 percent 3-point shooter for the past three seasons in Milwaukee, and could fit well as a rangy 3-and-D option at small forward. Only two of Brown, Kennard and Snell will start, so Dwane Casey will have to figure out which lineups work best.
How will Steph Curry and D'Angelo Russell fit together?
There are plenty of questions for the Warriors, whose roster is practically unrecognizable from the one that came within two games of winning a third straight NBA title in June. The most obvious, however, is how newly acquired max player D'Angelo Russell will replace the injured Klay Thompson alongside Stephen Curry. Thompson and Curry have perfectly complemented each other for years, but Russell presents a much different offensive skill set and a significant drop-off on the defensive end. The basketball IQ of the Warriors players and coach Steve Kerr will likely figure it out, but it could take some time. It's going to be fascinating to watch how they incorporate Russell and their other new players into the system that's been nearly unstoppable for five seasons.
A lot has been made of the positional redundancy between Westbrook and Harden in terms of their ball-dominant tendencies, but the same was said when Chris Paul joined the Rockets. Westbrook certainly adds an element of speed, athleticism and transition pressure that Houston lacked, but what about the half-court? Harden is arguably the best isolation scorer in NBA history, so it's hard to imagine Mike D'Antoni going away from the team's most efficient weapon. So when Harden goes into isos, what does Westbrook do? He was a historically bad 3-point shooter last season, and if you use him as a cutter he clogs up the lane for Harden's drives with Clint Capela already in the dunker spot. D'Antoni has adapted his style to fit personnel in the past, so we'll have to wait and see what he comes up with for his new superstar duo.
The biggest question for the Pacers is how Victor Oladipo will return from his injury, but Indiana president Kevin Pritchard has already stated that his All-Star guard won't be back until the "December-January" range, so that's not really an issue during training camp. Instead, the Pacers will focus on their big-man dynamic, with both Turner and Sabonis primed for potential career seasons. Indiana could look to start them alongside each other, which presents its own problems in the modern NBA, but in 429 minutes together last season (a pretty good sample size), lineups featuring both Turner and Sabonis produced a net rating of plus-2.8, including a stingy 99.6 defensive rating. Conventional thinking says the Pacers will have to choose which big man they'd like to keep moving forward, so figuring out if and how their big man duo will play together in large minutes will go a long way toward determining the franchise's direction.
How healthy will Paul George be?
The Clippers shocked the NBA world by not only signing Kawhi Leonard, but also trading a bevy of assets for Paul George to create one of the most formidable two-way combos in the league. However, we likely won't see them at full strength for quite some time. Leonard's "load management" is routine at this point, and George is coming off of surgery on not one, but both shoulders this offseason. George's timetable isn't clear yet, but he reportedly could miss at least the first couple weeks of the season, which means the Clippers could lose some valuable fitting-in time between the two stars and their new system under coach Doc Rivers.
Who's going to play point guard?
The Lakers have two of the top five players in the NBA in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but outside of that there are very few known commodities on this squad. Davis still reportedly has no interest in playing the bulk of his minutes at center, so that means LeBron will likely start at the three and either Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee will start at center, pushing Kyle Kuzma to the bench. While LeBron will obviously assume most of the ball-handling duties, the Lakers still have a big question mark at point guard. Ideally they'd have a floor spacer/defender in the vein of Patrick Beverley, but there simply isn't one on the roster. Is Rajon Rondo capable of being a starting point guard at this juncture of his career? Quinn Cook can shoot and had big moments with the Warriors, but is he ready to play starter minutes? Alex Caruso has shown flashes, but will he be consistent? Ultimately, for a team with championship aspirations, the Lakers have a pretty unsettled point guard situation. They'll need to figure it out, starting with training camp.
How quickly can JJJ develop?
The Grizzlies couldn't have been happier with the two-way impact Jaren Jackson Jr. had last season as the second-youngest rookie in the league, and are hoping for a healthy return after Jackson missed the final two months of last season with a quad injury. New Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins has said he wants to play at a much faster tempo this season with Ja Morant running the point, which could take Jackson to another level offensively. The Grizzlies have no designs on making the playoffs, so the most important thing is developing their young core and seeing how quickly Jackson can blossom into the All-Star-caliber player they expect him to be.
What to do with point-Justise?
With Goran Dragic sidelined for a bulk of last season, Justise Winslow thrived in his role as point-forward for the Heat. But now with Dragic back in the fold and reportedly healthy, Winslow will likely be afforded less ball-handling opportunity, which could devalue him as a player. That's not to mention the addition of Jimmy Butler, another guy who thrives with the ball in his hands. Having so many adept playmakers is a good problem for coach Erik Spoelstra, but they'll have to work hard in camp to strike the right balance between the three.
Who replaces Malcolm Brogdon?
Behind MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo the Bucks are expected to once again vie for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but losing Brogdon, along with his 15.6 points per game on 50-43-93 shooting, is a significant blow. Making it even worse, the Bucks couldn't really afford to go out and get a true replacement, which leaves the group of George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown and newly acquired Wesley Matthews to pick up the slack. The Bucks' system allows any of those guys to step in and get the job done, but coach Mike Budenholzer will have his hands full trying to decide how to replace Brogdon's minutes.
Can KAT step up his defense?
Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most uniquely talented offensive big men the NBA has ever seen, and he figures to be even better on that end in his fifth season. But offense hasn't been the Wolves' problem over the past few years -- they've ranked in the bottom seven in defensive efficiency since Towns entered the league. By all indications Towns is ready to step up and be the leader of a team hoping to get back to the postseason, but it starts on the defensive end.
Will Brandon Ingram take the next step?
Jrue Holiday is a borderline All-Star, Zion Williamson will be one of the league's most exciting players as a rookie and Lonzo Ball will help push an already blistering pace in New Orleans, but the fate of the revamped Pelicans may rest on the tattooed shoulders of Brandon Ingram. Despite good numbers in his first three seasons with the Lakers, Ingram has been inconsistent and never really seemed to find his groove. New Orleans is hoping that he can realize the potential that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft in his new surroundings. Some still feel Ingram has an All-NBA ceiling, and the Pelicans are hoping they can bring it out of him.
Can they start building the right culture?
Winning in any significant manner seems to be many years away for the lowly Knicks, so the concentration needs to be on developing young talent and establishing a strong culture. It's been difficult to do under owner James Dolan, but with Kristaps Porzingis traded and superstar free agents signed elsewhere, coach David Fizdale is basically starting from scratch with a group of potential-filled, talented young players like RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Will they go for the playoffs, or kick off the rebuild?
The Thunder lost Paul George and Russell Westbrook, but are still left with a roster that can at least compete for a playoff spot in the loaded West. Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari will have to stay healthy, no guarantee given their history, but those two along with Steven Adams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander comprise a pretty solid core. With a treasure trove of draft picks in their arsenal, the Thunder have to decide whether they'll try to remain competitive or trade their veterans to usher in a full rebuild. We've seen teams like the Clippers and Celtics manage to turn over their rosters on the fly while remaining competitive, and perhaps that's the blueprint the Thunder will follow.
What do they have in Markelle Fultz?
After becoming the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, pretty much nothing has gone right in Fultz's career. A combination of shoulder injuries and mechanical issues rendered his jump shot useless, which led to the Sixers dealing him to the Magic. Orlando believes in him enough to , which makes you think the Magic must have gotten some indication that his physical and/or psychological issues when it comes to shooting the basketball are behind him. With a solid core returning from a playoff season, the Magic could make some waves in the Eastern Conference if Fultz is able to contribute in any sort of meaningful way after he returns from injury.
Will Ben Simmons actually shoot the ball?
There have been plenty of videos this summer showing Simmons looking comfortable knocking down jumpers and fadeaways, but will he actually do it in games this season? We've seen how even the slightest amount of shooting confidence has helped Giannis Antetokounmpo expand his game, and many hope that Simmons will be able to take a similar leap this season. The Sixers are among the favorites in a wide-open East, but they're going to need Simmons to become a more consistent weapon in the half-court. An improved jumper and willingness to shoot wouldn't fix every problem, but it would be a great start.
What's the next step for Devin Booker?
Last season Booker joined LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Michael Adams as the only players in NBA history to average over 26 points, 6.5 assists and 2.0 made 3-pointers in a season while playing over 50 games. That's elite company, yet very few view Booker as an elite player. It begs the question: Heading into his fifth NBA season, what can Booker do to get better and help the Suns win? For one, Booker shot just 33 percent on 6.5 3-point attempts per game last season and is only at 35 percent for his career. Perhaps surprising given his smooth shooting stroke, Booker only made 29.5 percent of "open" 3-pointers (closest defender within four-to-six feet, according to NBA.com), just below Kevin Knox and just above Harrison Barnes. For reference, Joe Harris led the league by making 47 percent of such shots. It might be as simple as making open 3s, but the Suns need to figure out how Booker can make the superstar leap if they're ever going to get back to relevance.
How will the Hassan Whiteside experiment work?
Nobody has ever doubted Whiteside's per-minute numbers, but it's safe to say that the big man wore out his welcome with the Miami Heat, both on and off the court. With Jusuf Nurkic out for most, if not all of the season, Portland rolled the dice on Whiteside to go with a revamped roster outside of its backcourt staples, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Zach Collins took a huge step forward last year and he'll likely demand more minutes, so it will be interesting to see how coach Terry Stotts divides the minutes between his two main big men -- or if he tries to play them together. And if Whiteside doesn't get the minutes he feels he deserves, how long will he be able to harness his discontent?
Is Marvin Bagley a power forward or a center?
After a strong rookie season, Bagley will enter Kings camp as the likely starter at power forward, but you have to wonder if he'll ultimately be more effective as a center. While they don't necessarily need to make that determination immediately, playing Bagley at center would allow for some interesting lineups from Sacramento with De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic all playing together, perhaps with Nemanja Bjelica at the four to provide incredible spacing. Bagley has already proven himself to be a great scorer around the basket and a solid rebounder, so if he can handle the position defensively, he could be playing more center than forward for the Kings this season.
How good is Dejounte Murray?
Before he missed the entire 2018-19 season with a torn ACL, Murray was considered to be a breakout candidate with his length, speed and defensive ability. His absence allowed Derrick White to have that breakout season instead, and now the two will be paired together in the San Antonio backcourt. Murray should provide a transition element the Spurs lacked last year, but they have to see how healthy, and potentially rusty, he may be to start the season.
What does the future hold for Raptors veterans?
Normally the defending champion is in position to at least threaten to repeat, but that's not the case with the Raptors after Kawhi Leonard left for Los Angeles. As it stands Toronto will probably be a playoff team, but president Masai Ujiri could instead elect to sell off veteran pieces like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, all of whom are on expiring contracts. The team could get picks and assets to help them build around young players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. The Raptors don't necessarily need to make their decision until the trade deadline, but they certainly have to be thinking about it.
On paper, the acquisition of Conley makes perfect sense -- get a ball-handler and knock-down shooter to put alongside Mitchell. But Mitchell has grown accustomed to being the primary playmaker for the Jazz in his first two NBA seasons, so there will be an adjustment period with his new teammate. With the improvements they made this offseason, Utah is a trendy pick to reach the upper echelon of the Western Conference, but a lot of it will depend on how Conley and Mitchell coexist.
How long will Bradley Beal last in D.C.?
In the current NBA climate, it's hard to imagine a player of Beal's talent sitting idly by in his prime on a team fighting for lottery ping pong balls. Maybe he'll be patient enough to think that when John Wall (hopefully) returns next season the Wizards will become a title contender, but that's a big gamble to take. Another scenario is that Beal, quietly or publicly, demands a trade to a contender and the arms race begins. Beal is a picture-perfect fit with pretty much any superstar given his shooting and playmaking ability, so it will be up to the Wizards to make an important choice.
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