Is it me, or does it feel like there wasn't really an NBA offseason? Seems like the Warriors were just winning the title a few weeks ago, and now, after a few twitter beefs, another landscape-shifting LeBron James decision and a Jimmy Butler tirade for the ages, here we are with opening night right back upon us. Tuesday night: Sixers at Celtics at 8 p.m. ET, followed by Thunder at Warriors at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Before the games start back up, here are the 10 biggest storylines to watch this season.
1. LeBron and the Lakers
I think most people would agree this is the biggest storyline heading into the season. It's LeBron James. It's the Lakers. It pretty much can't get bigger. That said, there are people around the league who are legitimately unsure whether this team will even make the playoffs, let alone win a series or two. That sounds crazy. LeBron hasn't missed the playoffs since 2005. But the Western Conference, as we know, is a different beast.
We know LeBron is going to be great. Many people have him as the preseason front-runner for MVP. For that to happen, the Lakers are probably going to have to secure at least a top 4 or 5 seed, and for that to happen, LeBron needs help. How the young core four of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart develop alongside LeBron will tell much of the tale. There's a prevailing line of thinking out there that LeBron makes everyone he plays with better, but that's not necessarily true.
I talked to Joe Ingles of the Jazz this summer, and he pointed to Rodney Hood, who was averaging 16 points a game in Utah and fell off the map in Cleveland, and Jae Crowder, who played some of his worst recent basketball in Cleveland only to come alive again in Utah. Playing on LeBron's terms, which is to say not getting the ball where you want it, or when you want it, all the time, affects each player differently. So we'll see.
All this said, the Lakers played fast and fun in the preseason. They have a team that can be very versatile on both ends, which is the goal of most every lineup deployment in today's NBA. Their margin for error isn't huge. Think about it like this: LeBron's Cavs won 50 games last season with LeBron having one of his best seasons ever and playing all 82 games. Playing in the West is probably worth at least three losses, and is this Lakers team really that much better than last year's Cavs team? They don't have a No. 2 as good as Kevin Love. They have more depth and athleticism and defensive versatility, but again, you could argue the depth of the West makes those factors a wash.
Somewhere right around 50 wins, with no major injuries, feels right.
You don't have to fall very far below that to be in real danger in the West.
2. Celtics' quest for Eastern throne
If you polled 100 NBA people -- players, coaches, execs, reporters, whoever -- my guess is at least 75 percent of them would say the Celtics are the best team in the East and the clear favorite to make the Finals. I know I would. This team is so full of talent that in any world where the Warriors didn't exist, they would be an absolute super-team. No question. People expect them to be great, and that's not an expectation that many of these Celtics have ever dealt with.
That's where Kyrie Irving comes in. Yes, he's the team's best player, but he's also the most experienced player in terms of playing under the weight of championship scrutiny. Even Gordon Hayward and Al Horford -- two smart, seasoned veterans who have both played in a lot of big games -- have never played in the kinds of games the Celtics plan to be playing in come the end of this season.
I was in Boston toward the end of the preseason, and Kyrie spoke about his responsibility to lead this team under these new, and perhaps more difficult, circumstances. He recalled when he was the inexperienced player, when he relied on talent alone and how that all changed the day LeBron returned to Cleveland and suddenly being great was the only option.
"Being around [Le]Bron and Mike Miller and James Jones and all the other veterans, at that time was something that I needed," Irving said. "I had to learn a lot about the game of basketball. I was [in my fourth year], I'd just signed a $90 million contract, I was thirsty for everything, and for the most part, to that point I had been taught to just roll out the ball and go play. That was the first time I actually had to watch film, and get ready for the playoffs, and learn what it's like to be the one [being] hunted.
"And that's a change we're going to see [in Boston]. We're asking a lot of our players to be basketball savants, not just basketball players who can go out there with nothing to lose, nothing to worry about," Irving said. "We have to be a lot smarter, a lot more diligent, a lot more communicative. Our effort has to surpass other teams ... It takes a lot more thinking, a lot more film work and talking about what we want as a group. That's going to distinguish us."
If this all comes together for Boston, if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown validate the success they had last season and even grow from that, if Gordon Hayward eventually returns to the player he was before that gruesome injury, if they avoid the trap of playing one-on-one basketball with their myriad individual talents, if they keep the mentality of a team trying to prove itself rather than one that already has, then this could be something really great in Boston. It's a team that is capable of winning it all. Not the favorite, but capable.
3. Markelle Fultz the X-factor
The Sixers are going to start the season with Fultz in the starting lineup in place of JJ Redick. It's a big move in the sense that the Sixers can, at times, already struggle with spacing with Ben Simmons on the floor. Now if you have two non-shooting threats, suddenly one of the best lineups in basketball (which Philly's starting lineup was last season) has some issues. You could also look at it like Redick beefs up the shooting of a bench that lost Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, who carried the Sixers at times during the playoffs with their shooting.
Either way, the Sixers are done babying Fultz. They're throwing him in there and asking him to step up for a team that has outside conference-title aspirations. Two front-office people in the league have said to me that they see Fultz as one of the biggest X-factors in the league, because you simply don't know what you're going to get. If he's good and at least a capable shooter beyond 12 feet, he raises the Sixers' ceiling considerably. It would be like picking up a big-time free agent. On the other hand, If Fultz is still a really limited player, Philly is basically the same team it was last season only with less shooting. How much internal improvement can Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid make for Philly to be that much better than it was last season?
The good news is Fultz looked pretty good this preseason. He's looked relatively comfortable pulling up off the dribble out to around 15 feet, and he even showed some three-point range, albeit still with some pretty funky, push-shot mechanics. Even without a major improvement in his shooting, he's a big, athletic guy for his position who can add to Philly's already super-versatile defensive lineups and allow Simmons to operate a bit more without the ball -- if Fultz can at least create havoc by getting into the lane.
4. The Jimmy Butler saga
The latest news is that Butler will play opening night for the Wolves against the Spurs, and owner Glen Taylor has assured Butler than the organization will continue to work diligently to honor his trade demand. Right now, how this situation will play out, where Butler will end up and what kind of package the Wolves will get in return without much leverage, is the most intriguing question in the league.
Couple things here: I've talked to a handful of GMs who have said this situation where a star player is demanding a trade with one year left on his deal is one of the hardest -- if not the hardest -- situations to navigate in today's league. You're almost never going to get what you would deem equal value for a star player, but some teams have made out well. The Pacers came out fine, if not better off, when they traded Paul George. The Spurs got an All-NBA player for Kawhi Leonard. If the Wolves could get, say, Bam Adebayo and Josh Richardson for Butler, that's a good haul.
But, from Miami's perspective, how much better does Butler make you than you were with Richardson and Adebayo? Maybe you go from a 45-win team to a 48-win team? You're almost certainly still in a tier below the real contenders in the East, and now you're going to pony up a max contract, or something close to it, for Butler, who will be 34 years old at the end of that deal? To that point, I've had people in the league point out the rough way some Tom Thibodeau players have aged; i.e. Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. All that considered, it's one thing to pay Butler a bunch of money that might look pretty bad at the end of the contract, but it's another thing to pay him all that money AND give up your two best young assets.
Whether it ends up being Miami or another team, it seems very unlikely that Minnesota will keep him all season. You just can't lose a player of Butler's worth for nothing. Where will he end up, and what will the Wolves get in return? These are the questions. And until a deal is made, these will remain the only questions that really matter in Minnesota. After that, we can talk about Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and all the money they're making, and just how big a slap in the face it is to this two to think Minnesota is sunk without Butler.
5. Giannis' Freak Show
This feels like the year that Giannis is going to truly become one of the five best players in the league and an MVP front-runner, on a team where there are actual expectations to win at a meaningful level. Bringing in Mike Budenholzer to coach this Milwaukee team was a great move. He's going to space the offense and speed things up, and that lane is going to get a lot more open for Giannis, who was the only player in the league to record a preseason triple-double, and was one of four players to average at least 15 points, five assists and one steal in the preseason. Seriously, man ...
The refs actually gave Giannis a tech for this stare down in a preseason game... pic.twitter.com/nKiCEi3Trp— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 13, 2018
For a long time Stephen Curry was that player in the league that you felt like if you missed one of his games, even for a few minutes, you might miss something that would make your eyes pop straight of their sockets. Giannis feels like that guy now. This is setting up to be a monster year for him, and again, the Bucks feel like they can compete for a conference finals berth. They have talent. They have a lot of versatility. With Giannis seemingly primed to enter into the best-of-the-best category, and Coach Bud's system in place, Milwaukee is dangerous. Outside the top-tier teams, they're one of the most intriguing teams to watch this season.
6. Warriors get their Boogie on
This is one of the major storylines this season in that it involves the Warriors, who could stake their claim as the most talented team in NBA history, irrefutably, if Cousins comes back to full strength by the playoffs. The flip side is the Warriors are still arguably the most talented team in history without Cousins, so in that way, it really doesn't feel like that big of a deal. If he doesn't work, either for fit or health reasons, it doesn't matter. He's on a one-year deal and he's making less than $6 million. Very simply, this is the most risk-free, huge-payout gamble imaginable in today's NBA.
Will the Warriors ever get to a point where they actually need Boogie? Perhaps. Throughout this run, the one thing they've never had is a truly dominant big man. The Celtics could end up being good enough, and big enough when they deploy Al Horford and Aron Baynes, to make Cousins a necessary option in a potential Finals matchup. The Rockets had the Warriors on the brink last season until Chris Paul got hurt, meaning, if they don't regress, Golden State could have some ground to make up there.
But let's be real: The Warriors are the favorite with or without Cousins. It's only interesting from the standpoint of just how ridiculously good he could potentially make them.
7. Luca Doncic vs. Trae Young
After being traded for one another on draft night, these two, on some level, are going to be compared to one another for their entire careers. This year will in no way give us a definitive answer as to who won the trade, it's just too early. But it'll give us an idea. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk told CBS Sports 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. If it happens the other way, and Doncic, somehow, isn't great and Young goes off, Dallas will be kicking itself double having given up the extra pick as well.
All this said, I don't see either team being very disappointed here. This is a win-win, I think, and indeed both Doncic and Young looked pretty great in the preseason. Check out Doncic -- a 6-foot-8 power forward with point guard skills -- going to work:
Luka Doncic looked amazing during preseason. This kid is special. pic.twitter.com/kwBP2tWtZf— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) October 13, 2018
Young, for his part, was one of just four players to average at least 15 points, five assists and one steal this preseason. The other four were Giannis, James Harden and John Wall. Not bad company. Oh, and he also drilled this 30-foot game-winner like it was nothing:
Trae Young drains the 30 footer for the win pic.twitter.com/heOHFdrFAk— Heart of NBA (@HeartofNBA) October 11, 2018
Personally, I think both these guys are going to be terrific, and I don't think we'll have to wait long for it to happen. The Hawks figure to be a pretty bad team this season, but Young is already bordering on can't-miss TV. The Cavs could potentially be a pretty decent team, but Doncic is the draw. Watching how these guys develop over their first year, particularly in comparison to one another, is one of the most exciting storylines, in my opinion, coming into the season.
8. Kawhi, Raptors laying in the cut
I said earlier that if you polled 100 NBA people, at least 75 percent of them would say the Celtics are the clear best team in the East. This, to me, constitutes the Raptors laying in the cut, because they are going to be really good. Will they win 59 games again like they did last season? Who knows. But that's the point. The Raptors have never had trouble winning regular-season games; they've had trouble winning playoffs games, particularly against LeBron James. LeBron is gone, and the Raptors are much better with Kawhi, assuming health and a return to form, than they were with DeMar Derozan.
Toronto has the potential to be devastating on defense, with multiple lineups that can switch 1-4 with ease and even 1-5 in a pinch. They have two individual defenders in Kawhi and OG Anunoby who can legitimately go one-on-one with the best scorers in the league, with little to no help, and get the better of the matchup. Leonard is a much better 3-point shooter than DeRozan, so the floor is going to me more spaced and, flat-out, they're just going to make more threes -- Danny Green remains a threat out there, too.
Bottom line, Toronto is really good and could be great if enough comes together. After the excitement of the Kawhi trade died down, it feels like we've forgotten about them a little bit, if that's even possible before the season has even started. Our Reid Forgrave says Toronto is going to be in the Finals. He says they're going to play the Jazz, which is a little bonkers, but the Raptors' half of that prediction isn't crazy at all.
9. Rockets' potential regression
The biggest reason the Rockets were able to push the Warriors to seven games in the conference finals last season was their defense. They were long and tough and switched everything, and consequently the Warriors had to start settling for one-on-one possessions ran largely through Kevin Durant when their movement-based system stopped yielding open shots.
Now Trevor Ariza's gone. So is Luc Mbah a Moute. Those are two plus-defenders. Flip them out for Carmelo Anthony, and the defense, obviously, gets much worse. Some are saying the addition of James Ennis could mitigate the loss of Ariza, and to some degree, it could. But that's an unknown. Ariza brought more than defense as well as an almost perfect, floor-spacing offensive complement to the iso-style Houston runs with James Harden and Chris Paul.
At the end of the day, the Rockets are going to play a lot of lineups that feature Harden, Eric Gordon and Carmelo. That is three bad defenders. Golden State will feast on that, and Golden State is really the only team the Rockets measure themselves against. Daryl Morey told me this summer to "judge [the Rockets' roster] on April 15th," which is the last day of the regular season, meaning he'll likely be looking to make moves through the trade deadline. If that happens, we can revisit this. But as currently constructed, there is a definite case to be made that Houston is less equipped to beat Golden State than it was last season.
10. Western Conference playoff picture
If we can all agree that the Lakers are going to make the playoffs this season, that's at least one playoff team from last year that has to drop out. Most people think the Nuggets, who also missed the playoffs last season, will make it this year, as well. That means two teams from last year miss out.
Who will it be?
You'll hear a lot of people talking about these four teams as candidates to drop out: The Blazers, the Spurs, the Wolves (assuming they do end up trading Butler and depending on what they get back) and the Pelicans. Man, that is a brutal conference when the Pelicans, who have arguably one of the three best players in the world in Anthony Davis and another star in Jrue Holiday, are in danger of not even making the playoffs, but that's life in the West right now.
I was in New Orleans for training camp and Alvin Gentry told me that they feel like Davis and Holiday are the best two-way combo in the league, and it's hard to argue with him. There are some questions about how Julius Randle will fit alongside Davis and Mirotic, but that could be a pretty nice front-court, at least offensively, in certain lineups. I think the Pelicans get in, but the margin for error is very thin.
I also think Portland gets in. I just believe in Damian Lillard, plain and simple. Portland was a borderline top-five defense most of last year simply by everyone doing their job, playing pick and rolls pretty conservatively, forcing the right kinds of shots. Terry Stotts told CBS Sports this summer that the Blazers plan to expand on that by becoming more disruptive on the defensive end, forcing the issue a bit more by applying more ball pressure with their guards. If you have a top-10 defense and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, that has to get you in, doesn't it?
So that leaves us with Minnesota and San Antonio, who would be my pick for the two teams that fall out. San Antonio just isn't that talented and it's been decimated by injuries. I could be convinced that one of, or both those teams find a way in, but they have the biggest uphill climb.
Now, this is to say nothing of the seeding. Utah could be the No. 2. Houston could be the No. 2. OKC could be the biggest threat to Golden State in the playoffs and it might not even get a top-six seed with Andre Roberson's injury. The Lakers could feasibly end up anywhere from No. 8 to No. 3. This thing is a beautiful mess. And nobody can wait to watch how it plays out.