As we enter a relatively slow time in the off-season (though my DVR is still humming along with every summer league game I can fill into that endless void), and we begin to reflect on what has transpired up until this point and how those moves will come to present themselves into this coming season’s narrative, questions began to round into form about how this season may transpire for some franchises. While nothing can be answered until that first fall jump ball takes flight, it’s always fun to query and conjecture as a means of whetting the appetite for what looks to be another exciting and wide-open season of NBA basketball. So, here I present 7 burning questions—and some of my own assumed answers—that will be fun to follow into this forthcoming NBA season.
Can the Lakers make it all work?
I’m not even sure what to make of the Lakers off-season moves. And if you claim that you know, well then you are a far more confident prognosticator than I. The move to bring in Russ is the real inflection point here, and frankly my least favorite move they made, especially if the Buddy Hield talk was valid, as Hield is just a better fit than Russ as a p2p comparison for a LeBron-led team. While Russ can clearly relieve some of LeBron’s ball handling load during the regular season, there’s no way in frigid hell that LeBron is relinquishing those possessions to Russ in the postseason. Especially with Russ’s habit of frittering away possessions with bad turnovers and poor decision-making late in games (I am stoked for some Hall of Fame level side-eye this season though). So, unless Russ finds a stroke that I’m not even sure Merlin could conjure, or becomes a back-cutting beast—do we have any reason to think this tiger is capable of changing his stripes? —I just don’t see how the Lakers can make this work offensively into the postseason. And with LeBron and the Lakers, isn’t the postseason all that matters? The moves to add Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington, and Kendrick Nunn add some much-needed shooting, and the returns of Ariza and Howard along with addition of Melo can give the team some—albeit creaky—needed depth. The real question here is where is the defense going to come from? The Lakers title run two seasons ago was predicated upon a defense that was big and stifling, and while they may still be big, the perimeter defenders here are suspect at best, and awful at worst. The team may have to really hope that the crazy-long Talen Horton-Tucker is ready to make a huge leap, but that’s a really big “if” for such a young player who is still so relatively raw. Nothing about the composition of the offense leads me to believe that it will be so incredible as to compensate for some of the defense liabilities, as we already know the optimal team composition of a LeBron-led group is surrounding him with a bevy of high-level perimeter shooters. Don’t get me wrong, there will be nights where it is all clicking and the hyperbole machine out of Los Angeles will be in full effect, but ultimately this team has far more questions than answers going into this coming season. And one of the biggest questions will be health. Russ was clearly added to provide more superstar-level talent in case of injuries, but with AD and Russ always a play away from the injured list, and with LeBron having now suffered injuries that saw him miss significant time two of the last three seasons, there must be concerns about potential vital time missed by one or more of the teams’ stars. With AD and LeBron it would be silly to just dismiss the potential this team has, but I’m just not sure I buy them as a cogent group once playoff time rolls around.
Which Magic guard gets squeezed out?
With seven guards currently on the roster, including four aged 23 or younger, the Orlando Magic have quite the glut at the guard position. While Terence Ross has been rumored to be traded for about 15 years now, and nobody believes MCW is more than a fringe reserve at best, it feels as though there’s no way the Magic can pacify Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton, Jalen Suggs, and Markelle Fultz (who should be ready to return from an ACL tear in time for the beginning of the season), in addition to trying to resurrect Gary Harris’ career. While Suggs can play both guard spots, and Fultz has the size to guard 2’s, really all 4 players (excluding Harris who is solely a shooting guard) are at their best with the ball in their hands. Additionally, only Ross has shown that he can be a consistent perimeter threat, which makes guard pairings very difficult for a Magic team that already possesses a paucity of perimeter scoring. Hampton had some flashes to end the season last year, but his struggles in summer league may portend more time in the G-league. But, if Orlando looks to move one of their young floor generals, it feels like Anthony would get the squeeze here. With Fultz returning from an injury this year after signing a 3-year $50 million contract extension last December, it feels as though the Magic are committed to continuing to foster the former number one overall picks reclamation from a nerve injury that has made his form and figures from the perimeter erratic at best. Suggs has the biggest upside of any of the battery of backcourt players in the organization and is really the only guard that can be a plus at either the point or shooting guard positions, as Fultz’s shooting issue makes him a liability off-ball. It’s clear that Anthony feels like he’s earned more time following a rookie year in which he averaged 27 minutes per game, while putting up a respectable 12.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, but he shot under 40% from the field and I’m not sure he has the athletic punch or size to be a viable option as a starter in the league. Anthony and Hampton feel like they don’t project to be more than bench level players who can run second offenses and perhaps fill in admirably when needed, but it doesn’t seem that either player sees themselves that way. A nd when added to the fact that their timeline for improvement is at ostensibly the same pace as both Fultz and Suggs, it’s probably hard to convince either young man to take a backseat so early in their careers. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Magic roster as the bottleneck at the position will have to be rectified at some point during the season.
Which rookie will have the biggest impact?
The term impact is doing all the work here. Not which rookie will score the most—my money’s on Jalen Green—or which rookie will win rookie of the year—I think Cade Cunningham is in the driver’s seat—or even who will become the best of the class—Mobley’s my guy here—but rather, I’m interested in which rookie will come in and mean the most to a team that has a chance to make some waves. Where that’s concerned, I think Moses Moody, Trey Murphy III, Corey Kispert, Chris Duarte, and Quentin Grimes have some real potential to show immediate positive impact on franchises that can compete for playoff spots.
Corey Kispert—Kispert’s shooting ability and activity off-ball make him a perfect pairing for Bradley Beal, as he fills a need for Washington regarding perimeter scoring, particularly if Davis Bertans can’t regain his form from two season ago. Kispert is a smart player with a quick release who is great at cutting through the seams to open spots. With Dinwiddie and Beal dominating the ball, having players like Kispert—especially as Deni Avdija works back from the broken ankle he suffered at the end of last season—are exactly what Washington needs. I fully expect Kispert to be among the rookie scoring leaders (although there are going to be a couple guys putting up big numbers) and shooting in the 40% range from the 3 as a rookie. The Wizards don’t have real teeth, but they may have enough to gum their way into a low seed or the play-in tournament, and Kispert could be integral to their potential success this season.
Moses Moody—Moody’s length defensively and ability to knock down the open shot are exactly what the Warriors will need, especially early in the year as they slowly work Klay back in. That of course is if Moody isn’t moved in a deal, which I still would hedge my bets on. But don’t be surprised if the 14th overall pick sees minutes early as it benefits both the Warriors from a need standpoint and as a means for increasing his value if Beal, Dame, or Simmons deals come back to the forefront. Moody’s game is the more mature and ready-made of the Warriors two lottery picks (the Warriors took Jonathan Kuminga with the 7th pick), and while at just 19 he’s very young, and there’s still questions about his toughness, I think Moody will see enough playing time to have an impact on Golden State’s season; at least in the first half of it until Klay is fully back.
Trey Murphy III—Murphy gives heavy Mikhail Bridges vibes, not just as a sweet shooting defensive stud, but also the pace at which his development is headed. Murphy is a more explosive athlete than Bridges—though he doesn’t move as well laterally—but lacks some of the on-ball skills we’ve seen Bridges develop. But with the Pelicans in dire need of perimeter shooting and guys who’ll get after it defensively, Murphy immediately fills a need for a team that sees themselves as being in the playoff hunt.
Chris Duarte—It’s rare to see a lottery selection that at the age of 24 feels like he may already be close to a finished product, but that’s exactly what the Pacers selected with the 13th overall pick in Duarte. A smart player who competes and can really shoot it, Duarte probably doesn’t have nearly the upside as a lot of the players selected around him, but his skillset and tenacity means he will come into the league immediately ready to play. While Indiana has a lot of options at the guard and small forward positions, you would be hard-pressed to believe that between Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, and T.J. Warren that some significant minutes won’t be missed to injury, meaning Duarte will most likely see some significant opportunities. Duarte’s game feels ready-made for Indiana, and his intelligence as a player along with his toughness and competitive edge will surely make him a favorite of new coach Rick Carlisle as the Pacers look to push themselves back into the playoff hunt following a season that went sideways last year.
Quentin Grimes—I’m a big fan of what I’ve seen from Quentin Grimes. His strength, toughness, and shooting ability would appear to make him a great fit for a Knicks team that will still struggle to generate offense at times this coming season. While New York has plenty of guards in D-Rose, Immanuel Quickly, Alec Burks, R.J. Barrett and Evan Fournier, history dictates that many minutes will be missed due to injuries, and the lack of any real small forward on the roster (I think the Kevin Knox ship is soon to sail) means that Barrett/Grimes will probably scale-up occasionally. Grimes shot over 40% from the three on 8 attempts per game last year in college at Houston and maintained that production during six summer league games in Vegas. If he can provide perimeter punch, something that the Knicks lacked in the playoffs last season, he could work his way into important minutes for this Knicks team.
A few more to watch:
Bones Hyland—With the injury to Jamal Murray, Hyland will get some early reps at the point guard spot and hope to continue show some of the ballhandling flash that made him a fan favorite at summer league.
Cam Thomas—Thomas came out of the womb looking to shoot and has been an elite scorer at every level he’s played at, including leading the Las Vegas summer league in scoring. While I doubt he’ll get much burn come playoff time, expect the former LSU Tiger to get some minutes and put up some scoring numbers during the inevitable time missed by Kyrie during the season.
Jalen Johnson—I’m not sure how much playing time Johnson will be able to get on a Hawks roster teeming with young talent, but his athleticism and ability to wreak havoc in the open court could make him an exciting option off the bench as a versatile combo forward.
Is Dame’s time up?
We’ve all seen the smoke: The Chris Haynes article, the Henry Abbott beef, and the “he doth protest too much” posturing of Damian Lillard this offseason, but before this year is out, will the Blazers finally see their bridges with Lillard go up in flames? Nothing Portland did this offseason inspires much excitement regarding being a legitimate contender in the west—that is unless Greg Brown III, Tony Snell, Ben McLemore, and Cody Zeller do it for you, and if so, we probably can’t be friends. That means that if Dame’s discontent is tethered to the viability of the roster as a threat in what is now looking to be a wide-open, but still very competitive west, I think this fall may be Dame’s final act in the PDX. A deal with Philly seems to be the most sensible destination, as Portland can get a lower-tiered star in return with Ben Simmons who can still make their roster respectable enough to not have to go into a full strip-down if they desire—although personally I think it would behoove them to move both Dame and C.J. and just build a younger roster around Simmons. Dame appears to have his sights set on New York, but I’m not sure the Knicks would be a much better place in terms of competitive structure in the East after forfeiting possibly Barrett and whatever other pieces would be necessary to complete that deal. Golden State could put together a package that would make them the deadliest shooting roster in the league—again—but, going back to Oakland to play second-fiddle in your own hometown may not be the easiest pill to swallow for Lillard. No matter where the destination, I think this issue will come to head probably even earlier than the trade deadline, as Portland will again struggle to be more than in the 7-10 range in the West.
Which player is ready to take the leap?
Every year it feels as though some budding star finally blossoms and we get the joy of watching potential become potency. Last year Zach Lavine and Devin Booker took the steps that made them stars, following years of conversations about just how good they could be. This season, who will become the next big thing? The frontrunners would seem to be Zion, who only needs to maintain his offensive dominance from last season once he became the point-force for the Pelicans to officially ensconce himself on all-star rosters and in the All-NBA conversations. Though, I really hope we see some marked improvement from him on the defensive end as he was such a disruptive force on that side while in college. LaMelo has the potential, but I truly believe that the sophomore slump is a bit inevitable, as teams now have a full season of video, and an entire off-season of preparation to stimy some of the things that LaMelo excelled at last year as a somewhat surprising rookie. R.J. Barrett showed some flashes that may project towards a much better player than I anticipated, but I’m still not sure there’s a star there. That’s no knock on Barrett, he’s a solid player who clearly has worked hard to improve his shooting and his over-reliance on just going left with his head down to generate drives. But for my money, there are three guys who look primed to take leaps, and each of them are doing so at different tiers.
OG Anunoby—Anunoby has just gotten better incrementally every year since he joined Toronto in 2018. The real OG has improved his scoring (getting to a respectable 15.9 point per game this past season), his 3-point percentage and attempts (40% and 6.1 respectively), as well as his rebounds (5.5) and assists (2.2) per game every season he’s been in the league Already a defensive stalwart who had shown the ability to hit the open 3, the former Indiana Hoosier really started to get into his bag this past season. Anunoby finally started to show some ono-on-one ability and loves to run smaller players into the basket with either a shoulder bull rush, or just a straight grown man’s backdown. If this linear progression continues, Anunoby has the chance to get in the conversation for eastern conference all-star, especially given the increased opportunities he’ll get now that Toronto looks to identify who it’s best player will be going forward with the departure of Kyle Lowry.
Michael Porter Jr.—There may not be five players in the league right now who are better tough shot makers than Porter. Jr. His combination of size and high release makes him a nearly unstoppable shooter when he’s in rhythm—and many times when he’s not. Already an advanced stat darling, MPJ killed the game last season with an incredible 65% effective field goal percentage, shooting an incendiary 54% from the field and 45% from the three last year. With Jokic as the QB, Porter Jr. is the quintessential receiver opening defenses up over the top. You could really tell after the unfortunate injury to Jamal Murray just how much MPJ and Jokic began to get in-sync regarding where his spots are and how to manipulate defenders. With Murray probably not returning until sometime midseason (though the Nuggets notorious opacity on injury updates makes predictions tricky) this is the time for Porter Jr. to really ascend into star territory. When skill meets opportunity often it equals success, and that’s fully what I expect in Porter Jr.’s third full year playing.
Trae Young—I honestly can’t remember the last time my opinion of a player pulled a 180° with as much rapidity as it did for Trae Young near the end of last season. The process began with a coaching change, and fittingly, ended with a bow. Trae Young’s ability to generate offense was never in question, but his ability to do so efficiently, and in a way that didn’t alienate his teammates, well that was still up for debate. But with the midseason change from Lloyd Peirce to Nate McMillan you could see a sea change occur in Trae’s demeanor, and more importantly, his style of play. Young was clearly more engaging with teammates, there was less visible sulky, and he cut down on the too-early in the offense 35 footers, which had obviously been drawing the ire of big man John Collins who would just be getting back down the floor only to have to sprint back on defense after a long miss. Trae’s postseason fireworks were incredible as he led a young and upcoming Hawks team far deeper in the playoffs than anyone could have expected. It’s a bit wild that a coach known for being as demanding and taciturn as McMillan was able to extract the best from Trae, but the pairing is one that has clearly benefitted both player and coach. With the Hawks having elevated what is to be expected of them, the same can now be said of Trae. With the battery of weapons they have, combined with Trae’s lethal ability to snake and probe defenses, don’t be surprised if Young leads the league in assists this season. Even if he doesn’t, the fourth-year player out of Oklahoma really seemed to recognize how to be the most devastating version of himself while keeping his teammates involved, and I fully expect that to carry over into this coming season as Young puts himself into the upper echelons of stardom.
Who’s the leagues alpha?
The answer to the question was a foregone conclusion for so long that it feels like we just stopped asking. While during the King’s reign players like Steph and KD challenged the crown, this is really the first season since 2007-08 where the league’s alpha is really up for debate. Giannis enters the season in the poll position, but my money’s on KD as the league’s current best overall player. That being said, Luka clearly has his sights set on ascending the throne and Jokic took a monster step towards the top, and it would be silly to assume that LeBron or Steph might not still have a swan song season of superiority left in their tank. The combination of injuries and the deleterious effects of that undefeated foe “Father Time” gave us a glimpse last season into what the league has to offer going forward, and I for one am excited to see who’s the next player to stand atop the pile and claim the mantle as the league’s top dog.
Can Kidd and Luka co-exist?
Jason Kidd deserves credit for the way in which he remade his image in Los Angeles, but it will remain to be seen if the more player-friendly version of Kidd is his continued modus operandi as he takes over the helm in Dallas. Historically, Kidd was a coach who often fell back upon aged tactics of ostracizing players, being overtly critical and too demanding of his teams while in Brooklyn and Milwaukee. While those tactics may have been what wrenched the best version of Kidd out as a player, this current generation seems far less responsive to such maneuvers. Now that narrative would be underpinning every decision Kidd made no matter what team he took over for, but in Dallas and with Luka, there is high powder keg potential. Without a doubt Luka and Rick Carlisle were at loggerheads at times last season, and while Carlisle is no Care Bear of a coach, he historically has not been nearly as demonstrative with his displeasures as Kidd was in his first two stops. So, will Kidd’s history as a superstar player at the same position resonate with Luka and become the mechanism by which an emotionally immature superstar comes to respect the sideline authority. Or will Kidd and Luka become the most exciting thing to watch explode on the sidelines east of Steve Balmer?