The NBA is back! After an offseason that saw plenty of movement (LeBron James to L.A., Carmelo Anthony to Houston) and even more drama (we’re looking at you, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler), there are plenty of questions to answer in 2018-19.
So what are the NBA’s burning questions this season? Here’s what our writers are most looking forward to getting answered in the next nine months.
Malika Andrews: Is Giannis Antetokounmpo ready to win MVP?
LeBron James is the clear MVP favorite, thanks partly to the hype generated by his splashy move to Los Angeles, but don’t overlook Antetokounmpo. Over the past two years, Antetokounmpo has put up incredible numbers despite working within an offense that often lacked perimeter shooting and flow. New coach Mike Budenholzer should fix those problems, creating better opportunities for the two-time All-NBA selection to drive to the basket in one-on-one situations. Plus, Antetokounmpo is a talented and versatile defender who presents a stronger two-way MVP case than many of the other top candidates, including James. With a bulked-up Antetokounmpo working in a smarter offensive system, the Milwaukee Bucks could easily win 50 games and emerge as a surprise team in the East, which would lead to serious MVP buzz for their superstar.
Kevin Arnovitz: Is JaVale McGee right — are big men an endangered species?
Call him a conspiracy theorist or call him a prophet, but McGee is convinced that NBA basketball is conspiring to drive the conventional big man into extinction: “They’re trying to get us out of here.”
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Although there are no shortage of dynamic superstars 6-foot-10 and taller — Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo — the 2018-19 season will give us a sense of how quickly McGee’s projection will become reality. Besides Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan and a couple of others, is “NBA Center” no longer a realistic profession for the 7-footer with limited shooting range?
Carmelo Anthony tells Rachel Nichols about joining the Rockets, being comfortable coming off the bench and his relationship with Mike D’Antoni.
Ian Begley: Can Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony make it work this time around?
Anthony and D’Antoni weren’t exactly best friends during their time together in New York. D’Antoni admitted last year that he resigned as coach of the New York Knicks in 2012 after Anthony gave the front office an ultimatum: him or me. That, however, was more than six years ago, and much has changed since then. For one, Anthony was expected to carry the Knicks to title contention but won’t face nearly the same pressure with the Houston Rockets, even if the end goal is the same. Still, at some point this season, the strength of the Anthony-D’Antoni relationship will be tested. How well it holds up amid the high expectations in Houston should impact the rest of the Western Conference.
Nick DePaula: Will Puma’s NBA relaunch be a success?
In the past, when sneaker companies have tried to enter the basketball market through NBA endorsers, they’ve played things slowly, starting with only one or two players and building a following through careful marketing. This summer, Puma did things very differently. The company signed five players selected in the top half of this year’s NBA draft, hired Jay-Z as creative director and gave its signees access to a private “Puma Jet.” Then Puma doubled down before the start of the season by signing polarizing All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, who might not wear the company’s shoes on the court until after Christmas. Will the splurge of straight-cash spending, flurry of random and unexpected social media posts, big-man-heavy roster and first foray back into hoops in two decades actually pay off, or will things go off the rails fairly quickly if the players and product don’t pan out?
Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ fiasco broken down in a timeline that started with him asking for a trade.
Nick Friedell: What will happen in the aftermath of Jimmy Butler’s ongoing feud with his team?
Butler has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be in Minnesota anymore, so whether he stays for one more run or ends up elsewhere in the weeks or months to come will shine a light on the broader — potentially bleaker — future facing the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even without Butler, the Wolves’ roster will have two max players in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, both of whom still have major questions about their respective games. Tom Thibodeau has two years left after this season on the mammoth deal he signed to be coach and basketball czar of the team. With Butler, the Timberwolves are a fringe playoff team. Without him, they are a mediocre bunch with several bloated contracts. It isn’t a stretch to think Thibodeau might be gone at the end of the season, no matter what happens to Butler. But fixing the rest of the roster will be an issue hovering over the organization for years to come.
Jonathan Givony: How will the perception of the 2019 NBA draft class evolve among teams as the season moves on?
The 2019 draft class is considered shallow and especially weak at the top by most executives with whom we’ve spoken. The 2020 draft might not be any better from what we can tell early on. Will that cause teams to be more amenable to packaging draft picks at the trade deadline or earlier for a star, with the likes of Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker potentially available? Alternatively, will we see an unexpected prospect emerge — like Trae Young or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did last year — to provide more depth and excitement around what is currently perceived as a fairly uninspiring crop?
Chris Herring: Can the Blazers realistically take a step forward without having altered their cast from last season?
Coming off an embarrassing first-round sweep, and then a status-quo type of summer, the question facing the Portland Trail Blazers is simple: Can this club, with the exact same top-six rotation as last season, contend without really having changed its roster? Coach Terry Stotts talked about trading less-efficient midrange looks for triples. But the key for Portland, which has seen its offensive rating decrease in four straight seasons, might be to share the ball (NBA’s lowest assist rate last season) and create more catch-and-shoot opportunities. If those strategic changes don’t make the difference, it seems a safe bet that some sort of real change will be on the way next summer.
Stephen A. Smith says that the Lakers might have added LeBron James to their roster, but their style of play has not changed from recent years.
Baxter Holmes: Will the Lakers make the playoffs?
LeBron James is probably the greatest player ever. But is he great enough, at age 33 (turning 34 in late December) and with a ton of heavy miles on his frame, to take a truly weird roster to the playoffs in a Western Conference that remains murderous, even with the ongoing issues in San Antonio (injuries) and Minnesota (drama)? For all of James’ greatness, I honestly don’t know. The Los Angeles Lakers won 35 games last season and probably will need at least 50 wins this season to reach the playoffs. In Cleveland, LeBron had All-Star Kevin Love beside him for four seasons and Kyrie Irving for three. In L.A., he doesn’t have that kind of proven teammate. Don’t bet against LeBron, the adage goes, but then again, the West is its own monster, as LeBron knows all too well.
Jackie MacMullan: Can Isaiah Thomas get back on track in Denver?
A contrite, focused, I-will-accept-any-role IT could greatly benefit a Denver Nuggets team that is already bursting with intrigue. This is a team poised to take a big leap with 23-year-old Nikola Jokic ready to build on his scoring and playmaking skills. Denver also has its own resident 3-and-D dynamo in the underrated Gary Harris. Yet the projections for Denver’s uptick have the most to do with Jamal Murray, the player the NBA’s general managers identified as the most likely to be this season’s breakout star. Murray is already a catch-and-shoot 3-point threat with oodles of confidence who started piling up big numbers in the final month of the Nuggets’ failed push for the postseason last season.
In case you’ve forgotten, Murray plays the point, which means Thomas will not be a starter.
Mike Malone coached IT during the 2013-14 season in Sacramento, where the coach says there was an internal disagreement about how to utilize Thomas. Malone says he and Thomas have an “honest” relationship that will make this reunion work.
There’s reason to believe Malone is right. It’s up to IT how his career unfolds going forward. If he’s willing to exhibit the proper amount of humility, including accepting that he quite often won’t be on the floor to close out games (those defensive concerns will not abate), then this could be the start of a wonderful relationship in Denver.
But if Thomas swaggers in demanding shots, attention and minutes, it could all go south in a hurry.
Bobby Marks: Can Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving stay healthy?
63: That is the average number of regular-season games that Paul and Irving have played since the 2015-16 season.
The question in Houston and Boston this season is not whether either team is championship-worthy (they are) but if their franchise point guards can stay on the court. As evidenced by the injury that kept him on the sideline in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals, Paul is the one player Houston can ill afford to lose, even with MVP James Harden on the roster.
While Paul has already locked in his four-year, $160 million contract, Irving will be looking for — at minimum — a similar payday with the Boston Celtics next offseason. A healthy Irving will dictate how far the Celtics advance this season, as well as the number of years (and total dollars) Boston is willing to commit next July.
Dave McMenamin: Will Kobe Bryant get the itch to weigh in on the Lakers’ progress this season?
The initial shock to the system felt by Lakers fans who blur their allegiance to the franchise and their standom for Kobe has worn off. The billboards are safe. Jeanie Buss decreed that those who trash LeBron James to prop up Kobe are not welcome in Laker Land. But what about Kobe himself? He has been publicly supportive of LeBron since James signed, but what happens if the Lakers struggle this season? Will Kobe be a voice from afar — much the same way Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson have been at times — putting pressure on the Lakers, and LeBron, to perform? If he does, will it reignite the Kobestans’ rage about LeBron leading the Lakers?
Kevin Pelton: Will teams continue switching more on defense after we saw it so much during the 2018 playoffs?
The best basketball of the 2018 playoffs wasn’t always the best basketball. As thrilling as the Western Conference finals were, both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets were switching nearly every pick, leading to both teams defaulting to create the best matchup and going one-on-one on offense. I’ll be watching to see whether more teams follow their lead by using switching as a primary pick-and-roll defense. That requires the right personnel, and not every team has it, but with powerful offenses such as the Rockets and Warriors so difficult to stop using conventional pick-and-roll defense, aspiring champions might have no choice but to switch.
Mike Schmitz: Will Trae Young be worth it for Atlanta?
By trading back to the No. 5 pick to select Young, the Atlanta Hawks made an emphatic statement: The rebuilding franchise valued the polarizing Oklahoma point guard more than Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic. Not only did the Hawks prefer Young to Doncic, but they also spurned a lanky lead guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and rare 3-and-D centers in Mohamed Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. Sure, they received a protected 2019 first-round pick in the deal with the Dallas Mavericks, but did the Hawks place too large an emphasis on “butts in seats” over future wins and losses? This season will give us a window into whether Atlanta made the right move.
Paul Pierce and Tracy McGrady offer their opinions on the most important offseason move, including LeBron James to the Lakers and Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors.
Andre Snellings: Are the Raptors ready to make the leap to legit title contenders?
The Toronto Raptors won 59 games last season, their best regular season in team history, then got swept in the second round of the playoffs by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was widely accepted that the Raptors were good but not good enough to legitimately challenge for a championship. In response to that, the team traded beloved All-Star DeMar DeRozan in a package that brought back a group featuring Kawhi Leonard, potentially on a one-season lease. Per the analytics, a Raptors team led by a healthy, motivated Leonard could win a championship. But can the Raptors really deliver on that promise? Moreover, if they’re legit, does Kawhi stay long-term?
Marc Spears: When will DeMarcus Cousins debut with the Warriors?
Cousins’ 2017-18 season was cut short when he tore his Achilles tendon in late January as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans. The four-time All-Star did not get the money in free agency that he was projected to before the injury, so he shocked the NBA world by signing a one-year, $5.3 million contract with the champs. Cousins was seen dribbling full court after a practice last week, and the 6-foot-10, 265-pounder recently acknowledged to The Undefeated that he sees the “light at the end of the tunnel.” The Warriors say they are not holding back Cousins, nor are they rushing him. Timetable? Only Cousins really knows.
Michael Wright: Will the San Antonio Spurs make a record-tying 22nd consecutive postseason appearance?
That question became a lot more difficult to answer when Dejounte Murray suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in the preseason. It’s a new era for the Spurs, with the Big Three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili all out of the picture. The realization that Patty Mills is now the team’s longest-tenured player is scary, and how well new addition DeMar DeRozan fits San Antonio’s system and culture is a legitimate concern. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will have to put together one of the strongest coaching jobs of his career to get San Antonio back where it has been seemingly forever.
With the Western Conference adding LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, is a Golden State championship less likely?
Royce Young: Will the Warriors care this regular season?
The greatest enemy of the Warriors is often the Warriors themselves, with complacency and boredom being the most persistent opponents throughout the 82-game season. An appropriate tone-setting example for that kind of mindset was Steve Kerr telling an official in the preseason, “I don’t want to be here,” as he got ejected. Kerr has tried different tactics lately to keep engagement high, such as letting players coach and cranking up the intensity with refs, but it’s hard to preach process and habits when everyone knows the Warriors are playing a lot more for 16 games in April, May and June than for the 82 that proceed them.
Ohm Youngmisuk: How will Luke Walton keep all the Lakers happy?
Once the Lakers surrounded LeBron James with Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley, several execs, coaches and agents wondered: How will Luke Walton make this work? Some around the league think Walton has the most challenging job in the NBA: trying to figure out how to utilize a roster filled with ball handlers but no shooting specialists around James, all while developing a promising young core to go with vets with strong and eclectic personalities on one-year deals. How will it all mesh on the court and in the locker room, especially if the Lakers hit some tough times?