A new season awakens slowly, like newlyweds on the sixth day of the honeymoon, like campers in the midst of a morning downpour. What has happened before lays out the possible, but is not predictive.
Every season develops with its own rhythm, with new storylines. A summer’s work helps lay the foundation -- who used their time off to get stronger, quicker, better? And who did not? A new season casts off the retired, the infirm, the aged, unapologetically and unsympathetically: you are ready to roll, or you are not, and if you are not, you are left behind.
A new season can put spring in the steps of coaches with bad hips and replaced knees. It can restore confidence after the previous season’s surprising disappointments. It can bring hope to a city that needs it, or provide a salve for a city that’s hurting.
And every new season brings with it new questions. This one is no different. Here are some questions to contemplate as the preseason schedule begins in earnest this week and we start counting down to the start of the regular season on Oct. 25.
1. Can anyone slow down the Warriors?
They don’t seem real together, like one or two of them were painted in with CGI after the fact. But there were Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant all together Saturday night, in their exhibition opener. The summer’s biggest moment, on the 4th of July, when Durant announced he was leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, had led to this.
Curry, the world’s best shooting guard and two-time reigning Kia MVP, is now with Thompson, who’s probably the second-best, and Green, who keeps the Warriors playing downhill all the time with his split-second pass or drive decisions, and KD, a seven-foot wing who can see over anyone who tries to guard him. He now has two Westbrooks, where only one was nearly sufficient to get to The Finals last season.
How on earth do you begin to stop them?
I asked one of the NBA’s best defensive coaches, an assistant on a good staff, who’s devised successful means of attacking just about every great offensive team for years -- but who obviously didn’t want his name attached to the lunatic idea with which I challenged him. There were no magic beans in his response.
“I don’t have any answers,” he said. “You’ve just got to go play. You’ve got to go back at them. It’s not brain surgery. They’re talented and they have a couple of great players, but we’re just going to do what we do and try to do it harder and better than they do.”
To be sure, many teams have enough on their plate worrying about their own squads without having to spend more time contemplating the Warriors’ firepower. But eventually, the league’s other 29 teams are going to have to come up with something.
We know what modern NBA defenses want to accomplish: eschew offensive rebounds in order to get back and limit the opponent’s fast-break opportunities. Close out and deny corner 3-pointers. Keep the ball out of the paint, push as much as you can to the sidelines, sag on screen-rolls and live with contested mid-range shots. And if there’s a subpar free throw shooter on the floor, hack him. It’s hard to do, but the elite defensive units in the league manage a rough cut of this 50-60 times a season. (I’m sure someone has this numbered out within a decimal of its life.)
But Golden State comes to the party with Curry, a career 44.4 percent 3-point shooter. Thompson hits at 42 percent and Durant clocks in at 38 percent (plus seven boards per game to boot). And Green, who raised his 3-point shooting to 38.8 percent last season, is the team alchemist, knowing just how much Steph to include on this possession, how much Klay on that. (Zaza Pachulia, the fifth Beatle/starter, also sets a fairly good scree. If he’s not the equal of Andrew Bogut as a passer out of the post, he’s certainly healthier than Bogut was and as capable of floating to the basket for dunks and layups the other four Warriors will create for him in river-like flow.)
So, can you afford to play them straight up? But if you double-team, who do you double? It’s easy to say just come off of Pachulia and live with twos rather than threes, but it’s not that simple. The Warriors will happily give up an open four-footer to start swinging the ball around and get the defense chasing, until one of its shooters is open behind the 3-point line.
Now you have to add Durant’s passing lanes to Curry’s draw-and-dish ability, and Green’s lobs.
There’s no good answer, other than the cliché among the hoariest of all: make them work at the other end.
“Defense starts with shot selection,” the assistant coach says. “If you’re going to take bad shots, if you’re going to allow them to get out in the open court, that’s not good. You have to manufacture the shots you want to get, and you have to make ‘em. It’s not rocket science. So limit your turnovers -- turnovers are bad shots -- get the shots you want, make sure your transition defense is rock solid, and if you’re good enough, you’re good enough. You can’t change your defense at this level. We’re going to play 28 teams a certain way and play them a different way? It doesn’t work that way.”
2. How long will it take for the Cavs to sign J.R. Smith?
“I hate coming into another season – two years in a row – with one of my big guns not here,” LeBron James said at the start of the Cavs’ camp last week. “So for a leader of a team and for me personally, I just hate to deal with this s--- again. It’s just too big of a piece to our team to have to deal with in another training camp. Hopefully things get resolved fast, because you know how big and important he is to our team.”
After all the money that Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert has committed to the franchise the last two years -- $99 million more for James for the next three years, on top of $113 million for Kevin Love, and $82 million for Tristan Thompson, and $90 million for Kyrie Irving -- it was hard to imagine the Cavs not getting something done with Smith, who’s become a core member of the championship squad since coming from New York in 2015.
But despite James’ public pressure, Smith is still, this morning, not in camp. The Cavaliers have put their true feelings about the matter in a lockbox after GM David Griffin said the team made “an incredibly competitive and aggressive offer” to re-sign him.
The good -- and bad -- is that all the parties involved have done business together. Smith has the same agent (Rich Paul) as James and Thompson. It took most of last summer before Paul got Thompson what he wanted just before the start of training camp last year.
Cleveland’s offer to Smith, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was somewhere between $10 million and $11 million per season. But in the Monopoly world of today’s NBA where Kia Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford got $14 million per year on his new deal, a starter like Smith --who last season averaged 12.4 points per game and shot 40 percent on 3-pointers for just the second time in his career -- is looking for that and more.
Can’t blame him. But can’t blame the Cavs -- who are waaaay over the luxury tax threshold, at more than $114 million -- for wanting to go slow. Cleveland is a repeater tax team, and as such would have to pay more than $4 in tax for every dollar in salary it pays Smith next season. So it’s a bit of a conundrum.
Paul “always wants to win the deal,” says the executive of another team that’s negotiated with/against him in the past.
But, Paul usually does win the deal.
3. Is Boston the only hope the Eastern Conference has of stopping a third straight Cavaliers appearance in The Finals?
All due respect to the Toronto Raptors, which played Cleveland tough before succumbing in six games in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, but there’s rarely been a gap this big between a conference’s best and next-best teams entering a season.
The James-led SuperFriends made The Finals in each of their four seasons together in Miami, but the Heat did have a viable foil in the rugged Indiana Pacers for most of that time. The Western Conference has been a roulette wheel for 20 years, even though the Tim Duncan era. Even though the San Antonio Spurs were the top dog many of those seasons, there were always big-time opponents to get through, from Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks to Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers Lakers to Curry’s Warriors -- each of whom has at least one ring of their own.
But the landscape in the East this year outside of the 216 is bleak.
Toronto re-signed DeMar DeRozan and its DeRozan-Kyle Lowry guard combo is still one of the league’s best. But they lost Bismack Biyombo, who was terrific for them in the playoffs, to the Orlando Magic in free agency. The Pacers have a promising starting lineup -- Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, Paul George, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner -- but it hasn’t played together yet.
The Atlanta Hawks have won at least a round in the playoffs two years running, but lost Al Horford -- to Boston -- and replaced him with Dwight Howard. Now, I happen to think Howard’s still got some game left in his tank, so the Hawks might not fall off as much as some think. Coach Mike Budenholzer will always get the most out of what he’s got. But the Hawks gave the keys to the car to Dennis Schroeder after trading Teague to the Pacers. Is Schroeder ready to take over the full-time starter’s gig?
But Boston looks loaded. The Celtics have an All-Star in Isaiah Thomas, strong role players in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Marcus Smart and a Lottery pick in Jaylen Brown. Add to that the 30-year-old Horford, a four-time All-Star who fits right in to what coach Brad Stevens wants to do. He’s a leader, a passer and a scorer -- all wrapped up in a 6-foot-10 package.
It says here that the Celtics will reach the conference finals and give Cleveland six good games before falling, and that Celtics head honcho Danny Ainge is closer than he’s ever been to rebuilding the team a second time, after dealing away the Big Three in pieces as he said he’d have to do sooner rather than later.
4. Who will start at point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans?
With Jrue Holiday out indefinitely -- his wife Lauren, the former U.S. women’s soccer team star, will be undergoing brain surgery, likely in November, after giving birth to the couple’s child late last month -- the Pelicans will have to decide between former Knick Langston Galloway and incumbent Tim Frazier to handle the gig. (Tyreke Evans, still recovering from a blood clot discovered in his leg following offseason surgery -- shudder -- is going to be out for a while, though there is hope he may be able to return sometime after mid-November.)
“We’re going to have to see what happens in our preseason games,” one New Orleans spy says. For now, former Chicago Bulls reserve E’Twaun Moore is at the two, and free-agent signee Solomon Hill and Anthony Davis are frontcourt locks. But there’s a lot for New Orleans to figure out before its regular season starts against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 26.
The Pelicans may go by committee until Holiday returns. He will tell them when he’s ready, not vice versa.
Moore played some point in Chicago when Derrick Rose was out with injuries, and New Orleans thinks he and Galloway might be able to play together for stretches. Doing so would allow first-round pick Buddy Hield to work his way into the rotation gradually. Newly signed Lance Stephenson also got some run on the ball in the Pelicans’ preseason opener Saturday. They hope he can re-create the best of his ballhandling days of 2013 with the Pacers, when he was pushing the ball when they were on the break and displaying breakdown abilities in the halfcourt.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans are being cautious with Davis, who got through training camp fine after he underwent knee surgery in March. He’ll be used sparingly in exhibition play; no need to try and have him be the MVP of October.
5. Which one of the west’s young teams – the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves or Denver Nuggets -- will make the most noise this season?
I think the Jazz get furthest this season -- a playoff berth for sure. Utah has methodically added talent the last three seasons, and this is the year all the construction should pay off. The Jazz can build on being one of the league’s premier defenses, but major improvement can and has to come on offense, where Utah struggled down the stretch of games when things got tight.
Enter Joe Johnson, who’s nicknamed “Iso Joe” for a reason.
Johnson is 35. He’s seen his best days. But he’s still got a little left in the tank, and even if he’s limited, he’ll still be a hell of a decoy for coach Quin Snyder to use for ATOs and end of game sets. Doing so frees up Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood for less cumbersome looks. The return of former lottery pick Dante Exum from an ACL tear will only increase the Jazz’s options and improve the defense (eighth in defensive rating last season) further. Hayward will likely be a free agent next summer and has major incentive for a major season.
This doesn’t mean I’m down on either the Wolves or Nuggets. But there’s a little more of a learning curve for each. Despite the strides made by reigning Kia Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota has to show substantial improvement at the defensive end. Coach Tom Thibodeau was brought in to do just that, but there will still be an adjustment period, and the Wolves won’t have the veteran mentors in place (Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, Andre Miller) brought in to teach the kids the NBA ropes last season.
One wonders what Thibs will do with Andrew Wiggins, who has all the trappings of an elite two-way player, but is still just 21. He can score, but can he do everything else that All-Stars do nightly? Towns enjoys the hubbub and being around different people; Wiggins, clearly, does not. That’s okay, but leaders have to stretch themselves a little.
Denver has got a lot of young talent, but it’s still a season or two from fully coalescing. The Nuggets had one of the best Drafts last June, adding three strong rotation players, led by seventh overall pick Jamal Murray. He should step right in with second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and comparisons to John Wall and Bradley Beal’s potential are not unwarranted. Denver also has some serious frontcourt thump in Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, along with the returning Danilo Gallinari. Check back in 2018.
6. How will Frank Vogel distribute the frontcourt minutes in Orlando?
I’m not at all sure this is going to work. The Magic was determined to fast-track its rebuild last summer after a disastrous season that ended with Scott Skiles’s resignation as coach, and the trade of former lottery pick Victor Oladipo to Oklahoma City. Everyone was miserable -- Oladipo, because he’d been benched, and wanted a fresh start, and point guard Elfrid Payton, who could never find common ground with Skiles.
Vogel has his own retooling to do, subject to one of the odder firings in recent memory by Larry Bird in Indiana. It was clear Bird didn’t want to fire Vogel, whom he’d named coach after firing Jim O’Brien in 2011, and who had taken the Pacers to consecutive Eastern Conference finals. But it was also clear he didn’t think he had a choice.
Whatever the reason, Vogel was free to come to the I-4 corridor in central Florida. But he’ll have to make some hard choices going forward.
The Magic got forward Serge Ibaka from the Thunder in the Oladipo deal, but also gave former Raptors center Bismack Biyombo a $72 million contract in free agency. Those two will help seal the sieve at the front of the rim that has plagued Orlando for several years -- basically, since the Magic traded Dwight Howard. But what does that mean for Nikola Vucevic, who’s become an elite rebounder and averaged a double-double since coming from the Philadelphia 76ers in the Howard deal in 2012 -- and who has three years and $36.7 million left on his deal?
What about Jeff Green, signed for one year and $15 million? Does he come off the bench?
And what about 2014 lottery pick Aaron Gordon, who played in 78 games last season?
Orlando stretched out its wallet. But the game is still just 48 minutes total.
For now, Vogel is looking at Gordon at the three, which will require Gordon to improve significantly on his 28.9 career 3-point shooting percentage -- but whose defensive chops make him credible guarding multiple positions. Ibaka is locked in at the four and the hope is he’ll be more comfortable as one of many who touch the ball here instead of atrophying watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook shoot in OKC.
It’s hard to see Vogel, who got the best out of Roy Hibbert in Indy (remember when Hibbert was the gold standard of defensive verticality?
Vogel could start games with Vucevic and finish them with Biyombo, I suppose. But that would be a delicate dance to pull off and keep everyone happy. Orlando’s talent level is dramatically higher, but the Magic will have to work to make sure the happiness quotient improves apace, too.
7. How does Oklahoma City move forward?
Okay, that’s a little strong. Put it this way: the contending days are over for a spell.
Around the organization, there is a saying: the things that make the Thunder the Thunder aren’t necessarily the outcomes. Now, that can come off as high-falutin’, I know, especially when you had eight years of KD and Westbrook in lethal combination. OKC’s outcomes were pretty damn good for almost all of that stretch -- at least the stretches where neither was on the shelf for months at a time. There was a Finals appearance and three conference finals berths, including the shattering 4-3 loss to the Warriors last spring.
But the Thunder continues to try to do right by the community that has embraced it for almost a decade. And with Westbrook agreeing to an extension that keeps him in town through at least 2018 -- OKC bought at least one extra year of security with the three-year, $86 million extension -- the Thunder can transition into whatever it’s going to be next with a little more runway with which to work.
Durant was the Thunder’s emotional center, to be sure, the sun around which OKC’s planets gravitated. But Westbrook was always viewed as the heartbeat, the guy that pulls the team out of whatever funks they were in with a triple-double or some such exhortation of will. Now, he’ll have to show emotional support for teammates who are now going to be put in situations they haven’t been put in before. It’s not a choice.
But if there’s one thing Westbrook can do, wants to do, it’s to compete. To do so without Durant … well, the guess here is that Westbrook will like the challenge very, very much.
You don’t log the most triple-doubles (18) in more than 30 NBA seasons, as Westbrook did last season, if you don’t like passing. That’s never been an issue. But Westbrook has been, flatly, awful shooting threes for much of his career. Last season was no exception, as he didn’t crack 30 percent (101 of 341) behind the arc. There has to be more discretion shown.
There is a lot of talent remaining in OKC. Victor Oladipo, acquired from Orlando in the Serge Ibaka trade, is a live wire at the two. Steven Adams has become a monster in the paint, thought by many to be among the top two or three centers in the league already at 23. Enes Kanter had a huge season off the bench at 24. Westbrook is just 27 himself. Most teams that lose a superstar for nothing in free agency don’t usually have this kind of base to start rebuilding.
It wasn’t a trade OKC wanted, but the loss of Durant (and the decision to rescind its qualifying offer for guard Dion Waiters, who went to Miami) allowed the Thunder to go all in big enough to take care of Westbrook. It is not where they wanted to be, but having a second top-five player in house helps soothe the loss of another.
And: it’s October. There is enthusiasm and excitement and optimism because it’s October. There’s been no six-game losing streak that coach Billy Donovan has to solve, no crisis of confidence that Westbrook has to address. Those will surely come and we will see how the team reacts. But if history is any guide, OKC will not panic, and it will not change its approach of trying to develop and improve the team around its superstars.
Correction: its superstar.
Donovan has already shown himself to be a heck of a coach. But he played in the NBA. He knows that great coaching and management and all of that only takes a team so far. Oklahoma City will rely on how it’s always done things to try and endure what it has lost.
“We’re not in the fetal position,” one member of the franchise said. “We’re not the same team. But we’re the same Thunder.”
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