* * *
What (or who) will you be watching intently during the first 4-6 weeks of the season?
* * *
David Aldridge: Like many, I'll be an amateur Kawhiologist all season, looking for any clues -- all non-verbal, as we know Leonard won't be contributing his thoughts on the matter at any point -- of his future intentions. Will he develop a sudden love of poutine? Start telling reporters, "take off, eh, you hoser?" Any other lazy Canadian narratives I can think of? Seriously, the potential fit between Leonard and the Raptors could really change everything, starting with the Lakers' fever dreams of a second superstar to pair with LeBron. If Toronto convinces Leonard it's a place in which he can put down long-term stakes, the Eastern Conference changes dramatically. All of a sudden, the Boston Celtics' assumed rise to the top for the next several years would not be guaranteed. A Leonard-led Toronto franchise, with the young ballers the Raptors have in support, would be formidable. But if it becomes clear he's going to bounce, won't the Raps have to seriously think about moving him before the deadline? His first days/weeks there will be crucial.
Tas Melas: Kawhi Leonard in Toronto. He was unanimously a top-five player when his playoffs ended on the foot of Zaza Pachulia in 2017. What is he now? Will he smile ALL THE TIME just to troll us? I’m very intrigued. Darkhorse: Speaking of great players, also very intrigued to see what Giannis Antetokounmpo does in coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense. Giannis needs some help and better synergy around him so he can win a playoff series already. Is a new coach, growth within, and Brook Lopez enough? Dark-Darkhorse:There seems to be something happening very quietly in Indiana. Will Victor Oladipo take it to another level? Is Myles Turner gonna follow Oladipo’s lead by both getting cut like him and producing a career season? Will Pacers fans be chanting: “Doug-ie! Doug-ie!” (McDermott).
Shaun Powell: A trick question, right? Well, of course it's the Lakers, not necessarily to see if LeBron James is still great, but to see if the team's transitional path is laced with banana peels. Remember, the first few months of the Big Three in Miami was rocky, and the Oklahoma City Thunder never really meshed last season. New faces often translate into awkward moments. There's no reason to suspect the young pups and LeBron and the wacky supporting cast of Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson won't eventually work out the kinks, but seeing them try to do so initially -- and checking out the social media (over)reaction to that -- will be fascinating.
John Schuhmann: The Lakers and Markelle Fultz. The Lakers, because of their youth and because playing with LeBron James is a big adjustment for a lot of players, should be a better team in February and March than they are in October and November. That doesn't mean that they won't be fascinating to watch, especially on offense where it's not clear how the pieces fit together, from Day 1. On an individual basis, Fultz is the player to watch early in the season. If his shot is fixed, if his confidence is restored, and if he can play alongside Ben Simmons, the Sixers will have a better bench (to go along with what was the league's best high-volume lineup last season), a more potent offense and a higher ceiling.
Sekou Smith: In addition to keeping an eagle eye on the Los Angeles Lakers from the first whistle of training camp until the final buzzer in their season finale (and that includes the first 4-6 weeks of the season), I am genuinely intrigued by the Boston Celtics. We all assume they'll insert Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into the mix and elevate above the rest of the Eastern Conference now that LeBron James is with the Lakers. I know that's the way things are supposed to go. But I want to see it. I want to see if Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to thrive with those veterans back in the mix. I want to see how coach Brad Stevens handles the minutes for Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart now that they've had a taste of the spotlight, a real taste. I need to see if their chemistry can survive the gathering storm of all that talent that's been assembled. We didn't get a chance to see it in action last season with Hayward going down five minutes into the season opener. It's a potentially fascinating group that could prove to be a true rival for the Golden State Warriors on the other side of the conference divide.
* * *