The League that Never Takes a Timeout, even in Summer -- especially in Summer -- is back on the hardwood. It’s season 73 for the NBA, and after a killer offseason where trades and free agent signings kept the Association at the top of the sports world day after day, week after week, we’re back to square one -- Golden State is the best team in the league, its latest dynasty, and the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the league seems to only be growing now that DeMarcus Cousins is on board in the Bay.
But, we all saw how vulnerable the Warriors looked when Andre Iguodala went down during the playoffs, and the Rockets were one game away from dethroning the Dubs before Chris Paul went down. You would certainly make the Warriors prohibitive favorites to win a fourth title in five years. Yet there are all manner of new alliances, inter-conference movements, led by LeBron James leaving Cleveland a second time -- this time for the West Coast, and the Lakers -- and coaching changes that should give the 2018-19 season some pizazz.
So, it’s time for that annual ritual that indicates another year is upon us: 24 Deep Questions.
1) Is this really the last roundup for this iteration of the Warriors?
Just as NBA Twitter was utterly dismissive of any team’s chances to seriously contend against Golden State last season -- Chris Paul would like a world, NBAT -- it is posting early and often this year that the Dubs may well go, Enron-style, after the 2018-19 campaign. For one, Kevin Durant seems determined to hit free agency again next summer, after going for another 1+1 deal last July. (KD maintains he could well sign a long-term deal with Golden State in ’19.) And, with Durant turning 30 last week, Golden State now has five players in its core group 30 or older. And even if the Warriors re-sign Durant, Klay Thompson will be unrestricted, and could well be more in demand than KD, with more squads feeling they have a realistic shot, along with the requisite dollars, to go get him. Yet all of the talk of a Beatles-like breakup seems premature.
Joe Lacob and Peter Guber aren’t building a $2 billion arena, set to open in downtown San Francisco a year from now, to open with an also-ran. As with everything the Warriors have accomplished the last four years, there’s likely a well-thought out game plan that will assure Golden State hegemony for at least another year or two.
2) So, who gets the ball for the Lakers, and who gets to spot up?
LeBron James’s Heat and Cavaliers teams made eight straight NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference since 2010. In those eight seasons -- four in Miami, four in Cleveland -- the best point guard he played with was Kyrie Irving. And when Irving was healthy with James in 2016, the Cavs won it all. But other than Uncle Drew, LeBron spent much of those eight years bringing the ball up himself, or catching it just after midcourt and initiating the offense. That won’t be the case in his first season in Los Angeles -- or, at least it shouldn’t be, with Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo battling at the point.
But, there’s a huge difference, obviously, between Irving and Ball/Rondo: Irving has shot better than 40 percent on 3s in three of his last four pro seasons. Ball shot 30.5 percent behind the arc as a rookie; Rondo has never come close to 40 percent on 3s, though he did get up to 37 percent in 2016-17 while in Chicago.
The point is, James has long since realized he’s not at his best in a static position, waiting; his game is kinetic, creating havoc for opposing defenses. If that’s the case, one of Rondo or Ball is going to have to be much, much better catching and shooting than they’ve shown. Maybe the Lakers will be, as James said, positionless, and they can use the ballhanding skill of James, Rondo and Ball to create shots for themselves and others. And Ball has put in significant work in the lab this summer on his jumper. But at some point, defenses will lay off and go under screens. Then we’ll see.
3) What does Donovan Mitchell do for an encore?
Utah’s budding superstar spent his summer in the lab, as all great players do, trying to add more to his game. He’ll need to come back this year even stronger, because he has to get himself to the foul line more. Someone who shoots 81 percent on free throws has to take more than 3.8 per game. It’s part of the delicate dance Utah has to perform this season. The push and pull between Mitchell and Rudy Gobert on offense isn’t exactly a problem, but it’s a challenge. Having a spread five on the floor instead of Gobert would give Mitchell more room to drive and draw those fouls, but Gobert also helps Utah immensely as a roller on offense, and is the lynchpin of Utah’s suffocating defense. How will Quin Snyder maintain his team’s selfless concept while ensuring that Mitchell becomes all he can be individuvally?
4) Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik ... Who brings the defensive juice now in Houston?
The Rockets didn’t get within one game of The Finals last season because they kept raining 3s on people; they got there because their defense improved significantly -- from 18th in the league in Defensive Rating in 2016-17 (106.4) to eighth (103.8) last season. And the above troika, including Bzdelik, one of the league’s top defensive minds, was a big part of that success. With Ariza and Mbah a Moute on the wings to supplement P.J. Tucker, Houston could switch everything defensively to great effect, and the Rockets gummed up the Warriors’ attack for long stretches in the Western Conference finals.
But Ariza is now in Phoenix, and Mbah a Moute in LA, while Bzdelik retired after three-plus decades as a college and pro coach. Mike D’Antoni is talking brave about the guys who are left still being a quality defensive unit, but there’s a reason the Rockets are trying like crazy to get Jimmy Butler (see below) from Minnesota.
5) Speaking of which, where’s Butler going?
Best guess: Riles loves stars. Miami eventually works out something with the Wolves that makes Thibs content enough to pull the trigger.
6) Is there enough playing time in Boston this season for 10 guys?
Let’s be clear: 26 or 27 other teams would love to have Brad Stevens’s “problem” in this area: trying to find enough minutes to go around for Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes. (This doesn’t even count the C’s first-rounder, Robert Williams.) And with Hayward and Irving back in the starting lineup, the ripple effect is real.
How does Stevens utilize Terry Rozier, who was electrifying in the postseason in Irving’s absence? What of Smart, who makes Boston’s already good defense elite? Everyone’s saying all the right things about making sacrifices, and needing depth in case of injuries -- and it’s true that everyone isn’t in the same quality of shape at this point of the season, so there’s likely to be some separation, anyway. But it bears watching.
7) What does Victor Oladipo do for an encore?
The first-time All-Star didn’t rest on his laurels after his breakthrough season for Indiana. He spent most of the summer in Miami, working out like a demon and continuing to sculpt himself physically. The main charge from the Pacers’ braintrust this year: be ready for the doubles. They’re coming. The Cavaliers attacked him aggressively in the later stages of the teams’ first-round series last spring, and while Oladipo adjusted -- a triple-double in Game 6, with 28, 13 and 10 -- it’s likely going to be a regular staple this year. (Among the specific goals this season: an assist-turnover ratio of at least 1.5 to 1.) If Oladipo can find shooters better in the pocket and make the right decisions in transition, the Pacers believe they can take yet another jump up offensively this season.
Oladipo already has the team leader thing down. “Most positive person I’ve ever been around,” said team president Kevin Pritchard.
8) Is Kawhi Leonard renting or buying in Toronto?
“That’s not for me to talk about,” Leonard told Turner’s Steve Smith last week after Media Day. “That’s for you guys to mention on TV. But for me, myself, my family, we’re all focused on being in Toronto, and this season. I can’t look past that, or I’m not going to play well.”
Everyone’s on their best behavior for now, and Leonard, other than working off some rust built up after only playing nine games last season, has looked more or less like the two-time All-Star the Raptors got from the Spurs for DeMar DeRozan. Toronto’s GM Masai Ujiri swears there have been no undue bells or whistles in the franchise’s recruitment of Leonard going forward. Leonard will no doubt be available and professional in Canada all season. I still think he will be a Clipper 12 months from now. We’ll see.
9) Should the Pelicans be very, very afraid that Anthony Davis has hired Rich Paul as his agent?
9a) Rich Paul is LeBron James’ agent, and among the most high-powered player reps in the game.
9b) LeBron is now with the Lakers.
9c) The Lakers will have space next summer, and for a while, to add another marquee free agent to play alongside James -- who’s committed in L.A. for four seasons.
9d) Davis can opt out of his deal in two years, after the 2019-20 season.
9e) The Pelicans should have enough cap space after this season -- Nikola Mirotic ($12.5 million this season) comes off their books, as does another $11 million or so from among Alexis Ajinca, Elfrid Payton, Darius Miller and Ian Clark -- to go after a high-profile free agent in the summer of 2019 to play alongside Davis and Jrue Holiday.
9f) Davis is, as of now, open minded about potentially staying. But, obviously, next summer is crucial. The Pelicans will have to add another difference maker, or the clock that is already ticking will start to sound like a gong in the Big Easy.
10) Why isn’t Jamal Crawford on a roster yet?
It looked like the 18 (!)-year vet was on his way to Philadelphia late in the offseason. But the 76ers weren’t able to move veteran Jerryd Bayless, which would have opened a roster spot for the 38-year-old Crawford. Now, it’s likely Crawford -- who stays in ridiculously good shape -- will have to wait for a long-term injury to a guard somewhere before he gets signed again. You know what you’re getting with JCrossover: a guy who can still get his off the bench, and can still get as hot as anybody quickly.
11) Is the Head Coach/President of Basketball Operations model dead in the NBA, once and for all?
What was all the rage just a few years ago in the Association -- giving all the power in an organization to the head coach -- has crashed on the shores, with Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau the last coach with front office final say as well. In the last few years, Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta), Doc Rivers (Clippers) and Stan Van Gundy (Detroit) all lost their president of basketball operations titles, and only Rivers is still employed as coach. (Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd didn’t have the official title, but had the personnel juice in all but name; he, too, lost both jobs.) Brett Brown could have had it in Philly after former GM Bryan Colangelo’s demise, but walked away from it after being the team’s interim executive this summer.
12) Are reports of the Spurs’ demise greatly exaggerated?
No. It’s fair to think there will be regression. This season will mark the first in two decades that Gregg Popovich hasn’t had any of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili -- his soon-to-be Hall of Fame triumvirate -- on the floor to keep things calm and moving. The Spurs now have to build new memories and count on different people. So, while they have two All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan to build around, and some promising young talent, including Dejounte Murray and first-rounder Lonnie Walker, it’s just going to take time for all of it to jell. Popovich is too good a coach to have it all fall apart, and San Antonio will still make the playoffs, but the championship contender days are likely over for a spell.
13) What is reasonable to expect from DeAndre Ayton, the first pick in the 2018 Draft, as a rookie?
The Suns want Ayton, first, to anchor their sieve-like defense (DFL in the league last season in Defensive Rating, at 110.6, and opponent points allowed (113.3), 26th in opponent 3-point percentage (.373) and 22nd in the league in points allowed in the paint/game (47.1). He’ll be tasked with at least cutting off opponent traipses to the front of the rim. “He’s a smart player so he has picked up our defensive concepts quickly,” GM Ryan McDonough said over the weekend. “Offensively, he has a great touch on his shot but we will use him more as a screen and roll guy early in his career.” Eventually, Phoenix expects Ayton to be a monster a la Clint Capela in rim runs, both in the halfcourt and in transition. But a low double-double average (12 points, 10 rebounds) per night would be just fine for now.
14) Cleveland: wasteland again or nah?
Some of us like Collin Sexton a whole, whole lot, so if nothing else, enjoy watching the Cavs’ first-round pick do work. And, there’s too much pride and institutional memory from among Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and others for Cleveland to collapse completely. But: mainly, just enjoy Sexton getting better.
15) Will Kemba Walker be with the Hornets at the end of the season?
I think there’s a better chance of him staying in Charlotte than others seem to believe. The main reason is, simply, volume -- just about every team in the league has either a proven, veteran point guard already in place, or has a young guy it expects to be the leading man in due course.
Of the other 29 teams in the league, I’d say 16 have someone already in that role who’s either an All-Star, All-Star caliber, or high-priced guy the Hornets probably wouldn’t want in return at the point -- Boston (Kyrie Irving), Detroit (Reggie Jackson), Miami (Goran Dragic), Milwaukee (Eric Bledsoe), Philadelphia (Ben Simmons), Toronto (Kyle Lowry), Washington (John Wall), Denver (Gary Harris), Golden State (Steph Curry), Houston (Chris Paul), Memphis (Mike Conley, Jr.), Minnesota (Jeff Teague), New Orleans (Jrue Holiday), Oklahoma City (Russell Westbrook), Portland (Damian Lillard) and Utah (Ricky Rubio). Another nine teams have drafted or traded for their point guard of the future in the last couple of years: Atlanta (Trae Young), Chicago (Kris Dunn), Cleveland (Collin Sexton), New York (Frank Ntilikina), Dallas (Dennis Smith, Jr.), the Lakers (Lonzo Ball), Phoenix (Devin Booker), Sacramento (De’Aaron Fox) and San Antonio (Dejounte Murray).
That leaves Brooklyn, Indiana, the Clippers and Orlando as possible long-term destinations for a point guard next summer -- and Brooklyn and the Clippers certainly will have the desire and cap space to go after a player of Walker’s caliber. But he won’t be a free agent in a vacuum; the Nets and Clips plan to be major players for all the other top free agents as well as Walker. Doesn’t mean he couldn’t go to either, and the Hornets will surely have their antennae up all season. But Michael Jordan is well aware of how difficult it will be to get free agents to come to Charlotte -- and, certainly, how much harder that would be without a high-caliber player like Walker to play alongside. Just have a hunch that things might get worked out down there.
16) Does Otto Porter have permission to punch Scott Brooks in the eye if he doesn’t get Porter more 3s this year?
Otto Porter has shot 43 and 44 percent the last two seasons on 3-pointers for Washington. The Wizards were tied for third in the league in 3-point percentage last season, making 37.5 percent of their shots behind the arc. Yet Washington was just 23rd in the league in 3-point attempts, shooting just 26.5 per game. By contrast, Houston took more than 42 3s a night last season. Porter shot 50 percent overall last season, after shooting 51 percent in 2016-17. He is a shotmaker. Yet he only 4.1 3-point attempts last season, and just 11.5 shots overall. The Wizards’ best chance of being the four-out, one-in offense that most of the elite teams in the league have perfected lies with Brooks getting his 25-year-old three, who’s making $27 million a year, the rock a lot more. A whole lot more.
17) Doncic or Young?
Luka Doncic and Trae Young will be linked for the entirety of their respective NBA careers, having essentially been traded for one another on Draft night. Doncic has advantages playing in Dallas that Young doesn’t have in Atlanta; he’ll be playing with an emerging star point guard in Dennis Smith, Jr., while Young is the point guard in Atlanta, who has to get others going before he starts looking for his own shot. And the Mavericks have many more proven pieces to surround him than the Hawks have with Young. So it’s very likely Doncic’s first-year numbers will be much better.
18) Does Denver finally break through and get back to the playoffs this season?
Yes -- assuming Paul Millsap is healthy most of the season. There’s just too much talent here, and too much of a bad taste from the last game of the season loss last year, for the Nuggets not to break through and get back to the postseason for the first time in six years. (Not to mention that the Wolves, depending on how the Butler situation is resolved, may well take a giant step back in the West.)
19) How will Stan Van Gundy do as a TV analyst?
He will be great. Not good -- great. And if ESPN/ABC has any sense, it will team Stan with Jeff on one of its broadcast teams, and move Mark Jackson, who’s paired with Jeff Van Gundy on the network’s lead team the last few years, to another team. Please know that this would not be, to me, a demotion of any kind for Jackson, who’s been a strong analyst since coming to TV. But putting Jeff and Stan Van Gundy together for broadcasts is simply a no-brainer. Having spoken with both of them numerous times over the years, I think their vocal inflections are different enough that you would know which one was talking -- yelling -- at the other during games. They’re both smart, sarcastic, and know how to push each other’s buttons, as all brothers do. It would be Must See TV every week.
20) Which first-year head coach -- Phoenix’s Igor Kokoskov, Toronto’s Nick Nurse, Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce or Charlotte’s James Borrego* -- has the best chance for long-term success?
Borrego has the *asterisk by his name because, technically, he did mop up as an interim coach (30 games) in Orlando in 2015 after the Magic fired Jacque Vaughn. For our purposes, though, he’ll be considered a rookie head coach. But of those four, Kokoskov has the resume that points to being outstanding as the top guy. He’s got so much experience both internationally as a head coach and in the NBA as an assistant for six teams. He’s great with people and will put the Suns in good, creative offensive sets. Phoenix got this one right.
21) Will the Western Conference finals return to Oklahoma City in 2019?
Yes. Yes, they will.
22) But doesn’t that mean the Rockets won’t be …
No. No, they won’t.
23) So, who’s going to be in the playoffs this year?
East: Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Detroit, Miami.
West: Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City, Utah, Denver, Memphis, L.A. Lakers, San Antonio.
First round: Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Indiana; Golden State, Houston, OKC, Utah.
Conference semis: Boston, Philly; Golden State, Oklahoma City
Conference finals: Boston over Philly; Golden State over Oklahoma City
NBA Finals: Golden State over Boston, seven games.
24) And, again: why 24 questions?
As ever, 24 is not in honor of Jack Bauer, but Danny Biasone, the late owner of the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers), who came up with the notion of a 24-second shot clock in 1954, at a time when NBA games didn’t have a time limit on offensive possessions -- and teams often held the ball for minutes at a time, to lessen the impact of talent disadvantages. (The Minneapolis Lakers’ George Mikan, the league’s first superstar, was running roughshod over the NBA at the time, and most teams had no one who could stop him.)
At the owners’ meetings that year, Biasone did the math. NBA games were 48 minutes long. In a normal, non-slowdown game, Biasone figured out that around 120 shots -- 60 per team -- were taken. So, if you divided the number of seconds in a game -- 2,880 -- by the number of shots, 120, you could come up with a time limit per possession for each team. And 2,880 divided by 120 is 24.
The 24-second shot clock saved the league. Scoring went up the next season with the implementation of the clock, as teams began pushing the pace of play to keep up. Soon after, the Celtics, with Bob Cousy running the show, introduced the fast break as a weapon and started winning championships. The 24-second clock made the NBA a fast league, and made great athletes a necessity. And that made the NBA a league that would appeal to younger fans. It still is.