We take a look at the biggest issue looming over every NBA team for the 2017-18 season.
*Teams listed in predicted order of finish*
CAN KYRIE BE THE LEAD DOG OF A GOOD TEAM? We know he can score and is damn near impossible for anyone not name Klay Thompson to stay in front of. However, it remains to be seen if Kyrie Irving can elevate his all-around game and be the leader of a legitimate contender. Cleveland’s struggles with Irving, but without LeBron James on the court, are expected, given the team’s past makeup. But, it’s Kyrie’s individual downfalls as a defender — both on and off-ball — and distributor that are most concerning. It’s not that he can’t, it’s that he chooses not to defend that gives pause. Irving is, by request, about to find out how heavy the burden is to lead a championship-caliber team.
MORE OF THE SAME? Under the on-court leadership of the Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan the Raptors have become a perennial playoff team. Which is definitely not a negative. But, they have never been able to get over the imposing hump created by the existence of better teams in the East. Is there still legit rain to believe Toronto will ever be anything more than a bridesmaid? There’s no evidence to really think so. The presence of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas down low will help matters. Toronto will likely, again, max out in the second round of the postseason. But, hey, at least there’s consistency.
IS THE PROCESS WORTHY OF OUR TRUST? Philly has been blatantly rebuilding for a half-decade now, and hopes to finally see a return on its tanking investments. Newly-extended Joel Embiid has the talent to be a top-5 player in the league. But, does he have the back, knees and feet to match? Ben Simmons will make his highly-anticipated debut this season after a broken foot kept him out last year. And they drafted Markelle Fultz with this year’s first overall pick and added sharpshooter J.J. Reddick in free agency. Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor round out the notables. While intriguing, is this really the core of a franchise that you trust?
ARE THE PIECES IN PLACE FOR A REAL RE-BUILD? While the record was still miserable, the Nets in 2016-17, were a team that played hard and were adequately prepared on a regular basis. They just didn’t have the talent to match-up on most nights. Brooklyn traded team leader Brook Lopez to the Lakers in exchange for former second overall pick De’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mosgov. They also signed former Blazers’ forward Allen Crabbe. Added with incumbents, Jeremy Lin and Caris LeVert, the pieces seem to be coming together to at least see noticeable progress.
NEW YORK KNICKS
IS PORZINGIS DIALED IN? Now that Carmelo Anthony is a former Knick, everything now focuses on Kritaps Porzingis, who has already established himself as a nearly sure-fire All-Star for years to come. However, it’s really a big step from All-Star to franchise cornerstone superstar. If he continues to ascend into what many believe he can become, a true franchise player is in the making. That would be counted as a success for the Knicks. In the NBA, you can’t even dream about winning on significant level until you have at minimum one game-altering player. The smart bet is on Porzingis posting a breakout season. He averaged nearly 20 points a game as Melo’s second fiddle. Now, with the offense running through him, it won’t be shocking if he climbs up close to 25 per while shooting nearly 40-percent from three. So, yes…count on Porzingis being all-in and ready to become a true centerpiece.
CAN THEY BEAT GOLDEN STATE? The class of the East, Cleveland obviously doesn’t have an abundance of question marks. In addition, when you possess, arguably, the best basketball player in history in LeBron James, your shortcomings are greatly diminished. Cleveland may be even better than they were last season, with the additions of Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas (assuming he returns in tact from hip surgery), Derrick Rose, Jay Crowder and Jeff Green. In addition to Thomas’ health, some smaller question marks are D. Wade’s tank reservoir, Rose’s and Kevin Love‘s knees, etc. While they should match-up better versus the Warriors, can they truly compete with the reigning champs? On paper, Crowder and Green give the Cavs more length and versatility on the wings to guard the likes of Kevin Durant on the wings. Cleveland will likely roll through the East again, so this question will largely be answered in the Finals most likely.
WHO STEPS UP AROUND THE GREEK FREAK? Giannis Antetokounmpo is a true superstar in the making. This could be the year that he becomes a household name. But, while there is solid talent surrounding him, is anyone ready to step up and become true core components. Malcolm Brogdon, Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe, Thon Maker and Khris Middleton each have pluses, but also come with reservations. Brogdon is a former Rookie-of-the-Year, so the skill is there. However, his ceiling is a bit low. Parker has elite talent, but injuries may sap his once-immense potential. Monroe is a bit of a dinosaur, but has proven himself as a low-post scorer. Middleton is the ideal, long, two-way wing guy that every team wants. The wildcard is Maker. He’s big, long, fluid and skilled with the ball. He also plays hard and is not afraid to get dirty. He’s still developing, but he may be a top-level NBA player soon. Either way, the Bucks are just not ready to be major players in the East just yet.
CAN REGGIE JACKSON AND STANLEY JOHNSON REACH POTENTIAL? Coming into the 2016-17 season, there was chatter of the Pistons being a trendy playoff pick. Those conversations dried up as the season progressed, however. For as much of a lightning-rod as he can be, Reggie Jackson can be absolutely lights out. But, there always seems to be something that sends the train off its rails. If Jackson can remain steady in the moments he’s not dazzling, it would stabilize the entire team when needed. In the case of Johnson, he has all the tools to be very good all the time. He just tries to do too much, far too often. Once he realizes he’s the perfect 3-and-D guy, the better he and the franchise will be.
WILL YOUTH BE A BLESSING OR A CURSE? The short answer to this question is…”yes”. Lauri Markkanen is the centerpiece of a massive rebuilding effort in Chicago; and a pretty solid one at that. He’s a seven-footer who can shoot and create his own shot. What he lacks defensively may come in time, but can be covered up by his teammates for now. Justin Holiday and Kris Dunn are lengthy young guards who carry loads of potential. But, can either of them harness it and learn how to run a team? Zach Lavine is an interesting acquisition. Is he a cornerstone? No way. However, he’s young (23), he can help the Bulls win now and he’s naturally talented. At the very minimum, he can be a solid defender. Denzel Valentine is tough, but limited athletically. He can be a solid shooting specialist if he accepts the role. Bobby Portis, Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio are other young pieces who are just good enough to inspire mild hope for the future.
HOW LIFE AFTER PAUL? With Paul George no longer a Pacer, there will be a major shift in the organizational structure. This is the year we find out if Myles Turner is really a star in the making or a guy who benefited from playing alongside a top-10 player. Victor Oladipo, acquired in the PG trade, is what he is at this point. He’s a scrappy, undersized shooting guard who gets by on toughness. How much confidence do Corey Joseph, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison truly inspire? Damontis Sabonis is a new acquisition. He should be able to play more of his natural game, closer to the basket, than he was instructed to in OKC. Then there’s the persistent anomaly which is Lance Stephenson. If he can return to playing under control and motivated, team basketball, he’d be worth having around.
READY TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP?
If Washington is going to become a force in the East, they’ll need more than just John Wall and Bradley Beal to do it. Yes, Wall and Beal are indeed stars, but the core around them is actually the most intriguing part of this Wizards’ team. Markieff Morris proved himself to be key to their success during last season’s playoffs. He brings a toughness to them, and defensive versatility that allows them get really creative. Marcin Gortat may be the most undervalued center in the league. He’s solid on offense, but his ability to recover on the pick-and-roll and contest shots on defense is what really makes him the ideal center modern NBA teams covet. Kelly Oubre and Otto Porter are both young wings that provide tons of versatility. If it all comes together, the Wizards could see themselves in the thick of a late playoff run.
CAN THE YOUTH DEVELOP AND CONTRIBUTE? Miami is banking on a group of young players developing into key players if they intend to be more than a lower-tier playoff team in the East. However, this shouldn’t be a problem as there are few organizations better in player development. The Heat gave Josh Richardson a 4-year, extension and picked up Wayne Ellington’s second-year option. The Heat do a great job developing not only high draft picks like Bam Adebayo, but also undrafted free agents such as Matt Williams. The continued development of Justice Winslow is critical. Winslow is in a very precarious position. Miami went on an impressive run without him in the second half of last season, and some insist that his absence is part reason of that turnaround. Winslow is an intriguing player that has already shown great defensive skills solid potential. But, his lack of range hinders the Heat on the offensive end.
DOES DWIGHT HOWARD HAVE ANY JUICE LEFT? Howard is still an elite defender, but he still goes in a rut when he’s unhappy. He definitely can provide an upgrade, but Howard does come with risk. Seemingly every team Howard has been relieved he left.when they heard Howard had been traded had their share of. The Hornets have dealt with big polarizing personalities before, like the terrible season endured with Lance Stephenson. With that, Howard may be on his last stop if he doesn’t make this work. So, he should be motivated.
CAN ANYONE SHOOT THE ROCK? Orlando is once of the more athletic teams in the East. Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier are all intriguing talents. Gordon should be able to focus on the power forward spot solely, whole Payton should improve as a facilitator. However, as much improvement as the leaders show, someone — Payton especially — has to become at least respectable from the outside. If Payton can’t, he stands in jeopardy of becoming pigeon-holed as a one dimensional, limited role player.
IS THE CUPBOARD AS BARE AS IT APPEARS? To be frank, yes! This is the worst roster in the NBA. To the franchise’s defense, it is on purpose. The Hawks realized that the prior makeup of the roster was nothing more than annual trips to the first-round of the playoffs and done. Now, with Dennis Schroder and Kenneth Bazemore likely the best players on the roster, things are dramatically different. Perhaps the biggest question should be Michael Porter Jr. or Marvin Bagley with the first overall pick in 2018…
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
HOW QUICKLY CAN RUSS, PG AND MELO MESH? The trades to acquire Paul George from Indiana and Camelo Anthony from New York put the Thunder on higher ground…at least on paper. But, basketball games aren’t played on paper. As we all know, they are played inside our television sets. Of course, the two all-stars will take a substantial load off of Russell Westbrook, but questions remain. The most obvious is how Anthony responds to not being the #1 — or even #2 — option on many nights. Will he disengage on defense and on the boards if he’s he’s not an offensive focal point. We’ve seen Melo adapt and thrive in the Olympics, but can he maintain that mindset over the course of an entire 82-game season? With that, Melo is most effective when he touches the ball, as does Westbrook need the ball to be at his best. Does this squeeze George out of the offense too often? And if it does, how does he respond?
ARE THE NEW ADDITIONS ENOUGH IN THE WEST? Bringing in Jimmy Butler is thought to be a move that helps the Wolves climb into the upper-echelon of the West. Also, replacing Ricky Rubio at the point with Jeff Teague is an upgrade, defensively and shooting-wise. Taj Gibson is one of the most underrated pickups in the off-season as well. With all of that new blood to put around young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, there should major improvement on the surface. However, with the lack of shooting on the perimeter from Teague, Wiggins and Butler, can this team really compete in a Western Conference that makes scoring mandatory?
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
HOW MUCH CAN THE YOUNG BIGS HELP DAME AND CJ? Damian Lillard is clearly one of the top lead guards in the NBA. He and C.J. McCollum are the perfect contemporary backcourt duo. But, they can’t carry this team deep into the playoffs on their shoulders, especially in the West. 2017 draft picks Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan were selected to add athleticism and versatility to the frontcourt. Swanigan was phenomenal during the Summer League and continued his impressive play during the preseason. His ability on the boards and as a stretch-big will be vital moving forward. Collins, on the other hand, was not as successful during the Summer League, but improved incrementally during the preseason. Any help would be great, as Meyers Leonard just hasn’t shown he can be counted on among the big men.
WHERE WILL THE SCORING COME FROM? With Gordon Hayward now in Boston, this team will struggle to find consistent scoring. Rodney Hood is an athletic marvel with upside, but his game is extremely raw still. If he can develop into a guy to fill Hayward’s role as a scorer, that would be ideal. Guys like Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Alec Burks are solid and fit what Utah likes to do — grind out games defensively and keep the possessions low. Ricky Rubio will get the ball into the right hands, but he doesn’t supply much scoring punch at all. Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell could be just what this team needs on the offensive end. He’s long and freakishly athletic with loads of energy.
IS PAUL MILLSAP STILL A DIFFERENCE-MAKER? The Nuggets made the biggest free agency splash they’ve made in years by signing Paul Millsap from the Hawks. While he’s still an impact performer, can he provide a major difference in wins and losses? Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler and Nikola Jokic are all solid players and fit well together with Millsap. One plus is that Millsap and Jokic have games tailor-made to play next to one another. If Murray can take the next step and truly become an elite scorer, it would make a world of difference for this team.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
CAN THEY CONTINUE TO STAY HEALTHY? Ok…the real question is how many games it takes them to win the Finals, but I decided to nitpick a little to make it mildly interesting. Really though, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Shaun Livington have all suffered major injuries in the past with Durant’s most recent just last year. The Dubs have been relatively lucky when it comes to injuries during their 3-year run. Also, with key reserves Andre Iguadala and David West getting up there in age, their overall health is something to keep an eye on as well. All that said, the Warriors are damn near unbeatable and it would be legitimately tough to field an All-Star team to take them down in a 7-game series.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
CAN BLAKE GRIFFIN BECOME A TRUE SUPERSTAR? For starters, no NBA team will look as drastically different as the Clippers. The absence of Chris Paul is an obvious alteration. But also, how they play will be different. The Clips will look to Blake Griffin to become the leader and centerpiece of the team. Can he? Sure. But, “will he?” is the biggest question. Griffin never embraced leadership with Paul around. Now that the team is his, will he actually take the requisite steps to step up in the biggest moments? DeAndre Jordan will miss Paul more than anyone. His offense has depended on Paul for the majority of his career.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
ALL GROWN UP? The youth movement in L.A. looks to be ready to start maturing. The young core of Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and rookie Lonzo Ball is in place and ready to fly. Ingram was spectacular at the end of 2016-17 and should truly breakout this season. Randle, as flawed as he may be, can be a vital weapon if he can remained focused on defense and improve his mid-range game. Ball is the piece that may bring it all together. With his passing skills and leadership ability, his teammates will thrive like never before. Young vets Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jordan Clarkson will be huge in keeping the wheels within the lines here. Rookie Kyle Kuzuma also has been impressive and appears to be a key piece to this unit. While they may still be a couple of years away from being legit contenders, the training wheels are definitely off.
HOW READY IS FOX? Now that the Kings are in the post-Boogie era, they need to find a true face of the franchise. De’Aaron Fox was drafted with that in mind. While some parts of his game need rounding out (shooting range, off-ball defense) he is uber-talented and has tons of natural ability. While Buddy Heild and Willie Cauley-Stein should continue to improve, it is Fox who has the cache’ to eventually be the crown jewel on the Kings’ head.
CAN THEY AT LEAST MUSTER UP HOPE FOR THE FUTURE? While Devin Booker is one of the more exiting young guards in the league, there are really no other proven commodities — at least positively — around him. Lottery pick Josh Jackson has upper-echelon athletic ability and length. But, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever develop offensively. Eric Bledsoe is what he is at this point and will never be a lead-dog on a good team. He could be traded by the deadline. Vital, will be the hopeful improvement of second-year bigs Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, after disappointing rookies seasons by each. Bender was nowhere near as active and physical as he needs to be, while Chriss looked lost for much of his initial season. Unless things dramatically change and some clear direction is found by this franchise, it could be a long year in the desert.
CAN JAMES HARDEN AND CHRIS PAUL COEXIST? On paper, pairing James Harden with Chris Paul is a devastating combination. A backcourt consisting of of two elite playmakers who can create their own shot and get others involved on a high rate is ideal. However, both Harden and Paul are players who need the ball in their hands to be effective. The fact that they both great spot-up shooters well help immensely. Another uncertainty is defense. Harden has never been known for his defensive ability — or willingness for that matter. Paul, as he’s aged, is not the annoying defender he once was. Further heightening the issues on defense is the presence of Mike D’Antoni as head coach. D’Antinu’s system will put up points in droves, but give them up just the same.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
IS THE CULTURE ENOUGH TO KEEP THEM ATOP? We all know the catch-phrases. The Spurs have a team-first mentality. Since forever, the Spurs have the most unassuming star in the NBA…currently Kawhi Leonard, who is a leading MVP candidate once again. He is likely the only player who’s Top 5 on both ends of the court right no. The solid of frontcourt of Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol will anchor the team. However, the one glaring question arises from the absence of Tony Parker. While Parker recovers from surgery to repair a torn quad tendon, Patrick Mills is the starting PG and sophomore Dejounte Murray is the likely backup, that’s a potential problem. As usual, they are a far from elite team in terms of athleticism.
WILL A NEW IDENTITY LEAD TO DIFFERENT RESULTS? A significant part of allowing Zach Randolph leave in free agency to Sacramento and Tony Allen to New Orleans was to allow the Grizzlies to increase the pace on offense. Memphis has been synonymous for taking the air out of the ball for nearly a decade. Head coach David Fizdale appears to be moving away from that style, if preseason numbers are any indication.
Grizzlies pace (NBA rank)
- 2012-13: 91.15 (29th)
- 2013-14: 92.25 (30th)
- 2014:15: 94.21 (24th)
- 2015-16: 95.65 (27th)
- 2016-17: 94.74 (28th)
- 2017-18 preseason: 106.54 (4th)
Granted, it is preseason, but this is one hell of a swing. Fizdale stated before last season that, but rather how quickly the team can get into its offense
IS THERE A SUCCESSOR TO DIRK? The Mavericks thought they found their heir apparent to Dirk Nowizky when they signed Harrison Barnes from Golden State last offseason. While Barnes averaged 19.1 ppg, he was inefficient, with an effective field-goal percentage of just 49.8. It was abundantly clear by the end of the season that Barnes was a solid piece of Dallas” future, not THE piece.
Now comes Dennis Smith Jr., a 6’3″ powerful ball of energy who was an absolute steal at No. 9 in June’s draft. Even on draft night people were talking about Smith as this year’s biggest steal, and those sentiments were cemented when he averaged 17.3 ppg in the Las Vegas Summer League. His fellow rookies have picked him to win this season’s Rookie of the Year, and league general managers voted Smith as the biggest steal of the draft
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
THE TWIN TOWERS AND WHO ELSE?
New Orleans has the two best big men in the game today. Playing with the “twin towers” approach may seem counter-intuitive to the contemporary NBA, but it’s not like New Orleans is lining up a could of stiffs. Cousins and Davis just are not your traditional big men. They both have the ability to shoot the 3, handle the ball and guard smaller players of need be. It just didn’t seem to work last season I’m its small sample size (17 games & 394 minutes together on the court). The Davis-Cousins combo went 7-10, nowhere near the playoff run many expected New Orleans to make after acquiring Boogie. Ideally, what the Pelicans really need is time…time for Davis and Cousins to jell, time for Jrue Holiday to adapt to playing off the ball alongside Rajon Rondo and time for the organization to put together pieces to surround its stars.