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Five Big Questions As Training Camp Looms

Buddy Grizzard looks at five intriguing NBA storylines entering training camp.

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Training camp is so close you can almost taste the arena hot dogs and beer. But we’re not there yet. So while we wait for these last few weeks to tick away to have the NBA back in our lives, Basketball Insiders will look at five burning questions that face the NBA, its players and its teams as a brand new cycle is set to begin.

1. Is Derrick Rose the answer for Cleveland?

We’ve already explored the question of what moves the Cavaliers might make to ensure this season’s team is a contender. Cleveland’s fate, with LeBron James set to enter free agency next summer, provides some of the most compelling drama for the upcoming season. The Kyrie Irving trade provided the Cavs with a movable asset in the Nets’ unprotected 2018 pick which could be used to address whatever is the team’s greatest position of need.

Thus, Derrick Rose must try to show early on that point guard is not that position. The question is, can Rose be a complimentary player? In his best seasons, Rose was the centerpiece of Bulls roster that appeared to be on its way to contending for championships. Post-injury, the Cavaliers must discover if Rose is willing and able to operate in the shadow of James, a shadow that grew too long for Irving. If Rose can’t thrive in a complimentary role, the Cavs may still need to address the point guard position. The organization has been ominously silent about Isaiah Thomas’ timeline for a return to action, so it may not be able to afford to wait to see if he can be the answer either.

2. Can Russell Westbrook coexist with another star?

Anytime an NBA team has three of the top 10 players in the world, the reasonable expectation is that the team will win multiple championships. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be forever known as a team that was given that opportunity and failed to capitalize. The reasons for that failure will remain matters of debate for the foreseeable future, so it might be best to analyze it in terms of results.

After Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, during which James Harden attempted only six shots, Harden complained about his lack of touches. The result was a rift in the locker room which led to a messy divorce that sent Harden to Houston in one of the most second-guessed trades of all time. With Harden gone, OKC’s remaining top-10 players — Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — failed to return to the NBA Finals. As a result — since Durant’s goal is to win NBA championships — Durant sought greener pastures and found a championship formula in Golden State.

As a result of Durant’s departure, Westbrook was free to take as many shots as he wanted and pursue individual accolades such as MVP. But this offseason, the Pacers unexpectedly threw the Thunder a lifeline by offering Paul George in a trade. With George’s arrival, the Thunder — on paper — have the talent to compete in the stacked West. But can Westbrook coexist with another star player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective? During every previous opportunity, the combination has failed to produce a championship for the Thunder.

3. Can Kemba Walker unlock Dwight Howard?

In stops with the Lakers, Rockets, and Hawks since leaving Orlando, Dwight Howard has always sought a return to his glory years when he carried an average Magic roster to the NBA Finals. To hear Howard tell it, circumstances have conspired to prevent that return from happening.

In Los Angeles and Houston, Howard failed to mesh with star teammates. In Atlanta, a roster with more role players and complementary pieces — rather than superstar egos — awaited. But Howard says he still didn’t receive the role he was sold on when he signed. Regardless of who is to blame for Howard’s inability to recapture his Orlando form, it falls to Kemba Walker to incorporate him into a Hornets team that hopes to put last season’s disappointment behind it and make the playoffs.

To do that, Walker will need to form a consistent pick and roll partnership with Howard. Long gone are the days when throwing the ball into the post and expecting Howard to manufacture a bucket was an efficient use of a possession. Howard is dramatically more efficient when operating as the roll man in pick and rolls. But for some reason, Howard used fewer than 100 such possessions in Atlanta last season. Who is to blame for that? Was it Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder’s lack of proficiency or Howard’s lack of willingness? Who knows and who cares? For Walker and the Hornets, all that matters is results.

4. Will Dennis Schroder wreck Atlanta’s tank?

Speaking of Dennis Schroder, despite being outplayed by John Wall in last season’s first round, he showed real signs of maturation in his first season as a full-time starter. Schroder’s assist-to-turnover ratio improved dramatically in the postseason despite facing a top-flight defender in Wall. Meanwhile, he’s in a neck-and-neck race with Goran Dragic to emerge as the most outstanding player at the ongoing EuroBasket 2017.

Schroder showed out in a round of 16 victory over France, shredding every defender that tried to slow him and flying all over the court to help his team advance. After Spain defeated Turkey in the first round of the knockout stage yesterday, it set up a meeting with Schroder’s Germany on Tuesday in the round of eight. Spain’s roster is packed with NBA players while Schroder is the only major NBA talent on Germany’s roster. The meeting with Spain will be an opportunity for Schroder to show how far he’s come.

In the meantime, ESPN’s Zach Lowe joined the Woj Podcast Friday with Adrian Wojnarowski to talk about the NBA’s latest proposal to reform the NBA Draft Lottery (more on that below) and casually threw out the Atlanta Hawks as a team that may be deliberately tanking. If the Hawks are tanking, the organization has a strange way of going about it after signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova as free agents. They give the Hawks depth and starting experience in the power rotation. If Atlanta is really determined to lose games, why not stick with Miles Plumlee and Mike Muscala?

Beyond the steps new Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has taken to ensure Atlanta has a fairly complete roster, Schroder may be too good to allow the Hawks to tank. Judging by his performance at EuroBasket, Schroder could have a breakout season and drive Atlanta’s tank right into a ditch.

5. What’s really behind the NBA’s lottery reform proposal?

Lowe and Wojnarowski had a fairly thorough discussion of the NBA’s latest lottery reform proposal, but it raised as many questions as it answered. Both seemed to agree that nobody around the league really thinks the proposal will put an end to tanking, which is the stated purpose. If nobody believes reform will stop tanking, then what’s the real reason behind the proposal?

“If the point of tanking is to get stars and you want to eliminate tanking, in theory, you can’t just look at lottery reform,” said Lowe. “You have to look at, how can we enable these other teams to get stars in different ways?”

With those two sentences, Lowe cut to the heart of the debate. The issue isn’t tanking. The issue is, which teams have access to star players and how do those teams have access to star players? Basketball Insiders’ Dennis Chambers recently argued that the league’s latest lottery reform proposal won’t create parity. The reality is that parity in the NBA is impossible. Here’s why:

Championships in the NBA are won by what we’ll refer to as “dynastic” players. A dynastic player is a player that has been central to multiple NBA championships. Putting aside any arguments about the definition of “central” for the moment, here are the dynastic players since 1980 and how many championships they’ve won:

Magic Johnson, 5
Larry Bird, 3
Isiah Thomas, 2
Michael Jordan, 6
Hakeem Olajuwan, 2
Tim Duncan, 5
Kobe Bryant, 5
Shaquille O’Neal, 4
Dwyane Wade, 3
LeBron James, 3
Stephen Curry, 2

Since 1980, only four teams — about 10 percent — have won an NBA championship without a dynastic player: The 1983 76ers (Moses Malone was Finals MVP), 2004 Pistons (Chauncey Billups), 2008 Celtics (Paul Pierce) and 2011 Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki). Almost 90 percent of the time, a team needs a player capable of winning multiple championships to win an NBA title. Of 34 NBA champions since 1980 that featured a dynastic player, 27 (79 percent) included one that was selected in the top three of the NBA Draft. That means only a small percentage of teams will EVER compete for an NBA championship. In contrast to Major League Baseball and the NFL — where parity is possible because no single player can drive the fate of an entire franchise — the NBA is a completely star-driven league.

And stars are in too short a supply for parity to ever happen in the NBA.

Thus, since the consensus is that tanking will continue no matter what sort of lottery reform the NBA institutes, the proposal appears to be aimed at impacting what teams have access to star players. In a sort of Trojan Horse, the reform proposal includes a provision that would increase the odds for a team that barely misses the playoffs to receive one of the top three picks. This proposal was part of the league’s last attempt at lottery reform that was voted down by league owners. It’s unclear who is pushing this effort to give borderline playoff teams a better shot at a superstar, but it’s clear from the league’s persistent efforts that this is the end game.

And that’s something that nobody is paying enough attention to. With the fate of NBA franchises so dependent on ultra-rare generational talents, which teams have access to those players should be the focus of the debate, not the smokescreen of tanking.

With a new NBA season just around the corner, these are some of the storylines that will be at the forefront. As this offseason proved, however — with Irving’s unexpected trade request and the forced retooling of Cleveland’s contending roster — it’s impossible to predict what new storylines will emerge at any given moment.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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