With such a busy NBA offseason and basketball to watch during the Olympics, it sort of feels crazy that preseason games have already started and the 2016-17 campaign is weeks away. Beyond the reported $3.58 billion in guaranteed contracts that were doled out this summer or the Kevin Durant decision that resulted in bit of a ripple effect taking place around the league as teams scrambled to adjust, there were also organizations that decided to essentially press the proverbial “reset” button in order to take things in entirely new directions. The Lakers, Spurs and Timberwolves each saw longtime franchise legends walk away and are now adjusting to life with shifting responsibilities or new players stepping into roles of leadership – especially with San Antonio and L.A. Teams like the HEAT, Bulls, Hawks and Rockets each return with significant shifts to their core groups, not to mention the 12 teams with new head coaches since the start of last season. Needless to say, there are a ton of great storylines to pay attention to throughout the league, but here are a few to specifically keep an eye on as we head into the season:
The eventual fit in Oakland
Although much of the focus was on the fact that a team coming off a 73-9 season essentially swapped a role player (Harrison Barnes) for perhaps one of the game’s all-time scorers, we should probably take a moment to also acknowledge that a definite transition period should be expected after the Warriors also lost Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights and Leandro Barbosa. Pairing Durant alongside Draymond Green is about as versatile a forward combo as we’ve seen since the 1980s Celtics, and they are about to put forth one of the most potent offensive units we’ve ever seen; the Stephen Curry/Durant/Klay Thompson trio might actually approach 1,000 threes between them. But they could also have to undergo adjustments to their defensive approach.
Can Zaza Pachulia replace what Bogut brought this team on the defensive end? Pachulia may look more productive on paper, but the Warriors will need him to be the rim-protecting presence Bogut was when healthy over the last four seasons. Guys like David West, James McAdoo and perhaps Kevon Looney can replace whatever was lost with Speights leaving town, but Bogut has been the team’s main source of rim protection for some time now, so Pachulia’s effectiveness on the defensive end could be a bigger deal than some may be considering.
Which Eastern Conference team emerges as Cleveland’s greatest competition?
The Toronto Raptors have held that position over the past couple seasons, but could face steep competition from the Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and a few other dark horses. Teams like the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets have each undergone significant changes and remain as “wild cards” depending upon how well the parts wind up fitting and relative team health along the way.
Paul George looked phenomenal during his time with Team USA and should hit the ground running, equipped with an improved Pacers roster that has a nice blend of talented youth alongside veterans who can also still contribute. The Celtics added Al Horford, retained some key guys in Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko and drafted another athletic (yet raw) swingman in Jaylen Brown who appears to fit the mold of type of physical player Boston prefers.
The Knicks added a ton of vets to play alongside Carmelo Anthony, but the actual story for the present and future in New York will be the continued development of Kristaps Porzingis. Early predictions and expectations of a return to the Conference Finals discussion have since tempered, but it will at least be fun to see the Knicks playing some competitive ball as Porzingis’ game continues to unfold.
The Hawks are another team that underwent significant roster turnover and enter the year with a bit of an unknown feeling that is strangely refreshing. Will Dwight Howard jell with newly promoted Dennis Schröder, as the 23-year-old adjusts to the added responsibility of leading the team? Time will tell whether the new desire to shoot more jumpers will pan out for Howard, but the hope would be returning to a familiar hometown market will be just what the 30-year-old center needs to be at his best.
The Raptors still feature the All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but also return with a bit of depth with rookie big man Jakob Poeltl, free agent Jared Sullinger and perhaps even an energy guy in Pascal Siakam to keep an eye on. The rate at which the young guys develop could determine the depth of roster options, but a real key to Toronto’s chances this year could be whether Sullinger is finally able to put it all together on the court. He looks a bit better than he did at times in Boston from a physical standpoint, but the Raptors could really be in business if the 24-year-old Ohio State product can remain locked in this season.
Will the Clippers take the next step?
This could be the year the Clippers finally take the next step in the playoffs. The roster is as balanced as it’s ever been in Doc Rivers’ tenure as head coach and de facto front office head, and the clock is ticking on the contracts of multiple core pieces – namely Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Whether Coach Rivers actually believes there is “no gap” between the Clippers and the top teams in the league, this could be his best chance to prove that notion.
The Spurs will likely be just as formidable even in transition, but the Clippers will also have teams like the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and Jazz each trying to take steps forward in competition for a top seed. Both OKC and Houston could be considered wild cards. Russell Westbrook will undoubtedly play out of his mind in the new role as unquestioned leader and the pairing alongside Victor Oladipo should be absolutely electric. There also seems to be a renewed sense of confidence with the roster shift and the hiring of head coach Mike D’Antoni in Houston. We saw what type of success a happy James Harden could have just a couple seasons back when he wound up second in the MVP race to Steph Curry. Plus, Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (health permitting) et al. are about to make a ton of threes in that D’Antoni offense this season.
Shifting back to Los Angeles, the main guys are still going to do what’s expected from them, although Griffin could have even more motivation to prove himself in his return. Where taking chances on guys like Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson led to issues last season, the front office went out and added some quality pieces to help balance out some of the workload throughout the season. Whether it ultimately winds up being a “now or never” situation or owner Steve Ballmer makes good on his reported vow to do whatever it takes to keep Griffin and Paul in Los Angeles, while there will be some serious competition, the Clippers appear to be in the prime position to finally live up to the “dark horse” title some have been so eager to give them over the past few years.
How will the rookies and youth movements around the league fare?
Aside from the terrible news Sixers fans recently received on the summer’s #1 pick Ben Simmons, this is also the best time of the year to remind yourselves of where each rookie wound up landing. Individual expectations aside, Minnesota leads what could be as many as a dozen current youth movements throughout the league that should each be fun to watch develop. Karl-Anthony Towns had a historically good rookie season and appears to already have a trajectory of some of the better bigs of late. Having seen Coach Tom Thibodeau take over and help galvanize a young group in Chicago within the last decade, the growing sense of optimism surrounding this team makes sense when you consider this group could wind up proving to have a considerable amount of talent.
The Lakers and Suns each have really interesting cores as well, as each organization heads into the year with multiple young pieces to be excited about. Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker could wind up being one of the more exciting backcourts in the conference and Phoenix also brought in two promising bigs in Dragan Bender (versatile, can shoot and defend) and Marquese Chriss (one of the more athletic bigs in the draft) to develop alongside them. Tyler Ulis may have a bunch of players ahead of him on the depth chart heading in, but don’t be shocked to see him work himself into the rotation as well.
The Lakers are in one of the more unique positions of any team as they not only said goodbye to a franchise legend and the team’s leader last spring, but they also changed the head coach and overall basketball philosophy with the hire of Luke Walton and staff and now find themselves in a process of essentially rebranding with a bevy of talented, young players with no discernible leader for the first time in 20 years. They did a solid job of adding veteran presences both in the locker room and on Walton’s bench in order to assist with the transition, but it actually appears as though the franchise is fully prepared to allow this core group to learn and grow together in the same organic nature as they did following Magic Johnson’s initial departure from the game about 25 years ago. For longtime fans, while the uncertainty isn’t something they are accustomed to, there also has to be a certain level of excitement based directly upon the expectation and splendor of the unknown.
Still just 23 years old, Anthony Davis is also the leader of an intriguing team conversion in year two under Coach Alvin Gentry in New Orleans. The Pelicans have some veterans on that roster, but the principle characters are still relatively young. Could this be the roster that Lance Stephenson finally recaptures what worked so well for him for a time in Indiana? Adding a scorer like Buddy Hield into the mix will certainly help, but once again Stephenson is in a position where he could be a real difference maker if he winds up making the roster.
Don’t forget about those young groups in Denver, Orlando and Milwaukee as well, as each squad should give fans plenty to be excited over as we head into the season.
Again, these are just a few of the storylines to look for as there are literally dozens of great roster battles, teams attempting to transition from being “pretenders” to actual “contenders” and promising youth movements across the league. Regardless of whether the ultimate outcome is yet another epic (rubber match) showdown between the Cavs and Warriors, 2016-17 is already shaping up to be another one for the ages.
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