The NBA season is only 13 days away, and with games that actually matter approaching so quickly, it’s time to answer some burning questions that could go a long way in determining how the 2016–17 season shakes out. We’ll start in the Western Conference before circling back to the East at a later date.
How will the Warriors frontcourt hold up?
The anticipation of watching the Warriors’ new-and-improved death lineup run roughshod through the NBA is high. However, Golden State’s success could also be largely impacted by how well its power rotation holds up throughout the season. Zaza Pachulia will start at center, and though he was a high-value signing in the wake of the Kevin Durant acquisition, Pachulia is still a major downgrade from Andrew Bogut, who gave the Dubs strong defense and skillful passing. Beyond Pachulia, the Warriors also lost Festus Ezeli, who was a solid backup and capable spot starter. Steve Kerr showed last season he wants to use a light touch with lineups featuring Draymond Green at center, mostly in an effort to preserve Green’s body. Can Golden State get enough from Pachulia, David West or (gulp) even JaVale McGee to hold up for 82 games?
Retaining Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston ensures that Golden State’s bench will still have valuable contributors, but guys like Ian Clark and Kevon Looney could be needed for big minutes in the event of injuries. The Warriors have been very lucky with injuries the last two seasons, and they’ll need that luck more than ever this year to deal with the rigors of playing deep into the playoffs for a third straight time.
Will Russell Westbrook rip a hole through the earth trying to put the Thunder on his back?
Durant’s departure from OKC will have a fascinating ripple effect on the career trajectory of Russell Westbrook. Will Russ take his game to new heights as the Thunder’s unquestioned alpha dog? Or will he crash and burn while trying to do too much for his team? As fun as it was at times to watch Westbrook two seasons ago when Durant missed most of the season, his incredibly high usage rate didn’t necessarily translate to on-court success for the Thunder.
Westbrook undoubtedly has a deep desire to keep Oklahoma City competitive in the West this season, but he can’t let that desire rob his game of efficiency. I think it could take a good chunk of the season for Russ to fully acclimate himself to his new position in the OKC hierarchy. Not only will Westbrook have to adjust to seeing the best defender on the floor every night, he will also have to learn to play with so many new players that I don’t think the Thunder will look so pretty out of the gates. The new role, plus the destruction of continuity means Westbrook could very well have a frustrating, stop-and-go start to the season before he really catches fire.
Will the Timberwolves make the leap?
The hype machine found the Wolves kind of quickly this off-season, and rightfully so. Karl Towns is a legit stud, Kris Dunn is a rookie of the year candidate, and Tom Thibodeau could scream and yell until he had five household objects playing on a string on defense. But how far can Thibodeau take this team in his first season at the helm? The Wolves still need a hefty amount of growth from guys like Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, and the roster could probably use one more guard-forward player that isn’t Brandon Rush. And even with all the excitement in Minnesota, the Wolves are far from guaranteed to be a playoff team.
A leap in production, particularly defensively, from Towns himself could be enough to make Minny one of the West’s eight best teams. Increased efficiency from Wiggins and continued three-point shooting from LaVine would also go a long way in helping the Wolves become the team no one wants to see in the first round of the playoffs. It seems silly heaping so much pressure on such a young, promising team this early in their time together, but NBA history shows young, promising teams are often not given as much time together as we hope.
Can the Rockets bounce back?
Two seasons ago, James Harden was the players’ choice for NBA MVP, not Stephen Curry, and Houston was Golden State’s opponent in the Western Conference finals. Last year, the Rockets fired Kevin McHale early in the season and snuck into the playoffs as an eight seed for another loss to Golden State. The Rockets had a productive off-season, however, hiring Mike D’Antoni while getting rid of Dwight Howard. Houston also added some proven shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, who could help lessen the gigantic offensive burden on Harden.
I think Houston is flying under the radar as a surprise team heading into the season. Defense could be an issue, but if D’Antoni can keep them in the middle of the pack on that end of the court and they can stay healthy, the offense should be spectacular. Lineups with Harden at point guard, flanked by Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson will be devastating from the perimeter. Meanwhile, the underrated Clint Capela will give Houston a more willing pick-and-roll participant than Dwight Howard. Capela is not as talented as Dwight, but he certainly fits much better within the team concept. If all goes well, Houston could shoot its way into a top-five spot in the West.
Is this the year the Clippers make the conference finals?
Will it even matter if they play the Warriors?