Roundtable: Five biggest questions entering the 2014-15 NBA season
With the NBA season finally here, SI.com paneled its NBA experts and asked them the five biggest questions heading into the 2014-15 season. For our staff's predictions for the Finals, MVP and more, click here.
1. Outside of LeBron to the Cavaliers, which offseason move will prove most significant?
Lee Jenkins: Kevin Love to the Cavs. If it can’t be LeBron to Cleveland, can it be Kevin Love? Without Love, the Cavaliers are a contender in the Eastern Conference, winner of one playoff series and possibly two. With him, they form the best offense in the NBA, and perhaps they take the championship. Defensively, Andrew Wiggins would have helped the Cavs seal the perimeter, but Love’s rebounding helps mask defensive deficiencies because so many possessions are going to be one shot and out. Someday, Wiggins may be a better player than Love, and the Timberwolves can claim victory. But the Cavs found a star whose skills, intellect and age look to be a match for LeBron’s.
Chris Mannix: Lance Stephenson to the Hornets. Assuming that Derrick Rose's return to the Bulls doesn't count -- it doesn't, right? -- I'm going with the Stephenson. Stephenson adds so many things (playmaking, defense, perimeter shooting) that the Hornets lacked last season, and Steve Clifford will finally have a wing player who will take pressure off of Al Jefferson in the post. Hat tip to the Bulls signing of Pau Gasol, which gives Chicago the low post presence they have desperately needed during the Rose Era.
Ben Golliver: Kevin Love to the Cavs. When you run down SI’s list of the Top 100 Players of 2015, you will note that only two of the top 35 players changed teams: James (ranked No. 1) and Love (ranked No. 7). The other biggest movers were guys like Tyson Chandler, Paul Pierce and Pau Gasol. Adding that trio of vets will certainly mean improvement for three contending-type teams, but the scope of their impacts isn’t nearly what Cleveland should expect with Love. By adding a third star to the James/Kyrie Irving tandem, the Cavaliers accelerated their championship timeline, making a 2015 title a real possibility while also laying the groundwork for what should be an exciting few offseasons.
Phil Taylor: Pau Gasol to the Bulls. Some of his drop-off the last two seasons was due to injuries, some was due to problems with Laker coach Mike D’Antoni and his system. The latter issue, at least is definitely behind him, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gasol return to being the same versatile scoring and passing big man he’s been most of his career. He and Joakim Noah should give the Bulls the best passing pair of big men in the league. Gasol is a huge upgrade at power forward over the departed Carlos Boozer, and he allows Chicago to keep Taj Gibson in his role as the first big off the bench. The Bulls were No. 28 in the NBA in offensive rating last year. With Gasol (and yes, Derrick Rose) they’ll be much harder to guard this season.
Rob Mahoney: Kevin Love to the Cavaliers. LeBron's decision to move back to Cleveland was in itself huge for the franchise, but it was the Cavs' landing of Love that solidified their status as championship contender for years to come. No other player who moved this summer can claim the same level of impact, in part because there is none better among those who changed teams. Love is a superstar. His transaction is a matter of league-wide import -- as notable for where he ended up as where he did not (Golden State, Boston, etc.). His fit alongside LeBron, meanwhile, triggers the Cavs' potential to be one of the very best offenses in NBA history. A floor-spacing forward like Love changes everything. No player is better equipped to take advantage of that fact than James.
Chris Ballard: Pau Gasol to the Bulls. He’ll help on offense, Thibs will cover for his defensive limitations and he’ll create shots for others. That said, I’m still disappointed Pau didn’t join the Spurs. Imagine one of the best-passing big men in history joining the best-passing team in the league. Added bonus: A locker room with Manu, Tony, Tim, Boris and Pau.
Matt Dollinger: Lance Stephenson to the Hornets. "We needed someone who could compete against LeBron." That's Michael Jordan explaining why the Hornets went after Stephenson this summer. I'll excuse you for a second while you let that sink in. Stephenson might have been had at a bargain price (three years, $27 million), but he's a top-tier All-Star talent. He's one of -- if not the -- best two-way guard in the league and he gives Charlotte exactly what it was missing: a lockdown defender on the perimeter and a facilitator on offense. Stephenson had to pick his spots in Indy, but he'll have more room to roam in Charlotte. If all goes to plan, he'll help elevate the Hornets to the East's elite and possibly a Southeast title.
Next page: Should the NBA shorten its season or games?
2. Should the NBA shorten its season or games?
Golliver: No. I take a traditionalist approach when it comes to the 82-game regular season slate, the 48-minute game and the best-of-7 playoff series formats. I’m not convinced that any of those are broken and, realistically, I’m not convinced that anyone involved is serious about shortening either. Although I was impressed that Adam Silver was able to implement a longer midseason break, per the request of many players, it didn’t really solve the underlying issue because it added back-to-backs. My ideal schedule would slice the preseason down to three games and start seven-to-10 days earlier, with everything else kept more or less the same. That would remove meaningless, totally forgettable exhibitions, cut down on the back-to-backs and preserve the season’s flow. I would also add a small midseason tournament, outlined here.
Taylor: Shorter season? Yes. Shorter games? No. Shaving a minute off each quarter, which the league experimented with in the preseason, accomplishes nothing. A few minutes rest won’t change the toll that games take on the players’ bodies. If the NBA wants to reduce anything, it should be the number of timeouts each team gets so that the last three minutes of close games don’t take 30 minutes of real time. (My personal pet peeve: One coach calls time to set up a play, the teams take the floor for the inbounds, and then the other coach calls time out to set his defense. Consecutive timeouts should be banned.) There is fairly widespread agreement, with the notable exception of Michael Jordan, that a shorter season – say, 65-70 games – would keep players healthier and result in a higher qualilty of play. But that would mean less revenue for the league, so it’s just a nice little dream. It will never happen.
Mannix: Shorten the season. The 66-game lockout shortened schedule was grueling, but you would be hard pressed to find many fans who didn't like an NBA season that started on Christmas. Still, this is a pointless debate. To make a shortened season--or shortened games for that matter--both owners and players would have to make significant financial concessions. And when have you seen either in a rush to do that?
Ballard: Yes, please. We all know they should. Somewhere between 65-70 games seems right. But that’s a lot of lost revenue. As for games, the idea of shortening them fails to address the key issues: travel, back to backs and player wear. Then again, the Spurs are already playing a 65-70 game season. Makes you wonder when other teams will follow suit.
Jenkins: Shorten the season. Shortening the games won’t preserve the players. Coaches would lean just as heavily on starters and compensate by reducing minutes for backups. Shortening the season is preferable, and in theory, the players would support it. But fewer games translates to less revenue for the owners, and therefore means less revenue for the players. An 82-game regular-season is not ideal for the health of the players or the quality of the games, but they will continue to go through the grind instead of accepting pay cuts. The best they can hope for without sacrificing salary is the elimination of back-to-backs.
Mahoney: Closely consider both. Either would be fine so long that the methods are within reason, though the former seems more feasible. The path to changing game length and structure is wrought with complications. Shortening the schedule a hair and ditching back-to-backs entirely, though, seems simple enough and would alleviate some of the physical stress that wears down NBA players over the course of the year. Nothing too radical need be in order. Just trim 10 games off the top (and four preseason games while we're at it) and better space the 72 games that remain and gauge the result. Even going that far has its issues (for one: it becomes more difficult for current players to challenge standing career records), though the practical tradeoff in terms of player health makes too much sense to ignore. With game length, the first order of business should come in streamlining the process already in place. Enforce the endings of timeouts promptly. Keep all video replays contained within a tight window, aided by the league's new replay center. Get players lined up quickly for free throw attempts and penalize those players who don't attempt their free throw within the rulebook-mandated 10 seconds. Before the NBA should make any significant changes to the practical length of NBA games, it needs to better understand what the length of a tightly regulated game might be under its current rules.
Dollinger: Shorten the season. Eighty-two games is overkill, especially when your postseason lasts eight more weeks. The 48-minute model is fine, but the NBA would benefit all-around (OK, well not financially) by shortening the season. It would allow for players to be fresher, cut down on injuries and make marquee matchups of more interest. As exciting as the Cavaliers-Bulls showdown on Thursday will be, there's also the fact that they'll meet three more times this season before a potential seven-game series in the playoffs. With a new TV deal on the horizon, the NBA would be wise to show some humility and cut back its regular-season slate. I'm not holding my breath, though.
Next page: Who has the best backcourt in the league?
3. Who has the best backcourt in the league?
Jenkins: Warriors. You can make a case for Toronto, with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, or Phoenix, with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. But the best backcourt belongs to Golden State. The Warriors probably should have swapped Klay Thompson for Love, before LeBron changed the landscape and Wiggins became expendable, but there are many benefits to retaining Thompson. With Thompson and Steph Curry, Golden State has two dynamic guards in their mid-20s who are among the best shooters in the league and have developed a rapport playing alongside each other. Steve Kerr, the Warriors new coach, will find ways to unleash them that predecessor Mark Jackson did not.
Golliver: Warriors. The answer to this question will vary based on approach. Some might define best as “most balanced” – whereby both members of the backcourt can lay claim to star or star-type status. That’s not my approach; I think one great guard and one good guard will generally beat two very good guards. When I look at the league’s indisputably great guards, I see a short list: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and maybe James Harden if I’m feeling generous. From that group, I think Curry clearly has the best partner in Klay Thompson. The Splash Brothers fit together perfectly offensively and Thompson’s improvement as a defender helps compensate for Curry’s weakness on that end. These guys are far and away the league’s pace-setters for three-point shooting even though perimeter shooting and spacing are leaned on and valued like never before. They’ve also won a playoff series together and have the benefit of years of continuity, something that a number of the league’s other top backcourts lack. The pair has also enjoyed two full years of good health together, something that can’t be said about any of their other top competitors.
Taylor: Warriors. In terms of long-range shooting, it’s not even close. No other backcourt has such two players this deadly from beyond he arc. Curry is a career 44 percent shooter on treys, and he holds the record for most threes made in a season (272.) He’s probably the best shooter in the league, yet he’s only a touch better than Thompson, who’s a career 41 percent three-point shooter. They complement each othe well defensively, where Curry is average at best, because Thompson, one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, defends the tougher point guards. John Wall and Bradley Beal are good, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are close, but no backcourt in the league can match the Splash Brothers’ combination of shooting, playmaking and defense.
Mannix: Bulls. Little outside the box here: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Like most, I'm dazzled by the shooting of Curry and Thompson, the potential of John Wall and Bradley Beal and the scoring ability of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. And, like most, I'm waiting to see if Rose can rebound from two straight lost seasons. But when healthy, Rose is an MVP candidate and Butler, in addition to being an elite wing defender, is an emerging offensive player. I'm counting on Butler bouncing back from a brutal three-point shooting year last season. But at their best, these two are my pick.
Mahoney: Warriors. Those guards in Cleveland and Washington can bark all they'd like, but Stephen Curry is one of the best guards in the league and has a better running mate in Klay Thompson than any of his elite contemporaries. Russell Westbrook's starting counterpart could be Andre Roberson, an unproven specialist with no place in this conversation. Chris Paul has J.J. Redick, though Thompson is better at what Redick does best and a much more capable defender to boot. James Harden could have a case if Patrick Beverley were a bit more dynamic, but alas.
Ballard: Warriors. Curry’s the best pure shooter in NBA history and one of the few players who can scramble any defense. Klay is an elite shooter who’s evolved into a very good perimeter defender.
Dollinger: Warriors. The Spurs' backcourt is the deepest and the Suns' might be the most exciting, but the Warriors hold claim to this title and likely will for the next 5-7 years. Golden State's combination of explosive scoring and satisfactory defense makes it tough to defeat. With Steve Kerr now orchestrating the Warriors' attack, the Splash Brothers should be even more effective this season.
Next page: Which off-the-radar story will we be talking about this year?
4. What off-the-radar NBA story will we be talking about later this year?
Taylor: Putting an team in Las Vegas. Jackie Robinson, a former UNLV and NBA player, is now an entrepreneur who recently broke ground on a $690 million arena that will seat 22,000, and he doesn’t plan to just fill it with Celine Dion concerts. He’s using his NBA contacts to try to attract a franchise. That’s not the pipe dream it once was, because the league has put aside its fears of the gambling element enough to embrace Vegas in recent years. The All-Star game was held there in 2007 and the NBA Summer League is now based in Vegas. On his way out the door, ex-commissioner David Stern said he expected his replacement, Adam Silver, to get “strong applications from Las Vegas and Seattle in the coming years.” The smart money says the bid from Vegas is coming soon.
Jenkins: Lakers' downfall. Since the Lakers make headlines even when they appear irrelevant, much attention will be focused on their race to the bottom. This will be another miserable season for the Lakers, but it matters just how miserable. If they come away with a top-five draft choice, they get to keep the pick, which should help hasten their rebuilding process. If they do not, the pick is sent to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash deal that keeps haunting L.A. The Lakers have shown no inclination over the past couple years to tank, but they have more incentive than anyone.
Golliver: The NBA’s ballooning salary cap. Raising a league’s salary cap from $63 million this season to something in the neighborhood of $80-90 million in 2016 is a game-changer on every possible level. Individual contracts are sure to explode for everyone from superstars on down, but it’s not yet clear how all of the team-building repercussions might play out. For example, if Miami was able to convince its Big Three to make minor sacrifices in 2010, what happens when a team like Cleveland can offer $20+ million each to LeBron James and Kevin Love, max out Kyrie Irving, and still have significant flexibility to add meaningful players? Will it be easier to pitch players on sacrificing and teaming up when the rules will allow them to be paid vastly more under the new system? I also worry about small markets retaining their superstar players. I think teams will be able to offer Kevin Durant much better options in 2016 than they were able to offer Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh this summer because they will be able to spend more to add supporting pieces.
Mahoney: Bulls' minute crunch. Allocating playing time has never been the strong suit of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who for years has strained his best players to their physical limits. It's high time that he scale back. One would think that if Thibs could be sold on the merits of a more balanced rotation, this might be the roster to do it: Derrick Rose's playing time very much needs to be moderated; the wing positions have been filled out to the point that it probably isn't necessary to play Jimmy Butler 42 minutes a night; the frontcourt is now balanced if not crowded, with Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson all deserving of considerable minutes; and rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott both have NBA-ready skills worthy of consideration. I suspect we'll eventually end up talking about which Bulls are playing and how much -- no matter the team's performance.
]Ballard: Hopefully it’s a basketball story. Between Ray Rice and Donald Sterling and Adrian Peterson, there have been so many depressing stories to come in from off the radar of late. The new TV deal certainly opens some possibilities, including potential expansion (Sonics!). Maybe one of the newer, half-crazy owners will provide it. Robert Pera putting himself on the roster? Vivek installing DeMarcus Cousins as player-coach?
Mannix: Future in Minnesota. Minnesota is not going to be very good, but by the end of the season we could be looking at the Wolves as a team with an enviable young core. Andrew Wiggins has enormous star potential, Anthony Bennett is in fantastic shape after a lost rookie year, and Nikola Pekovic is one of the most underrated offensive big men in the game. Then there is Ricky Rubio, who will have a team loaded with athletes to run the floor with him. The jury is still out on Rubio--that shooting percentage has to improve--but in a free wheeling system, Rubio could thrive, and in a contract year he has more than enough motivation to do it.
Dollinger: Paul George's miraculous comeback. He won't be coming back to save the Pacers' season -- Michael Jordan in his prime would struggle with that task -- but Paul George could return to the hardwood this spring to cap an incredible comeback from a potentially career-ending injury. We saw George walking around at media day without a limp and saw video of him getting up jumpers the other day at Pacers practice. That's a pretty incredible feat for a guy who had his leg snapped like a wishbone less than three months ago. Mark it down, PG-13 will make his debut this season at an arena near you.
Next page: Who will be this year's Suns?
5. Who will be this year's Suns?
Dollinger: Bucks. I had the Suns at No. 29 in my preseason power rankings last season, so using that logic the Magic are really going to turn some heads this season. But just in case that line of thinking doesn't hold up, I'm going with the Bucks. Phoenix won 48 games last season, a startling 23-win improvement from the year before. With Milwaukee winning a league-low 15 games last year, a similar jump isn't out of the question. If the Bucks can stay healthy and some of their young players show production and not just potential, it could be promising Milwaukee debut for Jason Kidd.
Golliver: Jazz. The team I see taking the biggest leap forward is the Pelicans, but I’m not sure a rise from New Orleans will be as surprising as Phoenix’s jump last season. There are plenty of factors that suggest the Pelicans are on the upswing: Anthony Davis should emerge into an All-NBA player, the arrival of Omer Asik brings much needed interior defense, and it seems unlikely that the health issues that plagued their 2013-14 season will resurface in such volume again this year. I think the Jazz are another solid answer to this question, although I don’t see them approaching Phoenix’s 48-win total from last season. Still, if a young Jazz roster headed up by a first-time coach in Quin Snyder can make a run at .500, I think that will be remembered as a Suns-like step forward for a rebuilding franchise.
Jenkins: Jazz. They only won 25 games last season, fewest in the Western Conference, but NBA executives are bullish on the Jazz. They are massive inside, with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert, dynamic outside, with Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, Trey Burke and Dante Exum. Ever since the Deron Williams trade to the Nets three-and-a-half years ago, Utah has been quietly amassing young talent, and it is ready to bloom under rookie head coach Quin Snyder. The Jazz won’t make the playoffs because the West is so tough, but they will win a lot more than 25 games.
Mahoney: No one. To the extent that there will be any significant shakeups to the natural order of the league this season, I suspect they will be related to injury as opposed to radical departure from expectation. The playoff group in the West, for example, seems relatively stable. The East is slightly more variable, though only in minor degrees in lower seeds. The season will naturally reveal its own surprises in due time -- it's just unlikely that they'll include any one team playing so much better than expected. Consider, for a moment, just how bad the Suns were thought to be at the outset of the 2013-14 season. Phoenix was projected to win just 19.5 games by Bovada, a mark that would have registered the worst record in the Western Conference and second in misery only to Philadelphia. They ended up with 48 wins. Beating the line by nearly 30 games is almost unheard of, yet Phoenix caught the league (and the oddsmakers) by complete surprise with a rookie head coach and personal best seasons from essentially its entire roster.
Mannix: Pistons. I'll admit: I chickened out on picking Detroit to make the playoffs. But Stan Van Gundy is a superior coach and this team was not as bad as its record indicated last season. Van Gundy will get more out of Andre Drummond, will shove Josh Smith into the paint and will turn Brandon Jennings or DJ Augustin into a useful playmaker. The perimeter is still a question mark; this team was brutal from the outside last season and will be without Jodie Meeks for the first month of this season. But if Van Gundy can squeeze enough shooting out of Meeks/Kentavius Caldwell-Pope/Kyle Singler then Detroit could muscle its way into Indiana's spot in the conference.
Taylor: Hornets. There probably won’t be a team that matches Phoenix’s out-of-nowhere improvement, but the Hornets will come the closest. Though they were 43-39 last year and made the playoffs, hardly anyone noticed. They have an underrated big man, Al Jefferson, who is a low-post scoring machine, they have a steadily improving point guard in Kemba Walker, and thanks to defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, they defend like crazy. The Hornets had the 4th-best defensive rating in the league last season. With free agent acquisition Lance Stephenson, a strong defender coming a system that takes defense seriously in Indiana, added to the mix, Charlotte could be even stingier this season. If he can be kept under control, Stephenson makes the Hornets dangerous offensively, as well. After Chicago and Cleveland, the underbelly of the Eastern Conference is suspect. The Hornets could take advantage of that and make a huge jump into the upper echelon.
Ballard: Pelicans. Unlikely any will make that kind of jump, but New Orleans is intriguing. Tons of talent, a true star and the best stretch four in the game.