- The NBA kept us on our toes this summer, what type of surprises will arise during the 2017-18 season? The Crossover looks into its crystal ball and attempts to predict the biggest plot twist.
There's an endless list of storylines to follow as we enter the 2017-18 NBA season: Chris Paul on the Rockets, Melo and PG-13 joining forces with Russ in OKC, Kyrie Irving playing for the rival Celtics, the Warriors looking to win their third title in four years, and LeBron and the Cavs playing with a chip on their shoulder the size of an All-Star point guard.
But the best storyline from the 2017-18 season is likely one we can't predict. The unexpected tends to trump anything we can ever see coming. And as this past summer showed us, the NBA is always keeping us on our toes.
With that in mind, The Crossover asked its NBA experts to predict the biggest plot twist for the upcoming season.
Ben Golliver: The Warriors' biggest threat _____ ?
The major theme of the 2017 offseason was simple: Many of the Warriors’ top challengers were willing to take drastic measures to keep up with the champs even if that meant spending big or taking on flight risks. In one way or another, Cleveland, Boston, Houston, Oklahoma City and Minnesota were all aggressive in reshaping their cores to close the wide talent gap with Golden State. Of course, there are always buyers when it comes to star talent. This summer produced a flurry of activity in large part because numerous sellers lowered their standards and/or decided to cut their losses with disgruntled stars.
The factors driving both sides of this equation should continue into trade deadline season. For starters, each of the buyers listed above could find themselves searching for major midseason upgrades because they simply aren’t good enough to truly threaten Golden State. Past that, Cleveland has a strong draft asset and numerous tradeable contracts. Boston, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota will likely want to upgrade their second units. Houston never sleeps.
The sellers side should be active and motivated, too, because this level of star movement should spook any front offices struggling to meet expectations or, even worse, lacking a clear direction. Why should DeMarcus Cousins re-sign in New Orleans if the Pelicans can’t hit the ground running? Should Avery Bradley really bother with patience in Detroit? Shouldn’t Derrick Favors want a new home next summer if the Jazz already have a starting center and find themselves needing to invest significant resources in upgrading their perimeter positions? If they fail to reach an extension with DeAndre Jordan, could the retooling Clippers look again at cashing out on their All-Star center? There’s also the possibility that one of the West’s top teams on paper can’t keep up due to health or fit issues. Could LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul George or Chris Paul become available as rentals in that type of scenario?
Clearly, the possibilities outlined in the preceding paragraph vary in terms of likelihood. The Spurs and Rockets, in particular, should be good enough to stave off a surprise midseason reshuffling. Still, there are enough impact players among next summer’s unrestricted free agents that someone of consequence is bound to move to an aspiring contender before the deadline. Plus, the Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving trades showed that franchises are increasingly open to the idea of moving a star player before he enters the final year of his contract. Bottom line: the biggest threat to Golden State probably won’t reveal itself fully until February.
Lee Jenkins: The NCAA scandal hits the NBA
The FBI’s investigation into college basketball will reach the NBA. Every sport has layers but none are as closely entwined as basketball, with high school and AAU inextricably linked to college and the NBA, through shoe companies and agent alliances. Obviously, no pro teams are going on probation and no coaches are getting fired for rules violations. But the probe will have untold effects on sneaker wars and agent politics. The investigation already ensnared one prominent agency, as evidenced by the raid of Andy Miller’s office, and it’s naïve to assume the feds will stop there. Even players who actively recruit for their agencies could come under scrutiny. College basketball is currently in the crosshairs, but many of the college power brokers have tentacles leading to the pros.
Andrew Sharp: The Blazers or Grizzlies blow it up
Someone in the West is going to crash hard over the first few months. There is too much talent across the entire conference, not to mention three or four (or five?) teams that will be beating on people at the top. Someone's going to look up in January and realize it's time to press reset, right?
Right now the Grizzlies and Blazers are my two candidates to a) struggle early under the weight of unrealistic expectations, and b) shake things up from there. Maybe that means Portland finally decides to break up their backcourt and make C.J. McCollum available, maybe Memphis parts with Marc Gasol. New Orleans is a perennial candidate to blow things up, but the state of their franchise is so precarious—from ownership to management to fans to Anthony Davis—that it's hard to imagine they make any drastic moves. So that leaves the Blazers and Grizz.
Where would McCollum fit? Would Portland ever trade Lillard? Could any team absorb Mike Conley's deal? How much could a Marc Gasol trade change the playoff landscape? The answers to these questions won't be clear until January. All I know is that any of these would be a hell of a plot twist.
Matt Dollinger: The Process hits the lottery again
I hate to rain on anyone's parade, particularly one hosted by a fan base so desperate and deserving of success, but I'm no sure The Process is that close to the finish line. In fact, it might be still a few laps away.
I'm as big of a fan of Joel Embiid as anyone (OK, maybe not), but the 76ers' over/under line of 42.5 seems wildly high to me. There are too many things that could go wrong this year. Embiid played just 31 (wonderful) games last year and has yet to play in back-to-back games ever as a Sixer. Ben Simmons is a phenomenally gifted passer, but seems legitimately scared to shoot (and might have good reason). And Markelle Fultz is now somehow battling the same exact problem. J.J. Redick is generally underrated, but not when you're paying him $23 million. And Jahlil Okafor might be the second-most valuable Okafor on the team.
So, yeah, I’ve got my concerns. If everything goes right for Philly, 42.5 is within earshot. If even a few things go south, I’d put it closer to 32.5, and I wouldn’t be surprised if The Process ended up adding another top-five pick. With the Lakers’ pick potentially coming east as well, the temptation could be there to stock up one more time.
Jeremy Woo: The Clippers become your favorite team
The Clippers won 51 games last season and finished fourth in the west, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin each missing 21 games with injuries. Paul, of course, is gone to Houston. And sans his meticulous, occasionally overbearing locker room presence, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and a more laid-back Clippers team are set to thrive. Necessary, intelligent roster changes will return L.A. to a top four finish—and help one of the league's most inarguably annoying teams win back our hearts.
Sure, Paul and J.J. Redick will be hard to replace production-wise—but you could always see the growing disconnect on the floor with this group, prone to nasty glares and bickering that sometimes went beyond the realm of competition. Losing Paul was a necessary divorce that will finally let the Clips be greater than the sum of their parts. Pat Beverley, Lou Williams, Austin Rivers and passing maestro Milos Teodosic comprise a deep backcourt, Danilo Gallinari adds the third frontcourt scorer they've lacked, and a balanced floor lets Griffin initiate more offense from the inside.
The roster changes mean the Clippers can try things again and Blake and DeAndre can relax, be themselves and just play ball. This is the type of deep, experienced roster that will let Doc Rivers figure out his minutes and just roll the ball out. The new environment does wonders. With Teodosic whipping passes and Pat Bev giving the defense teeth, the Lob City reboot proves more entertaining than the original.