After months of nonstop player movement and weeks of preview over-analysis paralysis, the NBA’s 2017-18 season is finally read to tip off on Tuesday. The predictions and projections are in, the preseason is complete, and two high-profile matchups (Boston vs. Cleveland and Golden State vs. Houston) are set for opening night.
Amid all the chatter and building excitement, here are 10 big-picture burning questions to keep top of mind as the Warriors try to go back-to-back and hold off a growing crop of aspiring superteams.
1. When will Isaiah Thomas be 100% healthy?
Isaiah Thomas’s 2016-17 season will be talked about for years, if not decades, to come: Career numbers, clutch performances, a spot in the MVP conversation, postseason explosions, personal tragedy, injury, and, finally, a surprising blockbuster trade. Even with all of those narrative layers, though, Thomas’s last season in Boston didn’t have the same stakes as his first season in Cleveland will. Not even close.
A healthy Thomas could be the difference between the 2018 Finals being a real series versus a Golden State coronation. A healthy Thomas could be the difference between Cleveland going all-in to acquire a fourth All-Star at the deadline (DeMarcus Cousins) or taking a more patient and measured approach. A healthy Thomas could be the difference between LeBron James re-upping with the Cavaliers next summer and James exiting Cleveland in frustration for the second time. A heathy Thomas could be the difference between Cleveland moving forward with a “Big 3” of Thomas, James and Kevin Love, or a far uglier future in which James leaves, Thomas is allowed to walk, and Love is traded to start a rebuild in earnest. Good health for Thomas could be the difference between a near-max level contract next summer or something far more modest.
A balky hip and an uncertain return timeline leave Thomas as this season’s biggest X-factor by a mile. James needs a secondary playmaker to help the refashioned Cavaliers from showing their advanced age and, ultimately, to have any shot at dethroning the Warriors.
2. Will Stephen Curry rekindle his MVP-level magic act?
While Draymond Green was busy making headlines last week with his gloating take to GQ, Steve Kerr sent out an equally fearsome warning shot to the rest of the league with a simple and subtle declaration: “I think Stephen Curry is at his absolute peak right now.”
Go ahead and acknowledge waning attention spans, increasingly fast news cycles, Kevin Durant’s sensational Finals, and Durant’s summer full of blunders. It still shouldn’t have been this easy for the NBA world to move on from Stephen Curry, who essentially shifted into “Eco Mode” last season to facilitate Durant’s successful integration to the Warriors. The two-time MVP is still the game’s best shooter, he still led the league in plus/minus, he still effortlessly ramped up his scoring when Durant was out of the lineup, and he still turned in a maestro’s performance against Cleveland that would have been worthy of Finals MVP had Durant not ascended so memorably and sublimely.
Green can wag his finger and laugh at the competition because there is still no reliable answer for Curry more than three full years after the point guard first came into his own under Kerr. While there’s a healthy debate to be had about who is the better all-around player, both Curry and Durant are fully capable of claiming 2018 MVP honors. Curry shot a career-low 41.1% from deep last season and gave Durant every opportunity to succeed early in the season. A better shooting season, less deference, and continued dominance at a 70-win clip could easily land Curry right back near the top of the MVP leaderboard.
Golden State isn’t really a place where torches get passed from one superstar (Curry) to another (Durant) for good. Rather, the whole organization’s premise is that the torch keeps getting moved around the perimeter until the opposition goes down in flames. Don’t be surprised if Curry reasserts himself this season, recapturing some of the buzz that waned last year and reminding everyone that he’s one of the greatest to ever play his position.
3. Do the Celtics emerge as the NBA’s next hot destination?
The 2018 Celtics are intriguing for a ton of reasons—Kyrie Irving as a centerpiece, Gordon Hayward under Brad Stevens, the Jayson Tatum bet, and so on—but the possibilities for the 2019-2024 Celtics are much, much more intriguing. Boston’s positioning as a potential landing spot for a disgruntled A-list star has never been better. Irving and Hayward combine to form a great talent base, Boston has tons of capable rotation guys on subsidized rookie contracts, Stevens is regarded as one of the league’s top coaches, and the ownership group is fully committed to spending on a winner.
This summer’s frenzy was driven by in-their-prime players like Chris Paul and Paul George deciding that they needed to find greener pastures if they wanted to compete with Golden State and non-contenders like Chicago, Indiana, New York and Atlanta punting on established talent because they didn’t believe they had a true shot at contention. In theory, the Celtics will be able to meet needs on both sides, serving as a destination for stranded stars and stuck franchises needing to build for the future or save face.
But the overhauled Celtics, starting with Irving, will need to prove it on the court first. Will Irving’s exciting individual offense turn him into a superstar magnet or will his personality quirks and one-way game wind up as recruiting inhibitor?
4. Is Paul George all in with the Thunder?
There’s a natural tendency to compare Houston and Oklahoma City. Both were led by MVP-level guards last season. Both face “playoff hump” pressure. Both signed their franchise stars—James Harden and Russell Westbrook, respectively—to long-term extensions this summer. Both traded for top-10 talents—Chris Paul and Paul George, respectively—during busy offseasons.
The key difference is that coach Mike D’Antoni has crafted a clear, effective offensive system for the Rockets. In Oklahoma City, Westbrook has been the system. The ramifications of that difference play out in an important way with regard to the star onboarding process. Paul is entering an established framework, applying his individual skills into a context that’s already produced historic results. George is fundamentally altering, and hopefully improving, an imbalanced framework that delivered mediocre results. While both franchises could and should improve this season, the Rockets should enjoy a smoother uptick.
If George had ties to Oklahoma City, a long-term contract or a credible amount of patience, this wouldn’t be a big deal. Unfortunately, he’s 0-for-3 on those counts. The Southern California native has been at the center of Lakers trade rumors for months. His move to the Thunder was fairly surprising, and he’s entering the final year of his contract after spending a good chunk of the 2016-17 season expressing frustration and a desire to win now. Make no mistake, acquiring George for peanuts was a great trade for Thunder GM Sam Presti. But it was a great risk too.
The Thunder therefore enter this season as must-see TV due to their newfound star power and their narrow window to deliver enough success to convince George to stick around in the small market. If Presti’s plan works, Oklahoma City can start a multi-year plan to fashion an improved rotation around its two under-30 superstars. If not, George will enter the July free agency period as one of the biggest names and, in a worst-case scenario, could even emerge as a candidate for a trade-deadline flipping.
5. How big is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s next leap?
In a way, Giannis Antetokounmpo is already playing with house money. In 2016-17, his fourth season, he more or less achieved a reasonable pre-draft “Best-case scenario” by starting in the All-Star Game, leading Milwaukee in all five major statistical categories, and earning All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive Second Team honors. If Antetokounmpo merely maintained at that level for the duration of his prime, he would be one of the great middle-of-the-draft, out-of-nowhere finds in recent memory.
But Antetokounmpo is somehow still only 22, and further improvement for the 2017 Most Improved Player is virtually guaranteed. Kevin Durant suggested this week that Antetokounmpo has the potential to become the greatest player of all time, a claim that would sound outlandish if it wasn’t delivered by a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Clearly, the next step for Antetokounmpo is translating his individual brilliance into team success and, with his 23rd birthday coming up in December, he’s officially entering “Fully realized potential” territory. Durant reached his first Finals in his fifth season during his age-23 season. LeBron James reached his first Finals in his fourth season during his age-22 season and he won his first MVP at age 24. Dwyane Wade won his first title and claimed Finals MVP at age 24. Carmelo Anthony made his first Western Conference finals at age 24. Kobe Bryant won his first title alongside Shaquille O’Neal in his fourth season. Michael Jordan won his first MVP in his fourth season at age 24 and made his first conference finals trip a year later.
In other words, Antetokounmpo is simultaneously smashing all reasonable expectations for himself and staring at a ticking clock. To get where his A-list predecessors have been, he’ll need to captain a quality regular-season team and win a playoff series sooner rather than later. Climbing both of those mountains in a weak East is a distinct possibility this season, and it’s tantalizing to imagine how that progress will ultimately improve Milwaukee’s long-term ability to acquire supporting talent. Realistically, the best way for Antetokounmpo to get help is for him to play so well that one of his fellow stars decides, “I want to go play with Giannis.”
6. Will Chris Paul lead to even bigger things for Houston?
There’s a popular nightmare scenario floating out there that sees James Harden and Chris Paul tussling over control of the offense, engaging in joint playoff meltdowns, and melding together into a single hateable entity that flops, whines and berates officials. More likely, the two stars get acclimated to each other fairly quickly, lighten each other’s load, help power one of the league’s top offenses, make a real run at their first 60-win season, and take a strong shot at reaching the West finals.
If that optimistic scenario plays out, Paul would surely be inclined to re-sign next summer, perhaps helping Houston take on a San Antonio vibe with some extra offensive sizzle. Rich owner. Smart front office. Respected coach. Entrenched stars. Proven system. Strong supporting cast. Enough help for 30+ stars to age gracefully under managed minutes.
Shouldn’t proof of concept this season help Houston emerge as a preferred destination for a 2018 free agency class headlined by LeBron James? If Harden’s presence and the organization’s direction were enough to land Paul, wouldn’t Harden, Paul and the knowledge that championship contention wouldn’t require regular-season overexertion be enough to entice virtually any established star with the freedom or leverage to pick a landing spot?
7. How far will Cleveland go to placate LeBron James?
Cavaliers GM Koby Altman has done an excellent job since he took the reins in July, acquiring a Kyrie Irving replacement in Isaiah Thomas, adding a quality perimeter defender in Jae Crowder, and buying low on veterans including Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade. Together, those moves displayed creativity, a coherent understanding of Cleveland’s needs and, perhaps most importantly, a strong desire to keep LeBron James happy. Altman might technically answer to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, but his decisions this season will be judged by an audience of one: James.
So far, Altman has bent over backwards. Trading Irving, rather than attempting a reconciliation, makes James’s life easier and potentially comes at the expense of Cleveland’s long-term outlook. Acquiring Thomas in return—rather than younger prospects or additional picks—did the same. And adding best buddy Wade makes James happier in the short-term, even as it forces lineup changes and does nothing substantial for Cleveland long term.
The question now is whether Altman decides to call that good and wait to scour the buyout market for additional reinforcements or whether he’s willing to put his prized Nets pick into play for a major midseason trade. Does Cleveland have room for another star? Would Gilbert agree to pay for another one? Is there any player available that could help convince James to re-sign next summer? Would shipping out the pick prove to be one step too far in Altman’s attempt to placate James and build a 2018 title contender?
Since James’s return, Cleveland has been a hotbed for midseason activity and angst. The Cavaliers’ plans for their pick will go a long way to setting the terms for the 2018 playoffs and 2018 free agency period.
8. Does San Antonio have a secret plan for getting Kawhi Leonard more help?
Nobody delights in running headfirst into prevailing winds like the Spurs. The NBA is enjoying an offensive boom? San Antonio wins 60+ games with the league’s best defense. The best teams go small, fast and versatile? San Antonio goes big, long, deliberate and old. NBA stars are more accessible and over-exposed than ever? Kawhi Leonard carries himself like a franchise player from the dial up era.
But the superstar team-up era presents a new challenge for the Spurs because there’s really no great against-the-grain counterstrategy to "lots of A-list talent.” As amazing as Leonard is and as amazing as San Antonio looked with him in the lineup for Game 1 of the 2017 West finals, he needs star-level support. The Spurs have paired multiple stars throughout their dominant run under coach Gregg Popovich, and no one on the current roster—including LaMarcus Aldridge—looks like a legitimate long-term Robin for Leonard.
It’s not yet clear whether the Spurs have reached this conclusion internally and are remaining patient or whether they’ve decided to plug along as currently constructed and hope for some breaks to open a title path. This summer’s moves—paying an aging Pau Gasol, keeping most of the band together, striking out in the arms race for stars—didn’t shed much light on San Antonio’s thinking. Are they biding their time until July 2018 with specific targets in mind or are they trying to maximize their long-term sustainability and hoping that this era fades more quickly than expected?
The snap-judgment take—that San Antonio will figure all of this out once its old guys (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gasol) retire or are rendered totally ineffective—misses on two fronts. First, San Antonio has mastered reinvention throughout the last two decades. The Spurs are not only always very good, they’re never been forced into major action out of desperation or lack of planning. Second, San Antonio has excelled at scaling the roles of its aging players while working in new blood. The Spurs are a 24-hour factory for building 50-win seasons in which the assembly line never stops. If Ginobili and others aren’t part of the 2019 version of this factory, history strongly, strongly suggests they will be replaced by quality players.
Good luck guessing who those players will be and how they’ll arrive in San Antonio. But the next six months will shed light on what type of help Leonard needs and when it might be needed.
9. Can Karl-Anthony Towns evolve into a two-way force?
While a sparkly summer landing Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague was cause for excitement, there’s no escaping this simple fact for the Timberwolves: They’ll go as far as Karl-Anthony Towns’s defense can carry them.
The former No. 1 pick largely delivered on the hype down the stretch last season, averaging 28.4 PPG and 13.4 RPG after the All-Star break. However, he left plenty of room for improvement on the other end. Minnesota’s defensive rating was 7.2 points worse with him on the court, Minnesota posted a bottom-five defense on the year, and Towns’s -1.41 Defensive Real Plus Minus was the worst among all centers. Frankly, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Big-picture, Towns’s evolution as a paint presence and rim-protector is the first step to solving his team’s spacing problems on offense. Once Towns is a trustworthy and consistent backline defender, Minnesota will be free to downsize in search of shooter-heavy spread lineups that make the most of Towns’ inside/outside offensive versatility. In theory, Minnesota’s most potent lineup should be Teague, Jamal Crawford, Andrew Wiggins, Butler and Towns. Unfortunately for fans of that look, coach Tom Thibodeau has two obvious lineup crutches—center Gorgui Dieng and traditional power forward Taj Gibson—who would offer more defense and size in exchange for cramped spacing and less firepower.
Remember, Towns doesn’t need to become Draymond Green or Rudy Gobert overnight. He just needs to function well enough defensively to convince Thibodeau to live a little and to help lift Minnesota into the league’s top 15 or 20 defenses. That, plus an above-average offense, should be enough to lift the Timberwolves into the playoffs and onto a path towards even greater relevance once Towns gets closer to his prime.
10. How many games will Joel Embiid play?
One of life’s greatest questions. Depending on his health, Joel Embiid has the potential to be the 2017-18 season’s best story or its saddest.
Philadelphia is a deep-sleeping giant when it comes to the league’s title-contention landscape over the next five years. Ben Simmons could be an All-Star in 2020. Markelle Fultz certainly has his share of believers too. But Embiid’s ability to avoid additional injuries and hold up for big minutes will determine whether the Sixers become a rising and sustainable power in a weakened Eastern Conference or a middling outfit that is potentially handcuffed by his new max contract and limited in its ability to segue out of its never-ending doldrums.
While Embiid’s preseason breakthrough against Brooklyn was titillating, a subsequent Twitter trash talk exchange with Hassan Whiteside eventually landed on an inescapable theme: His lack of availability. Flashes of brilliance, or even the type of major impact he made over 31 games in limited minutes last year, won’t be enough this time around. Not when playoff spots are within Philadelphia’s reach, not with his massive five-year extension kicking in for 2018-19, and not when Simmons and Fultz are developing prospects playing real minutes on a nightly basis rather than future draft assets on a spreadsheet. It’s time for The Process to deliver on his countless requests for trust.