If, like me, you are absolutely drowning in NBA preview content, good news—this just may be the last one you’ll read before games start. The 2018-19 season begins tomorrow night, and soon enough, we’ll have some answers to the burning questions described in the headline of this article. Whether you’ve blissfully ignored the off-season carousel or eaten up every tweet, rumor and transaction, here’s one last refresher on where the league and its major storylines stand as we approach opening tip.
1. How quickly can LeBron’s Lakers mesh?
Whether LeBron James finds feast or famine in the Western Conference, his maiden voyage as a Laker will dominate the national conversation, driving 24/7 coverage and depriving bloggers on the opposite coast of precious beauty rest. The good news is that we can probably stop obsessing over whether No. 23 is happy—he signed a four-year deal, after all. On the other hand, the Lakers’ general well being, whether they’ll crack the playoffs and which pieces fit long-term next to James, will be fair game for heavy scrutiny. This roster has a wider range of potential outcomes than arguably any LeBron-led team ever, and as he approaches his 34th birthday, the results are going to be fascinating.
In terms of pound-for-pound talent, the Lakers as constituted are right there with last year’s Cavaliers team, one James carried to the Finals for a third straight year. When it comes to proven NBA-performers, this group lags behind as a function of age. Bringing in not-yet-washed Rajon Rondo, the moderately useful Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, resident philosopher Michael Beasley and perennial wild cards Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee will help steer this team through the regular season, but the Lakers will require major contributions from its younger cohort to come close to their ceiling. Maybe James can help bring it out of them. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart bring different elements, but are all theoretical fits in an uptempo style. Their inexperience makes the odds of a deep postseason run slim, but if this group settles in together and figures out how to play off of James, the playoffs are within reach.
There’s also a worst-case scenario where things sputter out quickly and change comes mid-season. LeBron’s presence creates a reasonable win floor, and this is not a team that will tank. But if patience runs thin and there’s an opportunity to trade for a star, or to simply better-position the roster for next year, it’s possible the front office opts to pivot. The preseason expectations have by and large been reasonable, but the pressure will mount over the course of James’s contract. This team—and this chapter of his career—comes with a level of unpredictability that will make it hard to look away, no matter what. For better or worse, the Lakers are the biggest ticket in a reality-show league. We’ll all watch.
2. When will DeMarcus Cousins take the court?
In an off-season full of bombshells, Cousins to the Warriors at a bargain-bin number left the strangest taste. After frustration turned to bewilderment—don’t ask why the league’s best team and arguably its best pure center shattered convention together, but how Golden State finessed it—the reality of Cousins being a long-term recovery play turned this into a central element of what should be another slightly exhausting season of Warriors sovereignty. Argue all you want about what Kevin Durant will do in free agency, but whichever way they manage Cousins’s return looms as the largest unknown factor to date within this extended championship window.
Cousins, of course, is working toward a return from a torn Achilles, arguably the most challenging recovery a basketball player can experience, particularly a 6’11”, 270-pound one. He’s begun light scrimmaging and drills, but the Warriors can win 60 games without him—there’s simply no rush, other than to incorporate him into the team and create time to jell ahead of the post-season. Projections as to when he’ll actually return have varied; January puts Cousins a year removed from the injury. There’s no guarantee he comes back at 100% and his actual value to an already-loaded team may be overstated. If it goes well and Cousins fits with the team’s established pecking order for touches, enabling them to effectively play big against opponents boasting true centers, it’s more or less game over.
Still, it’s worth noting that over the course of Cousins’s career, he’s been a magnet for volatility. His brief stay in New Orleans seemed like a positive step forward, but his reputation for being brash and strong-willed has created difficulties in the past. It should help that he sought out Golden State during a lukewarm free agency, and that Cousins has never been part of a team that didn’t need everything from him, every night. He simply needs to lean into the right role. If there’s an organization that can handle this cleanly, it’s this one—we just can’t know for sure what Cousins looks like next to their other stars until it’s happening. Whether his presence just means a more emphatic death knell for the rest of the league, spawns additional drama that shakes up a dynasty or falls somewhere in the middle, the Cousins situation is going to matter. All things considered, Golden State is an environment where things tend to go well.
3. Did the Rockets hit their ceiling?
Whenever we’re far enough removed to look back on the Warriors’ run—and it might be a while—Chris Paul clutching his hamstring in the final minute of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals will register as an inflection point. The Rockets had posed a serious test, taking a 3–2 series lead, but couldn’t close it out sans Paul, who had racked up 47 points in consecutive wins and been the second playmaker Houston’s system always needed. This particular what-if was magnified over the summer as the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute—two critical figures in their defensive competence—and filled their spots with 33-year-old Carmelo Anthony and a less-proven James Ennis. Offseason discourse has centered on Houston’s potential regression, after 65 wins and a regular-season conference title.
Expecting Houston to reprise a Top-10 defensive finish is probably foolhardy, but in terms of depth and talent, the Rockets remain among the league’s elite. Burying the lede, James Harden won MVP and didn’t go anywhere. They don’t need to win 60 games again just to prove they can do it—Eric Gordon, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker remain formidable—but they’ll have to adjust to a reworked supporting cast that also includes Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss. To remain somewhere around last year’s level of play, Mike D’Antoni is going to have get something out of the new guys, and based on who they brought in, it’s difficult to just assume it happens.
Thinking reasonably, the Rockets’ measure of success now has less to do with regular season wins and more with whether they’re again capable of going punch-for-punch with Golden State. Houston has earned that. The West is deeper, but this is still an elite roster. If Harden and Paul continue to fight off attrition and injury and the new bench clicks, they may not miss much of a beat. We just may not know if it really matters until playoff time.
4. Will Toronto satisfy Kawhi Leonard?
In a stunning twist, the Raptors took the summer’s biggest gamble, swinging for the fences to extract a disgruntled Leonard from San Antonio, saving everyone from his bizarre, quietly toxic exit saga and initiating what will be a season-long push to re-sign him. It cost them DeMar DeRozan, the franchise’s all-time leader in scoring, games and minutes played, and unfortunately left him blindsided. But given the distinct chance that the DeRozan/Kyle Lowry led core had plateaued together, the opportunity to introduce Leonard contained too great a potential reward. It’s not often an MVP-caliber talent moves over to the Eastern Conference. The catch will come in July, when we’ll find out if he plans to stick around.
Early reports strongly suggested Leonard had his eyes set on returning home to Southern California; the Lakers and Clippers will be among the teams taking steps to accommodate him. He’s still only 27 and will warrant max money somewhere. A happy union between Paul George and the Thunder offers precedent for the Raptors, who will angle to win big and sell Leonard on their culture, their city and their freezing winters. Trying to understand his motives has been a fool’s errand—what happened with San Antonio remains a mystery—and the league’s most stoic superstar is unlikely to offer much indication as to how he’s feeling. But if the Raptors are to keep him, winning big is critical.
Toronto returns nearly every piece from a 59-win team that won the conference, with in-house head coaching hire Nick Nurse taking over for Dwane Casey. Leonard’s presence will shore up their defense and should make them more offensively potent as well, replacing some of DeRozan’s long twos with his efficient distance shooting. The Raptors’ younger players stand to improve, and retain a bevy of reliable veteran role players bolstered by Danny Green, who also came over from the Spurs. Leonard’s mood will be a guessing game all season as his team begins a high-stakes quest to extend the marriage.
5. Do the Celtics make the leap?
Boston opens the season boasting the NBA’s deepest rotation, rewarded for their patience (and cabinet of Nets draft picks) with a roster that boasts a little bit of everything. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are healthy. Jayson Tatum is on a path to stardom. Al Horford remains a rock. Jaylen Brown has figured things out and Terry Rozier is playing for a big contract. Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes supply toughness. The Celtics can play big or small with multiple scorers and playmakers, and Brad Stevens is probably due to win coach of the year. While not a lock to run through the East, the Celtics have all the parts they need to mount their first 60-win campaign in a decade.
Still, there are some questions worth asking—after an entire season without Gordon Hayward and a conference finals run without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics will ask last season’s standouts to fit back in and adjust. It’s not quite a too-many-cooks setup, but Stevens will have to remix the rotation a little bit, manage minutes and hope his stars come out with clean bills of health in April. Rozier and Brown led the team in playoff shot attempts, but figure to see the biggest reduction in touch volume with the ball-dominant Irving returning to his typical workload and Hayward looking to get acclimated after his long injury hiatus. It’s not like Boston’s parts explicitly clash, but figuring out how to fit the parts together and keep everyone happy is where coaching and team culture come into play. It’s a First World problem, to be sure. If all the pieces get oriented quickly, the Celtics should have an inside track on staving off the Raptors and Sixers and winning the conference.
6. Which star players take another step forward?
This is highly unscientific, but at a glance, it feels like more playoff-caliber teams than ever are anchored by elite young talent. The overall path of the season should be charted accordingly. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis are poised for massive seasons. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have already become one of the league’s most statistically monstrous duos. Nikola Jokic and Donovan Mitchell are leading sneaky-good teams out west. All of those players have room left for growth, and will have a say in this season’s win hierarchy. It’s an exciting time to enjoy the league from an objective standpoint, and league pass users should get bang for their buck.
The time feels especially ripe for Antetokounmpo and Davis. Both players have established absurd statistical baselines for production and are anchoring teams that have yet to fully break through. When discussing the MVP race, these are the two guys who could beat out the usual suspects for hardware. Antetokounmpo turns 24 in September, has enjoyed an accelerated, improbable career trajectory and has the benefit of continuity with his supporting cast in a LeBron-less East. The arrival of Mike Budenholzer and an (allegedly) improved three-ball could help him reach another level. Giannis may already be the best player in the conference, and it should be a matter of time before the Bucks start following suit.
Davis’s situation is a bit more difficult to peg, given the Pelicans exist among a pack of Western Conference teams that could break toward 50 wins or out of the playoffs entirely. New Orleans seemed to figure things out last season and finally pushed the right buttons around him, shifting him to center in wake of DeMarcus Cousins’s injury and acquiring Nikola Mirotic as a perfect frontcourt partner. To take a step forward, the Pelicans need him to stay healthy and somehow improve on his averages. Those are substantial asks, but not entirely improbable for a transcendent talent like Davis. And at age 25, there may still be untapped production to come.
7. What happens to Jimmy Butler?
Minnesota’s surprise late-summer soap opera seems to have temporarily resolved, with Butler showing up to practice, chewing out his team and preparing to start the season on the roster against his wishes. There seems to be genuine disdain among the Wolves’ star players, and at this point, Butler’s attempts to motivate Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins may cause more trouble than good. Tom Thibodeau wants to keep him around, but as free agency looms and the team heads toward a potential trainwreck of a season, Minnesota may see its hand forced at some point. Though it appears he’ll play—and to return to the playoffs, they sure need him to—it would still be a surprise if Butler finishes the season as part of the team. Whether it’s Miami closing the deal or an unexpected party entering the fray for his services, the ongoing drama in Minnesota and the fallout from Butler’s actions will be primo reality television.
8. Which Western Conference teams regress?
The NBA’s superior circuit came down to a photo finish last season, as places three through nine were separated by a maximum of three wins in the standings. With LeBron James joining the 35-win Lakers and turmoil and attrition potentially hampering several of those teams, the West should again be an entertaining, competitive mess. The Spurs lost Dejounte Murray and Derrick White to injury, saw Manu Ginobili retire and Tony Parker split for Charlotte. The Timberwolves are dealing with the Butler situation. The Trail Blazers and Thunder bring back similar rosters and the Pelicans are relying heavily on Anthony Davis. The Jazz and Nuggets are trending up to start the season, but nothing’s guaranteed. We already discussed the Rockets. Something has to give here, and the playoff race may again dwindle down to the final weeks of the season.
9. What impact will the new shot clock rule have?
Though not a heavy topic of offseason discussion, the NBA adopted a potentially significant rule change: the shot clock will now reset to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound rather than the full 24. The G League used the rule last season, and it’s been in use internationally for years. Naturally, this should lead to an uptick in possession counts, favor quick-hitting secondary options and factor in most significantly at the end of games and late-clock situations. With rule tweaks, you can never be sure of the ripple effects, and any impact on play will be worth tracking.
10. Can anybody beat Golden State?
Copy, paste: The Warriors are prohibitive favorites again, and the season will again come down to whether anyone else comes close. The Rockets managed well last season, and it wasn’t enough. LeBron can’t beat them alone. Nobody has proven they can do it in seven games, and barring a major injury or stroke of bad luck, this season’s macro plot thread will again hinge on whether a second, true contender emerges. It’s complicated, yet simple, and even with Kevin Durant’s free agent decision on the horizon, someone is going to have to give the Warriors a real challenge. Sooner than later, we’ll find out if that’s feasible.