Are you feeling uncomfortable? Tugging at your collar? Feeling the sweat pool on your back? That’s because you’re already feeling the heat from Sports Illustrated’s latest round of BURNING questions. The NBA season is merely days away (it’s actually always days away if you think about it) and it’s time to start getting down to what really matters. Here are nine burning questions that we’re intensely curious to find out the answers to over the next nine months of NBA action.
Do LeBron or Steph Have an MVP Season Left?
LeBron James and Stephen Curry were ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, on SI’s Top 100 list, and yet neither of them really seem to be in the conversation anymore when it comes to MVP. James, a four-time winner of the award, carries a large burden for his teams but doesn’t necessarily play the regular season at full throttle. Curry, a two-time winner of the award, most recently saw his contributions cannibalized by Kevin Durant. A monster season from either of these players, however, could have implications on how 2020 plays out.
James’s superteams have historically started slow. His newest Lakers outfit isn’t perfect, but it’s much more artfully constructed than last season’s suicide squad of miscast veterans. L.A. is going to be able to put together some decent lineups, especially when Anthony Davis plays center and Frank Vogel doesn’t put a traditional point guard on the floor. Can the spacier team plus a summer of rest give LeBron enough of a push for one last MVP run? The Lakers could end up needing it. L.A. can’t really afford to be sluggish out the gate in a hellish Western Conference. Homecourt isn’t really going to be the issue as much as avoiding a tough playoff bracket. Perhaps even more importantly, a hyper-focused LeBron playing at an MVP level (and the team success that would likely ensue) could keep the Lakers out of the drama they were ensnared in for much of last year. A fast start would help build trust and buy-in, something the team lacked in 2019. That can only pay dividends during trying times, as opposed to last year’s Lakers team, which ultimately couldn’t meet the challenge at hand.
For the Warriors, it’s more simple: An MVP-level Steph could much more realistically vault them back into title contention sooner rather than later. Curry and Draymond Green are still a lethal combination. If Klay Thompson can be eased back at midseason with those two at the very top of their games, Golden State will still be a very difficult out in the playoffs. Making the postseason won’t be a guarantee for the Dubs, especially if Curry or Green miss time with an injury. If Curry is instead playing lights out, then the Warriors will almost certainly be in the playoff mix, and then things get interesting if Thompson is anywhere close to normal. I still think trading D’Angelo Russell for multiple pieces ultimately makes more sense for this team, but No. 1 on the Warriors to-do list is getting Steph to set the tone.
Who Scores For the Sixers in the Fourth Quarter?
The Jimmy Butler experiment was a bust for Philly. The Sixers came tantalizingly close to an Eastern Conference berth last season, falling a few Joel Embiid minutes (look at his plus-minus vs. Toronto) and some bad bounces on the rim short. The front office decided to remake the roster for basically the third time in a calendar year this summer, letting Butler and J.J. Redick walk, while acquiring Al Horford and Josh Richardson. The Sixers are going to defend the hell out of everyone, but how will they score when it counts?
Whatever Butler did or didn’t do to the locker room, he could score in tight games. Philly routinely called on Jimmy to bail out the offense in high-stakes moments. Who does that now? It’s unclear if Ben Simmons hitting a three in the preseason is a warning for the league or something we’ll forget about by November. Embiid is a monster, but throwing him the ball on the block—especially without Redick—in a high-leverage possession can be dicey. And Horford is more gifted as a facilitator than a bucket-getter. Philly has a big, and promising, starting five. And while making another big move would seem absurd, the team as presently constructed lacks a traditional fourth-quarter option. Maybe the Sixers’ defense renders that obsolete. Maybe Embiid can be that guy. Or maybe Simmons finally rounds out his game. Whatever ends up happening, those are a lot of heavy maybes for an organization that expects to be a championship contender.
How Will Giannis Antetokounmpo Counter?
The Bucks have to be in some level of disbelief in how their 2019 postseason ended. Milwaukee was up 2–0 on the Raptors with homecourt advantage in the East Finals before losing four straight games to eventual champion Toronto. By the end of that series, Giannis Antentokounmpo found himself repeatedly running into the brick wall of Kawhi Leonard, and the Bucks’ halfcourt offense sputtered as the Raptors found their footing. Giannis seems like exactly the type of player who deeply internalizes his mistakes and vows to learn from them. He’s already asked fans to stop calling him the MVP. So what does he have in store for this season?
2020 will be a pivotal year for the Bucks. Milwaukee made a somewhat controversial decision in essentially keeping Eric Bledsoe over Malcolm Brogdon, the latter of whom proved much more useful in the playoffs. The Bucks are locked into a core that doesn’t have the sex appeal of the superstar duos elsewhere in the league. All of this is to say Giannis probably has the biggest burden of any lead dog on a championship contender, and it will be up to him to figure out how to maintain his effectiveness in the playoffs. The Sixers seem to be clearly building a team based almost entirely on stopping Antetokounmpo, with smart, lengthy defenders everywhere on the floor. How Giannis learns to combat these looks without the benefit of a reliable outside shot will be not only a fascinating subplot, but also could decide a playoff series.
Bucks fans don’t need to be reminded of how influential next season is for Antetokounmpo, who will have to decide on a supermax extension next summer. Maybe Giannis will seek more help if he feels like all the pressure falls on him and only him in Milwaukee. But if the Greek Freak has learned from his failures, then he could be very well capable of carrying the Bucks himself.
So, What the Hell Are the Rockets Going to Look Like?
I basically staked any little reputation I had to Houston’s Russell Westbrook experiment not looking much better than its Chris Paul one. For all of the Rockets’ bickering last year, they a) had a great offense and b) will go down in history as the last team to beat the healthy version of the Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green Warriors. That’s not bad! While James Harden and Paul were both ball dominant, they could work well together because of Paul’s shooting ability.
The fit with Westbrook is more murky. He’s even more ball dominant than Paul was, and he’s coming from a situation in which he was the unquestioned face of the franchise and allowed to do basically whatever he wanted on and off the floor. Russ is making a huge adjustment here. I don’t doubt that his close friendship with Harden will ease the transition. But Westbrook has needed to tweak his game so often over the years, and in high-pressure moments, he seemingly always reverts to his worst habits. (The Thunder were also a mess last year whenever Paul George wasn’t on the floor.) Maybe Mike D’Antoni can get Russ moving more off the ball. Maybe the presence of Westbrook will help Houston push the pace. Plugging in Russ for Chris definitely won’t work as a one for one exchange. It’s possible the dismantling of the Warriors is enough to put the Rockets on equal footing with all the other contenders in the West. But the Russ trade was ultimately a high-risk moving when the floor of the previous roster was incredibly high. Harden is absolutely in the smack-dab of his prime, and if this Houston team can’t make a run to the Finals, it’s hard to see how the team’s path gets any clearer moving forward.
Can Kyrie Irving Carry the Nets to the Finals Himself? Will Kevin Durant Ever Log Off?
No and no.
Are People Still Sleeping on the Nuggets?
Yes! Denver has a legitimate, bona fide top-ten player in Nikola Jokic, who proved over the summer he can very well exceed during the postseason. And the Nuggets got better this offseason, stealing Jerami Grant from the Thunder while keeping their otherwise promising core completely intact. Emerging star Jamal Murray, sage vet Paul Millsap, the always overlooked Gary Harris, and the backup backcourt tandem of Monte Morris and Malik Beasley are all still here. And the icing on the cake is the health of Michael Porter Jr., whose potential makes him something of a wild card for the Nugs. Denver has both top-end talent and depth. The front office will also have pieces in place to go star hunting if someone—say Bradley Beal—becomes available. The Nuggets may not win as many games as they did in 2019, but they’re probably going to be a better team in 2020. They’ll certainly be more flexible, and with a postseason experience (and heartbreak!) under their belt, they’ll probably be more dangerous, too.
Can the Kings or Mavericks Make the Leap?
Poor up-and-coming teams in the West. Sacramento and Dallas both have exciting young players, but both teams have to deal with the reality that they play in an overly loaded conference. It’s tempting to put either of these squads on the fringe of the playoff picture, but who would they knock out of the top eight? Is this finally the season the wheels come off the Spurs? Will injuries spoil a season for someone like Portland or Utah? Are you willing to bet on one of those squads missing the playoffs? The Kings and Mavs are going to be really exciting this year. Luka and Kristaps seem like a perfect match. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield make up arguably the most underrated guard pairing in the league. Both these teams have a chance to be good, but it’s highly possible their improvement isn’t reflected in their record because of the depth of talent in their conference.
Why Are You Barely Talking About the Eastern Conference? Did Moving to Los Angeles Change You?
This is a weirdly personal question but who am I supposed to talk about?! Outside of the Sixers and Bucks, the East is bleak. The Raptors aren’t really title contenders anymore, and it’s possible they start selling off parts by the trade deadline to transition into a new phase. The Pacers could be feisty again with a healthy Victor Oladipo, be a second-round series would be a successful season for them. The Celtics may have made a chemistry upgrade at point guard but they will miss both Kyrie and (especially) Al Horford. (Also, those Enes Kanter minutes won’t always be pretty.) The Heat will be well coached but they are a star short of the national conversation. Simply put, the East is a two-team conference. And though this talk died down a little bit last year, the NBA really needs to consider open seeding for the playoffs. Wouldn’t you rather see a team like the Thunder or Kings in the postseason? Or would you rather see the Magic and their nine power forwards playing out of position?
Are the Clippers the Favorites?
Yes, but……..their health is worth keeping an eye on. Paul George’s shooting fell off a cliff last season after he hurt his shoulder, and he won’t be ready for the start of the season after undergoing surgery this summer. Kawhi Leonard load managed his way to a Finals MVP, but there were times during the playoffs when his legs looked dead, and he may not have been as effective against a full-fledged Warriors squad. The Clips don’t have a lot of holes (though I think their depth is a touch overrated) so they’ve definitely earned their status as favorites. But the more I think about where they are in the hierarchy of the league, the closer they seem relative to the field than I imagined the night they acquired both Kawhi and PG.