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The Eight Big Questions Looming Over NBA Training Camps

The extensions, trade demands, positional battles, and more we’re watching as teams return to action ahead of the 2021-21 season

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Just nine and a half weeks after Giannis Antetokounmpo became immortal, and a scant 53 days removed from Kevin Durant and Co. winning Olympic gold in Tokyo, we arrive again at the starting line: the opening of training camp for the NBA and its 30 teams. Perhaps the most appropriate summation for the simultaneous sensations of excitement at the return of NBA hoops and whiplash at the kickoff of the league’s third season in two years’ time comes from poet laureate Clark Griswold:

As we begin reacquainting ourselves with the rosters after the annual offseason shuffle and start setting expectations around the 82-game marathon to come, here are eight of the biggest questions looming as teams break camp to resume vying for the Larry O’B:

1. Will the Nets hit any snags in locking up their Big Three?

After coming a half-a-Nike short of the Eastern Conference finals, and perhaps an NBA championship, Brooklyn promptly pivoted to winning the offseason by executing a gambit as simple and obvious as it is elegant and effective: paying Kevin Durant as much money as humanly possible.

With Durant—fresh off a transcendent performance in his first postseason action since the Achilles rupture that shelved him for a year and a half, and an Olympics turn that only augmented his case for consideration as the world’s best basketball player—sewn up for four more seasons, Nets general manager Sean Marks set about fortifying the reserve corps. But while bringing back several rotation pieces (Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown, LaMarcus Aldridge) and bringing in several more (Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, James Johnson, Jevon Carter, intriguing rookie scorer Cam Thomas) were all nice pieces of business, what makes Brooklyn the odds-on favorite to win the 2022 NBA championship is the titanic trio of talent at the top of its roster. Marks already extended one of them; now, he’s got to extend the other two.

It’s widely expected that he will. Marks last month proclaimed himself “very confident” that the Nets would agree to terms with James Harden and Kyrie Irving on new contract extensions before the start of camp, and that Harden, the league’s 2017-18 MVP, and Irving, a seven-time All-Star, will remain in Brooklyn black-and-white-and-occasionally-other-colors for years to come, on deals just as eye-popping as Durant’s four-year, $194.2 million re-up. Kyrie’s max would come in at $186.6 million over that same span; Harden’s would require him to pick up his $47.4 million player option for 2022-23 and add another three years and $161 million, vaulting the total value of the deal north of $200 million.

It’s a mind-boggling figure that would result in an absolutely astronomical luxury tax bill over the next half-decade. Let’s not weep, though, for Nets owner and Alibaba cofounder Joseph Tsai, he of the net worth reportedly fluctuating around $10 billion; this is the cost of doing business for a franchise that has committed with every fiber of its being and every tool at its disposal to going for it all right friggin’ now. That starts with shelling out well over half a billion dollars through the summer of 2026 to lock in three superstars: one a 32-year-old with an Achilles rupture in the rearview, another a 32-year-old who logged more regular-season minutes than anyone in the 2010s and missed 31 regular- and postseason games last season, and a third who’ll be 30 by the playoffs and has suffered season-ending injuries three times in the past four years. You’d understand if all that made Marks and Tsai feel a little tight around the collar, but the talent’s just too incredible to turn back now. All that’s left for the Nets is to pony up, do everything in their power to get everyone to the playoffs healthy, and go full steam ahead in pursuit of the big gold ball that’ll make all that spending worth it.

2. Who will blink first in Philadelphia?

In case you missed it—and I can understand why you might have; it’s not like we’ve been writing and talking about it a lot—Ben Simmons and the 76ers seem destined for divorce. Both sides have sought a separation: The Sixers reportedly opened up trade talks centered on the three-time All-Star back in July, and Simmons, evidently unhappy with the slow-motion development of those discussions, informed Philly brass last month that if he wasn’t traded before the start of training camp, he would refuse to report. Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice wrote last week that many with the Sixers “are convinced [Simmons] will eventually show up.” They might be waiting an awfully long time: According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Simmons “intends to never play another game for the franchise.”

After a summer of grumbling without any ground gained, how, and when, does this all get resolved? Will Simmons relent, report, suffer the slings and arrows of the Philly faithful, and just set about trying to bolster his market by balling out for a while? If he doesn’t, how will the rest of the Sixers deal with getting asked day after day about Simmons’s status and how his holdout is affecting the team? Would the Sixers really go ahead and exercise their right under league rules to suspend and fine him “$227,613 for every practice and game that he misses”? Or would that essentially be the organization cutting off its nose to spite its face: looking to penalize Simmons for services not rendered and recoup some of the $16.5 million in 2021-22 salary he’ll have already been paid on the first day of October, but even further submarining Philly’s leverage in trade talks by ostensibly confirming just how rotten everything’s gotten?

If Simmons stays away, how might coach Doc Rivers redecorate the lineup? Would Tyrese Maxey—the second-year point guard (and fellow Klutch client) who’s suddenly become an awfully important figure in these proceedings—move into the starting five? Is he ready for that? Or might Rivers instead prioritize trying to approximate Simmons’s value as a perimeter defender by, say, elevating Matisse Thybulle into the first five? What kind of downstream effects would Rivers’s decision have on the rest of a Philly rotation that, frankly, all but disintegrated whenever Joel Embiid was off the floor last season?

What if Simmons stays away, the vibe turns sour, and the Sixers get off to a rocky start to the preseason slate—or, God forbid, a key player suffers an injury? At what point might Daryl Morey—who, as every NBA insider loves to tell us, Is Comfortable In Uncomfortable Situations and Isn’t Going To Make A Trade Just To Make A Trade—start to actually get a little sweaty? On the flip side: What if the newly supermaxed Embiid is every ounce the MVP-caliber mauler he was last season, Maxey looks like a bona fide game-breaker, and Philly doesn’t miss a beat without the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up? What might that do to Simmons’s market, the Sixers’ plans, and the state of play around the league?

We’ve spent months waiting with bated breath for the other shoe to drop here, stacking questions on top of questions without any meaningful movement. One way or the other, we should start to get some answers soon.

3. Will Bradley Beal extend his contract again?

Beal’s been the subject of trade talk for virtually his entire career: from the time he was on the table for Harden as a rookie through the reported rockiness of his relationship with John Wall to the past two years, when the rumormongering reached a fever pitch. He’s developed into a supernova amid all that noise, scoring more points in the last two seasons than any player besides Damian Lillard (whose name also comes up in trade chatter more than a little bit) for Wizards teams that needed every morsel of offense he could create just to have a puncher’s chance at competence and a .500 record—a mark Washington has fallen short of in each of the last three seasons.

In spite of all the scuffling and scuttlebutt, though, Beal himself hasn’t said anything about wanting out, and Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard has said that he intends to continue building around him. Sheppard took a big swing on that front this summer, flipping star point guard Russell Westbrook—and the $91.3 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons—to the Lakers in a deal that opened the door to a wholesale renovation of Washington’s rotation, and potentially its future, just as Beal gets set to enter the final year of the extension he signed in 2019.

Sheppard and owner Ted Leonsis are expected to go back to that well, offering Beal another extension that could tack an additional $181.5 million onto his current deal and keep him under contract through 2026. There’s a pretty compelling financial argument for Beal to not go that route, though. Playing out this season would give Beal 10 years of NBA service time, allowing him to hit unrestricted free agency next summer eligible for a max contract that starts at 35 percent of the salary cap. That would put him in line for a five-year, $235 million deal to stay in Washington, or a four-year, $174.2 million deal to play elsewhere. If he holds firm on his desire to stay put, he could lock in an extra $53 million or so by just waiting a few months; if he has a change of heart about where he’d like to play into his 30s, he could take a haircut of less than $2 million per year and pick a new destination without any muss or fuss. Or, if he changed his mind and wanted to have his cake and eat it, too, he could decline the extension, say he wants a trade, and go somewhere else before the February deadline, so that his new team will hold his Bird rights and have the ability to give him that monster five-year deal.

That, however, would represent a massive reversal of course for a player who has been steadfast in maintaining that he wants to continue serving as the “franchise cornerstone” in D.C. Especially after the Wizards just pulled off perhaps the most impressive magic trick in recent NBA roster-building history by getting out of supermax deals for two aging point guards and winding up with a whole new rotation (newcomers Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Aaron Holiday, and first-round pick Corey Kispert join holdover young pieces Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Daniel Gafford, and Thomas Bryant) and the balance-sheet flexibility to pursue upgrades in a trade now or free agency in a couple years’ time.

If Beal likes what he sees, and he really doesn’t want to leave, then maybe he decides not to sweat the extra $53 million and just put pen to paper now. If he doesn’t, though, expect Bradley Beal Trade Watch—now nearly 10 years old!—to continue apace.

4. Which 2022 free agent will we probably spend the most time talking about?

That’d be Zach LaVine, who’s in line to be the belle of an otherwise underwhelming unrestricted free agent ball.

LaVine was sensational last season, averaging 27.4 points per game—seventh in the league, and the most ever by a Bull not named Michael Jordan—on pristine 51/42/85 shooting splits en route to his first All-Star nod. Chicago fell short of postseason play, but the 26-year-old continued his individual ascent this summer, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic roster and playing a key role in Team USA’s fourth-straight gold medal at the Summer Games. He’s a tough-shot maker—52.3 percent against “tight” or “very tight” coverage last season, according to NBA.com’s shot data—who marries three-level-scoring volume and shooting efficiency at a level matched only by mega-stars Durant, Irving, and Stephen Curry.

Legitimate offensive centerpieces who have gotten better year-over-year don’t often hit the open market in their prime these days. LaVine might, though; while he’s eligible for an extension and has expressed interest in staying in Chicago long term, he heads into camp without a new deal.

The most the Bulls could offer LaVine in a straight extension is $104.8 million over four years. That would leave a ton of money on the table, though, since LaVine could sign a new five-year deal in Chicago worth more than $200 million next summer, or a four-year, $160 million contract elsewhere. The Bulls also had the option to renegotiate-and-extend LaVine’s contract, which would have bumped his salary for this season up to the max and guaranteed him as much as $195.6 million through 2026. To do that, though, the Bulls would have had to get under the salary cap and then devote the freed-up cash to LaVine. Instead, the Bulls chose to wheel and deal to try to improve the roster around LaVine and trade-deadline acquisition Nikola Vucevic, shelling out money and draft picks to add DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and some frontcourt depth.

It’s a massive gamble: a bet that the reconfigured roster is good enough to not only push the Bulls back above .500 for the first time in five years, but convince LaVine that Chicago will be a viable contender for the foreseeable future, and that he should stick around for the long haul. Expect every team that could use an in-his-prime elite scorer—which is to say, a lot of teams—to be watching very intently to see whether or not the wager pays off.

5. Can the Rockets really trade John Wall?

After a tremendously tumultuous 12-month period that saw its superstar, second star, head coach, and general manager all skip town, Houston is now home to a rebuilding roster featuring eight players age 25 or under. That includes 21-year-old Kevin Porter Jr., a de facto point guard who became the youngest player ever to score 50 points and dish 10 assists in the same game, and 19-year-old Jalen Green, who profiles as an instant-impact scorer with potential All-Star upside at the 2-guard spot.

It wasn’t exactly a shock, then, to learn that the Rockets were ready to move on from Wall. Nor was it a stunner that Wall, a five-time All-Star, would prefer not to come off the bench for a rebuilding team, and would rather try to find an opportunity that might get him back to the postseason for the first time since 2018.

What did surprise me a bit, though, was the report from Shams Charania of The Athletic that there are “no buyout plans” for Wall. And ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reporting that the Rockets “do not want to give up first-round draft compensation” or take back significant long-term salary in offloading Wall.

Because if Wall doesn’t want to give back any money in a buyout, and the Rockets don’t want to pay him the full boat just to walk away ... and they don’t want to give up any picks to get off of his salary … and they’d like to keep their future balance sheet tidy in the process …

… then it sounds like Houston is looking for a suitor eager to take on a post-Achilles-rupture 31-year-old who has missed 195 games over the past four seasons and is owed $91.7 million over the next two.

That seems extremely unlikely! Which is why, for now, the smart money seems to be on Wall staying on ice all season before resuming trade or buyout talks next summer, when he’ll have just (“just”!) one year and $47.4 million left. If some would-be contender suffers an injury at the point in training camp, though, expect Rockets brass to be on the phone with an offer. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

6. How much will the Warriors’ young guys play and contribute?

The Warriors entered the summer seemingly poised for a big move, after a pair of disappointing defeats in the play-in tournament left Golden State outside the playoffs. Combine the drive to maximize what remains of the primes of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green with the long-awaited return of Klay Thompson, and enough raw materials—the $65.2 million left on Andrew Wiggins’s contract to match a huge salary, plus 2020 no. 2 pick James Wiseman, a pair of 2021 lottery picks, and a nearly full complement of their own future first-rounders—to put together an enticing package, and the Dubs had the look of a team in position to take a sizable swing.

Instead, Golden State spread out its bets. GM Bob Myers used those 2021 picks on Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Then, he brought in some low-priced veterans to round out the rotation around Curry, who evidently believes enough in the front office’s plan that he re-upped on a new $215 million supermax extension this summer.

The resultant roster, as my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor has argued, could be deep and versatile enough to return the Warriors to title contention:

Much of that, obviously, will depend on how Thompson looks when he returns to the court after missing more than two years with ACL and Achilles tears. In the interim, it’ll be interesting to see how head coach Steve Kerr manages Golden State’s rotation, and how much he’s willing to lean on the younger cohort of the roster.

Kerr has clearly become comfortable with Jordan Poole, saying that the 22-year-old has a chance to step into Klay’s spot in the starting lineup for the time being as a bucket-getting guard opposite Curry. But will the 18-year-old Kuminga (whom owner Joe Lacob sounds extremely high on) and 19-year-old Moody be able to earn a similar level of trust and crack into a veteran-laden wing corps that features Wiggins, newcomer Otto Porter Jr., and returning hero Andre Iguodala?

Perhaps even more importantly: How will Wiseman look once he returns from the meniscus tear that ended his rookie season? (That return date, according to the team, is still TBD.) He showed some flashes in his maiden voyage, averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game, but his shortcomings—as a rebounder, as a positional defender, as a complementary offensive player on a team built around the beautiful music that Steph and Draymond make—shone through more often than not.

It’s one of the more glaring statistical notes of last season: Opponents outscored the Warriors by 7.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions when Curry and Green shared the floor with Wiseman, according to Cleaning the Glass, while Golden State blitzed the competition by 12.5 points-per-100 when Steph and Dray cooked without the kid. Similarly: The Warriors were 18-21 with Wiseman in the lineup and 21-12 in the games he missed. That includes a 14-5 close to the season after Wiseman’s injury—a period in which Kerr gave significantly more playing time to rock-steady vet Kevon Looney, played small ball more often with Green and hard-charging defensive playmaker Juan Toscano Anderson in the frontcourt, and reaped the benefits to the tune of a top-10 offense and league-best defense.

Has Wiseman developed enough to be able to provide similar results? If he hasn’t—and if Kuminga and Moody are understandably not quite ready to be thrown to the wolves just yet, either—it ought to be fascinating to see how much a team with championship aspirations really feels comfortable relying on them.

7. How will the Lakers’ big man rotation shake out?

It’s easy to forget now, but midway through February, the Lakers were 21-7, the NBA’s second-best record, and had the league’s no. 10 offense and no. 1 defense. LeBron James was an MVP candidate, and L.A.’s new starting lineup, with Marc Gasol in the middle and Dennis Schröder at the point, was the best in the NBA. For a while there, everything was going according to plan.

But things fell apart, in a hail of hazards: Davis and James getting hurt, Gasol contracting COVID-19 and Schröder missing time in the COVID protocols, the awkward and unsuccessful addition of Andre Drummond, etc. After the injuries, illnesses, and first-round exit at the hands of the Suns left such a bad taste in so many mouths, the Lakers decided to start over, blowing things up with a draft-night blockbuster that imported Russell Westbrook and shipped out half of its rotation.

In the aftermath of that dramatic change, one thing seemed clear: Lineups built around Westbrook, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis would need as much shooting as possible at the other two spots. Good thing, then, that the Lakers would still have Gasol, who shot 41 percent from deep in his first season in Los Angeles. Sure, the 36-year-old Spaniard had lost a step, but he still fit smoothly with the Lakers’ two superstars, and his combination of interior passing touch and floor-spacing at the 5 seemed like it would really help decongest what could be some cramped half-court possessions for the LeBron-AD-Russ trio.

So, about that! Gasol’s gone, actually, replaced by DeAndre Jordan and a returning Dwight Howard—two players who’ll surely provide more shot-blocking and lob-finishing than Gasol did, but who offer zero stretch and precious little in the way of playmaking. (Though we shouldn’t forget DeAndre picking up those dimes he dropped in Brooklyn.) The Lakers did add a passel of veteran shooters after the Russ deal, reaching short-money agreements with Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, and Kent Bazemore. But if you’re starting one of Howard or Jordan alongside AD and LeBron up front, with Russ on the ball, there’s room for only one of those guys … and, as a result, maybe not much room for anybody. Can LeBron, Russ, Frank Vogel and Co. pry open enough driving and passing lanes for the Lakers to score well in the half-court in those starting-five minutes?

Maybe they won’t need to. After all, L.A. was one of the worst half-court offensive teams in the league heading into the bubble, and still won it all behind a suffocating defense and James and Davis overwhelming opponents on the offensive end. Much of that, though, was predicated on AD sliding up to the 5, LeBron playing power forward, and the Lakers loading up the wings with 3-point shooting and point-of-attack defense. But even with Davis reportedly willing to play center more often this season, that won’t be the primary game plan before the playoffs. Will a DeAndre-Dwight platoon be up to the task of replicating the style of play and production that Dwight and JaVale McGee provided during L.A.’s 2020 title run? Would doing that even be good enough to cover up for a perimeter defense likely to be leakier with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso gone? If not, Rob Pelinka and Co. might need to come up with a new plan yet again—and fast.

8. How many more 2018 draftees will get contract extensions?

I touched on this a few weeks ago, focusing on the circumstances surrounding extension talks for Deandre Ayton in Phoenix, Michael Porter Jr. in Denver, and Jaren Jackson Jr. in Memphis. But beyond them—and Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Robert Williams, who’ve already inked new deals—there are plenty of members of their draft class whose negotiations bear watching. (Reminder: 2018 draftees are eligible to sign an extension of their rookie contract until October 18, the day before the start of the regular season.)

Chief among them: What the heck are the Cavs going to do about Collin Sexton?

The eighth pick in 2018, Sexton has scored more points than any member of the class besides Doncic and Young, and is coming off a season in which he averaged 24.3 points and 4.4 assists per game on .573 true shooting, a tick above the league-average mark. The only other players to produce that kind of scoring efficiency and playmaking by their age-22 season? Doncic, Young, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, and Michael friggin’ Jordan.

On one hand, even the most wine-and-gold-colored-glasses-wearing Cavs optimist would grant that Sexton’s not on the same level as those five dudes, and that, as a 6-foot-1 score-first shooting guard with defensive limitations, he’s not necessarily an ideal cornerstone for Cleveland’s ongoing organizational rebuild—especially with 2019 lottery pick Darius Garland at the point and 2020 lottery pick Isaac Okoro maybe a better fit at the 2 than the 3. On the other, though, instant-offense scorers as prolific as Sexton don’t grow on trees—and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t often sign in Cleveland in free agency.

A max offer seems highly unlikely, whether from the Cavs now or from another suitor next summer. But if Cleveland comes with something closer to, say, the four-year, $73 million deal that Derrick White got in San Antonio last offseason, you wonder whether Sexton and his reps would rather play out the season and take their chances in a restricted free agent market that might be hotter than normal, given how iffy the unrestricted market seems like it’ll be.

A few other names of note:

Mikal Bridges, Suns: The 25-year-old has developed into something like the platonic ideal of the 3-and-D wing every contender craves, drilling 42.5 percent of his triples last season while routinely guarding the opponent’s toughest cover at a near-All-Defensive-Team level. (Among players to log at least 1,500 minutes last season, Bridges ranked eighth in average matchup difficulty, according to The BBall Index’s defensive metrics; in the postseason, he spent most of his court time battling elite scoring threats including LeBron James, Paul George, Khris Middleton, and Michael Porter Jr., according to NBA.com’s matchup data.) He’s also expanded his offensive game, showing signs of growth as a transition finisher, a catch-and-go driver capable of knocking down midrange pull-ups, and even a complementary playmaker who can run a pick-and-roll in a pinch. Re-signing Chris Paul signals that the Suns are ready to run it back and continue trying to compete for titles; Bridges, quietly, profiles as an integral piece of Phoenix’s puzzle. Will Robert Sarver pony up north of $90 million over four years to keep Bridges in place? If he doesn’t, I’d bet a few suitors would be more than happy to do it once Bridges hits restricted free agency next summer.

Miles Bridges, Hornets: There aren’t many things in today’s NBA more fun than when LaMelo Ball catches a glimpse of Bridges cutting to the cup:

But Bridges last season proved to be more than just a highlight factory, making strides as a shooter (a career-best 40 percent from 3-point range on 290 attempts, 86.7 percent from the foul line), secondary facilitator (especially on the short roll after setting a screen), and multi-positional defender. He’s a versatile, electric player who seems tailor-made for the uptempo, ball-sharing style James Borrego wants to run in Charlotte … but one who also seems best deployed as a complementary piece, which could make it less likely that the Hornets rush to lock him up.

Kevin Huerter, Hawks: Fresh off a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference finals, Atlanta backed up the Brinks truck with extensions for Trae Young (a five-year max that could reach $207 million), John Collins (five years, $125 million), and Clint Capela (two years, $46 million). Next in line is Huerter, who hasn’t quite lived up to the admittedly lofty billing of being the Klay Thompson to Young’s Stephen Curry in Travis Schlenk’s “Warriors East” roster construction, but who’s been a rock-solid off-guard who can handle the ball, create his own shot, drain pull-up 2s (51.6 percent last season) and catch-and-shoot 3s (39.3 percent for his career), and hold his own defensively.

He can also punish mismatches, as he showed repeatedly in Game 7 of the second round against Philly, when he tortured Seth Curry on his way to a game-high 27 points to help the Hawks knock off the top-seeded Sixers:

Just about every team in the league could use a player like Huerter in its wing rotation. At issue, though, is how much the Hawks themselves do, with Bogdan Bogdanovic in place and 2019 lottery picks De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish up for extensions of their own next summer. Will Atlanta just pay Huerter now—that Derrick White four-year, $73 million number looms large—to keep the good vibes rolling, or will they let Huerter roll into restricted free agency?

Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks: Initially earmarked for Sacramento in the Bogdanovic sign-and-trade that blew up spectacularly, DiVincenzo wound up starting all 66 games he played for the Bucks last season, playing a key role in what was one of the best big-minutes lineups in the league. On the other hand, the Bucks did just prove they could withstand his absence, shuffling the deck after he went down with a torn ankle ligament in the first round of the playoffs and proceeding to win the whole stinkin’ thing. That said: Milwaukee will devote nearly two-thirds of its salary cap to the big three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday (money well spent!), and has every one of its first-round draft picks from 2023 through 2027 encumbered in one form or fashion after the deals for Holiday and P.J. Tucker (again, no complaints, no notes, it all worked out!).

That could make the 24-year-old DiVincenzo a precious commodity for an organization with few avenues to add young talent capable of both contributing now and improving in the future. Paying him something like $15 million a year and watching the luxury tax bill balloon might make the Bucks’ billionaire owners wince. That might be the cost of doing business, though, for doing whatever they can to flank Giannis with title-level talent while he’s at the peak of his powers.