Every NBA team enters a new season with questions to answer. Whether you’re building for the future or aiming to contend right now, the start of training camp brings opportunity—the chance to explore and experiment with a new roster, to test out rotation and tactical tweaks that could unlock fresh and exciting possibilities. Combine the right chemicals just so, and it can propel you to new heights. Get the mix wrong, and the whole thing might blow up in your face.
As teams continue to work out the kinks and begin preseason play, let’s take a look at a few of the more intriguing questions and positional battles playing out in practice facilities around the league, starting in the home of our premium dude, Thiktor Krum:
Small Forward, Nuggets
Denver brings back nearly its entire roster, which won 54 games last season, finished second in a tough West, and came a couple of stops away from making the Western Conference finals for the first time in a decade. You can already pencil in four-fifths of the starting lineup, with MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap up front and the duo of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris in the backcourt. Who’ll join them on the wing, though, remains to be seen: Head coach Michael Malone said on media day that there will be an “open competition” for the starting small forward spot, with four players—Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangómez, and redshirt rookie Michael Porter Jr.—all vying for the job.
All things being equal, you might expect Malone to tab Barton, the eighth-year veteran who showed enough as a starter in 2017-18 to earn a new four-year, $53 million contract. But Barton struggled last season after suffering a “right hip and core strain” that put him on the shelf for two and a half months, and his defensive work lagged to the point that Malone replaced him three games into the postseason with the bigger, stronger Craig. The undrafted free agent out of the University of South Carolina Upstate responded by clamping down defensively and doing enough in a low-usage offensive role to earn his keep. Now, with Barton limited by a “minor” injury to start camp and Craig reportedly impressing with his shotmaking, it’s possible Malone will stick with what worked best last postseason—unless, of course, Denver’s two younger options make him change his mind.
The 6-foot-9 Hernangómez got off to a great start last season, averaging 10.2 points and 5.8 rebounds in 28 minutes per game on 49/43/80 shooting splits through the end of December, before a core muscle injury torpedoed his second half. After recovering from offseason surgery, though, the then-23-year-old looked great during Spain’s gold-medal run in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, contributing size, shooting, and savvy off-ball play while orbiting an excellent high-post playmaker in Marc Gasol; that could bode well for his chances of reestablishing himself alongside the similarly styled Jokic. The wild card, though, is Porter.
Tabbed as a prospective no. 1 pick during his prep days, Porter’s injury-plagued freshman season at Missouri sent his draft stock plummeting, leading to an agonizing stay in the green room at the 2018 NBA draft, which ended only when the Nuggets added him to a ready-made roster. After spending his would-be rookie year on the shelf to heal up, the 6-foot-10 mega-prospect is a full go at Nuggets camp, and looking to show he’s still the sort of three-level scorer and athletic finisher who can supercharge an already explosive Denver offense:
But the 21-year-old is totally green, and will need to prove he knows where to be and what to do. Hernangómez is a more natural role player, but he, too, has his work cut out for him on the defensive end, especially considering that’s where Craig hangs his hat. Unless Barton looks like his best self once he’s cleared for full contact, the last open starting spot on a team with title aspirations could be Craig’s to lose. (Also: This sort of depth, in terms of both cost-effective veterans and useful young pieces, is why everybody thinks Denver’s got a trade to make—and, for the most part, one specific trade.)
Power Forward, Nets
The first night of free agency was like Christmas for Nets fans, but general manager Sean Marks made it clear in his opening press conference that they’re going to have to wait to open their shiniest present. The Nets are not planning for Kevin Durant to play at all this season, as he continues to rehabilitate his surgically repaired right Achilles tendon, which leaves a great, big hole in the forward rotation in Brooklyn.
Fellow offseason addition Wilson Chandler might have filled that spot, but he’ll start the season on ice, too, after picking up a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance; the earliest he’ll be eligible to play is December 15. Latvian sophomore Rodions Kurucs might occupy it, after making 49 combined regular- and postseason starts during his rookie campaign. His availability may be in doubt, too, depending on the outcome of an investigation into his September 3 arrest on assault charges that could result in discipline under the league’s policy on domestic violence.
Taurean Prince spent the bulk of his three seasons in Atlanta as a small forward—93 percent of his floor time last season came at the 3 spot, according to Cleaning the Glass—but will necessity (and a desire to get as much shooting on the floor as possible) lead head coach Kenny Atkinson to slide the 6-foot-8 220-pounder up a position alongside Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, and Joe Harris? It’s unlikely a coach who loves spread pick-and-roll play as much as Atkinson would want to play two traditional bigs together—don’t bet on Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan sharing the floor too much—but he told reporters at Brooklyn’s Wednesday practice that rookie Nic Claxton has seen time at both center and power forward in camp, citing his passing, instincts, athleticism, and motor as reasons to believe the Georgia product could slot in at the 4.
Brooklyn’s fate this season rests primarily on how well Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, and LeVert can mesh as a playmaking trio, and on how effectively Atkinson can get a bunch of new pieces to cohere and clamp down on the defensive end. How much consistency and production the Nets get out of the 4 spot, though, could go a long way toward determining whether the still-waiting-for-KD iteration of the team is meaningfully better than the one that bowed out in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
Point Guard, Knicks
For all the attention paid to the flotilla of power forwards New York brought in over the summer, the logjam at the point might be even more interesting to parse. The Knicks enter camp with three former top-10 picks, all age 25 or younger—Elfrid Payton, chosen 10th in 2014; Frank Ntilikina, picked eighth in 2017; and Dennis Smith Jr., taken one pick after Ntilikina—in the mix to be their lead ball handler.
“I think it’s going to be great competition,” coach David Fizdale said at the Knicks’ media day. “Between [Elfrid], Dennis, and Frank, they’re going to be fighting every day for those minutes.”
They’re all still looking to show they can pilot a team to a respectable offense. Payton has come closest: The 2017-18 Magic scored 108 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, a rate of offensive efficiency that would’ve ranked 16th in the league over the full season. But his inconsistent defense and iffy shooting led Orlando to flip him to Phoenix for a second-round pick; injuries scuttled a strong start to last season in New Orleans, and left Payton looking for his fourth team in two seasons.
Smith’s explosiveness off the dribble and highlight-reel athleticism make him a tantalizing prospect. But his own struggles as a shooter and defender limited his effectiveness early in his career; that, combined with the arrival and immediate ascent of Luka Doncic as Dallas’s franchise playmaker, led the Mavericks to ship him off to New York in the blockbuster deal that netted Kristaps Porzingis. Smith immediately moved into the starting lineup, averaging 14.7 points, 5.4 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 28.6 minutes per game, and stoking hope among a large swath of Knicks fans that after many, many years in the desert, the franchise might have finally found a true star point guard of the future.
On the downside, that seemed to signal the end of the road for Ntilikina, whom Phil Jackson had drafted to assume that mantle. Despite proving to be a quality backcourt defender upon arrival, Ntilikina’s tentative and inconsistent offensive game—no player to log at least 2,000 minutes over the past two seasons has posted a worse true shooting or effective field goal percentage—kept him out of Fizdale’s rotation, even during a sink-to-the-bottom season purportedly about developing young players, before a groin injury ended a disappointing sophomore campaign. But Ntilikina performed well at this summer’s World Cup, where he was more aggressive in looking for his shot, most notably in drilling a dagger jumper over Kemba Walker in the closing minutes of France’s landmark win over Team USA. French coach Vincent Collet called that moment one that “could change [Ntilikina’s] career”—but only if he can “show them you are not the same Frank anymore.”
All three need strong showings this season, and none is a sure thing to be in New York for the long haul: Payton’s got a paltry $1 million guarantee for 2020-21, while the team has yet to pick up the fourth-year options on Ntilikina and Smith’s rookie contracts. Opportunities to stand out as an offensive creator could be tough to come by, especially with Fizdale planning to use new arrival Julius Randle as a “point forward,” which might also be no. 3 draft pick RJ Barrett’s best position as a pro. Whichever guard can win Fizdale’s favor early with aggressiveness and shotmaking could wind up having the inside track on job security, and leave the other two facing an increasingly uncertain future.
Shouts to David Griffin for rewarding my draft-night arrival on the “New Orleans might push for the playoffs, like, now” bandwagon by signing two key veteran pieces—sharpshooting guard/experienced podcaster JJ Redick and perennially underrated center Derrick Favors—to round out the Pelicans’ rotation. (FiveThirtyEight’s projections have New Orleans at just below a coin-flip call for a playoff spot; given where this franchise was eight months ago, that’s truly wild.) We know Favors is going to start alongside no. 1 pick and franchise-changing marvel Zion Williamson up front. We know that Jrue Holiday, the max-salaried holdover from the aborted Anthony Davis era and one of the best two-way guards in the game, will occupy half of the backcourt. And that’s where things get interesting. Who gets those last two spots?
The AD mega-trade brought back two former no. 2 picks, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, who both rank among the most polarizing prospects in the league. Some of that owes to the mere fact that they were drafted by the Lakers; some of it’s due to both players missing significant time because of injury (65 games over the past two seasons for Ball, 53 for Ingram) and playing in wildly different pre-and-post-LeBron contexts in L.A. A lot of it, though, traces back to the difficulty of figuring out just how a 6-foot-9 point forward who can guard damn near every position but has a shaky jumper, and a big guard with preternatural passing vision/defensive chops but an even shakier jumper, can fit into the structure of an NBA offense. The Lakers struggled when Ingram and Ball shared the floor, getting outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions in more than 1,000 minutes in 2017-18, and by 0.7 points-per-100 in more than 750 minutes last season, with dismal offensive ratings in both samples.
Playing in transition in Alvin Gentry’s uptempo system should help, but can New Orleans thrive offensively with both Ingram and Ball in the starting lineup alongside nonshooters Favors and Williamson? If not, who goes to the bench? Maybe Ingram makes more sense as the focal point of a reserve corps featuring shooters like E’Twaun Moore, Josh Hart, Italian stretch forward Nicolò Melli, and rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker. But how would Ingram, who’s facing restricted free agency if he doesn’t ink an extension of his rookie deal before the October 21 deadline, respond to being shifted into a second-unit role? Bumping Lonzo to the bench in favor of Redick seems like a recipe for more half-court harmony and a cleaner path to points for Zion. But it also removes the possibility of starting a Holiday-Ball combo, which has a chance to be the gnarliest defensive backcourt in the league.
Redick’s a proven commodity who’s been a vital part of some of the best lineups in the league with the Clippers and Sixers. Moore’s a professional swingman who started 80 games two seasons ago, and who always seems to give the Pelicans more than expected. Hart spent more time coming off the bench in L.A., but when healthy, he often looked like a perfect-fit off-guard complement to ball-dominant creators. Ingram’s probably the most talented of the bunch, but Ball’s inspiring cautious optimism with the evident work he’s put into fixing the janky jump shot that’s been the biggest non-health-related hole in his game.
This is all to say that Griffin has given Gentry a lot of options to explore in finding his best five; as these things go, that qualifies as a good problem. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, though, and how effectively Gentry can solve it might determine whether the Pelicans really do wind up back in the playoff picture this season.
Um, Almost Everything, Heat
OK: I know Jimmy Butler’s starting somewhere on the wing, and making sure that we all know he’s working extremely hard while we’re sleeping, because we’re all a bunch of truly lazy dinguses who can’t even fathom caring about something as much as he does. I know that, with Hassan Whiteside having taken his talents (and his $27.1 million expiring contract) to the Pacific Northwest, Bam Adebayo’s playing center. … That’s it, though, I think? What else do we know about how Miami’s lineup and rotation will play out?
After getting healthy following the right knee surgery that knocked him out of the lineup last season, and after a move to Dallas as part of the initial Butler sign-and-trade package fell through, Goran Dragic is back and ready to resume his role as Miami’s starting point guard, which he’s been for the past five years. One problem: Justise Winslow, who stepped into that spot last season when Dragic went under the knife, has made it clear that he expects to run point once again. So who’s going to start on the ball alongside Butler?
And actually, come to think of it: Is Butler going to open up as the starting shooting guard? Or will he play the 3 to make space for Dion Waiters, who thrived in Miami’s drive-and-kick system in 2016-17 before being limited by injuries to just 74 appearances over the past two seasons, and is now reportedly looking slimmer and more explosive in camp? Can rookie Tyler Herro, a highly touted shooter out of Kentucky, force his way into the mix by promising to give Miami a consistent long-range threat to help open up driving lanes and space to operate in the pick-and-roll?
If so, what happens to Winslow? Maybe he moves up and becomes a small-ball power forward alongside Adebayo, giving Miami more playmaking and defensive versatility. Though, that would displace Kelly Olynyk, the stretch-4 who’s been Adebayo’s best frontcourt partner thus far—Miami outscored opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor last season, and by 10.8 points-per-100 in 2017-18. A shift for Winslow might also take time away from James Johnson, who’s got the size and chops to be a difference-maker on both ends of the floor, provided he can eventually pass that nettlesome Heat conditioning test. After looking like Miami’s best player for most of last season, is there a chance Winslow winds up coming off the bench? The puzzle in Miami is hard to put together, and that’s before factoring in a potential pursuit of Chris Paul—something I don’t think the Heat should do, but rumblings continue to suggest that they might.
I think there’s enough talent on this roster to produce a top-tier defense, an average(ish) offense, and a win total high enough to land right around the middle of the Eastern playoff bracket; if things break right, the Heat could absolutely be the 3-seed in a very weird conference. I just don’t know who the hell’s going to being playing which position as they do it, and it might take even more than training camp to sort it all out.