Believe it or not, the NBA regular season is back! It’s almost like there was no reprieve between the 2017 Finals and the 2017-18 opening slate of games! To mark the occasion, we asked our staffers a few burning questions about one of the most anticipated seasons in recent memory.
Which new superteam will be the most super?
Danny Chau: The Houston Rockets. My altar is built at the foot of Mike D’Antoni, and I have zero doubt that he’ll be able to create a fun, innovative offense featuring two of the best playmakers in the league. I do not doubt that the Rockets will obliterate their old 3-point records by chucking 50 3s per game. It’ll be a blast. They have the firepower, and, amazingly, they have the depth on both ends of the floor. On a team that is basically a hallucinogenic dream on offense, the fact that the team has smart, versatile, team-oriented defenders like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker is its own oasis in the desert. This is a team that looks like it was built to maximize its strengths and mitigate the fatal flaws we saw last year. I’m here for it all.
Paolo Uggetti: Oklahoma City. There’s more to a superteam than just being good. You gotta have the drama, the polarizing superstars, the lingering question of who will get the last shot, and the coach who may or may not be able to handle all the personalities. It’s all part of the superteam experience, and no new superteam checks off more of those boxes than the Thunder. With Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, this is a team that is going to be fun, yet messy; tumultuous, yet successful.
Kevin O’Connor: The Rockets are going to win 60-plus games, or at least make a strong push for 60. Here’s a summarized version of what I wrote last week: With Chris Paul and James Harden, they could have a Hall of Fame–level point guard on the floor for all 48 minutes. Paul and Harden complement each other beautifully. The team added versatile defenders like Tucker and Mbah a Moute that’ll give it the ability to play different styles. It’s trendy to hate the Rockets for some weird reason, but they’ll be fun by the end of the season. Enjoy the point guard show.
John Gonzalez: Don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years. Or they were here for years, and then they disbanded. But great news, they’re together again. Maybe the LeBron James–Dwyane Wade reunion doesn’t make the Cavs as super as the original marriage in Miami made the Heat, but they sure seem excited to be back together again. Look how happy these two crazy (no-longer) kids are around each other. Do you think Kyrie made LeBron laugh like that? (That’s not a rhetorical question; the answer is no.)
Plus, Isaiah Thomas and at least one functioning hip will join Cleveland this year. Probably. Oh, and the Cavs also have Derrick Rose now. He’s … still in the NBA! This is gonna be great. Super, even—mainly because the rest of the Eastern Conference is not. Besides, they still have an outstanding IOU to pay off.
Juliet Litman: If we’re talking about improvement over last year, Minnesota has the most room to grow. But in terms of superpower in the absolute, it’ll be Oklahoma City. Though Houston is deep and the Harden-Paul tandem is intriguing, OKC has the most scoring potential. They have two scoring champions and Paul George.
Justin Verrier: The Rockets. Chris Paul’s vise grip on the pace of play and end-of-game situations still needs to be solved, but all the hand-wringing over whether James Harden can fit with Paul ignores that Harden shape-shifted to a ball-dominant point guard out of necessity when his willingness to move off the ball to welcome in Ty Lawson backfired. Deploying versatile playmakers is the only way to keep up with the Warriors, and the Rockets now have two of the best in the NBA.
Which superteam will sputter?
Chris Ryan: Houston. Forget “there’s only one ball.” There’s only one locker room. Whether it happens during an early season getting-to-know-you slump, a midseason do-these-guys-know-the-All-Star-break-is-over hiccup, or a postseason who's-the-captain-now collapse, the Rockets will struggle. Has James Harden or Chris Paul ever had a serene end to one of their seasons? Spoiler: NO. How they cope with adversity is more interesting than how many 3s they might take in any given game.
Chau: Considering expectations, especially in an impoverished Eastern Conference, I don’t yet see the Celtics fully closing the gap on the Cavs or separating themselves from the maybe-elites directly beneath them. More so than other superteams built over the past few months, Boston’s wide revamp means it’ll have to lean on young, inexperienced players and two new stars (Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the team’s first and second options) who come from very different situations. Even if it exists within an established Brad Stevens framework and philosophy, I don’t envision their offense being a plug-and-play situation. It rarely ever is, and that goes double for two stars who are starting two different chapters in their careers. There will inevitably be speed bumps.
O’Connor: The Thunder won’t “sputter,” per se, because I think they’ll be terrific by the end of the season. But they have the largest adjustment to make of any of the true superteams, considering Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony have clashing styles of play. They’ll need to learn each other, and by the end of the season, they should hopefully resemble a real threat.
Litman: Houston. There’s only so much berating from Chris Paul that fellow NBA players can withstand.
Gonzalez: Everything is relative. I believe all the superteams will be super—but some superteams will be less super than other superteams. It is the way of the NBA. While I take umbrage with the word “sputter,” and while I’m stretching the definition of “superteam,” I do wonder if we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves by expecting the Timberwolves to take a massive leap and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004. (Andrew Wiggins was 9 years old at the time. So, yeah.)
Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Wiggins, KAT, and whichever warm body Thibs throws in at power forward is a nice starting five. A good starting five. Maybe even a very good starting five. But I wonder how super they will be—especially because, um [whispers because I don’t want to make the nice people in Minnesota sad] do Butler and Wiggins fit together?
Uggetti: I don’t know if you can call the Timberwolves a superteam, but I also don’t know if you can somehow expect them to raise their win total from last year by nearly 20 wins (their over/under is 48.5). That’s a meteoric rise in expectations, even with the addition of Jimmy Butler. Tack on Tom Thibodeau’s “if you’re not dying, you’re not trying” coaching philosophy, and we’re looking at a recipe for a yet another underwhelming season.
It all hinges on Karl-Anthony Towns, who may already be one of the league’s best big men but has yet to scratch his ceiling. Towns’s defense is what needs the most work. If he improves on that side of the floor, he might be good enough to overshadow a lot of the Wolves’ possible issues. It’s a big if.
Verrier: The Thunder. At least in the first season of this new iteration. Unlike the Rockets, who managed to load their roster with quality reserves (P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, etc.) after landing a superstar, OKC sacrificed a lot of depth to form its new big three. Figuring out how to spread the shots around to three high-usage players becomes a lot tougher without capable fill-ins to help stagger their opportunities. Someone has to be the Chris Bosh. That someone is Melo, but it’s hard envisioning him raising his hand first.
Who will be the steal of the draft?
Chau: OG Anunoby. I’m holding firm on my belief that the Indiana product is a top-tier talent, and while his preseason stats don’t look great, the tape showed a willing shooter from the corners, a slasher who is unafraid of contact around the rim, a player capable of switching essentially every position on the court, and someone who can make quick reads on the catch and the simple pass to the open man. None of that is revelatory stuff, but it adds up to an ideal role player (with the potential for a hell of a lot more) for the new, modernized Raptors. For an NBA physical specimen whose skills are seen as theoretical at this point, it was great to see Anunoby’s fundamentals on display—especially fewer than 10 months after ACL surgery.
O’Connor: Jonah Bolden, Semi Ojeleye, and Jordan Bell were drafted 36th, 37th, and 38th, respectively. I had all three of them ranked top 24 on my draft board, and I think their games are all built for a modern, versatile style of play. They might not get the opportunity to show their skills as rookies, but their time will come.
Ryan: We here at Berkshire-Hathaway-Axelrod-Ryan Investments believe in sticking with the stock that got you there.
Gonzalez: Did you watch Donovan Mitchell play during the preseason? Unless you live in Utah or you have some sort of preseason hoops sickness, the answer is likely no. I do not live in Utah but … yeah, I’ve watched a lot of Donovan Mitchell. Because I lead a full life.
He was so good. Mitchell—who was taken 13th—shot 50 percent or better from the floor in three out of four fake games. In his last preseason effort, he put up 20 shots (!) against the Lakers and made half of them. The Jazz need someone to space the floor and take shots. Mitchell is that someone. I’m so in on him. So are Jazz fans (though maybe they’re a bit too in on him.)
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Donovan Mitchell will fit right in with the Jazz defense, but it’s what he could bring on the other end that will stick out most. After losing its top two scorers, Utah is in desperate need for someone to get buckets. Mitchell’s offensive game isn’t fully realized, but he showed in college that he’s a talented spot-up shooter with potential for more—and what brings that out of a rookie like extensive playing time?
Uggetti: For the sake of arguing for someone other than the 2020 Finals MVP Kyle Kuzma, give me the pride of Wake Forest, no. 19 pick John Collins. Collins was an underrated summer league folk hero and may be one of the more exciting players from this draft.
Unfortunately, Collins’s explosiveness and dunks will be buried this season underneath the very boring and meaningless blanket that is the Atlanta Hawks. Collins is one of the bright lights at the end of a very long, very dark rebuilding tunnel.
Verrier: Jordan Bell. Because the world is a terrible place.
What’s the player you will stop everything you’re doing to watch on League Pass?
Chau: Joel Embiid. The hipster in me wanted to get cute here, but there is no other acceptable answer. Give him 15 minutes and he’ll pull off something no other player in NBA history has done, and with a minutes restriction to start the year, 15 minutes will likely be the canvas he demolishes with a paintball gun. There is no precedent for the kind of impact Embiid has on both his team and the league—Shaq, maybe, if Shaq could shoot like Durant? He is the rarest of gems in the league, and every second he’s on the court is precious. I wouldn’t miss him for anything else the NBA has to offer—even a Nets-Hawks triple-overtime in an empty Philips Arena.
O’Connor: Joel Embiid might be the cliché answer, but who cares? Embiid, when healthy, is enthralling. He’s basically 8 feet tall. He launches 3s. He dunks over fools, blocks their shots, then talks shit. The NBA is great for a lot of reasons; Embiid is one of the reasons it can be better than ever.
Litman: Give me crunch-time Giannis and blacked-out Klay Thompson. Giannis has to prove he can be the guy we saw in the 2017 playoffs, and a Klay lights-out shooting performance is a hell of a drug.
Ryan: Swole Giannis.
Nasty block by Giannis. Each angle kept getting nastier! pic.twitter.com/h3l8o4emdK— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 14, 2017
Uggetti: Death, taxes, and Russell Westbrook going 100 miles an hour on every play in every game. Westbrook is one of the known quantities in the league. Yes, he’s flawed, yes, he’s reckless, but that’s exactly why it’s so hard to turn away. Tuning in to watch Westbrook is tuning in to a guarantee. You will be shown either a machine at its best or a mess at its worst. Regardless of the end result, the thrill of the roller-coaster ride to the destination is what pulls you in.
Gonzalez: The easy answer here is Joel Embiid. I recently watched him run the streets of Philly in his game shorts and play tennis at night. I will definitely watch him play basketball—hopefully in more than 31 games this time.
But that is the easy answer. The hard answer, my answer, is Markelle Fultz. He will come off the bench to start the year, which is not what you’d want when you trade up to take him first overall. Meanwhile, you have Brett Brown saying stuff like this, which is troubling. And then there’s his new shot, which you should treat like an eclipse and not stare at directly.
Biggest problem with Fultz free throw is that he starts it at shoulder height. Needs to start at waist level for rhythm and POWER pic.twitter.com/CExnUgao4r— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) October 9, 2017
I will watch Markelle Fultz and hope he figures it out. I will watch him until he does—or I will watch while wiping away tears.
Verrier: MILOOOOOOS. I don’t know if Teodosic can have any impact on the Clippers’ bottom line, but he brings them far closer to the wild fantasies of Lob City that were first conjured up before Paul’s surly watch began. The Burger King may give up as many points on the other end, but he’s just as likely to nutmeg someone for a game-winning bucket.
Which coach has the hottest seat?
Chau: Alvin Gentry. In the immediate aftermath of the 2015 NBA Finals, a champagne-drenched Gentry, who had agreed to become the new head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans during the Warriors postseason run, caught the lens of a camera and started shouting in euphoria. Anthony! Anthony! Right back here, this is where we’re going! It’s the most memorable moment of Gentry’s tenure with the Pelicans, and he wasn’t even on the team then. Gentry’s inability to take his team even to the playoffs over the past two seasons is but a symptom of the team’s systemic dysfunction, but still, someone will have to take the fall eventually. If a full year of Brow and Boogie can’t fix things, it’s hard to imagine Gentry and his soothsaying We’re fine, OK? proclamations in the huddle lasting much longer.
Uggetti: Alvin Gentry. He’s being burdened with having to figure out a way to make two of the best big men in the league—Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins—work together during a time when every other team is trending small. The disappointing half-season after the All-Star-break trade that brought Boogie to NOLA wasn’t promising in the least. Gentry has had an entire offseason to figure out how the Pelicans secure a playoff berth in the deadly West. It’s a steep hill to climb, but Gentry’s job security may depend on it.
Gonzalez: I’m changing this to “Which coach should have the hottest seat?” The Raptors won 51 games a year ago. The year before that they won 56. They year before that they won 49, and the year before that they won 48. The Raptors are fine. Dwane Casey is fine. Fine will not get you very far, though—not even in the weakened Eastern Conference. At some point, you would expect the Raptors to make a change—except the Raptors keep bringing Casey back. Dwane Casey is the Marvin Lewis of the NBA.
Also, if anyone says “Brett Brown,” we’re gonna have words.
O’Connor: The Clippers traded a first-round pick for Doc Rivers with the hope that Doc would bring Los Angeles a championship. It hasn’t happened. Now the Lakers are on the rise and the Clippers are in flux, with a new-look roster that has unquestionably suffered major injuries over the past three or four years. No team has a higher variance of outcomes than the Clippers. If they’re healthy, they’ll be good. If they suffer injuries, they’ll stink. But it’s up to Doc to make them great—to successfully install a more ball-movement-oriented system, structure his rotations, and configure the most advantageous lineups. The pressure is on Doc to finally maximize his roster’s talent. Otherwise, it’s time for Steve Ballmer to make a change.
Litman: Doc Rivers.
Who has the biggest chip on his shoulder?
Ryan: ALL THE CAVS. LeBron has a chip on his shoulder because Kyrie decided he’d rather play against him than with him, and because we’ve all crowned the Warriors as a dynasty; Derrick Rose has a chip on his shoulder because he has gone from MVP to punch line; Dwyane Wade has a chip on his shoulder because people think he’s washed and his game is an anachronism; J.R. Smith has a chip on his shoulder because he got benched for Wade; Kevin Love has a chip on his shoulder because nobody thinks he can be a no. 2 option after years of being a role player; Isaiah Thomas has a chip on his shoulder because Danny Ainge traded him after one of the great Boston sports seasons of all time and because half of the internet has decided they are deeply informed experts about labral tears of the hip. Is there anyone on this team who isn’t holding a grudge against half the league?
Litman: Am I allowed to say Kyrie Irving? He is in the position that Westbrook was last year (though with more help). It’s his time to prove he can be the guy. Also, I’m obsessed with Kyrie Irving.
Uggetti: I wrote earlier this year that the chip on D’Angelo Russell’s shoulder will be so big it may hinder his shooting. I’m sticking with it. D-Lo is going to make the Nets fun, or at the very least interesting. Let us not forget that there was a time when Russell was a no. 2 pick. The road from Ohio State to Brooklyn has had its bumps and snaps, but Russell is still 21 and is now on a team that will let him make mistakes without needlessly criticizing his leadership ability. Let the D’Lo-ssance begin.
O’Shaughnessy: LeBron James has never been left before like this, and I imagine he feels resentful feelings about that, but this has to go to James Harden. The Beard lost the MVP award—the ultimate prize for a former sixth man—to a player he had just beaten in the playoffs. In that same postseason, he was eliminated playing such terrible basketball that people wondered if he was concussed. You don’t forget the world watching you do this:
James Harden tonight looked like the players in Space Jam looked when the Monstars took their talent pic.twitter.com/3vR3ure3gT— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) May 12, 2017
Verrier: Russell Westbrook. Always. He’s the reigning MVP and set to make more money than any player in history, yet he still manages to treat (alleged) pettiness like an art form. Russell Westbrook, Troll God, is the hero the NBA deserves.
O’Connor: Isaiah Thomas, forever.
Chau: Dante Exum. :(