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Present Is Prologue: What to Watch for in the Upcoming NBA Season

Pre-agency, promising rookies, and the ever-expanding 3-point boom. Here is what Kevin O’Connor will be tracking this year.

Deandre Ayton, Anthony Davis, and Jimmy Butler Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The league is at a turning point. With LeBron James now on the Lakers, the path to the Finals in the Eastern Conference is wide open for the foreseeable future. And though the Warriors still reign in the West, the noise of a Kevin Durant departure next summer is deafening. The West may soon be free for new contenders to emerge. With a salary-cap bump coming and a long list of stars set to hit the open market alongside Durant, the transactions still to come this season could set the table for what’s possible next summer. Meanwhile, the young talent that will define the next decade of basketball is littered across the league, on both contenders like the Sixers and lottery-bound teams like the Suns.

The 82-game NBA regular season may drag along at times, but it’s what you make of it. I’m watching the 2018-19 NBA season with an eye on how the present will set the slate for the future. Here are the teams, players, trends, and story lines that have me excited for this season and beyond:

How Many Stars Will Get Traded?

Player empowerment and shorter contracts have led to more star movement than ever before; 12 of the 25 NBA All-Stars in 2017 have already changed teams. This next year should be no different. The salary cap is projected to increase next summer by $7 million, to $109 million, so teams will collectively have about a half billion dollars in salary-cap space to spend. The money will dry up quickly. About 15 All-Star-caliber unrestricted free agents can hit the market, from Kevin Durant to Jimmy Butler, and from Khris Middleton to Al Horford. With stars set to test the market and teams eager to spend, more movement is inevitable.

It could get a head start this season. Butler has already demanded a trade, and though his wishes haven’t been fulfilled, that time could come. Butler is expected to play in the Wolves’ season opener on Wednesday, but team owner Glen Taylor “came to an agreement” with Butler that the front office will continue to seek a trade, The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski reported Sunday. Butler also agreed to be a “good teammate” and “play as hard as he always does.” We’ll see how long that lasts until Butler’s next outburst.

Grizzlies center Marc Gasol has a player option worth $25.6 million for the 2019-20 season, and has previously expressed his desire to win again. If the return of Mike Conley Jr. and the apparent rejuvenation of Chandler Parsons doesn’t put Memphis in the playoff race, then Gasol and the team should consider seeking a trade. One factor to consider: Memphis owes a first-round pick to the Celtics. It’s top-eight protected in 2019, top-six protected in 2020, and then becomes unprotected in 2021. Memphis should be competitive enough this season for the pick to convey in 2019. But if the Grizzlies play their cards right and make a deal closer to the deadline, they could also accelerate their rebuild by trading Gasol.

The Nuggets have to make a tough choice next summer on a $30 million team option for Paul Millsap. Their roster is young, but it’s about to get mighty expensive now that Nikola Jokic’s new deal has kicked in. They’ll need to decide if they want to drop that much money for Millsap, who turns 34 this season, when it could be more advantageous to cut bait now and add assets that can bolster their core. Another option could be including Millsap in a star-for-star trade; he’s still a good player and could be packaged with younger assets for a team looking to shake up its roster and make a push.

Look no further than the Wizards and Blazers for competitive teams in need of change. Their respective cores have held promise for the past five seasons, but have since stagnated (or, worse, declined) as the rest of the league has retooled and ascended. The Wizards have less incentive to make major changes since their path to the playoffs is so much clearer in the Eastern Conference. But if there’s any urge to retool, Bradley Beal would realistically be their most desirable player for much of the league. Beal is only 25 and has improved in each of the past three seasons. In 2016-17, he diversified his interior scoring. In 2017-18, he became a better playmaker. I’d love to see what he could do on a team with a point guard comfortable playing off the ball.

There have always been whispers in league circles that Portland should break up the Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum duo, but there has been no indication it will. Portland is a playoff bubble team, though, and has few other avenues to make noteworthy changes. To make a leap, a breakup could be necessary, and could yield a significant return considering Lillard and McCollum aren’t free agents until 2021. Lillard remains the face of the Blazers, so McCollum should be the player more likely to be moved. But the Blazers would also need to consider which player is more likely to stick around once they both hit free agency in 2021. Portland has more intel about that than anyone else. But we do know that Lillard, on multiple occasions, has made comments that suggest he has a wandering eye.

Chicago Bulls v Charlotte Hornets
Kemba Walker
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I’m also intrigued by the fate of Kemba Walker, who is in the final year of his contract. Walker is building a home in Charlotte and said he wants to “create something special” with the Hornets. But if Charlotte doesn’t want to risk losing him for nothing next summer, perhaps a trade is in its best interest.

There are whispers around the league that neither Jimmy Butler nor Kawhi Leonard wants to play with LeBron, and sources I’ve talked to would be shocked if Klay Thompson left Golden State. That might leave the Lakers with Walker or Middleton as their top remaining free-agent targets. If I’m the Hornets, that possibility would have me worried.

The Cavaliers had interest in trading for Walker prior to LeBron’s departure this summer, but the price was reportedly too steep: Charlotte wanted the no. 8 pick. The Cavs ended up selecting Alabama point guard Collin Sexton and signing Kevin Love to a four-year, $120 million extension. I wonder if they would consider dealing Love like the Clippers did Blake Griffin last season. It’d be dirty, but it’s not against the rules; Love is eligible to be traded on January 24. The Cavs are only a fringe playoff team despite being in the East, and Love’s value could rise if he performs similarly or better than he did the last time he was a feature scorer, in Minnesota.

Any stars traded this season likely wouldn’t impact Golden State’s odds of winning its third straight championship. But those trades could lay the groundwork for the next set of contenders in the coming years, and for the moves to come. In a time when stars have gained agency over their situations even within the terms of their contracts, Anthony Davis is the big fish whose future looms over the entire league. His recent decision to sign with Klutch Sports, the same agency that represents LeBron James, seems like a flare to the rest of the NBA. He may not be a free agent until the summer of 2021, but he has already started leveraging his power. How the Pelicans perform this season will undoubtedly have implications on the summer ahead. One thing is already for certain: Big-market teams with high-value assets like the Celtics and Lakers are already circling the Pelicans and waiting for blood.

Pre-Agency Is an Empire State of Mind

The Knicks used the stretch provision this weekend to waive center Joakim Noah, which means his salary will be on the books for $6.4 million through the 2021-22 season (though they’re still paying his full $18.5 million salary this year). It’s a disappointing decision for New York, but it was necessary. Even if the Knicks had kept Noah, league sources believe they’d have been forced to waive him next summer anyway in an attempt to create enough cap space to pursue Durant.

No team wants Noah; he’s dead weight who can’t contribute on the court and offers little as a veteran leader. Considering the Nuggets just gave up a top-12-protected 2019 first-round pick to unload Kenneth Faried, who can still play competitive basketball, the price likely would have been even steeper for the Knicks. Cutting bait now allowed the Knicks to retain young fliers Noah Vonleh and Allonzo Trier, and retain all their future assets.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers
Kevin Durant
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The difference in New York’s cap flexibility between waiving Noah now rather than later is minuscule. Depending on how high their 2019 first-round pick lands, the Knicks can create more than $32.4 million in cap space to sign a player like Butler or Walker if they waive Lance Thomas. They’ll need to manufacture more than $37.8 million in space to fit Durant’s 10-year veteran maximum on their cap sheet. They can get there by trading Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr.—neither of whom would require the level of sweeteners in a dump that Noah would’ve, since both provide on-court value. If they can’t sign anyone next summer, then waiving Noah with two years remaining on his contract could look silly. But their intent is clear, so don’t be surprised if Lee and Hardaway Jr. end up in the rumor mill this season.

Lee, a dynamic shooter and plus defender when he tries, has already generated interest; the Knicks and Hornets discussed a trade involving Lee prior to the trade deadline, per sources. If Lee gets moved for expiring deals, then the Knicks would create enough cap space for Durant, while maintaining the necessary draft picks and salaries (Hardaway Jr. and Thomas) to work a sign-and-trade for a second star free agent.

There are no guarantees that the Knicks will be in a position to make those types of additions. But their decisions this season will start to make sense if viewed through a lens in which they’re aiming for the stars. After all, that’s exactly what the Knicks are doing.

Deandre Ayton Is Already a Terror

Reading into preseason basketball comes with its risks. Any assessments are made off a small amount of data and film. Teams are still testing things. Players are working their way back into basketball shape. G Leaguers receive extended minutes. But the preseason also shouldn’t be ignored. A productive exhibition season can be predictive of a successful young career—whether it was Nikola Jokic in 2015, Joel Embiid in 2016, or Kyle Kuzma and Donovan Mitchell last year. I can’t help but feel similarly excited about a few of this year’s rookies, especially Deandre Ayton.

The Suns’ front-office woes have oddly overshadowed Ayton, who was one of the NBA’s best bigs this preseason, and not just among rookies. Ayton showed off all the goods that made him the no. 1 pick: He flushed lob dunks, caught (and made) tough passes, splashed midrange jumpers, and generally looked the part of a dominant offensive big man. I was honestly blown away. It’s clear he worked hard to get in shape and sharpen his skills.

Ayton is also trying hard on both ends of the floor, which was the primary pre-draft knock on his game. The 7-footer’s flashes of elite defensive potential have appeared more regularly. He’s hustling up the floor in transition, flying out of nowhere to block shots, boxing out, and communicating. Watch how nimble Ayton is sliding his feet on a switch against Stephen Curry:

Ayton was often compared to Karl-Anthony Towns because of his waning defensive intensity, but he’s performed a lot more like Embiid this preseason. The key now is sustaining this effort. Once Devin Booker returns from his injury, the Suns could have a special tandem on their hands.

Believe the Doncic Hype

Luka Doncic made a stellar first impression as a Maverick, but that came against Justin Hamilton and the Beijing Ducks. Skeptics called the hype following his performance an overreaction—even though Doncic had far better games against far better overseas competition—and the rookie forward has responded with even more impressive flashes against NBA competition.

Doncic isn’t the quickest player off the dribble, and he’s still carrying too much baby fat, but he’s a nifty ball handler who uses different paces and advanced moves to create space. In the clips above, Doncic uses his step-back to make room for his 3-point jumpers. In the clip below, he goes behind his back to get to the rim.

Doncic, a right-handed player, relies primarily on his dominant hand to finish inside. It was encouraging to see him use his left in this spot, since Joel Embiid would’ve karate-chopped the ball had Doncic gone with his right. Doncic has an advanced feel for reading defenses, and his finishing will only improve as he gains experience and gets into prime shape. In the meantime, Doncic has already shown off his transcendent passing.

Rookies aren’t supposed to make plays like this. But most rookies haven’t won EuroLeague MVP as a 19-year-old while leading their team to a championship. Doncic is the type of player who could someday make Dallas a destination for free agents looking to join forces with a star who enhances his teammates. This is only the beginning.

The Rise of the Year 2 Rookie, Pt. 2

The Kings will be bad again this season and they won’t have their draft pick come June (it’s going to either the Sixers or Celtics—go figure). Versatile guard Bogdan Bogdanovic is sidelined to start the season. Is there any reason for optimism? De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield should continue to develop. Marvin Bagley III has shown flashes in the open floor. And then there’s Harry Giles:

This is a brand-new Giles; in high school he lacked seasoning as a passer and screener. But now all of sudden he’s channeling the Gasol brothers.

Giles comes with his share of injury concerns—he’s suffered several major knee injuries in his life—but the Kings finally have some pieces to give their franchise hope. Giles looks the part as a multidimensional big man who can switch screens, rebound, space the floor, and make plays for his teammates. Now will the rest of their roster follow his lead?

The Sixers’ Hidden Solution

After striking out on max free agents this offseason, the Sixers maintain the ability to add one next summer. With Ben Simmons and Dario Saric both due for rookie extensions in 2020, this is the final year that Philadelphia, with its current core, can easily create enough cap space to sign a max player. The Sixers would need to renounce their unrestricted free agents, including JJ Redick, to create the required cap space, which wouldn’t be a hard decision if they’re landing a top-tier talent.

But losing Redick would hurt a roster that’s thirsty for floor spacers to surround its young centerpieces—none of whom are credible outside threats entering the season. Ben Simmons shoots with the wrong hand. Markelle Fultz forgot how to shoot. Joel Embiid is the best of the bunch, but he’s shot only 32.7 percent from 3 over his career. At this point, teams aren’t threatened by any of the Sixers’ stars from the perimeter. Redick is an important piece of their puzzle; championship teams need sharpshooters.

But the Sixers do have a rookie who could fill Redick’s shoes in Landry Shamet, who was drafted 26th after playing two full seasons at Wichita State. Shamet is an excellent spot-up shooter who can create space using screens and hit tough off-balance shots, which he showed this preseason.

Shamet’s shooting ability alone makes him an intriguing NBA player in today’s space-obsessed league. But he also displays far more significant potential as a playmaker than Redick. Shamet ran Wichita State’s offense and displayed feel for making good decisions as a passer. He isn’t a primary shot creator by any means, but he doesn’t have to be on the Sixers; he merely needs to make defenses pay when the ball swings in his direction. Philadelphia’s playoff opponents attempted to run Redick off the line, forcing him to make plays off the bounce. That’s not Redick’s strength, but it could be Shamet’s. Part of me even wonders if Shamet, who can seamlessly operate within an offense on and off the ball, might help fill the void that Fultz left last season better than Fultz can this season.

It’s unfair to expect any rookie to make a discernible impact, especially a late first-round pick. But Shamet’s development is important to monitor. Not only could he make Redick more expendable in Philadelphia’s pursuit of a max free agent, but he’d diminish the need to spend elsewhere on a complementary floor spacer. Shamet wouldn’t need to be extended until 2023; by then, the Sixers might already have secured a championship.

The 3-Point (Big) Boom

NBA teams attempted 35.6 percent of their shots from 3 this preseason, an uptick from last year’s preseason (35.1 percent), regular season (33.7 percent), and playoffs (35.5 percent). The league breaks shooting records every season, so it wasn’t a surprise to see rates go up again this month. It’s just shocking to see some of the bigs who were taking the shots.

The four players in the clip above—JaVale McGee, Jusuf Nurkic, Ian Mahinmi, and Alex Len—attempted a combined 18 3-pointers last season, yet jacked up 25 this preseason alone. Even higher-profile players like Hassan Whiteside and Cody Zeller are getting into the fun, attempting a combined six triples after only five last season. Let’s not forget Andre Drummond.

Drummond attempted 11 triples and missed all of them. I wonder how long that’ll last for the Pistons, who revamped their offense under Dwane Casey to shoot 3s at a high rate. The Celtics pulled out Aron Baynes shooting 3s as a surprise attack in the playoffs last season, but it’s becoming normal for shooting to be a prerequisite skill for players of all shapes and sizes.

It’s no longer a shock when young bigs can shoot, either. Magic rookie center Mo Bamba and Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. let it fly; and both can serve as foundational defenders. Bulls big man Wendell Carter Jr. and forward Lauri Markkanen could be a good enough duo to make the Bulls an appealing big-market destination the next time the team is ready to make a free-agent splash, in 2020 or 2021.

I wonder how defense will change in this new league. In the early 2010s, Tom Thibodeau pushed the limits of the defensive-three-second rule by using zone concepts within a man structure. Thibodeau intended to clog the lane, send help to the ball handler, and force offenses into passing to less threatening options. Offenses learned to space the floor with shooters, and now switching defenses have become the norm. But if every offense starts playing four-out or five-out offenses, what will be the defense’s response?

Basketball is forever evolving, and the next era is on the horizon. The 2018-19 season is about far more than this season. It’s about finding answers that will define the league’s future.