And we’re back. For the third straight season, the answer to the question of who will win the NBA title seems obvious. But while Golden State may reign supreme for now, there are plenty of other (less boring, less obvious) questions that will dictate everything between now and the Finals in June. Here are the 10 most important questions entering the 2018-19 season:
1. Will Brandon Ingram make the leap?
Playing with LeBron James will put Ingram under a microscope like the 21-year-old has never been before. Ingram developed a reputation for inconsistency while playing on the 10th-worst team in the league last season. But whatever criticism he received last season will be magnified 100 times over by the LeBron effect. Just look at what happened with Ingram’s former teammate, Jordan Clarkson, for example. On the Lakers, Clarkson was a fairly dependable source of scoring off the bench. Under the spotlight of a championship contender, he was a disaster.
But LeBron can also be the skydiving instructor who gives the person frozen at the open plane door the push they need. The Lakers will never be Ingram’s team to run when he shares the court with James, but Ingram has also never before played next to an elite passer or someone with LeBron’s level of basketball IQ. And for the crowd that insists LeBron stunts his teammates’ growth, James is expected to have the ball in his hands far less than in recent years. In a press conference in September, team president Magic Johnson said that the plan was for the superstar to finish plays rather than initiate them so frequently. “We don’t want his usage to be high,” Johnson said, “like he has to have [the ball] all the time.” Ingram was among the players Johnson mentioned as an option to create offense instead.
We’ve already seen Ingram run the point this preseason, just like he did in the latter half of last season when Lonzo Ball was injured. Nothing feels concrete in the Lakers rotation yet, and it could stay that way two months in. Ingram’s diverse skill set and size allows him to play wherever is needed most, not necessarily where he may fit best. (That’s another LeBron effect; compare how Kevin Love played in Cleveland the past four seasons and in Minnesota.) With Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball expected to split minutes at point guard and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart at the 2, there’s more depth in the backcourt than there is in the frontcourt. It’s hard to see JaVale McGee suddenly turning into a 25-plus-minutes-per-game player, and Kyle Kuzma and Michael Beasley may have to hold down the 4 for a full season. Ingram is still listed at only 190 pounds, but he could wind up guarding frontcourt players and playing less point forward in the Lakers’ small-ball approach. Either way, expect Ingram to be used in multiple roles until solid, working lineups form. The experience—whether it’s LeBron passing to Ingram, or LeBron on the receiving end of Ingram passes—will only help Ingram’s growth.
2. Are the Rockets better, worse, or the same?
Let’s assume general manager Daryl Morey trades for Jimmy Butler the second this is published. Because if Butler is on the wing, Houston has the second-strongest 1-through-3 in the league. There’s probably no touching the Warriors’ best three regardless of who they’re facing, but Butler has a fury they arguably no longer have, the kind fueled by the frustration of not winning. (Also the kind that leads an out-of-shape man to sub himself onto a practice squad only to shit on his two star teammates.) Imagine what he can do next to Chris Paul, the most competitive man in the league (this is not up for discussion) and James Harden, who has had to prove himself his entire career—traded from OKC as a sixth man, finished second in MVP voting in 2016-17, and now has a reputation for terrible postseasons. (Harden can throw one hell of a full-court assist with that chip on his shoulder.)
Acquiring Butler would also address the Rockets’ new defensive shortcomings. It’s been regurgitated all summer that losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute will set them back, but the actual gravity of it might not hit until they’re a couple weeks into the season. The 3s, dribble-drives, and foul calls might’ve been Houston’s identity last season, but a top-10 defense was an integral part of its 65-win campaign.
The additions the Rockets made this summer—Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Knight, and Marquese Chriss—could help, in theory. Carter-Williams, Chriss, and Knight are inconsistent in varying ways (Carter-Williams and Chriss in shooting and effort; Carter-Williams and Knight in staying healthy enough to be on the court). My criticism of Anthony last season is well-documented, but Mike D’Antoni will be able to lean on him. Two postseasons ago, San Antonio figured out how to shut down the Rockets system, forcing D’Antoni to break middle ground between the 3-point line and the paint. A midrange threat became necessary; enter Chris Paul. Last postseason, when Paul was injured, that gap opened again. In that situation, Houston could’ve used Melo. The high-volume scoring that Anthony made a career on has aged poorly, but that doesn’t mean Anthony suddenly became any less of a threat offensively. He’s an inefficient scorer, sure, but he may be able to find a second wind in his post–New York era by working more in isolation with the floor spread by the Rockets’ many shooters.
Anthony accepting his fate as a sixth man is a potential locker room issue to worry about later on. If his fate isn’t coming off the bench, the Rockets create a two-fold problem: The 34-year-old’s idle defense makes the unit a degree worse, and pairing him alongside drive-heavy Harden and Paul will clog the lane. Melo’s career has been a series of what-ifs: what if he was in Denver longer, what if he signed with Chicago in 2014, what if he won in New York, what if he was willing to come off the bench in Oklahoma City. His season with Houston could end up being another disappointment—but what if it actually works for the best?
3. How will the middle of the West shuffle?
If Houston isn’t capable of running it back to the conference finals, then the West becomes a table of middle-tier teams with Golden State at the head. I’m still not ready to say that the Warriors’ biggest obstacle to a three-peat will come from the East, but with so many offseason changes, there’s no clear-cut top challenger this season.
Expectations for the Timberwolves have fallen as much as expectations for the Nuggets have risen, even though the personnel for both teams hasn’t changed much (assuming Tom Thibodeau really doesn’t trade Butler). Yet it was Minnesota, not Denver, that prevailed in the last game of last season to claim the eighth seed. The Jazz and Pelicans might climb toward the top if either can keep their momentum from the end of last season. Meanwhile, the Blazers and Thunder have to break out of their first-round-out cycle from the past two seasons in order to matter come playoff time. And the Spurs and the Lakers? I subscribe to two NBA truths: 1. Don’t doubt LeBron James; and 2. Don’t doubt Gregg Popovich. That alone makes it safe to predict both teams will be competent; competitive, however, is a word reserved for two-superstar teams. (LeBron James counts as two, by the way.)
4. Which team will feel the loss of [enter franchise player here] the most?
Cleveland is the correct answer, but it’s also the boring answer. Throwing the Cavs out of the mix leaves San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard), Los Angeles (DeAndre Jordan and kind of Blake Griffin, who was traded in late January), Toronto (DeMar DeRozan), and maybe Minnesota. (Butler probably did stage this entire practice-interview saga. Not to force Thibodeau’s hand, but because he loves hypotheticals and fucking hates columns.)
- The Clippers’ record might dip the most significantly from last season, when they finished 42-40, but the franchise was already headed in that direction. They’re in better shape now that they’re no longer financially obligated to fund Lob City. For so long, L.A. was committed to a big three that couldn’t make it past the Western Conference semis. There’s no superstar there now, but there is the freedom to eventually commit to a new direction. (To stay extremely on-brand, here’s a rom-com comparison: It’s like when Frank asks Kathleen in You’ve Got Mail if there’s someone else after she dumps him. “No,” she said, “but there is the dream of someone else.”) Happy for you, Clips.
- Things already seemed bad for San Antonio when Leonard indicated that he wanted out of town no matter what, and it didn’t get much better when the return for the versatile Leonard was DeRozan, whose scoring style is more of a throwback. Leonard’s game can fit anywhere, while DeRozan’s forte, the midrange attack, might force the Spurs offense to adapt to his particular skills. Plus, the Raptors roster is stronger and deeper.
- The saga unfolding in Minnesota could eventually put the team in a situation similar to L.A.’s now. If Butler does go, the Wolves will avoid re-signing an oft-injured 29-year-old who is outspoken in the locker room. Butler is the instigator in your group chat; he’s the one who brings up politics at Thanksgiving. Offering him a five-year maximum contract locks in Minnesota and stunts Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Before this season, I thought Butler was the fire Towns and Wiggins needed to drive them to bring it every night. Now, it’s clear that the Thibodeau/Butler approach of screaming obscenities where inspirational quotes should be is outdated. If Towns and Wiggins are “soft,” as they’ve been labeled, maybe that only means they respond better to a different style of coaching. Yes, Minnesota would be worse this season without Butler. But it’d be opening doors in the future to add players who fit better behind them. Most importantly, the locker room wouldn’t be Fight Club anymore. (Though it never really was, because everyone broke the first rule of Fight Club—you don’t talk about Fight Club—because everyone talked shit about everything and everyone to everyone, such as the lovely Rachel Nichols. Keep it in house, like Lob City did.)
What I’m saying is, the team that’ll miss its superstar most is Portland and that superstar is Ed Davis.
5. Who finds a jumper first—Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons?
Having guard handles in a Slenderman body doesn’t exempt either of these two from needing to develop a shot like the rest of the players in the league. If anything, it should incentivize them more. Antetokounmpo and Simmons are superstars (re: Ben: Yes, I said it) who should be focused on completing their games. Only the best can stop them. With a jumper, no one can. (Simmons is 22—didn’t he grow up watching the difference in LeBron’s game before and after he honed his shot?)
Giannis averaged 1.9 attempts from the perimeter per game last season, making 30.7 percent, while Simmons attempted 11 and hit zero. On media day in Philadelphia, Simmons said that he was working on his shot this summer, and changed some “little things.” (So maybe not switching his shooting hand.) He went on to say that he’s “not going to come in and hit 3s this season.” Is he … going to at least take them?
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo told everyone to “be excited” about his improved shot last month. “Everybody’s gonna shoot it,” he said. All signs point to Antetokounmpo leading the way; hopefully Simmons follows.
6. Can Anthony Davis shoulder enough of the load to be MVP?
In the first couple of games after DeMarcus Cousins went down last January, Davis’s stats were heartwarming. It seemed like Davis was upping his game for Cousins, for his fellow twin tower who was out with an Achilles injury. (He even wore Boogie’s jersey to start the All-Star Game.) It was going to be short-lived, though, because no one can put up Wilt Chamberlain numbers in 2018 while taking double responsibility on defense. Except Davis ended up averaging 30.2 points and 11.9 rebounds through the Pelicans’ final 33 games.
Davis’s late-season explosion happened without Cousins. And now he’ll play a full season without Cousins, who signed with Golden State this offseason. But it feels like the chances of Davis carrying over the numbers from the back end of last season for all of 2018-19 are lower without his buddy in the paint. The entire point of getting Cousins in the first place was to take some of the load off of Davis, who struggled to check all of the necessary boxes for MVP consideration—win, advance in the playoffs, stay healthy—by himself. The Pelicans might’ve found their happy place during that 33-game stretch and in the first round of the playoffs, but the talent drops off after Davis—Jrue Holiday (coming off a breakthrough season of his own, but not of Cousins’s caliber on offense), Julius Randle, and Nikola Mirotic will be the next three options on offense. Davis’s MVP chances are in his hands, for better or worse.
7. What will the tank wars look like?
Competitive balance makes good TV. Good TV makes fat TV deals. Fat TV deals make team owners happy. Team owners have to be happy—they’re the ones with the money. So when front offices began shamelessly tanking for draft picks, following the philosophy of former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, the league eventually became what it is today: one unbeatable team, a plethora of pretty good teams, the Charlotte Hornets, and then the tankers—rosters and rosters of 19-year-olds with 26 total career wins to their names.
So the board of governors voted for draft reform. The new rules make it harder for the teams that finish with the worst records to wind up with top picks. The most important difference is that the bottom three teams have the same chance (14 percent) of landing the first overall pick for that year’s draft. It’s a significant drop from before, when the team with the worst record had a 25 percent chance, second-worst had a 19.9 percent chance, and third-worst had a 15.6 percent chance.
Less guarantee might mean less incentive to tank the hardest, but many of the teams who would’ve tanked this season before the rule change probably still will, simply because they’re still in no position to win yet. (Phoenix owner Robert Sarver may want to start winning again, but the roster is nowhere near ready to accomplish that goal. Another lottery pick, though? Even a 14 percent chance at the first overall pick is more likely than a .500 record.) More interesting than bad teams changing their ways is how protected picks will be affected. For example, Cleveland owes Atlanta its first-round pick next year if it lands outside the top 10. In theory, if the Cavs look like we think they will (like last year’s Cavs … without LeBron James), it might make more sense for Cleveland to give up on playoff hopes early if a postseason run isn’t looking likely (and my guess is it won’t be) and try its luck at keeping that pick for another year. Bad teams will still be very bad, but the gap between them and pretty average teams like the Cavs may not be as wide as it’s been in past years. We could still end up seeing tanking, just from a different level of the standings.
8. Who will be this season’s Pacers?
There aren’t many teams entering the exact scenario Indiana was in at the beginning of last season. Dallas could be better than expected, but unlike Victor Oladipo before last season, we’ve already seen DeAndre Jordan at his peak. (No one’s having a breakout season stuck under the basket in 2018, anyway.)
Cleveland lost its best player, too, and Detroit’s outlook is certainly as sad as Indiana’s was immediately after trading away Paul George. Orlando and Chicago are young enough that a decent record would be a surprise, as Indiana’s was. But I’m going with Brooklyn, and I’m casting D’Angelo Russell as Victor Oladipo.
Russell was traded two seasons ago, but the former second overall pick hasn’t lived up to the hype he had going into the draft. His stint with Los Angeles ended in new Lakers management discarding and dissing him. Russell’s too many seasons in (this will be his fourth) for his shortcomings to be excused as him just being green, but he’s still a season away from permanent membership in the club of top draft picks who are decent but the public’s given up on them being truly special. (Club president: Michael Carter-Williams. Treasurer: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Waiting on his card in the mail: Nerlens Noel.)
The Pacers also had a group of adequate players who as a unit became passable behind Oladipo’s very, very strong lead. There’s a chance that the Nets could have something similar this season with Jarrett Allen, Allen Crabbe, Spencer Dinwiddie, and DeMarre Carroll. It also helps when the expectations are as low as Indiana’s were last October, and Brooklyn, which is projected to have the East’s 10th-worst win total, shares that quality without question.
9. What rotation will Boston settle on?
Boston’s original 2017-18 starting lineup—Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford—is easily forgotten, because Hayward was only a part of it for part of the opening game. Tatum is most likely to outshine Hayward, but it’s safe to assume they’ll both be starting. If Irving and Hayward do end up needing unexpected minute limits in their comebacks from injury, then Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, and Marcus Morris will be able to step in as they did last season. The Celtics had a surprising amount of success without their two stars, but not enough to disrupt the pecking order.
10. How will the new offensive rebounding rule affect the game?
Changing the lottery was the splashiest offseason reform, but it wasn’t the only legislation that will affect the game this season. After an offensive rebound, the shot clock will now be set to 14 seconds instead of 24, shaving off more than half the time offenses are accustomed to.
Giving less time for possessions in the half court is meant to speed up the game. Offensive rebounds are already rarer than in years past because teams prefer to get back on defense to stop transition opportunities, but under this new rule, there’s even less reward in prioritizing going for your own missed shot. Second-chance points simply aren’t as likely in 14 seconds as they are in 24. The trade-off might not be as worth it. Though as Uproxx’s Blake Murphy wrote in September, “better transition defense would mean more possessions are forced into half-court scenarios”—which could ultimately force games back to the original tempo the NBA was trying to speed up.