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The 34 People and Things That Will Define the 2018-19 NBA Season

Everything we think we know about this season before anything actually happens

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We heard you like rankings, so to kick off The Ringer’s 2018–19 NBA Preview, we’re devoting the week to evaluating (and slapping a number on) the players, the story lines, and the odds and ends that promise to make the upcoming season one to remember.

Nothing has happened yet in the 2018–19 NBA season — not even a single training-camp photo of a player wearing a Santa hat or holding a basketball in an unnatural position. But after three months of draft prospecting, unexpected trades, major free agents heading to new teams (mostly in the Pacific Division), and plenty of deep reading into grainy footage of player workouts, we think we have a good idea of where we’re headed. Here’s everything we’re expecting from another season in the NBA:

34. The Wild Thing That We Don’t Know Yet

Chris Ryan: This time last year, Bryan Colangelo was the decision-maker in Philadelphia, we were only just starting to wonder what was going on with the no. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz, DeMarcus Cousins was getting ready for his first full season playing alongside Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Carmelo Anthony was on the Knicks, and Jayson Tatum was behind Gordon Hayward on the Celtics depth chart. Welcome to J.J. Abrams’s NBA: this league is a mystery box, with as much speculation and discussion surrounding hypothetical transactions as wins and losses. Some plot twists can be predicted — the signs signaling LeBron’s move to Los Angeles were pretty obvious, in retrospect — but so many of the league’s most compelling story lines are born out of unforeseeable circumstances. An injury here, a front office or coaching overhaul there and the landscape can completely change. Want to know what we’ll be talking about this time next year? You probably wouldn’t even believe it if I told you.

33. Harry Giles

Justin Verrier: Calling a sub-.500 season for the Kings is one of the few cold-proof takes in the prediction game. Sacramento hasn’t made the playoff cut in 12 consecutive years; the last time they came close to cracking 40 wins, Kevin Martin and Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) were their top two scorers. But unlike in years past, when the damage was contained to the emotional well-being of Sacramento natives, another losing season has the chance to shape the league for years to come. That’s because the young, cheap, elite talent they’ve been gifted every June for the past decade-plus will this time land in the hands of one of the best teams in the NBA. The only thing the Kings can control is how high of a pick they give away.

NBA: Summer League-Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Giles. The no. 20 overall pick in 2017 redshirted his first NBA season, but outplayed the no. 2 overall pick in 2018, teammate Marvin Bagley III, against summer league competition. Sacramento’s roster is so flush with recent first-rounders that it’ll be forced to usher in a youth movement, which is an improvement from last season, when Zach Randolph logged 26 minutes a night. But youth means mistakes, which means losses. The Kings’ (and the rest of the league’s) best hope of keeping another transformative player from Boston (or, if it lands at no. 1, Philadelphia) is Giles breaking through and becoming the best big man of this rookie class.

32. The Future of the NCAA

Danny Chau: While neither player is likely to take the NBA by storm in his rookie season, Knicks center Mitchell Robinson and Blazers guard Anfernee Simons will be worth monitoring. The two consensus top-10 recruits took peculiar routes to the NBA draft — Robinson eschewed his commitment to Western Kentucky to dedicate the season to draft preparation; Simons, a 2018 recruit, eschewed college basketball altogether. Given the strange limbo the NCAA finds itself in with the abolition of the one-and-done rule on the horizon, how Robinson and Simons fare in their first taste of the pro game can help create more popular channels to draft eligibility and preparation in the lead-up to the NBA’s actual rule change, expected some time in the early 2020s. Reclassification has been on the rise since Andre Drummond’s early graduation in 2011, and the rush for the nation’s top recruits to find the quickest inroads to the NBA won’t be stopping any time soon; elite recruits Charles Bassey and Nico Mannion have reclassified to 2018 and 2019, respectively.

31. Puma

Verrier: Puma made a splashy return to basketball after two decades on the sidelines by buying up five of the most high-profile players in this year’s draft and outfitting them in Flaming Cheetos–colored sneakers. Companies try to make a run at cracking the established shoe power structure in basketball every couple of years — remember the John Wall Zigtech? — but outside of the moment Under Armour had at the peak of Steph Curry fever, the $20 billion market has been dominated by Nike. Most of Puma’s new roster is made up of frontcourt players, who historically don’t move shoes; hiring Jay-Z as creative director of its basketball division also feels like a decision made a decade too late. But Puma has already seen earnings growth through campaigns featuring the likes of Usain Bolt and Kylie Jenner, per Forbes. With Nike and Adidas wrapped up in the federal investigation into college basketball corruption, now could be the time for Puma to make its mark on the league.

30. Woj vs. Shams Behind a Paywall

Chau: Like his former nemesis LeBron James, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is the king (of NBA breaking news) until proved otherwise. But considering the sheer volume of reporters recently hired by The Athletic, I could easily envision the startup building a source database that mines its entire workforce and detects news, like Professor X’s cerebro mechanism, but for scoops. Woj versus Shams has often been billed as a battle between old versus new; perhaps Shams’s techno-superiority goes beyond his WPM.

29. Zion Williamson

NCAA Basketball: Preseason-Duke at Ryerson University Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Chau: During the past few years, no high school recruit has confounded and set the casual spectator’s imagination ablaze quite like Williamson, who has taken the mantle from Thon Maker as the most viral prep star. He is not projected as a consensus no. 1 pick in 2019; most analysts don’t even have him in the top three. But there is no player in the nation more fascinating than Zion, who, at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, is an athletic anomaly who puts the idea of positional normality through a wood chipper. The degree of functional explosiveness and fluidity he has with a frame that massive can feel superhuman. His on-ball skills are a bit nebulous: The highlights show a coast-to-coast destroyer, but we don’t have the best sense of his true ballhandling ability; he can hit a corner 3, but lag on his release isn’t ideal; can he hit a free throw? But by virtue of girth, explosiveness, and willpower, he can be an elite NBA rebounder today and an unorthodox, space-eating rim protector tomorrow. There is a lot that Zion will tell us about what the 2019 NBA draft holds, more so than any of the other outstanding (but more conventional) prospects at the top. You can’t put Zion in a box; he’s too wide.

28. The End of the Nikola Jokic Debate

Chau: On the other end of the athletic spectrum is Jokic, who is now a unanimous top-20 player in the league, according to the annual NBA player rankings done by various media outlets. It’s high, deserved praise for a unique star — he is the embodiment of Jason Kidd, stretched out to 6-foot-10, with the force of Jupiter’s gravity anchoring his feet to the ground. In a league built around the idea of widening margins for error, Jokic’s distinct lack of any real NBA-caliber athleticism presents an evaluative quandary. For some, there might always be a sense that the other shoe will drop with Jokic, that his success is a product of lowered expectations, and that his new max deal is just the beginning of a five-year self-exposé. That feels too cynical to me. He’s a genius-level passer with a healthy, emergent, and complementary Nuggets supporting cast. This could be the year he changes more than a few hearts and minds.

27. Post-LeBron J.R. Smith

Verrier: When we last left our hero, he was sending one of the greatest players in history, amid one of the greatest playoff runs in history, into a state of epileptic shock:

But for all of the accelerated aging Smith forced upon James during their three-plus seasons together, their working relationship helped the Cavs to four Finals in a row and the game’s most infamous marksman to squeeze out some good basketball — and land one last big payday — as he crept into his 30s. What will happen now, with Smith entering his age-33 season without James by his side? Judging by the glimpses we’ve gotten of his offseason improvements, it will be captivating no matter what. Productive? That’s another story. Smith followed up a dreadful 2016–17 season with an equally brutal 2018 postseason; if the downward trend continues, and one of the young wings in the Cavs’ stockpile takes a step forward, our access to Smith and the life he injects into the game may be limited. Cherish J.R. while you can.

26. Post-LeBron Kevin Love

Chau: Large-scale renovations to the Quicken Loans Arena are underway and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert needs the team to stay competitive to maximize the unveiling in 2020. Early odds don’t look good on that front, but on the bright side, he still has a star in place. Kevin Love will assume an identity once thought lost to time: Minnesota Love. That version of the five-time All-Star was an automatic 25-and-12. Things promise to be different this time around. He may have returned to being the alpha, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30 and the new primary target for switch-heavy defenses that have become standard issue in 2018. Love was a revelation earlier in the decade, but the past three years have dramatically shifted the way basketball works. Will this be the season Love lifts a team into the playoffs on his back, or is this more of an audition for future trade partners?

25. Trump and the Midterm Elections

Verrier: A Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr media scrum became its own pregame show last season. As the NFL wrung its hands over political statements, two of the most prominent coaches in basketball routinely took the current administration to task. It’s hard to imagine they and other prominent NBA personnel will be any less outspoken ahead of the November midterm elections. LeBron James has let his voice be heard time and time again in recent years; he formally endorsed Hillary Clinton two years ago and opened training camp last year by referring to the president as “U bum.” On James’s HBO show, The Shop, Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett said kids expect James to “say something” about social issues in the same way they once hoped Michael Jordan would. Given the current velocity of the news cycle, he and other NBA players and coaches should have plenty of opportunities to do so before and after November.

24. Lukamania

Chau: The heavy hitters of the 2018 draft class are all intriguing, but Luka Doncic might be the only one with legitimate leaguewide fascination. He could very well end up being known as the player who got away for a number of teams. He has no clear precedent, and his list of accolades is so long it all seems to become white noise. The chorus singing Doncic’s praises are only getting louder. Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, a famously sardonic presence, was effusive in the way he talked about Doncic’s fun factor. Dirk Nowitzki is in awe of Doncic’s myriad skills at only 19. The Mavericks may not have enough to legitimately threaten the West’s countless playoff contenders, but Doncic’s debut season may render all of that meaningless. This season is about him.

23. Not Not Tanking

Verrier: Sam Hinkie lives on in the hearts and snark of Philadelphians, but two years after his Sixers’ unabashed and unambiguous methods for exploiting the league’s flawed incentive structure led to his ouster, there are few obvious tankers in sight. With flattened lottery odds set to kick in this season, only the Hawks have made their lack of ambition loud and clear. (Unlike the Sixers’ large, abrasive fan base, the Hawks’ historically indifferent market hasn’t caused enough of a fuss to draw the attention of the league office.) Teams like the Clippers, Bulls, and Mavs will attempt to walk the line between rebuilding and competing, and the entire Western Conference thinks it can make the playoffs. But make no mistake: More than a few teams will be very bad. The Magic, for instance, may have to play five centers at once. And like we saw during last season’s home stretch, there will be plenty of lame ducks willing to lean into their fate early if it comes to that.

22. Brandon Ingram

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Chau: The 2018–19 Lakers roster could be interpreted as a severe overcorrection: After dragging a team full of specialists to the summit the past two years, LeBron James now fields a team full of players who, while erratic, have the natural ability to create for themselves and others. James made the most of his partnership with Kyrie Irving, whom he allowed to scratch his soloistic itch for entire stretches at a time. Irving was good enough to be granted that level of freedom. Of all the players on the Lakers, Ingram is the closest to fitting the mold that Kyrie established. He is a multifaceted scorer with legitimate on-ball ability in the pick-and-roll, and a tough matchup for the defense given his height and length at the wing. LeBron’s mere presence in L.A. sets a new ceiling for the Lakers, but Ingram has to be the no. 2 pick that was promised for them to reach those heights.

21. Kristaps Porzingis’s Trust in His Swole-Ass Trainer

Verrier: With their draft debt cleared, the Knicks have finally been able to reap the benefits of all of their pain and suffering over the years. Their three most recent lottery picks — Porzingis, Frank B. Smokes, and Kevin Knox — form a solid young foundation to build upon. Depending on how they handle the Joakim Noah situation and how hands-on owner James Dolan decides to be, they could have another top draft prospect and a top free-agent signee by this time next year. But for all the possibilities in front of the Knicks, they first must figure out what to do with the All-Star already in their possession. Porzingis’s games played have trended downward since his rookie season and could hit a career low this season depending on when he returns from February’s torn ACL in his left knee (the New York Post reported in July that there’s a “chance” he’s back by Christmas). More games missed means another lottery pick, but it also opens all sorts of questions about their best player, namely: Should the Knicks commit the max to a 7-footer with a history of leg injuries ahead of the rookie-contract extension deadline? Do we need to worry about Porzingis’s choice in trainers? And how will the Knicks lure a star in free agency without a healthy one already in house?

20. Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins Being Friends

Chau: The cynic in me says Draymond lost a bet here. The romantic in me believes Draymond enjoys cleaning pools for the therapeutic qualities — especially if it means eliminating the chance his dear friend aggravates a serious Achilles injury. If I’m being honest, if one of my friends asked me to clean their pool without offering an incentive, I’d say no more likely than I would care to admit. So much for Cousins creating chemistry issues, everyone. The Warriors are winning it all. Again. See you next offseason.

19. Rich Paul

Chris Ryan: This press conference could go down as one of the more important in recent NBA history:

It’s Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson introducing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as a Los Angeles Laker in July 2017. They thank two people: God and Rich Paul. The big question for the Lakers both this season and going forward: Is Paul done delivering for the Lakers? The agent’s Klutch Sports client list is decidedly top-heavy, and after LeBron James, John Wall, and Ben Simmons there isn’t a lot of mouthwatering talent. What’s important isn’t who is repped by Paul, it’s the players who aren’t repped by Paul … yet. The next big, league-changing transaction will probably involve Pelicans big man Anthony Davis, who recently parted ways with Thad Foucher, and is rumored to be joining Paul at Klutch. Another player who could fall into the fold is recent Raptors arrival Kawhi Leonard, who is currently the only NBA client of agent Mitch Frankel. With Leonard’s lucrative free agency approaching, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him looking for new representation. And if Davis and maybe Leonard become Klutch clients, the Photoshops imagining a new big three of Leonard, LeBron, and The Brow will be forthcoming.

18. Dwyane Wade’s (and Dirk Nowitzki’s?) Retirement Tour

Chau: Just over 12 years ago, in the 2006 NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade seemingly solidified his standing as a top-five shooting guard of all time — in only his third season. Dirk Nowitzki, meanwhile, reinforced his standing as a star-crossed franchise player; his cathartic vindication wouldn’t come for another five years. Soon, we’ll have to say goodbye to two more of the defining superstars of the post-Jordan generation. On Sunday, the 36-year-old Wade announced that he will retire at the end of 2018–19 after one last season with the Miami Heat. The 40-year-old Nowitzki, while not having set anything in stone, looks likely to follow suit with the arrival of an honest-to-goodness rebuilding core of Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. They’re relics of another time today, but it wasn’t so long ago that they seemed more like astronauts, reconfiguring the basic skill sets required of wings and big men. We have less than a year to pay our respects while they’re still in the league.

17. Utah’s Defense

Golden State Warriors v Utah Jazz - Game Three Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Verrier: Offense rules everything around the NBA. The proliferation and proficiency of shooting 3-pointers has sent scoring rates through the roof the past two seasons and forced defenses to scramble all over the half court to try to keep up. But most Jazz games this season will be a throwback. With a healthy Rudy Gobert clogging the paint last season, Utah lost just six of its final 35 games and put up a defensive rating lower than any team since the glory days of the Thibodeau Bulls. It wasn’t a fluke, either; the Jazz are the only team in basketball to finish with a top-three defense the past two seasons. If anything, there’s room to improve: They’ll get full seasons from Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neale, and an (ostensibly) healthy Dante Exum. A league-average offense will need Donovan Mitchell to avoid a sophomore slump; if he does, the Jazz could easily become the greatest challenge to Golden State’s five-peat bid in the West.

16. Big-Market Thirst

Ryan: It’s hard to imagine LeBron James being more famous, but we’re about to see it. For the first 15 seasons of his career, James has drawn the spotlight to secondary markets like Cleveland and Miami. Now we’re going to see the biggest star in the game under one of the biggest spotlights in pro sports. After years of hearing that you can be a star in any city — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City — the pendulum might be swinging back toward the big time. As long as LeBron is in his prime, the Lakers will be the no. 1 destination in the league, and if there’s no room on the Lakers, the Clippers are looking at nearly $70 million in cap room in 2019–20. There are already rumors that Kyrie Irving fancies a move to Madison Square Garden, and we’re not that far away from Brooklyn getting back in the free-agency hunt. If Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, or Anthony Davis want to play on the biggest stages, those stages will be warm for them.

15. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

Chau: As Boston learned under inconvenient circumstances last season, the kids are more than all right. After losing both of the team’s star acquisitions from last summer, the Celtics reconfigured themselves in the image of their two most recent lottery picks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, two multifaceted wings who set a new standard for positional fluidity on the team, switching from the backcourt to the frontcourt depending on matchups. That tandem, plus Al Horford, led a team that was good enough to compete against LeBron in a conference final. Brown and Tatum grew quickly, becoming the new blueprint rather than just a contingency plan. If they continue to improve at the rate they did last season, perhaps the need to re-sign Kyrie Irving next summer will become an afterthought rather than a priority.

14. DeMar DeRozan, Spurs Torchbearer

Ryan: Since the late ’90s, the Spurs have been a club defined by continuity, blissfully going through life with a succession of franchise players such as David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Kawhi Leonard. All three players were flanked by an international house of backcourt geniuses in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and as of the 2016–17 Western Conference finals, there was no end in sight. Fast-forward to right now, and only Pop remains. Parker left, Kawhi was traded, and Manu retired. Popovich will now remake the Spurs, and will attempt to answer the question that tormented Toronto fans for years: Is DeMar DeRozan a franchise player?

DeRozan is coming off a career year, and has worked hard to change his game with the times and improve his outside shooting and playmaking. He is working with the best coach he’s ever had and will have the motivation of having been dealt from the only team he ever knew. He will be joining the metronomic presence of LaMarcus Aldridge. Paired with Dejounte Murray in the Spurs backcourt, this season will be his chance to prove he belongs in the just-below Harden-Curry-LeBron-Durant tier, and, perhaps more importantly, prove he’s a worthy heir to the Spurs’ best-player throne.

13. The Minutes Split Between Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Verrier: Just over a year ago, Magic Johnson proclaimed Ball “the new face of the Lakers, the guy who I think will lead us back to where we want to get to.” Now Ball’s path to even getting on the court appears complicated at best. The star-studded future the Lakers are envisioning may be a better fit for the 20-year-old’s cerebral, ball-movement-friendly style than Johnson’s original vision; Ball shot worse than any player in the league who averaged 10 shots or more a game, but he and Ben Simmons turned in the most well-rounded rookie averages since Magic himself. Together, Lonzo and LeBron’s full-court passing may be able to stretch the defense in the same way Steph Curry’s shot does. But all the other stuff about Ball — the circus that follows him, the meniscus injury that has taken on a life of its own since he suffered it late last season — muddles his future more than it should for a player of his talent and age. The Lakers optimist would say that Rondo is merely insurance should Ball’s recovery from offseason surgery stall or should LaVar’s antics rub James the wrong way. But it’s hard to imagine that a stubborn 32-year-old coming off a breakthrough postseason is willing to take a back seat. Somehow, Ball’s second season figures to be more dramatic than his first.

12. Carmelo Anthony’s Second Attempt at Being a Role Player

Chau: We’re coming up on 10 years since the last time Melo played in a conference finals — a six-game series against the eventual champion Lakers. So much has changed since then, but has Anthony? Does he even need to anymore? There will be plenty of opportunities for Melo to get his on this Rockets team during the regular season, when Mike D’Antoni will look to conserve James Harden and Chris Paul as much as possible. But what happens in a second-round Game 7? Anthony’s graceless role transition in Oklahoma City wasn’t promising, but perhaps in an offense that is more fundamentally against midrange shots, there’s a chance Melo might be more amenable to taking even more catch-and-shoot jumpers. That’s all the Rockets really need from him.

11. Russell Westbrook

Verrier: For all the empirical evidence suggesting that teammates struggle to coexist with Westbrook, the opening hours of this year’s free agency provided a notable data point for the counterargument: Paul George, one of the best players on the market, announced his decision to stick with Oklahoma City at a house party thrown by Russ. George is no Kevin Durant, but he’s a multi-time All-Star whose game is a better fit alongside Westbrook’s ball-dominant ways. And after dumping Carmelo Anthony’s toxic contract and digging deep into their owner’s pockets to add and retain key reserves, the Thunder may not have their best roster ever, but they do have the one perhaps best suited for a Russ-centric worldview. Now comes the hard part: turning that synergy into results. The Thunder’s bid to challenge for Western Conference supremacy feels more realistic than last season, but any improvement begins and ends with how well Westbrook takes advantage of his retooled supporting cast. Knee surgery, about a month before the season tips off, isn’t an encouraging start.

10. The Lakers’ Big Three: Rob Pelinka, Magic Johnson, and Jeanie Buss

Chau: This feels like an appropriate time to acknowledge the fact the Lakers organization has returned to relevance by doubling down on its own sense of exceptionalism. Sure, LeBron’s non-basketball ambitions for both his post-playing career and his home life probably factored into his decision to join the Lakers more than the all-nighters pulled by the franchise’s brain trust, but in a landscape where team-building has become more and more data-driven, it’s refreshing to see a plan held together seemingly by panache alone. The stars aligned in the summer, but the Lakers’ grand transactional masterpiece for the upcoming season might not yet be completed. There are plenty of factors still to be played out that will determine how strong a push they make for another star before the trade deadline.

9. Brad Stevens

Verrier: A clear path has been created for Stevens to win his first Coach of the Year award. The Celtics, blessed with a softer in-conference schedule than the Warriors, could finish with the most regular-season wins in the league, and if they do, it’s because Stevens will have successfully managed the minute and opportunity distribution of his deep bench of talented young wings. He deserves some kind of award for this artful in-game adjustment alone:

Prepare for plenty of dad jokes, tweets involving the word “SLOB,” and other moments that reaffirm Stevens’s place as one of the best minds in the game.

8. Kevin Durant’s Wandering Eye

Verrier: Somehow, at a time when so much information is made public that the scheduling of a meeting makes news, we have no idea what the second-best player in the world wants out of his career. It’s to the point where uncertainty has become Durant’s dominant narrative thread. He has both rebuked those seeking to read too deeply into his actions, and gone out of his way to debate some dude on Instagram; he wants to engage in the conversation and dismiss it entirely. As a result, everything is on the table for Durant next season. He could win a second MVP, win a third title in a row … and then leave for a new team in the summer. It wouldn’t be a total shock if he left the game altogether in his prime, like Jordan. (He’s already dropped a hint that he could retire in the not-too-distant future.)

7. Markelle Fultz’s Right Shoulder

Verrier: [Deep breath.] OK, let’s try this again.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the shoulder issue that derailed the first NBA season of the no. 1 overall pick is the oddest thing to ever happen in league history. Fultz’s new trainer suggested that the Sixers guard had “one of the most documented case of kind of the yips of basketball in recent years,” yet even then, we still don’t really know what happened almost a year after the then-rookie was first shut down. But Fultz’s story isn’t over. While his shooting never recovered — he took, and missed, one 3-pointer in 17 appearances last season — Fultz looked like he belonged on an NBA court, athletically, the moment he returned from five months in limbo. If the player the Sixers paid a hefty price for is still in there, somewhere, Philly’s ceiling for next season, and maybe even the league landscape, looks a whole lot different.

6. Jimmy Butler’s Patience

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Chau: Butler will meet with the Timberwolves’ president-coach Tom Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden to discuss his future with the team on Monday, according to The Athletic, though it’s hard to imagine Jimmy walking out of those conversations with a sunnier perspective on where the team is headed. Thibodeau has spent the entire summer stockpiling player-coaches from his Chicago days who can translate his garbled, cement-mixer screams into something constructive. But Butler isn’t a has-been from eight years ago; he’s a player who, when healthy, is an MVP candidate whose time at his peak is running out. For all the naysaying, Karl-Anthony Towns is still a transcendent talent. He just needs to commit to growing in areas the team needs him to grow in. The 14-year playoff drought is now a thing of the past, but this will be the most consequential season in the post-Garnett era. From where things stand, it’s looking bleak.

5. Ben Simmons’s Left Hand (or Is It His Right?)

Verrier: It took 81 games and a first-round playoff series before Simmons hit the rookie wall, but when he did, he crashed head-first. For all the possibility that Simmons’s first NBA season elicited, the Celtics’ success in exposing his limitations was a cold, hard reminder of how far the 22-year-old still has to go. The good news is he has gotten the message; clips of Simmons hoisting a fall-away jumper made the rounds this summer, and the Sixers point forward told the team website that free throw shooting and jump shooting were points of emphasis in his offseason routine. The bad news, for … let’s say interested parties … is that he appears to be taking those shots with his left hand. Simmons is already a giant Jason Kidd; now imagine that player with a respectable jumper. Good luck.

4. Giannis’s Jump Shot

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Chau: Antetokounmpo looks like a world destroyer now, so, understandably, there’s been some concern trolling on the internet about how that much that added bulk might adversely affect his already shaky jumper. Of course, if Giannis is now strong enough to play closing-time center for the Bucks, that might not matter much anymore. Still, shooting remains the final frontier for Giannis (did he ever take up Holger’s offer?), especially for a player who can seamlessly transition from being a handler to a roller in the two-man game. If the Greek Freak can manage to improve both his perimeter skills while also developing a body that could play at the 5 full-time if necessary, the Bucks will certainly be closer to contention than not.

3. Anthony Davis Entering His Prime

Verrier: Davis finished second in scoring and PER last season, was top three in virtually all of the objective and subjective defensive measures, and still hasn’t reached the peak of his powers. The Pelicans big man has been in the conversation for best player in the world for so long now, and through enough starts and stops in his career, that it’s easy to overlook that he’s not yet 26. But given the success he had playing more true center after DeMarcus Cousins went down, and the additions New Orleans made this summer to lean into the fast and snarly identity they developed in the postseason, this season could easily become the Year of AD. If the Pelicans stay healthy and find enough able bodies to keep up with Alvin Gentry’s pace, Davis will the MVP favorite; if not, the vultures will circle closer than ever.

2. Cold-Weather Kawhi Leonard

Chau: The biggest question in the East this season was the biggest question in the West last season: Just what can we expect from Kawhi? If his 2016–17 form has not been lost, the Raptors have gained a player that turns all of the Raptors’ weaknesses into elite strengths. They would have enough talent to challenge every team in the league. But is that too much to ask for? Leonard’s season carries numerous burdens — it will tell us a lot about his long-term health, about his sustainability as an elite offensive player (which we’ve truly seen only one full season of), about whether the Raptors were ever as close to elite status as we thought they were over the years, and about the mystique of Gregg Popovich. No pressure.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Laker

Verrier: With all of the player movement and Photoshopping that star-thirsty Lakers fans have done over the past half-decade, you’d think that phrase — “LeBron James, Los Angeles Laker” — would look less alien than it does now, two months after a one-paragraph press release put it into existence. But that’s the new reality James created this summer, and what fans, players, and league personnel will be coming to terms with throughout the 2018–19 season. James’s last best years, and the historical implications that come with them, will likely all happen in a Lakers jersey. We look forward to everything — all of the memorable moments, all of the accolades and the subtweets — that will come along the way.

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