NBA training camp will soon be upon us. Here are 30 questions we have in the lead-up, one for each team.
Just how bad will the Hawks be?
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Very! But the follow-up is how much their success this season matters. And the answer to that question is not at all. Atlanta has tanked its way into a future full of promise, albeit one that’s far, far away. John Collins is entering his second year, and Taurean Prince his third; both have showed plenty of reason to believe they’ll continue to improve. Collins and Prince will be joined by rookie Trae Young (who, at this point, appears bound for a rough introduction to the league). Figuring out whether they’ll start Young and fellow first-round pick Kevin Huerter from the jump or ease the duo in behind Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore will be the big question in training camp, and could ultimately determine just how bad it gets for Atlanta this season. But the good news is the Hawks could have three first-rounders and two second-rounders in the 2019 draft to ease the pain of winning 25 or so games this season.
What will the Celtics do with so many wings?
Paolo Uggetti: Brad Stevens has too many wings. In 2018, it’s a good problem to have. Boston is getting back Gordon Hayward after losing him for almost the entirety of 2017-18, but has two other swingmen in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who unexpectedly matured way ahead of schedule last season. The two were slotted in the starting lineup out of necessity, but ended up being essential to the team’s game plan (both Brown and Tatum were a part of the Celtics’ most-used lineup last season). Hayward has mentioned that he doesn’t mind whether he starts or not, but he is an All-Star earning roughly $32 million annually over the remainder of his four-year contract; he won’t be benched for two players still on their rookie deals. Stevens’s management of their minutes will be key in getting the Celtics regular-season wins and building chemistry ahead of the playoffs. In the end, it won’t be about who starts, but how much each wing plays and in what lineups. He’ll need to stagger all of his talent on the perimeter and find time for all of them to be their best selves. Stevens may be a magician, but this will require him to be more of a juggler than anything else.
Will this be Sean Marks’s time to shine?
Uggetti: Jimmy Butler just gave the Brooklyn Nets the franchise’s best moment since 2013, when the team and its fan base thought trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would make them title contenders. By naming Brooklyn as one of the three teams he’d prefer to be traded to, Butler more or less vindicated general manager Sean Marks’s grand reboot of the team. All of the struggles have led to a moment like this: the chance to nab a star player by combining their big-market setting with their healthy infrastructure of cap space and assets. Their young players are developing under the tutelage of head coach Kenny Atkinson, whom Marks hand-picked, and could be assets to trade for a star or pieces to place around one, maybe two. Whether they go after Butler or not, get him or don’t, Marks has done enough to put the Nets into conversations. If he manages to get Butler (or a star like him) to Brooklyn, it’ll just be more proof that his process is to be trusted.
Will Malik Monk get more leeway in Year 2?
Uggetti: The Hornets have a new coach in James Borrego, and the biggest beneficiary of this change might just be Malik Monk. Monk struggled in his rookie year, and Steve Clifford didn’t give him much space to work out the kinks in his game. Monk is a natural scorer who needs time to build rhythm; a young head coach like Borrego might be sympathetic to that. Monk should be a priority for the Hornets; they spent a lottery pick on him, and it’s not like they have more promising options elsewhere on the roster. Charlotte isn’t quite rebuilding; the team has no cap space for the next two seasons, and still needs to appease veterans like Kemba Walker and Nic Batum. But part of the job Borrego inherited is finding out how to usher the franchise into a more successful era. Monk has to be a part of that.
Can the young players make the best of their situation?
O’Shaughnessy: Chicago finally has players in the age range (19-24) and with the potential it’s been after since trading Jimmy Butler during the 2017 draft. But outside of rookie Wendell Carter Jr. and second-year big man Lauri Markkanen, the pressure’s on for most of the roster to show results this season. Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine are now the team’s highest-paid players (they’re due $20 million and $19.5 million this season, respectively), but have left much to be desired so far in their careers. The hype around Kris Dunn’s potential has dissolved into disappointment. There are high hopes for Bobby Portis after he posted career highs last season, but the focus will shift more to his defense this season, which needs to improve. The Bulls’ rebuild doesn’t end with Carter—they own their first-round pick in the 2019 draft, and will probably finish poorly enough to earn another lottery pick. But they’ll need their first long-term commitments post-blow-it-up, Parker and LaVine, to make a jump. The first step will be finding out how Fred Hoiberg distributes touches between the vets and the future pieces like Carter and Markkanen.
What will life without LeBron James be like?
Uggetti: In short: a lot more quiet, with room to breathe and speak without fear of what it might mean for LeBron’s future. Expectations will be low, but all is not lost—not like the last time LeBron left. They return Kevin Love, somehow the last man standing from the Big Three that also included LeBron and Kyrie Irving. Cleveland adds an exciting rookie point guard in Collin Sexton, who has a chance to win Rookie of the Year if things go well (or poorly, depending on how you feel about George Hill). With LeBron gone, training camp will have greater importance for guys like Larry Nance Jr., J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and George Hill—they’ll all be auditioning for an increased role.
Are the Mavericks in rebuild mode, or win-now mode?
O’Shaughnessy: Mark Cuban’s veins can only pop out so far and endure a rebuild for so long. The Mavs secured Luka Doncic in a draft-day trade, a talent that made all the losing worth it. But one look at the rest of the roster—DeAndre Jordan, Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews—makes it seem like Cuban wants the Doncic investment to return dividends in the short term, too. Despite his rookie status, Doncic does seem rather NBA-ready; more so than Dennis Smith Jr. last season, anyway. But should Doncic experience a rough transition or Smith a bumpy sophomore year, how their minutes are handled will be telling of the team’s immediate vision.
Can the Nuggets make the leap?
Uggetti: Denver should have made the playoffs last season, and were it not for the 44 games Paul Millsap missed due to a torn wrist ligament, perhaps it would have. Millsap is back and healthy now and the young cornerstones of the franchise—Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic—have another year under their belts, with none of them older than 24. The Nuggets didn’t make any home run additions in the offseason (Millsap’s return is close enough), but continuity for a young team might be just as crucial.
Will Dwane Casey be able to maximize the talent on a deadlocked roster?
O’Shaughnessy: Without the option to change its roster again, Detroit changed its approach. The Pistons’ books are jammed, but Casey, the former Raptors coach in his first year in Detroit, will try out a fresh approach to using Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson together. The team’s best-case scenario is producing enough wins to push past mediocrity and into the playoffs. Their core trio’s skill sets would’ve been exceptional six years ago; the question facing Casey now will be how to find a way of pushing them past what appears to be a low ceiling.
Golden State Warriors
What’s the solution for potential exhaustion?
O’Shaughnessy: Three titles in the past four years is worth the long trek it takes to get to four straight Finals, but that doesn’t mean all those minutes logged go away. “Tired” was the buzzword for the 2017-18 Warriors, and another championship didn’t somehow magically refresh them. Golden State has done what it can to create a bench worthy of the greatest team in the NBA: the Warriors signed DeMarcus Cousins, who is still recovering from a ruptured Achilles and is expected to be rehabbing well into the season, added Jonas Jerebko, and are developing Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney, Quinn Cook, and Jacob Evans. It will be interesting to see how they work them into their title-winning core.
How will the Rockets cope with the roster changes?
O’Shaughnessy: There’s no question Houston’s impressive defense will take a step back this season with Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik gone. Without any flashy summer signings (unless you count Carmelo Anthony), it’s fair to wonder if the Western Conference finals contenders will take a step back. The Rockets did add Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, Marquese Chriss, and Brandon Knight. It remains to be seen how the first two fit with Houston, and whether or not Melo will slide into a starting spot after all the fuss over his role with the Thunder. Ennis’s shooting and defense will make Mike D’Antoni smile, but so far, both have only come in flashes. And Chriss obviously has potential, but can he tap into it better as more of a 5 in Houston than he did as a 4 in Phoenix?
How far can the Pacers’ summer moves take them?
O’Shaughnessy: Say what you want about the East overall, but the top-tier teams—Boston (Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning), Toronto (the Kawhi Leonard trade), Philadelphia (progression of its young core)—should all improve. Cleveland no longer qualifies without LeBron, but by the end of this season, Indiana might. No major star was brought in, but the Pacers added a whole lot of depth by signing Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, and Kyle O’Quinn, and drafting Aaron Holiday; Thaddeus Young also opted in for another year. The backcourt is suddenly full of capable ball handlers, which could mean fewer minutes for Holiday or impending free agents Cory Joseph and Darren Collison. But Victor Oladipo unexpectedly took the Pacers from irrelevant post–Paul George to worth mentioning. With more help around him, they might make too much noise to ignore.
Los Angeles Clippers
What’s the Clippers’ ceiling?
O’Shaughnessy: The Clippers will have the best reserve group in the NBA this season. The only problem is it’ll be their starting lineup. After DeAndre Jordan signed with Dallas and officially ended Lob City (RIP—hopefully it will advance further in the afterlife than it did in the postseason), L.A. was left without any All-Stars. But the roster is filled with “key” players, top glue guys and grit guys of the league—Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Luc Mbah a Moute—with a group of untapped younger players behind them. The Clippers could turn the keys over to rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and let him play through his early mistakes. But even after a standout summer league, it’s hard to envision him fighting through the crowd in the backcourt to earn a starting job before the season begins.
Los Angeles Lakers
What will life with LeBron look like?
Uggetti: The Lakers, on their own, are one of the most popular teams in the league. Adding LeBron’s to one of the biggest media markets in the league is like dropping Mentos into a bottle of Coke. The scrutiny that was already on the franchise, team, and every player will somehow intensify. Everyone in purple and gold is now in LeBron’s sphere, and every detail will become news, every bad game a disaster, every good game a triumph, and every starting-spot decision a part of the narrative. Training camp will offer glimpses into how the Lakers’ youth holds up against both LeBron and the castoff role players Magic Johnson brought in. (The Lakers have already said Lonzo Ball will skip five-on-five full-contact drills at the start of camp, meaning Rajon Rondo will start things off in the driver’s seat.) Everything from media day to every practice of camp will be all about how the arrival of LeBron is going, but it will also be about the Lakers, as a franchise, getting back to the glory days. They are the most fascinating story of the season for so many reasons, and it’ll be interesting to see how much of the positivity they’re exuding in preseason will still be there come January.
How will a healthy Grizzlies team fare?
Uggetti: The Grizzlies lost 60 games last season, but all those losses produced a potential jewel in Jaren Jackson Jr., who could be the best big in his draft class. He’ll provide enough excitement on his own—as he did in summer league, when he hit eight 3-pointers and scored 29 points in his very first game—but the bigger story line might be how much Memphis’s core duo has left in the tank. Mike Conley Jr. returns after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury and Marc Gasol hopefully will be rejuvenated after going through the slog of a tanking season. Expectations no longer pin the Grizzlies as a lock for the postseason, the way they had been for much of the decade. That’s what losing 60 games in a season does to your reputation. But if health permits, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them in the mix. There’s already chemistry brewing!
Will any player stand out above the rest?
Uggetti: Dwyane Wade announced that he’s returning for his swan song, but the Heat can’t afford to give him the kind of farewell tour that Kobe Bryant got in L.A. The Heat need to find a player who can elevate them out of their hole of mediocrity now. They still have enough talent to take advantage of a LeBron-less East. Miami has a roster full of guys who are good, not great; they’re the kind of team that can get a big game from anyone on any given night. It’s occasionally a gift, but mostly a curse. They would be much better served, both now and in the future, if players like Josh Richardson or Justise Winslow made serious leaps. Bam Adebayo shined in his rookie year, and could also make bigger strides in Year 2. Or maybe, at the end of the day, it’s still Goran Dragic who becomes their go-to guy, slicing through defenses.
Can Mike Budenholzer find a solution for the Bucks’ inconsistency problem?
O’Shaughnessy: The Bucks are counting on the growth of their existing core, and on a new head coach to help accelerate the process. After a season or two of only moderate progression from the core around Giannis Antetokounmpo, Budenholzer will now try to bring out the best from the likes of Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Thon Maker, like he did with Atlanta’s 60-win team.
Uh, will Jimmy Butler be there?
Uggetti: Let’s say Jimmy Butler is still a Timberwolf at camp. Will he show up? Will he pull a Le’Veon Bell–type holdout and just sit out, tweet things from home, and go to Miami to pass the time until the Wolves trade him? Can he even do that? As if this NBA offseason hadn’t been wild enough, Butler has now given us an intriguing dessert to cap things off before the season starts. Tom Thibodeau and the Wolves don’t want to trade him, and they shouldn’t! But can they risk an unwanted story line hanging over them heading into the season? Can they afford to let Butler walk away for nothing next summer? The Wolves need answers soon, but they’re unlikely to arrive during training camp.
New Orleans Pelicans
How soon can we start the Anthony Davis for MVP campaign?
Uggetti: With DeMarcus Cousins fully out of the picture, the moment is ripe for Anthony Davis to seize the narrative and turn in an MVP-winning season. If healthy—let me knock on wood about a hundred times—Davis is a logical choice as a preseason MVP favorite. The Brow was third in voting last season, behind James Harden, who fulfilled his destiny last season, and LeBron, who might have growing pains babysitting in Los Angeles. Davis is still only 25. Twenty-five! He is just now ramping up into his prime. The thought of him getting that much better seems impossible. But the award is as good as his if he does.
New York Knicks
What will the frontcourt look like?
O’Shaughnessy: New York has the benefit of low expectations—no one outside of Enes Kanter thinks the Knicks will be good this season—and multiple frontcourt combinations to experiment with. Kristaps Porzingis may not be healthy before the new year, but new coach David Fizdale will have combo forwards Kevin Knox and Mario Hezonja to play around with in the meantime. And when Porzingis returns, he could be playing an altered role as well. After all, this is Fizdale, who worked intimately with Chris Bosh in Miami.
Oklahoma City Thunder
How will Melo’s absence affect the team?
Uggetti: From the moment he mocked a reporter at Thunder media day last year for asking about a possible bench role, it was clear that the Carmelo Anthony experiment wasn’t going to work in Oklahoma City. That the Thunder made every effort—both financially and transactionally—to get rid of him after the season says all you need to know about the fit. Now, with Melo in Houston, the Thunder have a clear identity. It starts with defense; they don’t have to worry about hiding Anthony anymore. With Andre Roberson, Paul George, and Jerami Grant switching assignments seamlessly and Steven Adams patrolling the paint, the Thunder promise to be a defensive powerhouse that also boasts the talents of Russell Westbrook. That might be enough to be an elite team. The biggest addition the Thunder made over the summer, we may soon find out, just might be a subtraction.
Can the Magic’s three cornerstones coexist?
Uggetti: Orlando decided to double down on its strategy of stockpiling athletic, lengthy frontcourt players when it drafted Mo Bamba with this year’s first-round pick. The Magic now have Bamba, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac as their three core players going forward, but have only two spots in their frontcourt. Gordon can, in theory, play the small forward position, but despite his hot shooting to start last season, he was still a below-average 3-point shooter by the end of it. His accuracy from behind the arc isn’t as vital as a small-ball 4, where he can feast on speed mismatches. Isaac and Bamba, however, already project to be a duo with great defensive potential. At summer league, they showed off their athleticism and their endless wingspans, which will soon be deployed to swallow up opposing players driving to the rim. If they can both develop reliable perimeter games, the Magic are going to be a handful, and new head coach Steve Clifford could have his hands full too in deciding how to divvy up minutes between them all.
How will Markelle Fultz look?
Uggetti: Aside from LeBron in La La Land, this might be the topic of the preseason. The Fultz mystery has been contained and kept under wraps for an entire summer as he reportedly shot hundreds of thousands of jumpers inside a Southern California gym. But I’m ready to see Fultz hoisting 3-pointers, midrange jumpers, heck, even free throws in actual games. As important as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are to the Sixers’ ceiling, the team needs Fultz to be what they thought he was going to be when they acquired the no. 1 pick in 2017 to draft him if they want to make a leap this season. Fultz doesn’t need to be a star right away, but they’ll need a heck of a lot more than they got last season.
Can the Suns’ young talent hang in the West?
O’Shaughnessy: You can call Phoenix many things—young, a squad with veteran influence, bad—but no label is more appropriate than 2018’s League Pass Team of the Year. Adding veterans like Ariza and Anderson (on top of Tyson Chandler) to a young core is strangely reminiscent of the 2017-18 Kings, who signed George Hill, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph and often played them over their group of developmental projects. Phoenix seems to have more direction; the veterans they brought in should blend nicely with young up-and-comers like Deandre Ayton and Josh Jackson. But the Suns will have to work around Devin Booker’s ill-timed hand surgery. Elie Okobo and Mikal Bridges expected to contribute as rookies, but they and new pickup De’Anthony Melton could be put in key roles earlier than they expected.
Portland Trail Blazers
Is this the last shot for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum?
Uggetti: Splitting up the Blazers’ dynamic backcourt duo has long been pegged as the only way the franchise can reach a higher level. After last season’s debacle—a first-round sweep at the hands of the Pelicans following a 3-seed finish—it seems like this is Portland’s last go at it before they think about making drastic changes. They return not only Lillard and McCollum (the former just signed a sponsorship deal with the same company sponsoring the Blazers’ jerseys), but also Jusuf Nurkic, and most of the players on last year’s squad. Zach Collins, who had a promising rookie season, could add a new element to their front line -- he’s their only player who can both protect the rim and hit 3-pointers. But even if everything goes right, it’s tough to see the Blazers topping their finish from last season. The West got tougher and the Blazers more or less stood still. At some point, something’s gotta give.
What the hell?
O’Shaughnessy: I wondered about the Kings’ ultimate goal for last season back in December, and am still wondering. They kicked off their offseason by selecting Marvin Bagley III no. 2 overall in the draft—by no means a poor pick, but one that might come back to bite the often-bit franchise if Luka Doncic becomes an instant sensation. They added Nemanja Bjelica, a decent piece, onto a pile of decent pieces (Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Kosta Koufos), and offered Zach LaVine $80 million with Buddy Hield already in the arsenal. (Chicago matched, saving the Kings from that head-scratcher.) There is undoubtedly upside on this team, with De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles, Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and, of course, Bagley. But once again, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get enough minutes to properly grow.
San Antonio Spurs
How much change can San Antonio handle?
O’Shaughnessy: It’s always exciting to see what Gregg Popovich can turn a player into once he gets him into his program. The next evolution of DeMar DeRozan could go way beyond his small uptick in 3-point attempts from last season. But the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto will also force Pop to reconsider far more than just the on-court impact of exchanging of one superstar wing’s skill set for another. The franchise’s foundation has shifted more this summer than it has in years—Manu Ginobili retired; Danny Green was sent off to the Raptors alongside Leonard; and the Hornets, not the Spurs, will be receiving Tony Parker’s veteran wisdom this season.
Which Kawhi Leonard will show up?
O’Shaughnessy: You think you know someone until he experiences a bizarre quad injury, sits out for essentially an entire season, and demands a trade. From the outside, Leonard was the perfect student of the game—the one who never had a single demerit and ate lunch in the library. But the public perception of him has changed as a result of everything that led to his eventual trade to Toronto. Now the question is which version of Leonard—willing or unwilling, healthy or unhealthy—will emerge in a Raptors uniform this season? (Masai Ujiri said on Tuesday that Leonard has a “fire inside of him” and that the franchise is “excited about that.”) Newly promoted head coach Nick Nurse might use Leonard in the most progressive offensive scheme we’ve seen him in yet. That alone could twist “new Kawhi” into a more positive light.
Other than Donovan Mitchell, who can substantially improve?
O’Shaughnessy: If the concept of the Quin Snyder Effect didn’t already go mainstream last season, it could officially catch on in 2018-19. Ricky Rubio had career highs in shooting, his largest weakness, in his seventh season in the league; Derrick Favors finally found his fit again; Royce O’Neale showed enough sound defense to make people aware that Royce O’Neale is an NBA player for the Utah Jazz; and Mitchell had the platonic ideal for a rookie year. It’s an ideal environment for rookie Grayson Allen, who’s had some issues—to put it kindly—in the past, even with Donny, his new teammate. Utah outperformed all expectations without Gordon Hayward last season. But it’s fair to wonder who on this roster outside Mitchell can make another sizable leap, and whether or not the team as a whole hasn’t already hit its ceiling.
How will the Dwight Howard experiment fail this time?
Uggetti: I want to believe in Dwight Howard. I don’t know why, but I really do. I want him to accept a role, thrive in it, and elevate a team that needs a lot of help. He should be an improvement for the Wizards, who have had to rely on Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi for years now. Howard is still a hound on the boards and a reliable paint presence; the problem is, well, everything else. Things have not ended well for any of the three teams he’s been on in the past three seasons. He’s not exactly entering a rosier situation, either. The Wizards locker room is notoriously hostile, and with the turmoil Wall and Beal have endured the past few years, Howard’s history should have been a red flag. I still want to believe Howard can be a positive addition to a team, but I won’t hold my breath.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a Utah Jazz player. His name is Royce O’Neale, not Royce O’Neal.