After a two-game Tuesday amuse-bouche, the NBA tips off in earnest Wednesday night with an 11-game feast designed to stuff starved fans to the gills. To prepare for the smorgasbord, I decided to compile a bunch of stuff I hope I’ll get to watch over the next few months.
This isn’t, I should note, stuff I believe will take place. Exhaustively researched predictions and tape-grinding breakdowns are wonderful things, and plenty of people are very good at making them. But I’m not necessarily one of them, and besides, expending all your energy on trying to be right can be boring. So in the early hours of a new season, I’m focusing instead on the fun and emptying my mental notebook of some of the possibilities this season might hold. Here’s what I’d love to see this NBA season:
The Grizzlies Get Weird
This season in Memphis is all about advancing a rebuild and developing a roster teeming with youth. The Grizzlies have a future-focused edict so clear it’s written on the walls, which allows them to use the present as a laboratory. So let’s get combustible.
Unicorn-in-training Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the jewels of Memphis’s future; Jonas Valanciunas is the bruising bridge to better days, who averaged just under 20 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes per game after coming over from Toronto. They played a grand total of 28 minutes together before a deep thigh bruise ended Jackson’s season. This season, I’d like to see how that inside-out combo looks with electric rookie Ja Morant at the controls. In fact, let’s see a ton of weird frontcourts. Give me Jackson Jr. and first-round pick Brandon Clarke, or one of those two with Bruno Caboclo, who’ll never make good on the “Brazilian Kevin Durant” hype but is wildly athletic and is kind of becoming a 3-and-D center/chaos agent. Unleash those monster bigs with Morant, already one of the league’s must-see creators, and stand back.
An extra-nerdy one: Get De’Anthony Melton healthy from the stress reaction in his back, and see whether Memphis might not have another folk-hero defensive guard on its hands. As a rookie, the former Sun became one of just eight players in the past 10 seasons to log 900-plus minutes and post a steal percentage above 3 percent and a block percentage north of 1.5 percent—a list that includes Kawhi Leonard, Victor Oladipo, Eric Bledsoe ... and Tony Allen.
Knowing you’ll be bad means you can let your young talent fumble around and fuck up in pursuit of longer-term gains. No team’s got a more fun collection of young weirdos than the Grizz. I’ll enjoy watching them bang into on another.
The Magic Kick Ass
Teams that get extremely hot in the second half of a season aren’t always great bets to carry that momentum over into the next campaign. It’s possible that Orlando’s 22-9 finish was less about locking into a forever flow than catching some opponents dozing with a very good defense and some unsustainable shooting from guys like D.J. Augustin and Terrence Ross. But who needs half-stepping nuance when you can get excited?
I want Orlando to double down on its strong finish, pairing a long-armed and swarming defense with offensive steps forward across the board. Let’s see Aaron Gordon make an All-Star bid, Jonathan Isaac bloom into a legit two-way Swiss Army knife, Mo Bamba take his place in the unicorn conversation (unicornversation?), and Markelle Fultz just be what he is right now, which I think can be helpful. Combine those bumps with continued stability from vets Augustin, Nikola Vucevic, and Evan Fournier, and why can’t the Magic push for a high-40s win total and home-court advantage in a watered-down East?
The Kings Avoid a Step Back
I covered this in a recent piece on the extension cases for Buddy Hield (way to get a deal done, gang!) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (still in wait-and-see mode there), but it’s worth revisiting briefly. Sacramento was so much fun last season, and I love the collection of talent they’ve got, especially with De’Aaron Fox at the helm. With a dozen actual NBA players on this roster, new head coach Luke Walton will have a whale of a time finding a rotation that works without putting somebody’s nose out of joint; it feels like a trade (or two) is in the offing. I’m hoping he’ll figure it out, that Fox, Hield, Marvin Bagley III, and the rest of the young Kings keep cooking, and that a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since midway through George W. Bush’s second term can build on last season’s success. Successful breakneck, bombs-away basketball is good for us, like a daily multivitamin; let’s get more of it, please.
No Major Injuries
I know, I know: This one’s pretty basic. But in the past two years, we’ve seen a slew of significant stars—Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Love, Kristaps Porzingis, Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, et al.—go down and stay down for extended periods of time. As long as I get to talk about things I’d love to see, let’s say that I’d love to not see any of that this season.
Oh, crap, that’s right: Zion. OK. Let’s say that I’d love to not see any more of that this season.
And, while I’m at it ...
The Formerly Injured Dudes Come Back All the Way Healthy
Let’s see the retooled Pacers with a 100 percent Oladipo by spring, and Jusuf Nurkic rejoin Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in time for the stretch run. Let’s see the just-extended Dejounte Murray take his year-deferred leap to give the Spurs a really potent young two-way backcourt, and Michael Porter Jr. follow suit to force his way into what should be a dynamite rotation in Denver.
This season is already going to be bonkers and more wide-open than any season has been in ages. Having the once-wounded players return looking like their best selves, Endgame set piece–style, would crank up the potential for chaos to maximum deliciousness.
And, while we’re sparing a thought for young Mr. Williamson (whom I will not be calling “Zanos,” because Zion is a cool enough name to render a nickname superfluous, thank you very much):
Zion Breaks a Backboard
I’m thinking, specifically, like this …
… although, with the league’s referees emphasizing traveling calls this season, he’d probably get called for steps there. And probably a charge, while we’re at it.
However we arrive at it, though, I’d like to see Zion use his metahuman strength to wreak the sort of destruction on basket stanchions that has become unfortunately uncommon in recent years. I trust he’s capable.
On a more serious note: I’d really love it if Zion, upon his return from meniscus surgery, continued to look like the jaw-slackening marvel he was during the preseason. Seeing him step into the league as a Luka-style instant near-All-Star, surrounded by a talented and complementary roster featuring studs like Jrue Holiday and young guns like rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker, to ensure New Orleans’s NBA relevance just eight months after it seemed like the Pelicans would soon be left for dead ... well, that would be a beautiful thing.
You know what else would be beautiful?
Blake Griffin Passes the Torch to Zion, Like Amar’e Stoudemire Passed It to Him
Everybody remembers what a fresh-out-of-the-wrapper Blake did to Timofey Mozgov in November 2010. What you might not remember, though, is that Mozgov lined up for those Knicks alongside Amar’e—once a jetpack-propelled body-snatcher in his own right—and that Stoudemire took a moment during a trip to the free throw line after the Mozgoving to let Griffin know that real recognized real:
Nine years later, Griffin has made the same transition that Stoudemire once made, with age and injuries leading him to trade in skyscraping skull-crushing for a more fluid, finesse-oriented game. It’s worked—it earned Griffin All-NBA third team honors last season—but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t find himself stirred by the presence of a kindred spirit.
Zion’s injury (to be clear, I’m hoping he follows in Blake’s footsteps as it relates to dunking, not knee troubles) might mean that he’ll miss the first meeting between the Pelicans and Pistons on December 9; hopefully they’re both healthy come the rematch on January 13, and we can see what happens if Zion gets to misbehaving in Blake’s presence. Watch your head, Andre Drummond. History might not repeat itself, exactly, but it does tend to rhyme.
Ben Simmons Makes All-NBA First Team Without Making a 3
Because fuck cookie-cutter talking points and all of us who use them.
Toronto Makes It All the Way Back to the Eastern Conference Finals Without Kawhi
Ibid. It’d be tremendous to watch newly minted max man Pascal Siakam, the stubborn stalwart Kyle Lowry, and the rest of the Raptors’ remnant thumb their noses at all of us who essentially stopped thinking about them when Leonard decided to go home.
Isaiah Thomas Plays 50-Plus Games
I’m not holding out much hope that, at age 30 and two and a half years removed from the hip injury that derailed his career, Thomas will suddenly resemble his All-NBA self as a backup point guard on the rebuilding Wizards. I’d just like to see him recover after his latest setback, then make it through more than half a season with a clean bill of health.
The Hawks Click
As much as I enjoyed watching the Hawks last season, and as much as I like what general manager Travis Schlenk, coach Lloyd Pierce, and Co. are building in Atlanta, I think the Hawks are probably at least a year away from being a real playoff contender; there’s just so much inexperience expected to produce in that rotation. It would be pretty friggin’ rad, though, to see all that youth be served—to see Trae Young develop into a more consistent 3-point shooter and a competitive defender, to see John Collins push into All-Star consideration, and to watch rising sophomore Kevin Huerter join rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to form a complementary and immediately productive core on the perimeter. It’s realistic to expect across-the-board growing pains on a roster this green. The glass-half-full outcome, though, sees the Hawks look as harmonious in practice as they do in theory, running and gunning (if not really defending) their way to a huge year-over-year improvement and a lower-tier Eastern playoff seed.
Kevin Durant, Come on Desktop
KD has nothing but time on his hands these days, and has offered reams of proof that he intends to spend it being extremely online. I can see no reason that should not include a visit to the best show on screens—an Emmy Award–winning basketball institution uniquely suited to Durant’s predilection toward social media spiciness. Get at the Jasons, Kevin. You won’t regret it.
Mike Conley Finally Makes an All-Star Team
He’s spent the better part of 12 seasons earning damn-with-faint-praise honorifics like the Most Underrated Player in the League and the Best Player Without an All-Star Appearance, thanks largely to playing in a perennially brutal Western Conference with guard spots locked down by a rotating crew of superstars. This could be his best chance. If the Jazz hit midseason with a top-five-or-so offense to go with their customarily elite defense, and push for the no. 1 seed in the West through the first half, odds are that their primary offseason acquisition will be viewed as the biggest reason. The race for a Western slot won’t be any less competitive this season, but Conley might wind up with team success and a thrumming narrative on his side, for a change.
Frankie Smokes Stays Confident
Frank Ntilikina’s shot has never seemed so broken that you’d guess he was the least efficient shooter in the NBA. And yet that’s exactly what he’s been in each of his first two NBA seasons, which helped contribute to his disappearance from the Knicks’ rotation last season, and prompts ongoing questions about whether or not the just-turned-21-year-old is already on his way out in New York.
After a strong showing for France at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, though, Ntilikina turned up to training camp with what looked like a renewed sense of self. While it didn’t manifest in more makes from the field—he went just 6-for-21 from the floor in preseason play—it did result in his largely seeming like the Knicks’ best option at the point in a somewhat underwhelming positional battle with Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton, providing customarily strong defense at the point of attack while looking more aggressive off the dribble. Head coach David Fizdale still seems unsure who his starter will be. (New York might run more offense through Julius Randle and RJ Barrett than through its point guards anyway.) But Knicks brass saw enough from Ntilikina to pick up his fourth-year contract option, which didn’t seem like a given in the very recent past. Frank might have found something this summer. It’d be cool to see him keep it.
Andre Iguodala Makes His Way to the Clippers
As has been the case since the summer, the Grizzlies have seemed perfectly content to bide their time until some championship-hopeful suitor comes calling for the former Finals MVP. Of the likely suspects, only the Clips have what appears to be a ready-made package to offer, starting with Maurice Harkless’s expiring contract, some around-the-margins young talent (say, former first-round pick Jerome Robinson), and whatever draft compensation is left following the Paul George megadeal (a couple of future seconds?). Maybe Memphis can get more than that from a team not presently among the likeliest title contenders—ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes the Blazers as an interesting possibility. Until something more serious materializes, though, the idea of Iguodala, Kawhi, PG, and Patrick Beverley locking up the perimeter in a playoff series is too tasty to prioritize any other destination on the board.
The Suns Just Are, and Stay, Normal
I’d like to get a full season of standard, reasonable, nonsense-free basketball out of Phoenix, just to be able to better evaluate Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and the rest of the young guys on that roster. It looks like the front office has worked to provide a stable foundation this season, importing several steady vets (Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, Dario Saric) who should meaningfully raise the Suns’ floor, and hopefully give us a crack at figuring out what their ceiling might look like. I’m cautiously optimistic!
Somebody Makes a Big Trade I Had No Idea Was Coming
We know the most commonly floated names. But I’m hoping somebody’s got a sneak-attack godfather offer in their back pocket, like the one the Clippers put together for George. It’s easy to look at the landscape of the league, especially after Bradley Beal’s extension took him off the board, and think that the NBA’s hot stove might finally cool down for a bit, given that most of the prospective difference-makers are unlikely or unable to be moved. It’s hard to square that, though, with the feeling that some emboldened and enterprising general manager is going to throw caution to the wind in an attempt to take advantage of the least treacherous path to a championship in years.
Fortune favored the bold last season, when the Raptors targeted Leonard and won the whole stinkin’ thing; in an increasingly chaotic league where nothing gold stays, there’s never a better time to go all in than right goddamn now. Somebody’s going to push their chips in the middle in a way we don’t expect. I can’t wait to find out who it is, and what it’ll cost them.