The NBA news cycle moves faster than the Grizzlies’ rise to becoming League Pass gods. So every Monday this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. This is the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.
Below, we’ll touch on the NBA’s first must-see game since the holidays, Houston’s recent struggles, and two teams that have already made trades and may not be done.
What Can We Expect to See From Zion?
The sporadic and lengthy nature of regular-season basketball makes it difficult to eventize a specific game unless it bookends the season or happens to be Christmas Day. Lakers-Bucks gave us something close to a must-watch last month with a potential Finals preview. Touring Ja Morant’s highlight production factory is quickly becoming a required nightly activity. But with Zion Williamson comes a different level of anticipation. His games will be events, and his first one, finally scheduled for this Wednesday against the Spurs, might be the most anticipated debut of any player since LeBron James. The world will be watching—the NBA and ESPN made sure they could move it to national TV. In fact, four of Zion’s first seven games (he won’t have to deal with a back-to-back until March) will be broadcast nationally. The Zion revolution, after all, will be televised.
So what will we see? An excessive amount of coverage, lots of dunks (especially pregame), and a player who has not played basketball in months. I’m not here to tamp down expectations but, as I wrote two weeks ago, it will take time for Zion to get his rhythm and tempo back. (In 2018, Jimmy Butler had a torn meniscus, like Zion, sat out two months, and came back for the playoffs, but never quite looked like his usual self.) Still, that doesn’t mean he won’t dominate our televisions with plenty of jaw-dropping plays.
Beyond the glitz and glamour, the Zion debut will be an interesting, if incomplete, window into how the second half of the season will look for the Pelicans. This is a team that has vaulted back into the mix thanks to All-Star contributions from Brandon Ingram, improved play from Lonzo Ball, and the return of Derrick Favors. How will Alvin Gentry fold Zion into the mix? He’s not exactly a plug-in type player, but at the same time, his potential impact on both ends is exactly what could take New Orleans from a fringe playoff team fighting for the no. 8 seed to one that no one wants to play. In the preseason, Zion made his killing near the rim, shooting 71.4 percent from the field, but barely extending his range beyond the paint. For his first few games and, really, his rookie season, that may be the role he’s best suited for: bludgeon teams inside, bring havoc on defense, and just dunk. A lot.
Do the Rockets Need to Make a Major Move?
“The focus is more on looking at the back of the jersey instead of the front.” That’s what Mike D’Antoni said after the Rockets’ third loss in four games last week, on the heels of a team meeting during which the locker room aired out its issues—but before his team dropped another game to the Anthony Davis–less Lakers on Saturday to make it four of their past five. It’s never a good sign when a professional coach is resorting to a middle school coaching trope to assess the damage, but that’s where the Rockets appear to be.
Mike D’Antoni says Rockets’ “ship is getting rocked.” He’s made some excuses but then quickly admits they’re excuses.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) January 16, 2020
D’Antoni seems to be adamant that they’ll dig themselves out of this rut (what else can he say?), and depending on your perspective, you might say this type of lull is just a typical part of the Rockets experience. A glass-half-full observant, perhaps Daryl Morey himself, will tell you that variance is a built-in byproduct of how they play, given that they rely on 3s so heavily. (Remember when they missed 27 in a row with a chance to go to the Finals?) And so, that offense that’s 20th in the league the past five games? It’ll regress back to the mean soon enough. Of course, you can play devil’s advocate and point out that regardless of how the numbers fluctuate throughout the regular season, the Rockets need to make some changes if they want to be a true contender. It certainly doesn’t help that Chris Paul is looking like an All-Star in OKC, while Russell Westbrook’s tenure in Houston has been more of a mixed bag, with his game-to-game inconsistency magnifying his team’s worst tendencies
Morey turns into a cap-savvy, pick-wielding wizard at this time of the year, but how many real avenues does this team have to get better before the trade deadline? Should they be aggressive and try to trade Clint Capela? Can their usual wing additions and swaps have any positive effect on their offense? Right now, one thing is clear: No matter how dominant Harden can be on a night-to-night basis, the Rockets need more.
Are the Blazers and Wolves Done Dealing?
Trade season is slowly but surely coming to a boil, and the first two teams to dip their toes in the water did so with moves that left everyone wondering whether there’s more to come.
The Wolves offloaded Jeff Teague to the Hawks, and it didn’t take long before reports surfaced (again) that they are aggressively pursuing D’Angelo Russell. Minnesota’s infatuation with Russell is the league’s worst-kept secret at this point, seeing as they literally gave him a helicopter ride as part of their free-agency pitch this summer. Russell took the money from Golden State instead, but his long-term future in the Bay is questionable. With Steph Curry targeting a March 1 return, the Warriors will have to decide whether it’s worth waiting to see what Russell and Curry look like together or if they should cash out if the right deal comes along. … Yet it’s tough to see what the Wolves have to offer that would entice Golden State—Robert Covington alone won’t do it, and though Andrew Wiggins’s contract matches up, the Wolves will likely need a third team to help them out. I’m not sure Russell raises the Wolves’ ceiling that much, but when I spoke to Gersson Rosas earlier this season, he did say he was looking for players in Karl-Anthony Towns’s age range to pair with their franchise cornerstone. One way to do that is by making sure he gets Towns a proper point guard who happens to also be a close friend.
Portland, meanwhile, has had an unlucky injury year, but can’t punt on the season because, well, Damian Lillard won’t let them—he’s averaging career highs in points and assists per game as well as field goal shooting in order to just keep them afloat. They’re still within striking distance of the no. 8 seed (three games back entering Monday) and have shaken things up again after going off the board to sign Carmelo Anthony earlier this season. This time, they’ve jettisoned both Kent Bazemore and Anthony Tolliver for Trevor Ariza (a slightly better shooter than Bazemore), and a couple of other young players. As John Hollinger noted in The Athletic, the move may not be a precursor for a bigger move, but perhaps the first of a few moves that help Portland get under the luxury tax. If I had to pick who would get that final playoff spot in the West, I’d still hesitate to bet against Lillard, who has made the playoffs every year after missing them his rookie season. But if you’re not going to truly compete, you might as well save money in the process.
How Different Will the All-Star Starters Be From the Fan Votes?
The All-Star starters will be announced on Thursday, and so far, the only thing we have to work off of is the fan voting, which accounts for 50 percent of the overall decision for the starters:
In the West, the fans seem to have lined up with mostly chalk choices. Luka Doncic and James Harden in the backcourt, and the L.A. trio of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kawhi Leonard in the frontcourt (sorry, Paul George). Let’s put aside the fact that LeBron is essentially the Lakers’ point guard, and that Kawhi sometimes plays the same role for the Clippers. The East, meanwhile, is where style preference seems to carry a little more weight. The frontcourt fan votes are nearly unimpeachable, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, and Joel Embiid leading the votes. You could nitpick and make a case that Siakam’s 11 missed games or Embiid’s 13 missed games should open the window for a player who has been more healthy (Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis), but don’t forget that when Embiid and Siakam are healthy, they’ve looked like two of the best players in the league.
Things get really interesting in the East backcourt, where fans are gravitating toward the polarizing guards—Trae Young and Kyrie Irving—over arguably more deserving candidates, like Kemba Walker. Young’s numbers are All-Star-worthy, but his team just crossed the 10-win mark this past week. It’s not all his fault, but it’s a blemish on his résumé nonetheless. Kyrie, on the other hand, has played only 15 games this season and the Nets have been both better—and quieter—when he hasn’t played. While Kyrie will likely get in on popularity, Young should make the team based on his gaudy numbers, but not as a starter. If it were up to me (spoiler alert: It isn’t) my two East starting guards would be Walker and Ben Simmons, who deserves to make the team on his defense alone.